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Guide to exploring Les Invalides

Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Collage of photos from Les Invalides
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One of the reasons I adore the French capital so much is that for me, Paris is one of those cities you can visit over & over again as it offers up a plethora of opportunities to discover something new each time. It’s a global city filled with a myriad of lessons in art, culture & history, with an abundance of museums, landmarks, architecture & monuments. Anyone who has had the good fortune to see the Parisian skyline in person will undoubtedly have spotted a certain shining gold dome in the distance. This is the Dôme des Invalides and was one of the sights I knew I absolutely had to explore on my latest visit to Paris, given the cultural & historical significance it represents to France. So let’s take a look at Les Invalides – Paris’ greatest military monument and the resting place of not only the first French Emperor but also one of the greatest military commanders in history, Napoleon Bonaparte!

Walking up towards the main courtyard within Les invalides
I was so excited to finally explore Les Invalides!

Cité des Invalides

Anyone who knows their history is likely already aware that France once lay claim to Europe’s greatest army way back in the 17th century, under Louis XIV, the “Sun King”. Les Invalides was built in 1764 as a city in itself, providing barracks, a convent, factory, a hospice & hospital to army veterans. Commissioned by Louis XIV, this area was originally called Cité des Invalides. Today, Les Invalides or Hotel National des Invalides as it’s officially known, is an area of buildings & museums, where important French ceremonies & military parades are still conducted within the grounds. One of the main museums in this complex is Musée de l’Armée – this is the part of Les Invalides which I purchased a ticket to visit as it also allows access to visit the tomb of Napoleon the First in the Dome.

Dome des invalides rising behind Musée de l'Armée
Dome des Invalides rising behind Musée de l’Armée

Courtyard cannons

The main courtyard is the first area you will see upon entering into the complex of buildings and this is the space in Les Invalides where a lot of parades & formal ceremonies take place. I couldn’t help but notice the massive collection of 60 cannons resolutely displayed on the ground floor, amongst other artillery being showcased. The courtyard is surrounded by two floors, with the second level being accessible by stairs. On the ground floor statues of military leaders keep a close eye on you as you walk by and there is plenty of information about each person to add depth to your understanding about French military history.

Architectural details on the entrance to Les Invalides
Architectural details captivated me as I entered the complex
History of how Napoleon's remains came to rest at Les Invalides
There is plenty of history to soak up here at this significant sight!
60 cannons encircle the main courtyard in Les Invalides
60 cannons encircle the main courtyard

Dôme des Invalides

Up until the Eiffel Tower was built, the Dôme des Invalides was actually the tallest building in Paris and was initially designed as a royal chapel, inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. With construction of the chapel starting from the late 1600’s, it was known as the temple of the god Mars, in the 1800’s during the Revolution. Napoleon the First’s tomb was laid to rest here in 1861, plus it also is the resting place for his descendants as well as significant French Generals & Marshals. So the fact that this resting place holds so many influential & revered leaders is just another reason to visit, apart from the stunning design & artwork on display.

The Dôme is exquisitely beautiful both inside & out and even I wasn’t expecting the interior to be as grand as it was in real life! I hadn’t researched the interior of Les Invalides prior to my visit, so I truly got to explore & witness it without any expectations at all. The exterior of the building is held up by large columns as you ascend the stairs and on the second floor there are four large statues, representing the qualities of Justice, Prudence, Strength and Temperance. It’s the gilded masterpiece which tops off this impressive building, resplendent with carvings of helmets & trophies, with an obelisk that has a cross crowning it at the highest point. The golden Dome rivals the nearby Eiffel Tower in terms of magical vibes at night, as it is lit up and casts an ethereal glow over the city, albeit without a sparkling light show!

The gold dome shining in the Parisian sunlight

I will never forget the feeling that came over me once I entered inside – as soon as you walk in, you can see the main altar straight ahead with the canopy & dome up above. The artwork on the dome’s interior is spellbinding – depicting the “Glory of Paradise” scene painted by Charles de la Fosse. But it was walking towards the circular crypt and then looking down upon Napoleon’s tomb that really had an entirely unexpected impact on me. Looking down into the crypt to view the sarcophagus surrounded by statues, I noticed that the names of cities and a golden laurel wreath on the floor encircled the tomb. The named cities represent Napoleon’s greatest victories at Austerlitz, Marenco, Moscowa, Wagram, Rivoli, Pyramides, Iéna, and Friedland.

Looking down to Napoleon's tomb, encircled by the cities of his victories
Looking down to Napoleon’s tomb, encircled by the cities of his victories

A monumental moment

I can only describe the feeling that washed over me as a mixture of awe, astonishment, reverence & something undefinably mystical or spiritual… these are feelings I’ve only experienced in a select few cathedrals, churches or landmarks. I’ve had this same feeling standing in Palace Square in St Petersburg looking at the Hermitage Museum, in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, standing in the middle of Red Square in Moscow and also seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. So for me to have this incredibly personal feeling overcome me at Les Invalides… it was truly so unexpected! An avalanche of emotions which I wasn’t prepared for found me fighting back tears in my eyes…I’ve always been empathic & highly sensitive but even this experience was a shock for me, in the best kind of way!

The view of the altar and Napoleon's tomb as you enter the Domes des Invalides
The view that awaits you upon entering the Dome

Once I’d had that surprising moment, I wanted to be sure I could take some time to thoroughly explore inside the Dome’s ground floor and lower level. After admiring the stunning main altar with four immense columns and canopy, I descended the stairs towards the lower level where the crypt is located. Prior to entering into the crypt I noticed two main statues at the entrance as well as mosaic decorations on the floor. Walking through the hallway into the crypt, there were additional carvings on the two walls.

Mosaic of Napoleon inlaid into the floor at Dome des Invalides
Mosaic inlaid on the floor at Dome de Invalides
One of the statues at the entrance to Napoleon's crypt
One of the statues symbolising power outside the crypt
One of the carvings in the hallway outside Napoleon's crypt
One of two carvings within the hallway

Entering into the crypt I experienced a sense of calmness – I was awestruck by the size of the sarcophagus up close as well as the size of the 12 female statues of victories which encircle Napoleons tomb and all face towards his final resting place. Directly opposite the hallway entrance on the other side lies a smaller crypt for Napoleon’s son, Napoleon the Second, also known posthumously as “L’Aiglon”, which means the “Eaglet” in French. Within the crypt there is a statue of Napoleon I and I also noticed a bouquet of flowers had been lain on the floor – whether by a distant relative, a visitor or by someone who works within Les Invalides…I do not know. Napoleon II’s mother was the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise (the second wife to his father), and after commanding within the Austrian army, Napoleon II passed away after serving from tuberculosis in 1832 at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

Lauren Harding looking back towards Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides
Looking back towards Napoleon’s tomb

Beautiful gardens and Angelina café!

If you need a quick rest during your time here then you might be very pleased to know that the famed “Angelina” café also resides here at Les Invalides as well! They are famous across the world for making some of the best hot chocolate ever. So this is pretty handy to know if you are planning on visiting one of their cafes, as you can cross off of a visit from your “must-do list”, whilst also exploring Les Invalides well! There is also a picturesque section of gardens just outside the Dome church, which I enjoyed walking through after my visit.

Depth of field view of Dome des Invalides from the garden
View of Dome des Invalides from the gardens

This was the area where I took a few photos of the exterior of the Dome and tried out some depth of field photography as well. Although I visited during the start of Autumn last month, the gardens were still in flower, providing a vibrant backdrop to the magnificent architecture. There are seats throughout the garden area so it’s also the perfect spot to relax for a while after exploring Les Invalides!

View of the garden maze at Les Invalides
View of the garden design at Les Invalides

Opening times

Although the Musée de l’Armée is open every day of the year, other parts of Les Invalides including the Dome Church and the Tomb of Napoleon are closed on important national days including 1st January 1st May and 25th December. As a rough guide, the Dome Church & Tomb of Napoleon are open as follows:

1st April to 31 October – 10am to 6pm every day; open until 9pm on Tuesdays; 1st November to 31st March – 10am to 5pm every day.

A brief history of Hotel National des Invalides
A brief overview of Les Invalides

Admission prices

You can obtain a “Museum” pass which includes access to the Dome Church, Napoleon’s Tomb, the temporary exhibition currently on display, permanent exhibition and a couple of museums for the approximately 12 euros. There are also discounted and group prices which vary, so for further information, please visit the official website. The website also offers additional pricing admission information for people between the ages of 18-25 years and those who hold a “Pass Education” or the “Paris Museum Pass”.

View of Les invalids from the park outside the main entrance
View of Les Invalides from the park outside the main entrance

How to get there

Located in the 7th arrondissement, it only took me about 5 minutes to walk there from the Invalides metro station. Being a monumental French sight, there is naturally a security check before you enter the complex. There are two separate entrances at the front of the complex and the at the rear, right next to the Dome Church. The main entrance of the complex is 129 rue de Grenelle on Esplanade des Invalides. I personally chose to enter through this one as walking up towards the main the gates imbues a sense of anticipation, which adds to the allure of what you are waiting to discover! The other entrance near the Dome Church is 2 Place Vauban, which is closest to the Dome and also the beautiful gardens at the rear of the site.

View of the blue & gold stately entrance gate to Les Invalides
The stately main entrance gates to Les Invalides

If you’re interested in visiting Les Invalides or looking for further information, please visit their official website or check out Facebook and Instagram.

Image of looking up at the gardens at Les Invalides
In the gardens looking up at Dome des Invalides

I still haven’t been able to entirely understand why my visit to Les Invalides was such a deeply emotional experience…it may take a while for me to process this now that I’m back home or it may be something that I will never be able to logically understand. Perhaps it’s an experience that can only be felt or understood within my heart… All I can say it that visiting here left an incredible impression on me and remains one of my most significant travel memories. It certainly was the highlight of my latest visit to Paris and I hope it might be that way for many other people as well!

I hope you have enjoyed this article on exploring Les Invalides! Let me know in the comments below what you think, whether you have/would like to visit there or which sight has left a significant impression on you during your travels!

Collage of pictures of Les Invalides guide
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7 Comments

  1. Irena
    October 16, 2019 / 9:45 pm

    Great blog and fabulous article on Les Invalides! Beautiful monument in Paris 😊

    • October 16, 2019 / 10:09 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to read it and the wonderful feedback! Much appreciated hun ✌

  2. October 17, 2019 / 2:30 am

    Hello Dear Lauren,
    thank you for sharing this very interesting article on Les Invalides, your overwhelming personal feelings, when you were inside and your wonderful images. The buildings (and gold & blue colours sometimes) are looking great. And I also like the flowers in the park.
    If I shought get there, I will remember your words.
    It`s also very interesting (to me), to hear something more about history, like about Napoleons times in Vienna and Wagram. It`s inspiring, to read more about it.
    Best wishes & cu ❤🍀✨

    • October 17, 2019 / 10:18 pm

      Thanks for the wonderful feedback and your thoughts on this Marcel, much appreciated! I thought you might enjoy this and also the garden too…yes I love the intertwining of French and Austrian history, particularly due to the royal connections! As you know, I love French, Austrian and Russian history and I think a lot of that has to do with their respective monarchies and military history.

      • Marcel
        October 18, 2019 / 2:02 am

        Thank you so much for your words.
        Germans and Austrians admired Napoleon until they got victims themselves….
        A huge wooden horse house at the hofburg got burnt by the French army in Vienna (but without horses). It could have been much worse.
        Best wishes Dear Lauren ❤️✨

        • October 18, 2019 / 12:43 pm

          It definitely could have been worse… there’s so much intermingling in history within Europe isn’t there?! I look forward to learning more as it truly fascinates me!

  3. Marcel
    October 19, 2019 / 12:11 pm

    It`s so interesting to read about….

    When reading about Beethoven (my son had to prepare a speach about him, then I was reading …):
    “In May 1809, when the attacking forces of Napoleon bombarded Vienna, according to Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven, very worried that the noise would destroy what remained of his hearing, hid in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his ears with pillows.” (in Wikipedia, English version)

    And this is from the German version/Wikipedia, translated into English:
    “Beethoven had originally intended to add the words “intitulata Bonaparte” or “written on Bonaparte” to the 3rd symphony Eroica. Anecdote reports that Beethoven had furiously removed the title supplement after Napoleon crowned himself emperor in December 1804.”

    Napoleons brother offered Beethove a position. (But someone else reacted, and offered more salary, so Beethoven did not leave) (1808).

    By the way, both Beethoven and Napoleon had too much lead in their blood in the end…

    And I found this….:
    The Austrian Emperor’s daughter Marie Louise married Napoleon to receive his benevolence/goodwill/peace. (So it was politics, and of course no love marriage.**)
    (translated from the German version about: “War of the Fifth Coalition” in Wikipedia)

    **: And that’s my opinion about it.

    I hope it`s interesting. Best wishes 🌹🍀✨

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