Going up the Eiffel Tower is one of the great travel thrills in Europe. Sure, it's crowded and expensive, and there are probably better views in Paris. But once you make the eye-popping ascent -- and ear-popping descent -- you'll be in the exclusive society of some 250 million people who have made the Eiffel Tower one of the most visited monuments in the world.
The first visitors ascended in 1889, the year the Paris World's Fair opened with the tower as its grand centerpiece. Put together like an 18,000-piece erector set, made of iron beams held together with 2.5 million rivets, the tower was a pure showpiece, with no functional purpose. It was meant to demonstrate to the world that France had the know-how and money to erect the tallest structure in the world.
Remarkably, the original plan was to dismantle the tower at the fair's end. But designer Gustave Eiffel -- an inveterate tinkerer -- happened to include a radio antenna and telegraph transmitters at the top, and the French government decided they made the tower too useful to tear down. (The French ended up using one of the transmitters to jam German radio communications during World War I.)
From the beginning, Eiffel planned the tower to accommodate hordes of visitors, and it's always had elevators. But elevator technology was new in the late 19th century, so engineer Eiffel -- who could make just about anything -- subcontracted the work out. No one had ever tried running an elevator car on an angle as the tower's curved legs required. Today's elevators make about 100 round-trip journeys a day to the tower's three viewing platforms.
To visit this 1,000-foot-tall ornament today, you'll battle crowds and pay about $20 per person (for elevator to the top) -- but it's well worth it. Here are my tips for making it fun and memorable:
BOOK TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Those who just show up waste lots of time in line. That's a shame, especially when it's fast and easy to book a reservation online (www.toureiffel.paris). It's worth spending five minutes to book a ticket to save an hour (or more) standing in horribly long lines. Be sure to reserve well ahead for peak times such as summer; dates open up about three months out.
LEARN THE TOWER LAYOUT: The tower has three levels with observation platforms, at roughly 200, 400, and 900 feet, all connected by elevators and stairs. But there isn't a single elevator straight to the top ("le sommet"). To get there, you'll ride an elevator or climb 775 steps to the second level, where you'll line up for the next elevator to the very top. Don't skip the first level: Venture onto its vertigo-inducing glass floor to experience what it's like to stand atop an 18-story building.
HOW HIGH IS HIGH ENOUGH? Tickets are sold according to how high you'll go. Ticket options include riding the elevators to the very top, riding only as far as the second level, or climbing the stairs to the first or second level. By all means, go to the top -- but for me, the best views are from the second level -- high enough to see all of Paris, but low enough to pick out distinguishing landmarks.
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A WORD OF CAUTION: Street thieves plunder awestruck visitors gawking below the tower, and tourists in crowded elevators are like fish in a barrel for predatory pickpockets.
SAVING TIME: The tower is notorious for its elevator lines -- both up and down. I'll tolerate the lines to ride the elevator up, but I prefer to take the stairs down. You'll need to take the elevator from the top down to the second level, but can use the stairs down from there. It takes about five minutes to walk between each level -- much faster than the elevator line.
WHEN TO GO: For the best of all worlds, arrive close to sundown to see the views, then stay as it gets dark to see the lights. At the top of the hour, a five-minute display features thousands of sparkling lights lassoing the tower. However impressive it may be by day, the tower is an awesome thing to behold at twilight, when darkness fully envelops the city, and the tower is enveloped by its spectacular light show.
A SECRET APARTMENT: Few people realize that Gustave Eiffel built himself a little hideaway apartment on the top level of the tower. Eiffel used the plush space for quiet reflection and occasional visitors, and resisted all offers to rent it out. (Visitors can peer inside the still furnished space.)
Once back on the ground, you'll appreciate the tower's romance and engineering even more. For a final look, stroll across the Seine River and look back for great views of the defining symbol of Paris.