Even from a distance, it is hard to miss the golden domed roof of Napoleon’s Tomb glinting under the Parisian sunlight. However, while the prominent presence of Les Invalides in the Parisian skyline is undisputed, it still remains one of the less frequented touristic destinations within the city of lights. With queueing times rarely surpassing five minutes, it should be top of everyone’s Parisian bucket list!
A brief history of Les Invalides
Commonly known as Hôtel National des Invalides, the complex of buildings that form Les Invalides (for short), are located in the 7e arrondissement. The complex contains 15 courtyards, a church, and various other architectural triumphs. An entrance ticket covers both entries to the Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb. The courtyards, church, and gardens are all free to visit.
First founded in 1670 by order of the Sun King, Louis XIV (who also happens to be one of the most famous inhabitants of the Palace of Versailles), Les Invalides was built in order to house war veterans and has been used primarily for military purposes throughout the majority of its history.
Although the original plans only included the blueprint for a few barracks, the final building housed up to 4000 war veterans. Soon after the completion of the first barracks, it was decided that the veterans would also need a chapel and so The Church of Saint-Louis des Invalides was built. Daily services were held and attendance was mandatory for all veterans.
The church was cleverly designed so as to incorporate two chapels lying adjacent to one another. The Dôme des Invalides was constructed alongside the Soldier’s Chapel so that the King could attend mass simultaneously with the veterans (he wasn’t allowed to physically attend church with ‘commoners’)!
Cour d’Honneur at Les Invalides
The largest of the fifteen courtyards is the Cour d’Honneur (Court of Honour) which was regularly used for military parades. Today, this impressive space is free to visit and wander around, and can be found on the side of the building closes to the River Seine.
The Dome of Hôtel les Invalides (Napoleon’s Tomb)
Truth be told, one of the most impressive features of the collection of buildings is the ceiling in Napoleon’s Tomb. The baroque decoration was inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome itself and was only completed in 1705. Marvel at the gold gilt, and intricate ceiling paintings.
Below the glittering ceiling, it’s hard to miss the ornate and substantial tomb of Napoleon, which is guarded by a dozen equally impressive angels, who are forever watching over the Emperor’s final resting place. The once Royal Chapel was actually repurposed in 1840 upon the return of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains to France.
Following Napoleon’s death in 1821, his remains lay on the island of St Helena (where he had died in exile under British supervision). The British would simply not allow his remains to be returned to France. They remained there for precisely 19 years whereupon they were excavated and transported back to France to be laid to rest in a grave fit for a war hero.
Today, there are many conspiracy theories surrounding the remains of Napoleon because it’s alleged that his body was perfectly preserved upon his exhumation (is that even possible?). A number of Napoleon’s family members and officers who served under him are also buried in Les Invalides. One of the 46 people buried in the crypt is Napoleon’s son who tragically died at the age of 21 from tuberculosis.
How to visit Les Invalides
The courtyard and gardens are all free to wander around. In summer, they are filled with flower blooms and are a lovely place to relax thanks to the countless benches dotted around the complex. Meanwhile, in the winter, the gardens and courtyards are just as lovely. After all, the grass seems to remain pretty green all year round!
If you’re looking to visit the tomb of Napoleon himself, you should know before you go that you have to pay an entrance fee. This ticket includes priority entrance to Napoleon’s Tomb & Army Museum and so you may want to purchase your billet in advance so as to save time. You may well not know this, but the Musée de l’Armée is actually one of the top-five visited museums in Paris, with over a million visitors a year.