The Arc de Triomphe is the city's second most iconic monument after the Eiffel Tower - older, shorter, but far more symbolically important: indeed, the island on which it stands, in the centre of the vast traffic junction of l'Etoile, is the nearest thing to sacred ground in all of secular France, indelibly associated as it is with two of French history's greatest men.
The first was the man who had it built. Napoleon ordered the Arc de Triomphe's construction in 1809 as a monument to the achievements of his armies, but he never lived to see it finished: the arch was only completed in 1836 (although the emperor did view a full-size wood and canvas mock-up when he entered the city with his new wife Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810). Nonetheless, it bears the names of Napoleon's victories and key military subordinates, and is decorated on its flanks with a frieze of battle scenes and sculptures, including Rude's famous Le Départ des Volontaires (aka La Marseillaise).
The Arc has had martial associations ever since: victorious French troops paraded through it at the end of World War I, and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies under its centre, below an eternal flame that is relit in a solemn ceremony every evening. The man who relit it on 26 August 1944 is the Arc's other great figure, Charles de Gaulle, who followed the reignition ceremony with an iconic triumphal march through Paris; the text of his famous 1940 radio broadcast from London is immortalised in a bronze plaque in the ground.
Despite such grand associations, until recently the interior of the Arc was far less impressive, having changed little since the 1930s. As Jean-Paul Ciret, director of cultural development for France's national monuments, put it: 'The way we were showing the Arc to visitors was not worthy of an important landmark. There was no light inside, and the ceiling was dirty.'
But now, after a revamp by architect Christophe Girault and artist Maurice Benayouna, there is an impressive new museum with interactive screens and multimedia displays allowing visitors to look at other famous arches throughout Europe and the world, as well as screens exploring the Arc's tumultuous 200-year history, before heading up to the roof and taking in one of the finest views in the city.