When you think of famous French figures, Napoleon Bonaparte is probably one of the first names that comes to mind. This military genius and self-proclaimed Emperor left an indelible mark on French history. If you want to learn more about his life and legacy, head to the heart of Paris, where you’ll find his final resting place under the golden dome of Les Invalides.

The Dome Chapel: From Royal Church to Military Pantheon

The building that houses Napoleon’s tomb is officially called Le Dôme des Invalides, but most people just refer to it as the Dome Chapel. It was originally built during the reign of King Louis XIV as a royal church. But about a hundred years later, Napoleon I transformed it into a mausoleum for France’s greatest military heroes.

Along With Napoleon himself, the Dome Chapel holds the remains of several other notable figures, including:

  • Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph and Jérôme Bonaparte
  • His son, Napoleon II
  • Other distinguished French military leaders

Napoleon’s Impressive Tomb

The centerpiece of the Dome Chapel is, of course, Napoleon’s tomb. It’s an massive sarcophagus carved from red quartzite, sitting on a base of green granite. The whole thing is positioned right in the middle of the rotunda, under the soaring dome.

There’s a bit of mystery surrounding what exactly is inside the tomb. Some say it contains Napoleon’s ashes, while others claim his body was actually exhumed from his original grave on the island of St. Helena (where he died in exile) and is now perfectly preserved in the sarcophagus. Another theory is that the tomb is made up of six nested coffins, some wooden and some lead.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying that the tomb is an impressive sight. In the right light, the smooth, scrolled stone almost looks like a giant bar of milk chocolate.

Exploring the Army Museum

Napoleon’s tomb is just one part of a larger complex called the Hôtel National des Invalides. This sprawling site was established by Louis XIV as a home and hospital for war veterans. Today, it also houses the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum), which is dedicated to the history of the French military.

When you visit, you can explore several different sections of the museum, including:

  • The Charles de Gaulle Monument
  • The Main Courtyard and Artillery Collection
  • The Old Department, featuring armor and weapons from the 13th to 17th centuries
  • The Modern Department, covering the period from Louis XIV to Napoleon III (1643-1870)
  • The Contemporary Department, focusing on the two World Wars (1871-1945)

As you might expect, there’s no shortage of weapons on display. In fact, there are so many guns that even the most avid NRA member would be impressed. From antique swords and crossbows to modern artillery and tank turrets, the museum’s collection spans centuries of warfare.

Is It Worth a Visit?

So, should you add the Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb to your Paris itinerary? It depends on your interests and how much time you have.

If you’re a history buff or a military enthusiast, you’ll likely find the museum fascinating. The exhibits are extensive and cover a wide range of eras and topics. You could easily spend several hours exploring all the different sections.

However, if you’re pressed for time or not particularly interested in military history, you might want to prioritize other sights. This is especially true if it’s your first trip to Paris and you’re trying to fit in all the must-see attractions.

That said, if you have the Paris Museum Pass, which grants free entry to many of the city’s top museums and monuments, it might be worth popping in for a quick look. The Dome Chapel and Napoleon’s Tomb are certainly impressive from an architectural and historical standpoint, even if you don’t spend a lot of time in the rest of the museum.

Practical Information

Getting There: The Army Museum is located at 129 Rue de Grenelle, directly across the Seine from the Grand and Petit Palais. The closest metro stops are:

  • La Tour Maubourg (line 8)
  • Varenne (line 13)

There are two entrances to the museum complex:

  • The main entrance on the Esplanade des Invalides, facing Rue de Grenelle
  • A secondary entrance at Place Vauban, closer to the Dome Chapel

Ticket Info:

  • Adult admission: €9.50 (includes the Dome Chapel and Napoleon’s Tomb, the Army Museum’s permanent collections, the Charles de Gaulle Monument, the Museum of Relief Maps, and the Museum of the Order of the Liberation)
  • Free with the Paris Museum Pass

Tip: Give yourself plenty of time if you want to see everything the museum has to offer. The complex is huge, and you could spend an entire day exploring all the exhibits.

More Than Just a Museum

While the Army Museum is primarily a place to learn about France’s military history, it’s also a testament to the country’s resilience and spirit. The exhibits document centuries of conflicts, from medieval battles to the world wars of the 20th century. They showcase the bravery and sacrifices of countless soldiers and civilians.

At the same time, the museum doesn’t glorify war. Many of the displays are somber reminders of the destruction and loss of life that conflict inevitably brings. They encourage visitors to reflect on the human cost of warfare and the importance of working towards peace.

In this sense, the Army Museum is more than just a collection of weapons and artifacts. It’s a place to contemplate the complex and often brutal history that has shaped modern France. It’s a reminder of the country’s struggles and triumphs, and of the enduring spirit of the French people.

As for Napoleon’s Tomb, it’s a fitting tribute to a man who, for better or worse, played a pivotal role in shaping the course of French and European history. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Napoleon’s impact and legacy. Seeing his final resting place is a powerful experience, whether you’re a history buff or just a curious visitor.

Final Thoughts

Visiting the Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb may not be at the top of every Paris tourist’s to-do list. But for those interested in history, military affairs, or the life and times of one of France’s most famous (and infamous) figures, it’s definitely worth considering.

Just be sure to give yourself enough time to do it justice. This isn’t a quick in-and-out kind of attraction. To really appreciate the scope and depth of the museum’s collections, you’ll want to budget at least a few hours.

And even if you’re not a die-hard history fan, the Dome Chapel and Napoleon’s Tomb are still impressive sights in their own right. The architecture is stunning, and there’s something undeniably powerful about standing in the presence of such an iconic figure’s final resting place.

So if you find yourself with some extra time in Paris and a desire to explore a bit off the beaten path, consider adding the Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb to your itinerary. It may not be as flashy as the Eiffel Tower or as famous as the Louvre, but it offers a unique and thought-provoking glimpse into a key part of French history and identity.

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