Looking like two sets of train tracks that crashed into each other, Gustave Alexandre Eiffel's tower rises 1,056 feet above the banks of the Seine in all its steel girder glory.
The man who gave the Statue of Liberty a backbone designed this quintessential Parisian symbol merely as a temporary exhibit for the Exhibition of 1899, and managed to rivet together all 7,000 tons of it (with 2.5 million rivets) in under two years.
Critics of the day assailed its aesthetics, but no one could deny the feat of engineering. It remained the tallest manmade structure in the world until the Chrysler Building stole the title in 1930, and it paved the way for the soaring skyscraper architecture of the 20th century.
The Eiffel Tower was always meant to have been demolished in 1909. Fortunately for the French postcard industry, the tower's usefulness as a transmitter of telegraph—and later, radio and TV signals (not to mention tourist attraction)—saved it from its scheduled fate to become one of the most instantly recognized architectural icons in the world.
The restaurants and bars on the first and second levels are pricey, but pretty good (Le Jules Verne is now run by one of the world's most famous chefs, Alain Ducasse).
The first level is being renovated in 2012 to install new pavilions and eco-friendly systems (LED lights, solar panels, etc), and—coolest of all—replacing sections of the railings and floors with glass.
The view from the second level is an intimate bird's eye of Paris, while the from the fourth level you can see the entire city spread out below, and, on a good day, as far out as 42 miles.
(Yes, you pay a different amount depending on how high you want to go—but, seriously, who doesn't want to go all the way to the top?)
Visibility is best near sunset.
One hint: Though it is possible to take stairs all the way to the second level (nearly halfway up), never agree to do so, especially if it's a group of teenage Boy Scouts in the prime of health who are trying to talk you into doing it. Trust me; I speak from experience.
I'd say budget at least two hours to be safe.
If you want to ride to the top and back down again, figure on spending at the very least 90 minutes at the Eiffel Tower—some 20–30 minutes of that will be spent merely standing in line.
I have only once gone up on foot (my Boy Scouts wanted to run up it, and I was the only adult leader willing—or perhaps stupid enough—to accompany them), and that took about 20 minutes, though we were going really fast.
Take a tour that swings past the Eiffel Tower:
The Effel Tower is also one giant lightning rod for the city of Paris. Here, lightning strikes the Eiffel Tower on June 3, 1902. (Photo by Camille Flammarion)