Stroll along the Seine or bustle along a boulevard here, and one word is likely to come to mind: style. Paris is one of the world's great capitals of government, business, and culture. But what sets it apart is its special style, its genius for giving everything it touches an unmatched grace and elegance.
Here subway entrances are no mere concrete markers. Many are wonders of art nouveau: Vases of twirling metal grillwork open into delicate flower blossoms.
Department stores are not just commercial centers, they are cathedrals of commerce. A fantasy of cupolas, statues, and weather vanes invites the shopper to enter Printemps' main building. At Galeries LaFayette, the lure is inside: an enormous decorated glass dome that stretches four flights high.
All over the city, the mundane is made monumental. Train stations such as Gare St. Lazare are elaborate hymns to the power of the steam engine. Bank headquarters such as the Banque Nationale de Paris are gilded with classical ornamentation. Bridges such as the Pont Alexandre III are festooned with metal and marble finery.
Yet if Paris is one big monument, it is also a city built to a very human scale. It does not have the power of New York's spectacular skyline. Attempts to reach to the heavens find their power in harmonious design, not in a brutal explosion upward: for example, the Gothic beauty of Notre Dame, the classical symmetry of Napoleon's Invalides, or the lissome lines of the Eiffel Tower.
With the exception of the Montparnasse monstrosity on the Left Bank, conventional modern skyscrapers have been forced to the outskirts, leaving the city's central core intact. In that core stand three- to six-story buildings, dating as far back as the 13th century.
Their small size gives Paris a manageable scale. Except for the department stores, commerce is dominated by small, family-run enterprises. Each neighborhood has the air of a small-town American main street - spruced up in best Gallic style, of course - with its own bakery, butcher, cafe, pharmacy, hardware store, and so on.
The small structures also offer a lesson in French history. The original Ile de la Cite and the areas adjacent to it on either side of the river preserve medieval France. Notre Dame stands proud in the center, with crooked, narrow streets filled with beautifully preserved, ancient structures on the banks across from it.
Outside of this lie the city's boulevards. Nineteenth-century city planner Baron Georges Haussmann drove his wide avenues through the capital to prevent the easy construction of barricades. His antirevolutionary goals produced the golden age of Parisian architecture, the style that dominates the city to this day.
This is the Paris of the Impressionists. Their sublime mixture of light and movement perfectly expresses the feel of the city even as it is today. When Monet and his fellow masters were painting at the end of the 19th century, the French looked on themselves as symbols of modernity. They believed the power of the industrial age could be made beautiful, so they constructed the unparalleled metro system and department stores, capping everything with the Eiffel Tower.
In the last 60 years, most construction has been limited to blocks of drab public housing sky-rises on the outskirts. Only in the suburbs does the incomparable Paris style seem to be missing.
Over the past 20 years, however, France seems to have experienced a renaissance, and new structures of interest are being built. There is, of course , the famous Pompidou Center. The old market area of Les Halles has been redone into a swirl of metal and glass. Inside are boutiques, arranged like an American mall.
Many say the center defames the surrounding older buildings with an aberration based on styles imported from across the Atlantic. But the public loves it. The shops and cafes are crowded to capacity.