Shortly before the Allied forces liberated Paris from Nazi control on August 25, 1944, Adolf Hitler ordered his French military governor to use explosives to destroy the Eiffel Tower, along with several other famous structures in Paris. Some of the targets had military significance, but the Eiffel Tower? Hitler was determined to make a statement: if the Allied forces were going to take Paris back from the Nazis, then he would leave the city in ruins. Although the Eiffel Tower was designed to commemorate the French Revolution, Hitler understood that it had come to symbolize the triumph of the Industrial Revolution in France. It was the first human-made structure in history to exceed a height of 1,000 feet. Upon seizing Paris four years earlier, German forces had raised the swastika flag over the Palace at Versailles and atop the Eiffel Tower. It was more than just a framework of iron; it was a testament to architectural engineering and a harbinger of advanced civilization.
The Eiffel Tower is a perfect example of an iconic landmark that helps define a city and distinguish it — in this case, Paris. Places around the world reap huge benefits from unusual or historic structures, most often human-made but not always. Landmarks provide identity, tell stories, promote tourism, instill pride, and in some cases, they are fully operational and part of the local infrastructure. Tower Bridge that spans the Thames River in London (often misidentified as London Bridge) is not only a magnificent piece of architecture. It is also a completely functional waterway crossing that accommodates approximately 40,000 people and 21,000 vehicles each day.
Seasoned travelers may consider it a sign of sophistication to avoid visiting familiar landmarks, designating them as tourist traps. Perhaps they are, but they attract millions of people every year for reasons other than selfie opportunities or bragging rights back home. They can be particularly educational, and many of them have museums either inside the structure itself or nearby that provide details about the landmark’s creation, construction, history, function, and significance. Some of these attractions date back to the ancient world, such as the pyramids at Giza or the Colosseum in Rome. Others have only been around for a relatively short period of time, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, constructed in 1965.
Experience has taught me that most tourists get “trapped” by the add-on features many landmarks offer, such as the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Gateway Arch. The fees can get quite pricey, but the biggest cost is in valuable time spent waiting in line for an elevator or tram ride – sometimes several hours in peak season. Most travelers are on a tight schedule, and it seems a shame to miss other sites – museums, galleries, parks, gardens – while standing in line just to get a great view of the tops of buildings. There’s a good chance you can have the same experience nearby on the upper floor or observation deck of a tall building for a fraction of the cost and time.
It’s good enough just to spend a moment gazing at some iconic landmarks, even from a distance, to get the perspective of their size and scope. Others may be worthy of closer inspection or a guided tour, a topic I covered in a past blog post. There are wonderful ways to experience these attractions for little or no money at all. It is absolutely free to walk out on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or enjoy views of the magnificent structure from various locations around the bay. You won’t pay a penny to see the Hollywood sign overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Many of the world’s most spectacular houses of worship do not charge entry fees, although donations are expected and appreciated. Most cities are proud to show off their public landmarks and only charge nominal fees for entry or tours, if any at all. I have included photos here of some of my favorites. I hope to see many more in the years ahead.