When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, it was originally – like the London Eye – intended to be a temporary installation, the entrance to the Exposition Universalle in the French capital. Once the magnificently tapering structure was complete, it quickly became the biggest draw in Paris. Plans to dismantle it were overturned, and for the next 41 years it was the highest structure in the world (until superseded by the Chrysler Building in New York).
Today, it is the most popular paid attraction in France. The crowds and queues can seriously reduce your enjoyment. This is the strategy for making the most of a visit – and it involves an early start, which also leaves you with the best part of the day to spend elsewhere in Paris. Incidentally, pack a plastic bottle of water in a small backpack (large bags and glass bottles are banned) .
The Eiffel Tower has viewing platforms at three levels, at 57m, 115m and 275m. You can, and should, walk to level 2. It takes around 15 minutes and enables you to get closer to the fabric of the structure.
If you prefer not to use the stairs, then you can buy tickets for the lift online ( eiffel-tower.com) and print them at home. There is no price saving, but you can almost eradicate the queue: arrive a few minutes before 9am, and breeze straight in. Absurdly, you cannot buy tickets online for the stairs-plus-lift combination – only for elevator ascents.
8.30am: Arrive on Métro line 9 at Trocadero station
This approach is an essential ingredient of the experience. Brown signs in the Métro station indicate the Tour Eiffel. Exit the Métro station, round the corner and you are greeted with a fabulous perspective of the tower on the far side of the Seine. Descend to, and cross, the river. Once you get close, the vendors of miniature Eiffel Towers (five for a euro) will seek your attention.
8.45am: Join the queue at the Pilier Sud (south pillar)
You should find it a much shorter line than the snaking queue of visitors who do not realise the extra attractions of climbing to the second level – not least, the shorter queue. The people who join the line for the lifts at 8.45am may still be waiting when you reach the top.
The only smarter visitors are those with pre-paid online tickets, who will be able to go straight in and be among the first in the double-deck lifts; these pause at the first level before continuing to the second.
9am: The cash desk opens
A trickle of visitors is allowed through, after a cursory bag check, to the cash desk. After the cash desk, there is a more intensive security check including a metal detector. Pay €4.70 for the right to walk to the second level (€1 less for those aged 18-25, €1.50 less for four- to 17-year-olds).
9.30am: You should be climbing by now
At the first level, don't stop to take in the view; follow the signs around to the second staircase.
9.45am: By now you should be at the second level
Make your way to the cash desk for the sommet; you have to buy a separate ticket (€5.20). Then join the queue for the four lifts to the third level. Within the first hour of opening, you shouldn't have to wait more than 10 minutes for the 80-second ride to the top.
10am: Welcome to the top
The majestic geometry of Paris unfolds at your feet. The viewing platform should not be too crowded, giving you a grand prospect of the city from every angle.
On a sunny day, look out for the shadow of the tower over the Seine – the photo opportunity that many tourists miss. Gustave Eiffel's office at the top has been preserved, with waxwork models inside. The other facility: toilets.
10.20am: Time to descend
At this time of day you should wait no more than five minutes for a lift to the second level.
10.30am: Dwell at level 2
After the wide-screen view from the top, gazing from the second level is like using the "zoom" setting on your camera: the skyscrapers of La Défense and the Sacré-Coeur are closer and more intriguing from this height.
10.45am: History of the Tower
Level 1 is the place to be to find out more. It is also where you will feel uncrowded, thanks to almost everyone bypassing it en route to the top.
11am: Back on ground level
The loos are around the back of the west pillar.
Travel essentials: Eiffel Tower
Dine in style
Le Jules Verne restaurant, on the second level, is accessed by the south pillar via its own private lift. The weekend set lunch costs €165 per person.
Dine on a budget
After leaving the tower, walk 1km east to rue Cler, full of tempting specialist shops that enable you to put together a picnic.
According to the numerous signs that are displayed on the tower, thieves are a big problem. And at ground level, beggars and scam artists prey on tourists.
Joke to tell your companion at the top
Q: Pierre, a Parisian pâtissier, creates a tall structure from sponge, fruit, custard and cream. What does he call it?
A: The Trifle Tower.