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How to see the Eiffel Tower? On our own or with a tour?

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We want to see the Eiffel Tower when we visit Paris in May, but it sound like getting to the top involves long waits. Can someone explain how it works? Is there an elevator, does it go to the top or just part way? I have a vague recollection from my younger days of a long spiral, semi-open staircase. i believe we are too old for that now. Do we need to go with a group tour? Can anyone recommend the best way to enjoy this Paris icon?
We'll only be there for 3 days, any other suggestions for making the most of our time would be appreciated.

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