If you've read any of my previous posts from France then you know I'm a hardcore Francophile through and through. So when I found out I'd be going to the city of light for the first time you bet I did my research on things to do and must-see attractions. On this particular trip I was also catching a river cruise up the seine for a few days after my stay in Paris (read more about that trip here), so I only had a limited amount of time in the city. Most people will say you need days if not weeks to truly explore Paris, which can be true, but given life and financial constraints that's not always possible, which is why I love making the most out of any time I'm given in a particular city. So I've put together my must-see's/must-do's when in Paris. Enjoy!
First and foremost: Getting there
There are many ways to get to Paris. You can fly into the most-popular Charles de Gaulle airport which is about 30-45 minutes (in bad traffic) outside the city (or Orly, the second most popular airport). Cabs and shuttles are readily available but you can also take the metro and get off at the Gare du Nord station in Paris. Additionally, if coming from another country nearby, public transportation like the Eurostar or similar are your best bet. If given the chance, I prefer a high-speed train to a flight because the timing sometimes works out to be the same. For example, most train stops are in the heart of the city, whereas most international airports are just outside (maybe 20-45 minutes) the main parts of town. So with getting to the airport early for a flight and having to then get into the city upon arrival, I vote for the train :)
Second: Where to stay:
This is an important one...I'm usually an experience over item kind of person so I don't usually care how fancy the hotel is as long as it 1) looks nice 2) is safe (especially if you're a female traveling solo) 3) has a bathtub (because jet lag and exhaustion are real) and 4) is centrally located. This last one is especially important in a city like Paris, which is laid out (in the shape of a spiraling snail's shell) according to it's 20 different arrondissements (or neighborhoods). When planning to stay in any metropolitan area it's good to first look up what you want to do, see, experience and eat. Here's a map (courtesy of google) which outlines the 20 arrondissements and some of the most popular attractions near there. Keep in mind that the closer you get to, say the Eiffel tower or the Louvre, the more expensive hotels tend to be. Additionally, the public metro is great and has stops near almost any major attraction so staying farther afield is definitely do-able and probably cheaper. We stayed at the Hotel Oceanic in the 8th and it was splendid, well-priced, with a great breakfast and friendly. This also allowed us to experience Paris easily as most things we wanted to do were nearby like the Galeries Lafayette and the Garnier Opera House.
Without further ado, here are the top things you should do when going to Paris. I've tried to order them according to which arrondissement they're located in starting at the Louvre and making a counter clockwise loop around the city to end at the Eiffel Tower. This way you could theoretically start there and 'work' your way around the sites. The numbering of the arrondissements may seem out of order but again that's due to the way they are laid out (see photo above).
Museums and Gardens on both the left and right banks in the 1st and 6th
For me, a trip to Paris needed to start on the right bank of the river Seine, at the Louvre. I'm sure we all know what the Louvre is, which is the world's largest art museum but many may not know the historic significance it once had. Before it was the famous museum it was today, it was actually the seat of the government and royal palace for many generations (before Louis the XIV moved the court to Versailles). This may actually make more sense as you drive through the outer courtyard to access the main entrance (looks like a palace right?!?!). Other historic figures that made the Louvre quite prominent were Louis the XIII and Marie de' Medici before him. Despite the historic significance, we're all here to see the fantastic art, which includes the Mona Lisa (known as La Joconde), the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory, the Virgin of the Rocks, Liberty Leading the People and (my all time favorite) The Coronation of Napoleon to name a few. There really is no way to describe what it's like to be able to wander the halls and marvel at the various rooms of art.
Some advice: I'm not sure about you, but when I was planning my trip to the Louvre I kept seeing posts about secret entrances and ways to skip the notoriously long line. I'm about to blow your mind (lol) but in reality most times when you see long lines like that it's because people are waiting to buy a ticket, not actually waiting to get in! So in order to avoid the line simply buy your ticket online first, then walk right up to the entrance. Additionally, the Louvre is massive, don't expect to see everything in one visit. My advice would be to pick a few pieces that are most important to you and go see them. For me it was the above mentioned pieces, plus the Egyptian wing and Apollo Gallery which houses fantastic sculptures of the zodiac and French crown jewels. Finally, no trip to the Louvre is complete without a stop at the Mona Lisa, but be prepared, this is probably the most popular art gallery in the world so it will be PACKED! Try to push your way to the front or admire from afar amidst the sea of selfie sticks ;)
2) The Tuileries Garden:
Following your time at the Louvre, I would recommend a rest in the nearby Tuileries Garden, which is located between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde (also in the 1st). I'm such a history buff and am especially fascinated by important female figures throughout history so I'm particularly fond of this particular garden because it was created by the powerful, yet notorious Catherine de' Medici in 1564. It was eventually opened to the public in 1667 and was made a public garden after the French Revolution. What also makes this place special is that is also houses the Musée de l'Orangerie, which is an impressionist art gallery and is particularly famous because this is where Monet's Water Lillies are on permanent exhibit.
3) Musee de Orsay:
Across the river from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden and on the left bank (or rive gauche), is the the Musée d'Orsay in the 6th. This is another famous (although probably less visited than the Louvre) museum in Paris which is housed in the former Gare d'Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900. Additionally, it's worth a visit because it houses one of the largest collections of French impressionist art from Manet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet (to name a few).
4) The Jardin du Luxembourg:
Near the Musée d'Orsay is the Luxembourg Gardens (also in the 6th). This garden was patronized and created in 1612 by Marie de' Medici (Catherine's daughter) and widow of Henry IV of France. Beautiful to take a stroll or just admire a spot of nature in this bustling city.
5) St. Germain de Pres:
This is more of an 'area to explore' rather than a particular destination to see. The Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood is famous for its upscale shops, vintage bookstores and restaurants/cafes that were once favorited by the likes of authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Ernest Hemingway to name a few! If you're a bibliophile like me then you'll be as thrilled as I was to walk around and have a coffee or a meal where these artists were inspired. There are lots of cafes to try but the 2 most famous are Cafe Flore and Les Deux Magots, which are right next door to each other. Both busy and a bit pricey but delicious and quite the memorable experience.
Exploring the Île de la Cité area and major sites nearby:
Located between the 4th and 5th, the Île de la Cité is one of two remaining natural islands in the middle of the Seine within the city of Paris. It is the center of Paris and the location where the medieval city was re-founded.
6) Notre Dame:
On the Île de la Cité in the 4th, is the famous Notre-Dame de Paris (aka Notre-Dame). This particular cathedral is famous for its medieval gothic architecture, complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles throughout. Spend time walking around, possibly climbing the tower and marvel at the intricate stained glass windows throughout. Note: there are many Notre Dame cathedral's throughout Europe (which translates to 'our mother'), so when referring to Notre Dame in Paris you have to say 'Paris'.
Also on the Île de la Cité in the river Seine, is the Sainte-Chapelle, which is a royal chapel also famous for its Gothic style architecture. Built in 1238, it's smaller than Notre Dame but just as beautiful as it was the residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century.
8) The Centre Pompidou:
Centre Georges Pompidou (aka Centre Pompidou) is a large building in the 4th which houses the National Museum of Modern art and Public Information Gallery. There are other offices and research institutes housed within as well, a good visit if you've already seen your other must-see's or just have some extra time (although, for me not a must-do).
9) La Concierge:
The Concierge is a building on the west side of the Île de la Cité and was formerly a prison and royal palace. It's famous because it was where hundreds of prisoners were taken during the French Revolution before they were executed via guillotine, the most famous of whom was Marie Antoinette. Similarly, this may just be a place you can see from afar or via nighttime river cruise as it's quite beautiful lit up.
10) The Latin Quarter:
Similar to the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood, the Latin Quarter is not necessarily a site but more of a 'let's wander around and do some shopping or eating'. It's in the 5th and is home to the Sorbonne and Shakespeare and Co. mentioned below. Historically, it's known as the Latin Quarter because this is where you would find students mingling, eating and working, and at the time, only spoke Latin (the language of universities). It's also famous for bookshops, the National Museum of Natural History and the Pantheon building which houses the remains of Voltaire and Marie Curie.
11) Shakespeare and Co.
Ok, let's get serious here...I'm a lover of all things book...but beyond books, what I truly love is a bookstore or library, especially an old one that is independent or has a lot of charm, which is exactly what Shakespeare and Co. is. Shakespeare and Co. was first opened by Sylvia Beach (an American) in 1919 as one of the first English speaking/printed bookstores in all of Paris. As you can imagine, it was a historic hotspot for American writers and ex-pats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It's right across the bridge from Notre Dame so a visit to both is a must. It's a tiny shop the just exudes old-world charm. I probably could have spent days there to be honest. There are small staircases that lead to other nooks and crannies and old texts that are priceless. When I go there I like to buy texts from French authors or American ex-pats who liv in Paris during the roaring 20's. Make sure to get their famous stamp on the first page of any book you purchase and check out the cafe next door :)
Farther afield to the east and northern points of the city:
12) Père Lachaise Cemetery:
Going a bit east from the most popular sites is the largest cemetery in Paris locsated in the 20th. It's the most visited necropolis in the world and is famous because it's the final resting place for famous artists and poets like Edith Piaf, Moliere, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, pianist Frederic Chopin and doomed lovers Abelard and Heloise. If you're not too creeped out by the thought of visiting a cemetery, then spend some time strolling among the gardens and beautiful sculptures.
Montemartre in the 18th:
If you can only explore one neighborhood, then make it Montemartre...In my spare time I dance, my whole life I've been doing either ballet, jazz or more recently belly dance so I'm always drawn to anything artistic but especially to dance. Add to the fact that I simply love the French Belle Epoque era (a period of history from about 1870 to WWI) and you get someone who's absolutely obsessed with the Moulin Rouge and arts and entertainment during that time. Well it all happened in the neighborhood of Montemartre in the 18th. It's famous because it's the highest point in Paris (it's actually a hilltop village) that was once inhabited by the likes of Picasso and Dali (it was relatively cheap to live there during that time). Now it's home to the famous domed, limestone Sacré-Cœur basilica, the iconic Moulin Rouge and retro bars and clubs in the Lamarck area. There is also a funicular ride to the top of the hill and museums dedicated to the artists that made this neighborhood historic such as Dali, Picasso and my all time favorite Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who painted scenes from the Moulin Rouge).
13) Sacre Coeur:
When visiting the neighborhood of Montemartre, you simply have to stop at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly known as Sacré-Cœur. This is a Roman Catholic church set atop the hill of Montemartre. Beyond being religiously beautiful, it also offers one of the best views of the city so I would highly recommend taking some time to stop, marvel and look at Paris from above.
14) Take in a nightly cabaret at the original Moulin Rouge!
How can I begin to describe the Moulin Rouge? As a life-long dancer and admirer of the performing arts, a trip to the Moulin Rouge for me was like making a pilgrimage to Mecca...Some will scoff and say it's a tourist trap, and while it is a bit Vegas-like and pricey, it was still an absolute thrill to take in a cabaret at the place where cabarets began. It was originally built in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller and yes had an actual life-sized elephant in its courtyard. This is also where the famous can-can dance was invented and also where Toulouse-Lautrec painted his famous images of dancers and scenes from within the club. It's still a running cabaret today in the heart of Montemartre and nightly tickets are available. This is definitely a must-plan type of night as tickets will sell out so be sure to get yours in advance here: https://www.moulinrouge.fr/reservations. Fun Fact: Windmills were real and were used to grind the flour that would make bread and pastries. There are still a few left scattered around the neighborhood so go explore!
Pro Tip: You can get a regular show ticket or a show plus dinner and champagne ticket. If opting for the later option you do get a somewhat better seat near the front of the stage with your meal, served beforehand. I've heard mixed reviews about whether the dinner is worth it so I'll leave it up to you. We just got tickets to the show which were about 90 dollars each (so again opted to skip the dinner) but we were also able to order drinks and a cheese plate at our table which was well worth it. Other things to note: you cannot reserve a specific seat ahead of time. Being the control freak that I am, I did not like the idea of not being able to see where we were sitting. With that said, I would highly recommend getting there when the doors open, early enough to be in line for a good seat. Also, I'm not sure if it helps but I would recommend dressing nicely. Although it's recommended to dress nicely on their website, some people still show up casually dressed. For me, I wore a gown simply because I wanted to pay my respects to this historic place and all the dancers and performers who put so much time into rehearsing and performing. I can't say for sure if that's why but we did get front row seats stage right which was great. Also, because we were there early we had enough time to look around and order some drinks and food before hand. Final note, there is some nudity so if that bothers you or if you're traveling with young children you may want to be aware of this, although I can confirm it's very tastefully performed.
15) Impressionist Museum:
Also in the 18th arrondissement of Montmartre is the Musée de Montmartre which is a great way to spend an afternoon learning about the famous artists who made the neighborhood what it is.
Shopping and dining in the 8th:
16) Champs Elyses:
I'm sure we've all heard of the Champs-Élysées, which is an avenue in the 8th. It runs between the Place de la Concorde (on the eastside) and ends at the Arc de Triomphe (on the westside). It's famous for cafés and luxury shops and most notably the annual Bastille Day military parade and end point for the Tour de France race. I would highly recommend taking a stroll along the avenue, stopping at a cafe for a bite to eat and end by climbing up the Arc de Triomphe. Note: this area is touristy and the shops you'll find are the same luxury shops you'll find in almost any major city but it's still worth a visit if shopping if your thing. I mean what could be better than getting a French luxury item in actual France?!?!
17) Arch De triomphe:
Besides the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile is probably one of the most well-known monuments in Paris, let alone France. It was originally commissioned by Napoleon to mark his triumphs across Europe and sits at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It's situated right in the middle of a massive roundabout in the middle of Paris so be sure to climb to the top to see some of the best views of the city. At the bottom be sure to see the tomb of the unknown soldier and pay respects. Due to the high traffic density, there's actually an underground walkway you can cross to access the Arc, so don't try to cross the street!
18) Tea and dessert at Lauderee:
One great place to stop along the Champs-Élysées is the famous tea house and pastry shop Ladurée. This luxurious sweets shop was first established in 1862 and specializes in the famous French macaron (an estimated 15,00 macaron are served each day) and rows and rows of classic french desserts. There are Ladurée's all over the world and many in the United States but I truly loved to experience it in Paris. You can simply get some pastry's and dessert or sit down and have a meal. Whatever you do be sure to take some time strolling up and down the various levels, marveling at the beautiful art nouveau architecture and design, truly beautiful xo.
19) Place de la Concorde:
At the eastern end of the Champs-Élysées (also in the 8th) is the Place de la Concorde, which is the largest public square in all of Paris and was where many public executions took place during the French Revolution.
End your spiraling tour back near the beginning on the left bank in the 7th to view the magnificent Eiffel Tower:
20) Eiffel Tower:
What can I say about the Eiffel Tower? It's the ubiquitous symbol of France and truly magnificent to behold. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, it was originally built as a temporary monument to showcase during the 1889 World's Fair and to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution. It originally had mixed responses among Parisians but eventually it was decided that it would be a permanent monument along the Champ de Mars. Similar to the Louvre, you'll see many sites claiming to 'bypass the line' which again simply refers to the line to buy a ticket to the top platform of the tower. Simply buy your ticket beforehand and bypass the long lines https://www.toureiffel.paris/en. There are 3 levels of the Eiffel Tower and you can take either the stairs or elevators to access them. Additionally, the famous 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant is housed on the first floor of the tower and offers a multi-course french meal. I've never tried this place myself but I've heard mixed reviews, mainly that it's touristy so the service is poor and is very expensive but if given the chance I would certainly try it :) Finally, viewing the Eiffel Tower during the day is great especially if you go all the way to the top and see the magnificent views of the city, but also come back if possible for the nightly light show where the tower actually sparkles for several minutes!!
Other thoughts: Many of these sites can be viewed from afar, meaning if you only have limited time and can't see them all then consider taking a guided day tour or better yet a romantic nighttime cruise along the seine which will allow you to see the outside of some of these sites lit up along the river. Also, depending on what you like to do, some sites could be skipped altogether. For example, if shopping or wandering around a neighborhood aren't your cup of tea, you could probably skip shopping along the Champs-Élysées or wandering the Latin Quarter etc. Similarly, some buildings and monuments are great to look at and drive by but don't need to be fully explored such as the Concierge or Place de la Concorde (but again all of this depends on what you're interested in). Additionally, you might consider getting a Paris Museum Pass, which allows you to access most sites and attractions for one price.
Want more tips on planning, things to know and great day-trips from Paris then check out the rest of these linked below:
As always, I'd love to hear any other recommendations or suggestions you may have!