Paris is a city that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. In a city with so much romance, so many monuments and such great food – choosing what to do can be an overwhelming task. After living in Paris for three months, here’s my personal list of the top things to do in Paris for first time visitors.
I must admit that it was super difficult to decide what, in my opinion, would be the must see things in Paris that a first time visitor should cover – there’s just so much to see, do and eat in Paris! If you’re making a return trip to Paris, I’ve got a top 10 list just for you – filled with more local spots, off the beaten track stuff and places you might wanna check if you’ve been to all the tourist highlights. Remember guys, Paris has a lot to offer but – and a big but – the best way to experience it is to take things slowly and enjoy the subtleties of life. So keep calm, and don’t rush.
10. Cruise along the River Seine
It might look super touristy, but hopping on a boat and cruising the Seine is an excellent way to get to know Paris. Quite of a few of the city’s most famous monuments lie pretty close to the banks of the river, giving you the opportunity to cover a great distance with little effort. The most popular route takes you from the Eiffel Tower area, turning around just after Ile Saint Louis. There are quite a few options for Seine cruises, ranging from simple one hour tours all the way to romantic dinners. At the end of the day, there’s no better way to experience Paris than by way of walking, but a river cruise on the Seine can be a nice complement.
9. See the most beautiful building in Paris – the Palais Garnier
Metro stations: Opéra, Chaussée d’Antin – La Fayette, Havre – Caumartin
Located smack in the center of Paris, the Palais Garnier is even more beautiful on the inside than it is on the outside – and that’s pretty hard to imagine. Home of the Opera National de Paris, this late 19th-century masterpiece is commonly known as the Opera Garnier and you must put this on your Paris to do list. Inspired by Classic Italian architecture but finished off in classic French from, the Palais Garnier was purposely designed to take your breath away. Put on your aristocratic costume and climb the famous Grand Staircase all the way to the auditorium, whose ceiling is decorated with the famous Chagall fresco. The Palais Garnier is also where the legend of the Phantom of the Opera began and if you can’t make it inside for a concert, at least take the time to visit (€15 including the highly recommended self-guided audio tour).
8. Cross the most beautiful bridge in Paris – the Pont Alexandre III
Metro station: Invalides
It’s one of those grand structures constructed for the 1900 Universal Exposition, a time when cities were competing for global attention in the pre-mass media days, by building urban masterpieces. The Pont Alexandre III (pont means bridge) is the prettiest bridge in Paris and probably the most romantic one too. So it’s no surprise why so many couples come here for their pre-wedding super cheesy photoshoot. The bridge is famous for its golden ornaments and Art Nouveau lamps but during spring and summer, there’s more action happening beneath the bridge than on top with a few pop-up bars springing to life. It’s the perfect spot in Paris to end your day. Bring your own drinks or grab a spot in one of the bars and enjoy the last few hours of what will probably be another one of those days in Paris that you just didn’t want to come to an end.
7. See where it all began in the islands of Paris
Metro stations: Hôtel de Ville, Saint-Michel, Pont Neuf
Though the islands of Paris are by no means tropical, Île de la Cité & Île Saint Louis simply cannot be missed. After all, it’s right here that Paris started out centuries ago. Île de la Cité holds the architectural highlights while Île Saint Louis is where you’ll wish you could live, and also where you’ll find the best ice cream in all of Paris. There is just no way you’ll miss the Notre Dame Cathedral (free), the most famous in Paris. It took nearly 200 years to finish off this Gothic masterpiece and you won’t want to miss the exquisite stained glass rose windows. Just nearby is the Sainte Chapelle, which ranks at the top of my list of Parisian cathedrals. It’s a totally worth it €8.50 to get inside this 13th-century work of perfection, where the highlight is the upstairs chapel. The best time to visit is on a sunny day, when the shining sun’s rays create a spectacular kaleidoscope of colors, radiating throughout the ancient chapel.
6. Get lost in the medieval alleys of the Latin Quarter
Metro stations: Saint-Michel, Place Monge
Getting its name from the Latin that was spoken centuries ago in the top-notch academic institutions and Gothic churches that call this Parisian neighborhood home, the Latin Quarter is the perfect place to spend a day’s worth of walking. It’s one of the oldest parts of Paris and many of its narrow alleys survived the grand urban renovation projects of the Haussmann era. Not to be missed is Rue Mouffetard, a superb market street on the ancient road from Paris to Rome. After filling up, head over to the Pantheon, where you’ll feel super tiny in this giant mausoleum for France’s greatest men & women.
5. Catch a panoramic view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower
Metro stations: Alma-Marceau, Trocadero, Passy
Like the Pont Alexandre III (see #8), the Eiffel Tower was built for another one of those global expos, this time it’s the 1899 Universal Expo. Towering at 300m, it’s hard to imagine that the Eiffel Tower was actually meant to be disassembled at the end of the expo. Can you imagine Paris without its prime symbol? The Eiffel Tower is as pretty by day as it is by night when the famous steel structure becomes a luminous lighthouse. For €11, you can climb to the famous observatory and for an extra €6, you can go all the way to the top. Whatever you do, just buy tickets in advance as the queues can really suck the energy out of your day. Romance seekers or just James Bond fans might enjoy a meal at the super posh Jules Vernes restaurant, though there are far better deals elsewhere in town.
4. Walk the length of the Champs Elysees
Metro stations: Charles de Gaulle – Étoile, Tuileries
It’s one of the most famous avenues in the entire world and despite the fact, there’s very little authenticity in this place, there’s just no way a first-time visitor to Paris will not make their way to the Champs Elysees. Aside from a handful of luxury shops, most of the glamor has moved elsewhere but the tourists still make it here in large numbers. At both ends of the avenue are the true stars of the area. On the northern end is the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of power and French patriotism. It’s free to visit the arc and for €9.50, you can climb the 200+ step spiral staircase for the some of the best panoramic views in Paris that money can buy. On the southern end of the Champs Elysees is the Tuileries Gardens, a former palace that is now one of the best urban parks in the entire world. Walking the length of the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to the Tuileries Gardens has to be one of the best experiences one can have in Paris!
3. Head to the most romantic neighborhood in Paris – Montmartre
Metro stations: Abbesses, Pigalle, Anvers, Blanche
Located on a hill overlooking Paris, Montmartre used to be a self-sustained village outside of the Paris city walls, back in the day. Steep streets and staircases lead their way up the hill to twisting cobblestone lanes that open up to charming little squares. If you visit on a quiet weekday, you’ll definitely feel like you’re somewhere in the French countryside. Don’t miss the famous Sacre Coeur Basilica (free) for even better panoramic views of the City of Lights.
2. Be in a constant state of positive shock at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay
Metro stations: Louvre – Rivoli, Solférino
Paris is home to dozens upon dozens of museums, some of them among the best in the world. It can be a bit overwhelming to choose which ones to see and even how to best visit them. Even if you’re experiencing museum-phobia, you must try and make it to either the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay (or both). I must admit that I only visited them when I moved to Paris for 3 months but I’m sure glad I made it. Let’s start off with the Louvre – the world’s largest museum. Only a small fraction of the museum’s collections is actually on display, but it would still take you months to see everything it has to offer. Among my favorite highlights are the Classical paintings, Ancient Rome collection and Napoleon III’s Apartments. The Musée d’Orsay on the other hand picks up where the Louvre leaves off, focusing on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. You’ll find here some of the most famous works by the likes of Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso. The best way to visit these giants is by not trying to see everything on one go and to come when the museums are open for extended evening hours.
Before heading off, see how to best visit the Louvre and what the Musée d’Orsay has to offer
1. Experience the joie de vivre in the classic Parisian neighborhood of Saint Germain
Metro stations: Pont Neuf, Métro Saint Germain des Près, Mabillon
It was a place I kept coming back to over and over again in my months spent in Paris. No other Parisian neighborhood is buzzing with chic life like Saint Germain des Près. The historical home of Paris’s intellectual elite, Saint Germain is a place you just want to spend the entire day exploring by foot. It’s home to two of the most impressive cathedrals in Paris, Saint Sulpice & Saint Germain, and the prettiest park I’ve ever been to – the Luxembourg Gardens. However, the most pleasant thing to do in Saint Germain is to slowly meander along its beautiful streets, stopping by one charming cafe after another and sampling delicious pastries here in there, in a neighborhood that has to have the highest ratio of fine pâtisseries to residents. There is simply nothing like spending a sunny day exploring Saint Germain – it’s the ultimate Parisian experience.
So there you have it folks. Those are what I think are the top things to do in Paris for first-time visitors. Do you have more time in Paris?