Before visiting Paris for the first time, I’d heard it was a beautiful city, full of life. Ornate buildings, cute bistros, an abundance of exquisite food, and history present on every corner were enough to convince me it was worth a visit during a trip to Europe last fall.
I’ll be the first to admit Paris can be tough for first time visitors, especially if you aren’t fluent in French.
Paris is a city that seems to evoke a strong reaction from most travelers – they either love it or hate it. After five days there, I left with good memories, but wasn’t over the moon about the city. I loved the mix of culture and history, but had a hard time with the language barrier, which I haven’t encountered anywhere else I’ve visited (Italy, Costa Rica, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.). I want to give the City of Light another chance though, so we’re planning on passing through again in October during a trip to Oktoberfest.
Despite some of our experiences, Paris is a city that shouldn’t be missed. To truly appreciate what Paris has to offer, I recommend a balanced approach- visit some of the top sites, but also leave some time unplanned to slow down and relax.
10 Things to Do in Paris
Visit the Norte Dame & Saint-Chapelle
With its construction beginning in the second century, Notre Dame is considered one of the best examples of medieval architecture.
The beauty of the cathedral is incredibly powerful, go early in the morning to get there before the crowds arrive for the best experience. After you visit the inside of the cathedral, head to the side (and plan to wait in line) to see the bell towers. This is a line that’s worth waiting in though, not only is it cool to see the famous gargoyles up close, but you also get a nice view of the city.
After you’ve spent time seeing the cathedral, walk over to Saint-Chapelle. It’s a tiny chapel made almost entirely out of stained glass. If there isn’t a line of people outside waiting to get it, you can find it tucked away among the Conciergerie.
Before you leave the Île de la Cité, stop by Au Vieux Paris. It’s an adorable bistro tucked away on a side street. Nab an outside table, savor a glass of wine and relax for a few moments before heading to whatever is next on your agenda.
Revel in the Eiffel Tower
As cliche as it is, this was one of my favorite parts of visiting Paris. We went once at night to see the sparkling light show (happens every hour), and once during the day to walk around and take photos.
You can’t escape the Eiffel Tower’s presence in Paris. If it’s your first time visiting, eat a picnic under the tower, or go to the top of it for an unforgettable view.
We chose to climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe instead of the Eiffel Tower because we wanted our panorama view of Paris to include the tower. However, we did take full advantage of a sunny afternoon to wander through the Champs de Mars (the lawn surrounding the Eiffel Tower), and snacked on brie and a baguette at Trocadero, while taking in the full view of the Eiffel Tower.
If you have time, visiting Trocadero at sunrise is said to be amazing.
Ditch the I heart Paris t-shirts and check out a few of the city’s galleries and concept stores for souvenirs worth buying. A few of my favorites:
- Colette: Design concept store with plenty of gifts you’ll want to take home
- Merci: This store has everything, from fine jewelry to clothes and books and homewares. I’d be a regular visitor if I lived in Paris
- Galeries Layfayette: No other Parisian department store is more impressive. We didn’t buy anything here, but enjoyed strolling around the center circle and admiring the beautiful dome
- Passage du Grand Cerf: This collection of shops makes it onto the list of many travelers- and for good reason, it’s adorable. Loved the collection of cute shops selling trinkets, jewelry and housewares
- Passage des Panoramas: The shops in here aren’t anything spectacular, but its design makes it a place to wander through if you’re in the area
- Galerie Vivienne: Again, worth visiting more for the beauty of the space than the shops inside
- Pop in a French pharmacy: Before visiting Paris, everyone told me you can find the best beauty products at French pharmacies, and my findings didn’t disappoint. This round-up of genius French pharmacy products is spot-on
See a show at Palais Garnier
Fancy a night at the ballet? You can’t go wrong at Palais Garnier. We actually visited Palais Garnier twice- once during the day (€10 admission) to allow time for reveling in its design, and once at night to see the ballet.
Designed by Charles Garnier, the Palais Garnier marked one of the final stages of Haussmann’s urban facelift of Paris. Here, in 1896, a fatal accident with a chandelier was the inspiration of Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera.
This place gets called the most beautiful place in Paris for good reason- its interior is stunning. The grand staircase is breathtaking, but it’s only the beginning- if you visit, be sure to look up at the ceilings and don’t miss the Grand Foyer- it’s spectacular.
As the home to the Phantom, the Palais Garnier held a special place in my heart before I walked inside for the first time. The Phantom of the Opera is one of my mother’s favorite musicals, and after seeing it numerous times, it has become one of my favorites too.
Words won’t even do justice to the ballet performance we saw here, featuring works by Millepied, Robbins & Balanchine. Just tremendous.
Relax at Jardin des Tuileries or Luxembourg Gardens
The Jardin des Tuileries are gorgeous when they’re in full bloom. I woke up early one morning to run through them. They’re adjacent to the Louve, and easy to stop by before/after a museum trip. If you really want to make the most of your time in the area, grab a chocolate croissant from Angelina (the best!), head across the street and sit on a bench in the shade.
And if you’re wandering around after visiting Norte Dame, stop by the Luxembourg Gardens. These gardens are said to be where Parisians come to enjoy a sunny day. After spending some time here, I can see why- it’s the perfect place to relax on a bench, eat lunch, or simply watch artists work and people stroll by. As an added bonus, the original Statue of Liberty is here, as well as a number of wonderful fountains.
Climb the Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is part of a line of monuments that extends from central Paris to the cities west, between the Le Lourve and La Defense.
When the Arc was finished in 1836, it was dedicated to those who fought and died for France in both the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Look closely at the walls when you’re there- the names of French generals are inscribed on the surfaces.
For €9, we climbed 284 stairs to the top of the monument for iconic city views. Arguably the best view in Paris can be found here- we went mid-day, but I’m already planning to go back at sunset on a future visit.
Indulge in delicious desserts
Don’t skimp out on the treats when you’re visiting Paris, there’s a reason why they’re world famous. A few of my favorites:
- Hot chocolate and pain au chocolat at Angelina
- Macaroons from Angelina, Ladurée or Pierre Hermé
- Street crepes, go heavy on the Nutella- I promise you won’t regret the gooey goodness
- Slice of cake at Rose Bakery (highly recommend the lemon cake or carrot cake)
- Eclaris at L’ Eclair de Génie are both beautiful and delicious
Most travelers head to the only hill in Paris to see the Sacré Coeur. Also known as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, it’s one of the world’s most famous catholic churches. The Basilica towers over the rest of the city, offering beautiful views across Paris.
And while, the Basilica is stunning, half the fun of visiting Montmarte is getting lost in the maze of steep side streets.
Montmartre is talked about by Parisians the way true New Yorkers talk about the Village: It’s not what it used to be. Artists who gave the area its fame can’t afford to live there anymore, and now it’s overrun by tourists. As with New York, parts of this are true, but that doesn’t mean the place that nurtured most of the great artists living in France this past century isn’t worth visiting.
I really enjoyed the few hours we spent wandering this area, taking in the street art, painters and eclectic bistros. After working up on appetite on our afternoon explorations, we enjoyed fresh fruit tarts from Biscuiterie De Montmartre.
Right as we decided to head back to the city, we came across a bistro, Le Consulat, with a man strumming the guitar out front. Cue a wine break while watching the sun set over the city of light.
P.S. The Moulin Rouge is in this area of town.
Descend into the Catacombs
Interested in the darker side of the City of Light? More than 200 miles of tunnels sit underneath Paris, some of which are lined from the floor to ceiling and as far as the eye can see with bones.
By the 17th century, enough people had lived and died in the city that its cemeteries were overflowing. The decided upon solution was to put the bones in the old tunnels beneath the city, remnants of limestone query mines.
In total, 6 million Parisians’ bones were laid to rest in the Catacombs. The tour of the Catacombs only shows ~10% of the total remains, which is astounding to think about considering the endlessness we witnessed.
We booked a skip-the-line tour in advance, which we decided was worth the price in convenience over time. I’ve heard from others that waiting in line to visit the Catacombs can easily take 2-4 hours.
Spend an afternoon at The Louve
Goes without saying the Louvre is a must-see for most first-time visitors to Paris. We actually decided to skip this museum in favor of spending more time wandering, but it’s at the top of my list for my next trip (along with the Picasso Museum). If you’re a museum buff, I’ve also heard great things about the Musée d’Orsay.
Wander at leisure
As tempting as it may be to try and see everything Paris has to offer, plan some unplanned time. Some of my favorite memories are from strolling through different parts of the city, wandering down side streets as we wished.
One night as we were wandering, we noticed the sun was beginning to set and knew we were near the Seine. We headed to the river and watched the sun set over the city- a totally unplanned and magical moment.
Bonus: Take a day trip to Versailles
The stunning Palace of Versailles lies just outside Paris, and is easily accessibly by the metro.
The palace is stunning, it’s literally opulence upon opulence with mirrored halls, intricate ceilings, and gold details everywhere. There’s more to see at the Palace than the main chateau. The gardens are expansive- you could easily spend a few hours wandering them and the canals.
There are also two smaller palaces, the Grand and Petit Trianons and the adorable Queen’s Hamlet.
Before our trip, a friend recommended we consider a bike tour of Versailles to truly appreciate the enormity of what it has to offer. Our Fat Tire Bike Tour left Paris early in the morning and was the perfect way to appreciate the majesty of the Palace and surrounding town.
Upon arriving in Versailles, we went to a local market to pick up picnic supplies. Once everyone loaded up on baguettes, cheese, olives, fruit and wine, we biked to Versailles and spent some time exploring the Queen’s Hamlet. Then, it was time to bike the Grand Canal and picnic on its banks.
After a leisurely lunch, we biked to the gardens, and finally headed into the Palace to explore the inside. I read quite a bit about Marie Antoinette as a teenager and have to say, my expectations were exceeded in every way possible. It was truly a perfect day- I’d recommend the bike tour to anyone who wants to see as much of the palace as possible in a short time.
If you’ve been to Paris, what are some of your must-do’s for first time or return visitors?