A friend recently asked me for advice travelling to Paris this summer. The trip will be a quick 4 or 5 day stay in July. When asked what was on her must-do list, she replied: “The subject, Paris, is way too broad and completely overwhelms me.” Paris can be overwhelming. I’ve been many times and always see something new every time.
Overview of Paris
Paris is very large, split into halves by the Seine creating the Right Bank (La Rive Droite) and Left Bank (La Rive Gauche). The city is further split into 20 districts called Arrondissements (Arr), each with its own personality. For the most part, first-timers will wander around the arrondissements hugging the Seine (1-Lourve, 3-Marais, 4-Notre Dame, 7-Eiffel, 8-Champs Elysees) venturing to Montmartre in the 9th Arr.
Walking is the best option to get around Paris. Even those planning to rely on public transport or Uber, end up walking a lot more than expected. Most hotels offer free maps. They are not fully detailed, but the major sites are listed.
Do take the Metro! The route lines are color-coded and numbered. Their direction is based on the last stop on the line in each direction. It’s not hard, you just need to know the terminating station and head in that direction. Example: if you want to go north on the 12 train, go in the direction of Port de la Chapelle which is the last station north on that line.
There are several apps available that work offline to help you get around. I’ve used Next Stop Paris, the official app of the French public transit. Citymapper app is, by far, the best app I’ve used, but you must be online for it to work.
You will find Wi-Fi readily available throughout the city, but most are password protected. If you are desperate for Wi-Fi, most cafes will give you the password for a quick glass of wine or coffee. Some will want to type the password for you, mainly because it’s faster for them.
I highly suggest renting a smart phone from Insidr Paris. The phone comes with a Wi-Fi hotspot and many apps to stay connected (WhatsApp, Skype). The Citymapper app is pre-loaded as well as Insidr’s expert travel tips. They will arrange a location anywhere in Paris to deliver and return the phone based on your travel plans. I used one of their phones on my last trip and will never visit without one again!
What to do
Patricia Schultz recommends in ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die' (in alphabetical order):
- Arc de Triomphe
- Basilique du Sacre Coeur
- Center Georges Pompidou
- Eiffel Tower
- Hotel Des Invalides/Napoleon's Tomb
- The Louvre
- Musee de Cluny
- Musee d'Orsay
- Musee Picasso
- Notre Dame de Paris
I’ve been to Paris seven times and still haven’t seen all of those! Pace yourself, agree on a few must-dos and then just explore!
The Eiffel Tower
I think everyone should see it close-up at least once, even if they don’t go up. If you do want to go up, don’t book a skip-the-line tour. Instead, save some money and buy your ticket online. I recommend going around sunset so you can see Paris in daylight transitioning to night. Then when you get down, cross over to the Jardin de Trocadero to watch the tower’s twinkling light show at the top of every hour until midnight. Views of the tower from both the Trocadero and the Parc du Champ de Mars, the large park on the other side, offer quintessential Paris photo-ops regardless of time of day and weather.
To Louvre or not to Louvre
I have been close to it… but never in it. It’s just so big! If it is a must, I hear going as early as possible is the best bet, or just before closing. The Pyramid at night is worth seeing and usually without crowds!
I have been to the Musee d’Orsay just across the Seine featuring Impressionist art. Also very popular, the lines can be daunting. However, once inside the converted train station, the Orsay can be seen in a couple hours’ time. There is a restaurant inside as well as a rooftop café offering a terrace overlooking the Seine, the Louvre and the Sacre Coeur atop Montmartre in the distance.
Notre Dame, Sainte-Chappelle and Ile St. Louis
Considered the center point of Paris, I usually end up in the area almost every time. The Notre Dame Cathedral is free to go in and can be crowded – watch for pickpocket scammers. I’ve seen lines down the block. Arriving before opening is the best time to go to the top of the cathedral; there is a fee for that. Allow a couple of hours total if you wish to go up.
Sharing the Ile de la Cite is the Sainte-Chappelle known for its gorgeous stained glass and classical music concerts at night. There is a fee to go into the church.
Cross the bridge behind the Notre Dame to the Ile St. Louis. The main street down the middle of this island is full of fun boutiques, some cafes and the famous Berthillon ice cream.
Just across the Seine from the Notre Dame, on the Left Bank, you’ll find the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore and the impressive fountain at Place Saint-Michel. Use Pont Archeveche or Pont de le Tournelle from Ile St. Louis to cross over for views of the flying buttresses behind the Notre Dame.
Wander along the river west toward the Orsay to the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. Further on to Pont des Arts you’ll find pretty views and lots of picnickers at sunset in nice weather.
Montmartre and Basilique du Sacre Coeur
My favorite is Montmartre, the hill area in the north of the city where the Sacre Coeur is perched. The church is beautiful in and out, with sweeping views of Paris. This is a very touristy area, but still fun to do (again, watch for pickpockets and scammers).
Place du Tertre is a square full of artists…don’t pay full price, they’ll take a little less than the sticker price. I’ve found the souvenir shops just behind the Sacre Coeur and the square have better prices than other places in the city. It’s also lined with café’s, but I don’t recommend as they are pricey for low quality food.
If you want to eat, I recommend wandering the streets to the west of the church. Café Montmartre on Rue Norvins just opposite the famous view of the Le Consulat with the Sacre Coeur looming behind, is good for a quick quiche or sandwich. Or you could eat in the one of the last remaining windmills at Le Moulin de la Galette on Rue Lepic. Further from the crowds on Rue Ravignan is Le Relais de la Butte with lots of outdoor seating and a nice view.
On the Metro, take the 2 to Anvers and go up to the church. The street leading up to it can be very crowded. I recommend taking the 1 to Abbesses. Warning, there are a ton of stairs…like so many you think they are never going to end, but there is an elevator.
Best time to go is the morning for fewer crowds. Sunset is gorgeous from the steps of the Sacre Coeur. I’ve never felt unsafe in the area, but some might be uncomfortable at night.
Shopping and Sightseeing
Plenty of high-end shopping can be found around the luxury hotels clustered around the St. Honore area by the Place Vendome and the Ritz as well as in the 8th Arr near Hotel Plaza Athenee and the Georges V.
Department store shopping at Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. Both offer views from their rooftop terraces. They are in the Palais Garnier – Opera area creating a triangle with the Place Vendome and La Madeleine featuring architecture, cafes and shopping. The famous Le Grande Café Capucines near the Palais Garnier was designed by the same architect.
Rue de Rivoli stretches from the Jardin des Tuileries past the Louvre to the Bastille. All along this street is shopping. Stuff you’ve seen, stuff you haven’t; all mostly affordable. Once you get closer to the Bastille is the Marais to the north. The Marais is full of small streets with cafes and shops between Rue de Rivoli and Rue des Francs Bourgeois. Le BHV Marias is a department store offering a bit of everything. You’ll find the Musee Carnavalet in the heart of the Marais; however, closed until 2019 for renovation. Place des Vosges borders the eastern edge of the Marais offering a nice picnic spot, cafes and the Musee Victor Hugo. The Centre Pompidou is on the western border of the Marais and the Les Halles area.
The Les Halles area offers one of my favorite streets, Rue Monteorgueil, for boutiques, street vendors, and more importantly; a café table and a Kir Cassis for people-watching. Take a peek inside Saint-Eustache church, famous for its architecture and pipe organ. There is an underground mall in Les Halles; I don’t recommend. I actually got lost inside once!
What about the Champs Elysees?
The Champs Elysees is not my favorite area; however, most tourists are lured there. The famous Laduree tea room and macaron cookies are on the avenue (but they are also in the airport). Pierre Herme has a shop for his macaron cookies here as well. The famous Restaurant Le Fouquet’s Paris is at no. 99 across from Louis Vuitton Paris at no. 101. If cars are your thing, the showrooms of Citroen, Toyota, Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault are impressive. At the end of the avenue is the Arc de Triomphe offering one of my favorite roof-top views of Paris.
The Left Bank
I love Le Rive Gauche. You’ll find rich literary and art history there. Some of the oldest churches in the city. The Sorbonne and the Pantheon and the Luxembourg gardens. I’ll save these topics for your second trip!
Frommers has a nice Paris destination page offering walking tours and itinerary suggestions. Recommendations found on Fodor’s are trusted and TimeOut for up-to-date events. For a guide book, I have used Rick Steve’s 'Paris' for several of the self-guided tours.
Please leave a comment! Have you been to Paris? What else would you recommend for a first-time visitor?