Paris tops many people’s list of favorite world cities, including mine. Lots of us have grown up seeing the City of Lights in movies and TV—okay—and in history class in school. Even if you aren’t a full-blown Francophile like me, I’m sure you will find the city’s ambiance lovely and the food, delicious. I’ve been a few times, and for this post I’ve worked hard to distill it all down to the must-do things if you’ve only got a few days in Paris.
Most people flying into Paris arrive at Charles De Gaulle airport. It’s the big one, and lots of flights from the U.S. arrive there daily. If you’re connecting from another European country you may arrive at the smaller airport, which is Orly. Lots of “fare hacker” sites will have you fly into one Parisian airport and out of the other, so make sure to pay attention to that.
If you’re traveling within Europe, make sure to check out the trains as well. We took the “chunnel” in from London last summer which was fast and very pleasant. France has an extensive train network: they are often cheaper than flying and generally run on schedule.
Things to Do
Where to begin?! Well, since the post is called Your first time visiting Paris, I must direct you to the basics. As an added bonus, I’ve included some photos I took back when I visited for the first time, when having a 3 megapixel digital camera was a big deal.
The Eiffel Tower
You’ll hear some jaded people talk about how it’s overrated and so on. Don’t listen to them! The tower is iconic, and only when you’re beneath it will you realize how big it is. Did you know it was the tallest structure in the world from 1889 to 1930?
There are two particularly nice times to visit: late morning, when you can bring a picnic lunch to the adjacent Champ de Mars park and eat on the grass, or as evening turns to night, when you can see the tower twinkle with lights on the hour. I have climbed to the top just once, but it was worth the hundreds of stairs to take in the Paris lights by night. Metro stop: Bir Hakim
You must go to the Notre Dame cathedral (first photo in this post) to witness its enormity. It’s dark and often crowded, but people are respectfully quiet so the large number of visitors is not overwhelming. Going inside is free, but if you want a tour of one of it’s towers, that has a ticket price. When you’re at Notre Dame, you’re very close to Sainte-Chappelle so you really must go in. If you take one thing away from this post… go to Sainte-Chappelle! Many older city guides don’t include this breathtaking chapel because until recently the stained glass was dirty and didn’t let light in, it was not an in-demand sight to see. In 2015 they completed a seven year restoration and the resplendent results will take your breath away. It’s not free, but if you don’t go up the tower at Notre Dame, you’ll have money you can put towards your Sainte Chappelle ticket. Metro stop for both: Cité
The third, church is in Montmartre which is a place you’ve got to spend an afternoon in, regardless. The Sacré Cœur basilica is breathtaking and very different from the other two. The white stone gleaming against a clear blue sky cannot be beat. I actually haven’t been inside but I’ve marveled at it from outside, eaten a delicious crepe at its base, and taken the funicular up the hill, which was fun. Metro stop: Abbesses
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Paris is home to some of the world’s best museums. If you are visiting for a number of days, and you’re a “museum person” like I am, I highly recommend getting the Paris Museum Pass which will pay for itself and then some. I’ve used it on two separate trips to see the big three: The Louvre (classic art and antiquities), Musée D’Orsay (impressionism; metro stop Solferino), and Centre Pompidou (modern art; metro stop Rambuteau).
Other, smaller museums covered by the pass were fascinating as well such as Les Invalides (military museum and Napoleon’s tomb), and the Arc de Triomph. I probably wouldn’t have paid face value to go into them, so I am grateful for the Paris Museum Pass which let me stretch my budget.
If you have time, visiting Versailles, the royal palace just outside of town, makes an excellent day trip. You can see Marie Antoinette’s rooms, walk through the famous Hall of Mirrors, where the signing of the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, and take in the meticulously manicured sprawling gardens. The Metro doesn’t make it out that far, but you can get there by buying a special RER ticket (which I describe as kind of like a “metro plus”).
You may have heard about the Quartier Latin, right across the Seine to the south (rive gauche). You can get a lot of inexpensive food and drink there (crêpes!) and it is a really popular tourist neighborhood. If that is something that calls to you, you’re in luck; it’s close to everything. If you’d rather avoid the tourist scene (let’s be real, tourists are everywhere in Paris), head north of the Seine (rive droite). You can do some amazing shopping north of the Louvre (check this link for more information, I don’t do a ton of shopping while traveling).
Two other neighborhoods I recommend are Le Marais (which has it’s own post), and Montmartre. I recommend staying in the former and spending a half-day in the latter. Montmartre used to be the low-rent artistic neighborhood, a history that still draws plenty of visitors. Today, artists set up their easels selling generic Parisian scenes, but occasionally you’ll find they’ve painted something more interesting. During the late 1800s this place was simply lousy with iconic impressionist painters. I recommend the Salvador Dalí museum even though it’s not included in the Paris Museum Pass. The famous Moulin Rouge (birth of the cancan dance) and a number of music venues are in nearby Pigalle.
You can go very high/low budget on food. Grab a pastry and café au lait for breakfast, and a crêpe or jambon-beurre (ham and butter on baguette) from a small kiosk for lunch. That will leave room in your budget to splurge on french macarons and chocolates throughout the day and indulge in a more decadent dinner.
Brasseries are those ubiquitous corner restaurants with classic Parisian chairs lined up facing the street. I highly recommend sitting outside of one and people watching during dinner. Steak-frites is a classic brasserie meal, or you could get a cheese and charcuterie board to savor as you enjoy the evening ambiance. To find a good one, subtly try to figure out if everyone eating there is a local.
If you’re nervous about the métro, please see my post full of tips for riding the underground.
I hope you have an amazing time. This city is close to my heart and I hope you’re able to enjoy yourself. If you find yourself getting stressed, crumple up your itinerary and just sit down to a good meal somewhere. The best traveling isn’t always checking off sightseeing boxes, but pretending you live there if even just for a few of days.
View more in my “First Time Visiting” series: Guanajuato, London, Mexico City, San Diego
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Photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer, unless noted.