The Top Ten Sights
[If you just want to see what my life in Paris has been like you can skip this post.]
On your first visit to Paris, like everyone else, you will go up the Eiffel Tower.
You will go to the Louvre and take a snapshot of the Mona Lisa. You will gaze in awe at the facade of Notre-Dame. You will have an ice cream made by Berthillon on l’Île Saint-Louis. You will take a Bateau Mouche tour of the Seine. You will stroll along the Champs-Elysée up to the Arc de Triomphe.
Arc de Triomphe
You will eat a soggy crêpe at a stand in the Latin Quarter. You will climb the south slope of Montmartre up to Sacré Coeur and be dazzled by the view.
In all of those places you will be surrounded by other tourists doing exactly the same things, clutching their maps and mobile phones to ensure that they never stray from the well-worn Tourist Track.
Not only will you do these things, you must do them, and you should do them. Why? Because these places are iconic, and your friends would never forgive you if you didn’t. Because that’s what it means to go to Paris for the first time. And, last but not least, because they’re fabulous. It is not tragic that everywhere you go those first few days will be excruciatingly touristy. It’s normal.
Every travel book will tell you how to see the top ten tourist spots over your first few days, and I leave this task to them. But when you have gotten this out of your system — after your first few days, or on your second visit — read on. This post is about what to do after you’ve seen the top sights.
Getting Ready for More
First off you will need some technology. Get the RATP app, the Métro app and the TripAdvisor City Guide app that I describe in my Getting Into Paris post. These will help you get around and enable you to stray as far as you like from the beaten path without anxiety. And if your battery runs out just stroll for a bit until you run across a métro station. They all have detailed maps with a red dot labelled « Vous Etes Ici » (You Are Here). While you may have to change lines once or twice there will always be a station within a few blocks of your hotel.
Next, find out what’s happening in Paris. One excellent resource is the City of Paris English web site at this link (and there’s lots more on the French language site). For under a euro you can pick up a copy of Pariscope or l’officiel des spectacles at any newsstand (they come out on Wednesday). The text is in French but you should be able to puzzle out most of the listings even if you don’t read the language. Look in particular for exhibitions at the Grand Palais and Petit Palais.
Last but not least, shift gears. You are no longer checking off “must-see” sights. It is not important that you see the eleventh through twentieth best things in Paris. What you want now is to have some personally rewarding experiences, connecting in one way or other with this big, complex and fascinating city. Slow down, let your blood pressure drop a few points, and look up from your maps! What aspects of the city do you want to explore over these next few days?
Indoor or Outdoor?
The first big question is whether you’ll be exploring outdoors or looking for something under a roof. This obviously depends on weather as well as your own preferences. My one additional observation is that Paris can be lovely in the rain if you have the right gear to keep warm and dry, and you’ll want that gear anyway to get to an indoor destination if it’s raining.
These are just a few suggestions out of a myriad of wonderful indoor options. Do two things in each case on line before you set out: Check the opening days and hours, and see what special exhibitions are on offer.
- Musée d’Orsay
This wonderful museum is on many top-ten lists, but if not it certainly deserves top consideration as your next indoor destination. Buy your tickets on line or at a travel agent to avoid the ticket line, which can be more than an hour long. When you enter go left and take the elevator or escalators up to the fifth floor, to start with the Impressionist masterpieces. There’s plenty more on lower floors but you don’t want to risk getting tired before you reach the top.
- Pompidou Center
The Pompidou is fun to look at since its structural elements and mechanical systems are on the outside, color coded. But it also has a great collection of modern art, an ok collection of contemporary art, and interesting rotating exhibitions. Your ticket also lets you see whatever is going on an the French first floor, opposite the escalators to the main floors. And whatever you do, check out the view from the top floor.
- Musée des Arts et Métiers
If you like machines and technology allow a half-day for this enormous grab-bag of mechanical stuff, ranging from tiny scientific instruments to giant steam engines.
- Musée Carnavalet (closed for renovations until the end of 2019) This is the museum of the history of Paris. It’s also a marvelous grab-bag — of art, furnishings and memorabilia. Like all the City of Paris museums, it’s free, and closed on Mondays. But note that until the end of 2019 collections from the French Revolution, 19th century and the Belle Époque are closed for renovation.
- Opéra Garnier
Strangely, I’ve never taken the tour of this utterly gorgeous building, but friends tell me it’s excellent. (I have been to several performances in the new opera building at Bastille. It’s a great space but you must reserve in the first few days tickets go on sale to get affordable tickets.)
- Catacombs of Paris
These vast underground tunnels are where the bones are stashed when construction work wipes out a cemetery, most notably by Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the mid 19th century. It’s ghoulish but fascinating. I’ve described the experience thusly: Ten minutes of “When do we get to the bones?” Ten minutes of silence. Then half an hour of “When do we get to the end of the bones?”
- Other Museums
There are a hundred museums in Paris! Among those I’ve enjoyed are le Musée Rodin (which needs good weather because at least half the masterpieces are in the extensive gardens), the odd and wonderful le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, the informative Institut du monde arabe (which offers a great view from the roof even if you don’t want to buy a ticket to the museum), the primitive-art-museum-that-dare-not-speak-its-name le musée du quai Branly, one of several house-museums, le Musée Jaquemart-André, the city’s answer to the Pompidou, the Musée d’art moderne, and the adjacent — wild and wooly — contemporary art museum, the Palais de Tokyo (but confirm first that the exhibitions are open). Some are quite obscure, but nearly all will reward your time. How about trying a museum that isn’t in the guidebook, or even in this post?? A full list is at this link.
- People-Watching from a Café
This is one of the most delightful things you can do in Paris. You can do it almost anywhere, but here are some of my favorite spots.
- My favorite street for people watching is rue Montorgueil in the 2e, and my very favorite table is at the LB Café with a view down rue Tiquetonne as well as up and down Montorgueil. You will see all sorts of people, from stylish youths to women pushing baby carriages, to still-elegant retirees. Some foreign tourists — increasing every year — but still mostly French. Order an expensive coffee or kir and nurse it for an hour or two as you take in the passing parade! Then become part of the parade yourself as you stroll up to the top of the street, beyond the arch, to check out the L’Oasis d’Aboukir.
- A close second, though much more touristy, is L’Étoile Manquante on rue Vielle du Temple in the Marais, at the intersection with rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie. Or if you want a stronger gay flavor, the classic Open Café on rue des Archives.
- Another busy and stylish place is Bercy Village, a posh shopping area at the Cour Saint-Émilion métro stop.
- Stroll Along the Promenade Plantée
This is a linear park along the top of a disused railway viaduct – the (earlier) Parisian version of New York’s High Line. Depending on the season it has beautiful flowers, and always offers commanding city views. The elevated portion ends with a pedestrian bridge over the green center of the Jardin de Reuilly, a favorite sunbathing spot. You can plan lunch at le Janissaire, then continue another mile or so along a portion of the tracks that ran through a depressed cut. Or you can window shop your way back to Bastille by dozens of artist studios and art-related stores that have been created in the arches of the viaduct.
- Have a Picnic
There are so many great parks to choose from! A few of my favorites are:
But don’t limit yourself to parks. There are other lovely spots to picnic.
- The banks of the Seine are classic spots for a picnic, especially around or in the vicinity of the two islands at the city’s center. Just go down one of the flights of steps and find your perfect spot.
- Another favorite place to picnic is along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10e. Most charming is the section from rue du Faubourg du Temple (where it emerges from its long tunnel) up to the bend when it turns towards the east.
Everyone seems to have wine or beer with their picnics, except in parks where a sign specifically prohibits alcohol, but the legal picture in theory appears to be quite complex. My thought is that if others are drinking in the same area and you aren’t rowdy you are unlikely to get more than a warning. In particular there doesn’t seem to be an “open container” law like in the U.S., just prohibitions on actually drinking in public.
- Take a Walking Tour
Strangely, I’ve never taken an organized tour, but it should be worthwhile. There are good self-guided walking tours in the TripAdvisor City Guide app mentioned above, and if you speak French and have data on your mobile there are fascinating (albeit uneven) self-guided tours at ParisInconnu.com that I enjoyed in 2014.
- Get Lost on Your Own!
This is my favorite thing to do in Paris. You always find something interesting, especially if you’re willing to divert from your original plan to do down a curious alley or investigate an attractive patch of greenery. Here are some possible areas to try, but don’t let this list limit you. In each case zig-zag through the area, exploring side streets, arcades (passages) and alleys as well as the main street.
- Le Marais, 4e
The lower Marais, the 4e arrondissement, is a classic area for strolling — and getting lost. There are plenty of restaurants and shops, open even on Sunday. The busiest and most touristy area is north of rue de Rivoli but I recommend a quieter stroll also on the other side of rue de Rivoli, including the little pedestrian area called Village Saint-Paul.
- Montorgueil, 2e
This is a nest of narrow pedestrianized streets chock full of shops, restaurants and bars.
- Latin Quarter, 5e and 6e
There are curious walking areas in every direction from the fountain of Saint Michel. Notice the throngs of tourists to the east. Check out the many bookstores downhill from Odéon. Stroll up past the Sorbonne to the Panthéon, then continue down to the charming old market street rue Mouffetard.
- rue de Charonne, 11e
This is a hip and slightly edgy area. Be sure to go up and down the side streets!
- Montmartre, 18e
Lots of tourists, but also lots of fun windy streets. Be sure to explore the north side of the hill as well as the busier south side.
- Passy-Auteuil, 16e
Yes, this is where the rich people live. And indeed there are sterile canyons of wealthy apartments. But some of those buildings are gorgeous, and there are some nice restaurants and bars there if you can put up with locals dripping with money and privilege (and English). Start at with a coffee at posh La Gare, at métro La Muette.
I never worry much about safety in the daytime – you can basically go anywhere within the Peripherique highway (which you can’t cross without noticing!) At night you might want to ask your hotel if you plan to stray far from the touristy zones, but even in the dark much of the city feels quite safe. The type of crime you’re more likely to encounter is a pickpocket or mobile-snatcher on the métro, at a railroad station or in a crowded museum or other tourist area, though kids from the rougher suburbs are reputed to go in for street robberies now and then. There are also scams such as petitions, shell games, gold rings, etc. that you should just ignore. Paris is beefing up its police presence to reduce crime against tourists.
Day Trips Outside of Paris
In the unlikely event that you run out of things to do in Paris proper I am a big fan of the guidebook, An Hour From Paris. I’ve done a dozen day trips from it over my years in Paris, each accessible by train:
Last but not least, Paris is a paradise for food. My own forays have only scratched the surface but you can check out Dining Off (and On) the Beaten Path if you like. The TripAdvisor City Guide has suggestions and reviews. You might also like the The Fork site or app, which allows online reservations and also offers discounts.