Bonjour! Paris is one of the most captivating cities in the world. Whether it’s your first trip or you’re practically a local, Paris still has many treasures to discover. It’s hard to know where to begin because you could literally start anywhere in the city and go from there. That is to say, there’s no “wrong” way to do Paris. Be light, be flexible, and be ready to fall in love.
Paris is arranged into 20 arrondissements spiraling out from the center. The Seine River runs through the city and splits Paris into the Left Bank (south) and the Right Bank (north). Everyone seems to have a loving opinion on their preferred half and their preferred neighborhood. But here’s the truth- you just can’t go wrong in Paris. Whether you become a Metro warrior and cross the city from edge to edge or stay above ground to appreciate the views, you’re going to have a fabulous time. Often the best way to experience Paris is to just wander and take each day as it comes. The architecture is historically significant and oh-so-pretty. There is art everywhere, from statues and monuments to museums of every flavor. The food is amazing, and both the fine dining experience and the cafe-basking people watching styles will be unforgettable. So whether you’re a shopper, photographer, history buff, foodie, or wanderer, Paris will not disappoint.
With such a rich experience waiting, how do you begin? Start one of two ways: decide what arrondissement you want to stay in OR what type of experience you want to have. Definitely read up on the things that are on your “must-do” list. Louvre? There’s an app for that, a hundred blogs and websites, a stop on the tour-bus lines, and information booths on site. If that’s your jive, prioritize it. Same with any other Can’t-Die-Till-I-Do-It bucket list item. In Paris (and all of France), there may be workers’ strikes, unexpected closures or renovations, killer lines of tourists, rain, or any number of reasons why your dream visit won’t work out. If this happens, shout your best “C’est la vie!” and move on to something else fabulous.
Definitely don’t plan more than one must-do per day. You want to stay flexible for those unexpected issues mentioned or the importance of just sitting somewhere beautiful and watching the City of Light (yes, it’s singular! Paris is named for the Enlightenment and because she was one of the first European cities to have street lights) happen all around you.
Now, download all the touristy apps on your phone (check to ensure they work offline unless you know you’ll have connectivity). Don’t forget the official RATP app so you can navigate the Metro like a local. Finally, choose a hotel wisely. Any tourist can stay at a name-brand hotel- but the “feeling Parisian” sentiment comes when you stay in a European-style hotel. Get ready- they’re small, cozy, and may be overflowing with charm (think: not enough electrical outlets, older, well-worn, but full of love). A few* that are tested and true:
Hotel Palais de Chaillot in the 16th arrondissement*
Hotel Belfast Paris in the 8th*
Hotel Paris-Friedland in the 8th*
Madison Hotel in the 6th*
Hotel Francois 1er Paris in the 8th*
Les Jardins du Marais in the 3rd*
* Note: none of these hotels are affiliated with this website, article, or the author
Check your nearest Metro stop or landmark so you can easily navigate to and from your Paris “home” every day. Then venture out to explore. Take it slowly in Paris. It’s much better to do less than more. Let Paris absorb you. But if you MUST follow an itinerary, here are a few suggestions.
This is the best feeling! Your first time in Paris is magical. Start right in the heart of the city: Arrondissement 1 on Île de la Cité. Take in Notre Dame. It’s free to go in and walk around (although the lines may be long). You can also buy tickets to walk up to the top. Afterwards, walk around the island a bit to see the Palais de Justice and St. Chapelle (arguably the most beautiful church in Paris…if you can find it!) Enjoy the views of the city from La Seine. Walk over to Île Saint-Louis and enjoy lunch at Sorza.
After lunch, head back onto île de la Cité where you can take the Metro line 4 towards Montrouge from from “Cité” to “Odeon”. This is classic Left Bank Paris.
Now that you’re in the 6th arrondissement (Saint-Germain), the first stop is Maison Georges Larnicol. You’ll need some heavy Parisian pastries to truly experience the love of sweets- not just the confections but the pride of design in everything the French do. Don’t eat them now! Take some treats for later.
Now for a little surprise. One of Paris’ secret passageways is right there. Cour du Commerce Saint-André is a historical area with cobblestone streets, delightful restaurants, and, because you need more chocolate, a tea and premium pâtisserie boutique called Un Dimanche à Paris (a Sunday in Paris). Walk up and down the alley but come right back towards Georges Larnicol.
Now walk west up Boulevard Saint Germain. You’ll pass a breathtaking Romanesque (Baroque + Gothic) church on your right. The Église de Saint Germain des Prés is the oldest church in Paris and is where the Merovingian kings from the 6th century were laid to rest. Across the block is Les Deux Magots, and one block farther is Café de Flore. Choose one. Sit for a couple of hours. You are a celebrity. You are one of the lost generation of the 1920’s. You are a fashion icon. You are Wilde. Joyce. Hemingway. Sartre. Saint-Exupéry. You are today’s international celebrities, heads of state, and tastemakers. You haven’t a care in the world. There is nothing more Parisian than this.
Well rested, you can now walk north toward the Seine. Take pictures of the sunset from all angles. Find your favorite bridge to cross over to the Right Bank. You can have a lovely evening stroll through the grounds of the Louvre (or stop in to see the Mona Lisa), wander through the Tuileries gardens (unfortunately the Musée de l’Orangerie closes at 6, so come back during the day or visit Monet’s Water Lilies virtually), stop in to Angelina for the world’s best hot chocolate, or spin through Place de la Concorde for some amazing photos. Eat dinner anywhere, outside or in, and stroll along the Seine at night.
Of course you’ll start at the cute cafe close to your hotel and have the regular French breakfast: a croissant, jam and butter, orange juice, and coffee. You’re sitting outside or by a window, maps in hand, scrolling through yesterday’s photos. Hopefully you bought a fist full of postcards at a newsstand and can begin writing little notes to all your loved ones.
The city starts coming to life around 9am when parents are walking their children to school, businesspeople start commuting to work, and the bakery lines are well formed. The morning sun starts soft and brightens quickly.
Having never been to Paris, suck up your pride and take a city bus tour. They last a couple of hours and see all the sights. You got in a good feeling for the city on Day 1 and have your bearings, but you really do need to see all the postcard-worthy sights. Just enjoy the ride and mark your map for the things you want to come back and explore later. It will be worth it to sit for a bit, get the bullet-point history of the major landmarks, and say you’ve seen it all.
Depending on where you’re staying (or finishing a tour), the following sights are your must do adventures, in no particular order. Mix and match according to the weather, your mood, your location, and your whims.
The Arc de Triomphe is in the 8th arrondissement. The Arc was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 and has been a significant landmark to celebrate military and cultural events beginning with the Battle of Austerlitz. Kings, presidents, and world leaders have stood atop the monument to launch parades, victories, and speeches. The Nazis flew their flag here during the occupation in the 1940s. The Bastille Day parade starts here. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies underneath. And 12 roads emerge from the base, explaining the name Place de l’Étoile (star), although the location is now called Place de Charles de Gaulle. You must see the city from the top to appreciate the Champs Élysées from above.
The Champs Élysées begins at the Arc de Triomphe and stretches eastward through the 8th for 2 km. It’s a beautiful walk for window shopping, people watching, eating, and taking photos. It was built for kings and nobility, but many people now lament the accessibility for the every-person. There are a lot of tourists so you would do well to do the walk early in the day or before an early dinner.
The east end of the Champs Élysées is Place de la Concorde. This is arguably one of the most photogenic locations in Paris, and you will often find wedding parties and other professional photo shoots taking place.
About half way down the Champs Élysées you can take Avenue Winston Churchill south. Don’t miss visiting either the Grand Palais (the amazing exhibition hall of Paris) or the Petit Palais (the museum of fine arts). The exhibits rotate and never fail to impress. If you miss Paris Fashion Week or Le Saut Hermès (to call this a horse show would be highly insulting- to everyone) then stop in for an hour to see the science museum or whatever show is happening. You won’t be disappointed.
Just north of the Champs Élysées is Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Be sure to put on your best, even to window shop, because you’d hate to run into the glitterati looking like a tourist. You’ll definitely want to take this walk because the shops are gorgeous and it is Paris fashion, after all.
If you’re more of a “wonderful neighborhoods and shops” kind of person than the high fashion shopping in the 8th arrondissement type, head directly to the 3rd and 4th arrondissement, together called Le Marais. There’s no right or wrong way to do Le Marais. Wander. Stop in the Picasso museum. Eat lunch or dinner in Place des Vosges while you look out onto the park where Victor Hugo lived. Visit dozens of funky art galleries. Shop for truly unique and quintessentially French clothes, accessories, and beauty items. Find jewelry. Drink. Enjoy. For many, Le Marais IS Paris.
The 11th arrondissement, Bastille, is just east of Le Marais. Yes, THAT Bastille. Site of political revolution, protest, and expression of all kinds. From the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the nearby Bataclan nightclub bombing in 2015 to today’s Yellow Vest protests, you have to see Place de la Bastille, but please use caution. Besides being one of the highest pickpocket cities in the world, Paris is also a city worthy of caution for crime, protest, workers’ strikes, and other dangers of major world cities. Be smart about your surroundings, but be observant of the important history surrounding such places like Bastille. There are delectable places to eat in the 11th, an opera house, and of course, Canal Saint-Martin, where you can relive your favorite moments from Amélie.
Enough of the Right Bank for now. Head south to the 5th arrondissement (the Latin Quarter). The 5th is a stunning area of brick buildings, winding cobblestone streets, stone edifices, and absolute must-see places. Possibly the coolest and erudite area of Paris, the Latin Quarter is home to La Sorbonne (have coffee and statue-gaze if you didn’t plan an official visit). Lovingly pick out a half-dozen vegan pastries and take them to sit in Jardin des Plantes after you tour the botanical gardens. Do double-garden duty (as if you needed more steps in your count today!) and walk through Le Jardin du Luxembourgbecause as THE most stunning garden in Paris, THIS is the place where you’ll finally feel Parisian. Don’t forget your picnic lunch or sunset champagne, book, the good camera, and a blanket. The icon of the Latin Quarter is the Pantheon. This neo-classic domed church is dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. No longer a church, it’s an open-air museum with breathtaking ceilings, giant muraled walls, columns, and crypts. The Foucault Pendulum is mesmerizing. Then descend below to visit the tombs of Marie and Pierre Curie, not to mention Voltaire, Zola, Braille, Hugo, Saint-Exupéry, Dumas, and dozens of other important figures of history, science, politics, and knowledge. Finally reward yourself with a treat at Odette(champagne and cream puffs to die for) and trot right around the corner to visit the iconic Shakespeare and Company for book admiration and café appreciation.
Saint-Germain (6th arrondissement) was highlighted on Day 1, but this time stroll the streets at night. The area comes alive with outdoor musicians, shops and restaurants flowing out onto the patios and streets, and well-lit alleyways full of chatter and couples holding hands. It’s clean, safe, and sparkly. Try the Paris-Prague Jazz Club, have a glass of wine at La Grande Crèmerie, or a cocktail at Café Laurent.
If you should find yourself in the 14th arrondissement (Montparnasse), you’re doing one of two things: you’re visiting Montparnasse Tower for a better-than-the-Eiffel-Tower view of Paris (because the Eiffel Tower is IN the view) or you’re tracing the bars Ernest Hemingway frequented. So while you’re there, visit the Catacombs and awe at the six million people whose remains rest in plain sight. Do read up on the cemetery history of Paris, the stone mining that built the city, and the current-day events that take place in this macabre location.
Ah, the 7th arrondissement! Known simply as “The Seventh,” it’s the home of the beloved Tour Eiffel. So naturally this will be on your must-do list. Check the opening hours. Check the weather. Check to see if there’s construction or a strike that day (and even if nothing’s planned or posted, it may still close without warning). There is security to go through if you’re entering the tower to go to the top or to eat at the tower. While the Jules Verne is a three-star Michelin restaurant, it’s more appropriate for a Tom-proposing-to-Katie type of event. The 58 Tour Eiffel is lovely. The 360 degree views are something you’ll remember forever. Start with champagne and try the filet of sea bass. Both are melty. In the 7th you can also visit Napoleon at Les Invalides and The Thinker at Le Musée Rodin.
You can’t miss out on the eastern part of the 16th arrondissement. This area is full of international diplomats, some of the most expensive housing in Paris, and the best café dining in the city. The cafés surrounding Victor Hugo Circle are delicious, but start with the red-awninged Le Victor Hugo. If you’re there in the morning, stand in line for fresh bread at A La Petite Marquise on the other side of the Circle. The croissants there are the BEST in all of Paris. Walk northeast on Avenue Victor Hugo for a view of the Arc de Triomphe or south on Avenue Raymond Poincaré to the Trocodéro. This is the sprawling plaza where you can get that iconic shot of the Tour Eiffel. Place du Trocodéro has several museums, statues, and cafés. Café du Trocodéro has the best views of the Tour Eiffel and the best salad Niçoise, Café Kleber has a salmon to die for, and Le Wilson has a huge glass patio in case the temperatures aren’t cooperating.
Finally, take Metro Line 2 (blue) to Anvers station in the 18th arrondissement (Montmartre) and walk north to Le Sacré Cœur. The views of the city are amazing, but be careful of the aggressive street vendors and pickpockets. There is a carousel, plenty of souvenir shops, street performers, artists set up with easels, and plenty of space to sit and enjoy the day. Take the funicular to the top of the hill or climb the iconic white stairs. Take a quiet walk through the basilica and then walk west through the neighborhood to enjoy the artists and cafés. There’s plenty to do, but it’s a bit out of the way from the easily walkable 1st-11th (plus 16th!) arrondissements. Montmartre is also home to the Moulin Rouge and other nightclubs, but please be cautious, because not all streets and neighborhoods around the Metro stops Pigalle and Blanche should be traveled late at night or alone. Have a plan and stick to it if you choose a more ambitious itinerary.
Paris has so much to do that there’s no way to see it all in 3 days or a week. Pick out a few things that are really important to you right now and travel slowly to enjoy all the experiences in the moment. Then plan another trip to savor a different flavor of the city. It will be different and magical in every season and on every visit. You can’t go wrong- follow your heart. And remember, we’ll always have Paris.