For your first visit you need no less than 5 days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace. Allow an extra day for visiting Versailles.
Distances between major sights are longer than in many other European cities. You will need to use the excellent Metropolitain more than occasionally.
Love its café culture, the people-watching, the romantic feeling it fills you with.
Don’t miss: Viewing Eiffel Tower from Trocadero; taking a Seine boat ride; relaxing in the shade in Jardin du Luxembourg; taking a stroll through a market.
On the other hand: Architecture of the city center is too uniform (six-story apartment buildings everywhere) to be remarkable.
Worthy attractions: Eiffel Tower; Notre-Dame; Sainte-Chapelle; Louvre; Arc de Triomphe; Musée d’Orsay (especially its impressionists collection); Musée de l’Orangerie (especially Monet’s Les Nymphéas); Monmartre with Sacré-Coeur and the painters’ market; Panthéon; Opéra Garnier; Musée Carnavalet; Conciergerie; Musée Rodin; Hôtel des Invalides; La Défense; Jardin des Tuileries; Jardin du Luxembourg; a number of churches.
Recommended day trips: Versailles; Giverny.
Left for another visit: Musée de Cluny; Petit Palais; Musée Picasso.
Wise to skip: Cabaret Lido.
Last visit: June 2018.
If I had to choose one single city to go to for the rest of my life, it would be Paris.
I have never called it beautiful. Many standout features aside, its planned architecture of the mid-19th century sometimes feels too monotonous. But walking Parisian streets has always been an enthralling experience for me.
And walking those sidewalks is all you need to feel romantic and at home in this wonderful city.
Things to See
In fact, if all I could do was aimlessly wander the streets and endlessly linger in sidewalk cafés, I would still be happy in Paris. But obviously, as one of world’s culture capitals, the city has a lot of sightseeing and recreation to offer. What follows are very brief notes on major attractions.
First of all, there are several locations that you would want to find yourself on foot on at least once while in Paris. They include both park-like and over-commercialized and overcrowded Avenue des Champs-Elysées ♥♥♥; grandiose Place de la Concorde ♥♥♥; elegant Place Vendôme ♥♥♥; exuberantly beautiful Pont Alexandre III ♥♥♥; lively and architecturally homogeneous Boulevard St-Germain ♥♥♥; homely Ile-St-Louis ♥♥♥.
Among the central neighborhoods, festive Latin Quarter ♥♥♥ is as vibrant as they come; historic Marais ♥♥♥ is home to dozens of hôtels particulier, each impressive in its own way, and hundreds of specialty shops that open and close later in the day than in many other areas in Paris.
You will surely not miss walking through Jardin des Tuileries ♥♥♥, but for my taste, Jardin du Luxembourg ♥♥♥ is even better; it also has an exceptional playground for children (the only one we know that you have to pay to enter); sending the kids in, procuring a couple of chairs and idly spending an hour or more in the shade is priceless. Champ-de-Mars ♥ may be a slight notch below, but having a relaxed moment in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower – yet far enough to be away from its crowds – is not bad either.
There are many inviting leafy squares that further facilitate unhurried enjoyment of beautiful architecture and cheerful atmosphere, of which I am particularly fond of Place des Vosges ♥♥♥ and Palais Royal courtyard ♥♥♥.
Eiffel Tower ♥♥♥ famously cannot be avoided, and looking out on it from Trocadero (especially after the fall of darkness, when each hour on the hour it sparkles with thousands of strobe-lights for a few minutes) will leave you awed regardless of whether you generally think it a marvel or an annoying piece of showmanship. The tower can be a tourist trap, with unending lines for tickets, but going in the early evening normally makes it palatable. The views are gorgeous, although what I most vividly remember from the top level is having hard time trying to locate Sacré-Coeur below (which appeared rather prominent from lower levels); the top platform may be just too high for truly discernible appreciation of sights below. But the middle level is perfect – we once came there right before sunset and stayed for a couple of hours, watching lights come to life all over the city.
Notre-Dame ♥♥♥ is truly monumental and striking, both inside and out. We never climbed its towers, but we hear it’s a good vantage point. We also chanced upon a couple of services, accompanied by organ music. The night-time lighting of the cathedral is sublime.
Sainte-Chapelle ♥♥♥ is simply ethereal, with its fifteen magnificent stained-glass windows in the upper chapel. We chanced by an excellent English tour given by the same ebullient lady on a couple of different occasions. You don’t need a tour to enjoy this magical church, but I still recommend that you join the tour if you come by it.
Another of the main attractions on Ile de la Cité, Conciergerie ♥, is a famous prison, where many of guillotine victims were held prior to execution.
Louvre ♥♥♥ can take a long time to get into, so if you plan to spend a lot of time there, then definitely come very early, but if you set aside only a couple of hours for it, then around 3pm is the best time to go. The museum is deserving of its fame as one of the grandest art galleries in the world. Even if your goal is just to see Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo (both of which draw inordinate crowds), you will still have a chance to appreciate the vast collection of the museum, since getting from one highlight to another involves kilometers of walking.
The Louvre complex itself is majestic and architecturally imposing, although modern glass pyramids are certainly incongruous. Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel ♥♥♥ that faces the palace at the edge of Tuileries is a resplendent rose-marble structure, crowned by bronze and gilded statues.
The real Arc de Triomphe ♥♥♥ sits on the exact straight line from the Louvre entry, through Arc du Carrousel and the main Tuileries alley, across Place de la Concorde and along Champs-Elysées. It is a remarkable structure of its own, and provides great views of the city from its top.
The complex of Hôtel des Invalides ♥♥ holds several attractions, including Musée de l’Armée ♥ and the Dôme Church ♥, the resting place of Napoleon’s tomb.
Of many art museums in Paris, Musée d’Orsay ♥♥♥, located in a former train station, is one of the most famous, especially for its unrivaled collection of French impressionists.
Musée de l’Orangerie ♥♥ is worth a visit just for Monet’s Les Nymphéas, eight mesmerising takes on garden pond theme that each take a wall in two large oval-shaped rooms. If Impressionist art appeals to you in general, you’ll find it very hard to leave these two rooms. On a lower level, there is a nice, if not exactly outstanding, collection of Renoir, Cézanne, and other masters.
Musée Rodin ♥ is among the most impressive museums in the world dedicated to a single artist, but your appreciation of it will definitely be in proportion to how much you enjoy sculpture art in general. There are many of Rodin’s works in the gallery and a few in the gardens, including the most famous of them all, The Thinker. Some paintings by Rodin are presented as well.
Musée Carnavalet ♥, spread across two stately mansions, tells the history of Paris through mostly paintings and furnished rooms. There are some impressively adorned rooms, as well as beautiful landscapes by lesser-known artists. In addition, a whole section is devoted to the French Revolution and another to origins of the city. Unlike most of the other museums in Paris, the entry is free.
Several grand buildings in the city are definitely worth a look and also a visit. First and foremost among them is Opéra Garnier ♥♥♥, which could be hard to get into on account of rehearsals and special events. If you do get in, you will discover an opulent entertainment venue, with the Grand Staircase and the Promenade Hall to rival any palace’s, and the Auditorium topped with Chagall’s frescoes.
Even if you are not a shopper, Galeries Lafayette ♥ could be worth a look, with its gilded atrium decorated with mosaics. The roof of the megastore provides fine views over the city, partially blocked by the Opéra Garnier.
Panthéon ♥♥♥ awes by its vast bright space, decorated with historically-themed frescoes. In the middle under the dome swings the fascinating Pendule de Foucault. In the crypt, there are dozens of stately tombs of famous Frenchmen, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Dumas, Hugo, and others.
There are many interesting churches around the city center, of which we visited La Madeleine ♥, St-Germain-des-Prés ♥, St-Sulpice ♥, St-Paul ♥♥. Nestling behind Panthéon, St-Etienne-du-Mont ♥♥ is fairly unique in its architectural decisions, both on the exterior and the interior. Among others that we have only seen from the outside are St-Eustache, St-Augustine and St-Séverin.
At St-Sulpice on Sundays, there are ogran music performances ♥ that start around 10:15. The organ then accompanies the Sunday morning service which commences at 10:30. If your beliefs prevent you from staying through the worship, you can at least take in the musical prelude.
You do not need to go into a church for a free music performance. Walking around Parisian parks and squares, you will likely chance upon an air orchestra more than once.
We checked out Centre Georges Pompidou only a little. Impressively nonconformist with industrial themes on the outside, it contains several museums and galleries, two cinemas and a large library. Museums are mostly about modern art, which we are not overly interested in, so we skipped a detailed exploration. Without buying tickets for an exposition, you are limited to the central atrium, with its couple of shops. Spacious, but not extraordinary. Riding on escalators or elevators located on the “outside” of the building is limited to those with tickets to a museum, so we did not get a chance to experience that either. We were also told that the rooftop terrace has great views, but that remains to be validated in person.
We did not fit into our itineraries the visits to some other museums in Paris, at best only walking by them (most of the buildings housing them are architectural gems in their own right). Depending on your own preferences, you may find one of them a top spot, and they are certainly on the short list of places that we might call on in the future: Musée de Cluny, Petit Palais, Musée Picasso.
Monmartre ♥♥♥ always attracts throngs of visitors, and it is certainly a cool place to visit. Basilique du Sacré-Coeur ♥♥♥ is nothing short of dazzling, although less so on the inside. The bohemian upper quarter is a big tourist trap (I find pushy artists who offer to draw what often comes out as unrecognizable version of you especially deplorable), but the open air art market on the main square is delightful (you can observe many of the painters at work) if hard to navigate during the main tourist crash hours, and the little streets are appealing to stroll around once you get away from the central congestion.
The lower part of the Monmartre area is a bustling bazaar of shops and boutiques. One pocket of it, along and around Rue des Martyrs ♥♥ is one of our favorite areas in Paris, a sort of a village inside the big city that we could see ourselves living in. Near the top of the street, check out St-Jean-en-Monmartre ♥ – an unusual young church with great mosaics and decorations.
The relatively new business center of La Défense ♥♥ duly impressed us with architectural imagination and splendor. We tend to stay away from glass-and-steel jungles of modern financial centers on our travels, but we’ve seen enough of those in America (and I worked for a while at one of such centers in London). Nowhere in these areas have we seen the spaciousness and the originality of the architecture such as at La Défense. For one, the Grande Arche, on close inspection, turns out to be an office building rather than a purely celebratory edifice. And while the grandest, it is certainly not the only interesting building in the district.
If you like toy stores, you will undoubtedly enjoy browsing Au Nain Bleu ♥, Parisian answer to New York City’s FAO Schwarz. It used to occupy a corner on chic Rue St-Honoré (which is where we visited it) since 1911, but now relocated to Blvd Malesherbes, in a very different area of the town.
We always prefer exploration on our own, but one organized activity is a must in Paris – a boat tour ♥♥♥ on the Seine. There are several boating companies, the most well-known of which is Bateaux-Mouches. We prefer less crowded Vedettes du Pont-Neuf, and we love taking the ride after the sunset, when major landmarks along the river edges are beautifully lighted. The narration on these tours tends to be canned and sketchy, but after a couple of rides I learned to basically tune it out and simply enjoy the sights. (On our last trip, though, we ended up on a smaller boat, with no seats available on the open-air upper deck and very little standing room. The ride was still enjoyable, but a bit less so. Be careful when you are ready to board. It may make sense to wait for the next departure, in 20-30 minutes.)
There are many morning and weekend markets found in various parts of town. Venturing through one allows you to imagine yourself as a true Parisian like nothing else. Among the most famous and picturesque markets is the one on the pedestrian Rue Montorgueil ♥♥.
In Christmastime, the best seasonal market in town is located in front of the Grande Arche at La Défense.
The books and souvenir sellers’ boxes along the Seine quays is an interesting browsing experience.
Going to a cabaret may be a renowned Parisian pursuit, but our one visit to Lido (back in 2002) was underwhelming. We booked a combination meal/show, and the food was probably the most disappointing of all that we had in France, and not cheap either. The show was mildly curious, with elements of circus artistry, but mostly consists of scantily-clad and topless women performing complicated marching maneuvers on stage. Maybe we’ll try Moulin Rouge one day…
Parisian Métropolitain is the only mode of transportation that you ever need in the French capital, as practically every sight and area is within easy walking distance from a station (the only exception being the Marais area). In fact, on some lines in the city center, the stations are spaced within practically one length of the train from one another.
The trains and stations are a bit on the older, run-down side, but the service is reasonably frequent. Escalators are rare, stairs a lot more prevalent. The tracks are built according to “each line has its own set” principle, which often means lengthy walks between connecting stations. The signage, compared to London, is scarce; one has to exercise extra care to get to the right platform/exit.
Access control is probably the most stringent of all subway systems: You have to go through a turn-style and a swinging full-height barrier in order to get in. Tickets are inserted into a slot and then retrieved to obtain passage; they occasionally malfunction, necessitating an assistance appeal to the ticketing agent (there are no dedicated agents by the turn-styles).
Carnet, 10-ticket pack, remains the best bargain at €15 (half of that for children). Individual rides are considerably more expensive per.
There is also fast commuter-train network, RER, that accepts the same tickets within central Paris. It is useful for traveling to some destinations, such as Tour Eiffel and Musée d’Orsay.
Places to Eat
Popular wisdom holds that it is hard to go wrong with a restaurant selection in Paris. The service can be occasional spotty – or demonstratively rude – but the variety of choice is such that you have an excellent chance of picking an eatery at random and leaving it a couple of hours later with positive impressions. (Note: As of summer 2007, smoking is prohibited in French restaurants; however, smoking culture is still so pervasive that a table outdoors – or near enough – gives you a fair chance of inhaling somebody’s fumes with your meal.)
Over the years, we’ve eaten at dozens of Paris eateries. Here are a few that left the most lasting impressions.
Restaurant Le Petit Pontoise ♥♥♥, Rue Pontoise near Quai de la Tournelle, is among our favorite restaurants in the world – we have now been here 4 times over the course of 16 years.
A great experience! It is a small place, about 15 tables. Menus used to be presented only on chalkboards around the dining area (for those who had trouble pronouncing French words, you could just point), but the owners must have caved in to the clientele pressure in recent years and now produce folios in two languages. The food is simply fantastic, the wine selection is pretty sophisticated, the dessert is out of this world. On our most recent visit, we enjoyed crayfish with stringbeans, au gratin ravioli, quail, and duck parmentiere. Our damage: €123 for two, including one bottle of wine.
It is essential to reserve – on all occasions we have seen people turned away because there were no tables. It should also be noted that when the place completely fills up, the service gets a bit hectic. Not unpleasant in any way, but visibly hurried. Last visit: 2018.
Restaurant Le Florimond ♥♥♥ on Avenue de la Motte-Picquet near Ecole Militaire. Excellent staff, with a smile and a joke. Excellent menu, and there are always several specials presented on a blackboard. Pick a la carte, or have three courses for €40. Charcuterie for the starter should be shared between two people – it’s too much food for one. For the main course, we tried codfish and confit de canard. Loved it. Damage: €135 for two, with a bottle of wine. Last visit: 2018.
Restaurant Roger La Grenouille ♥♥ on Rue des Grands Augustins in Saint-Germain. As the name suggests, frogs are the specialty. We tried ravioli with frog legs – not bad. Also had tartare of swordfish, beef bourgignon, and pork entrecôte. Nice atmosphere, friendly staff, excellent food. All a la carte. Damage: €125 for two, with a carafe of wine. Last visit: 2018.
Not precisely a meal recommendation, but Café Laurent ♥♥ at Hôtel d’Aubusson on Rue Dauphine in St-Germain offers live jazz music 5 nights a week. An excellent place for a few drinks with music.
Restaurant Le Procope ♥, billed as the oldest in Paris (est. 1686), on Rue Ancienne Comédie half a block from Métro Odéon. Tasty, but not cheap. We had a very energetic waiter, yet the service was excruciatingly slow. Our damage: €170 for a party of three with, undoubtedly, some wine. Last visit: Spring 2005.
Restaurant La Taverne ♥, Boulevard des Italiennes. Fanciful exterior and interior, pleasant atmosphere, piano, upscale service and reputedly big-time chef. Wine list is impressive, many of the selections are presented in an attractive way (large shellfish combos looked very nice, for instance), but we did not find the food itself especially remarkable. Our damage: €130 for a meal for four, including one bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2007.
Restaurant Le Poulbot ♥♥♥, Rue Poulbot, Monmartre. Another repeat favorite. A tiny place: Dozen tables, very close to one another. We once lucked into going in at the beginning of lunch rush; very soon, there was a line of people outside waiting for tables to free up. Next time around, we reserved.
Family-run atmosphere. Great food. The simple combination of soup a l’oignon and boeuf bourguignon is excellent. Salade Niçoise is huge. Prix-fixe menu (appetizer, main course, dessert) is €15.50. Our lunch damage for three such menus, plus three separate appetizers and other incidentals was €93. Last visit: Spring 2008.
Restaurant La Petite Cour ♥♥, Rue Mabillon, near St Sulpice, is located on the sub-street level with a garden. The service is professional and effective. Except for soupe d’asperges, which was just ok, everything that we ordered was delicious. We tried two types of veal dishes, one goat meat dish and the seabass with black caviar and ratatouille. One of the appetizers was a quaint duck sausage. For dessert, a selection of sorbets and crème brûlée. Prix-fixe menu is €37. We had three such menus, one separate main course, four apéritifs, plus some wine, for a total damage of €203.
Our enjoyment was somewhat diminished by a party of Italians who smoked at a table in the garden. The smoke was drifting into the main dining room throughout our meal. Last visit: Spring 2008.
Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor ♥, on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, a few blocks from Métro Odéon, is recommended by guidebooks. A place where some famous customers dined in the past, it offers cuisine familiale in a loud, communal setting. Tables are positioned in several rows, so you sit next to strangers. Quick but impersonal service. Food is fine, but not spectacular as some guidebooks would have you believe. Credit cards were not accepted at the time of our visit. Our damage: €70 for a party of three with, likely, some wine. Last visit: Spring 2005.
Restaurant L’Insulaire ♥, on Rue Gregoire des Tours, not couple of hundred meters from Métro Odéon, was a recommendation from Fodor’s. A tiny place, no more than twenty seats, with several tables set in a row, so that the patrons sit elbow-to-elbow. To some people the arrangement may feel too communal. Very friendly service and good food. Excellent Bordeaux for a house wine. True Provençal soupe de poisson. For main dishes, we had a nice entrecôte and no less nice côtes d’agneau. The desserts were uninspiring, though. Three-course prix-fixe menu at €17 (and there is also a virtually indistinguishable one at €19). Our damage with a bottle of wine: €55. Last visit: Fall 2008.
Another travel forum recommendation, L’Ebouillante ♥♥, on pedestrian Rue des Barres behind Eglise St-Gervais-et-St-Protais not far from Hôtel de Ville, is more of a lunch place, although I have no doubt that they serve dinner as well. Small dining rooms on two floors – the upper floor seemingly more pleasant. Most of the patrons appeared to be Parisians, rather than tourists. The house specialty is Les Bricks – a hard-crust crépe stuffed with various ingredients, of which there are 13 combinations. I had #3, which included, among others, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and paprika. There are also various tartes and omelettes to be had. Our damage, with a dessert and a bottle of wine: €55. Last visit: Fall 2008.
Restaurant Chez Gramond ♥ on Rue Fleurus a block away from Jardin du Luxembourg. Small place, not inexpensive, but very traditional-looking, with good food. Exceedingly friendly owners. Our damage: €70 for a party of three for lunch. Last visit: Spring 2005.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Paris is a vast city, so no single location will be within walking distance to every single point of interest, but 1st, 2nd, 6th, or 7th arrondisements are the most central. Extensive métro network puts practically every sight within a few blocks from the nearest station.
Only a couple of hotels from our many stays in Paris merit a mention in recommendation sense.
Hôtel des Grandes Écoles ♥♥ is located on Ste-Geneviève hill in what is considered the heart of the Latin Quarter. The location is truly fantastic for the essentially Parisian pursuits of people-watching and culinary explorations – there are literally dozens of international-variety restaurants within a few hundred meters from the hotel, – but is somewhat on the fringes of the must-see sightseeing circuit. Panthéon is nearby and both Jardin du Luxembourg and Ile de la Cité are not very far, but many other sites are not within easy walking distance. The métro station, Cardinal Lemoine, is less than five minutes away.
The hotel building sits in a pleasant garden well back from a quiet street. The garden is ideal for having breakfast on a nice sunny morning – or you can choose to have it in the dining room. Breakfast is adequately Parisian and costs €8 per person (we opted for getting our morning meals at a local boulangerie).
Many of the guests also used the garden as the hybrid picnic area/dining room for an afternoon light meal, often with wine.
The rooms are slightly more spacious that what we’ve seen in other hotels in Paris, but also a bit dated as far as decor and utilities are concerned. Our two rooms on the upper floor, #323 and #328, were very quiet and homely. #328 was slightly larger, with a sitting area, a bidet in the bathroom, and appeared brighter on the account of facing the sunny side. Last stay: 2008.
Hôtel Prince Albert ♥♥, on Rue Saint Hyacinthe, is two blocks away from Métro Tuileries. Geographically, this location is probably as central as they come in terms of exploring the city. The little street, nonetheless, is very quiet. Our room (#236) was of reasonable size and could even accommodate a slightly bigger bed than the barely double one. The carpet, the furniture, the utilities all look like they require some updating, but everything is very clean and functional. Including a bidet, which is a rarity at two-star establishments. The elevator is tiny, but the staircase is comparatively wide. Unexceptional, but normal by Parisian standards, breakfast at €7 per person. Multi-level underground parking, Marché-St-Honoré, is one block away (€25 a day). Last stay: 2008.