If I had to choose one single city to go to for the rest of my life, it would be Paris. Walking its streets has always been an enthralling experience for me.
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. Some people may complain about its somewhat monotonous architecture stemming from the famous 19th-century rebuilding led by Baron Hausmann, but pay attention to details – balconies, doors, adornments – and the uniform-height buildings will look all the more fascinating. Plus, standouts – churches, palaces, mansions, etc – pop up on many corners. And, obviously, as one of the world’s cultural capitals, the city has a lot of sightseeing and recreation to offer.
First of all, there are several locations where you would want to find yourself on foot 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 ♥♥♥ (which will improve even further if the rumors about restricting its vehicular traffic are true); 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 ♥♥♥ and Jardin du Luxembourg ♥♥♥. The latter 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 the 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) is bound to leave you in awe 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 a hard time trying to locate Sacré-Coeur (which appeared rather prominent from lower levels); the top platform may be just too high for the truly discernible appreciation of the 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. You don’t need a tour to enjoy this magical church, but I still recommend that you join one if you come by it.
Another of the main attractions on Ile de la Cité, Conciergerie ♥, is a famous prison, where many 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 3 pm 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 the 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 non-trivial walking distances.
The Louvre complex itself is majestic and architecturally imposing, although glass pyramids erected in the 1980s are somewhat incongruous. Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel ♥♥♥ faces the palace at the edge of Tuileries, a resplendent rose-marble structure crowned by bronze and gilded statues.
The “main” 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 Cathédrale Saint-Louis-des-Invalides ♥, where Napoleon’s tomb is located.
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 mesmerizing takes on the garden pond theme that each take a wall in two large oval-shaped rooms. Whether or not 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 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 here 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, 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, such as 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 should be worth stepping in are St-Eustache, St-Augustine, and St-Séverin. At St-Sulpice on Sundays, there are organ 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 actually do not need to go to a church for a free music performance. Walking around Parisian parks and squares, you will likely chance upon an air orchestra more than once.
Centre Georges Pompidou is certainly worth checking out, being such an uncommon structure. 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. Without buying tickets for an exposition, you are limited to the central atrium, with its couple of shops. 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. We were also told that the rooftop terrace has great views, but that remains to be validated in person.
The number of interesting museums in Paris is simply staggering. Having been to the city on many occasions, we still did not fit all of them into our itineraries, 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. Among the ones awaiting our visit are: Musée de Cluny, Grand Palais, Petit Palais, Musée Picasso, Musée Marmottan, and dozens of smaller institutions.
Montmartre ♥♥♥ 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 an unrecognizable version of you, especially annoying), 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 Montmartre 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.
At Christmastime, the best seasonal market in town is located in front of the Grande Arche at La Défense.
In Montparnasse, the standout tower – another edifice that is a bit of a sore – has reputedly excellent views over the city from a different angle from its top.
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 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.
The books and souvenir sellers’ boxes along the Seine quays may offer 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 consisted 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, and stairs are a lot more prevalent. The tracks are built according to the “each line has its own set” principle, which often means non-trivial walks between connecting stations. The signage is not as extensive as, say, in London; 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, the 10-ticket pack, remains the best bargain; Individual rides are considerably more expensive per.
There is also a 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.
It is hard to go wrong with a restaurant selection in Paris. The service can be occasionally spotty – or demonstratively rude – but the variety of choices 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.)
Restaurant Le Petit Pontoise (on Rue Pontoise near Quai de la Tournelle) is one of the two restaurants in the world to which we returned on at least three occasions after our first meal there (the other one is in Tuscany). It is a small place, with 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 to the foreign clientele pressure in recent years and now produce folios in two languages. The food is simply fantastic. It is essential to reserve – on all occasions we have seen people turned away because there were no tables.
Other places worthy of recommendation are: Le Florimond (on Avenue de la Motte-Picquet near Ecole Militaire), with excellent staff, excellent food, and generous portions; Roger La Grenouille (on Rue des Grands Augustins in Saint-Germain), whose name betrays that frogs are the specialty – but you can certainly pick other great choices from the menu; Le Poulbot (on Rue Poulbot, Montmartre), another repeat favorite, a tiny place with a family-run atmosphere and great simple food; L’Ebouillante (on pedestrian Rue des Barres behind Eglise St-Gervais-et-St-Protais not far from Hôtel de Ville), more of a brunch/lunch place where all patrons look like locals and the house specialty – called Les Bricks, a hard-crust crépe stuffed with various ingredients – is fantastic.
Not so much a meal recommendation, but Café Laurent at Hôtel d’Aubusson on Rue Dauphine in St-Germain offers live jazz five nights a week. An excellent place for a few drinks with music.
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. The extensive métro network puts practically every sight within a few blocks of the nearest station.
One place worthy of a recommendation from our many stays in Paris is Hôtel des Grandes Écoles, 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 (the nearest métro station, Cardinal Lemoine, is less than five minutes away). The rooms are slightly more spacious than what we’ve seen in other hotels in Paris, but also a bit dated as far as decor and utilities are concerned. 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, should you choose to have it at the hotel. Many of the guests also use the garden as the hybrid picnic area/dining room for an afternoon light meal, often with wine.
Well-connected with the rest of the country by the train network, Paris can serve as a springboard for visiting many destinations, in Normandy, Bretagne, Grand Est, and other regions. With an organized tour or self-driving, you can technically see a few points of interest in Loire Valley on an intraday trip from Paris, although that destination likely requires a multi-day stay to properly enjoy.
Closer to the city are a number of exceptional destinations, starting with Versailles.
Versailles ♥♥♥ has the distinction of being the very first royal palace that we visited on our foreign travels, and it is certainly among the must-see places. The splendid palace and gardens of the Sun King, Louis XIV, require several hours to explore at a minimum. Travel to/from central Paris on RER takes a bit over half an hour, but budget for about two hours in total for the door-to-door round-trip. You may want to budget a full day overall since the attractions are aplenty.
It is worth mentioning that many palaces across Western Europe were built to exceed the opulence of Versailles in later years, and if you’ve been to some of them, the royal apartments at Versailles may not feel exceptional. The Hall of Mirrors in the Grand Apartments, though, is still among the most ostentatiously magnificent spaces and would be worth the visit all by itself. Other rooms have something to boast as well, although they are always crowded to the seams. The excellent audioguide will also provide narration for Dauphin’s Apartments, which draw only a portion of the visitors, as organized tours usually limit themselves to the main royal apartments circuit.
With a combination ticket, you will also have access to a smaller palace called Grand Trianon, the estate of Marie-Antoinette that contains Petit Trianon, and several other pavilions and locations. The vast grounds, which include a boating lake and various fountains, are free to enter on weekdays when the fountains are turned off. The fountains, unfortunately, are only turned on twice a day for an hour and a half on Saturdays and Sundays in summer. You need to brave greater crowds on a weekend and structure your visit in a specific way if you want to see the fountains working. Some of the fountains are truly spectacular, but for those who prioritize lesser crowds, it is probably not worth it on balance: if you expect Eaux Musicales to be a synchronized music show similar to what you may have seen in Barcelona or Las Vegas, you may be disappointed.
Buying tickets in advance will save you a lot of waiting in line any time of the year (you may still need to stay in line for security checks – which can take up to an hour in the late mornings – but at least you will not have to spend time in an even longer line at the ticket office). If you are coming from Paris and plan to see as much of the estate as possible, then certainly buy a combined ticket at an RER station at Orsay or Invalides; that will include round-trip travel and passeport for full access; children only need tickets for travel, the palace entry is free.
The small village of Giverny ♥ is about an hour away by car from central Paris (I am not aware of any public transportation options to get there, but there are surely organized bus tours from the city). Its main attraction is the Claude Monet House and Garden ♥♥♥. The Impressionist master’s estate is well worth the trip, although its operations leave room for improvement: there is one single ticket counter at the entrance that causes a long wait if you don’t buy tickets in advance; with many paths in the garden being off limits, hundreds of visitors inside at any given time make the place extremely crowded.
But the garden is beautiful, and the famous lily pond is just incredible. The house itself is interesting enough and offers the unexpected bonus of hosting a small collection of Monet’s paintings inside.
There is also an Impressionist Museum in the village. Many artist galleries on the main street contribute to the feeling that Giverny can easily sustain a half-day visit (aside from Monet’s house, nothing is too crowded).
If you come on Saturday, start your day with a visit to nearby Vernon for a market ♥♥. It takes over several main squares in town and is simply delightful. There is tons of food, clothes, crafts, etc. We once chanced into a festival that transformed part of the market into a Medieval one with many traditional crafts. The town itself may not be too remarkable, but there is a castle and a cathedral, largely obscured by market stalls.
Halfway between Giverny and Paris, in Poissy, you can stop by to take a look at Villa Savoye, one of the signature creations of Le Corbusier that is part of the serial UNESCO World Heritage property of his works. It is a stop only for devoted enthusiasts of modern architecture or else for WH chasers. The innovative design concepts are dulled by the fact that the building sits practically empty. (There are actually two other Le Corbusier site components in greater Paris, near Bois de Boulogne.)
Chartres often gets overlooked on travel itineraries due to its proximity to the Loire Valley, but it should be visited at the very least for its remarkable cathedral. Notre Dame de Chartres ♥♥♥ is arguably the greatest Gothic cathedral in all of Europe (and a standalone World Heritage site), remaining virtually undamaged and unaltered since the middle of the 13th century. The glorious stained-glass windows are absolutely spectacular, but there are many other architectural delights to be found here.
The town itself is a pleasant jumble of cobbled streets, flanked by colombage houses. There are several interesting churches, as well as great views of the surrounding countryside from various vantage points.