I’ve lived in Paris a few different times and visited more time that I can count. My parents also love it there so much they visit twice a year. This is our list of what to do and where to go in Paris. We tried to keep it to mostly unique things that you won’t find in a guidebook.
This is an evolving list. Please email me if I’ve missed something!
Paris, the City of Light 1, is one of the most visited cities in the world. Near the top of most people’s must-see lists. I always wanted to speak french and found my 78th grade french class didn’t quite get me to the fluency I wanted, so in my 30’s I packed my (small) bag and moved to Paris and lived there on and off for a total of about 2 years. My family goes back regularly due to my mom’s addiction with all things Paris. The list below is a collection of our favorite places, many of which people miss the first few times they visit the city. My hopes with this list is that you’ll experience the city in a more rich way that someone who just hits all the tourist spots and buys the “J’aime Paris” t-shirt.
There’s a reason the city is one of the world’s top destination that is visited by close to 24 million people each year. For reference, the population is 2.2 million and 12.4% of the workforce is involved in tourism. 2
More cool maps here: 3
Where to stay
Staying “downtown” is the most convenient, but also the most expensive. No one calls it downtown. It’s usually referred to as “central,’ with the center of the city officially being the courtyard in front of Notre Dame. Paris is divided into 20 districts called “arrondisements,” which start in the center and fan out like a seashell. The central area where most of the tourists go is the “arrondisements” or neighborhoods 1-6, which is the area around Notre Dame and the 2 islands.
Airbnb is great and easy to use and preferred because you don’t have to pay the fees for long-term rental places. You can find a lot of great places that are cheaper than a hotel. If you’re only going to be there for a couple of nights, a good hotel is preferable, but if you can stay a week or more, get an apartment to save money, have more space and have a kitchen (See the end of this post for hotel recommendations.)
Cafe at the top of the d’Orsay
View from the top of Galleries Lafayette (behind the opera house)
Shakespeare and Company bookstore
Jazz and dancing at Caveau de la Huchette. Live jazz band and dancing in the basement. Really fun on the weekends.
Budda Bar – more of a bar than a club. Very cool, chic atmosphere. Go for dinner or drinks, not to dance. Worth just walking in and checking it out. In a very cool neighborhood, right next to the American Embassy.
Cooking Classes – these can be expensive, but it’s a fun and different way to experience the culture of the city. Here’s a list.
Catacombs – a very unique experience. Unlike catacombs in other cities, like Rome, these catacombs are filled with skeletons, which are stacked in artist ways. You’ll never see anything like it.
Place des Voges – nice park that most people miss. A spot where nobility threw lavish parties that lasted 2 weeks. Victor Hugo’s apartment is still here.
Science Museum – a bit out of the way, but a nice break from “tourist traps.”
Coffee Parisien. 4, rue Princesse, 6eme. Breakfast anytime
Cafe at top of Musée d’Orsay
Breakfast in America: http://www.breakfast-in-america.com/main/
Gryos on Rue de la Huchette – there are several places (tourist area, fun to visit. Walk between Notre Dame, St Julien le Pauvre and St. Michel Fountain)
Lebanese Food near Notre Dame – Al Dar
Rue Grégoire de Tours – every restaurant on this short street is great.
Procope: One of the oldest restaurants in Paris. Voltaire used to eat there. It’s really large and the bottom floor is another restaurant, which has even better food. Bottom is more modern. Top level is traditional design.
Best Chinese food ever – Le Petit Rouge
It’s on the outskirts of the city, near La Defence, but that area is worth a visit to see one of the nicer Parisienne neighborhoods.
Bateaux les Vedettes du Pont Neuf, Square de Vert Galant. http://www.vedettesdupontneuf.fr/
Take this boat ride at dusk from the dock at the North-western point/tip of the Ille de la Cite. Much less crowded than Pont Alma (pont de L’alma – memorial to Princess Di) where first-time tourists wait in long lines to crowd onto tour boats. 10 Euros. One and a half hours. Beautiful.
Yellow open bus
Hop-on-hop-off. Pick up wherever you see it around the city. Buy a 1, 2 or 3-day pass. The Yellow bus has more options and more pick-up points than the Red bus. If you just want the basic route, Eiffel, Arch, Opera, St. Germain, etc, Red is great and cheaper. If the weather is good, this is an easy and fun way to get the lay-of-the-land. Felshaw likes to hop off near the Sacre-Coeur and wander back down to the river. Head phones are iffy. Now days we just take city busses with our Paris-visit pass.
Metro and city buses
Don’t be afraid of the metro; it’s part of the adventure. Buy single tickets or a ‘carnet’ (10 pack) in a machine inside most metro stations. Have lots of change and/or euro bills ready. Better yet, order passes from home:
For the last three trips we have ordered ‘ParisVisit’ five day passes on-line before leaving home (Not sold in France). There are several options. Make sure you order the actual pass/tickets to be mailed to you. If you order the ‘vouchers’ you will have to redeem them by the Louvre on rue de Rivoli, which sounds like a hassle. The order form is a bit confusing; read it carefully.
Metro tickets can also be used on the city buses, which is fun because you are above ground and get to see stuff on the way. See Rick Steves’ tips on route 63. Bus route books called Le Bus Parisian, or the ‘Blue book’, can be bought at most kiosks or tabacs. Many busses have the main stops written on the side of the bus. Be spontaneous, but make sure the bus is going in the ‘right’ direction. If you goof up, get off and cross the street and look for a stop going the opposite way. Be aware of one-way streets like St. Germain des Pres. It’s two way from rue du Bac to Concord, but the bus lane is unnoticeable.
Check out the routes posted on all bus stops. I always take an enlarged (Kinko’s) bus map because the regular maps are hard to read, having so many overlapping routes. If you have a ParisVisit pass, you can just show it to the bus driver and avoid using the machine behind his seat. They don’t care; they just want you to move along. That’s a good tip from Rick Steves. Once you put it in the machine, it starts counting days. Note: On the metro, the pass doesn’t seem to expire. Go figure.
You can also pick up Pariscope. It comes out every Wednesday and the last section is in English. All the activities around town are listed.
Favorite buildings and architecture
Garnier Opera House: Worth the entrance fee of about 8 Euros. If you don’t want to pay a bit more for the tour which includes the auditorium, you can still ‘wander’ in on your own if lucky.
Note: Garnier Opera House is not the new modern one by the Bastille. Ticket office is on the left side of building as you face the front, inside basement. Not well marked. Exit through gift shop on opposite side. Look left and you will see Galleries Lafayette on two corners.
Galleries Lafayette – Department store with fabulous stained glass dome ceiling, restaurant 7th floor and deck above. Great view of the Garnier Opera House back side and city. Store takes up two corners and is connected by a sky bridge.
Hotel de ville – across from Notre Dame, right bank. Spectacular city hall, not a hotel. Many events held in front. So beautiful.
Pompidou museum. Take the elevator in front to the left of main entrance (not well marked) to the 2nd floor and then take the escalator to restaurant on top. Wander around. View is fabulous. Contrary to guide books, you can go up without buying a museum ticket, or food. Come down on the outside escalator. Fun area. (Avoid Les Halles nearby. Big mall gone wrong. In middle of huge reno.)
Musee d’Orsay – across from Tueleries, left bank. Worth going for the building, gift shops, new grand restaurant, 2nd floor, and of course the fabulous Impressionist art. There is also a café on the 4th floor with a great view. I always start at the top and work down. Escalators, elevators and rest rooms are tricky to locate on the sides. Be aware there are two gift shops.
Of course we love both islands with Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, Conciergerie, etc.
Louvre and Tuileries, Arch de Triumph, Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, Luxemburg gardens.
Surprise and never-ending splendor around every corner.
Favorite areas to wander Of course, both islands are a must and go without saying.
Saint Germaine des Pres, from one end (Notre Dame) to the other (Concord), or vice-versa, and on both sides. It’s all good. Between St. Germaine and the Seine is my favorite area to stay. Mostly arrondisement 6.
Tuileries and Louvre grounds. Most museums are free first Sunday of every month. Crowded.
Latin Quarter is fun. Start at Notre Dame and wander the winding streets on the left bank. Don’t miss the St. Michel Fountain.
St. Sulpice church. Organ recital following mass Sundays, noon. Loud in a good way. Can watch organist if lucky. (Read or watch Rick Steves for details.)
Right bank: Many young people like the Marais area.
Mormon church is across the street, on rue St. Merri, from the sculpture pond at the Pompidou. Sunday Services are 9:30 to 12:30. Really neat place.
In the Marais, we love the Place des Vosges, where Victor Hugo lived, and near-by Carnavalet museum, which is fabulous and free. It’s a maze of additions, but don’t miss the French Revolution exhibit in new part. Enter or exit through the Hotel Sully. (Not really a hotel, but a mansion.)
Felshaw likes the Sacre Coeur. You can see this unique white domed church on the north edge of Paris from anywhere. Great views. Walk around to the left side (facing church) and wander up through shops and artist area.
Panis. – Right across the street from Notre Dame towers on the Left Bank. 21 quai de Montebello.
New restaurant inside Musee d’Orsay. As with any museum go early or late to avoid tour groups.
Les Editeurs in the Latin Quarter. Try the egg rolls. Great for lunch and close to everything.
Look these up on: Paris Tripadvisor.com or Booking.com
K & K Cayre: **** Saint Germain des Pres and rue Raspail, left bank. Request room high up facing rue Raspail. View is breath-taking. Love the central location with metro Rue du Bac in front. Short walk to Bon Marche or north to the Seine, or east to St. Germaine area. Modern reno. $$$
Brighton: **** Across from the Tuileries metro stop, main line #1, on right bank. Ask for room high up, with balcony, front facing. Big rooms forParis and huge marble bathroom. Check out Angelina’s a few doors west, for food and famous hot chocolate. Good price for prime location. $$$
The Madison: **** Across from St. Germaine church, left bank. New reno. Fabulous! $$$+
Boutique hotels on left back:
St Vincent: nice and quiet, favorite area 6th arrondisement. Note: Two people in a room max.
Hotel Henri IV, Rive Gauche: rue Saint-Jacques (there’s more than one Henry IV hotel)
Millesime: 15, rue Jacob. Love this street. We’ve stayed in three hotels on rue Jacob, but this is my favorite. Upscale neighborhood, close to everything. I reviewed it on Tripadvisor in October, 2012.
Hotel Colbert: Latin quarter. Around the corner from Panis restaurant, which is across from the front towers of Notre Dame. (see ‘Favorite restaurants’) Quiet side street nestled into vibrant area.
www.vacationinparis.com. for booking apartments in Paris. (I’ve booked six times with them) Agency fee included up front.
www.airbnb.com. Anyone can put their own place on this popular site. Trajan used it twice in Paris.
For web surfing I really like www.my-apartment-in-paris.com. Easy to navigate site and make preferences. Good reputation.
www.Parisattitude.com is a fun site also.
www.ParisPerfect.com is nice, too, especially if you want to stay by the Eiffel Tower. Upscale.
Taxies are good, too. 50 Euros. Again, worth it.
Shuttles are the pits! (Don’t get me started on my shuttle experiences!)
Train is tricky, but cheap. Copy directions off the web if this is your first time. It’s a maze.
For metro/bus/train 5 day passes: www.parismetro.tourpackages.com. Cheaper to buy a separate train ticket than to buy 5 day pass for area 6, unless you are going outside city for other events. Just for the city area, buy area 3. Museum pass included is expensive and has restrictions. I just pay as I go and stand in line with other plebeians, but I do love the area 3 five metro/bus pass. Some passes you can buy together to avoid lines. Ex: St. Chapelle and Conciergerie. Both on Ile de la Cite and a must-see.
Favorite guidebook to take with you:
Any of the pocket guides out now. I like Rick Steves’ Pocket Paris if you want more info on museums, walking tours, and hand drawn maps. Conversational style. Updated every year.
Must See Michelin and Time Out Paris are also good. Each has its own format and map style.
For a complete guide, you can’t beat Paris Eyewitness Travel Guide. Best color pictures out there.
I also like Rick Steves’ Complete Guide and it’s updated every year.
I always leave guide books behind with the desk. Less to carry and I’ll want updated book next time.
The Paris Mapguide – ISBN 97801414 69041 Indispensible.
What to pack: Very little:
First priority is comfort. No crotch bind. I always wear a long black no wrinkle skirt and hoodie and jacket. Planes always get cold. Snuggy socks, Bose sound-canceling ear phones, eye mask. Inflatable neck pillow. Check out ‘economy comfort’ section on Delta, bulkhead seats. You can nap on floor.
1. Only take clothes that can be washed out in sink and hung to dry, even if you have a washer and dryer in apartment. Often they take four hours, stop and go, to save energy.
2. Never take white running shoes or a fanny pack to Europe. L.L. Bean’s ‘pocket day pack’ is a feather-light back pack that unfolds from a 4” pouch. Great for day trips and last minute shopping or overflow.
3. Pack at least one article from the DI pile to wear and leave behind. Ex: loungewear. More gift room.
4. All tops and bottoms must be interchangeable. This will also help you ‘edit down’ while packing.
5. Black is always easy, but a pop of color will give a girl a lift. Maybe a scarf or light weight cardigan. At least have an easy color scheme.
6. I never travel with jewelry for many reasons.
7. Sleepwear must also work for going out if necessary or desirable. Choose double-duty items.
8. Umbrellas are sold in metros and on streets. Never take up valuable space unless you intend to donate it to the maids when you leave. Same with extra bulky shoes.
9. A ‘spinner’ suitcase is a must. It can roll by your side, no need to drag. Pivots on a dime and doesn’t tip over. Never take luggage larger thank 24’’ unless you are moving there. Ck out feather-light IT bags. (International Traveler.) Sometimes found at T J Maxx or on-line.
10. IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT! Only pack suitcase two-thirds full at most. You will shop.
What I always pack: (BTW: Tell me if you want book suggestions.)
1. Black sleepwear that ‘could’ be worn outside.
2. One pair skinny jeans and at least two pairs of leggings. One long (over butt) wrap top.
3. Black ‘Royal Robbins’ nylon-lycra-spandex pants from REI. Wear alone or over jeans, if cold.
4. White seer sucker ‘Faconnable’ shirt. Best purchase ever. Five nylon-type tops, all interchangeable.
5. Light weight black knit dress with tights. Versatile. Could even sleep in it.
6. Black walking shoes with Dr. Scholl’s wave/gel arch supports. Sandals with spongy souls. I like Ecco, Naot and Merrell shoes for wide feet. (Walking Comfort Shoes, Centerville, by Target)
7. Favorite purse is black ‘La Sac’ sport. Soft, light weight. Long adjustable strap. Also love all sizes of black nylon bags by GB (Giani Bernini) Macy’s
8. Try to pack bulkier shoes and apparel going outbound and wear it home or leave it behind. Always think ahead about gift space in luggage.
9. Only take tiny containers for cosmetics, like ‘free gift with purchase’ size. I mean tiny!! Remember, all countries have stores. Panty liners. The only thing I’ve ever run out of is Handy-wipes. And of course, all items must go in 5” square zip-lock bags. Best even in checked baggage. Easy to see inside and light weight.
10. Sometimes I mail stuff home. Try not to buy what you can order on-line later. Ex: music boxes.
Bon Voyage! Trust me; the lighter you pack the happier you will be. No matter how light I pack, I ALWAYS unpack later thinking, “I could have left this out.”
Copy all contact, codes, passport, etc. info into cell phone. Sometimes I ‘disguise’ it. Make sure your phone will work in Europe without roaming fees. I refuse to waste time in Paris hunting for a phone store to buy a sim card. Plan ahead. T-Mobile gave me a great deal for one month.
- Paris got this nickname for 2 reasons: Paris played a central role in the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) and it was one of the first cities in Europe to install gas street lights.
- Tourism in Paris- Key Figures 2018, Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau (Parisinfo.com)