I know that you are excited. I mean…it’s PARIS!!! Paris was one of the best parts of our two week trip to France. But here is the most important thing to remember when planning your first trip to Paris…
YOU DON”T HAVE TO DO IT ALL!
There are no MUST SEES. There are no MUST DOs. Really! You don’t have to try to see everything…especially when you are visiting Paris for the first time!
Most of us have limited time when we travel. We have varying interests. We only have so much energy.
SO…my very best advice for your first visit to Paris.
Marie Kondo your vacation, y’all! Only do what sparks joy in you!
So, why am I writing a post about the best things to do on your first trip to Paris?
I’m hoping that you will give yourself permission to NOT try to fill each day to the brim. Give yourself some space for explorations and serendipity. I believe that the things I am going to mention will truly help you to experience the charm and the joy that is Paris.
So here you go:
Here are the best things to do on your first trip to Paris. (And the things that you don’t HAVE to do!)
You don’t HAVE to go to the Louvre on your first trip to Paris if you aren’t an art lover
If you are an art person then absolutely go to the Louvre. I love art myself, but I don’t think that the Louvre is necessary for everyone. It definitely isn’t a necessary stop for the non-art lover!
TIP: If you DO decide to go to the Louvre remember that the majority of the crowds are there to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. You can go to some of the less crowded wings and see amazing art without having to shuffle through the throngs.
If you have decided not to spend a day at the Louvre but feel as if a trip to Paris wouldn’t be complete without seeing some art consider visiting one of the smaller, slightly less crowded art museums instead such as:
The Musee D’Orsay
The Musee D’Orsay is in a glorious building that used to be an old train station. It has enough Impressionist Art to satisfy almost any first time visitor to Paris. Yes, it will be crowded, but it is smaller and more manageable than the Louvre. I loved our visit here, we waited in line for only a few minutes to get in and although the rooms were busy I didn’t feel as if I was in the middle of a cattle call and I could actually enjoy the artwork!
The Petit Palais
If you want to go even farther off the tourist path head to The Petit Palais on the Champs-Elysee. The building itself is an architectural gem dating back to 1900. It has a small but well-curated collection and tends to be overlooked by most visitors. Best of all it is free to see the permanent exhibits and the Petit Palais has a lovely courtyard with a cafe which is a great place to escape the rush of Paris.
Musee de l’Orangerie
This is where you can see Monet’s monumental paintings of water lilies in two large, oval, light filled rooms. Monet himself decided exactly how he wanted his work to be displayed and it is stunning. Currently some of the areas of the Musee de l’Orangerie are under renovation and will not reopen until sometime in 2020. But if you love Monet it might be worth a visit to see his Les Nymphéas
If you prefer sculpture to paintings you might want to visit the Musee Rodin. It is close to Eiffel Tower and is one of the most enchanting places in Paris. This museum has intimate rooms as well as expansive gardens which showcase the work of Rodin. It is another gorgeous building that started as a private home then became a hotel where Rodin lived in his later days.
Take a Seine River Cruise at Sunset
Maybe you were going to skip this because you thought it was just TOO touristy. But y’all! Some things are touristy because they are just that good and this is one of them. When I remember our time in Paris this cruise is always one of my best memories. Plus as a first time visitor to Paris it will give you a feel for the parts of the city along the river.
Not only is it relaxing but you get a gorgeous view of Paris from the river. You will be amazed at how many of the major sights in Paris are right on the Seine. Plus you get to go under the multitude of beautiful bridges. Plus there is a narrator telling you a bit about what you are seeing.
TIP: Go at dusk and just as you reach the Eiffel tower the whole thing lights up and starts to sparkle. Our entire boat gasped and applauded at the sight. I assure you that the cruise companies have this thing timed down to a science.
Consider taking a food tour early in your visit.
We did a food tour with Paris by Mouth on the last day of our trip to Paris. I highly recommend them, but as we were touring I remember thinking what a great thing this would have been for us to do the very FIRST day of our first trip to Paris!
I suggest that you select a tour of the area in which you are staying because it will help you to learn about places that might want to try again. You can also get opinions from your tour guide about the best restaurants.
I think that a food tour is a great way to learn about Paris and Parisians by learning about their food!
and maybe a wine class…
Oh, and with your food you are gonna want some French wine! We loved learning more about French wines with Wine Tasting in Paris! Our class with Thierry was great! I will mention that although you will be drinking a lot of wine during the class you will also be doing a lot of in-depth learning.
If you’d rather just have your wine without the side of knowledge – this might not be for you.
You don’t have to shop on the Champs-Elysee
I mean…unless you just want to say you shopped on the Champs-Elysee then go for it. However, you probably have the Gap and Sephora and H&M somewhere near you at home and possibly cheaper. Confession time: My worst moments in Paris were on the Champs-Elysee. I was anticipating a beautiful shopping street only to find it to be over-run with chain stores, tourists, movie theaters, and car dealerships.
So where should you shop instead?
Try the Marais for up and coming high-fashion designers, eclectic fashion, handcrafted jewelry, perfume shops, fancy cosmetics, and vintage stores. There are also great food and kitchen-y stores in this area.
St. Germain Des Pres
St-Germain-des-Prés is now a bit of a yuppie area with chic, but classic designs.
The Paris department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps do a great job of staying, well, Parisian. When you step into one of the grand department stores of Paris you can feel that you have stepped into a different world. They are beyond grand and have everything from gourmet foods to home design and designer collections.
Have a Parisian Picnic
If the weather is nice when you are in Paris have a Parisian picnic! Pick up a bottle of wine and a baguette and some cheese and meat from the shops that you learned about on your food tour! Walk along the Seine. Stop near the Louvre on the Ponts de Arts or walk over to the end of Île de la Cité.
If you prefer your picnic with a view of the Eiffel Tower stop on the Champs de Mars.
You will not be alone at any of these places, but you will have a beautiful view with an amazing atmosphere.
Browse the Bouquinistes
Strung along the Seine like a green wreath these open air bookstores or bouquinistes are a great place to browse. They are more than a Paris tradition, they are a fixture. The tradition of selling used books along the Seine started in the 16th century!
There is approximately an 8 year waiting list to rent a stand and they must all be painted the same shade of green. They are so coveted because the overhead is so low. The stall proprietors pay only about 100E per year! They set their own schedule but must be open 4 days a week although bad weather is considered an acceptable excuse not to open.
These book shops are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and browsing them is a perfect activity for a beautiful Paris day.
Visit Sainte Chapelle
If you only have the time or interest to go into one church while in Paris…I suggest Sainte Chapelle.
Like, I HIGHLY suggest it. There is a fee of about 10E. It is worth it.
You enter through a somewhat nondescript, unassuming downstairs area and then up a set of stairs and then…I won’t say anymore because words really can’t do it justice…prepare to be wowed. Tip: If at all possible go on a sunny day.
Eat pastries. Lots and lots of pastries.
Because never again will you have croissants and other pastries as wonderfully flaky and buttery. There is no where else I would rather be covered by croissant crumbs than a cafe in Paris. I’ve made croissants at home. I’ve tried them in French restaurants in the US. They just aren’t as good! I’ve been told that it is because French butter is better. I have no idea if that is true or not. All I know is that they are the best. Ever.
TIP: Also the yogurt. Best I’ve ever eaten. So maybe it is not just the butter but French dairy in general that is better. Maybe French cows are happy cows.
If you really fall in love with the pastries and are into baking you might want to take a croissant making class. We loved our class with La Cuisine Paris!
You don’t have to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower
I’m not saying to skip seeing the Eiffel Tower! Definitely not. You really need to see the Eiffel Tower.
I loved the tower and thought that it was even more impressive in person than in photos. But the lines to go up are really long and the view isn’t even that great. Why? Because the Eiffel Tower isn’t in the view from the Eiffel tower.
Instead try some of these other spots to get the best views of Paris.
The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is the most obvious place to go to see Paris from above! From there you can look straight down the Champs-Elysee to the Eiffel Tower. In addition you can see how Paris is laid out with the roads like the spokes of a wheel radiating out from the Arc.
The Printemps Department Store on Haussmann Blvd
While you are avoiding the shopping at the Champs-Elysee by going to the grand Paris department stores stop into the Printemps Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement. The store itself is amazing, but go up to the terrace. It has a stunning view of Paris and it is free!
You could also try Montparnasse Tower. It is the dark skyscraper that completely looks out of place when you look out over Paris. But from the top of this tower you have one of the most spectacular views in Paris. And you don’t have to see the tower itself!
Sacre-Coeur is located in the Montmartre neighborhood. (Which I am going to recommend that you visit!) You can enjoy a gorgeous view of Paris from the stairs of the basilica or you can elect to climb to the top of its dome!
Visit the Marais neighborhood
You might think that the neighborhood around the Eiffel tower would be the place to stay. Many first time visitors to Paris make that mistake. Actually that area if fairly business-y and tends to shut down in the evening. Try staying somewhere else.
Le Marais arrondissement was my favorite in Paris. It has the most medieval feel of anywhere in the city. Before Napoleon the Marais was what most of Paris looked like, a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. Napoleon and Haussman tore down most of the medieval buildings to make way for the grand boulevards and avenues that now run straight rather than meandering around. It is said that they did this so that the citizens could not throw up a bunch of barricades and fight back as easily against the government as they had during the Revolution.
But enough of the history lesson!
Le Marais is now a chic place to shop and to eat and to stay. It is trendy but welcoming.
You can check out the historic ambience of the Place des Vosges which is one of the oldest and most beautiful squares in Paris. One of the fine homes lining the square was the residence of Victor Hugo.
Perhaps you’d prefer to join the fashionable, and fabulous by shopping on rue des Francs Bourgeois. Or brave the lines to eat at L’As de Falafel in the Jewish district. You wont need reservations to eat there which is rare in Paris.
Le Marais is a perfect place to wander and soak up the charm of Paris.
Embrace the cafe culture.
When I think of Paris I think of the Eiffel Tower and then I think of cafes. You know, those small round tables in a row with the chairs facing out to the street. The cafe culture is a real thing! You will be surprised at the number of cafes that you will see in Paris. I’ve read that there are 7,000 cafes scattered around the city and there is always someone at a table having a coffee. (and often a cigarette as well, but only outside these days. Smoking is still very popular in France!)
Cafes were typically the haunts of artists and writers, philosophers and revolutionaries. Of course there are the famous cafes like Les Deux Magot or Cafe De Flore. But you don’t have to go to one of the well-known and crowded cafes to experience the cafe lifestyle.
Here’s what to do…stop by any cafe that looks interesting. If the weather is nice sit outside. People watch. Don’t be in a hurry. Order a drink – oh, and it doesn’t have to be coffee! Most cafes have wine and beer, tea, juice…you have options. Order a snack if you are feeling peckish. Relax. Take your time. Get back to sightseeing whenever you are ready. Repeat as needed.
There is amazing food in Paris! Unfortunately there is some really bad food too.
Paris tends to be a “you need a reservation” kind of place. The restaurants are small and turnover is slow because people tend to linger. The very best restaurants always book up fast and the extremely well known places that have famous chefs and Michelin stars can be booked out months in advance. So, if you are a foodie and have some restaurants that you absolutely want to try – you will need to plan ahead.
That said, I read an article recently that suggested that the Michelin guide is doing a really poor job of keeping up with the best restaurants – especially in Paris!
You really can eat well in Paris without spending a fortune and without planning 6 months in advance!
You can also do the time honored method of waiting until you arrive and ask your AirBnB host or your hotel concierge for recommendations. You will probably get some suggestions from them for more local, less well-known, more off the tourist track, but still delicious places.
I also extensively used the Paris By Mouth food blog. It was extremely helpful when selecting where to eat in Paris. Another blog that I loved was Paris Food Affair. Both of those will give you tons of suggestions and have you eating wonderful food while you are in Paris!
Paris is big! Sprawling.
Even so, most of the time you are going to WANT to walk because Paris is gorgeous and there is always something interesting to see. Be prepared for lots of walking by wearing comfortable shoes and allowing yourself plenty of time to get to where you are going. Stop and look and photograph and gape. Give yourself time to really soak in the atmosphere, to stop at a cafe, to pop into an interesting shop.
However, there are going to be times when you need or want to use public transportation. Even though it is one of the oldest subway systems in the world the Metro has been well updated and is surprisingly efficient. It is clean and easy and will typically move you faster than a taxi because Paris traffic can be brutal.
If you are going to be out late when the Metro doesn’t run as frequently you might want to call a taxi or use Uber which is well represented in Paris.
Visit Montmartre and Sacre Couer
You know that pink building with green trim and shutters that you see on every travel/fashion girl’s Instagram? That is Montmartre. Even though that building isn’t as impressive in person as in photos…the rest of the area is oh, so charming! It is an area that once was it’s own village and attracted all the bohemian artsy types.
This is a perfect place for a first timer to Paris to visit because when most people imagine Paris they see in their minds eye something much like this hilly, cobblestoned area of small shops and cafes and street artists.
It is the home of the Moulin Rouge as well as where most of the scenes from the film Amelie were filmed. Your first stop in Montmartre should be the amazing Sacre Coeur basilica. You can sit on the steps and catch your breath while you enjoy the view over Paris. You might even want to climb the 300ish stairs to the dome.
From Sacre Coeur you can start to wander the hills of Montmartre. You will not regret making a stop here!
Have you seen Phantom of the Opera? This is the opera hall that was the inspiration for this play. It is stunning, opulent, mythical…it is, as they say, an architectural jewel. SO worth a visit on your first time to Paris. You can choose to do a self-guided tour with an audio guide or you can take a tour with an actual person. Be sure and check the website to find out when the English speaking tours are offered.
To Sum it up: The best things to do on your first trip to Paris? Experience Paris!
There you go! That’s my list of what I believe to be the best things to do on your first trip to Paris!
I could have created a list of 45 things you MUST DO in Paris, but that’s just not me. That’s not how I travel. We tend to take our time and wander and soak up the feel of a place. I think that this list will allow you to really experience the beauty and atmosphere even on your first trip to Paris!
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