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Guide to the Best Things to Do in Paris
To help you sort through the myriad of landmarks, attractions and activities, here’s a list of the top 10 things to do in Paris.
Whether you’re a luxury traveler or on a tight budget, the best sights of Paris beckon like stars in a night sky. Museums, landmarks, mornings in a cafe and walks by the Seine. What a place for a vacation. When it comes to tourist attractions, there are some you shouldn’t miss.
Top 10 Things to Do in Paris
Visit the Louvre
Did you know the Louvre was once called the Napoleon Museum? Napoleon named it to honor himself. (I wish I had that kind of self confidence).
He also helped build up the museum’s collection to magnificent heights (mainly with the spoils of war). When it comes to fun facts about Paris and the incredible art treasures it holds, consider this: it would take a whopping eight months to view every piece in the Louvre’s collection.
The Louvre has had a long life. It was a fortress in the 1100s, a Renaissance palace in the 1500s and been a national museum since the French Revolution.
Today it’s one of the most renowned museums in the world, and a visit here is, in my opinion, number one on this top 10 things to do in Paris list.
Top Things to See at the Louvre
The Louvre Museum superstars are:
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
- The Venus de Milo
- The Winged Victory of Samothrace
- Of course we can’t leave out Napoleon. The monumental Coronation of the Emperor by David in the Denon Wing is one of the Louvre’s top sights.
Tips for Visiting the Louvre
Budget tip: The Louvre is free on the first Sunday of every month.
Add a taste of luxury: The wonderful Cafe Marly overlooks the Pyramid of the Louvre and has a great outdoor seating area under the arcades.
Skip the lines: Get a Paris: Louvre Museum Timed-Entrance Ticket in advance. Check availability here.
Pass by Notre Dame Cathedral
After the tragic fire on April 15, 2019, visits to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are clearly out of the picture. Still, the structure still stands, you can visit the Parvis – this square outside the cathedral – and Notre Dame is scheduled to reopen in 2024.
More people used to visit Notre Dame Cathedral than the Louvre (a whopping 13 million people a year). Open or shut, it remains a powerful symbol of Paris.
Sitting in the centre of the Seine River, this grand Gothic cathedral dominates the Ile de la Cite, and has a history as long as its 300 foot (90 metre) high spire.
Begun in 1143 by Louis VII, it took nearly two centuries to complete and Notre Dame’s stunning rose windows, flying buttresses and soaring pointed arches are just a few of the reasons it’s the most famous cathedral of the Middle Ages.
Henry the VI was crowned here, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is set here, and Napoleon was crowned emperor inside its stone walls.
Did you know? Notre Dame Cathedral was built on the site of an ancient temple to Jupiter.
Go Up the Eiffel Tower
By all rights the wrought-iron Eiffel Tower shouldn’t even still be standing. It was originally built as a temporary tower to commemorate the French Revolution during the Universal Exhibition of 1889.
The goal: To show the world France had the technical know how and skill to build the tallest building in the world.
While many hated this 1066-foot-high (325-metre) tower, considering it a scourge on the elegant beauty of Paris, it was a hit with others and grew into a symbol of France’s industrial might.
Until 1930 it was the tallest building in the world, and today it’s the most iconic landmark in Paris.
While the crowds are daunting, you can buy tickets online beforehand or sign up for a skip the line tour.
Check prices and availability for a Paris: Eiffel Tower Direct Access Tour to Summit by Elevator here
Luxury tip: Bump up the luxe factor of a trip up the Eiffel Tower with a reservation at Jules Verne, the posh Alain Ducasse restaurant on the second level of the tower. Book early to request a prime viewing window seat and look out over Paris from 410 feet up. Bonus: You won’t have to wait as long in line.
#4 Check Out Impressionist Art at the Musée d’Orsay
Personally, the Musée d’Orsay would be second on my list of the top ten things to do in Paris, right after the Louvre, but that’s because my parents brainwashed me into believing art museums always come first.
When I was sixteen, on my first trip to France, I was much more interested in seeing the Eiffel Tower, so in respect to my younger self I bumped the Musée d’Orsay down to number 4 on this list of top 10 Paris attractions.
The Musée d’Orsay is the best spot to immerse yourself in the Impressionist and Post Impressionist art you’ve seen on calendars, postcards and jigsaw puzzles for the last 100 years.
Architecturally unique, the Musee D’Orsay began life as a Beaux Arts railway station in 1900 – and it retains that bustling flavour today.
Top Things to see at the Musée d’Orsay
- Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass
- Renoir’s Bal du Malin de la Galette for a snapshot of Parisian cafe life
- Van Gogh’s Starry Night
- Everything painted by Monet.
Skip the line: Check prices and availability for a Musée d’Orsay ticket here.
Climb the Stairs of L’Arc de Triomphe
Here’s another Napoleon built monument – he did like his larger-than-life landmarks. Napoleon commissioned the famous Arc de Triomphe in 1806, but he wasn’t around to enjoy it. It wasn’t finished until 1836, 15 years after his death.
A full-size replica, however, was erected to celebrate his marriage to the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, so at least he had that.
Dedicated to Napoleon’s troops after his triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Arc de Triomphe is now one of the most notable sights in Paris, not just to tourists but a symbol for the French.
The shining star of Place Charles de Gaulle, the Arc de Triomphe located at the west end of the Champs Elysees. (Traffic is crazy there so look for the pedestrian underpass at the Charles de Gaulle-Etoile metro stop.)
At the base of this mighty arch, modelled after the Roman Arch of Titus, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but the ambitious will want to climb the 269 steps up to the viewing terrace for the endless views.
Climb the Arc de Triomphe. Check prices and availability here.
Visit the Cluny Museum
The medieval Musée de Cluny, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, is one of the most cherished museums in Paris – at least in my books – mainly because I’m a sucker for the scarlet Unicorn Tapestries, seen on needlepoint cushion covers around the world. Not to mention the walls of Gryffindor common room in Harry Potter.
With one of the best collections of medieval art anywhere, the Musée national du Moyen Âge, Thermes et hôtel de Cluny (its full name is a mouthful), is also interesting for the building itself. It’s housed in the 14th century Hotel de Cluny, a Gothic mansion that was the home of the Abbots of Cluny.
This in turn is built on the site of a third-century Roman bath complex. Its fantastic location in the Latin Quarter only adds to the draw.
Don’t miss: The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, a fairytale-like Flemish masterpiece.
A Museum Pass includes admission to the Cluny Museum. Check it out here.
Louis XIV was here
Take a Day Trip to Versailles
I’m aware it’s not actually in the city, but nonetheless a day trip to Versailles is one of the most popular things to do in Paris.
For your Marie Antoinette history fix and to witness the lavish lifestyle of the Sun King, Louis XIV, there is no better destination.
Make sure you get your ticket beforehand, or sign up for a tour so that you can avoid the lengthy lineups.
While the Palace of the Versailles is the number one draw, the grounds and the smaller palaces of Petit Trianon and Trianon are also big attractions – and the town itself is a delight so give yourself time to explore it.
Here’s an article on things to do in Versailles and the best way to see it.
Get a Skip the Line Versailles entry ticket with Gardens access here.
Gaze Up at the Stained Glass of Sainte-Chapelle
Oooh, the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle is a magical place. If you like glorious stained glass then this is the place for you. (And a day trip to Chartres Cathedral should be on your horizon as well.)
With Sainte-Chapelle’s 1113 stained glass scenes arranged in a series of 15 huge windows 15 metres high, it’s more light than stone, and how it has survived since 1248 is beyond me.
It’s probably the best example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture in Europe. (And you can impress your friends by knowing what Rayonnant Gothic means – it’s an architectural style that emphasizes soaring weightlessness and lofty heights.)
History of Sainte-Chapelle
To get to the heart of Sainte-Chapelle we need to go back to the time of King Louis IX. This pious king had Sainte-Chapelle built as a royal chapel to house his treasured relics including the Crown of Thorns and the Image of Edessa.
The chapel took only seven years year to complete, which is quite a feat considering the Arc de Triomphe took 30 years.
Get a ticket in advance for Sainte Chapelle here.
Sightseeing tip: Combine a visit to Sainte-Chapelle with a trip to the adjacent Conciergerie, the prison that held Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution.
Other than a strange drooling dog jumping up on me on this hilltop neighbourhood, I have fond memories of Montmartre. I like it even better when I look past the throngs of tourists, street side portrait artists and overpriced cafes to its decadent history.
At the turn of the 19th century, this neighbourhood was the place to be for the absinthe-swilling starving artist set including Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Renoir, and various assorted other painters, sculptors, poets, models, partiers, dancers, mistresses and lovers.
Many also visit infamous Pigalle, the red light area at the bottom of Montmartre Hill – home to the Moulin Rouge cabaret.
Things to do in Montmartre include stopping in at the Musee de Montmartre where Renoir lived and painted, getting lost in the steep streets and enjoying the views from the butte (the top).
Don’t miss (though it’s so huge you can hardly ignore it) the massive basilica of Sacre Coeur. It was built between 1875 and 1914, about the same time those depraved penniless artists were having all that sinful fun in the local bars and clubs.
Hungry? Try Lapin Agile (the Agile Rabbit) at 22 Rue des Saules where Picasso used to trade drawings for meals.
#10 Stroll the Champs-Élysées
While it’s one of the top sights in Paris, I can’t say the Champs-Élysées is my favourite street in the 8th arrondissement. Maybe it’s a victim of its own fame (and high rent) – too crowded, with too many chain stores.
Nonetheless I often feel compelled to visit it when I’m in Paris, just to touch base with the city’s most iconic avenue. Plus a trip for tea and macarons at Laduree or Fouquet’s is always a luxurious treat.
Why visit the Champs-Élysées?
Because it’s known as The World’s Most Beautiful Avenue. When it was first laid out, this 2 km long boulevard was designed to boost commerce, and its wide sidewalks, cafes and stately row of London Plane trees became one of the most glamorous streets in the world.
What does Champs-Élysées mean?
The name Champs-Élysées means Elysian Fields. In Greek and Roman mythology, it’s the abode of the deserving dead. This sounds desperately bleak and graveyard-like until you realize it vaguely describes heaven.
Luxury tip for visiting the Champs-Élysées: Avenue Montaigne, which runs off the Champs-Élysées, is one of the most ‘haute’ streets in Paris. Stop in at the 5-star Plaza Athenee for a glass of champagne.
Where to Stay in Paris and More Travel Tips
Top 20 Things to Do in Paris
Why stop at 10? There are so many places to see in Paris. You could stay years and still be sightseeing. If you have more time, ten other spots I recommend are:
- Go to the Centre Pompidou for contemporary art. There is a very slick cafe on the top floor.
- See the Musée de l’Orangerie for Monet’s Waterlilies.
- Stroll the city’s many gardens and parks such as the Luxembourg Gardens, the Jardin des Tuileries and the Bois de Boulogne.
- Sip a café au lait in one of the historic cafes in Montparnasse.
- Eat at the most beautiful train station restaurant in Europe, Le Train Bleu.
- For a whole lot of decadent fun, follow the trail of Oscar Wilde in Paris.
- For a fabulous fashion fix follow the footsteps of Coco Chanel
- Visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery to see the grave of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and so many others.
- Explore the small streets, boutiques, antique and art stores in Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
- Take a boat cruise along the Seine.
It would be nice to fit in every Parisian landmark, but if your time is pressed or you just want a refresher of what to do, the sights I’ve listed above continue to be fan favourites year after year and, in my opinion, are the top 10 things to see in Paris – oh, wait. Make that 20.