Whether you’re a luxury traveler or on a tight budget, the top sights of Paris beckon like beacons in fog. To help you sort through the myriad of landmarks, attractions and activities, here’s an overview of the top 10 things to do in Paris.
Top 10 things to do in Paris
# 1 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) and helped built up the collection to magnificent heights (mainly with the spoils of war). Today the Louvre – which has had a long life as a fortress in the 1100s, a Renaissance palace in the 1500s and been a national museum since the French Revolution – is 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.
What to see at the Louvre: I want to say everything but the superstars are Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and 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.
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.
#2 Notre Dame Cathedral
More people visit Notre Dame Cathedral than the Louvre (a whopping 13 million people a year), and even though the Louvre is still my top pick for things to do in Paris, I understand the draw. For one thing, you can’t miss it. Sitting in the centre of the Seine River, this grand Gothic cathedral dominates the Ile de la Cite, and has a history as large as its 300 foot (90 metre) high spire.
Begun in 1143 by Louis VII it took nearly two hundred years 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 if you’re feeling energetic you can climb the 387 steps up one of its two towers for a skyline view.
Budget tip: Notre Dame is free. There is an extra fee to climb the tower or visit the crypt.
#3 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, and to show the world France had the technical know how and skill to build the tallest building in the world. And while many hated this 1066-foot-high (325-metre) tower, considering it a scourge on the elegant beauty of Paris, it was nonetheless 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.
#4 Check out the Impressionist art at Musee D’Orsay
Personally, Musee 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 I was much more interested in seeing the Eiffel Tower, so in respect to my younger self I bumped the Musee D’Orsay down on the list.
The Musee 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.
What to see at Musee 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 and everything you can find by Monet.
#5 L’arc de Triomphe
Here’s another Napoleon built monument – he did like his larger-than-life landmarks. While Napoleon commissioned the famous Arc de Triomphe in 1806, 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.
#6 Cluny Museum
The medieval Cluny Museum, 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 Cluny 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.
#7 Take a day trip 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.
#8 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.)
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.
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 neighborhood 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 Montmartrewhere 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.
#10 Stroll the Champs Elysees
While it’s one of the top sights in Paris, I can’t say the Champs Elysees 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 Elysees? 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. The name Champs Elysees means Elysian Fields, which, in Greek and Roman mythology, was the abode of the deserving dead. This sounds desperately bleak and graveyard-like until you realize it vaguely describes heaven.
Getting to Paris, France
If you want to start your trip early and get into the swing of things before you’ve even left the US or Canada (or wherever you’re flying from), why not fly French? Air France offers some cheap airline tickets, and bonus – you don’t have to wait until you get to Paris to sample French food and champagne. Flights New York Paris would be one of the most affordable routes from the US, though you can also find direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto.
Where to stay in Paris and more travel tips
Bonus ten more things to do in Paris
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:
- The Centre Pompidou for contemporary art
- Musée de l’Orangerie for Monet’s Waterlilies.
- Gardens and parks like the Luxembourg Gardens, the Jardin des Tuileries and the Bois de Boulogne.
- The historic cafes in Montparnasse.
- Eat at the most beautiful train station restaurant in Europe, Le Train Bleu.
- For some amazing literary quotes, follow the trail of Oscar Wilde in Paris.
- Want something fragrant? Try the Perfume Museum.
- Visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
- 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.