15 things to see and do on your first trip to Paris
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Paris is a city that many points-and-miles travelers return to again and again. It’s alluring for so many reasons — the incredible culinary adventures you can have, its lens into history through its architecture and art museums, its walkability and world-class shopping. There is a lot to see and do in Paris and first-timers can have a hard time fitting it all in.
To help you get your bearings in the City of Light, here is TPG’s list of things every first-time visitor to Paris should do. It’s not an exhaustive list, but if you check off these 15 things, we bet you’ll want to return to Paris to see even more.
Get acclimated on a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus
Depending on where you’re coming from, you may be tempted to check into your hotel on the first day and sleep off that jet lag. Do not do it! Instead, push yourself to get outside and start exploring the city. An easy way to do that is by stepping aboard one of the city’s hop-on, hop-off sightseeing buses. You may not be a fan of this type of exploration, but here are some reasons why sightseeing buses are awesome. Several companies, including Big Bus, offer tours along a variety of routes. You can ride the complete circuit without getting off or, if you have some energy, hop on and off at your whim. We suggest riding for a bit and then hopping off for a coffee and croissant.
Be part of cafe culture
Paris is known throughout the world for its sidewalk cafes. On Day One of your trip — and every day thereafter — you owe it to yourself to seek out an outdoor table at a cafe, order a coffee and croissant and people-watch. Some popular options are Cafe de la Paix at the InterContinental Paris-Le Grand and, in Saint-Germain, Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore. Brush up on your French a bit so you can order and communicate — even just a little bit — with your waiter.
Cruise the Seine
As the evening falls on your first night, consider a romantic cruise along the Seine. You can book a cruise with commentary or even a full-blown dinner cruise that includes drinks, a meal and musical entertainment. Some ticket packages, like certain Big Bus options and The Paris Pass, include a Seine cruise. Or purchase tickets a la carte. A nighttime Seine cruise can be magical as the city lights up all around you. It’s wonderful to cruise during the day too. It’s your choice.
Visit the Eiffel Tower
It’s pretty much impossible to visit Paris and not catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower but it’s worth visiting up close. You can skip the lines by buying a ticket in advance or getting entrance as part of a package. At the tower, explore the groundfloor Esplanade. That’s where you’ll find the information desk, a sculpture of Gustave Eiffel and the 1899 hydraulic machines that still operate the elevators. You’ll also find restaurants and gift shops. In the tower itself, you can go to the first floor (with its glass floor, shops and restaurants), second floor (to view the cityscape and so many of its landmarks as well as dine at The Jules Verne Restaurant) and right to the top for breathtaking views. The top floor is 276 meters above ground and there’s a Champagne bar up there to add to the festiveness.
Explore the Louvre — more than once
The Louvre wins over everyone — even people who normally don’t enjoy art museums. There is so much to see, from the architecture of the building itself to the art (don’t just see the Mona Lisa and then ditch), the adjacent Tuileries Garden, the Carrousel du Louvre mall under the gardens and nearby Saint Honore and Place Vendome. (Make a point to stop at Angelina on Rue Rivoli for some excellent pastries and hot chocolate.)
The museum is huge and you won’t be able to see everything in one visit so consider coming back a second time. Try daytime and nighttime visits. The museum is open until 9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Arrive around 6 p.m. and the crowds will be much lighter. And download the museum’s app in advance so you can select which galleries you’d prefer exploring. (For a fantastic hotel with views of the Louvre, check out Hyatt’s Hotel du Louvre.)
Walk along the Champs-Elysees
You may not normally shop designer brands but that’s no reason to skip a stroll along the famed Champs-Elysees in the 8th arrondissement. This shopping boulevard runs from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe and is lined with boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Guerlain.
See the Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe, at the west end of the Champs-Elysees, is one of the most renowned monuments in the city. It honors those who fought and lost their lives in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It’s located in the Place Charles de Gaulle and the plaza is the convergence of the 16th, 17th and 8th arrondissements.
Tour the Palais Garnier
There are so many gorgeous historic buildings in Paris. If you enjoy architecture, take a tour of — or at least walk by — Palais Garnier (Opera Garnier) in the 9th arrondissement. Napoleon III ordered its construction, which took place between 1861 and 1875. The building has long been famous and was even the setting for the 1910 novel, “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux. Dozens of artisans worked on the interior and exterior of the building. Take in the Grand Foyer, Grand Staircase and the incredible statues by Gumery perched atop the building. You can take a self-guided or guided tour of this stupendous building. Note that the InterContinental Paris-Le Grand is just a few minute’s walk from the Opera House. If you haven’t yet enjoyed a Parisian cafe, check out Cafe de la Paix at the hotel.
Shop at the Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann
Just a five-minute walk from Palais Garnier is Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann. Here you can get the quintessential Paris shopping experience with all the luxury brands you love. There are all sorts of activities year-round. Right now, you’ll find a free rooftop skating rink, a children’s fashion workshop and the Glasswalk. This nine-meter-long walkway is suspended 16 meters in the air so you can get to the middle of the building’s dome from the third floor of the main store.
Whatever you do, cut yourself some slack in the dieting department when you visit Paris. There are so many wonderful gourmet shops, bakeries, patisseries, cafes, bistros and restaurants. Plan to walk as much as you can throughout the day so you won’t feel guilty sampling baguettes, croissants, pastries, cheese, charcuterie, chocolates and so much more. Don’t miss TPG’s guide to Paris’ best croissants, cheese, chocolate and pastries.
And, consider joining a food tour. We’ve done several with Paris by Mouth and have always had a wonderful time with spot-on suggestions for where to eat and shop in the city. What’s fun about the tours is that many take you to the best markets in town, like the covered Marche des Enfants Rouges in the Marais district, founded in 1628. It’s a fantastic place to see how Parisians shop and you can also have lunch there.
Ride the funicular to Montmartre for Sacre-coeur
Tourists rightfully flock to Butte Montmartre, the highest point in Paris and the location of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris — Sacre-Coeur. This Roman Catholic church in the 18th arrondissement is one of the most-visited sites in Paris. The Roman-Byzantine building is beautiful, there’s an incredible pipe organ inside and the views from the basilica are captivating. To get to the domed church, you’ll take a funicular. You can explore the church for free but if you want to climb the steps to the dome, you’ll need to buy a ticket.
See Paris’ “dark side” in the Catacombs
On the macabre side of tourism are the Catacombs of Paris in the 14th arrondissement. These underground tunnels, formerly a quarry, hold the remains of six million people, transferred here in the 18th century after public health concerns about the city’s cemeteries. In 1809, the catacombs were opened to the public. This is not the perfect attraction for anyone with mobility challenges since there are 131 steps to descend into the catacombs and 112 steps to climb back up. Plan on spending about an hour on-site.
See Notre Dame — even if you can’t go inside
In April 2019, fire ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral. Although the spire and part of the roof collapsed, 400 firefighters saved the two main bell towers and the cathedral’s facade. Still, the damage was extensive and tours inside the structure are not permitted at this time. You should still make a point to view the exterior of the building.
Experience a show at the Moulin Rouge
If you visited Montmartre during the day to see Sacre-Coeur, return in the evening for a cabaret performance at Moulin Rouge. There are glamorous showgirls, fabulous costumes, incredible set design, music and more. Even if you’re not into these types of shows, it’s kind of a rite of passage when visiting the city for the first time.
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Wander and get lost
Finally, the best piece of advice is this: Get out into the city and explore. It’s easy to get around on foot or via the Metro or ride-hailing service. Wander and take in everything Paris has to offer. We guarantee you that your first visit won’t be your last.
Featured image by Chris Karidis on Unsplash.
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