My family visited me recently and during those 7 days I was the ultimate tour guide…
It was really tiring to do all of this and more in 7 days. That is why I wonder how some people come to Paris for only 2-3 days. That is clearly not enough. This city is huge and has so much to see. Even if you only see the most popular things, as we did, it takes a week to not drive yourself crazy running like a hamster in a wheel.
Here are some of the must-do things for first time visitors, like my parents:
1. CRUISE THE SEINE RIVER ON A BOAT.
This 1h cruise only costs you about 10€ and not only is it cool to be cruising on a boat in Paris, but you can also see most of the major sights (Notre Dame, Louvre, Eiffel Tower etc.), including the famous bridges (Pont Alexander III, Pont Neuf etc.), in a very fun and non-traditional way. No need to push through tourist hordes. Just sit back and enjoy the views. Pack some picnic food with you and the whole experience gets even better.
Pro tip: I have found Vedettes de Paris to be the most reasonably priced company for this. Take the daytime cruise when it’s sunny and when it’s cloudy, try out the evening cruise, when Paris is all up in lights, including the sparkling Eiffel tower.
2. TRY AFFORDABLE FRENCH CUISINE AT SAINT MICHEL.
French food is considered to be one of the best in the world. And aside from Lyon, Paris is the place to be trying all of this. But for budget travellers, like students, this can get pretty expensive. Fortunately, there are some really cool quarters of Paris like the Saint Michel, where all these affordable restaurants are lined up on long streets. There are set menu deals, which means that you can get 3 courses (starter, main and dessert) for only 10-15€! Some of the places are not so great quality but some are seriously good. And most of them serve the most traditional French dishes.
Pro tip: Best streets are Rue de la Huchette and Rue de la Harpe. Take metro line 10 to Cluny la Sorbonne or line 4 to Saint Michel Notre Dame. // Ask for “carafe d’eau” to get free tap water for the table to avoid paying big bucks for bottled water.
3. GO SEE/CLIMB THE EIFFEL TOWER.
Well this is usually the one thing that everyone goes and sees in Paris. And it is worth it. I suggest to go and see it both during daytime and in the evening. When you choose to go to the top, know for sure, that you have to wait in the line for long time, even if you purchase the ticket in advance and climb the stairs to the second floor. I think we still stood in line for 1h. The views on top are pretty cool but not sure I would be up to doing again.
Pro tip: Every evening 5 minutes after full hour, the tower will sparkle. If you miss it, then you have to wait another 55 minutes for the next one. Best views for photos in my opinion are of course the Trocadero viewing platform (Metro: Trocadero) and also Bir-Hakeim bridge (Metro: Passy) where they filmed the Inception movie. The tower does not look so impressive close up.
4. ENJOY A NUTELLA CRÊPE ON THE FOOTSTEPS OF SACRÉ CŒUR.
Sacré-Cœur basilica is one of the most famous churches in Paris, even though it is relatively new. It is built from a stone that turns more and more white with every time it rains. And God knows that it rains a lot in Paris in the winter. Down the hill there are many cheap souvenir shops (one of the best in Paris) and you can also grab a classic nutella crepe and enjoy it on the steps of the church, which is supposedly built on a holy hill.
Pro tip: If you are feeling more active, climb the stairs to the top of the church, the views are incredible, the lines aren’t long and it costs only about 6€. It overlooks the whole of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower. One of the coolest places to take panoramic photos of Paris.
5. CLIMB THE HILLY STREETS OF MONTMARTRE.
Montmartre is a historic hilly area in the 18th district of Paris. It’s loved by artists and all sorts of bohemian people. When people think of Paris, then this is the classical Paris that usually pops up to your head after seeing the movies. It’s worth just taking a stroll through the area while you are already visiting Sacré-Cœur.
Pro tip: Check out La place du Tertre where local artists have come to sell their paintings and the Love Wall, where “I love you” is written in all of the world languages, you just need to find yours!
6. TRY AS MUCH PASTRIES YOU CAN.
Before moving to France for the first time, I did not even eat sweets. Look at me now. France has changed me completely. They consider pastries to be a form of art. Try out eclairs, macarons and the millions of cakes they offer. It’s worth it!
Pro tip: The best chocolate eclairs are in regular bakeries/patisseries, but to check try some art, try L’Eclair de Génie and Pierre Hermé (much more interesting tastes than Ladurée).
7. VISIT AN ART MUSEUM.
There are 130 (!) museums in Paris, out of which, there are more than 40 art museums. My parents kept asking me: “What is this fancy building?” and every time I answered “Oh this is an art museum” and they went “AGAIN?”. Truly, even if you are not a huge fan of art, just go and check out what the fuss is about. Mona Lisa for example is actually really tiny and it’s funny to see all the pushing going on in front of it, because everyone wants to take a selfie with Mona Lisa.
Pro tip: Everyone usually goes to the Louvre, but it’s worth checking Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie as well. Both of them have more recent art and some of the most famous impressionist pieces. When you do decide to go to the Louvre, go check the Mona Lisa for fun, but then walk away from the crowds and find some more quiet areas. Believe me, the place is huge, there are some halls that are completely empty.
8. CHECK OUT THE LUXURY SHOPPING AT CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES.
Champs-Élysées is a famous avenue in the 8th district of Paris. This district is one of the most expensive areas for living in Paris and it does not have many affordable restaurants or such, but it is cool to go check out some luxury stores and luxury cars that are up for rent for 150€/30 min. And to be honest, there are some affordable shops there as well like Morgan or Sephora.
Pro tip: One Sunday a month, the avenue is closed for cars and open for pedestrians. Any other day, the best photo location would be at the crossing right before the Arc de Triomphe, where there is a small stretch of pavement in the middle of cars. It is safe to take photos there, and you get the cool traffic and the symmetry of the Arc on the photo.
9. CLIMB ON TOP OF THE ARC DE TRIOMPHE DE L’ÉTOILE.
I think this is one of the best views in Paris to take a photo of the Eiffel Tower and the Parisian streets. You can see how the streets are built with a ruler, drawing from the Arc like the legs of a star. You might get a bit dizzy on the way up, but it is worth it.
Pro tip: Go in the morning or in the evening, otherwise the sun will be too strong and too contrasted to get some good photos of the Eiffel Tower.
10. STROLL DOWN BOULEVARD SAINT-GERMAIN.
Boulevard Saint Germain is one of the major streets on the Left Bank of Seine river. It runs through the historic Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris, that was loved by artists, writers and philosophers for a long time. It has many cafes, many book shops, many galleries and it is just lovely to walk around.
Pro tip: Spoil yourself and go have breakfast or simply afternoon coffee in one of the most famous cafes in Paris such as Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore where, back in the day, Picasso, Hemingway, Sartre and Camus were simply one of the many regular visitors.
11. SEE HOW THE ROYALS USED TO LIVE AT VERSAILLES.
I know this one is technically out of Paris, but completely worth the 20km ride on the train. Versailles is one of the biggest masterpiece ever built. And the gardens are so big that you could easily get lost. Same goes for the palace though. My favourite places are the Grand and Petit Trianons with Marie Antoinette’s farmland, where you can see farm animals roaming around freely. Nice break from the gold, glitter and tourists hoards inside the palace itself.
Pro tip: If you are under 26 and EU citizen, then all of this is free for you and you do not need to wait in ticket line, simply show your ID card at the entrance gate (the same thing goes for most museums in Paris). Also, make sure to go early in the morning or in the afternoon, because it gets very crowded very fast.
And if you do pack sandwiches, then they will take them away at the palace entrance but give it back to you after you exit and enter the gardens, so you can snack on your sandwiches in the gardens without paying big bucks at the Palace cafes.
12. LISTEN TO THE CHURCH BELLS AT NOTRE DAME DE PARIS.
Notre Dame of Paris is nothing less than iconic. Even though it is not the fanciest Notre Dame church in France (Notre Dame de Reims is much more impressive), it still has an impact on you. Whether you fancy it from far away, go close to see the artwork or go have a walk inside.
Pro tip: While you are in the area, go have dinner or lunch at the Saint Michel restaurant quarter I mentioned before. Also, the riverside by the Seine is one of the most popular places for chilling in the evening.
13. HAVE A PICNIC IN ONE OF THE MANY GARDENS OF PARIS.
Even though Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in the world (yes it is, straight after some major Asian cities), it is actually very green. The Parisians love their parks. Every time they have a break, they go to the park or to the riverside. You see people sitting down everywhere, simply give them a little bit of shade and green grass and you have people sitting on it. It’s a lifestyle. You have so many gardens to choose from, but the most famous ones are obviously le Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries and Jardin des Plantes.
Pro tip: Jardin des Plantes has a really cute mini-zoo with red pandas! Check it out if you have time for a small detour. Also, the Grande Mosque of Paris is just behind the garden, go have tea in their lovely little cafe.
BONUS: TAKE A WALK BY THE SEINE
This plan never fails. Seine is the heart of Paris. Everywhere you go, you locate yourself by the Seine. And this is also where life is. Simply go to the riverside in the evening and you see so many people sitting around, having picnic, drinking wine and listening to music.
Pro tip: My favourite area is the Seine stretch on the Left bank between Notre Dame and Jardin des Plantes. Every evening people gather there to dance tango, salsa and even Macarena! Simply jump in the crowd.
I hope this was helpful 🙂