When museums and art galleries are your idea of hell...
Reputation: museums and art galleries, art galleries and museums.
Why you should go: the Eiffel Tower, great shopping, beautiful parks, tasty food, 2,000 years of amazing architecture, friendly people (yes, really). There's so much to do. What we've listed here just scratches the surface.
A quick note about accessibility in Paris: everywhere you go there are cobbled streets and steps, and Metro stations have very few lifts (elevators) or escalators. It’s not easy to get around if you’ve got a pushchair or use a mobility device so we recommending planning your routes carefully.
Everything’s free unless stated.
Enjoy great views of Paris
Paris is reasonably flat which means you don’t need to get very high to enjoy iconic views. There’s the top floor of the Eiffel Tower, of course (an entry fee applies), and the terrace outside the Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Both provide gorgeous views.
For loads of Instagram-worthy snaps of the Eiffel Tower itself, head to the Palais de Chaillot just across the river. You'll get a great view from here.
To see Paris and its sites while sitting down, go for a cruise on the Seine. Most cruises do the main sites non-stop in about an hour. Or try Batobus, a hop on, hop off boat, which does a handy circuit so you can see the sites and visit them too. We really like it, although it takes a little longer to get around that the Metro. See its website for where to buy tickets.
One of our favourite spots is the intersection of the Champs-Elysees and Avenue Winston Churchill. Here, you get views of the Place de la Concorde and entrance to Jardin des Tuileries in one direction, the Hotel de Invalides, Grand Palais, Petit Palais and Pont Alexandre III Bridge in another, and up the Champs-Elysees itself in another direction.
We also like walking up Avenue de l’Opera towards the Palais Garnier building, which is pretty impressive. And the view of the Arc de Triomphe while strolling up the Champs-Elysees is pretty good too.
Take a stroll through Paris's parks
Paris is full of beautiful parks or 'jardin', all of which are free. Roam for hours, sit by the fountains or let the kids run wild. The parks are dotted with cafes too.
At the bottom of the Champs-Elysees is the Jardin des Tuileries. On the Left Bank is Jardin du Luxembourg, which has a great park for kids. Our youngest contributor (18 months old) loves it. There's also the Champ de Mars around the Eiffel Tower ("Oh look, what's that over there?" "It's just the Eiffel Tower.").
The food in Paris is really good and there are restaurants everywhere. Even in the ‘burbs there are great bistros on almost every corner. Paris is full of little shops and markets selling pastries, cheese and other fresh food, and even the small corner shops sell great bread, cheese, cooked meats and even champagne. So our tip is to start by sniffing around the streets of your hotel or Airbnb to see what you can find. Sometimes a picnic of baguette and cheese on your hotel bed is just what the doctor ordered after a long day of sight-seeing.
For example, the hotel we love, Hotel International, has two great pastry shops within a minute’s walk (literally one minute): Yann Couvreur and another with a sign simply saying ‘Patisserie’. And a pretty incredible cheese shop: La Fromagerie Goncourt. There are well over a dozen bistros within five minutes’ walk. And this is all in a residential part of the city. See what we mean?
If you’re in a particularly touristy part of town, shop around and compare menus and prices. The quality can be a bit patchy.
Lap up the classical architecture…
Paris’s architecture spans nearly 2,000 years so there's lots to see. The earliest architecture is Roman and remnants can still be seen beside the Musée du Moyen Age, just off the Boulevard St Germain. This is another French-language website so if you find an English version, let us know!
Medieval architecture can be seen in the Tour Bonbeccan, completed in 1270, which is now part of the more modern (19th century) Conciergerie building. When looking at it from across the Seine, the Bonbeccan is the right-most tower.
Notre Dame is recognised as the best example anywhere of French Gothic architecture, despite the fire that gutted it in April 2019. It was completed in 1345 and is famous for its flying buttresses, stained-glass windows and a hunchback. While reconstruction is underway, you’re likely to catch only glimpses of this great building, but it’s still worth a walk-by.
The École Militaire (1751–80) is a great example of French Classicism combined with some Italian decorative elements. Italy was leading the way in architecture at the time.
Much of the Paris people think of today was built from 1853 to 1914. Its distinctive style is what so many people love about the city. Georges-Eugene Haussmann was responsible for demolishing Paris’s medieval – and frankly unhealthy – slums between 1853 and 1870 and replacing them with wide avenues, parks, gardens and fountains. The best example of this is Boulevard Haussmann. It was followed by the Belle Epoque which combined various different styles such as neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and art deco. You can see this style in structures like the Eiffel Tower, Le Bon Marche and the Metro.
Our favourite building is the Gare d'Orsay train station (1898-1900), which now houses the Musee d’Orsay. You may not like art or museums, but the transformation is pretty impressive, especially the restaurants behind the giant clock faces. There’s even a viewing platform on the top floor where you can see the interior layout and appreciate what they’ve done. An entry fee applies.
...Or discover something modern
If your prefer modern architecture, you're in for a treat. Check out the Louvre Pyramid (designed by I M Pei) in front of the Louvre and Le Centre Pompidou (Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Gianfranco Franchini).
Along the banks of the Seine in the 13th arrondisement is the Cite de la Mode et du Design (Jakob + MacFarlane).
On the west side of town, outside the Boulevard Peripherique is theremarkable Fondation Louis Vuitton (Frank Gehry) in the Bois de Boulongne and the Grand Arche de la Defense (Johann Otto von Sprekelsen).
You don't need to go inside any of these buildings to admire the outstanding architecture, although we recommend going inside the Fondation Louis Vuitton. A fee applies.
Learn about France’s former monarchy
The Sun King (Louis XIV), Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette left a lasting impression on Paris and much of this legacy can still be visited. There’s the Palace of Versailles, of course, which is gorgeous, although it can get crowded. We recommend booking a day or half-day tour through someone like Viator (no, we don't get a commission!) to avoid the notorious queues. An entry fee applies.
In the city centre, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned at the Conciergerie, which is easy to spot on the riverbanks near Notre Dame: look for the building with the turrets. And Place de la Concorde is where the guillotine stood and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, among many others, were executed.
Don’t forget the Louvre. Even if you’re not into museums or art you may still want to explore this huge former royal palace. There’s a self-guided tour dedicated to the topic. Check it out on the Louvre’s website. An entry fee applies.
Do absolutely nothing
Paris is the perfect place to spend a few hours people-watching in a café, mooching around in a park or enjoying the serenity (aah, the serenity) and incense of one of the many, many churches. Make some time to soak up the atmosphere.
Paris has inspires authors, both great and obscure, for centuries and is the setting of many books. So why not discover its literary side?
You can pay homage to François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo at the Pantheon where they're buried. Head for the crypt at the back of the building. It’s not signposted until you’re almost on top of it. An entry fee applies.
Ernest Hemmingway was a stalwart at The Ritz. Aldous Huxley, Truman Capote and TS Eliot hung out in the Bar Signature at the Hotel Pont Royal. And Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir practically lived at the Café de Flore.
Paris is the star of many novels. There's Notre Dame and its ill-fated hunchback. The Ritz features in books like F Scott Fitzgerald’s 'Tender is the night' and Lauren Weisberger's 'The devil wears Prada'. And who can forget Dan Brown’s 'The de Vinci Code'? The Louvre (which of course you won’t visit) even has a tour dedicated to it.
We love (and we mean, love) the Shakespeare and Company bookshop near Notre Dame. We love its crumbling building, deceptively small interior with books stuffed into every nook and cranny, the famous authors who have written there and it's huge range of books you really, really want.
First things first: almost all stores are closed on Sundays. The notable exceptions are Carrousel de Louvre under the Louvre (don’t worry, you don’t have to enter the museum to access the shops) and anything along the Champs-Elyees. Every other day of the week, you can shop for just about anything you can image from 10am-ish until at least 7pm.
We could go on forever about all the amazing shops (and they are amazing) but, instead, our advice is this: pick a part of town and go exploring. You’re guaranteed to find shops that you absolutely love.
Having said that, we can’t help mentioning a few of our favourites. We love Galeries Lafayette. Make sure you check out the atrium in the women’s section. The skylight is fab. The food across the road in the Galeries Lafayette Maison is pretty good too. Yeap, Paris’s department stores are so big they can’t be confined to just one building.
Another favourite is the Le Bon Marche department store. While you’re in the neighbourhood, check out the nearby Hermes. It’s located in an old swimming pool and it’s GLORIOUS. There’s even a café onsite if you feel like a glass of champagne.
If you’re into fly fishing, as one of our contributors is, take a trip to Maison de la Mouche on the far end of the little island behind Notre Dame. This small but perfectly-formed store stocks things our CFO (chief fishing officer) hasn’t come across before, and he’s come across most things, so it’s worth checking out.
Tip: if you’re a Chanel fan, take a stroll down Rue Cambon and pay homage at Coco's original atelier. There’s still a store here and the haute couture is made on the upper floors. You can even peek through the door at the famous mirrored staircase.
If you do just one museum...
Here are a couple of options for you:
The Louvre is huge but if you feel the need to say you've been, do one of its visitor trails. We like Masterpieces, Greek Sculpture and Living at the Louvre. Each tour takes just 90 minutes. Avoid the infamous queues and book your tickets online. Just remember that it's closed on Tuesdays.
Our other suggestion is the Musee de l’Orangerie, which houses eight huge paintings of Monet’s water lilies. It’s a stunning sight, doesn’t require a lot of walking around and is easy to do. An entry fee applies.
But wait, there's more
Paris offers more that we haven't covered yet such as the markets, cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, day trips to Reims (for champagne!), jazz bars, the catacombs, the opera and ballet...the list goes on. So there's plenty to do when you're not into museums and art galleries. You've got no excuse not to go!
Where to stay
We love Hotel International in the 11th arrondisement. It’s a gorgeous boutique hotel with lovely rooms and helpful staff, and it’s squeaky-clean. The rooms aren’t huge but they are well designed and decorated. Check out the wallpaper!
It’s one minute from Goncourt Metro station and is surrounded by great little restaurants and bakeries, and the store on the corner sells champagne and beer. We could rave about the hotel for days, but we’ll let you discover it for yourself. If you book online and pay well in advance you can save up to €100 a night, which makes it very affordable.
A few more tips
If you arrive via Charles de Gaulle Airport, seriously consider getting a fixed-price taxi to your hotel or Airbnb. Catching the RER (train) and then linking to the Metro is good in theory, but it’s a bit of a slog in practice, especially with luggage, and there are very few lifts (elevators) and escalators in Metro stations. If there are three of you, a taxi will cost the same as the RER.
Don't worry about changing lots of cash before you go. Paris pretty much runs on plastic, and the interchange fees charged by credit card companies on foreign transactions are lower than the fees from money changers.
Wherever possible, book skip-the-queue tickets online in advance to anything you want to see or you risk queuing for hours.
Parisians have a reputation for being rude but we found the opposite to be true. People in Paris are friendly and willing to help. A complete stranger helped us carry a pushchair down a flight of steps and another approached us to help when we were clearly lost.
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Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Michael Nansett, Teresa Amey, little Edith Amey, Bridget Young, Kevin Greaney
Updated: 17 April 2019