As that one friend in Paris, I’ve hosted a lot of people over the years, relatives and relative strangers. We all know what a stay with me means; I get to cook for a day–that means all the secret spots, every dive bar, a speakeasy tour.
And the rest of the time, well, the classics.
The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Seine–the usual suspects make an appearance on every list. You might think it gets old, doing the same walks, and explanations, but the repetition has had its benefits over the years.
I love this city and that’s why I have such a passion for making the most of my guest’s time. But if Parisians sense a ‘pigeon’ (someone easily scammed) that can sour an experience of the city, making the takeaway of Paris more ‘meh’ than ‘magnifique.’
So, in this guide you’ll find:
- The 8 most popular tourist attractions
- A local’s perspective on them
- Tips on how to get the most out of the experience
1. Louvre it or Leave it
First on our list is the Louvre Museum. It’s basically the ultimate test of your tourist experience. I mean, if you don’t see the Mona Lisa, did you even go to Paris? You did, don’t worry, I’m not judging.
It can be terrible on the wrong day. Lines upon lines, crowds, elbows, selfie sticks (people still use them). Is that how it always is, or did you do it wrong?
Please, I beg of you. Book in advance! This could be the defining moment of the day. I have the site attached here.
Once you’re inside, don’t just follow the herd to Mona. Explore! Get lost in the magnificent sculptures, the Egyptian mummies, other art. Trust me; you don’t need the ‘sardine can’ experience.
2. Sacré-Cœur Serenity
Montmartre might be famous for its stairs, the Moulin Rouge, and the bracelet scam, but one thing is truly worth it – the view from the Sacre-Cœur Basilica.
This is Paris’ Mount Olympus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hiked up these stairs on strolls with friends and visitors. The view from the top is something else, a 180-degree panorama of Paris. And it’s not just about the view; the interior is stunning too.
Start from the Blanche stop on line 2 rather than Anvers or Abbesses. The winding streets are less taxing. Frankly, they make a more interesting walk than the gardens in the front.
At the wrong hour, in those gardens, you’ll see packs of rats.
My recommendation: Avoid the line to the top of the church, it’s not worth it. Check the calendar of events. La fete des Vendanges, ‘the wine party,’ which celebrates the harvest from Montmartre’s vineyard is a riot. La fête de la musique, in late June, gives this neighborhood a whole new meaning.
3. Choose your Seine
A river cruise is a staple for most tourists, but it’s not always the best way to see the Seine.
If you commit, opt for the sunset. As the sun dips below the Parisian rooftops and the city lights start to twinkle, you’ll understand why this city is called the City of Lights. Gliding past the Eiffel Tower from the water is the stuff of rom-coms.
The Batobus is the number one for a reason. I’ve taken it plenty of times, and it is a rather standard experience, but fun in good weather. I have the link here.
My recommendation: I’d stay on the banks. At Pont Sully, south of le Marais, stop at a Carrefour or a cave, buy a bottle of wine and plastic cups, and drink along the Seine. It’s a more authentic experience. Les Nautes, for example, is a great place to schmooze with locals on a Friday night.
4. Eiffel in Love with Paris
Now, having mentioned the Eiffel Tower, is it worth the climb? Well, it depends on your stamina and patience. The lines can be brutal, yet the ascent can leave you breathless (and not just because of the view).
Come from Trocadero for the best photo, and view from afar. At night, the Eiffel Tower glimmers and makes for an enchanting sight.
If you plan ahead, the day can be one of the most memorable of your voyage.
My advice: I’d highly recommend booking far in advance at le Jules Verne, the restaurant midway up the Eiffel Tower. It costs a good amount but is beyond worth it as you can dine in scenery and cut the line, using their private entrance onto the balcony. The best part, they have an elevator.
I’ve been there twice, and each time was incredible, both the food and the experience.
5. L’arc du Triomphe
Awkward to reach but stunning to summit, l’arc du Triomphe is a great consolation prize if the Eiffel Tower was too hectic. The view as you gaze down the Champs Elysées can be hypnotic. And at twilight or night, it can be awe-inspiring.
My recommendation: To be honest, and I’m grimacing as I write this, but it is a bit out of the way. If you are committed to it, I’d lump it in the same day as the Louvre, and then go to Parc Monceau afterward. Otherwise, this area can leave you a bit stranded.
Normally, I take my friends to rooftop bars instead. These have the same effect, for basically the same price in a much cooler setting.
6. Merci, Musée d’Orsay
The Louvre is impressive, but the Musée d’Orsay is like its refined sibling. Housed in a stunning Beaux-Arts railway station, this museum is a treasure trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces.
Classic works from Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and many others are present. The atmosphere is less chaotic than the Louvre. Plus, the clock tower on the top floor offers a fantastic view of the city. It’s like stepping into a painting.
My recommendation: prioritize this museum if you haven’t booked ahead, and the wait at the Louvre is insane, per normal. The museum is massive, so don’t get overly ambitious and push the kids or partner into 6 hours of art appreciation.
Come for a few hours, and then stop at a Bistro in the neighborhood. Les Antiquaires is a personal favorite.
7. Notre-Dame? No, Saint-Chappelle
Notre Dame’s tragic fire closed the prestigious cathedral. While the interior remains closed for renovations, the exterior contains details on the restoration of the historic landmark. As the symbol of the city, and a significant place in my time in Paris, the fire still leaves me in disbelief.
My recommendation: The île is still very much worth a visit.
Next door is Saint Chapelle. At 11,50 Euros, the cathedral has incredible stained glass windows and artwork that will stick with you. Across the waterway is Bertillon, the famed ice cream that will stick with you in a different way. It is all central, and can easily be strung into another attraction afterward.
8. Picnic à la Parisienne
Paris has some of the most stunning parks in the world, but they’re not all created equal. While magnificent for a stroll, I’d avoid settling for a picnic in Le Jardin des Tuileries.
My recommendation: Instead, invest time in my trinity of Parisian parks: Luxembourg Gardens, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, or the little-known Jardin de Palais Royal.
Located about 10 minutes away by foot, I’d settle in the shady garden in the center of Le Palais Royal with a jambon fromage. Have lunch where Tom Cruise shared an emotional goodbye in Mission Impossible.
Luxembourg Gardens is also an amazing but versatile place. On the Southern Entrance lies a sunny patch where Parisians picnic and imbibe. Descend the stairs, the fountain area and its toy sailboats are perfect for kids. To the East, several intimate sculpture gardens create perfect alcoves for reading, planning your next adventure, or just chatting.
Buttes-Chaumont is my favorite of the three. From the top of grassy hills, one can munch a charcuterie board with a view of the domed tops of Sacre Coeur. I’ve celebrated many birthdays over the years here, as it is the most serene and casual of the parks. At night, a lively beer garden in the Northeast corner, Rosa Bonheur opens.
These green oases can be a much-needed respite, and a perfect pause from Paris’s concrete heavy infrastructure.
In conclusion, Paris is a city of greatest hits and nuance. While some tourist activities are indeed worth it, they aren’t all necessary. Savor it like a local, and you’ll cut out all of the bad experiences.
Paris does stir something in all of our souls, and the meandering between the sights is what sticks with us forever.