5 Big Paris Tips (and many small ones)
Paris tips for first-time visitors (and seasoned travelers)
Ah, Paris, so much to see and do. While I’m definitely just a tourist – been there a mere six times over 30 years – and not a know-it-all guide to the wonderful City of Lights, I have advised several friends on what to see and do in Paris during their first, and usually relatively quick visit. These are my Paris tips.
My friends all visited Paris for five days or less (as I did each time), usually because it was part of a bigger trip or that’s all the time they could take. Even with a whole week, it’s hard to get to all the important sights as it’s easy to get sidetracked by inviting cafes, breathtaking views, or just strolling the streets and people-watching. Yes, I’ve been known to spend hours relaxing under a tree near the Eiffel Tower, watching the people go by. But I digress…
Here are my top tips:
1. Get a Paris Pass* – not cheap, €192 for a four-day adult pass. I’ve done it for my last two trips to Paris and loved not having to wait in long lines or pay at the top museums and attractions (not the Eiffel Tower, though). Plus, getting fast-track entry into many attractions (still have to wait in lines in busy times, just not as long) and having free unlimited travel on the Metro, RER, and buses are well worth the expense.
*If you have enough time, order the Pass sent to you. On my last trip, my daughter, grandson, and I walked from our 13th arrondissement VRBO rental all the way to the one Paris Pass office practically five miles away – we saw much that we wanted to go back and see, but it was not the best way to spend our first, tired-from-traveling day in Paris. My grandson still refers to it as “the forced march.”
2. Take a cruise on the Seine (it’s free with the Paris Pass). I especially recommend this Paris tip for the first day in town after an all-night flight getting there. Besides being relaxing, the cruise helps visitors to get their bearings as it leaves from near the Eiffel Tower and cruises up past Notre Dame, passing the Louvre on one side and the Musee D’Orsay on the other. One time a friend and I chose the lunch cruise on our first day – it helped us get through the time change, and we even learned a little history from the tour guide.
3. Reserve time to go up the Eiffel Tower before you go. I’ve only gone up the Eiffel Tower twice – once many years ago at the spur of the moment at night in the pouring rain (so no lines) with an elevator full of singing Italians (memorable, to say the least), and more recently when I made a reservation (even then you have to wait in line with others in your time frame). It’s a Paris must. Or you can climb the 704 stairs – open to the public – to the 2nd floor. Definitely a YOLO (you only live once) activity!
4. Wish I could still recommend that visitors climb up the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral, but since the 2019 destructive fire, that is not a possibility. I do highly recommend watching “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (favorite version has Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda) before you go to Paris, however, just to give you a feel for the iconic Cathedral. it's still a wonderful edifice to behold even while under reconstruction, and visitors can learn some ancient history by visiting the crypt that is under the square in front of Notre Dame--one of the largest archaeological crypts in all of Europe. And while in the area, visit the nearby Sainte-Chapelle, a small Gothic chapel built by King Louis IX to hold his relics. Bring small binoculars to fully enjoy the church’s stained glass windows, which chronicle Bible stories from start to finish.
5. Do your research and make a list to determine what you definitely want to see. On my last trip, which I took with my daughter and then my 13-year-old grandson, we had a list of 20 things we wanted to see or visit. We only got to 12 of them during our five-day visit.
If art and museums are important to you – and they almost have to be when in Paris – the choices are extensive. The Louvre comes to mind first, but that’s at least a day-long commitment to getting through it. Best for the real art savvy. My favorite is the Rodin Museum with The Thinker sculpture alone worth the visit. Two other musts are the Musee D’Orsay for its wide range of very recognizable Impressionists works (and the architecture of the former railway station) and the Georges Pompidou Centre, with some very funky modern art inside, a wild parade of street performers outside, and different view of Paris from its top-floor restaurant. Smaller, but just as fascinating, museums include Le Musee de l’Orangerie (lots of Monets) and Musee Picasso. And, if you have time, learn more about Paris history at Musee Carnavalet, which highlights everyday objects, or Les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried, with info covering all the wars France has fought.
Where to stay
What lodging to choose is, of course, up to the travelers’ preferences and budget. A Paris tip is to either find a place that serves breakfast or rent an apartment through VRBO or Airbnb, as it makes it easier to get out and about earlier if you don’t have to go to a restaurant for breakfast (and local markets and bakeries are mostly spectacular). I have only stayed once on the La Rive Droite, i.e., the Right Bank, north of the River Seine, but most of the famous attractions are there. I just prefer the neighborhoods and ambiance of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) – it’s where the writers and artists used to hang out. And, with that, I’ll mention the only restaurant I consider a must to go to in Paris, La Coupole, decorated in Art Deco by painters in the 1920s, it’s even on the Registry of Historic Monuments and, when I went, the meal was delicious.
Here’s our list of 20 “must-sees”:
1. Catacombs (too long a line; should have made a reservation)
2. Montparnasse (big tall modern building you can go to the top of — and have champagne — and see all of Paris; there's also a cemetery near there that has celebrities)
3. Musee d'Orsay
4. Museum of Natural Science
5. Pompidou Center
6. Notre Dame
7. Ste. Chapelle
8. Eiffel Tower
9. Pere du Lachaise (cemetery where Jim Morrison and many other celebs are buried — kind of creepy but interesting at the same time)
10. Rodin Museum (relatively close to the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides)
11. Arc de Triumphe (I have only climbed up this at night, but it is an amazing view of Paris)
12. Champs Elysee
13. Place de Concorde
14. Musee de l'Orangerie
15. Musee Picasso
16. Les Invalides
17. Boat cruise on the Seine
19. Louvre — we walked by, but it's pretty amazing to sit outside and take in the whole complex
20. Luxembourg Gardens
And one last Paris tip: If you are more than a couple traveling together, or if you’re just plain nervous about finding your way to your lodging when you arrive, consider booking a service to pick you up at the airport. As you exit from getting your baggage, they’ll be waiting for you holding a sign with your name on it. I only did it this last visit and loved it — Super Star, super-star-travel.com, was recommended to me by our VRBO owner – and they are usually parked just outside the door so you leave the airport immediately.