An Honest Guide to Paris
What hasn’t been written about Paris? It’s stunning, of course it is, but it’s also crowded, hectic, and overwhelming. “But it’s romantic,” you say, to which I reply, “Only if you make it.” With so much to see during what is inevitably too short a timeline, a visit to Paris can quickly turn from a fantasy to a whirlwind of missed expectations. Use the following as your guide, and you’ll give the City of Lights a chance to illuminate your heart, and your travel dreams.
First, Decide What Matters
Paris has no shortage of incredible sights. Just look at this list:
Champs-Elysées & Arc de Triomphe
You could spend an entire week in the Louvre and not experience all it has to offer. How will you ever see the rest of these sights, and leave time to soak up the culture of Paris by lounging in a café, eating French cuisine, or wandering through charming streets and markets? Even if you’re blessed with a week in the City of Lights, you need to decide what sights matter most to you. Make a list of your own. Now rank them. Which of the sights would you be disappointed if you didn’t see? Which would you accept missing if it meant a more relaxed, or even romantic, pace to your visit?
Look at your list. Assume that you’re able to visit one, maybe two, sights each day. If you only have a few days, you may want to panic at this point. There are so many places you just need to go. Stop. It is too easy to fall into the tourist trap of running from place to place but have no real experience or story to tell. The best memories happen when you step outside of your fixed itinerary and push into the culture around you. Leave room for the unexpected. Paris, more than most places in Europe, demands this behavior, otherwise it will keep you at arms length. If you’re struggling to narrow down your list, below are some thoughts to consider.
You need to wander around the Eiffel Tower at least twice: once during daylight hours, and again at night for a truly magical experience. If riding the elevator to the top is on your bucket list, don’t stress about waiting in line for hours during the day. Stop by again in the evening and check out the wait time. We’ve often found little-to-no wait for a ride to the top late at night, when we’d argue it’s a better view anyway.
Overwhelming. That’s the word that comes to mind when thinking about visiting the Louvre. If you try to see it all, first, you’ll fail, and second, your feet will hate you. Pick out no more than 5 pieces that you absolutely must see, and be at peace with hustling past everything else. You won’t be able to truly appreciate what you’re looking at if you try to take on more than that.
Make advanced reservations online to help with navigate the crowds, and don’t assume you have to wait in a long line outside the entrance. Walk up to the front to make sure you’re in the right place. Another tip: there’s an entrance below ground from the mall that often has a shorter wait. Give yourself at least half a day to make it past the lines of people crowding the entrance and see your top choices. If there is more you simply must see, plan on a full day or more.
While the Norte-Dame cathedral is one of the most well known cathedrals in the world, it was Sainte-Chapelle that stole our hearts in Paris. This gothic-style chapel, finished in 1248 and tucked into the Palais de la Cité, is bursting with light and color. 15 stained glass windows, each 45 feet tall, depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Our tip? Beat the crowds by booking a seat at a sunset classical music concert.
If you have an extra day in Paris, make the trip out to Versailles. Don’t plan on squeezing any more into your day, except maybe a visit back to the Eiffel Tower at dusk, as Versailles is huge, and worth lingering in. The tour of the palace is first-class, but we’d argue simply wandering the grounds and finding your own hidden corner to be one of the most serene and peaceful things to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris.
Champs-Elysées & Arc de Triomphe
For our time, we’d consider skipping this famous boulevard and triumphal arch. The shops lining the Champs-Elysées are not your stereotypical, quaint, “Parisian”, but expensive, big-name brands. The Arc de Triomphe can be a fun distraction, but don’t make a special trip unless you’ve already crossed off other sights on your list.
Second, Visit Slowly
Parisians have become calloused to the hordes of tourists brushing past them every day. It isn’t easy to be one of the few to ease that friction, let alone find the soft spots to engage. Find an out-of-the-way neighborhood, a small café, and sit down for a while. Shop for local fruits and vegetables at a market each day. Enjoy a glass of wine early, and late, in the evening. Allow yourself time to fall in love with Paris, otherwise you’ll pass each other by.
Finally, Decide Where to Stay
The Seine River splits Paris in half, with the right bank being the larger half. From there, Paris is further broken up into 20 arrondissements (think of them as neighborhoods, though technically there’s more to it than that). When trying to figure out where to stay, it can be helpful to understand a little of this geography, the unique style of each arrondissement, as well as the key tourist sights held within.
Additionally, keep an eye out for metro stops in close proximity. The Paris metro makes exploring the city quick and easy. Buy a pack, or carnet, of 10 tickets from the vending machines at any stop. These metro T+ tickets can be used to transfer amongst metro lines across the entire city for up to 90 minutes after being validated, and can also be used to ride the bus, though transfers from the bus to the metro require separate tickets. This is an important distinction to note: while metro T+ tickets can be used for the bus, bus-specific tickets cannot be used for the metro. Single-trip tickets purchased from the bus driver are good only for one trip, not including bus transfers. So plan ahead and purchase a carnet if you plan to explore the city for more than 1 day.
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The heart of Paris, these are the oldest and smallest neighborhoods, and surround the Louvre.
Popular with tourists, these districts are old and narrow, and hold one of the top sights in the city, the two islands at the city’s center where you’ll find Notre Dame Cathedral.
5th – Latin Quarter
Where you’ll find the Pantheon as well as the wonderful Rue Mouffetard market.
6th – St. Germain
Delicious food and sweets, and even more delightful shopping, this district holds the finer things of Paris. After you’ve had your fill, relax in the gardens of Luxembourg Palace.
7th – Eiffel Tower
On the left bank of the Seine, here you’ll find the Eiffel Tower, Musée d’Orsay, and the popular market Rue Cler.
8th – Champs Elysées
If luxury is what you want, look no further than the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
Few tourists stay this far north, which means it’s worth looking into staying here for a more realistic view of Paris. The 9th – 10th arrondissements in particular, Opera and Canal St. Martin, respectively, are centrally located and have good restaurants and cafés. The 19th and 20th are both quite far away from the city center, and therefore can take up to 30 minutes by metro just to make it into the main sights. While fun to visit if you have extra time, these are likely too far removed to consider when searching for lodging.
Similar to the 9th and 10th districts in the north, you can still find pockets of in the south of Paris without many tourists and discover a more authentic side of the city.
You’ll find the best view of the Eiffel Tower from just across the river in the 16th arrondissement. A little further west and you’ll find the Passy district, famous for its upscale shops and boutiques.
18th – Montmartre and Sacré Coeur
Home to artists of all types as well as the Basilica Sacré Coeur, bring your walking shoes if you journey here as this is the highest point in Paris.
Take a look at our map below to see how each neighborhood and main attraction is arranged across the city. Take all of this information, make the best decision you can, and don’t look back. Dive in and enjoy Paris! There’s nowhere else quite like it!