Your Guide To Your First Time Visiting Paris
You’re going to love Paris. The French city finds a place in everyone’s heart. But for your first visit, it can seem overwhelming. Where do you start in a city that is featured in every movie, book and TV show? We rounded up the top 10 must-dos for every first-time visitor to Paris so there’s no need for FOMO while in France. Brush up on your French, mon ami — it’s time to see the city.
1. Picnic at the Eiffel Tower.
There’s a method to the madness around the tourist crowds at the Eiffel Tower, but you don’t have to concern yourself with any of it. Instead, grab a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese, and have a picnic as the sun goes down behind the famous monument.
You could buy a ticket to go to the top (the line is long and the view is better from other vantage points in the city) or you could buy another bottle of wine and make an evening out of sipping vino under the romantic symbol’s shadow while you watch it light up. There’s also an hourly light show that makes the tower sparkle.
2. Visit the cities’ art museums.
Paris is known as one of the artistic capitals of the world, and it’s absolutely packed with museum options. There’s the Musée du Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Musee Rodin, Palais de Tokyo, Musée Picasso and more. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by the options — there’s a Parisian museum for everyone.
We’d recommend the Louvre to those who want to spot the Mona Lisa, but try d’Orsay if you want a more well-rounded museum experience. No matter your personal art niche, you can find a museum well-suited to it in Paris.
3. Get lost in Montmartre.
Montmartre feels like the summit of Paris. At the top of the hilly neighborhood, you’ll find a bohemian haven of photogenic narrow streets and colorful bistros. The best views of the city are from the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. From the steps of the Sacre Coeur, you can see the expansive sprawl of Paris, including views of the Eiffel tower.
It’s also the home of the Moulin Rouge, although if you’re hoping for a spectacle like the movie, you might be disappointed. There’s more romance to be found nearby at the Le Mur des Je T’aime, a tile mural with the words for love painted in different languages from around the world. But you’ll still feel echoes of “freedom, beauty, truth and love” as you wind through the meandering streets.
4. Walk along the Seine.
Now, if you’re feeling ambitious and wore good walking shoes, you can walk all the way from the Eiffel Tower to the Notre Dame, following the route of the River Seine.
But taking it in bite-sized pieces, you can cross the ornate Pont Alexandre III from the Eiffel Tower toward the Champs Elysees. Or you can stay around our favorite river spot, the Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint-Louis. These two islands in the Seine are a classic. Ile de la Cite houses the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle, while Ile Saint-Louis is home to Le Saint-Régis, a favorite cafe of the writer’s of the 19th century.
And speaking of writers, right across the river from the Notre Dame, you’ll find another literary haunt: Shakespeare and Company bookstore. We dare you to go in and try to leave without feeling inspired to buy at least 10 books.
5. Eat French food like a Parisian.
We all know France has serious food chops. You know you’re going to eat a lot of baguettes. But get ready to feast at all hours.
Beginning with breakfast, pastries are the way to go. And there’s no better than Du Pain et des Idées, a beautifully decorated bakery near the Republique neighborhood. The boulangerie’s specialty is a pistachio escargot — not actual snails, but a spiral-shaped pastry.
Want something sweet or savory for lunch? Breizh Café has some of the best crepes in the city. If you’re looking for a splurge for dinner, Detour (near the Moulin Rouge) is a trendy hot spot with interesting spins on French cuisine.
But restaurants aren’t the only way to experience Paris’ rich food culture. Stop by Rue des Martyrs to pack your picnic materials. In France, you want to buy from the specialty stores. For instance, buy your cheese from a fromagerie, buy your bread from a boulangerie and buy your meat from a boucherie.
For dessert, Instagram’s going to demand you eat at least one macaron. So head to Laduree if you want the ultimate photo op or Pierre Hermé for more creative flavors.
6. Shop in Le Marais.
Paris’ historic Jewish quarter is a cobblestoned shopping paradise. You can shop in high-end boutiques where the cost of one purse will equal your entire hotel bill, or you can browse thrift shops where you pay per pound of clothes in your bag. Le Marais is a mix of high-brow and low-brow and that’s why we love it so much.
Fashion fans, you want to start on Rue de Rivoli and just window-shop your way through the neighborhood past L’Habilleur (discount designer threads) and Swildens (Parisian chic stuff). Thrifty travelers, your secondhand shop starting point is Free’P’Star. But you’ll find consignment scattered through the streets.
The buildings themselves date back centuries in Le Marais, although they now contain acclaimed five-star restaurants, designer flagships and tasting rooms. Pro tip: Grab some falafel when you need to refuel and feed your shopping frenzy. It’s a neighborhood specialty.
7. Wander Paris’ best parks.
Paris has a long tradition of the flaneur, an aimless wanderer exploring the city. And that’s exactly what we’d suggest you do in Paris. It’s a great city to walk through without much of a plan, especially in one of the metro’s green spaces.
In the city center, we like Jardin des Tuileries. It’s right by the Louvre and sits right in the middle of all the action. There’s even a Ferris wheel if you want a birds’ eye view.
Further away from the Seine, follow La Promenade Plantée that’s built on an abandoned elevated train track. In the Latin Corner, you’ll find Jardin du Luxembourg, where there are fountains, forests and even an orchard to explore.
8. Learn the difference between the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
Technically, all that separates the Left Bank and the Right Bank is the Seine. But in Paris, there are decades of history, social commentary and classism distinguishing the differences between the two. It’s one of those nonsensical questions — “Do you prefer the Left or the Right?”
The left bank is more residential. And back in the day, it was common for artists, students and the generally less affluent Parisians to settle here. You’ll still see the young people flare in Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter, with tons of cafes and thrift shops. Once you hit Saint-Germain-des-Prés, things get a little more upscale but still hip, with art galleries and bistros.
The right bank is where you’ll find a lot of the big tourist spots (besides the Eiffel Tower) and it’s also bigger in general. It tends to have a bit more money, but the further away from the Seine you go, the more affordable the neighborhoods get.
9. Go hipster in the less touristed neighborhoods.
Montparnasse doesn’t get a lot of tourist attention, but it bustles without the influx of visitors. The Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is located, has a university feel and Instagram-worthy cafes.
We also like Belleville, an edgy neighborhood quickly filling up with third-wave coffee shops, craft cocktail bars and poetry slams. But we’re obsessed with the neighborhoods along Canal St. Martin. While tourists hang out around the Seine, locals chill by the canal. Think the Brooklyn of Paris. (New Yorkers, it’s the Gowanus of Paris.) You’ll want to try every bar, coffee shop and cafe here — especially our fave that’s designed like a house with a different theme in every room and frequent ultra-cool parties.
Right between Belleville and Canal St. Martin, you’ll find Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. This stunning park is one of the best in Paris and is a great way to experience local life.
10. Toast to the City of Light’s nightlife.
Paris can seem sleepy to the uninitiated. After (a late)dinner, many Parisians sip wine or cocktails without any hurry, but it’s a bit trickier to find a party than in rowdier destinations like Berlin. Once you find it, though, you’ll love it. From underground bars in Le Marais to dancing in Bastille to breweries in Canal St. Martin, there is plenty of entertainment to go around.
We say start with cocktails at Bisou near Rue Oberkampf before hopping your way to the Seine’s number one boat bar Batofar.
If You Have Some Extra Time
For those who really come to Paris to shop, we’d suggest Galeries Lafayettes, a massive department store. However, if you want to class it up and avoid some tourists, head to Le Bon Marché for more designers and La Grand Épicerie, a food hall with all sorts of French delicacies.
Itching for a photoshoot? Head to Rue Crémieux. It’s a quiet street with pastel-painted houses lining the block. Want things a little darker? Visit Les Catacombes de Paris, where millions of people were buried in a labyrinth-like tunnel system under the city.
If you want to hunt for hidden treasure, we’d suggest Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. The flea market contains stalls with French antiques, records, clothes and books. You’ll find souvenirs like none other here.
Oh, and seeing the Château de Versailles requires a full day. It’s an hour outside of the city and, between the palace and the gardens, you’ll want to take your time exploring the royal grounds.
The Things We’d Skip
The iconic Arc de Triomphe is actually located inside a traffic circle, so you can’t get close to the giant stone statue. For a better photo, there is a miniature Arc de Triomphe outside the Louvre that is a much better viewing experience than the tour bus-surrounded big one.
Think of Champs Elysees like the Times Square of Paris. The shopping isn’t going to be that good and once you’ve seen it from a distance, that’s probably enough. There’s much better window shopping elsewhere in the city.
We’d say the same of a boat tour on the Seine. While the views will be beautiful, you can see similar vistas on land (for free) and have more freedom to move around if something catches your eye.
Have you heard rumors about the hot chocolate at Angelina? Unless it’s your favorite drink on the planet, we’d suggest indulging in other sweets. The line can be extremely long here, and you don’t want to use your precious time in the French capital standing in line.
But don’t worry, you can always visit these places on your next visit. There’s never a bad time to return to Paris.
First Visit Tips
France first-timers, there’s no need to stress. Many of your French woes are blown far out of proportion. Parisian tales have a tendency for the dramatics in TV, books and movies. It’s got that certain je n’ais se quoi, but it’s not scary.
In fact, in 2017, Paris was the most popular destination for first-time international travelers, according to a study conducted by Booking.com. The city puts out a siren call to newbie travelers. And if all those folks managed it in 2017, we think the odds are in your favor of enjoying a macaron or two on the banks of the Seine as well.
Don’t worry about the language barriers. Parisians aren’t as scary as they seem from their fierce reputation. It’s true, they’d love it if you spoke French when visiting their amazing city. But contrary to popular opinion, they won’t hate you if you don’t. The French don’t automatically hate Americans. They do dislike lazy ones, though. So they won’t be big fans if you don’t at least make an effort with some French phrases.
Even if your accent is horrendous, practice a greeting before heading out onto the French streets for the first time. We promise you can say bonjour. “Bone-jore” is better than “hello.” (Pro tip: Say it fast — you’ll sound more confident.) When you drift into nighttime, you switch the greeting to bonsoir. That’s “bone-swa.”
When you’re out exploring, it’s common courtesy to greet shopkeepers. It’s a simple “Bonjour, madam” or “Bonjour, monsieur.” (Mon-see-yur, if you must.) And when you leave, always thank them as well. That’s “Merci, madam” or “Merci, monsieur.”
We’ll be honest with you: the locals will know you’re not a fluent French speaker from the moment you open your mouth. But that’s beside the point. It’s all about respect. You’re showing your hosts that you know you’re in France and are trying to speak the language. And you never know — you might meet a French friend who’s willing to give you some pointers on pronunciation.
The last worry before you head off? Sticking to your budget. We get it. Paris has a pretty luxurious reputation. But you can make it in the city on $75 a day — if you pinch your pennies a little bit. We’d suggest staying in one of those off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, such as Belleville or near Canal St. Martin (cheaper digs, more local flavor). And we have great news: The average baguette in Paris costs about $1.50 even at an award-winning boulangerie, so you’ll never have to do without bread. Instead of shopping at specialty stores, go to the grocery store. Goodbye, beautiful boucherie and fabulous fromagerie, hello, affording an extra night out in Le Marais.
But the best part of Paris does come free: living life like a flaneur and wandering for hours on end in the city. Bon voyage!