There are so many sites and museums to visit, so many neighborhoods to explore and so many restaurants and cafés to try that a first-time visit to Paris can often be overwhelming. That is why I highly recommend not trying to do it all.
My recommendation is this:
- Think about what is most important to you (not what other people and the guide books are telling you is most important).
- Organize your days by neighborhood, to cut down on travel times.
- Walk (or bike) as much as your feet allow so you can get your bearings and take in the city without it being a series of structured events.
- Incorporate activities into your itinerary, and not just sites. In other words, concentrate on “doing” and not just “seeing”.
If I had to pick 10 things to do in Paris as a first-time visitor, here is what I would do:
- Start with a walking tour.I highly recommend taking Richard Nahem’s private tour of the Marais, and I also recommend as many Paris Walks as you are able to do. If you can, schedule a walking tour for the neighborhood where you are staying for the first or second day of your stay, so you can get to know your neighborhood well and get your bearings.
- Walk, walk, walk and walk some more. Pick one or two neighborhoods–perhaps where you are staying or perhaps pick a corner of the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain or Montmartre–to get to know well. Try to get lost. Go down the narrow side streets, explore one of the traditional shopping arcades, pop into the more interesting shops and cafés, spend some time sitting at a café and people watching.
- Go to an outdoor market and buy food for a picnic. Buying food at an outdoor market is an experience in itself, and this is a great way of saving money as well. Check out my list of favorite spots in Paris. But even if you are visiting during the colder months, you can always “picnic” indoors–a great reason to rent an apartment instead of a hotel room!
- Pick one art museum and only one. Decide which most suits your style; don’t just pick the Louvre because you think you should. Pick it because it houses the art you most want to see, or perhaps pick a smaller museum–the Orangerie with Monet’s Water Lilies and the Rodin Museum are two of my favorites. If you have time, of course you can visit more. But unless you are visiting Paris primarily to see the art, it would be a mistake to spend your whole visit in museums and not spend any time exploring the streets.
- See the monuments at night. Whether by foot or by Vélib’ or by car, see the monuments when they are all lit up and without the crowds. Most of them are much nicer from the outside and its not really necessary to go in. If you have to pick just one, be sure to see the Eiffel Tower at night.
- Take a class. Again, the more you can “do” and experience instead of just “see”, the more memorable your trip will be. Take a French language class, a cooking class, or perhaps a wine tasting class. Learn a little something while having fun!
- Walk or bateau-mouche (boat) along the Seine. While the boat is a bit touristy, it’s a great perspective on the city, to see how it’s linked together by the central waterway. On Sundays, the quais are closed to traffic so you can walk or bike on the roads along the river.
- Visit a park. If you have time for two, I recommend the Luxembourg Gardens (6th arrondissment) as a quintessential beautifully manicured Parisian park and also the Buttes Chaumont (19th arrondissement)–a bit wilder, yet just as beautiful, and a great opportunity to see a neighborhood a bit outside the usual central tourist route.
- Splurge on one good French meal. I’m not talking 100 euros/person, but maybe 40 or 50 euros. Pick your restaurant carefully and reserve in advance. It’s far better to have one or two great meals and picnic the rest of the time, then to eat out but at mediocre restaurants all week long.
- OK, I know some of you are still thinking, “But if I can only visit 10 sites, which should they be?” It’s impossible to say–everyone’s list will be different. But here is mine (in no particular order): The Marais, Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens, Buttes Chaumont, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Eiffel Tower (preferably at night), the Jardin du Palais Royal, the Louvre (at least the outside, but inside too if you have time).
What would be your top picks?