It feels like it’s taken me a long time to visit Paris. In the last five years or so, we’ve stepped foot in over a dozen European cities, and yet somehow Paris had never made it onto the list until only recently when at last minute, our trip to New York fell through.
Just over a week before we were due to fly to the Big Apple, where I’d originally planned to celebrate my 30th birthday, our flight was cancelled in the British Airways pilot strikes. Not wanting to stay at home to mark the occasion and with £50 return flights being our next best alternative, this is how we ended up on a last-minute trip to the City of Lights.
I probably would have fallen more in love with Paris had we visited under different circumstances, and I probably should have been more ‘in the moment’ during our stay. But even with lingering thoughts of other destinations on my mind, there’s no denying that Paris was beautiful.
Even with the little time we had to plan our itinerary, our visit quickly became jam-packed. Our long weekend left me physically exhausted from journeying across the capital to see all the sights, and we could have easily filled many more days and weeks there – although my bank account was rather happy that we didn’t stay longer.
Here’s everything we got up to on our first visit to Paris, and all the things you should get excited about on your own trip to the French capital.
What to do in Paris
Visit the Catacombs of Paris
To top off our cancelled flight and a last-minute change of plans, we also happened to arrive in Paris on probably the worst day possible – Friday the 13th. This isn’t because I’m superstitious, but because it turned out to be the biggest public transport strike in the city in over ten years. Nearly all of the metro stations were closed, which meant we spent our first morning squashed onboard a cramped bus for nearly two hours to make what should have been a 20-minute journey, only to arrive at the Catacombs to find that it too was closed due to the strikes, We were not off to a good start…
For you though, a trip to the Catacombs should be an easy affair. The nearest metro station is Denfort Rochereau, and just across the road is where you’ll find the small unassuming building that marks the entrance to the city’s underground ossuary.
I still don’t know how I really feel about dark tourism, but I can’t deny that the catacombs were a unique visit that provided an interesting, albeit slightly creepy, insight into how they solved the city’s once overflowing cemetery problem.
Make sure you buy your tickets in advance to skip the always-long queue.
See the skyline from Montparnasse Tower
Not far from the Catacombs of Paris is the Montparnasse Tower, once the tallest skyscraper in the city. For €20 / £17 / $21, you can visit its 360 panoramic viewing platform on the rooftop of an otherwise pretty hideous building.
I’m not going to include the Eiffel Tower in this post because I’m sure you don’t need someone to tell you to see it when you’re in Paris, but while you might be considering paying to go to the top of the city’s most famous landmark, I chose to visit the 56th floor of Montparnasse instead because you can actually see the Eiffel Tower from it which I preferred.
Get your tickets in advance here.
Marvel art at the Louvre
There’s nowhere quite like Paris to make me feel a bit uncultured. Despite being three-decades-old now I still detest the taste of wine and can’t find the genuine enthusiasm or appreciation for fine art like I feel I should. And yet, not going to the Louvre in Paris feels like not going to the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China when in Beijing, or indeed, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And so, we booked a ticket to the famous museum a couple of hours before it closed in hopes it would be quieter, but actually, I wish we had gone much earlier because we could have easily spent a whole day there.
Even as a bit of a philistine for paintings, the Louvre was absolutely stunning, and the sheer number of pieces on exhibition there was overwhelming. The most famous being, of course, the Mona Lisa.
It probably wouldn’t be untrue to say that nearly everyone who visits the Louvre has the intention of seeing the Mona Lisa. Even knowing that it would be incredibly popular, I had no idea just how busy it would be. Let me paint you a picture of what it’s like (no pun intended)…
There are signposts leading to the painting across multiple floors in the museum, and several stops along each section were set up to help herd the huge crowds in the queue, who would eventually be allowed up to the barriers placed three meters away from the famous artwork displayed behind a glass perspex box, while a dozen larger and equally magnificent paintings that were surrounded in the same room didn’t get a passing glance. To say I was underwhelmed by this Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece would be an understatement – in fact, I found the whole thing to be kind of absurd, to be honest with you. There are hundreds of impressive pieces here, why are we all spending so much of our effort on seeing just this one? I know, I’m a philistine.
Timed-entry tickets to the Louvre costs €17 online, which I’d recommend buying in advance so you can avoid the queues. Note that entry is free between 6pm – 9:45pm on the first Saturday of every month, on Bastille Day, and at anytime for EU residents under the age of 25. Whenever you choose to visit, I’d highly recommend getting an audio guide for an additional €5 which comes on a Nintendo 3DS![/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]
Walk the Paris Highline
I might’ve missed out on walking the New York City Highline, but did you know there’s one in Paris, too? Located a little further out from the centre in the 12th arrondissement, la Promenade Plantee is a free-to-visit elevated parkway converted from an abandoned viaduct.
We strolled the full 3-miles of the Paris Highline just before lunch, and it was the perfect quiet greenery escape from the busy streets below. Expect to see locals on their morning runs and out with their dogs here, as well as some lovely views of the city’s mix of traditional and modern apartment buildings.
Visit the Pantheon
Modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Pantheon of Paris was built as a church but is nowadays a mausoleum for many notable French citizens.
The building is beautiful inside, with grand columns, fine paintings, and statues. You can also see a copy of physicist Leon Foucault’s pendulum – created to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth – hanging from the centre of the dome.
Entry costs €9 and would be best booked in advance to skip the queue.
Take a cruise down the Seine
Some of the most scenic views in Paris are unsurprisingly around the Seine river that flows through the city. Walking along the bank is a great way to soak up the views but it’s also worth spending an hour to see the city from the water too during your visit.
We timed our cruise down the Seine for just before sunset, and sailed under the bridges watching the city being slowly bathed in golden hour light.
Most boat tours depart from the base of the Eiffel tower. We booked tickets in advance for £14 each which included an audio guide on board.
Go shopping at the Covered Passages
Another less touristy spot that we enjoyed was browsing the quaint boutique stores along the city’s arcades, known as the covered passages of Paris.
Located not far from the Louvre, the passages are like hidden tunnels of curated stores, perfect for strolling through whether you like shopping or not.
Spend a day in Montmartre
Paris is a big city, and there are lots of things to do outside of the central areas.
We stayed in Montmartre which I loved, and we spent a whole day just sightseeing here and wandering through the area’s hilly cobbled streets.
While in Montmartre, don’t miss…
Sitting high on the hilltop of Montmartre, Sacre Coeur is a grand Basilica that’s open daily and free-to-visit. I’m not religious, but my favourite thing about visiting churches when travelling – aside from marvelling at their architecture – is probably getting to climb their towers.
For €7 each, you can climb the three hundred steps (what feels like three thousand) up a spiral stone staircase to reach the dome of the church, where you’ll find some spectacular panoramic views at the top.
See the sinking house of Montmartre
Right next to Sacre-Coeur is also where you’ll find Paris’ ‘sinking house’, which you may have seen on Instagram. Spoiler alert, it’s not actually sinking, but a mere illusion from the angle of the hill mound next to it. There’s not a lot more to it than that, but it makes a fun photo nonetheless.
Le mur des je t’aime
Tucked away in a small green park in Montmartre is an art installation named the ‘I Love You Wall’. With over 300 inscriptions of the phrase written in 250 different languages, the piece is dedicated to love and peace, and shows that not all walls were built to divide people.
Shop and head to the top of Galeries Lafayette
For upmarket shopping in Paris, head to Galeries Lafayette.
I’m not really one for shopping but we went to this fancy department store to visit their rooftop terrace (free) for more views, and to try their plant-based pop-up restaurant which was sadly fully booked during our trip. It’s worth checking their website to see if any special events are taking place when you visit.
Marvel at the Arc de Triomphe
Another one of the city’s most famous landmarks to visit is of course the Arc de Triomphe, built to honour those who died fighting for France.
Attractions like these always makes me realise how seeing a photo will never beat being somewhere in real life. The Arc de Triomphe is huge, and much bigger and more intricately detailed than I ever knew from just seeing the photos.
You can walk around the monument for free, but you’ll have to pay to visit the viewing platform at the top. As always, it’s worth getting a ticket in advance so you can skip the queue.
Where to stay in Paris
While it’s not central, we stayed in an Airbnb in Montmartre and loved the location.
There are plenty of hotels to pick from in Paris for a variety of budgets, and with metro lines connecting the city it’s worth considering a further out location to cut on accommodation costs, as it’s easy to travel around (provided there’s no strike, of course!).
How to get around in Paris
We bought a three-day visitor’s travel pass for all of the public transport networks within zones 1-3 for €26.65 each.
On arrival from Charles de Gaulle airport, we also took the RER train into the city which we paid for separately (€10.30 each).
Where to eat in Paris
I love trying the local cuisine when travelling, but Paris was not the easiest place to be a vegetarian.
There are tons of great places to dine if you don’t have any particular dietary requirements, but personally we enjoyed:
La potager de Charlotte – a lovely (albeit quite pricey) plant-based restaurant where we had brunch. There are two branches in the city.
Crêperie Port-Manech – after your visit to the Montparnasse tower, head to this nearby street where you’ll find nearly a dozen traditional creperies, including Port-Manech where we had our delicious savoury buckwheat ones.
La Recylerie – if you’re eco-conscious too then you’ll love this sustainable cafe, renovated from an old train station. The cafe are focused on the ethos of reduce, reuse, and recycle, and after you enjoy their great lunchtime deal (main, dessert and filter coffee for €13), you can also visit their urban garden where they grow their own vegetables and see the chicken coop. I loved everything about it.
King Marcel – exhausted and hungry after a full day of walking around Paris, and with everything fully booked on a Saturday night, we stumbled into King Marcels and found ourselves pleasantly surprised at how tasty and fresh their fast-food was. For a budget-friendly burger in the city, you can’t go wrong.
Hebe – on the night of my birthday we decided to book somewhere nice, and really enjoyed our meal at Hebe. They have three-course set menus for carnivores and veggies alike for a reasonable €37. The restaurant is quite small, so book in advance.
Other things to do in Paris
If we’d had more time, we’d have squeezed in…
Atelier de Lumières – an interactive museum with unique art installations projected onto the walls. We really wanted to visit their graphic design exhibition but sadly it wasn’t open yet when we were there.
Watch a cabaret – I spent a long time researching and wondering whether to see a show, but in the end the remaining tickets just didn’t work with our trip. If you’re looking to watch a cabaret in Paris, the most popular in the city are at the Moulin Rouge, Le Lido, and Crazy Horse. All offer a dinner and show option with or without extras like champagne.
The Pompidou Museum – for modern art exhibitions
Visit Versaille – located not far outside of Paris is the Palace of Versaille which is a popular day trip to make from the city
See Disneyland Paris – also doable as a daytrip
Note: The Notre Dame Cathedral is currently closed off to visitors while renovations take place to repair the damage caused by the devastating fire which occurred earlier this year.
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