Paris – What to Know & What to See

* During this time of social distancing, quarantine, and staying put, hopefully this guide can serve as inspiration and motivation as you plan a future trip. *

Beautiful and full of history with pastries a plenty, yet maddeningly overcrowded with tourists, there is much to be said about Paris. There is a lot to see and do in the City of Lights and City of Love, and while it’s smart to plan some of your visit in advance, part of Paris’ allure is finding the quiet cobblestone streets or a café with sidewalk seating from which you can take in the social and culinary scene of this vibrant city.

Know:

  • For historical and cultural context on Paris and France, here are just a couple of suggested books, movies, and references to French artwork to read/watch/ listen/ view:
    • The Great Courses series includes the fantastic audiobook Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon by Professor Suzanne M. Desan (a UW-Madison professor), which covers the 25 years between the onset of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Bourbon Restoration after Napoleon in 1814.
    • Victor Hugo is considered one of the greatest French writers. Two of Hugo’s most well-known works outside of France are The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables – read the books, see the movies, or watch the plays for a better understanding of French society during the Romantic movement of the 19th
    • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fictional novel set in France during WWII that tells the story of two sisters surviving and resisting the German occupation of France.
    • My Life in France by is an autobiography by Julia Child, the cook who brought French cuisine to the American masses. The book focusses on her life and culinary experiences while living in Paris, Marseille, and Provence.
    • For a romantic comedy movie set in the modern-day, Amélie tells the fictional story of a waitress in the Montmartre quarter of Paris – it is the highest-grossing French-language film to be released in the United States.
    • A small selection of French artists whose names and works are more widely recognizable include a founder of Impressionism, Claude Monet; an influential figure in modern art, Henri Matisse; and the painter Paul Cézanne
  • Paris has 20 administration divisions that separate the city into arrondissements. These arrondissements are organized in a clockwise spiral, sometimes described as a looking like a snail’s shell, wherein the lowest numbers are the most central. Arrondissements are different than quarters (like the Montmartre and Latin quarters for example) but you will see them referenced on street signs and hear how each arrondissement has its own personality. Considering the “ambiance” of arrondissements can help you decide in which area to stay.
  • Walking is a great way to see the city, I cannot emphasize this enough. A couple noteworthy walks to add to your itinerary include:
    • The route between the Louvre Museum and Arc de Triomphe along the famed Av. des Champs-Élysées is practically a straight line and will take under an hour;
    • Walk alongside the left or right bank of the Seine River from Notre-Dame Cathedral to arrive at the Eiffel Tower in about an hour;
    • The hilly, smaller streets of the Montmartre quarter of the city offer a glimpse of the district that attracted notable artists like Picasso, van Gogh, and Langston Hughes, during the late 19th and early 20th

Alternatively, the Paris Metro and RER train lines are fairly easy to use and ideal for maximizing your time getting from site to site. Remember to keep your transit ticket with you until you leave the station as you will likely need it to pass through the exit gate. If arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), the regional RER B train takes you into the city in about 50 minutes for around 10 EUR.

  • You won’t need to be fluent in French to get around Paris but knowing some of the basics will make a huge difference. The general recommendation is to greet someone with a pleasantry like Bonjour or Bonsoir and then ask them if they speak English (see below). Starting a conversation with French is appreciated and most of the time the other party won’t mind proceeding in English.
    • To say hello, use Bonjour.
    • If you want to greet someone in the evening use Bonsoir.
    • Thanks can be expressed with Merci.
    • If you want to ask someone if they speak English, say Parlez vous anglais?
    • If you need to excuse yourself for a simple mistake or move past someone in a crowd, use Pardon, but in preparation for asking a question, you can say Excusez-moi.
    • If you’re looking for the toilet, Les toilettes? will get you pointed in the right direction.
    • To toast with your drink, use A santé!

Prepare:

  • Booking tours and purchasing tickets for museum visits in advance, while not absolutely necessary, can help you maximize your time and make sure you see what you’re most interested in, while avoiding long lines.
    • A Seine River boat ride is a great way to see the city and can be enjoyed as a dining or sightseeing cruise. We did the dinner cruise with Bateaux Parisiens a couple of years ago and were very happy with the meal and view of Paris lit up at night.
    • Doing a guided walking or biking tour on your first day is an excellent way to see city with the added benefit of receiving context about the history and culture. Paris by Martin and Friends has a great walking tour – either private or in a group. A tour on your first day helps you get oriented and set up with plenty of local tips you can utilize throughout your visit.
    • Purchasing tickets ahead of time to go up in the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre Museum means that you can avoid some of the longest lines in the city.
  • France has had a rail strike of some sort every year since 1947 so it’s prudent to consider the possibility of strikes impacting public transit during your visit to Paris. Monitoring train schedules for updates at least a couple of days in advance, considering all alternatives means of commuting (bus, taxi, Uber, bikes) by using a transportation app like City Mapper, and scaling your itinerary to what can be covered on foot are ways to work around strikes.
  • Paris has a thriving café culture with Parisians partaking in outdoor dining all year round (heat lamps included). Consider the following when dining:
    • Make dinner reservations at restaurants, especially if eating away from tourist attractions where it’s more common for restaurants to cater to locals and offer only one service (meaning guests will have the table for the entire evening).
    • Many restaurants won’t start their dinner service until after 7 or 8 PM.
    • Tipping in France is not a standard practice as there is a service charge included with the bill, but if you receive excellent service, it’s recommended to leave a few Euros.

See:

  • The Eiffel Tower can be viewed from many angles in Paris, but if you want to go up the tower, you’ll need to choose between going to the second floor or to the top. The ticket price will also be dependent upon whether you take the lift, stairs (to/from the second floor), or a combination of both. For example, you can take the elevator all the way up to the top and then back down to the second floor, where you will then walk down the nearly 700 stairs to ground level. Book your tickets online in advance to avoid long queues.

Picnic on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower by day, but don’t miss the light show on the tower at the top of the hour every night.

  • The Île de la Cité, in the center of Paris, is an island in the Seine River that is perhaps most well-known for being home to Notre-Dame de Paris.
    • The Gothic cathedral dates from the 12th century and is known for its flying buttresses, gargoyle rainspouts, bells, and organ (one of the largest in the world). It’s widely recognized as the symbol of Paris and the country of France. The fire in April 2019 caused serious damage and the cathedral is currently undergoing stabilization work, which will be followed by reconstruction. The goal for the reopening of Notre-Dame Cathedral is 2024 when the city will host the Summer Olympics. While access to the cathedral will be prohibited for a couple years, visitors should still see one of the world’s most renown cathedrals from a distance.
    • A couple blocks to the west of Notre-Dame is Sainte-Chapelle, the 13th century cathedral famous for its interior stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Admission is charged to visit the cathedral.
  • The Montmartre neighborhood is found in the 18th A visit to this prominent hill that was the gathering site of 19th and 20th century artists should include the following:
    • The Sacré-Cœur Basilica offers a fantastic view overlooking the city. To summit the hill on which the cathedral sits, you can ascend via the narrow side streets of Montmartre or take the stairs or funicular up from the bottom of the hill. Entry to the basilica is free but admission is charged to access the dome.
    • A walk along the quieter cobblestone streets behind the hill (the side opposite the stairs) will take you past plenty of cafes with welcoming sidewalk seating.
  • The Hôtel National des Invalides was erected in the 17th century by King Louis XIV to provide housing, care, and services to the veterans of France’s army. Today the complex is home to the Musée de l’Armée (military museum), St. Louis Cathedral, and the unmissable tomb of Napoleon I. Admission is free for those under 18.
  • Long revered for its thriving community of artists, you’ll have ample opportunity to view a range of work in the city’s many art museums that include:
    • The Louvre Museum is the world’s largest and most visited art museum – in 2019, 9.6 million people visited this former palace. The most famous work of art on display in the museum is of course the Mona Lisa, but the painting called Liberty Leading the People is also a must see as it is viewed as an important symbol of France and its revolution. You’d have a hard time missing architect I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid outside the museum that serves as the main entrance.
      • Booking tickets online in advance is the best way to plan a visit. Admission is free for those under 18.
      • If you don’t have all day to tour this massive museum, reference https://www.louvre.fr/en/parcours for visits tailored to certain themes, such as The Da Vinci Code or JAY-Z and Beyoncé at the Louvre.
    • More French art can also be found at the Musée d’Orsay, a former railway station turned museum that has the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces.
IMG_1136
Kaitlan in front of the Louvre Museum
  • The Arc de Triomphe sits in the middle of Place Charles de Gaulle, the most chaotic roundabout in the city, and at the end of the Champs-Elysées, the most recognized avenue of the city. The arc, commissioned by Napoleon, was inaugurated in 1836 and dedicated to the French armies of the Revolution and Empire. The Unknown Soldier was buried at the base of the arch following WWI. Access to the Arc is by way of a tunnel under the roundabout and its roof-top terrace can be reached by paying admission and ascending 40 stairs.
  • The Pantheon mausoleum, fashioned after the Pantheon of Rome, houses the remains of notable French citizens like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Skłodowska Curie (to name just a few).
  • The Catacombs of Paris meanwhile contain the bones of between six to seven million Paris inhabitants that were transferred to the former quarries under the city during the late 18th century when the cemeteries of Paris could no longer accommodate further burials. The subterranean tunnels that make up this ossuary are open to the public for touring – the entrance is in the 14th Arrondissement and admission is free for those under 18.
  • The Coulée Verte René-Dumont is a welcome green space suspended above the city that starts near Place de la Bastille and travels almost five kilometers to the Bois de Vincennes. The old railway viaduct turned elevated park in the 12th Arrondissement was the first and only of its kind in the world until New York City’s High Line came along in 2009.
  • If shopping appeals to you, the 11th Arrondissement and Le Marais neighborhood of the 3rd Arrondissement are great areas to set out on foot to explore the boutiques selling clothing, art, homewares, etc.
  • A guide to Paris wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Palace of Versailles. An easy day trip from Paris, you can reach the palace within an hour via the RER C train. The 2,300 rooms of the country chateau served as the royal residence of the French monarchs for nearly 100 years until the deposition of King Louis XVI during the French revolution in 1789. To tour the royal residence with its famous Hall of Mirrors, extensive art collection, and restored rooms and furniture, you should purchase your ticket online ahead of time. Note that there is an option to select a timed entry during the peak spring and summer periods that is supposed to limit time spent waiting. Admission is free for those under 18.

Don’t miss the beautiful and well-manicured gardens and park adjacent to the palace that sprawl across 1,976 acres and are free for all to access except on Musical Fountain Shows or Musical Gardens days.

Eat & Drink:

There is no shortage of dining establishments in Paris, but keep in mind that restaurants are generally open from noon to 2 PM for lunch and from 7 PM to 10/11 PM for dinner. The lunch and dinner “menu du jour” will have two or three courses – entrée-plat-dessert – enough food to be filling but not to create leftovers. Some suggested eateries in the city:

  • Breakfast and coffee or “petit déjeuner”
    • Crêperie Elo Bastille has fantastic savory and sweet crepes near Place de la Bastille in the 4th Arrondissement
    • Paul & Rimbaud Café serves delicious cookies, tea, and coffee in the 11th Arrondissement
  • Drinks and snacks or “apéro”
    • Le Barbylone provides good beers on tap in a fun setting in Montmartre
    • La Robe & La Mousse in the Odéon neighborhood of the 6th Arrondissement serves unique craft beers in a comfortable setting
    • In the Canal St Martin neighborhood, you can enjoy a drink at Apéro Saint-Martin or grab a bottle of wine and snack to share canal-side
  • Dinner
    • Chez Nenesse in Le Marais offers simple home-made French cuisine
    • La Fontaine de Mars is a popular spot near the Eiffel Tower with ample outdoor seating
    • La MiN offers an affordable three-course dinner in the 11th Arrondissement neighborhood of Ste Marguerite
    • Tentazioni rue Tholozé is an Italian restaurant near Sacré-Coeur in the Montmartre neighborhood
  • Pastries and sweets
    • Berthillon serves premium ice cream on Île Saint-Louis, not far from Notre-Dame – the salted caramel is always a good choice
    • For macarons in Montmartre, stop by Christophe Roussel – Duo creative avec Julie or Chocolat Illèné and pick up a handful to go
    • La Maison Rose, opened in 1908, is an iconic establishment of the Montmartre neighborhood where you can enjoy pastries and rose at a sidewalk table in front of the canteen’s pink façade.
  • When many restaurants are closed on Sunday, shop the food markets at Place de la Bastille, Marché d’Aligre/Beauvau near Gare de Lyon, and at Rue Montorgueil near Les Halles.

Stay:

Hotels and Airbnb rentals are generally smaller in square footage in Paris, but you won’t miss the extra space if you’re busy touring. Some suggested areas of the city:

  • The 16th Arrondissement sprawls out from the right bank of the Seine behind the Eiffel Tower and is home to the spacious Bois de Boulogne, Le Parc des Princes (stadium where Paris Saint-Germain football club plays), and ample eateries.
  • Staying in the trendy 11th Arrondissement will put you in a good spot to enjoy diverse shopping and eating near Place de la Bastille and the Canal Saint-Martin.
  • The 9th Arrondissement and its Montmartre neighborhood is ideal for exploring the artistic side of Paris– you’ll find theaters and the city’s prominent hill-top cathedral ‎Sacré-Cœur.
  • The 7th Arrondissement offers convenient access to the Eiffel Tower, Hôtel des Invalides, and several museums, but accommodations here will cost more than other areas.

If you’re staying at an Airbnb and need to check out early but want to continue touring the city, you have plenty of options for luggage storage across the city. Stasher and Nannybag are just two sites that allow you to reserve storage at hotels, train stations, and local businesses.

With a weekend or a week in Paris, you will find yourself with no shortage of things to do – use these suggestions as a starting point and then discover the city for yourself.

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