A First Timer’s Guide to an Unforgettable Paris Vacation

Travel tips

Female tourist photographing the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

A Paris vacation is, as Audrey Hepburn reminded us, “always a good idea.” But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed on your first visit to France, particularly in high season when crowds are at their peak. Here are our hints on what to see, how to see it, and how to absorb all that Parisian charm without feeling like just another face in the queue.

The Icons in a Day

No matter how long or short your stay in Paris, there’s a shortlist of sights you absolutely should not miss. The Eiffel Tower of course tops that list, but pre-book your tickets if you’re planning to ride the elevators to the top. Many argue that the lower second level offers the best view of low-rise Paris, while some skip the ascent entirely. After all, this is the only view of Paris without the Eiffel Tower in it! From here, you’re in the perfect spot to hop aboard a Seine cruise, which takes you past the sights, museums, and monuments along the river, usually rounding Ile Saint-Louis before returning to dock.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
Eiffel Tower

The towers of Notre-Dame are another essential item on your Paris checklist. Just be ready for long queues. There isn’t much space up top, but don’t worry. The spectacular view, intricate stone work, and gargoyles are more than worth the wait. You can skip the church’s interior if you’re pressed for time, but while you’re on the Ile de la Cite, visit the lesser known Sainte Chapelle, and spend a half hour gawking at its incredible stained glass windows, which recount the stories of the Bible.

While you’re in the area, wander the historic Latin Quarter or Marais for a taste of Parisian street life, or pull up at a café and watch the world go by (it will mostly be tourists in this area, so choose your café with care). Alternatively, pick up some wine, cheese, and bread from a local store and take your impromptu picnic into Le Jardin du Luxembourg. In the early evening, take the metro up to the Arc de Triomphe, zip to the top (or climb if you’re masochistic), and watch the city of lights come alive piece by piece. Nowhere are those lights more impressive than along the Champs-Elysees. No matter how much you hate crowds and/or luxury shopping (as I do) there is something absolutely magical about strolling down Paris’ most splendid boulevard, particularly at night.

Champs-Elysees at Night, Paris, France
Champs-Elysees at night with Arc de Triomphe

Art, Glorious Art

Oh, the museums of Paris! Where do we even start? If you’re a super-keen art fan, it’s entirely possible to spend a week enjoying a Paris vacation and seeing nothing but museums. There’s The Louvre of course, but travellers continue to fiercely debate the value and strategies of a Louvre visit, particularly if you’re only in Paris for a short time. Since seeing it all in a day is practically impossible, you’ll need to prioritize. Some art lovers are horrified at the idea of visitors seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, then leaving. But realistically, such a route takes you by so much wonderful art, you may find it a handy and satisfying “quick summary” of the Louvre. For a less overwhelming art fix in a gorgeously re-purposed building, visit the Musee d’Orsay. This museum is my personal favourite in Paris, showcasing mainly French art from the 19th and early 20th centuries. You can see Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and many others. While it’s much smaller than the Louvre, give yourself a good two to three hours to see the collection without burning out.

Louvre in Paris, France
The Louvre

A directory of Paris’ museums would take up this entire post, but here are some favourites to consider adding to your Paris vacation. Try to at least swing by the mind-boggling “inside out” building that is the Centre Pompidou, and if there’s time, visit the Musee National d’Art Moderne inside (hello Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso, and Delaunay). Can’t get enough Picasso? Visit the nearby Musee National Picasso in the Marais. Musee D’Orsay left you inspired by Rodin? The Musee Rodin is just a short walk away. Try to go in nice weather, since the sculpture garden is a highlight. The Tuileries Gardens is also a major art hub, flanked by the Musee de l’Orangerie (two words: water lilies), and the Jeu de Paume photography museum.

Bohemia, Bohemia etc etc…

The further you get from the Seine, the more likely you are to be in a former peripheral town that Paris eventually swallowed. Most famous of these is Montmartre. Yes, this area is home to the red light district, including the famous (and expensive) Moulin Rouge. But it has also been home to many of Paris’ most distinctive artistic voices over the years. Many Parisians shudder at the idea of lingering in the touristy Place du Tertre, but honestly? An hour or so here before watching sunset from the steps of the Sacre-Coeur is pure Paris magic. Just step away from the Place du Tetre when it’s time to eat. Montmartre is packed with too many wonderful family-run restaurants to wander into an easy tourist trap. Word to the wise? Try to approach Sacre-Coeur from Place du Tetre. Besides this option being easier on your legs, Square Louise Michel has an unfortunate reputation for touts and scam artists.

Best not bring up the film, Amelie either. Most Montmartre locals aren’t big fans, dismissing the popular film as wallowing in whimsical stereotypes.

Beautiful evening view of the Place du Tertre and the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, France
Beautiful evening view of the Place du Tertre and the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre

Offbeat and Underground

Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris. Each year thousands of fans and curious visitors come to pay homage to celebrities grave.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery

The Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise isn’t Paris’ largest cemetery, but it does contain its most famous graves and cenotaphs. These include Maria Callas, Moliere, Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Frederic Chopin, Edith Piaf, and a number of foreigners closely connected to Paris, including Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.

Paris’ most unusual and morbid attraction isn’t the cemetery however. That honour goes to the Paris Catacombs, one of the most popular attractions in the city. Entry queues in high season are notorious, to the point that these days, if the wait is longer than 20 minutes, visitors are given a coupon with a return time. The wait is well worth it, as this “Empire of the Dead” tells an important part of Paris’ story beyond mere grisly curiosity. The remains of 6-7 million people line the tunnels, only a fraction of which are open to the public. Over the years, urban explorers have also found everything from Nazi war bunkers to a fully equipped movie theatre, whose builders remain unknown.

A pillar decorated by skull and bones in the Paris Catacombs, France
A pillar decorated by skulls and bones in the Paris Catacombs

To rejoin the living (sort of), step into the opulent Musee Grevin and admire lifelike wax recreations of many of France’s most famous faces. There’s a reason there’s no Madame Tussaud’s in Paris, despite Marie Tussaud having been French herself.

Money Savers

There’s no getting around it. Paris is expensive. Popular individual museums are a bargain at around 12 EUR, but there are so many of them, they can add up fast! Here are some easy, reliable ways to save money on your Paris vacation.

  • Public transport. The Paris Metro is extensive, fast, and reliable. Buy a 10-ticket carnet for the best deal. As of late 2016, on days when the air pollution is deemed too high, the Metro is free.
Paris Metro Sign, France
Paris Metro Sign, France
  • Paris Pass or Museum Pass. If you have a few days at leisure and want to hit the popular attractions in Paris, these passes are worth considering. The best value for my money is the Museum Pass, which can be bought for two, four, or six days, and includes your access to the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Rodin, Pantheon, Notre Dame towers, Sainte Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe… even Versailles, and many more. It does not include a Seine cruise, Musee Grevin, bus tour, or wine tasting, which the more expensive Paris Pass does. The Paris Pass also includes a ticket to the top of the controversial Montparnasse Tower, which some cheekily recommend as a great way to get a view of Paris without its ugliest building. No matter which option you take, be realistic about what you can do in the allotted time. You don’t want to be rushing around so many attractions you miss the simple, everyday joys of Paris.
  • Prix-fixe menus. Want to sample a wide variety of cuisine without breaking the bank? Most every restaurant in Paris offers multi-course prix-fixe menus for lunch, and often dinner. Just because you’re in Paris doesn’t mean every meal is going to be great, so apply the same wisdom you would anywhere and look for a healthy crowd of French-speaking locals at the tables.
  • Street snacking: Prefer to really eat on the cheap? You’re in the city that invented the humble creperie. A few Euros will get you a tasty sweet or savoury snack at any time of day.
Pancake made by a Paris Creperie street vendor, France
Pancake made by a Paris creperie street vendor
  • Look for Happy Hours and indulge your inner wine snob. Drinking in Paris can be mind-bogglingly expensive, so happy hours, when you can find them, make a difference! More than just an affordable way to drink, these times are a great opportunity to meet some locals, or just unwind for an hour or two before dinner. If you’re not so lucky, stick to wine, which usually offers much better value than beer or spirits, particularly at restaurants. At nightclubs, you’re going to pay a lot, no matter your poison.

Leaving a Good Impression

Two young girls walking together with map near Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, FranceTell friends you’re planning a Paris vacation, and this conversation will almost inevitably come up, “Oh, I love Paris, but the Parisians are so rude. They make fun of you if you don’t speak French,” and so on. Stereotypes about Parisian rudeness are dated, tired, and not at all a true reflection of the city. Be realistic. Paris may be “the city of love,” but it is also an economic and cultural powerhouse. Like locals in major world cities everywhere, Parisians are busy. Add in the crush of 16 million international visitors a year, most of whom don’t speak French, and tempers are going to fray, particularly in the high seasons of April/May and September/October. That shouldn’t deter you from going, but a little preparation can smooth the trip.

Obviously, simple manners make all the difference. Parisians value and respect quiet politeness, sincerity, and patience. Brush up on your basic French, particularly questions you’re likely to need as a tourist, and remember, Excusez moi Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle, parlez-vous anglais? is your faithful fallback. If you do get a brusque answer to a question, reply with a simple merci, and don’t take it personally.