I’ve visited Paris six times over the past five years. I though it’d be helpful to round up a list of highlights and the best things to do in Paris, based on an American tourist’s experience.
My hope is that this list of the best things to do in Paris for firs-time visitors is helpful for you, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you have. I want your trip to be a blast!
Long time readers of this website know I hate small talk, so let’s cover the ideal Paris itinerary for a first visit.
Will I be disappointed while visiting Paris?
Listen, you know I’m all about honesty, and I never want to mislead you. So let’s chat about this.
Moreso than any other city, Paris is able to captivate a special place in a person’s heart long before they board the plane for their first visit to Paris. Why is that? I’m guessing it has to do with the glorification of the City of Light in the movies and shows we watch growing up.
There’s no denying that Paris is a romanticized city. As such, it’s inevitable that folks may find themselves almost let down during a first visit to Paris, so much so that there’s an actual term for this: Paris Syndrome.
To set yourself up for success, remember this: Paris is a real city. I know this sounds like an odd thing to say, almost like an understatement, but it warrants saying.
Everyday people live and work in Paris and it’s not all glory and Gucci every Tuesday morning. This is a real place where people are rushing to work, garbage bags are tossed on the street and the occasional waiter wishes you would greet them with “bonjour” over “hello.”
It’s a beautiful city, too. There’s so much to enjoy and so many great things to do in Paris, keep your mind open as you experience everything the City of Light has to offer. I’m sure you’ll have a great time, and this quick list will guide you in the right direction.
Where to Stay in Paris
You know the drill: location, location, location. The best neighborhoods to stay in Paris (based on my travels) are Le Marais, St. Germain and the area near the Arc de Triomph. Here’s a quick list of my favorite hotels in Paris.
Visiting Paris | Best Things to Do Paris
Top 10 Best Things to Do in Paris for a First Visit
Split a Bottle of Rosé at Les Deux Margot
Parisians consider passing time as an art form, and they’ve been qualifying for those Olympics since the dawn of time. To their credit, after becoming accustomed to long, leisurely afternoon devoted to nothing (bless you, vacation), I understand the hype. The challenge is knowing with idyllic little cafe to park yourself at, to which I say: the best one.
But let’s address the elephant in the room — scoring a table at Les Deux Margot will require nothing short of a miracle. However, if you have the patience then you’ll be rewarded with one of the best things to do in Paris during a first visit.
Attracting celebrities, creatives (Hemingway, Picasso) and chic locals alike, Les Deux Margot dates back to 1884. This is one of the classiest Parisian cafes around and it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a warm summer evening than nursing a bottle of rosé while people-watching.
If helpful, we paid $40 for a bottle of rosé at Les Deux Margot, which is steep by European standards, but on par with typical prices in Paris (and hell, a bargain by New York City standards).
Note: If Les Deux Margot is too busy during your visit, pop over one block to Cafe de Flore. It’s equally as charming but has better prices (hey, visiting Paris is expensive and I’m not made of money, people!).
See the Eiffel Tower at Sunset
There is nothing more iconic in Paris than the Eiffel Tower, so let’s jump in. Built as a centerpiece for the 1889 World’s Fair, it was intended to be a temporary exhibit but quickly became an icon synonymous with the most romantic city in the world.
And it’s no wonder. Seeing this beauty aglow during sunset is one of the most romantic things to do in Paris. Especially at dusk, when the tower starts to shimmer in a dazzling display of lights.
One of the best ways to enjoy the Eiffel Tower at sunset is to trapeze around town in search of local treats (bakeries, cheese shops!) before parking yourself on the large lawn. From there, spend the entire afternoon talking about nothing and maybe pinching yourself.
But as you know, you and half of Paris will be at the Eiffel Tower at sunset. If you’re keen on escaping the crowds, head to the Eiffel Tower at sunrise for some semblance of solitude. It’s just as magical, regardless of the time of day.
All told, visiting Paris for the first time without seeing the Eiffel Tower up close is a no-go. Add it to your Paris itinerary and see what all the fuss is about.
Note: Some readers have asked if ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower is worthwhile while visiting Paris for the first time. Speaking personally, this is an easy no for me. It’s expensive, crowded and while you’ll get a great view of the city, you’ll be missing one crucial element — a view of the Eiffel Tower. This is an easy pass for me.
A (honest) word on the Eiffel Tower: I don’t want to deceive you, visiting the Eiffel Tower for the first time can be a lot to take in. You’ll be met with tons of folks trying to sell trinkets and crowds of people, try to avoid the Trocadéro Gardens and Plaza around sunset because it’s a zoo.
Explore Le Marais
Every city has one charming neighborhood that few can resist falling in love with. In Paris, that honor undoubtedly goes to Le Marais and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that disagrees.
Home to quaint cafes, local boutique shops, charming restaurants and plenty of big-name shops, you’ll find it hard to stay away after discovering this gem. The best way to explore this gem is to devote an entire day on your Paris itinerary exclusively to getting lost in Le Marais.
Start at a charming cafe, wander around before picking up some light fare at a grocery store and parking yourself at Place des Vosges for a picnic. Or, swing by L’as du Fallafel for super famous, delicious (and cheap) fallafels.
Afterwards, spend the afternoon hours slowly popping into random shops (Merci is an adorable French concept store), visiting the Picasso Museum, or simply wandering the meandering cobblestone streets aimlessly. Once you’ve had your fill of exploration, settle down at a cozy restaurant for a slow meal.
Oh, and speaking of Place des Vosges, let’s deep dive on that one.
Picnic at Place des Vosges
Dating back to 1605, the Place des Vosges is the oldest planned square in Paris. Originally designed as a stomping grounds for royals and nobility, today it’s considered one of the prettiest parks in Paris.
White visiting Paris, we opted to spend an entire day exploring Le Marais and started the day at Place des Vosges. We grabbed brunch at one of the corner cafes before making our way over to the house of Place des Vosges’s most famous resident: Victor Hugo.
His most notable works include Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, so you may have heard of him. Guests are welcome to tour house of where Victor Hugo lived for free. It’s a great little musuem and I especially enjoyed the art.
Visit the Louvre
No list outlining the best things to do in Paris during a first visit is complete without mentioning the Louvre. This place is a masterpiece, even if you don’t consider yourself a “musuem person.”
Originally built as a fortress before being repurposed as a royal palace, the build officially became a museum in 1793. That’s right, when our country was still a teenager (17 years old), the Louvre was established.
Since 1793, the building has been used many times over. Most notably by the Nazi’s during WWII when they need a space to store stolen art. The building alone is steeped in rich history and getting to experience it is worth visiting Paris for alone.
Architecture aside, you can’t sleep on the opportunity to see the Mona Lisa with your own eyes! More impressive than the honorable Mona (in my opinion), is the Coronation of Napoleon. A massive painting depicting — you guessed it — Napoleon’s coronation. It’s the most beautiful artwork I’ve every seen (and I visit The Met weekly).
Some folks argue that the Louvre can be skipped on a Paris itinerary for first time visits, but I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the logic — the Louvre is next-level busy and chaotic! But why in the world would you miss an opportunity to tour the largest museum in the world?
Helpful Tip: If you’re adding the Louvre to your Paris itinerary, book your tickets in advance so you’re not stuck in line too long! Here’s the official website for booking Louvre tickets.
Take in the View from the Arc de Triomphe
My first visit to Paris occurred in the spring of 2017. I had just landed my first real job and wanted to treat my mom to a trip as a big thank you for years of putting up with me (any
stubborn determined gals out there?). Flights booked, the only thing left to sort were accommodations.
After doing some research, we landed on a charming Airbnb a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. The area is very posh, but we scored a great deal on accommodations and enjoyed our stay in the neighborhood. Seeing the Arc de Triomphe on a daily basis made it inevitable that we’d eventual climb to the top, and we weren’t about to argue with fate.
Little did we know that seeing the view of the city from this vantage point is one of the best things to do in Paris! Touristy? Absolutely, but well worth it. You’ll need to climb a steep set of stairs (284 steps, I counted – ha!) that leads to the top, but it’s manageable.
If you’re planning on adding the Arc de Triomphe to your Paris itinerary, you can book tickets here (current cost is 13€ per person). There’s a little museum at the top that’s worth perusing for a while, it’s very interesting.
Word to the wise: It’s best to know the history of this important landmark before visiting Paris. It makes you an informed and respectful tourist, who doesn’t love that?
Why is the Arc de Triomphe important?
inaugurated in 1836, the Arc de Triomphe honors soldiers that died fighting for France’s freedom during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Observe the walls on the arc and you’ll see the names of generals and notable French victories during those times.
As you leave the Arc de Triomphe, you’ll notice a moving tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
Stroll down the Champs-Élysées
The Arc de Triomphe marks the official start of the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées. Spanning roughly 1.2 miles, this is a trendy avenue full of designer shops and fun restaurants. I enjoy strolling from the Arc de Triomphe all the way down to the Tuileries Gardens before deciding on my next move from there.
Good to know: The Champs-Élysées is completely car-free during the first Sunday of the month! It’s open exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists in an effort to reduce air pollution and improve air quality.
What does “Champs-Élysées” mean?
Champs-Élysées is French for a paradise in Greek mythology known as “Elysian Fields.” Don’t you just love it when there’s a simple explanation?
Explore Montmartre & the Sacré-Cœur Basilica
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (Sacré-Cœur Basilica) is a breathtaking masterpiece located in the charming Montmartre neighborhood. Perched atop a butte, the basilica was built in the Romano-Byzantine style at the end of the 19th century, it’s used to this day as an important house of worship.
The views of Paris from the Sacré-Cœur are some of the best in the city, which it why you must see it when visiting Paris for the first time. But whew, wading through the crowds and the folks selling trinkets (some of them downright harass folks!), is a lot to handle.
Regardless, the beauty of the Sacre Coeur is alluring and the neighborhood is very fun to explore. This is definitely one of the best things to do in Paris during a first visit, just brace yourself for the busy nature of the area and the crowds of tourist.
In terms of Montmartre, the neighborhood is best described as a hodgepodge of locals, artists, bohemians and tourists. All eager to suck the marrow out of life, one Parisian street at a time. Meander down the streets and wander aimlessly from one store front to the next, while taking in some of the most beautiful views of Paris.
Paris Itinerary Idea: Explore the Place du Tertre
In the very heart of Montmartre, under the watchful gaze of the Sacré-Cœur, is an artist hot pocket you cannot risk missing on your first trip to Paris. Found at Place du Tertre (a public square), this is a congregation of talented artists selling original artwork al fresco.
The most common art seems to be the folks drawing caricatures. Some are so talented, I plan to return when I have kids to get some done, I was so impressed. But there’s a handful of artists selling actual paintings (watercolor, oil, etc.).
We discovered this gem during our last visit to Paris and it made me bummed that I hadn’t known about it earlier. We bought a 40€ watercolor from a local artist, as a souvenir from Paris and treasure it immensely. Way better than a key chain, so add it to your Paris itinerary.
Relax at the Luxembourg Gardens
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be royalty? Well, relaxing at the Luxembourg Gardens is a great start. Only one minor caveat though, you won’t have the place to yourself.
The Luxembourg Gardens was commissioned by Marie de’ Medici after her sweet thang, King Henry IV, died and left her a (very rich) widow. Eager to shake things up, she decided that the Louvre was no longer desirable and commissioned an architect to build a new palace in imitation of the place she was born — Pitti Palace in Florence.
Likewise, the garden was designed in a style native to Florence and spared no expense in the effort. Today you’ll see chipper tourist with cameras in hand rubbing elbows with locals catching up with friends, and retirees napping. Visiting the gardens is one of the most relaxing things to do in Paris, so you won’t want to miss it.
As you know, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French. But did you know you can see a smaller version of the Statue of Liberty at the Luxembourg Gardens? The bronze replica can be found at on the west side of the park. Just something to mull over if looking for Paris itinerary ideas.
Take a Half-Day Trip to the Palace of Versailles
The million dollar question — should you devote a precious day visiting Paris to the Palace of Versailles. The answer? Of course.
Located a mere 30 minute train ride from downtown, this used to be the official royal residence of the top dogs until the French Revolution in 1789. Today the palace is open to the public — and damn — it’s a joy to explore. Seeing the Hall of Mirrors (unreal) and Marie Antoinette’s gardens are a must-do for Paris first time visitors!
In fact, touring the gardens of Versailles with my mom ended up being the most memorable day from our first trip to Paris. It was a very special experience, just make sure to bring comfortable walking shoes.
Helpful Note: If you’re going to add the Palace of Versailles to your Paris itinerary (as you should!), make sure to book tickets well in advance. This is especially true if you plan on Visiting Paris in the summer. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in the infamous long lines. Here’s the official website to book your tickets.
More Time? Top Attractions in Paris to Add to Your Paris Itinerary
Picnic Along the River Seine
So we’ve covered the best things to do in Paris for a first visit, but what if you have more time? Well, why not partake in a local’s favorite pastime?
Most folks know that walking along the River Seine is one of the most romantic things to do in Paris, but picnicking along the banks takes it up a notch. You’ll be rewarded with great views of the city while enjoy a bottle of beer or a light glass of rosé.
You’ll see tons of locals congregating along the banks, join them! Tag along a pack of playing cards and watch the evening hours slip by while nibble on delicious cheese and baguettes. When in
Rome Paris, right?
I mean, can you think of a more romantic thing to do in Paris?
Tip: If you’re an early rise (way to go, you!) make your way to the River Seine to catch the sunrise. You’ll avoid the crowds while getting spectacular views of the city waking up.
See the Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte
My husband and I ended up spending a few days visiting Paris during our honeymoon. With limited time, we had to prioritize a list of the best things to do in Paris, and seeing Napoleon’s tomb rose high on his list. Intrigued, I jumped aboard and we added it to our Paris itinerary.
Holy cow. I had no idea what to expect and found myself completely blown away. Housed in the monolithic Les Invalides, adjacent to the Army Museum (Musée de l’Armée), this final resting place of Mr. B is something else and needs to be seen to be believed.
In fact, of all the great things to do in Paris, none has impressed me more than seeing Napoleon’s tomb. Whether or not you’re a history buff, this is definitely one of the best things to do in Paris and you won’t want to miss it!
Enjoy a meal at Chez Janou
Chez Janou was our favorite meal while visiting Paris. This is saying a lot, considering we celebrated my birthday as a Michelin restaurant (I regretted spending the money!). Offering a chic, casual vibe you’ll be rubbing elbows with locals and tourists alike, but everyone seems to be on the same page: Chez Janou is the place to be.
The food is top-notch and inexpensive by Parisian standards, so you many find yourself visiting several times. Make room on your Paris itinerary for impromptu things to do in Paris, because you never know what will catch your eye.
Word to the wise: You may need to go to the restaurant early to get a reservation for the following day. We couldn’t figure out how to make a reservation over the phone or email, so we swung by to chat with the host.
He booked us in for 7pm the following day and we waited (very) patiently until the dinner hour. When the faithful hour came, we got seated in the very back of the restaurant next to a table of three British friends.
We ended up staying and chatting with them well past midnight! It was such a serendipitous experience that only happens a handful of times when you travel, so we soaked it up.
Explore the Musée d’Orsay
Make no mistake, the Louvre is in a class all its own. But the Musée d’Orsay happens to be my favorite musuem in Paris. Housed in a former Beaux-Arts railway station that was built between 1898-1900, the musuem is home to notable French artists dating back to 1848.
You’ll see the long list of usual suspects — Manet, Renoir, Seurat and van Gogh — alongside new-to-you artists waiting to be discovered. Much like the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay is a masterpiece of a musuem and worth a visit.
I highly suggest adding this to your Paris itinerary. You never know, you may like it too!
Admire the Notre Dame Cathedral
Alright, get this. Construction on the Notre Dame (“Our Lady” in French) Cathedral began in 1163 and wasn’t completed until 1260. Let that sink in. Both the fact that construction started in 1163 and the cathedral took nearly 100 years to complete is hard to fathom for me!
The cathedral took a beating during the French Revolution and much of the religious imagery was destroyed. However, tradition prevails and the building continued to be used as a house of worship. Likewise, this architectural marvel has hosted the funerals of many French presidents and even the coronation of Napoleon.
Considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, Seeing this storied cathedral is non-negotiable when visiting Paris for the first time. However, the Notre Dame is closed for renovations following a devastating fire. You can view the breathtaking building from the outside, but it’s closed for entry until further notice.
Should you add this to your list of the most interesting things to do in Paris? You bet.
Pop into Shakespeare & Company
Shakespeare & Co. is an English-language bookshop that dates back to 1951. Founded by American George Whitman, the shop became a safe haven for anglophone writers and readers.
When the bookstore first opened, it was named Le Mistral. However, in 1964 Whitman changed the name to Shakespeare and Company in honor of a bookseller (Sylvia Beach) he personally admired. Beach founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919 in Paris.
It served as a gather place for expat writers. Chief among them were Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald and Eliot. She provided housing in exchange for assistance at the store.
History aside, this bookstore is as charming as can be, so swing by if you’re looking for romantic things to do in Paris you won’t soon forget.
P.S. There’s a very charming cafe right next door, pop in for a great coffee and midday pick-me-up.
“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”— George Whitman
Peruse the famous flea markets
Before embarking to Paris for our honeymoon, my husband and I spent some time doing serious research. We found that France’s flea markets are known the world over and visiting a few was one of the best things to do in Paris.
Say no more. We swung by to see stalls and shops filled with intricate trinkets and great art. But what we weren’t prepared for were the price tags. Holey macaroni! Almost everything was of budget for us. But we did find two vintage prints that we negotiated down to 40 euros.
In any case, simply perusing the area was fun. So if you’re into antiques, add this to your list of best things to do in Paris, you’ll probably enjoy it.
Best Restaurants Paris
I’m probably not the first to tell you that Paris is an expensive city. As such, eating out adds up very quickly so it’s good to know which spots are worthwhile. Here’s a quick roundup of my favorite restaurants from our trip.
- Chez Janou
- Le P’tit Troquet
- L’Ami Jean
When is the best time to visit Paris?
I’ve visited Paris is all four seasons and can confidently tell you the best time to visit Paris is Fall (September – November) and Spring (late-April through May). Visiting Paris in the fall is a treat, especially if you get sunny days. Temperatures are mild and chance of rainfall is minimal and don’t even get me started on that glorious fall color!
Spring season brings the promise of prolific spring blooms, and who can resist those when visiting Paris for the first time? Not this gal.
Visiting Paris is August isn’t the best because most of the city is shut down. Parisians use August as a month to rewind and relax before returning to regular life. As such, they beeline for the country and many restaurants close down. However, the streets aren’t as busy and hotels are more affordable.
Paris Itinerary Ideas (Post Summary)
In sum, here’s a quick roundup of the best things to do in Paris during a first visit.
- Split a Bottle of Rosé at Les Deux Margot
- See the Eiffel Tower at Sunset
- Explore Le Marais
- Picnic at Place des Vosges
- Visit the Louvre
- Take in the View from the Arc de Triomphe
- Stroll down the Champs-Élysées
- Explore Montmartre
- Pop into the Sacré-Cœur Basilica
- Relax at the Luxembourg Gardens
- Take a Half-Day Trip to the Palace of Versailles
- Picnic Along the River Seine
- See the Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte
- Enjoy a meal at Chez Janou
- Explore the Musée d’Orsay
- Admire the Notre Dame Cathedral
- Pop into Shakespeare & Company
- Peruse the famous flea markets
Map of the best things to do in Paris when visiting Paris for the first time