A guide to the top things to do in Paris: the best Parisian attractions to visit, sites, museums, galleries and activities in the French capital ‘City of Light’.
Tourism in Paris includes a lot of world-renown attractions – the most famous site being the Eiffel Tower – and it’s a difficult task to narrow a list to just 10 top places to visit in Paris. But for those sightseeing in Paris, this guide to the top things to do in Paris will get you started on your Parisian adventure. On y va?
1. Go up the Eiffel Tower – and avoid the queues
The Eiffel Tower was designed as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 World Fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. More than 125 years later, not only is Gustav Eiffel’s 320m-tower still standing but it’s become the iconic symbol of Paris. If you’ve got the energy (it’s 704 steps), you can walk up to the second level where there’s a glass lift to the top or you can take the lift all the way up. There are eateries (including the excellent Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor), installations, shops and spectacular views on each of the three levels, plus the first level now has a transparent floor for those daring to look down. At the top, you can visit Gustav Eiffel’s office or sip a glass of champagne while watching Paris at your feet – it’s particularly beautiful at twilight when the city lights start sparkling.
It’s open every day of the year – until midnight during the summer and until 11pm at other times. Avoid the queues: pre-book tickets online to the Eiffel Tower. Alternatively, get the best views of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine while you enjoy a meal at the glass-domed rooftop Les Ombres Restaurant of the Musée du Quai Branly, that also showcases primitive art treasures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
2. Get lost in the Louvre – or any of Paris’s top museums
It’s easy to while away an hour or two in the world’s largest museum, the Louvre – and that’s just in the fabulous gift shops with all kinds of art-related merchandise. When you visit the museum, first admire IM Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the main courtyard (and the queues of people winding around it), and then slip into the gallery with your pre-booked ticket via the passage Richelieu off rue de Rivoli or through the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall. There are around 35,000 works of art and artefacts on display in the maze of galleries and passageways, including the Mona Lisa (it’s smaller than you think) and the Venus de Milo, so dip in and out – tickets are valid all day.
Head to the Musée d’Orsay in the converted Beaux Art rail station to see the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art. There’s more modern art inside the Centre Pompidou and a rooftop bar and restaurant with stunning views. The new Foudation Louis Vuitton modern art gallery in the Bois de Boulogne houses the art collection of LV’s CEO Bernard Arnault but is worth a visit just to see the spectacular building designed by Frank Gehry.
You can visit the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay and other major museums and monuments for free through the free first Sundays programme; others are free all year around. See en.parisinfo.com for more information.
3. Visit the dead underground in Paris
Just off the Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement, near Montparnesse, is the entrance to the ‘Empire of the Dead’, 170 miles of caves, tunnels and quarries filled with the skulls and bones of six million Parisiens. The Catacombs of Paris date back to the late 18th century when the cemeteries of Paris were literally filled to bursting point, so vast quantities of human remains were moved to the city’s underground limestone and gypsum (‘plaster of Paris’) quarries. During World War II, members of the French Resistance used the tunnels, and the Germans set up a bunker there, too.The walls are created out of millions of neatly piled bones embedded with artistically arranged skulls.
While only a small section of the catacombs is open to the public, cataphiles have broken into the tunnels through drains and ventilation shafts and in 2004 a fully equipped cinema, restaurant and bar were discovered in a large cave underneath the 16th arrondissement. If you get a taste for the subterranean, then the Musée des égouts, the network of Parisien sewers, should be next on your list.
4. Hang out along the bohemian Canal St Martin
Leave the tourists behind on the Left Bank and hang out with cool Parisiens on the tranquil banks of the Canal St Martin in north-east Paris – think shady, tree-lined quaysides, quaint arched iron foot bridges, trendy shops and cafes.This boho neighbourhood lies between the Gare du Nord and Republic in the 10th arrondissement. Napoleon ordered the canal to be built back in 1802 as part of the city’s fresh water system. It used to be a working class area but with gentrification these days the locals are an affluent arty bunch.
On warm days, you’ll find students, artists, models and well-heeled young professionals strolling, picnicking, chatting and strumming their guitars along the canal. Stop for a café or vin rouge at one of the quirky bars, pick up some pastries at one of the bakeries, or browse the fashionable boutiques and book shops.
5. Visit the Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre
A steep climb up the 130m (427ft) hill of Montmartre (the ‘mountain of the martyrs’) or the quicker and easier ride up on the funicular railway (you can use a regular metro ticket) will get you to the picture postcard Sacré-Cœur. Built from 1875 to 1914, there’s a wonderful mosaic in the apse and you can climb the 300 steps up the famous dome for amazing views – up to 30km away on a clear day. The church is set amongst cobbled streets filled with cafes, buskers and hawkers selling their wares, which sounds very touristy but it has its own charm. The area has been associated with artistic types since the late 1800s; Renoir, Degas, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso all lived or worked in the area.
Today head for Place du Tertre square where you’ll find street artists eager to sketch you or sell you a view of Paris.
6. Celebrity spot in a cemetery
Take an atmospheric walk through Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Among the simple headstones, ornate mini-chapels, dramatic sculptures, immaculate graves and abandoned tombs, see if you can spot the final resting places of some familiar names. Red lipstick kisses cover the tomb of author and wit Oscar Wilde. Fans have left candles, wine bottles and even drug paraphenaliaby on the grave of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the 1960s group The Doors.
Other celebrities that are buried here include:
- composer Chopin
- writers Balzac, Proust, Colette and Gertrude Stein
- playwright Moliere
- singer Edith Piaf
- dancer Isadora Duncan
- actors Sarah Bernhardt and Yves Montand
- painters Seurat, Delacroix, Pissarro and Modiglianiare.
The oldest identifiable bones are those of Abelard and Héloïse, who died in 1142 and 1164 respectively. You can pick up a map at the conservation office near the main bd de Ménilmontant.
7. See gargolyes, a prison and kaleidoscopic windows on the Île de la Cité
Go early to beat the crowds and visit the little island in the middle of the Seine called the Île de la Cité. There’s the 14th-century gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame – points of interest include the façade, the rose window, flying buttresses (the arched supports on the outside of the cathedral holding up the upper walls), gargoygles (which were designed to act as spouts for rainwater), fantastical birds and beasts called chimeras, and the Bourdon, which is the gigantic bell that Quaismodo rang in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Also on the island is the Conciegerie, a royal palace that became one of the most terrifying prisons of the French Revolution, where prisoners – including Marie Antoinette – were held before being taken to meet the guillotine. Next door is one of the wonders of the medieval world: the breathtakingly spectacular (and newly restored) stained glass windows of the tiny 13th-century Sainte Chapelle. Louis IX commissioned the building to house what were believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns and a piece of the cross.
But it’s the vast technicolour windows that steal the show: on a sunny day the effect is kaleidoscopic.
8. Jump on a Vélib’ and cycle the city
Vélib’ is a self-service bicycle hire scheme with more than 20,000 bikes available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from 1,800 bornes around Paris. There are an incredible 250miles (400km) dedicated bike lanes around the city. On Sundays and holidays, many of the major roads are sectioned off for cyclists so you don’t have to contend with Parisien traffic. You can book online – or just turn up at one of the stations, follow the onscreen instructions, choose your bike and away you go; the first 30 minutes are free of charge.
The Vélib’ website explains how it works, how to pay and where to pick up and drop off in Paris – most of the time you don’t actually need a map as in many parts of Paris the stations are a mere 300m apart.
9. Browse a Parisien market
Marché Bastille, in the Boulevard Richard Lenoir (in the 11th), is one of the biggest markets in Paris and a foodie heaven. It sells every type of fresh foodstuff – fruit, vegetables, local cheeses, fish, meat, saucisses and olives – as well as African fabrics, bargain jewellery and bags. On Saturdays it’s an arts and crafts market. It’s open Thursdays 7am–2.30pm, Saturdays 9am–6pm and Sundays 7am–1pm.
Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen, out by the Avenue de la Porte de Clignancourt in the 18th, is the largest flea market in Paris (and possibly the world). There are around 3,000 canvas-covered and open-air stalls and shops selling all manner of antiques and junk within its 7 hectares. Elbow your way through the 180,000 visitors each weekend and head for the Marché Lecuye section for cheaper and un-renovated items. Be prepared to bargain – and take cash. It’s open Mondays 11am–5pm, and Saturdays and Sundays 9am–6pm.
Fashionistas should look out for the pop-up fashion market Take Me Out which is held every three months in various locations.
Click for up-to-date information and opening hours of all markets in Paris.
10. Stroll the Promenade Plantée
An old 19th-century railway viaduct has been re-imagined as the world’s first elevated park. The Promenade Plantée in the 12th starts to the east of the Opera Bastille and follows the old Vincennes railway line for almost 3 miles to the Peripherique. Planted with trees, flowers, rose trellises and bamboo, the raised walkway allows an interesting view of the surrounding buildings, and at one end there are tunnels with bats. There are staircases along the way to take you down to the Viaduc des Arts along av Daumsnil, where you’ll find around 50 shops, galleries, workshops, cafes and restaurants housed in the arches underneath the viaduct.
Photo credits: Gilad Rom (the Eiffel Tower); Benh (Musée d’Orsay); Tommie Hansen (Catacombs of Paris); Galerie de photos de Tonio Vega (Canal St Martin); Jim Linwood from London (Montmartre); Jacob Epstein (Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise); Bruxelles5 (Île de la Cité); Pline (Vélib’); ayustety (Marché Bastille); Twice25 (Promenade Plantée)