In this post, we cover the top 10 things to do in Paris, France. The City of Light is like the “Most Interesting Man in the World” of places to visit. Sophisticated yet fun, approachable yet outrageous–you’ll never run out of things to do in Paris, and narrowing down a list about its “best” points of interest and attractions would snub worthy offerings regardless of whether you limited it to 10 or 100 options.
We’ve now taken four trips to Paris, and still have plenty more to experience in the city. After each trip, we feel a sense of accomplishment, as if we’ve finally seen the best things Paris has to offer…only to get home, learn about a couple of new things, and feel like we have barely scratched the surface. I suspect that’s a common feeling regardless of whether you spend a couple of days or a couple of years in Paris.
Suffice to say, Paris truly is one of the most interesting, most beautiful, most artistic–most superlative–city on earth. With literally hundreds of incredible things to do in Paris, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see all the city has to offer. However, I feel like at this point we’ve gotten a feel for the “essence” of Paris, and we can always revise this list in the future should something really special come along. (Although that would mean knocking Notre Dame off the list, and that just doesn’t seem right!)
Anyway, let’s dig into our list of the best things to do in Paris, France…
10. Notre Dame Cathedral
Even as someone who has decried Notre Dame Cathedral as overrated, I’m not such a contrarian to snub it from this list. Although I do not think Notre Dame Cathedral belongs among the upper echelon of this list, it has no doubt earned a place on this list thanks to both substantive quality and historic legacy.
The interior is beautiful, particularly the rose windows, but is frequently loud and crowded. It’s the exterior and towers that I particularly appreciate at Notre Dame, and I’d recommend making a point to go up to get up close to the gargoyles and see sweeping views of Paris if time allows. (Taking the tower tour again–except at night–is near the top of my Paris bucket list.)
9. Musee de l’Orangerie
This is the first of three art museums on this list, and I was a bit hesitant to include it for that reason. After all, if you have limited time in Paris, spending over a day of that time at museums (and that would be necessary to see all three) might be excessive. Nevertheless, with over 1,000 art galleries spread throughout the city and a reputation as a world art mecca, it’s difficult to leave any of these off the list.
Musee de l’Orangerie earns its spot despite similarities to Musee d’Orsay (both have place a strong emphasis on Impressionist and post-Impressionist schools) thanks to its two consecutive oval rooms featuring Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. The rest of the museum’s galleries are incredibly impressive, housing numerous masterpieces, but the Water Lilies rooms are breathtaking, perhaps the most arresting presentation of paintings that I’ve ever seen. If time allowed, I could sit in these rooms and stare into the paintings all day. With all that there is to do in Paris, unfortunately, it does not.
8. Shop ’til You Drop
I’m not one to shop while traveling. Heck, I’m not one to go shopping period. I’m very thankful to have lived most of my adult life in the internet age, when virtually anything I want–from around the world–can be delivered to me. From time to time, I’ll make an exception to this rule, and Paris is one such place for that exception. I’ve gone into high-end retailers like Galeries Lafayette (beautiful inside, but I felt incredibly out of place), small antique shops (neat), and street markets.
I’ve come to realize that the various incarnations of grocery stores are my favorite Parisian stores. This was surprising even to me. While eating is one of my passions, I view grocery shopping as a mild form of torture. Not at grocery stores in Paris. These contain a treasure trove of things I never knew I needed in my life, and it’s fun not just to stock up on snacks (cheese, bread, Nutella, crepes, etc.) but also to browse to simply look at all of the products available. (This site does a better job of explaining the allure of grocery stores in Paris better than I ever could.)
7. Sacré-Cœur Basilica
Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Roman Catholic church perched atop Montmartre that offers sweeping views of Paris. Inside and outside, Sacré-Cœur Basilica is gorgeous and unique. As with Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur is stunning, but with a less-commercialized and chaotic vibe. The massive golden mosaic of Christ in the Majesty, which was created in 1922 by Luc-Olivier Merson, is absolutely entrancing, as are the sunset views of Paris from the steps of the church or its observation deck.
In case that’s not enough, the other selling point here is Sacré-Cœur Basilica’s setting in Montmartre. This is area of the city is interesting, offering glimpses of Paris’ art scene and immigrant community, among other things. As we stress in #1, the neighborhoods of Paris are a big part of its appeal, and this is high water mark culturally. (Consider exploring Montmartre during the day–it can be a bit rough around the edges at night.)
6. Cafe Society
No, I’m not suggesting you take time out of your itinerary to find a screening of a late-period Woody Allen film. Nor is this a recommendation to partake in France’s rich culinary scene. Rather, this about an experience: find a quaint Parisian cafe with friends, order a coffee (make sure you know what you’re doing beforehand) or a light meal, and sit facing the street, enthralled in the setting, good conversation, and thought.
An evocative picture of this whole experience is painted by this Los Angeles Times article from 1992. Of course, that article was written before the era of smartphones, social media, and constant distractions. Now more than ever, the time spent rapt by the real world around you is precious. I can think of few places on earth that offer such a wonderful way to disconnect–and actually connect–as Parisian cafes. Calling this “zen-like” would be inapposite, but there should be some term to describe the feeling you attain when embracing Paris’ cafe society.
5. The Louvre
The Louvre Museum itself is a masterpiece, a true art palace. It arguably has as much in common as the Palace of Versailles as it does Musée d’Orsay. This is good news, because despite the Louvre having one of the largest and most formidable art collections in the world, I’d argue that the true allure of the Louvre is not in its collection of art, but in the whole package.
The Louvre is a good example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. For me, both of the other art museums on this list have more impressive galleries, and are much more approachable for a casual tourist. By contrast, the Louvre’s pièce de résistance is the Mona Lisa, which is a bit of a disappointment. The appeal of the Louvre is in the museum’s enchanting character, its historical legacy, the beauty of the building itself, and the intrigue of the secret societies we all know are hidden in its secret corridors. (Kidding on that last one…OR AM I?!)
4. Musee d’Orsay
This ‘hot take’ could be inferred from my statements above…or by the simple fact of the numerical rankings, but I’ll say it explicitly, anyway: Musée d’Orsay is a better museum than the Louvre. Now, in fairness, I call the Louvre an “art palace” and say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but still. Even if you’ve never been to Paris, you’ve heard of the Louvre (thanks, Tom Hanks). Probably not true of Musée d’Orsay.
While there’s nothing palatial about Musée d’Orsay, it is in a pretty cool former train station with its own stunning design (albeit less stunning) and, more importantly, it houses one of the world’s top Impressionist art collections. These galleries house masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Degas, and other key members from the Impressionist movement. You could spend a day alone on the top floor, and it’s these galleries that cement Musée d’Orsay’s spot as the best art museum in Paris.
Located about a block from Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle is often overshadowed by its world-renowned neighbor. This should not be the case. Sainte-Chapelle one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see, particularly as the afternoon light flitters through the resplendent stained glass windows, giving them a truly ethereal glow.
Sainte-Chapelle also has a rich history to go along with that beauty; a visit to Sainte-Chapelle is a culturally-meaningful experience. This is especially true if you rent an audio guide, and with that, the 30 minutes you’d otherwise spend absorbing the beauty of the stained glass can easily eclipse an hour as you soak up some truly unbelievable history about the chapel.
2. Eiffel Tower
We have yet to go up in the Eiffel Tower. For a while, Sarah told me it was because the lines were too long, but there are hacks to bypass those. Really, I know it’s because she’s afraid. She finally agreed to go up there with me on our last trip, but–to her relief–we had a last minute scheduling change that prevented this. Part of me is disappointed that we’ve never been, while another part of me likes having something “big” remaining on my bucket list, as a reason we must go back.
Even without going up to the Eiffel Tower, there’s a lot to do around the Eiffel Tower. While the area immediately around the structure is extremely touristy and filled with street vendors, there are still some quiet(er) areas in the adjacent park where you can sit and gaze up at the beautiful Eiffel Tower, enjoying that cliched romantic moment in Paris (in this case, there’s a reason it’s cliched…it’ll etch itself into your memory). There’s also the option of walking or taking a cruise along the River Seine, watching the Eiffel Tower along the way. As touristy as it all might seem, it is the iconic thing to do in Paris. (I’m also a sucker for photographing the Eiffel Tower from every angle.)
1. Stroll Down the Champs-Elysées
I’ll never forget our first night in Paris. We had taken the RER from Val d’Europe where we were staying (heading to Disneyland Paris the following morning) and spent over three hours just wandering around the city. No real agenda aside from eventually making our way to the Eiffel Tower and having dinner. We walked through several neighborhoods along the way, bought street food, and generally were awestruck about the beauty and grandeur of Paris.
Chief among the places through which we walked was the Champs-Elysées, “la plus belle avenue du monde.” In only a few hours, I had already fallen in love with Paris. Strolling through the City of Light is still my #1 thing to do in Paris. At this point, I wouldn’t consider “the world’s most beautiful avenue” my favorite place to stroll in Paris, though. Champs-Elysées is no doubt beautiful, but it’s a bit too grand and ostentatious for my taste. I enjoy it, but prefer the more intimate neighborhoods.
However, it seems a bit impractical to list several different neighborhoods to wander on this list, and I think Champs-Elysées is still the quintessential place for a first-timer visitor to take a stroll through Paris. It has a sense of grandeur to it, features an amalgamation of styles, and will lead you right to the Arc de Triomphe (which allows me to “cheat” a bit and not include that elsewhere on the list). My recommended walking tour here is starting around Place de la Concorde, heading down Champs-Elysées, circling the Arc de Triomphe, and continuing down Avenue Victor Hugo to Victor Hugo Place. That’s about a 3 km stroll, and it’s wonderful.
Overall, Paris is a pretty incredible place. Any one of these spots would likely be the #1 point of interest in any number of (great) cities around the world. The caliber of the offerings in Paris are almost unfair to other world cities, and demonstrate just why Paris is such a wonderful place to visit. The overwhelming thing is that there are another few dozen (or more) excellent things to do in Paris…and throughout France. No amount of time is “enough” to fully experience Paris.
Planning your own trip to France? Check out our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with the Rick Steves France and Loire Valley Eyewitness guidebooks.
What would be your #1 thing to do in Paris? Anything that we left off the list that deserves a spot among the top 10? Anything we included that you think does not belong? Any questions? Hearing from readers is part of the fun (and is helpful to others), so please share your thoughts in the comments below!