Planning your first trip to Paris is SO exciting! You may feel a bit like you are a kid in a candy shop. Paris offers so much in the way of iconic landmarks, distinctive architecture, castles, a winding river, historic sights, and sidewalk cafes lining the streets. These 12 tips will help you sort through all the options and figure out what’s important to you and your fellow travelers.
Paris is my favorite European city. I’ve stayed in Paris six times, which isn’t a lot but it’s enough to give me a comfort level when I’m there. I feel like the city is a home away from home, and I’m content to wander without a map at times. These tips come from my view as a visitor and go out to fellow travelers to help you with a few basics I wish I had understood better on my first foray. If you’re planning your first trip (or a return trip) to the City of Light, use these tips to make the most of your time.
Some of these tips focus on sights to see and some are more practical. I’m mixing up the fun with the factual, because Paris is not at all a stodgy place of do’s and don’ts, but it is vibrant, enjoyable city. I hope you’ll fall in love with Paris, as I have.
The question of where to base yourself in Paris is major. People who have a trip already booked have looked at me completely puzzled when I ask which arrondissement their hotel is in. Paris is the only city I’ve visited that is divided into these sectors. And the numbering starts from the center of the city (the island where Notre Dame is located) and spirals around, with the Seine river flowing through the middle. So arrondissement 7 is next to 15, and 3 is next to 11, which doesn’t make logical sense.
My preference is to stay near the Seine to be central. And my favorite arrondissement is the 5th, which is also known as the Latin Quarter. From here, you have a choice of more than one Metro station, and you can walk to the Seine and across it to Notre Dame and the Louvre and on through to the other bank of Paris. If in doubt, choose the Latin Quarter.
Consider Whether You Want to Go Up in the Eiffel Tower
But if you want to see the Iron Lady up close and actually go up, it helps to plan ahead. The lift takes you up to two levels. Lines for walk-ups who want to take the lift can be very long, and you are out in the weather (hot or cold).
You can book your tickets on the official site before you arrive in Paris. Or you can book a private tour company if you’re willing to pay the extra charge. Another way to go up is to take the stairs. The line for this was only about 10 minutes when I did this on one trip, and it was an awesome experience. We stopped whenever we wanted to look down at the view (or when we were out of breath). We could look around at the iron structure. It’s 700 steps, so just be sure your knees are up to it.
On Arrival Be Careful with Taxis
When you arrive at the airport, you can take a public transportation into the city. While I have done that several times, I’ve found the trains crowded and slow due to so many stops. Juggling your luggage can make it more difficult. I opted for a taxi on my last trip, paying a bit more but getting to the hotel much faster. Taxis are also at the four train stations. Here’s the important tip: Be sure to take an OFFICIAL taxi. Taxis charge a set rate to go from the airport to either the Left Bank or Right Bank. Check this website before your trip to make sure you don’t get scammed. The airport and some of the train stations have a line for the official taxis. Ignore anyone who approaches you directly to try to talk you into riding with them.
Drivers will come up to you and insist that their cars are taxis. Look for a lighted sign on the roof, and if you get inside the car, make sure there is a meter. If not, risk being impolite and get back out of the car. I learned my lesson by caving to an insistent young man who ushered us into his car. Once inside, I asked where the meter was. He suddenly spoke no English. Then he charged about three times the going rate to deliver us to our hotel. I never felt that we were unsafe, but we lost a lot of Euros before we even started seeing the sights.
Visit the Louvre and Also at Least One Smaller Museum
Yes, you should visit the Louvre. It’s a world-class museum, and Mona Lisa lives there. Plan to go before it opens to jockey for a good position in line. Spend the morning, then move on. You would need weeks to see all the art in the Louvre. So, get a taste and plan to come back.
Also, plan to go to a smaller museum that will be less crowded and more intimate and just lovely. The D’Orsay is in an old train station and is a beautiful building as well as home to a fantastic Impressionist collection.
The Orangerie houses some of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and was built just for these. The outsize paintings curve around display rooms. You can spend an hour here and feel like you’ve seen the entire museum.
The Cluny Museum is a charmer that offers art of the Middle Ages, including the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. And speaking of museums . . .
Figure Out if You Want the Paris Museum Pass
If you go to a few museums, the Paris Museum Pass can save you money. Even better, you can skip the line at the more crowded museums. Some people avoid all museums, and some love nothing better. So, before you arrive in Paris, check out the pass and see if you want to purchase it. I bought mine in the airport on arrival.
Stroll through the Tuileries
The name is a bit odd, and I wasn’t sure what this was when I first went to Paris. Now I plan to walk through this garden on every visit. Catherine de Medici created this as the “front yard” of the palace (now the Louvre) in the 1500s. The Tuileries became a public park after the French Revolution. For hundreds of years now, it’s been a place where Parisians meet and mingle outdoors. Join them and enjoy the fountains, the gardens, and the view of the Louvre. You’ll come out at the Place de la Concord, site of Marie Antoinette’s execution but today a peaceful circle with fountains and monuments.
This is another place I put off going to, and then I was amazed at how enjoyable it is. If the weather is good for outdoor activities, head here. Luxembourg Gardens is where locals hang out, especially on weekends. I loved being with joggers, skateboarders, families with kids, and people sitting on benches munching on picnic lunches. Children laugh as they steer bright-colored wooden sailboats on the pond. This is a wonderful place to take in Paris life.
You may be taking the Metro often. Download the official app before your first trip to Paris so you’ll have a map handy. Even if you walk to your chosen sights in the morning, you may be tired later in the day and want to take public transportation back to your hotel. Paris metro tickets are individual tiny stubs. You can buy a book (carnet) of 10 to save money. Hang on to your tickets, as some stations require you to put your ticket into the turnstile to leave. I have seen people stuck because they lost their ticket. This has never happened to me, only because my husband is the designated ticket holder so I can’t lose mine. On some trips, I’ve had books of tickets, and on one trip we ended up walking everywhere. You can also take Uber. It’s good to have the options in mind.
If you are not familiar with public transportation in your everyday life (as I was not), know to look at the end point of the line that has your destination. It’s easy to go the opposite direction otherwise. (Yes, I have done that more than once!). If that happens, just get off, follow signs to the tracks for the other way, and you’ll soon be on your way.
Climb to the Top of the Arc de Triomphe for a View of the Eiffel Tower
You’ve seen photos and video of the Arc de Triomphe. It is a symbol of freedom and pays tribute to those who fought and gave their lives for France. With its eternal flame and names lining the arches, it’s a moving place to visit.
And you can climb to the top for a spectacular view of the city, from the Champ Elysees to the Eiffel Tower. While the view from the Eiffel Tower is breathtaking, it does not have itself in the view. So, include the Arc de Triomphe for an amazing panorama of Paris.
Remember That the Front Desk Person Is Your Friend
I’ve met so many friendly folks in Paris. I’ve also run across some who didn’t want to interact. But in all my trips to Paris, I’ve found those at the hotel front desks extremely helpful. Some provide guidebooks, some give excellent suggestions for dinner close by, and some will chat and tell you stories. One tried to teach me some French, and I am so poor with languages that we ended up having a good laugh at my expense. In my travels, I’ve encountered places that are more friendly than others. Paris is not one of the friendliest, at least in my times there. But the front desk people have never failed to engage and leave me smiling.
Go to Saint-Chapelle for Stained-Glass Wonder
Notre Dame in Paris was the cathedral that most visitors headed to – until the terrible fire of spring, 2019. At this time, it’s closed as it’s being restored. You can still stand in the presence of an awesome display of stained glass, though, by going down the street from Notre Dame to Saint-Chapelle. The second floor of this chapel has tall, colorful windows in a semi-circle. These are astounding. This was originally the personal chapel of the king who lived in the palace next door, and it is exquisite.
The gold dome of the Invalides stands out as you travel around Paris. It’s easy to pick out from the Eiffel Tower views as it glitters in the sunlight. It’s more than just a pretty decoration, though. It’s a fascinating place where you can take in France’s military history going back about 200 years. The Invalides is a chapel, an army museum, a hospital, and the final resting place of Napoleon I. I’ve spent as little as an hour here and as much as an entire afternoon. You are sure to find something intriguing inside.
PLANNING TO GO TO PARIS? THESE GUIDEBOOKS CAN OFFER LOTS OF HELP!
Have you been to Paris? What would you advise someone planning a first trip? Let us know in the comments!
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