Travelling to Paris for the first time and wondering what to do? I'm sure you're very excited. Paris is one of those cities that lists on the top when people first begin to explore Europe. The romance that the fashion capital of the world is known for, the sophisticated cuisine, the culture, the history and architecture, the numerous art museums and galleries, these are some of the things that attract many people from all over the world to this lovely destination.
In fact, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most visited monuments in the world. In my opinion, although Paris is everything that it is built up to be, it can seem a little hyped because of all the expectations that we have of this magical city. Yes, it is grand, it is romantic, it is beautiful and I would definitely recommend people to visit it at least once in their lifetime, but France is so much more than Paris and there are many other cities that deserve to be explored, for their gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking coasts.
If this is your first trip, you're likely to want to tick off the must-dos and visit the most popular places. Here are 20 things I recommend, to first-time visitors, and these things can be covered in a span of 5 days at the max.
#1 Take a night tour of Paris
The monuments in Paris are lit up so beautifully at night that to me, it seems like a much prettier city during late hours than it does during the day. Although I'm not a fan of organised tours, I did happen to take one in Paris at night and I have to say, it was totally worth it. The one here has a lovely itinerary and you will cross many iconic buildings of historical, cultural as well as political significance.
#2 Watch the Eiffel Tower sparkling at night
I did not find the Eiffel Tower very impressive during the day. However, it lights up in a bright golden colour during the night, making it look very majestic and bright sparkling lights illuminate the structure for five minutes every hour. This twinkling show is worth watching so make sure that you visit the most famous monument in the whole world at least twice, once during the day and once at night.
#3 Stare at the Mona Lisa, in Musée du Louvre
The square where the world's most famous art museum is located is a beautiful site in itself. And the architecture of the Louvre, which you would have most likely seen time and again in movies such as Da Vinci Code, is fascinating. Flanked by some of the world's most famous monuments such as Le Palais Royal and Musée d'Orsay, this place is not only beautiful because of the architecture of the museum and its famous pyramids but also because it houses the world renowned Mona Lisa.
The museum is massive and houses many works of art from the ancient times. If you're short on time, be careful of what part of the museum to select for exploring. The experience can be overwhelming and I would suggest keeping a few hours to admire some of the greatest masterpieces, treasures and gems from world famous artists such as Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The museum is spread over four floors and three wings.
#5 Admire the sculptures at Musée d'Orsay
Personally, I am not much of an art admirer. However, the majestic museums and romantic pieces of art can make anyone's jaw drop in awe. Although the Louvre is one of those museums that need to be visited to tick off from the must-do list, this particular museum is smaller and hence easier to traverse. Also, if you're not much of a fan of art, then this might be more interesting and lesser overwhelming. It is just across the Seine river from Louvre and usually is lesser crowded as well.
#6 Take a sunset cruise on the Seine
A cruise during sunset over the Seine river, with the Eiffel Tower and other monuments of Paris in the backdrop, can be a very magical experience. Watch the pink-blue skies turn darker as the night approaches, sip on a glass of wine or enjoy dinner on a Bateaux cruise, or simply sail along the waters, whichever cruise you choose, you can be sure to have a surreal romantic evening.
#7 Admire the architecture and interiors of Notre Dame Cathedral
This cathedral is truly awe-inspiring. One of the most enchanting cathedrals I've been to till date, Notre Dame is mesmerising not only because of the detailed French gothic architecture but also the beautifully preserved interiors. Of particular interest are the facade and the stained glass windows, reminiscent of architectural excellence of the 14th century.
#8 Enjoy panoramic views of the city from Eiffel Tower
The extremely active and adventurous can climb up the 700 steps to the 2nd floor of the tower. Alternatively, you can take the lift to either the 1st or 2nd floors, or all the way to the top. The views are gorgeous no matter which floor you choose to go to. I preferred the 2nd floor because I like having a clearer and closer view of the city rather than going up to a height from where you can barely make out the various buildings and monuments. If you're going during the peak season (summertime), beware of the massive queues and be ready to wait for even 2 hours sometimes. Also, try to do this activity early in the morning for best views.
#9 Treat your eyes to the greenery of Jardin des Tuileries
This elegant garden is full of fountains, ponds and sculptures, providing the perfect setting for a relaxing stroll. The French-style landscaped garden is between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde and during the summer, it comes to life with a carnival featuring rides for children, food stalls and games. A quiet place that is in the middle of the city yet seems like it is far away, I would definitely recommend a quick walk to enjoy the beautifully bloomed colourful flowers and sprawling green grass fields.
#10 Walk the stylish & chic Champs Élysées
This is probably the most famous avenue in the world. This is where you will find the stylish cafes, massive stores of the most fashionable brands that exist, trendy shops and bars, restaurants, nightclubs. Lined with green leafy trees on both sides of the broad avenue, it is a walk away from the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries. However, this place is not all about luxury and opulence. Many fast food joints such as Mc Donalds and chain stores also have a presence here, and it is one of the most visited spots in Paris.
#11 Capture the sunset at Arc de Triomphe
This majestic icon is placed at the end of Champs Élysées. Many people climb to the top of this building for spectacular views of the city. The monument itself is quite fascinating in its architecture and magnificence. A picture taken with the sunset in the backdrop is definitely sensational.
#12 Take a stroll in Jardin du Luxembourg
Watch the world go by as you sit on a bench, read a book or simply relax and breathe in the fresh air at this beautiful garden. It is situated right in front of the Luxembourg Palace and the most notable thing in the garden is probably the Medici Fountain.
#13 Be spooked at Les Catacombes de Paris
As ossuary that came into existence because Paris' cemeteries had begun to overflow and bodies had to be moved to make space for more, the Catacomb is an eerie place with thousands of bones buried at a depth of 20 meters below the ground. The skulls are embedded decoratively to form walls and this place has winding tunnels which are today open to the public. However, I would certainly not recommend it to the claustrophobic.
The entrance to the catacombs is very misleading - it does not reflect the horror of what lies within!
#14 Take a day trip to Château de Versailles
A day trip to this beautiful sprawling palace grounds is totally worth it. About a 40-minute drive from the city, the palace and its massive grounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although a little pricey and overcrowded, I would definitely recommend a tour inside the opulent castle which will leave you in awe with its 18th-century French architecture, the sheer size of the rooms and the gardens outside, where people often carry a picnic and relax in the shade of the trees.
Don't miss the sculptures that line the corridors, the beautifully painted ceilings and walls, grandiose chandeliers and the perfectly landscaped gardens.
#15 Take a funicular up to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
The Sacred Heart Basilica is located in Montmartre, perched on top like a white castle. It is best visited either during early morning to avoid the crowds or evening to catch the beautifully pink sunset skies. Whether you choose to walk up the hill amidst a busy street full of hawkers or take a funicular to the top, this monument is worth is a visit.
#16 Taste freshly made bread at Du Pain et des Idées
This quintessentially French bakery with its attractive spread of fresh bread is where you might want to begin your morning. There is no coffee sold here, so make sure you pick up your cappuccinos before you come to the bakery. Try the croissants at this traditional boulangerie, a must-do while in Paris.
Click to read about Grocery Shopping in Paris.
#17 Catch the sunset at Pont Alexandre III
I am a sucker for sunsets and love chasing the most beautiful ones. This is another one of my favourite places to capture the light pink or orange skies. This arch bridge that crosses the Seine will be on your way to Champs-Élysées if you plan to walk it from the Eiffel. The bridge is a piece of art itself because of the lovely sculptures and the fascinating lamps.
#18 Try a French delicacy
I have seen the French eat some really weird foods that they consider as a delicacy. If you have a stomach for experimentation and are a foodie in the true sense of the word, you might want to try some of the adventurous dishes they serve - the most popular ones being escargots (snails), frog legs and Foie gras (duck's liver). Some of these foods might even make your stomach churn so be careful what you choose to try!
#19 Walk in the eerie Père Lachaise Cemetery
This cemetery is a popular one because it is where many notable writers and celebrities are buried. It is, however, almost like walking in a park. There are a variety of fascinating grave art styles here, some gothic tombstones and some with beautiful sculptures. An eerie yet calming walk on the stone path, amidst tall trees, can be quite relaxing!
#20 Watch the glamorous cabaret show at Moulin Rouge
As you approach Moulin Rouge, you will see the iconic red windmill and a very gaudily-lit place. The Moulin Rouge is one of the most famous burlesque cabarets in Europe and probably even the world. Although it did seem a bit overrated to me, yet the grandiosity of it all, the fabulous head gears, the massive stage and the grand halls are definitely worth experiencing once. The costumes, the dances and the pretty ladies definitely dazzle the stage and although it might start to seem a bit too long after some time, the show lasts about 1.5 hours. There are two shows - 9.00 pm and 11.00 pm and you can choose between ticket just for the show or ticket for show and dinner. You're not allowed to carry cameras (you will be asked to keep them in lockers), dress smart (no shorts or slippers) and reach a little early as the queues are massive (during the peak season and on weekends especially).