First Time in Paris

I love all things Paris. I lived there for a year while I pursued my Masters and have managed to return every year since (with the exception of 2020 of course). For first time visitors, here is a comprehensive list of options on what to do depending on your interests. Read on for more information on sights, museums, picnics, experiences, and day trips!

To get a sense of Paris, I recommend taking things slow. Group sights of interest based on location, but be sure to take long walks, pack a picnic to enjoy at a park, and sit at a café with a view for a few hours. That’s really what Paris is about.

The Big Hits 

Tip: be sure to check out the museum’s websites for openings hours and days. Some places are closed on Monday/Tuesday. Weekdays tend to be less crowded, but in the summer, there will always be a lot of people!

The Louvre + Tuileries

 You can easily spend an entire day at the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is the most crowded room hands down, but the Louvre has so many cool things. I enjoy walking through the lowest level first in learning about the history of the Louvre, which was previously a castle, and one of the wings that has Napoleon’s old rooms. My favorite rooms are marble atriums with statues and skylights. Also, don’t miss the gilded rooms with zodiac signs on the ceiling.

What about food? Bring a snack or two if you want to spend a considerable amount of time because they don’t have too much food, the restaurants are always crowded with exhausted tourists, and they’re not convenient to get to.

Try to not go on a weekend, and get there early to miss the massive crowds, but in the summer, they may be hard to avoid.

Then Tuileries! After filling my brain with art and history, I always walk down the Tuileries. It’s a long park that takes you to Place de la Concorde (with a famous obelisk), which is the beginning of the Champs Elysees. During Christmas, there’s a great Christmas Market there. There’s a little fair that runs year-round. It’s cute but a bit pricey. You can easily picnic in the section closest to the Louvre, which has grass and hedges. If you wander further down, you see the tree-lined sections – where you can easily imagine Renoir paintings come to life – and finally a large fountain where you can sit in a metal chairs and enjoy a gelato if it’s hot. Crossing Place de la Concorde can be challenging, but if you really want to see the Champs Elysees, here’s a good place to take a peek and cross over the Seine.  

Musee D’Orsay

The Musee D’Orsay is my favorite museum in Paris (followed by the Rodin Museum). It holds the biggest collection of Impressionist art, but it also has bordering art movements, like pointillism, realism, symbolism, etc. The building itself, a former train station, is impressive and they have made several key features more accessible now, like a massive clock window (great for photos) and outside terrace where you can see the fair at the Tuileries and the Seine. I can easily spend three hours here with Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and more.

Notre Dame

 Although definitely worth the visit while it’s open, it is currently closed while they renovate after the famous fire in 2019. There’s a wall up with information on the renovations outside, and you can still see it and take photos from the front. Since it’s in the middle island of Paris (Ile de la Cite), it’s easy to see from different vantage points. Walk over if you’re in the Latin Quarter or if you’re going to Sainte-Chapelle.

Eiffel Tower + Champ de Mars

My favorite part of visiting the Eiffel Tower is enjoying a picnic on the Champs de Mars at dusk so you can see the tower light up. While the weather is nice, find a patch of grass without too much dirt or cigarettes (better yet, bring a blanket) and stay for a few hours so you can see the Eiffel Tower twinkle at each hour. The lawn is open even at night, where many tourists and locals enjoy picnics and drinks. My study abroad professor insisted it’s very tacky to drink straight from a wine bottle, so bring plastic or reusable cups (but I’ve definitely done it before).

Should I buy from the vendors? There’s a lot of vendors that will hassle you, but just ignore them or shake your head. Trust me, there’s better places to buy Eiffel Tower keychains (go to Montmartre or the Latin Quarter). Some of them walk around with bottle openers in case you brought wine and forgot to bring one, but they will charge you to use it.

Going up? The views from the Eiffel Tower are very cool because it’s so central, but personally, I prefer sitting on the lawn and looking at the tower. Going up can be pricey, and there’s other free places to get views. It can be romantic, though, so I would recommend it if you’re visiting with a special person. I wouldn’t really recommend it as a solo traveler or with friends because you’re just mostly getting jostled by tourists kissing at the best views.

Pro Tip: if you get off the Motte-Piquet metro stop, there’s a great Monoprix (aka French Target) right there. Get picnic foods, then take the short walk to the Eiffel Tower. Alternatively, on the other side of the Eiffel Tower, get off at the Ecole Militaire or the Tour-Marbourg exit and walk into the side streets towards the Seine in the Rue Cler neighborhood. You have a ton of pastry shops where you can get a sandwich, pastry, or quiche to-go.

Champs Elysées + Arc de Triomphe 

I find the Champs Elysees to be overrated, sort of like Times Square. It’s full of tourists and pickpockets, but I totally get it if you want to see it on your first visit to Paris. My friend was pickpocketed at the Christmas Market here, so if you decide to go, make sure to keep your bags secure. The avenue itself is pretty, and all the stores are big name brands, like the expensive Laduree macarons café (go to Eric Kayser instead!). I’ve never actually gone up the Arc de Triomphe, but I think there’s better places to get great views of Paris. My favorite view of the Champs Elysees is late at night when all the stores are closed and you’re driving past in a taxi or Uber. They are working on making the Champs Elysees entirely pedestrian on certain days, so it may be calmer to go then.

Latin Quarter

Although mostly touristy, the winding streets of the Latin Quarter are worth a visit. You will find reasonably priced food, souvenir shops, any kind of bar (quiet, loud, big, small), and the famous Shakespeare & Co. English-language bookstore (love!). My French friend took me to a cozy bar here where we took shots that tasted exactly like madeleines! With so much packed in the area, you are bound to find somewhere to have a great experience.

What’s the best thing to do here? Eat! Check out the massive fountain of Saint Michael and look to the right across the street at the red awning. Those are the cheapest crepes I’ve found in Paris (and still so good!). Also the chain Maoz has reasonably priced to-go falafel. If you want a nice sit-down restaurant, look for the Passage Cour du Commerce Saint-Andrew, a quiet pedestrian street, and check out Le Relais Odeon, which has great happy hour drinks (try the St-Germain spritz) and good meals. 

Sacre Coeur + Montmartre

Montmartre is definitely worth the visit. Sacre Coeur is interesting as a cathedral because it’s in Byzantine style, which is very different from the Gothic or Romanesque cathedrals throughout the rest of Paris, and it’s a striking gleaming white cathedral on top of a hill. You can go up several ways, almost all involve lots of stairs unless you take the funicular (often crowded and a wait). At the top, you can explore winding streets where Picasso stayed during his Blue Period, where you may see multiple windmills beyond the Moulin Rouge, the café where Amelie was filmed, and the “I Love You” wall. The view right in front of Sacre Coeur is one of the best views of Paris. At night, it’s less crowded and a totally different experience.

I’m hungry! Right off the Sacre Coeur main area, you have a small square with restaurants. Jake and I ate at Chez Eugene, which had great onion soup, escargot, and mushroom risotto. I have also eaten at the kitschy Le Refuge des Fondues, a crowded fondue place that’s reasonable and known for serving wine in baby bottles. The fondue is ok, but the atmosphere is fun. If you miss hanging out with Americans, this is the place to go! Make a reservation and don’t be late because they seat everyone at the same time.

Safety. Some areas are not very safe at night, so just be aware of your surroundings. In the past, the area under Sacre Coeur had men who would come up to you and try to put a bracelet around your wrist and demand payment. Avoid people with clipboards, as this is common scam. I’ve seen this a lot less in the recent years, but it may still happen. In the past Pigalle was a fun place to go out, but my favorite bar has since closed 😦      

Le Marais

Le Marais is a great neighborhood for wandering. This is historically known as the fashion, Jewish, and LGBTQI+ district. You’ll find Jewish bakeries and a great spot – L’as Du Falafel – which is a famous falafel place (expect a line). L’éclair de genie is a patisserie shop that has the best eclairs of all different flavors. I’ve chosen cafes with views of small squares just for people-watching, but none are particularly memorable to mention the food.

This is the thrifting district, as well. I’ve bought items at Free’P’Star, a thrift store that Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst visited while filming Marie Antoinette. I’ve also gone into the Kilo Shop, where you buy things depending on their weight, but those are all over Paris now. There’s also the BGV, one of the biggest departments stores in Paris here, and you can walk down the major streets that have all the brand name clothes, but not as overwhelming as Champs Elysees.

Le Marais has a ton of history, and this is a great area to do a walking tour. You have some famous minor museums like the Picasso, the Carnavalet, the Maison Victor Hugo, and the Jewish Museum/Holocaust remembrance wall. Unless you’re a big fan, I recommend saving these for another trip. 

More to explore


Sainte-Chapelle is one of the smaller Gothic cathedrals, but a striking one in the inside. Formally the chapel for the kings, it has some of the most impressive use of stained glass. It’s on the Ile de Cite and great to visit while there to see Notre Dame. Even more enjoyable, it often has live classical music concerts. I won’t give away too much because it’s special to see it yourself. 

Galeries Lafayette

The Galeries Lafayette is one of the biggest department stores in Paris. It’s known for its extravagant Christmas decorations, so you definitely have to visit in December. It’s a nice building with a cool art nouveau glass roof and a good shopping spot (especially during sales time), but I like to visit to go to the free roof access for a great view of Paris. If you’re visiting the close-by Opera Garnier, you should stop by, take all the escalators up, climb the last set of stairs, and enjoy. Also, one of the top floors has souvenirs (pricier than the souvenir store but classy and cute ones) and a bookstore with air conditioned views of Paris. Also, this is a nice place to go buy lingerie if you’re intimidated about going into one of the plentiful smaller stores. Pluses: air conditioning and free clean bathrooms (both hard to come by in other places). 

Opera Garnier

If you’re into beautiful gold gilded buildings or theater, the Opera Garnier is a great spot to visit. This is where Phantom of the Opera was set. There’s also exhibits on sets and costumes from previous plays in the halls. I’ve been to a ballet here, and pro tip: don’t drink too much if you’re on the top tier. It’s steep!

Pere Lachaise

Although some may find it creepy to visit a cemetery, this is a beautiful, historic, and peaceful place to visit. The largest cemetery in Paris, the Pere Lachaise hosts the final resting place of many famous people and interesting tombstones or mausoleums. The cemetery has maps near some of the entrances with a guide on finding the most famous plots, such as Jim Morrison (now behind a chain link fence), Edith Piaf (in one of the newer avenues), Oscar Wilde (now covered by a glass enclosure because people used to leave lipstick kisses on the grave), Chopin, Apollinaire (with some of his poems on the tombstone), Moliere, Delacroix, Camille Pissarro, Proust, and Georges Méliès (challenging but fun to find). The Pere Lachaise also has monuments dedicated to the victims of historic tragedies.

Spending a day in the Pere Lachaise is like engaging in a morbid treasure hunt, or rather tomb hunt. I have gone many times and still am surprised by a particular tombstone, like one that features a man breaking out of it or an angel with a creepy hooded face. I have also found this to be a peaceful break from the more populated areas of Paris (at least populated with living people).     

Les Invalides

Les Invalides has a distinct gold dome that you can see throughout many viewpoints of Paris. This is the very ornate resting place of Napoleon, who was buried in a massive tomb in the middle of a rotunda. Les Invalides has a nice church, and it’s also the location of the military museum of Paris. Personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see the military museum, but if you enjoy learning about the history of wars and the military, it’s pretty cool. It’s also included in the Paris Pass, and it’s conveniently located next to the Rodin Museum and close to the Eiffel Tower.  


Bastille is the sight of the famous storming of the old prison that started the French Revolution. The prison no longer exists, but a nice memorial column stands in its place. Honestly, there’s not much to see here in terms of history, but it’s a great spot for going out at night. I’ve gone out to the bars/clubs, which are fine, but it’s also nice to sit on the steps of the Opera Bastille and eat a sandwich or falafel. I’ve also participated in the Techno Parade that ends here, which got a little out of hand… I’ve also stayed around here and found it to be pretty reasonably priced.


The Catacombs are underground tunnels lined with anonymous bones from emptied church cemeteries. Personally, I found it a bit claustrophobic and creepy, but it’s definitely unique. If you want to see a few more dead people after the Pere Lachaise, check it out. 

If you like museums…

We already spoke about the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay above, but Paris has so many great museums!

Musee Rodin

The Musee Rodin is probably tied for my favorite museum with the Musee D’Orsay. It’s a small museum housed in a countryside-style home with nice gardens, which are free. I’ve come here to have a picnic amongst the statues in the garden, which has a nice green space in the back, tree-covered avenues, and a main sunny avenue in the middle with a fountain. Rodin’s statutes are incredibly lifelike and featured throughout the inside of the house or the outside. You’ll recognize the Thinker, which is right inside the garden. I’ve often enjoyed the exhibits that draw parallels to his subject matter or his relationships and muses.

It’s also located off a quiet street from Les Invalides, which is also close to the Eiffel Tower, and across from the spectacular Alexander III Bridge, which is worth a visit.


The Pompidou is a museum known for modern and contemporary art. While not really my favorite art movements, the building is worth a visit just because it looks like it’s been turned inside-out. Inside, you can also get great views of Paris from the terraces or from the escalators. The permanent exhibits also include interactive or immersive art, which are fun. Next to the museum is a fun fountain with works of art that rotate and spit out water (currently under renovation). I’ve also eaten across the main plaza at Le Cirque, which I recommend, and there’s some decent souvenir shops around there too.  

Special Exhibits. Pompidou often has special exhibits, and I went to a great Jeff Koons exhibit there, so make sure you check out who is visiting because it’s often a separate ticket. The permanent exhibit is funky and worth a visit if you like those art movements. Note: The Pompidou will be closed for four years starting in 2023 for renovations. 

Atelier des Lumières

The Atelier des Lumieres is the home of most light-and-sound exhibits in Paris. I have gone to see showings based on Van Gogh, Klimt, Gaudi, and Dali, which were all amazing. I’ve found that they are more immersive and have better music than any other similar shows I’ve seen anywhere else. I highly recommend!


The Orangerie is a small museum in the Tuileries that houses impressionistic art, most famous being several of Monet’s huge Water Lilies in a round room specifically built to display these paintings. I’ve enjoyed going to the Orangerie because I love Impressionism. Last time I went, there was a modern art exhibit based on Water Lilies, and even though I don’t enjoy modern art, I found it very informative.

If you want more Impressionism after the Musee D’Orsay, this would be a great place to visit. Even though it’s right next to the Louvre, I would divide it up into different days because the Louvre is worth a day to itself! Two hours would be enough for the Orangerie.


The Picasso Museum is in Le Marais. Unless you are a Picasso fan, I wouldn’t suggest visiting. I’ve only been once and was disappointed. I bet they have a good collection, but it was arranged in such a confusing way that there were even articles printed about the curator being fired soon after the opening of the museum. Personally, I’m not that interested in Picasso, so I haven’t gone back to see if it’s been improved.


The Cluny Museum houses the best medieval collection in Paris. It’s been recently renovated. It’s best known for displaying the original heads of the kings featured on the Notre Dame façade (they were found buried in the backyard!) and a famous tapestry of a unicorn and a lady on a red background. I’ve been once or twice and found it interesting but not one of the top must-see museums here. I may go back now that it’s been renovated and check it out.


The Carnavalet is the museum of the history of Paris. It has recently been renovated to include more of its vast collection, but I may have liked it a bit more before. The interesting exhibits include prehistoric and Gaul eras of Paris, the hallway of old ironwork signs, Rococo rooms, and a beautiful Art Nouveau jewelry shop. I noted that the WW2 section was not included in the recent renovation, which was confusing. I’m hoping it perhaps just wasn’t complete. It contains more rooms on the French Revolution than you could possibly hope to learn about. The museum is free, so it may be worth it if you want to walk throughout the rooms and stop in periods that interest you.

Palais de Tokyo 

The Palais de Tokyo is a museum meant to contain ever-changing exhibits on contemporary art. I have gone twice, and both have been incredibly memorable experiences. It seems you may never have a dull– albeit possibly traumatic – experience there. If you’re in the mood to see something unexpected, weird, and possibly shocking, this is the place for you!

Some Examples: The first time I went, the exhibits were centered around the idea of “Inside.” Some of the rooms were very interesting like a wooden cabin where it rained inside, a tape web you could crawl through, a white room with sketched trees on the walls, and a room with sculptures of trees that people with different mental conditions created. It also had rooms where you saw videos of people throwing up on themselves, a room where you just heard someone constantly choking, Claymation of children inserting in and emerging from their mother’s body, and a room where you were locked inside until you sat on a chair without moving for a certain amount of time. The second time I went, the exhibit was much smaller and centered around interactive music tones. I would either do my research before going, or go with a completely open mind.

Musee de Quai Branly

The Musee de Quai Branly houses indigenous artifacts. The museum itself is in a forest-like area closed off to the general street. I’ve found it peaceful to just come and sit in the small free park, even though it’s not very big. The museum has very interesting exhibits and a permanent collection, but since the last time I went a few years ago, it was all in French. I remember seeing a great Aztec collection with jade masks and stone hoops. Also, it’s a great place for air conditioning and free bathrooms if you can be sneaky.

Visiting Exhibits

I have gone to some amazing exhibits at the Grand and Petit Palais (Velasquez and the Lumiere Brothers) and the museum at Jardin de Luxembourg (Renoir). These places don’t have permanent collections, but be sure to check out the exhibits they are hosting. I also went to a great Klimt exhibit somewhere else, but I don’t remember where, so look up Time Out Paris or Google to see what’s going on while you’re there. 

Parks to Picnic


The Luxembourg Gardens, also known as the Jardin du Luxembourg, is probably my favorite park. They change the planters year round, so it can look very different depending on the season. In warm weather, there’s a nice big green area where you can picnic. I recommend going to a supermarket or grabbing a crepe or falafel from the Latin Quarter to eat in the gardens! You can also see the photo-worthy Medici Fountain and the larger flat fountains where children sail little wooden boats. There’s quieter areas where people read in metal chairs around white sculptures, and there’s a big playground area too.

The main building is the Musee de Luxembourg, which only houses temporary exhibits. I went to an excellent one on Renoir. I may be biased to Luxembourg but only because that’s where my husband proposed! 


The Tuileries is the long park that runs from the Louvre to Place de la Concorde, which is the beginning of the Champs Elysees. After a long time at the Louvre, it’s very refreshing to walk around outside and get some ice cream. This is also a nice place to picnic in the green areas closer to the museum. There’s a fair year round on the side opposite to the Seine and a nice Christmas Market in the winter. 

Parc de Buttes Chaumont

 The Parc de Buttes Chaumont is an off-the-beaten path park. It’s known for its unique temple on top of a hill. It was built on a former quarry and has a suspension bridge. This extremely photogenic spot makes it look like you’re not in Paris at all. I enjoy it as an escape and as something different, but it is quite out of the way of most other popular attractions. People say it has a different climate than the rest of Paris because it can feel pretty cool.

If you’re at the Pere Lachaise or the Atelier des Lumieres, it’s close enough to include them together. 

Other places to picnic 

Parc Monceau is a nice park around Le Marais. I’ve only gone once but remember it being a great place to spend a few hours. 

The Musee Rodin has a very nice garden area, and sometimes they let you sit in the green area in the back. Regardless, it’s nice to visit and have a small picnic. 

The banks of the Seine, especially at the tip of the Ile de Cite at the Square du Vert-Galant, is where many locals, students, and tourists spend a nice summer day or night. In July, Paris transforms some of the banks into Paris Plages, which is beachy and summery. 

Recommended experiences

The Seine

The Seine runs through the middle of Paris, which has many beautiful bridges. If you haven’t spent much time in Paris, taking a cruise down the Seine is a great way to see some of the major sights. I’ve gone at sunset, which is romantic, and you can see the buildings light up in their nighttime gold yellow. I’ve also gone during the day and sat on the top deck, which is another nice way to see Paris. Lunch or dinner cruises are fun. The Bateaux Parisiens for lunch has a four-course meal I definitely recommend (and lunch is less expensive than dinner)!

Another enjoyable way to experience the Seine is to go to the Île Saint-Louis for a picnic along the banks. This is fun during the day or at night, when you can see the reflections on the water. I’ve also sat right under the Latin Quarter and enjoyed a crepe of falafel by the water. In the summer, you may be able to catch Paris Plages, where the city sets up community spaces to enjoy the sunshine. 

Le Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque is a large mosque/restaurant/bathhouse. I have never seen the mosque or the bathhouse, but it’s a great restaurant when you want a break from all the bread and cheese! I’ve also come here just for a cup of their delicious mint tea in their courtyard.


Montparnasse is the extremely tall out-of-place skyscraper in south Paris and the area around it (also a very large metro stop). Inside the building, there is a panoramic restaurant that has very dated décor, but an amazing view of Paris. I’ve come here with friends for breakfast when it’s generally more affordable. The tower also has an observatory, but you have to pay for it, so why not enjoy a treat while you’re getting the same view?

Montparnasse as an area tends to be more local. There’s a street filled with great crepe restaurants. I’ve stayed in this area at the Voco hotel and enjoyed it immensely. It’s also a great area to shop and has the largest Monoprix I’ve seen!

Day Trips


Versailles is about an hour RER ride outside of Paris. The chateau is beautiful, but I love the gardens, which are extensive. I’ve gone maybe 5 or 6 times and still not seen all of the gardens. The English garden and Marie Antoinette’s separate quarters are very different from the rest of the hedge mazes and massive fountains.

If you have the chance, do the Grandes Eaux Nocturnes, a nighttime water show that is very romantic and spectacular. Between the times the palace is open and the reopening of the gardens for the night show, walk the town and grab some dinner. The town itself is sleepy but has great antique stores.


Giverny is Monet’s home outside of Paris. It’s accessible by RER then a bus ride. The house is nice, but the gardens are really worth checking out. You’ll get to see the famous bridge over the water with the willows. When I came in the summer, I saw some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen anywhere. I’ve been twice, but I can’t wait to visit again.

If you appreciate Monet, need a break from Paris, or love great gardens, this is a nice day trip. I’ve seen some people have tried to pair it with Versailles, but like the Louvre, Versailles is really worth it’s own day. Pairing it with Giverny would be too exhausting.

Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris is about an hour RER ride from Paris. There are two parks: one that is like Hollywood Studios and one that is like Magic Kingdom. They are smaller than the Florida parks, and you can easily do both in a day. Unless you’re a big Disney fan or traveling with children, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a top thing to do while in Paris.


Reims is a small town about an hour and a half driving (or one hour by TGV) from Paris. It’s mostly known for its cathedral and neighboring champagne caves. I went on a school trip and didn’t really find it that impressive personally, but if you’re into champagne, it can be fun!  

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