A First Timer's Guide to Paris
This guide is based on the experience I had as a first-timer in Paris - what I saw, ate, learned, and wish I'd known before I traveled halfway across the globe to France. But even if you've been to Paris multiple times before, beware: by the time you finish reading this blog, you'll be on your way to booking flights to the French capital.
Oui, everything you might have heard about Paris is most likely true. Impressive, romantic, bohemian, sophisticated, inspiring, expensive, enchanting. One of the things that make me fall in love with a place is its character, and oh boy, does this city have a strong one, being the capital of France. Paris is known for its museums and monumental architectural landmarks, also as the center of fashion and luxury brands, and of course, world-renowned cuisine.
You might have heard the nomenclatures: City of Light "La Ville Lumiere", city of Love, etc., but the truth is, Paris is indeed so incredibly amazing that you simply cannot label it. You have to see the sights with your own eyes, you have to walk through the iconic cobblestone streets and the gardens, eat the exquisite food, sit at a cafe and smell the freshly baked baguette, and speak with the locals (in French!)... all in order to understand one crucial thing: once you've been to Paris and have immersed yourself in their way of life "la vie en rose", not as a tourist but as a student and an explorer, there's no turning back - because when you leave, a piece of your heart will stay behind. Ready to fall in love? Keep reading.
Things To Know
The number one thing you need to know, before currency, weather, all that blah blah blah, is: if you do not speak French, putting in the effort to speak at least the basic words and really showing that you're trying to start a conversation in their native language, is truly appreciated. No, the French are not rude. Yes, most French people do speak English, but remember, you're in their country. It's a sign of respect that will go a long way.
Paris is by no means picture-perfect everywhere. As with any big metropole, beware of scams and protect your belongings from pickpocketers.
Getting There: Train Station - Gare du Nord; Main Airports - Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG), Paris Orly Airport (ORY)
Getting Around: The easiest way to get anywhere in Paris is by train. A one-way journey costs around €2. Single and multi-day passes start at €14
Where To Stay
This was my first time visiting Paris, but I intend to stay in the same area next time. I stayed just a couple blocks away from the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera, and felt like we aced the location. It was centrally located, close to the main attractions and metro stations. Hotels seem to be somewhat affordable in Paris (compared to NYC and LA, for example), but I would love to get an Airbnb for a more authentic experience next time.
I stayed at the Hotel Gaillon, and while the room was very small (for American standards) and just about ok, again, the location was amazing!
What to See and Do in Paris?
I feel like, as with big cities around the world, such as NYC and London, there's always something new to see, and when it comes to Paris, just the museums would take you years to fully explore. I will limit this post to the main attractions and the places that I visited as a first-timer, but note - a trip to Paris should not be rushed. If there's one thing that the French can teach Americans (myself included) is to take the proper time to enjoy each and every experience and understand that life is a pleasure, not a race. Instead of trying to checkmark all of the things I had on my itinerary, I chose to skip a few things and really be there in every moment.
In a city where so much of it is art, you'll be overwhelmed - in a positive way - by the number of things to do. Here are my recommendations:
Palais-Royal was the first place we visited in Paris after dropping off our bags at the hotel. At first, I didn't even know where to look. It is gorgeous. I loved it mainly because of:
1) its history - it was built in 1633 and housed royal families up until the Palace of Versailles was created;
2) it's free, and I highly recommend spending time exploring the courtyard, the gardens and fountains, and the surrounding galleries (restaurants, cafes, and shops);
3) the mix between old and new. This is the place where you'll find one of the symbols of Paris - The Colonnes de Buren. The famous black and white striped octagonal columns were designed by artist Daniel Duren and are situated in the courtyard.
Arc de Triomphe / Champs-Élysées
When we got out of the Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile metro station and walked up the street, we looked to the side, and there it was - the Arc de Triomphe. I remember being shocked by how immense the monument is in real life. It is over 160ft / 50m tall, to be more precise, and took roughly 30 years to complete.
The Arc de Triomphe is located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, one of the busiest (if not the busiest) streets in Paris. Do not try to cross the street over to the monument. Instead, look for the signs that point to the underground pedestrian walkway.
Visiting the Arc de Triomphe is free, but for €13 you can go up to the panoramic terrace and enjoy some unique views of Paris.
Our next stop was the one and only Champs-Élysées. Known as the world's most beautiful avenue, it is the place where French people gather to celebrate major events throughout the year. Take a walk along "les Champs" and you'll come across many luxury shops, flagship stores, cafes, restaurants, and clubs.
Pont Alexandre III
This bridge is so impressive! Paris has incredible museums, but the city itself has so much history and opulent architecture to see that it is considered an open-air museum. In addition to admiring the bridge and its sculptures, from there, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Eiffel Tower and over the Seine, as well as the nearby Grand Palais and Petit Palais.
If you're visiting Paris for the first time, like I was, there's one absolute must-see. You definitely cannot miss her - "la Dame de fer" (the iron lady), the Eiffel Tower. It is the most visited monument in the world and perhaps the most recognizable symbol of France.
The Eiffel Tower is the tallest structure in Paris, and we booked a visit to the top of the tower (Eiffel Tower Summit Lift). It was amazing! I highly recommend booking it online in advance, where you'll be able to choose which level you'd like to visit and whether you want to take the stairs or the lift/elevator. I shared more details about it in this IG post.
Tip: Bring a jacket - it gets pretty windy up at the top.
I'm going to list the best places to go photograph the Eiffel Tower, and the #reel with actual photos of these locations (click here). Here you go:
Place du Trocadéro
Carroussel de La Tour Eiffel
Parc du Champs de Mars
Av. de New York
Rue de L’Universite
The Terrace at Galeries Lafayette - Note: it closes at 8pm
The Paris Opera is one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris, inside and out. For €14, you can book a self-guided tour to explore the public areas of the Palais Garnier, a masterpiece of 19th-century theater art architecture. The ticket also gives you access to current exhibitions (when available). You can book it here: Opera de Paris
Galeries Lafayette Haussmann
Behind the Palais Garnier, you will find one of the best shopping malls in Paris - the Galeries Lafayette. Not only is it a gorgeous building that gets extra special during the holidays with opulent decor, but it also features lots of famous brands and a rooftop that offers one of the best views of the Tour Eiffel (free!)
Jardin du Luxembourg
The Jardin du Luxembourg was very special to me because I had this idea in my mind of what Paris actually looked like, and it was very much like what I saw here. I loved walking through the gardens, the fountains, and of course, admiring the Palais du Luxembourg. This is one place that I plan to visit again next time I'm in Paris. Oh, and it's free.
The Notre Dame de Paris is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. As of the time I'm writing this guide, unfortunately, it remains closed due to a fire that happened on April 15, 2019. Even though the cathedral sustained serious damage, the building was stabilized, and reconstruction began in 2021. The government of France has said it hopes the reconstruction can be completed by Spring 2024, in time for the opening of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
The beauty of the Sainte-Chapelle will leave you speechless! Also considered one of the greatest Gothic masterpieces, it features two sanctuaries (Upper and Lower chapel) within the medieval Palais de la Cité, the residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century. It was built in the 13th century to house Louis IX's collection of relics of Christ, which included the crown of thorns.
The most magnificent features of the royal chapel are the 15 stained-glass windows in the upper chapel that glorify the Passion of Christ, from Genesis through to Christ’s resurrection. The western rose illustrates the prophetic Apocalypse of St John, and the nave is encircled by the statues of the 12 Apostles as the “pillars of the Church”.
Find more details and ticket information on the post I shared here.
Jardin des Tuileries
The Tuileries Gardens separate the Louvre from the Place de la Concorde, and since the 19th century, it has been a place where Parisians celebrate, meet, stroll and relax. This is such a pleasant place for walking, there is a lot to see here - including statues, ponds, and the Musée de l’Orangerie, where you can admire the works of Monet.
Oh là là! It's simply the world’s most visited museum!
The Louvre is the largest and most famous museum in the world. And by largest, it means that it would take you around 200 days to see each of the 35,000+ works of art on display, and that’s if you took only 30 secs to see each piece. Can you believe it?!
With so much to admire, including masterpieces of Greek sculpture such as the Venus de Milo, and paintings such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, I suggest that you plan your visit and flag the artwork that you don't want to miss in advance. Keep in mind it's just not possible to see it all at once, but hey - one more reason to come back to Paris again, right?! Check out my IG post on the Louvre.
In Montmartre, perhaps Paris' most famous district and certainly the most bohemian, you will find several landmarks that most first-time visitors don't want to miss. Plan to spend at least part of a day here, and wear comfortable shoes - Montmartre is a hilltop village.
I suggest that you go explore the charming cobblestone streets beyond the known touristy spots like Place du Tertre, I Love You Wall, La Maison Rose, and Le Consulat, just to name a few (though these are beautiful photo locations!). Montmartre is where artists such as Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Van Gogh lived and worked.
Moulin Rouge is still the #1 rated cabaret show in Europe, and it's been that way since 1889!
I only walked by the building, but if you want more info, you can find it here.
Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre
Here's something that you might not know if you're planning your first trip to Paris: There's no better view of the French capital than from atop the steps of Sacré-Coeur. In fact, because it's built on the hill of Montmartre, it's the highest point in Paris (yes, even higher than the Eiffel Tower!). The Basilica is very, very impressive, and the inside is just as stunning as the outside.
Tip: If you want to avoid the uphill climb, you can catch the automated funicular lift near Rue Tardieu — a Metro ticket works here!
Dining in Paris
It's hard to make dining recommendations when you're talking about one of the gastronomic capitals of the world - I am going to list the places I had pinned to try and the places I went, but know that Paris has an overwhelming amount of amazing brasseries, cafes, and bars.
Note: I went to a few different places for breakfast, and while they were fantastic, if I'm being honest, the best baguettes and croissants I had in Paris were from small boulangeries that we spontaneously came across throughout this trip.
List of Restaurants:
Le Bouillon Chartier (menu)
Le Cafe Marly (menu)
Bistro Vivienne (menu)
When I think about what I love the most about this city, it is definitely the unapologetic, authentic personality and confidence of a place that's been the centerpiece of many love stories, wars, and revolutions. It has lived through centuries of wealth as well as tragedy, and it still stands, as striking as ever, alluringly wearing its history with pride.
You made it! Thank you so much for reading - I'd love to hear about your experience and any recommendations you might have about Paris and beyond.
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