When to go
I’ve been to Paris once in winter (January) and once in autumn (November). Both were lovely times to go. I think the city is particularly beautiful in the cooler months. Winter provides short-to-no queues (walk straight into the Louvre) and autumn covers the city with pure blue skies and colourful leaves. Paris seems to be one of those places that divides people and I suspect those that don’t enjoy it as much perhaps visited in the crowded summer.
Seeing the sights
The Metro is a fantastic way to get across town but Paris is also very walkable. You can see many of its iconic sites in one continuous stroll starting at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), crossing Pont d’Arcole to reach the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine river. Walk past the Notre Dame and cross another bridge to reach the Left Bank. Continue west past the bouquinistes along the Seine, crossing back over the river at the Pont Neuf so you can walk through the grounds of the Louvre. Continue through Tuileries Garden up to Place du Concorde which signals the start of Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and if you follow this to the end you will reach the Arc de Triomphe. Depending how long you take to stop and take in the views this route will take you about 1-2 hours.
Another lovely place to wander is the winding and hilly backstreets of Montmatre, particularly around Place du Tetre.
The best view
You’ll probably want to do it anyway, but the two disadvantages of going up the Eiffel Tower are: 1) It’s expensive, and 2) The most famous sight in Paris, the tower itself, can’t be seen from the top because you’re already on it! Personally, I think the best the best view of Paris is from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.
If you decide not to go up the Eiffel Tower it’s still worth passing by to take some classic photos, and it lights up at night which is very pretty.
Cathedrals and churches
Sacre-Coeur. One of Paris’s many icons and particularly stunning sandwiched between blue sky and bright green grass on a clear day. Just keep your arms crossed when you’re climbing the steps out the front and don’t let anyone grab your hand! There are lots of scammers that will try to put a thin, thread bracelet on your wrist then demand money for it. You can refuse and say no, but some people find them a bit intimidating. (While we’re on the subject of scams, if anyone pretends to find a ring nearby you on the street and offers it to you, decline. This has happened at least once to someone I know and twice to us personally – we laughed at the guy the second time it happened because it was exactly the same routine from a different person almost 3 years later!)
Sainte Chapelle. I think Sainte Chapelle is prettier than Notre Dame. It’s smaller but boasts stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows. There is a fee to enter though, while the Notre Dame cathedral is free. (There’s a fee to climb the Notre Dame tower where all the gargoyles and grotesques are.)
Paris Catacombs. Go underneath the city and see walls and sculptures made from human bones.
Museums and galleries
Louvre. The Louvre is MASSIVE and it would be impossible to see everything in one day even if you ran past every exhibit! Pick a couple of specific areas you’re interested in and spend your time in those rather than trying to see everything. The audio guide is very worthwhile – it has some highlight tours built in and I found the additional info on various artworks very interesting. Be prepared to queue to get in (unless you visit in winter) and note that it’s open late on Wednesdays and Thursdays but closed on Tuesdays. You could spend a whole day at the Louvre but my feet couldn’t take any more than 5 hours!
Musée d’Orsay. A lovely museum housed in a beautiful old train station, focusing on impressionist and post-impressionist art. Open late on Thursdays but closed on Mondays. Allow 3-4 hours.
Centre Pompidou. Modern art is not for everyone but it’s worth at least passing by the Pompidou to marvel at its famously unusual, inside-out architecture: it was designed with all the functional aspects, pipes, etc on the outside to maximise the exhibition space inside. The Pompidou audio guide is also very good as it helps to explain some of the more unusual art and why anyone should be interested in it. Open until 9pm every day. 3 hours is probably enough.
Parks and gardens
I’ve already mentioned Tuileries. The Luxembourg Gardens are a beautiful spot to grab a metal chair and scribble in your travel journal, Les Halles is a nice green place to munch on a lunchtime baguette or crepe and the Palais Royal gardens would be great to see in spring or summer. (Still nice but a little bare in autumn/winter!)
If breakfast isn’t included with your accommodation buy treats from a local bakery/patisserie or clay-potted yoghurt from a local super/minimart.
You’ll find wonderful baguettes all over the city for lunch around the €3-4 mark or sweet and savoury crepes for €2-6 (depending on your proximity to tourist hotspots). Rue Rambuteau is an excellent spot for boulangeries, patisseries and fromageries (particularly between Rue des Archives and Rue Beaubourg). I particularly recommend Pain de Sucre.
Across the river from the Notre Dame on the Left Bank is a famous second-hand English bookshop called Shakespeare and Co.
There are some very cool and trendy design or “concept” stores in Paris. I’ve collected their addresses, website links and opening hour info on a Google Map so you can where they’re located at a glance. I haven’t been to them all but out of those I have visited I liked uah^, Artoyz, Colette and Fleux best.
Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen de Clignancourt is your place for antiques and random odds and ends. Head north from metro Porte de Clignancourt to find a sprawling collection of flea markets (surrounded by stalls selling tacky imitation brand name products – don’t give up when you find those, continue on to the proper markets). A great place to wander even if you don’t plan on buying anything. Stalls sell everything from retro plastic keyrings and old pieces of kitchenwear to samurai suits and eggshells from extinct Madagascan birds. Many of the shops look like little rooms from people’s houses. When we were there we passed one that contained an old grand piano and someone who had sat down at it to play tunes to entertain passers-by. Avoid the three card monte scammers on the outskirts of the market.
Note that the flea markets are open on Sundays but most other shops are closed.