Paris: the city that takes too many lifetimes to see. I’ve spent weeks and weeks in Paris and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, you find new attractions, new cafés, or new markets to explore. It’s impossible to try to see it all or even begin to think you can. Many travelers come for about three days and try see the highlights of this beautiful city. You need more time than that. I think you should plan on spending at least five days in Paris in order to see the bare minimum of what the City of Lights has to offer.
Spend your first day walking around Paris.
- Start at the Champs Elysees and see the Arch de Triumph. There isn’t a long line and you will get sweeping views of the city.
- Walk down the Champ Elysees through the Jardin des Tuilleries. Stop and admire the Louvre before continuing down Rue Rivoli and crossing into the original part of the city.
- Visit Notre Dame and see this amazing Gothic church. Get there early to avoid the lines to the Bell Tower. Visit the underground Roman ruins and the Saint-Chapelle Church. Personally, I think this church is far more beautiful than Notre Dame and the stained glass windows are some of my favorite in the world.
- Head south towards the Latin Quarter. The area is pretty touristy, but if you get off the main drag, you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of alleys and cafe lined squares that are far away from the local tourist hangouts. Plus, it’s a good way to get lost in a beautiful part of Paris and just explore.
- Visit the Pantheon before heading west towards the Jardin du Luxembourg, where you can relax and watch life go by. There’s great people watching here.
- After that, head north to see Saint Sulplice. If you are into The Da Vinci Code, you’ll be looking for symbols and hidden meanings throughout this church. If symbols don’t interest you, just marvel at how grandiose it is.
By this time, it should be late in the afternoon. It’s a perfect time to stop in a café, order some wine, and relax the Parisian way.
Use one day to see Paris’ three most popular museums:
With over a million pieces of art, you could spend a whole month in the Louvre and still not see everything! I don’t particularly enjoy Middle Age art. It’s too religious for me, and I can only see so many pictures of Mary and Jesus before I get bored. Nevertheless, the museum is worth seeing and I spent about five hours exploring all the masterpieces and marveling at the old royal palace.
Learn more about visiting by reading my guide to the Louvre.
The Musee D’Orsay, located in close proximity to the Louvre, houses the best Impressionist and Post Impressionist work in Paris. This is my favorite museum and I always go whenever I am Paris. You’ll find masterpieces by all the great artists of the world, such as Degas, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh, to name a few. It’s my far my favorite museum. I could spend hours there.
Musée de l’Orangerie
Finish off a wild museum day with this Monet showcase. The museum displays eight, tapestry-sized Nymphéas (water lilies) paintings housed in two plain oval rooms. Monet painted these images later in his life and each one represents a different time of day and season. There’s a bottom floor that also shows other works too.
Budget Tip: Get the Paris museum pass. The 4-day pass is 50 Euros and it will save you 50 Euros or more if you just want to spend the time museum hopping, as it covers these museums, a few others, and the Palace of Versailles.
The Palace of Versailles
A trip to the Palace of Versailles takes a full day as it is located outside the city and you’ll need to take the train to get there. Spend the day exploring the château, get lost in the surrounding gardens, and make sure you see Marie Antoinette’s Estate, which includes a fake peasant village. Versailles is beautiful, so don’t rush it. Most people see the Palace first, then the gardens, and then Marie-Antoinette’s Estate. If you do everything in reverse, you’ll be able to avoid the crowds. Moreover, go on weekdays to avoid paying for the gardens since they charge on weekends.
Here’s a video tour of the Palace of Versailles:
The Eiffel Tower is beautiful and best seen in the early morning as to avoid the crowds. Get there right as it opens and you’ll be able to avoid most of the lines to the top. If you get there around midday, you’ll find yourself waiting in line for hours. I like coming here after going to Rue Cler (see below) and having a picnic on the grass and people watching. I once saw a bunch of Parisian kids practicing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk dance.
Located near the Eiffel Tower, this street is filled with good Parisian eateries. You’ll find cheese, meat, bread, vegetables, and chocolate stores to explore. I never walk away from this street without a pile of food and wine. I eat my way through this street and then buy more for later. It’s one of my favorite streets in the city.
Paris Sewer Tour
This tour is definitely an off the beaten path attraction and it isn’t too far away from the Eiffel Tower. Guests who take this underground tour can learn about the interesting history of Paris’ sewer system. It smells down here a bit and you may be put off by the idea of a “sewer tour” but don’t be. The smell isn’t to bad and you’ll learn how Paris functions.
The Museum of the Shoah (the Holocaust Museum) – Despite having an excellent exhibit on France, anti-semitism and the Holocaust, the Museum of the Shoah never draws a lot of people. It’s a real shame as the information and collection here is really great and in depth. (I think the French are trying to atone for their anti-semitic past!) It’s one of the most detailed Holocaust museums I’ve seen. I’ve been to many Holocaust museums and this is one of the top ones in the world.
The Catacombs of Paris are a fascinating but grim tourist attraction. They go on for miles (no one really knows how far they go) and the endless winding tunnels house thousands of bones. It’s a morbid tourist attraction but an interesting look into the history of Paris. They are often closed so check ahead of time before you walk down to try to see them.
Read my article on the catacombs to find more information, including how to visit them.
Rue Mouffetard – This street is filled with cafés, shops, and an outdoor market. It’s a great street to just wander down or sit in front of a café and watch life go buy. Make sure to stop by the nearby Place de la Contrescarpe, where artists for decades spend their time. There are good, inexpensive restaurants in the area too.
Another artistic center of Paris. There’s a lot of art around and you’ll find shops and artists on the streets throughout the area. This is where artists and writers like Hemingway spent their time. The streets are quiet and beautiful to wander around. The church in the area offers a great view of the city and is a great place to have lunch.
Moulin Rouge – After wandering Montmartre, head into the ‘seedy’ district of Paris. This is where you can take in a show at the Moulin Rouge, or just wander around and witness the interesting mix of tourists and locals awkwardly gazing into sex shops.
Finish off the day with a train ride east of the city center to visit Paris’ most famous graveyard. It’s a beautiful graveyard (can we call a place of death beautiful?) and here you’ll see the graves of celebrities like Antonio de La Gandara, Honoré de Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Édith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde.
Even with five days, you’ll barely scratch the surface of Paris. It’s a huge city that takes a lifetime to really see. But you’ll see some of the on and off the beaten path attractions as well as get a chance to experience some of the great food and nightlife the city has to offer. I could have squeezed more stuff into this itinerary but why rush things? This way you have some free time to wander, shop, have a picnic, and just relax. After all, Paris is best explored calmly and slowly.
Next step is to keep planning your trip to Paris with these articles:
→ Paris travel guide (Budget tips included!)
→ France travel guide
→ 10 Ways to Find a Cheap Flight
→ Is a Eurail Pass Worth the Cost?
→ How to Find Cheap Accommodation (Paris is expensive after all!)