Paris for beginners – the full guide for first-time travellers in the City of Lights.

As you well know, I’ve been to Paris more than 20 times, and when I founded the Francophiles Anonymous community I thought I was addressing a group of veteran France lovers, who have already climbed up the Eiffel Tower, visited the Louvre, and realize that there’s really nothing to look for at the Champs Elysees. However, as the community grew, the more “Francophile beginners” (or should we call them “rookie Francophiles”?) started joining it. These are people who’ve never been to the City of Lights, or perhaps had a quick visit there somewhere in their childhood, and now the time has come for them to make their first real trip in the capital of France. These are people who are not yet at the proficiency stage of searching for the marquise de Brinvilliers’ poison lab or visiting tiny and lesser-known museums such as Hôtel de Bourrienne. They are looking for the classics Paris has to offer, and therefore, especially for them and for the beginning of the touristy season in Paris, I have compiled this article, presenting to you the Parisian attractions that no first-time tourist would like to miss on their first trip to the City of Lights.

Travelling to Paris for the first time? Five tips that would improve your trip

Go for at least 5 days (preferably a week)

An urban legend, which I very much like to repeat, speaks of the American tourist who arrived at the capital of France, went to the tourist information office in Paris (25 Rue des Pyramides), approached the clerk and told him: “I have two days in the City of Lights, what would you recommend me to do?” To this the clerk, in the best Parisian nonchalant, replied: “If that is the case, mademoiselle, I would recommend to walk straight down the street, all the way to the Seine, sit down, and start crying…” There is actually something about that advice. Unlike the McDonald’s restaurants all over the city, Paris takes time to be understood and “digested”. Five days (if you don’t leave the city) or even seven (if you decide to go to Versailles, or, good heavens, to Disneyland), are the time required for you to absorb the city and really enjoy it. Less than that, and you’ll find yourselves running like madmen around the various attractions, without really enjoying them.

Going to Paris for the first time doesn’t make you “suckers”

Long gone are the days when all the information you had was written in an expired tour guide + a few tips from an aunt who visited Paris once, and recommends you of this great hotel she stayed in on her visit, in 1968. Today there are excellent websites like TripAdvisor, or various Facebook communities, in which you can find endless tips about the City of Lights, in order to prevent most of the falls. I also made my humble contribution to the touristy effort by writing the article “How to avoid a hole in your pocket and still have a decent vacation in Paris”. If you still haven’t found all the information you need there, you’re welcome to comment to this article, or turn to me directly via the Francophiles Anonymous Facebook page.

Take your time

It’s true that time is short and the work is plentiful, and after all, there are endless attractions to visit in such a short time. However, remember one simple thing. To really enjoy the city of lights, you have to wander around leisurely, and try to absorb as much of the magical Parisian spirit. So as your starting point, assume you won’t manage to see everything, and that’s just fine. Paris is not nearly as far as Australia (unless you’re Australian, of course), and at least those living in Europe can always come back rather easily (and those in the US and Asia still have direct flights that over time become less expensive). Therefore, my advice to you is to schedule, for every day, one must-see destination, and two or three others that would be nice to see, and take the rest of the time to stroll around the streets, sit in a park and have an éclair bought in a lovely little patisserie you discovered on your way, or, if it’s cold – in a café with hot chocolate. Take my word, even if you visit the City of Lights for the first time, you don’t need much more than that to experience the Parisian ambiance.

There is no such thing as “must see” attractions

Paris is a multidimensional city that has everything, from fascinating history and art to culinary, shopping, and amazing shows and spectacles. Since your time in Paris is limited, I highly recommend listening to your inner voice, and consciously give up on anything that you don’t find interesting, even if everyone told you it’s absolutely necessary to visit there. For example, if you’re fans of baking there’s no reason why you can’t spend all your time in paris around culinary-related experiences. Alternatively, if you’re into shopping, it’s absolutely fine to walk around between the incredible department stores, such as Galeries Lafayette, and supplement it with the small boutiques, without ever stepping foot in a single museum. Remember: in Paris there’s no such thing like there no such thing.

Before we continue: Are you visiting Paris with you children?

An interactive map of Paris – your absolute BFF

My dear Francophile friend Zeev Ben Nahum has worked for years and years to create an interactive map containing anything you could ever imagine in Paris. Since these days it is relatively easy and affordable to buy data package, I highly recommend you to use this map at any moment of your trip in order to avoid the downfalls (for example: next to every restaurant in the map appears a link to a relevant recommendation), and discover new places just around the corner.

Attractions in Paris that you have to see the first time (unfortunately)

Musée du Louvre

True, the Louvre museum is considered (rightfully) to be the one of the most important museum worldwide, and it contains endless art pieces and treasures of the first degree. The problem is that tourists, who visit Paris for the first time, try to see all of it in a single visit, and the result is “art poisoning”. What is art poisoning, you ask? Well, it is a terrible condition where the eye loses its sensitivity to art as a result of viewing too many “art treasures”, the heart stops pounding, and the feet and back start aching. If you’re not aware of that hazard, you’ll leave the Louvre completely exhausted, and lose a precious day of Paris. If you ask me, I’d recommend strolling around the Louvre courtyard, enjoy its unique architecture, as well as the adjacent Tuileries gardens. However, during your first visit to Paris, perhaps this is where you should leave at that point, and on your next trip visit one of the museum’s wings (and even then – one at a time, no more). If you do decide to go in after all, and say hello to the Mona Lisa, I recommend buying a Louvre ticket or the museum card, which allows you to enter the Louvre almost without any line (find additional information here), and meticulously plan your “must-see” route in the museum, so that your time there doesn’t exceed 3 hours. When you leave the museum and get back to the Parisian streets, you’ll thank me.

The Eiffel Tower

Allow me to share a little secret with you: although I’ve been to Paris over 20 times, I’ve never climbed the Eiffel tower. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but every time I got there I found an insane line, and there was always something better to do than stand and wait. So if I haven’t climbed the Eiffel Tower, maybe you can postpone your visit there for another time, too, and make something more useful of the time you were supposed to spend waiting in line? If you still really want to see Paris from above, I would recommend you to climb up the Arc de Triomphe (you can do this for free if you buy the Museum Card I mentioned earlier), and another option is going to the Sacre Coeur courtyard in the afternoon, and watch the sun set on Paris from the top of the Montmartre (a glorious sight indeed). Leave the Eiffel Tower alone, you don’t have to conquer it and climb it. Let it sparkle in the dark as you watch it from one of the Parisian bridges (and if you’re lucky, you’ll do that while hugging your significant other).

If going up the Eiffel Tower burns in your blood, and you feel like you must do that, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance to save time. Also, if you’re in good shape wish to save time and money (because the cost is only partial), you can arrive early in the morning or late in the evening, since during those hours the lines are relatively short. Also, if you’re in shape and want to save time and money (because the cost is only partial), you can climb up by foot to the second floor of the tower, where you can stand in a relatively short line and buy a ticket to the elevator going all the way up. In total, these are about 700 stairs and 20 minutes of climb, and this saves you hours of standing in line, as well as burn some calories, for which you can later compensate in a nearby patisserie.

Les Champs Elysees

Years have gone by since Joe Dassin sang his famous chanson “Aux Champs Elysees”, and this song continues to cause damage by nurturing the “romantic boulevard” myth. Indeed, since this boulevard has been created, in the 17th century, it had quite a few magical moments, and during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century it was, indeed, the place you have to go in order to see and to be seen. However, unfortunately, a lot of water has flowed in the Seine since then, and from a romantic and magical boulevard, the Champs Elysees has become a sad touristy cliché. The reason is that real-estate in the area has become so expensive, that only famous chains and brands can afford renting the shops there. So forget about little romantic restaurants or boutique stores. In addition, in the evening the Champs Elysees turns into a meeting place of very conspicuous types from the suburbs (the French call the “young”, but I won’t say the explicit name to avoid being accused of racism), which decreases the sense of security. From this, we can only get to the clear conclusion that one can definitely skip the Champs Elysees.

Skip the Champs Elysees!? Well, not exactly. First of all, it is very recommended to go to the Arc de Triomphe, as I wrote earlier, but you don’t have to walk the entire boulevard to reach it – instead, take a metro. I also recommend strolling the part of the boulevard that starts in the Concorde and goes all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt roundabout. This is a lovely garden, and if you’re there on Christmas, you can enjoy the lovely Christmas market there (except in 2017, when the market was cancelled, hopefully for one time only). And if you’ve already been there, instead of reaching the commercial part of the boulevard, I recommend turning left in Avenue de Montaigne, and if you’re fashion aficionados, follow the tour route following Yves Saint Laurent.

A Francophile-themed tour for beginners, or what to do in Paris in seven days

So far I’ve addressed the issue of which attractions in Paris you should give up on. However, after this short streak of negativity, the time for positivity has come, and instead of complaining, we’ll now formulate a plan for your first vacation in Paris. Of course, you don’t have to follow the plan step by step all the way. This is a modular plan that’s easy to change according to the hours of your arrival and departure, the location of your hotel/apartment, your fields of interest, and the number of days you’ll be staying in Paris. Needless to say that the order of the days is almost completely random, and can mostly be changed, too.

First day in Paris – the Marais neighbourhood

The Marais neighbourhood – the arcades of Place des Vosges. Photo: Ruthi Shimoni
The Marais neighbourhood – the arcades of Place des Vosges. Photo: Ruthi Shimoni

The reason I’m placing the Marais on the first day is because of the Carnavalet museum, which presents to you the history of Paris for the past 2,000 years. If you like history, this museum is a trove that will help you better understand the story behind the next attraction you’ll see in Paris (this museum can be covered in about two hours). Of course, if you’re not history fans, you can definitely skip it. Please note that currently the Carnavalet museum is undergoing massive renovations, and is closed until sometime in 2019.

Where in the Marais should you go to? I would recommend the classic route in which route you’ll find the main attractions of the Marais neighbourhood, and visit both its northern and southern parts. If you’re interested in the Jewish aspect of this neighbourhood, I recommend visiting the museum of Judaism in Hôtel Saint’Aignan (71 Rue du Temple), and, of course, don’t forget Rue des Rosiers, which constitutes some sort of a “Jewish quarter” to these days.

Second day in Paris – Île de la Cité and the Latin quarter

This route is best taken on a Sunday, to better enjoy the birds’ market in Île de la Cité. Start the day by arriving at metro station Cité (line 4), exactly where the market is located. From there, continue to visit the Conciergerie (2 Boulevard du Palais) – not a must, but definitely recommended – as well as the church Sainte Chapelle (8 Boulevard du Palais) – definitely a must, especially on sunny days. From there continue to visit the Notre Dame cathedral, and if you have some free time, consider climbing up the towers (not a must). After a quick tour around the cathedral, consider continuing to the charming Île Saint Louis. Dedicate the second half of your day to the Latin quarter, and don’t skip a visit in Luxembourg gardens and the Pantheon. If you want to feel like real tourists, have a cup of coffee at Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés) or Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain). The price will be super-expensive, and the coffee won’t taste super-amazing, but hey, you can check the box saying “sit in the cafes where Sartre and de Beauvoir used to hang out”…

What tour routes should you take in the Latin quarter?

  • The tour route of Île de la Cité and Île Saint Louis – although this route includes parts that can be classified as “Paris for veterans”, it also certainly includes the main attractions of the area, so either take it as it is, or skip parts of it, if you will.
  • Tour route in the Latin quarter – this route, much like the previous one, includes the main attractions (Jardin du Luxembourg, Boulevard Saint Germain, etc.), but not only them. You’re definitely welcome to skip the places that less interest you.

Third day – leaving Paris, and this time, Château de Versailles

If you have enough time to take a trip outside Paris, I recommend to do so in the middle of your stay. That way you can take a short break from the boulevards and the action that are Paris, and miss them a little before heading straight back in. And if you leave Paris for the first time, Château de Versailles is undoubtedly your preferred option. This is the most impressive palace in France (in my opinion), and besides, taking a stroll in its gardens is an amazing experience in itself. Be generous with your time there, and dedicate an entire day to the experience. From morning to evening you can explore the palace, the gardens, and finally have dinner in one of this charming city’s restaurants. If you’re particularly interested in the history of Marie Antoinette, you can take this opportunity to follow her story in the palace and its gardens.

Fourth day – back to Paris, this time the 1st arrondissement

I have a great deal of sympathy for the 1st arrondissement, especially since I stayed there with my parents in quite a few trips we took during my childhood. Here, of course, you can visit the Louvre (if you decided not to listen to my earlier advice), Palais Royale, and of course, the Tuileries Garden, which are a definite must-see. For the bibliophiles, visit the book store Galignani (224 Rue de Rivoli), and for fashion lovers, don’t miss out on the tour route following Coco Chanel, focusing on this arrondissement.

For the second half of the day, I recommend visiting Place Vendôme (if you haven’t visited it yet as part of the tour route following Coco Chanel), and from there continue to Place de la Madeleine, and delight in all the gastronomy stores, headed by Fauchon. After enjoying the culinary part, walk along Boulevard des Capucines all the way to the magnificent opera house, built my Charles Garnier. I highly recommend taking a tour there, but before doing so, make sure that there is no rehearsal currently going on, since then you won’t be able to enter the main hall, and that would be a shame. You can finish your day visiting the shopping departments Galeries Lafayette and the Printemps, located just behind the opera. Don’t miss out on Galeries Lafayette Maison, the less fashionable part of the department store, but the one holding a not-so-hidden treasure of patisseries and desserts (as well as other types of gourmet foods) in its ground floor.

Please note: if you decide to visit the 1st arrondissement on the first day of your trip, I recommend combining a cruise on the Seine at the end of the day (the cruise leaves right from the side of the Pont Neuf). This is a wonderful way to get to know the main attractions of Paris, as well as to rest a little from your long flight or train ride.

Fifth day in Paris – Musée d’Orsay, the Invalides palace, the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre

Let’s start with Musee d’Orsay, which presents works of art from the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike the Louvre, this is definitely an easily-digestible museum, and if you like works of art from that period (especially impressionists), I warmly recommend this museum. From there walk along the Seine banks until you reach the Invalides palace. I recommend entering the courtyard and take a look at the military architecture, as well as enter the next-door baroque church and look at Napoleon’s tomb. Are the other museums in the complex worth a visit? Only if you’re fans of military history. After visiting the Invalides palace, go to the Eiffel Tower (you can’t miss it), and whatever you do, don’t ask the Parisians how to reach it, as you can see in the next clip:

After climbing (or not) the Eiffel Tower, I would recommend you to spend the second half of your day at the Montmartre, and hit the “finish” line on the top, by the Sacre Coeur. Another option, if you love French chansons, would go to Au Lapin Agile and enjoy an amazing musical evening (just make sure that you’ve dined first since they don’t serve any food there).

Sixth day – Disneyland Paris (are you sure you have to do this???)

If you’ve come to Paris with children, you have a good excuse for visiting this place, which is as far as you can get from the Parisian spirit. If you’ve come without children, do yourself a favor and skip this abomination. It’s not that I don’t like theme parks, but this is, after all, sort of an invasion of American culture, which is completely strange to the French environment you’re in. If you still wish to go to such a park, why not try something a bit more authentic, like Asterix Park?

For those of you who didn’t heed my advice and chose to go there after all, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance to save the time spent standing in lines. For additional information about Disneyland Paris, there are many blogs dealing with those exact questions, and provide fine answers.

Seventh day in Paris – a day dedicated entirely to… you!

We all know the Story of Creation, where on the seventh day God ceased from its work and decided to rest. That is the exact purpose of the seventh and last day of your trip. That’s it, you checked the boxes of the most important Parisian monuments and attractions, you ran around, travelled, and experienced Paris. Now you can pat yourselves on your backs. You’ve officially completed the Francophile bootcamp! Now, on the last day, mere hours before hopping on the airplane and getting back to your lives, all you have left is to go back to the places you liked most, do some shopping, have a last cup of coffee in your neighbourhood café, and… start planning your next trip in Paris.

And one last tip

If those routes seem a bit “off your beat”, or you wish to experience a different kind of trip in Paris, I can definitely recommend hiring a personal trip-planner. Yael Bahat of Le Urban Explorer, a good friend and a dedicated urban explorer of Paris, plans exactly such personally-tailored trips, and would be glad to assist you. Contact her at [email protected].

Looking for more information that would help you plan your trip to Paris?

  • If you haven’t booked a hotel yet, I strongly recommend going to this page, which contains only hotels recommended by myself or other Francophiles. If you book your stay from this page you will get an excellent price, as well as make sure that the hotel you book will be a good one.
  • Looking for a good restaurant in Paris? Go to this page, which, like the hotel page, contains my recommendations for excellent restaurants in Paris, and will help you avoid tourist traps and painful misfortunes in that area.

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