Hi Frugalistas! I think I’ve been to Paris about 20 times over the last 35 years. Even after all that time I’m still finding wonderful things that I didn’t know about, hadn’t seen, or hadn’t made the time to visit. If you are on your first trip to Paris, it can be daunting at first. Where to spend your time? What’s worth seeing and what should you skip? It’s so easy to be sucked into one of the many tourist traps in Paris, that the real Paris can be overlooked. So, with 25 years in the making, here is my list of things to do on your first trip to Paris. These are the things I wish I had known on my first visit to Paris and that I’m thrilled to be able to share with you – whether you are planning your first Paris vacation, or looking to explore more of this beautiful city. This post has been updated in April 2019.
1. The Eiffel Tower
You will, of course, want to visit the Eiffel Tower. The time of your visit is entirely up to you. Especially now you can book your tickets on line and skip the queue.
But no doubt you will also want to take photos of, and enjoy looking at the Eiffel Tower. For me, there are two excellent places to enjoy the Eiffel Tower. Firstly, either before or after you climb the Eiffel Tower head over to the Right Bank to the Trocadero for the best elevated view of the Eiffel Tower. My other best place is the Champs de Mars in the evening when the Tower is lit up. If you aren’t around the Eiffel Tower in the evening do try to see the Eiffel Tower at night from another vantage point such as the Louvre courtyard area, where there are also lovely evening shots to capture. It is important to book your Eiffel Tower tickets in advance.
2. The Louvre
There is no question that the Louvre is a place where you definitely need to go early. Even with a Museum Pass or prebooked Louvre Museum tickets you need to go early to avoid the queues inside the museum itself. My advice regarding the Louvre is to plan ahead and work out what you want to see. Unless the weather is completely awful or you are a total art nut, you probably won’t want to see everything – it’s just too big and too overwhelming. Because most people will want to see the underwhelming Mona Lisa, do head there first. Then check out the other pieces or parts of the collection you are interested in, then leave……
But before you leave, if you are looking for charming and different souvenirs make sure you look at the Museum shop (you can check out the stock online before you visit). I have found interesting, easy to pack items in the Louvre shop, so think it’s a good option.
Okay, so Mona Lisa – tick! Gifts for friends and family – tick! Why aren’t I finished with the Louvre? Well, because I think the best time to enjoy the Louvre courtyard and its external architecture is in the evening.
As the sun sets, and the lights come on, the Louvre courtyard comes to life with photographers, wedding parties and hundreds of tourists with selfie sticks. There’s a reason for that. The buildings of the Louvre are definitely at their most photogenic in the evening…………and best of all? It’s free.
3. The Musee d’Orsay
Even if you are not into art, I do recommend making a visit to the Musee d’Orsay part of your itinerary for your first visit. There are just so many pieces on show that will be familiar. It’s also much more user friendly in terms of size and content compared to the Louvre. For me, the other big, big reason to visit the Musee d’Orsay is not because of the art inside. Or even the building (although it is a very interesting building). I think it is worth it for the views back over to the Right Bank. Even on a dull day you can see Sacre Coeur and some other pretty views of Paris. things to do on your first trip to Paris
Make sure you factor a visit to the Musee d’Orsay into your plans when choosing the right Museum Pass for you or buy your Orsay Museum tickets online.
4. A ride on the River Seine
This is a fantastic activity when you are traveling to Paris with children or have limited time in Paris. Even if you aren’t it’s a fun way to see the city, and get from one part of it to another. There are multiple companies and ticketing options, so do some research and book what works best for you.things to do on your first trip to Paris
5. Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral is my number one free thing to do in Paris. Yes, that’s right, unless you want to climb the tower, Notre Dame is free. And you can stay for as long as you like……
Personally, I think the best time to visit Notre Dame is late on Sunday morning.
My best Paris Sunday morning sightseeing activity is to head to the Louvre in time for opening. A quick whiz around what you are genuinely interested in, then out, and head to Notre Dame in time for Mass. Even if you do not want to attend Mass itself, you can still enter and visit the Cathedral while Mass is being said. Just be respectful, and pay attention to rope barriers that separate the visitors from those attending the service. With the music, the Mass and the smell of incense, Notre Dame on a Sunday morning cannot be beaten.
If you are looking for a very special Notre Dame experience, my friends at Secret Journeys offer an exclusive Notre Dame visit and organ concert. You can click here to find out more.
6. Visit a market
Regular readers will have been anticipating that a market visit would be on my list. I love markets everywhere I go, and certainly Paris is no exception. Every neighbourhood in Paris has its own local market, so regardless of where you are staying on your first trip to Paris, ask for “your local” at your hotel. My two personal favorite Paris markets are the organic market on Boulevard Raspail in the 6th, and the charming street market on rue Cler.
Other good market options are the cute Marche Enfants Rouge over in the Marais, or the rue Moufftard street market in Saint Germain.
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If you are feeling adventurous on your first trip to Paris, I also thoroughly recommend the Marche Barbès in a gritty and very untouristy part of the 18th.
When you go to the market, do feel free to savour the produce. Many stallholders will have samples out, and if you are genuinely looking to buy something others will offer you a little taste. Ask for either gouter (pronounced goo-tay? with the oo as in look, meaning a taste) or essayer (ess-say-yay? meaning to try). It is quite reasonable to just purchase a small quantity – another good word to know in the market is tranche (tronsh) meaning a slice.
If you are looking a more detailed guide to the markets of Paris, I thoroughly recommend this one:
7. Walk and sit in a park
If you are doing anything near the Louvre you will certainly find the Tuileries Gardens. With cafes, pony rides and plenty of places to linger it seems all of Paris finds their way to the Tuileries.
But there are many other parks for you to enjoy…….
The Luxembourg Gardens on the left bank is also very pretty. The Parc Monceau is a park I’ve never personally visited, but comes highly recommended by many other experienced Paris visitors. I also love the little park opposite the Bon Marche department store over on the Left Bank, and the tiny little postage stamp sized gardens on either side of the front of the Invalides. On a Sunday afternoon you can’t beat the atmosphere of the Buttes Chaumont – it seems like everyone in Paris is there.
8. Visit a gourmet food shop
If you are visiting the garden at Le Bon Marché it would seem silly to miss its food hall. In a separate building beside the main department store building, the food hall is a feast for the eyes.
With breads, cakes, pastries, pates, meats, and complete dishes ready for cooking there is plenty to tempt your tastebuds (and your wallet).
Other good options are the foodhall at Galeries Lafayettes, Fauchon and Le Notre.
Are you planning a trip to Paris? Click here to join my France Travel Planning Facebook group where you can ask questions and get advice from other France Travel Planners.
Regardless of your budget, make sure you don’t leave without some little treat for later.
9. Eat at least one really good French meal
I’m not talking tourist menus here. I’m talking real, honest French food that real French people eat. The best way to find them? Firstly, avoid tourist hotspots. Then avoid restaurants and brasseries with pictures of the food, or spruikers out the front. I used to say to avoid restaurants with menus in English too, but they are so common now that you can’t use it as a discriminator. Look for places on small residential streets. Look for small restaurants. Read guidebooks and restaurant review websites carefully. In more recent times I’ve also become a fan of The Fork app. Because most of the reviews are from locals rather than tourists, I find them quite reliable.
Some options for authentic French restaurant experiences I’ve enjoyed:
I love the Institute Vatel in the 17th. For me, this is a great place to go for high end, classic French food at a discounted price. You will be eating in the dining room of a Paris gourmet cooking school, and it is definitely one of the best deals in Paris.
I also love L’Ami Jean in the 7th for its big tables, generosity and fun atmosphere. And the Basque cooking is pretty good too. Not far from L’Ami Jean, Le Florimond is quieter and more romantic, with more classic French cooking. things to do on your first trip to Paris
For a wonderful experience in the Marais you can’t go past Robert et Louise. Sit at one of the big tables, choose your meat, and watch it cook over the open fire in a sixteenth century building. Maybe not one for the vegetarians, but a fabulous night out.
10. Get lost
Yes, that’s right, get lost. I always love getting lost, and Paris is one of the best places to do just that. Certainly you need a good map, but there are times when you need to put it away, and just take that turn down that inviting little street. things to do on your first trip to Paris
Paris is a wonderful living city, and you will enjoy it so much more if you leave the guidebook behind and find your own special piece of it. Whether it’s my walk from Pere Lachaise to the Parc Buttes Chaumont, a wander around the shops in the winding streets of the Marais or a market or park not in your guidebook, make sure you take the time to go and get lost in Paris……
While I don’t believe there is any place that is a “must visit”, there are some places in Paris that I think are definitely worthy of your list of priorities for your first trip to Paris. If you are planning a trip to Paris, what are you most looking forward to do? t
Of course, there are also plenty of things you need to avoid on your first trip to Paris. You can read about those here.