So you want to go to Paris.... May I suggest some travel advice, recommendations, hints, tips, and unbreakable rules from someone with a life-long love affair with the City of Lights?
I've spent one month and half a lifetime in the City of Lights.
The part about one month is very true. From mid-October to mid-November, 2022, I lived in Paris. I found a wee apartment with sloped walls and wooden beams and made the city my home.
The reference to half a lifetime is a bit of hyperbole but, in its own way, equally true. I first visited the French capital in 2001 and I've made at least half a dozen visits in the years since. I'm never not wanting to be there.
I believe you could live in Paris your entire life and not discover all of its secrets. As such, I am far from an expert. On the other hand, I know Paris better than just about any travel destination and I've learned quite a lot in 20+ years of adventures. And that brings me here, in an effort to wrap up my very best Paris travel advice, suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks. For everyone who has said that they absolutely have to get my advice before planning their own big trip - here it is. This post is for you. I'll accept macarons in lieu of thanks.
So here's what you should do in Paris...
I have no idea what you’ll enjoy in Paris. I can only talk about what I love and what is popular with everyone else. Please take my advice with a grain of salt! Disclaimers aside, I’d say that on your first day in Paris you should start with a high-quality guided general tour of the city. Get the lay of the land and see some highlights. Explore the city with a gentle bike tour with Fat Tires (see below), enjoy an evening boat cruise, or join a walking tour. For the most flexibility and lowest price point, go the DIY route (I have an easy, three-hour walk you can see here). For what it’s worth, I don’t think hop-on, hop-off bus tours are a great value but to each their own.
I’d then recommend going to a major art gallery. If you want the most famous, most important, most impressive artwork, head to the Louvre where the Mona Lisa and her friends await. If you’d rather the easy-on-your-eyes tones of Impressionist artists like Van Gogh and Monet, the Musée d'Orsay is your spot and it has the advantage of being on a more manageable scale than the Louvre.
If you prefer something more low-key, try the Musée Picasso-Paris (funky), the Musée Rodin (moody and outdoors-y) or Musée de l'Orangerie (small and sweet and best for non-artsy folks who feel compelled to go to at least one gallery). I’d finish the day by having a good meal. I usually choose something close to my hotel that’s recommended in the Rick Steves' Paris.
On your second day, I’d suggest you start with a neighbourhood-specific tour (I love those offered by Paris Walks, described below), followed by a non-art gallery attraction (like the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Coeur Basilica). Now that you have a sense of the city and what you like, I’d suggest you conclude the day by wandering on your own, visiting some non-traditional attractions, or exploring your own personal bucket list.
How to not feel like a tourist (when you totally ARE a tourist)
How can you make your trip feel special when you’re going to the exact same top attractions as everyone else? I recommend balancing things out. For every blockbuster attraction you take in, visit another one that is far less well-known. Climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower? Add a trip to an architecture museum to your list. Spending time at the popular Musée Picasso? It’s right next door to the Institut Suédois (The Swedish Institute.) Their funky, free exhibitions and delightful pastry shop earn the title of hidden gems and even Parisians have no idea it's there.
Where can you find out more about these little-known spots? Order a copy of The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide To The City's Hidden Gems by Emma Jones (which is so cute you’ll want to keep it out as a coffee table book).
Ignore this rule at your peril
You did not come to Paris to stand in line. I’m gonna say it again for the folks in the back. YOU DID NOT COME TO PARIS TO STAND IN LINE! Book your admission to key attractions well in advance.
I am all for serendipity (Ha! I hate not having plans….) but I’m here to say that the best way to enjoy Paris is with a little advanced planning. Virtually every museum allows your to reserve your tickets in advance via their website or you can purchase one of the many multi-museum passes that include skip-the-line privileges.
Frankly, even with your advanced pass, you’ll have to stand in line for a little bit. You won’t be the only person in the 1:00 PM time slot and checking everyone in takes time. If you have limited time (or knowledge) for a certain site, consider a generic guided tour that includes skip-the-line tickets. Those cookie-cutter guided tours of the Louvre aren’t exactly going to make an art history expert out of you but you’re guaranteed to see the most popular paintings and you’ll take in more than you expected.
These are the only two tour companies I consistently recommend
I’ve been joining walking tours hosted by Paris Walks since 2001 and I’ve never been disappointed. Their tours generally focus on discovering neighbourhoods or exploring historical themes (like Revolutionary France). I’ve always found them to be the perfect balance of intelligent content that’s never snobby and always accessible. There are about a billion different tour companies now but I always go back to Paris Walks again and again. I did five of their tours on my last visit alone!
I also recommend Fat Tire Bike Tours. Their classic bike tour of Paris is a superb way to get to know the city (and I am here to say that cycling Paris is far less scary than I thought it would be). Try booking it for the first day or so of your trip when you need some fresh air and exercise to beat jet lag. If you're staying in the area for more than a day or two, consider their guided bike tour of Versailles. It changed the way I felt about this popular destination.
Start early, end late
Paris at 8:00 AM is a radically different city than the one you see at 11:00 AM. It’s quiet, low-key, and filled with locals doing local-ish things, like jogging in the park, taking the kids to school, and delivering goods to the market. I can’t recommend exploring well before the museums open highly enough. Grab a croissant and go! There's no better time to window shop, contemplate public art, and enjoy cafe life.
If early mornings aren’t your thing, consider seeing the city after sunset. The school groups are back in their hotels and the streets open back up again. Many attractions have one night a week in which they stay open late.
Hit the road again and again and again
Paris is a city for walking. In fact, I think it's the loveliest city imaginable for strolling and, despite the massive congestion that blocks some of Paris’ main arteries, you can find serenity a step or two away on quiet side streets. I created a three-hour layover tour that encapsulates some of Paris’ finest sites for those who are on a tight deadline (which hopefully you are not!). But even if you have all the time in the world, I recommend it as a starting point to launch a morning or full day of exploring on foot.
A fun book to check out pre-travel is Secret Paris by Thomas Jonglez, which highlights some of the odd, unusual, and hidden treats of the city. Consider making it your mission to find a few listings that delight you.
Being a frugal foodie
Typical Parisian food advice goes something like this: Restaurants are expensive! Going to a cheese shop and bakery is cheap! Well, it's not that straightforward. At cheese shops, delis, and bakeries, don't hesitate to request small quantities. Use your hands show how little you want, lest you accidentally order 17 Euros of Brie. (Don't ask).
Restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and even Starbucks offer “menus” or “formules” that offer mild to substantial discounts compared to the cost of ordering things individually. My local bakery offered lunchtime "menu" that included a choice of a hefty baguette sandwich, a pastry, and a bottled drink for 7.50 Euros, an exceptional deal. Many cafes offer a glass of house wine as a mid-day addition to their “menu” for as little as three Euros (but you'll pay the regular price for that wine if you order your food a la cart instead of choosing the "menu"). In most cases, you’ll save a Euro or two by taking your order to go and eating it at a local park instead of taking up table space.
In general, the more unremarkable the street, the better the deals. At the time of writing, a croissant at my local bakery is 1.10 Euros but at Starbucks, it is 1.95 Euros. A sugared crepe costs me 1.70 at my bakery but at touristy spots on Ile Saint Louis, it’s 2.50. French onion soup seems to hover around 9 Euros but I’ve seen it advertised for 12 at more bougie spots.
Accommodations: Think small, central, air conditioned
There are always compromises to be made when it comes to accommodations. You can likely find something in Paris that is budget friendly, atmospheric (hello, romantic rooftops), or convenient (elevators and proximity to the Metro). But you are unlikely to find something that is budget-friendly, atmospheric, AND convenient. Pick your priorities!
For a short visit, I personally would focus on something that is within five minutes or less of a Metro line. I'd always opt for a climate-controlled environment (you better believe Paris swelters in spring, summer, and fall). And I’d be okay if it was on the smaller side of things. A boutique hotel often means better service and petite rooms are affordable. You’ll find a microscopic elevator more often than you might think in tiny hotels but if you want washrooms with soaker tubs or even just room to turn around, you'll pay dearly.
Alas, I don't have any perfect hotel recommendations. The last time we stayed in a Paris hotel (which was years ago), we chose the Hotel Académie in Saint Germaine. You can read our honest review here.
Random tidbits, words of wisdom, tips and tricks, and other things I think you should know.
Finally, know the numbers to appreciate the city
There are approximately 2.2 million Parisians for the 20 to 30 million people who visit Paris. As such, the subway and sidewalks are always busy. Crowds (and con artists) mill about the museums. You’ll likely encounter garbage, delays, and indifferent staff at some point in your trip. Knowing these stats will help you keep things in context and, ultimately, enjoy your trip to the fullest. Keep things in perspective and you’ll have a better experience.
I've encountered every bad thing that people dislike about Paris and I still love it. And one day soon, I'll be going back for more.
If you're planning a trip to Paris, these other blog posts will help:
Exploring Monet's Giverny Gardens In Autumn
Where To Buy The Best Souvenirs In Paris
Review: The Paris Yotel Sleeping Pod in CDG Airport
Farewell to Kitty, A Fine Parisian Cat
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