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Paris 101 - Everything you need to know for your first trip

Paris is my favorite city. Why? Art, food, cafes, wine, canals, parks... need I say more? Paris is one of those cities that can be daunting. Where to stay, what to do, what you need to book ahead of time - I've laid it all out for you below.

Where to Stay

I like to stay in the Montmartre neighborhood. It's a gorgeous, inviting neighborhood where the French Impressionists and other painters like Picasso and Van Gough once lived and worked. You can still go to some of the cafes where they were once regulars! (see: The Consulat). You can also see painters and artists still painting "en plein air" in Place du Tetre, a lovely little square that has several cafes to sit at and soak it all in. We like to stay close to this square so we have a fun nightlife before we head in for the night. The famous Sacré-Cœur church is also in this neighborhood. However, this area is a 20 minute cab or metro ride from the main attractions like the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.

If you want to stay within walking distance of the major sites, you will want to stay in the Marais neighborhood. This historically Jewish neighborhood is known for it's LGBTQ population and has some of the best boutique and independent shopping areas in Paris. Marais is home to several sites itself, including the Hotel de Ville and Victor Hugo's home turned museum. It's within walking distance to Notre Dame and if you can get close to the river, you can avoid cabs and the metro for several of the main sites. The Marais neighborhood is slightly less expensive and less touristy than the St. Germain neighborhood.

If you are only in Paris for a short trip and want to make the most of your time (and if your budget will allow) consider staying in the St. Germain neighborhood. You will be right next to Notre Dame, Musee D'Orsay, and the Pont Neuf bridge, plus you will be close to the Luxembourg Gardens and many metro stops. This is really the center of Paris. It's home to the famous Les Deux Magots cafe and has a long list of famous inhabitants including Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. Get a room with a view of the Seine!

What to Do

Paris has a laundry list of sites. If you are short on time (and who isn’t) I would suggest picking 2-3 of these for each day you have available for sightseeing. Getting in at noon? Only pick one for that day. I've added how long you should allow for each. Be sure to factor in transportation time in between!

1. Sightseeing Tour (2-3 hours) – this is the best way to ensure that you see all of the outdoor sites. If you are only in Paris for a day, this is what I would recommend doing. You will get a snapshot and a good feel for the city. We look a 2CV night tour when all the monuments were lit up and it was absolutely amazing. The guide took us to some hidden gems and we had an amazing time in the open top car, learning all about Paris. We saw things we would never have stumbled upon on our own. If you aren’t into the 2CV or have too many guests to do this, find another tour you can do. I like to do these on the first day to get my bearings in a city.

2CV tour

2. Musée d'Orsay (2-3 hours) – one of the best museums in the world. This museum is manageable, you could actually see everything in under 3 hours! Plus it stays open late until 9:45 pm on Thursdays so you don’t have to miss good weather to see it all. This railway turned museum is filled will French Impressionist paintings and sculptures by Monet, Manet, and the likes. This site is closed on Mondays. Use your Paris Museum Pass to skip the line!

Musee D'Orsay

3. Jardin de Tuileries (2 hours) - Lovely gardens! This is a must see (or at least walk through). There are relaxing fountains, hedges, flowers, and an awesome Musée de l'Orangerie in the middle that features massive Monet water lilly paintings (also included in Paris Museum Pass). There are some snack stands selling sandwiches and wine throughout the park so you can really make an afternoon here. This is a nice relaxing site after the bustle of the city. You can pair this in the afternoon with a morning at Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame since they are all within walking distance of one another.

Tuilerie Gardens

4. Notre Dame (1 hour) - A must see. Notre Dame is gorgeous and really does live up to it's reputation. It's free to go in, is open every day, and has a constant stream of visitors going in and out of it. To beat the crowds, visit as close to 8 am as possible. Also stop in at Shakespeare and Company across the street, an English bookstore that has been the home-away-from-home for dozens of famous writers and authors throughout the years. They also have a coffee shop, making this a great mid-morning stop.

5. Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur (3-4 hours) – Refer to my post above in the “Where to Stay” section if you want to hear me gush over this neighborhood. I would take an afternoon to visit this neighborhood and church. I would go have late lunch at Place du Tetre, admire the artists, then stop by the church and admire the architecture.

6. Sainte-Chapelle (1-2 hours) – This is definitely worth seeing and is a great site to couple with Notre Dame because it is on the same little island. Go in the morning to get the most light coming through the stained glass windows, but if morning is not an option for you, better to go any time than not at all. Also included in the Paris Museum Pass.

Saint Chapelle

7. The Louvre (3 hours) - The Louvre is overwhelming, busy, and hectic. Still, who wants to go to Paris and miss the Mona Lisa? I would make a list of pieces you want to see and map it out before you go. You may consider an organized tour just to keep you focused. You can find info about tours on their official website here. Prior reservations or a Paris Museum Pass are a must, otherwise you will be waiting in line for hours.

Other sites:

Eiffel Tower: I'm sorry to burst bubbles, but the best part of the Eiffel Tower is the outside. If you take a sightseeing or boat tour, you will see it. Going up inside of it takes a lot of time, even with a pass and is a little underwhelming. That being said, if it is your dream to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, do not leave Paris without doing it. I like to hit up a grocery store and take a little cheese and wine picnic in the park right in from of it. At night it sparkles with lights every 15 minutes! Just be aware that several salesmen will be walking around trying to sell you souvenirs and champagne in this park. Go during the day to minimize this.

Eiffel Tower

Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées: I’ll be honest, there isn’t much to do at these two sites. It’s a lovely area, but if you do a tour then you will most likely drive by these, and that’s all there really is. I would not carve out an amount of time to visit these individually.

Moulin Rouge: Yes, the movie was great. And if you are walking from the main area of town to Montmartre, be sure to walk by this. Otherwise, I would not go out of my way to see it. The outside is anticlimactic and the shows are $100+ per ticket.

Tips and Suggestions

FREE rooftop views: If you don't have time or a desire to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, head over to the Galeries Lafayette. This department store has a rooftop that is open to the public and is much less crowded than the other view points. You can get panoramic views of Paris for free! Just take the escalators all the way to the top. There is a pricey bar at the top as well.

Paris Museum Pass: This pass saves you a lot of headache and a lot of waiting. I don't know how people visit Paris without it. If you aren't into museums, you can skip this. Otherwise, read my blog post about how to get the most out of it.

Food Tours: We took a tour through the Marais neighborhood that included a food and wine tasting. This was a highlight of our trip. We walked by several main sites and learned fascinating history about the Jewish community that inhabited this area. This is also where you can find some of the only remaining Medieval building in Paris. The wine and food tasting was also fantastic.

Food Tour

Versailles: If you are staying more than 4 days, I would highly recommend a day trip to Versailles. It's like nothing else I've seen. It's such an experience. You can get a guided tour but we got the hand held audio set and went at our own pace. The gardens and grounds are beautiful and it's free with your Paris Museum Pass. You will need to take a 45 minute train to Versailles from Paris so this is a full day trip. Be sure to check out the Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette's hobby farm, built as a retreat from her life as a queen. It's bizarre and intriguing. There are a few restaurants and snack stands on the ground so you don't have to leave for lunch.

Cafe Life: Take an hour or two to soak in the cafe culture of Paris. Get some coffee, a croissant, or wine and just sit and people watch. Cafes face all of their chairs toward the street just for this purpose! There are tons of articles about which cafes are the best, but I found just wandering around and picking one when you feel like a break is a great way to see the city from a different angle. Some of my best memories were sipping wine on a busy square after a visit to the Louvre or eating a crepe at a cafe in the Place du Tetre and watching the artists work. I find myself devoting more and more time to this each trip.

Basic French: Many people in Paris speak English, but they really appreciate it if you try a little French. They see it as a good effort and you will get better service with just a few phrases.

Bonjour: hello

s'il vous plaît: Please

Merci: Thank you

Paris is an amazing place. Even if you only spend a few days here, you will fall in love. Read more about Paris here.

Boat Tour

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