Your Guide To Paris & The Best Things To See & Do –
You probably already know Paris is the best city in the world for a romantic weekend getaway and the place to come for the world’s finest gourmet food. But did you know it is also the #2 Top Destination in the World according to TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards 2019?
In Paris, there’s something for everyone. If you’re a hopeless romantic, a book lover, an art connoisseur, a science geek, a foodie, or you love amusement parks, I guarantee there’s something there you’ll love.
The History of Paris
The Parisii were a Celtic tribe that arrived in the area of modern Paris in the 3rd century BCE and settled on the banks of the River Seine. When the Romans invaded this region of Gaul in 52 BCE, they founded a new town called Lutetia Parisiorum which may have meant “the Marsh of the Parisii”. Lutetia stood on a defensible island in the River Seine now called the Ile de la Cité. The town prospered under Roman rule, and by the time they were forced out of Gaul in the 5th-century CE, its name had been shortened to Parisius.
At the Battle of Soissons in 486, the Franks from central Europe defeated the last Roman forces and took control of Gaul. Clovis the Frank named Paris as his capital in 508. The Franks created a vast empire that peaked under Charlemagne. However, the Frankish empire collapsed into three parts in 843 CE. West Francia was the third that covered the old Roman province of Gaul, and Paris was its capital. West Francia eventually evolved into modern-day France.
Construction of Notre Dame Cathedral
During the early medieval period, Paris continued to serve as the political, religious, and economic capital of France. In 1163, the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral began. During the late 12th century, the Palais de la Cité was built and became home to the Kings of France until the 14th century. Around the same time, the Louvre Castle was built to protect Paris from the English who occupied Normandy, only 60 miles away. This castle was replaced by the Louvre Palace, and the king then moved there from the Palais de la Cité.
Paris underwent a transformation during the 17th century, with five new bridges built and the city’s defensive walls demolished to be replaced by the Grands Boulevards. Many monumental buildings were constructed, including the College des Quatre-Nations, Les Invalides, and the Palais-Royal.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution reduced the population of Paris from 630,000 to 547,000 but did not cause significant damage to the many monuments. Under Napoleon, the population soon recovered and surpassed its prior level, reaching 660,000 by 1815. Napoleon commissioned several of Paris’ most famous monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe and the Pont des Arts, the first metal bridge in Paris.
As France’s overseas empire grew to become the second-largest in the world (behind the British Empire), the Paris we know today was shaped by its role as the imperial capital. In 1889, Paris hosted the Universal Exposition to mark the centennial of the revolution and commissioned its focal point—the Eiffel Tower. This iconic building was originally designed to stand for 20 years and then be removed, but its demolition was first postponed and then canceled as the structure grew more popular with the Parisian public.
Paris Fact File
- Location: Northern France.
- State/Province: Ile de France.
- Population: Central city 2,140,526 but metropolitan area 12,532,901.
- Area: 40.7 square miles.
- Seasonal Weather: Oceanic climate with pleasantly warm summers and cool but relatively mild winters. Average summer temperatures are between 590F and 770F and average winter temperatures between 370F and 470F.
- Official Language: French.
- Other Languages: 26% of Parisians were born outside of France, so you’ll frequently hear other languages around the capital.
- Religion: There are no official figures, but surveys indicate 61% identify as Roman Catholic, 25% atheist, 7% Muslim, 4% other Christian, and 2% Jewish.
- Time Zone: In summer, Paris follows Daylight Saving Time. Its standard time zone is Coordinated Universal Time + 1, i.e. one hour in front of International Standard Time.
- Emergency Numbers: For any emergency, dial 112. Alternatively, 15 for medical assistance, 17 for the police, 18 for the fire brigade, and 114 for a disabled person with an emergency.
Airports & Entry to Paris
Paris is an international transport hub. The three main airports in Paris form the world’s 5th busiest airport system, and high-speed trains provide fast railway links to any major city in Europe.
Generally, if you’re headed to Paris from a neighboring country like Belgium or the United Kingdom, I’d recommend you take a high-speed train, such as the Eurostar, TGV, or Thalys. In France, these are all operated by SNCF. While airports are located outside of their cities, and transport is required from the airport to the city, the railway stations are central.
However, it’s always worth checking prices and available flights for the day you’re traveling. For example, a Eurostar train from London St Pancreas on 4th December 2019 will travel straight to Paris Gare du Nord in 2 hours and 23 minutes for as little as $87. But, if you take a budget airline flight with EasyJet on the same day then you can travel from London Luton Airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1 hour and 20 minutes for $38 on a cut-price ticket.
Luton Airport Cheap Flight
If you choose the cheap flight, you also must take a train from London to Luton Airport which will take 1 hour 15 minutes costing $15. And, you must take a train from Chares de Gaulle to central Paris that will take 45 minutes and cost $22. And you’ll spend time within the airport and railway station waiting for the airplane and train. The flight option will save you around $12, but the extra time and effort involved at both ends means that a direct train will save you over an hour in time and a lot of hassle
If you are traveling to Paris from a greater distance, like Scandinavia, America, or Asia, then I’d recommend you fly straight to one of Paris’ three international airports: Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris-Orly, and Beauvais-Tillé. Because there are many daily flights and competition is high, you will be able to source competitive air tickets.
Always compare available flight tickets on an online ticket website like Omio. Several competing budget airlines operate flights into Paris, such as Norwegian, Transavia, and French Bee, and you will find huge differences in ticket prices. For example, flights from NYC to Paris on 4th December 2019 range in price from $300 with Norwegian to $2,900 with Emirates. It’s best to book at least a month in advance to secure the cheapest tickets, though individual fliers and couples can occasionally secure amazing, last-minute deals.
Getting Around in Paris
Paris is blessed with an efficient and low-cost public transport system. Also, many of the main attractions are close to one another, so it’s also a city you can easily walk around. Generally, I find the best way to get around is on the Metro.
The Paris Metro is a convenient way to move around the city, and one ticket takes you anywhere. There are 125 miles of track connecting 300 stations, and anywhere in Paris is within a 10-minute walk of the nearest Metro station.
What’s more, Metro passes and tickets can also be used to ride city buses, trams, and the RER underground train system. You can buy a Paris Visite Travel Pass for 1,2,3 or 5 days for an adult or child and for Zones 1 to 3 to reach all the central attractions or Zones 1 to 5 to also cover Versailles, Disneyland Paris, and Charles de Gaulle and Orly Airports. A simple 1-day adult ticket providing unlimited travel around Zones 1 to 3 costs €12 ($13).
The buses might be slower than the underground, but you’ll see more of the city from inside a bus and they stop in many more places than the train. And if you’re traveling on a Paris Visite Travel Pass, you can easily alternate between the Metro and buses.
Instead of walking 10 minutes from your hotel to the Metro and then 10 minutes from the Metro to your destination, see if there isn’t a bus stop outside your hotel and a bus route that takes you straight to your destination. You can find all the route maps on the RATP (Regie Autonome des Transports) website.
All Paris bus stops identify the buses that stop there and when the next bus stops. Some newer bus stop signs also provide interactive maps. Because the bus services run as regularly as every 5 to 7 minutes, you’ll never have to wait long for a bus. This means that for shorter journeys, you’re probably better off taking the bus rather than the Metro.
Because the roads around Paris are relatively flat, cycling is a viable means of transport. And Paris has a great public bicycle hire scheme called Velib. There are 1.800 bike stations around the city with 24,000 bicycles to hire. All you need is a credit card with a chip to hire a Velib bike.
Paris has around 16,000 registered taxis. While in the past you could only get a taxi from a taxi rank, it is becoming more common to hail a free taxi from the curbside. Taxis are a very convenient, if expensive, way to travel around Paris.
It’s easy to hire a car in Paris for a reasonable daily fee. For example, you can hire a Renault Twingo from Budget for around $38 a day. However, Parisians have a terrible reputation for bad driving, the roads are very congested, it’s difficult to navigate around the central road system, and parking places are almost impossible to find. So, I really would not advise hiring a vehicle during your stay in Paris.
The Top 7 Attractions in Paris
Paris is renowned for its gastronomy, art, architecture, and romantic ambiance. It offers many world-class attractions for the discerning visitor. This is just a small selection.
Disneyland Paris is the most visited attraction in France and is found only 20 miles to the east of central Paris. There are actually two parks: the original Disneyland Park opened in 1992 and the 2002 Walt Disney Studios Park. Every year, 15 million Disney fans make a pilgrimage here, more than any other European theme park.
Inside Disneyland Park, you’ll find familiar rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain, and Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups. The range of rides is designed to be suitable for a wide range of guests, from toddlers to octogenarians. Walt Disney Studios Park is dedicated to showcasing how movies are made with attractions based on the making of Disney animations and films. But, at the end of the day, it’s also filled with rides aimed at Disney fans of all ages, like the Flying Carpets ride and Stitch Encounter for younger kids.
When Paris became a little rowdy in the 17th century, Louis XIV moved his court 12 miles southwest into the countryside and settled in the Palace of Versailles. This former hunting lodge had been expanded into a chateau by Louis XIII, and Louis XIV further expanded it into the grand palace we know today. It is full of amazing features, like the Royal Chapel of Versailles, the Royal Opera of Versailles, and the Hall of Mirrors.
The formal palace gardens are famous for their grand avenues, fountains, statues, and manicured shrubbery. But the most interesting part of the gardens is the Hameau de la Reine—a faux rural hamlet created for Queen Marie Antoinette containing ten buildings designed to imitate rustic structures, like cottages, a farmhouse, and a mill. The Queen and her friends entertained themselves in this hamlet by pretending to be peasants.
You can’t visit Paris and not get your photograph taken near the Eiffel Tower. Stand on the lawns of the Champ de Mars to the southeast or the Jardins du Trocadero to the northwest for the best photos with the tower behind you. Originally designed to be a temporary structure for the Universal Exposition of 1889, upon construction the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest building.
You can either climb the 360 steps to the first level or take an elevator. After that, there are another 344 steps or another elevator to the second level. The top level 906 feet above the ground, which provides wonderful panoramic views of the Paris skyline, can only be reached by elevator.
The Louvre palace occupies the space where the 12th-century Louvre Castle once stood and from the 14th century onward was the main residence of the Kings of France (except for when they chose to use Versailles Palace). Today it’s best known as the home of the Musée du Louvre, arguably the most famous museum in the world. Note that the museum is so popular today that they regularly become booked up, so the only way to guarantee entry is to book in advance online.
The Louvre contains over 30,000 pieces of unique and priceless art from archaeological finds to 19th-century paintings. And the museum is entered through the famous glass pyramid built in 1917. Most visitors make a B-line for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painted between 1503 and 1505, though there are other famous masterpieces such as the Wedding Feast at Cana painted by Veronese in 1563, and the Venus de Milo sculpture from antiquity (c. 100 BCE).
As kids, we all read The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or at least watched the Disney film), and in Paris you can visit the actual Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris that inspired so many books and films. Construction of the cathedral began in 1163, and many generations have added their own touches to this world-famous structure. The Cathedral sits on the Ile de la Cité—the geographical and historical center of Paris.
The cathedral is noted for its fine Gothic architecture, especially the sculptures and gargoyles that touch upon the imagination. Historians should take note of the 21 statues above the main doorway called the Gallery of Kings. They are all headless because their heads were removed during the French Revolution. You can see the heads in the Musée de Cluny (which is incidentally where you can also see the world-famous The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry).
Sadly, since the interior was damaged so badly by the April 2019 fire, you will not be able to enter the cathedral during your visit. You may only admire it from a distance and watch for evidence of its lengthy restoration. There is currently an exclusion zone in operation that prevents entry to half of the Ile de la Cité. Due to the amount of repair work required, it is estimated that the cathedral will not be fully open to the public until 2025.
Arc de Triomphe
Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806, but it wasn’t built until 1836, which was after his death. This massive archway standing on a roundabout at the end of the Champs-Elysées is 164 feet tall and decorated with detailed bas-relief sculptures. The most famous carved scene is The Marseillaise facing the Champs-Elysées which depicts French troops being led by the winged spirit of Liberty.
There is a viewing platform atop the arch providing panoramic views down the 12 avenues that radiate from the surrounding roundabout. Beneath the Arc de Triomphe is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dedicated to an unknown WWI soldier in 1921. There you can see the Flame of Remembrance that is rekindled in a ceremony here every evening at 6:30 pm.
Arguably the most famous movement in art history was impressionism, and Paris is where it all began. If French impressionists are your thing, then the Musée d’Orsay is an essential stop on your tour of Paris. That’s where you’ll find incredible paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet, and Renoir as well as modern work in other styles by Cézanne, van Gogh, and Lautrec amongst many others.
You’ll be familiar with many of the paintings on display, such as van Gogh’s Starry Night which inspired Don McLean’s eponymous song and an episode of Dr Who. And the museum building is a historic monument with beautiful original features such as sparkling chandeliers and gilded ceilings.
Nightlife in Paris
In a city famous for its romantic weekend getaways, you can expect to find a good selection of bars and clubs in every area. However, there are specific areas of the city where you can find a distinctive nightlife.
If you’re looking for where the 20-somethings in Paris go to party, it’s the Metro Bastille. You’ll find a mixture of music venues, dive bars, traditional cafés, and classy nightclubs. Start your night crawling from bar to bar along Rue de la Roquette or Rue de Lappe. Check out La Balajo on Rue de Lappe for its lively salsa nights.
This is where you’ll find the sophisticated boutiques frequented by millionaires and celebrities. And at night it’s a great place for people-watching if you’ve got money to burn. Here you’ll find the famous Hemingway Bar, the Ritz Hotel bar patronized by Ernest Hemingway in the ‘40s. To enter, you’ll have to dress to impress and bring a thick wallet.
The club scene along the Champs-Elysées is renowned for its exclusivity. You’ll need to impress the doormen with your chic attire to gain entry, and the cover charge may cost more than your flight. But it’s a great area for all-night dancing and popular with flush tourists. Check out Le Regine which is difficult to enter but is worth the effort. It often features top international DJs and has a reputation for attracting the most gorgeous crowd.
This is a historic district that has become home to Paris’ thriving and welcoming LGBT scene. Try Andy Wahloo, a lively, Moroccan-themed gay bar. Or maybe venture into 3W Café, a popular lesbian bar with karaoke and open mic nights.
This is the famous red-light district of Paris with the late-night clubs where ladies dance. Many tourists are drawn by the most famous venue here—The Moulin Rouge. For €145 ($160), you can sit down to a champagne dinner and watch their world-famous Cancan show that has inspired so many international films and tribute songs.
There is a good reason why most of the top chefs from around the world come to Parisian culinary schools to study. In Paris, food isn’t just sustenance, it’s life. Its many family-run bakeries, corner cafés, and gourmet restaurants are a core part of Parisian culture. If there’s one city in the world where you can guarantee you’ll find 5-star food, it has to be gay Paree.
In the early morning, you’ll see Parisians walking out of tiny bakeries on side streets eating chunks out of freshly baked baguettes. Check out the Pâtisserie Emma Duvéré or Dupain. But personally, I love fresh croissants with lashings of butter and strawberry jelly.
If you’d like to try one of the Michelin-starred restaurants serving the highest-quality French cuisine, where better than the Eiffel Tower? On the second floor, you can find the Jules Verne Restaurant with great views of the city skyscape and some of the best food in the city.
But the cultural center of Paris is along the Champs-Elysées where you can find some of the longest-established food outlets in France. Consider the Maison Laduree, a patisserie shop famous for its scrumptious pastries and 18th-century tea salon.
For a complete Parisian gastronomic experience, try the L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon Michelin-starred restaurant or the renowned Le Fouquet’s. However, the Champs-Elysées also caters for less discerning palates. It’s where you’ll find large branches of Burger King, McDonalds, Quick, and Starbucks.
For those cozy cafés you see on the postcards, check out the tree-lined Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 6th Arrondissement. You may recognize the Café des Deux Magots and the Café de Flore from various tourist pamphlets around the city. That’s where you can drink coffee in the open-air served by waiters in bow ties.
For classic brasseries, walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse. La Couple is a long-established brasserie that was once the favored eating outlet for Picasso, Chagall, and Man Ray. In Le Dome, you can enjoy eating gourmet seafood in a glamorous Art Deco dining room.
The Best Places to Stay in Paris
With its efficient and affordable public transport system, you can stay anywhere you like in Paris and still easily visit all the attractions. However, there are three areas where most tourists choose to stay: around the Champs-Elysées, the Rive Gauche, and Montmartre.
Around the 8th-Arrondissement you’ll find many of the most luxurious hotels in Paris. If money isn’t a problem and you want to be central, this is the best place to stay. At Le Bristol Paris, you can swim in its rooftop pool or relax in its renowned spa while La Reserve Paris Hotel is known for its antique furnishings and palatial structure. Situated between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, you’re staying in the cultural heart of the capital.
This is the area where traditionally students from the Sorbonne live on the left bank of the River Seine. In many ways, this is the best place to stay because it’s an easy walk from the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral, but the hotels are mid-range rather than super expensive. The cozy Left Bank Saint Germain is an inviting hotel while the Hotel Signature Saint Germain des Pres is a family-owned boutique hotel in a central location.
If you’re keeping to a budget, the area between Montparnasse and Rive Gauche offers many economy options. The area is a little further from the main attractions, but its winding streets are full of Parisian character and the handy Metro stations mean you won’t have a problem seeing what you want to see. The Hotel Diana features some rooms overlooking a classic Parisian street and others a cozy courtyard. And the Legend Hotel offers a warm welcome in a prime location, though its rooms are relatively small.
Visiting Paris Safely
Although France is a stable and wealthy nation, remember that the 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks have changed the attitudes of many people. You’ll find much more security around important public buildings than you might have five years ago. Just remain aware that bad things can happen anywhere.
If you happen to see abandoned bags in a crowded public place, especially a Metro station, report them immediately. If you see people behaving in a strange manner, looking around furtively and fiddling with a backpack or wearing a heavy coat in the heat of the midday sun, move out of the area as quickly as you can. Most likely nothing will ever happen. But it doesn’t hurt to remain vigilant.
Keep Valuables Safe
When visiting tourist hotspots, keep your valuables safe. When using your camera, remain aware of your surroundings. Place your back against a wall or other obstacle to keep you safe while your eyesight is focused in one direction. And tuck yourself into a doorway or press against a wall when using your cellphone so that it can’t be snatched out of your hands.
Always watch out for purse snatchers, especially on motorbikes. There will be pickpockets in crowded areas, like Metro stations and queues for the main attractions. If you’re going to be on the streets, especially after dark, don’t wear flashy jewelry. Beware muggers and don’t walk through parks alone after dark.
Where possible, stash your money away in a money belt or keep it in a billfold in the front pocket of your pants. If you need to use your credit card, hide your hand as you enter your PIN code. Leave important documents, like your passport and travel tickets, in a safe at the hotel. Carry photocopies with you when you go out in case you need to show them.
Kim Kardashian Robbed in Paris
Remembering that even Kim Kardashian was robbed inside a holiday apartment in Paris, bolt your hotel room from the inside at night. Ensure all your room windows are closed and locked when you go out during the day. Don’t leave anything valuable lying around. Either take your valuables with you or secure them in a safe.
Parisian drivers have an appalling safety record, and pedestrians often don’t have right of way. Be very careful crossing the road. It isn’t mandatory to wear a cycle helmet, but you’d be mad not to if cycling in Paris. If you’re involved in any kind of incident, do not hesitate to call 112 to contact the emergency services. Ask for help!
What I Love About Paris
If you’ve ever picked up a book about art or art history anywhere in the world, you can guarantee a high percentage of the pictures in that book are of a painting or sculpture on display somewhere in Paris. In my youth, I went through a French Impressionist stage just like so many other impressionable young people. I had those Monet water lilies and Renoir lady posters on my walls. In Paris, you can see the real thing.
Yet, despite arguably being the world’s cultural capital, you can still bring your kids here to see Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck! And you can take your spouse out for a romantic meal or simply relax drinking coffee and eating the best food in the world. Who doesn’t love Paris?
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Robert loves nature and history. As a child, he drove his parents crazy on vacation begging to visit museums and castles instead of beaches and theme parks. Now his children send him insane by demanding to visit beaches and theme parks.
He became interested in travel while studying archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University. He volunteered on archaeological excavations all around the British Isles then enjoyed a year exploring and learning about China.
Today, he loves writing about the places he’s visited and still spends time exploring museums and castles.