For so many, Paris is the ultimate wanderlust destination. From books to television, and movies to magazines, Paris has become the city we idolize for fashion, romance, history, and amazing cuisine. There is so much to see in this amazing city, and it is so easy to get overwhelmed when planning your visit. Curious to know which monuments and attractions I feel are the top 10 “must-sees” during your first trip to Paris? Be sure to follow the link to find out!
1. Paris Opera House – Palais Garnier
I don’t like to admit it to many people…but Phantom of the Opera is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I know, I know – part of the 1980’s euro-invasion of Broadway – the musical is guilty of guitar synthesizers, an oversized (re: overdramatic) set design, an extreme level of “ick” on the overall cheesiness scale, and a falling chandelier effect so slow and tired that really ought to take a nap…but I can’t help it – it was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw, and therefore, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
An actual visit to The Palais Garnier long remained an unattainable day dream of mine (as did most of my travel dreams up until recently). However, when Paris plans actually became a concrete reality, the Opera House was one of the first things I placed on our “must see” list.
Thus begins the most jaw dropping experience of my life. I’ve never before been left so utterly speechless by the art and architecture of a single building. The experience was absolutely astounding – I highly recommend purchasing the audio tour guide to help you process every intricate detail that you’ll see. By far my favorites where the grand staircase and massive golden hall; however, the balcony is not to be missed, along with a peek inside the actual theater. Be sure to look up to admire the infamous chandelier while hearing the story behind that one time it actually fell.
Finally, if you’re so bold, step on up and peer inside Box 5 – but be wary, The Phantom of the Opera is very particular about who enjoys the exclusive space.
Versailles has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Yes, I was one of those little freak kids reading about the vast histories of kings and queens from the House of Windsor to the Borgias family. Truthfully, by the time I entered European History (an elective course at my high school), I ended up teaching my teacher a thing or two about Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette before all was said and done.
Versailles is an experience too massive to be put into words. In visiting the palace, tourists are only allowed to visit about a 3rd of the grounds, and even that third proves too much to see in just one day. Kate (my ever trusty travel companion) and I tried our best – hell, we even paid a premium to rent a golf-cart to better whisk us along on our sightseeing adventure, but were inevitably forced to cry uncle before managing to see everything on the visitor’s map.
If you choose to visit Versailles – let me recommend that you get out into the gardens as quickly as possible. The primary palace is stunning, but there is so much more jaw dropping action to be seen. I highly recommend opting for the golf-cart, or at the very least a bicycle. Your best bet for seeing as much of Versailles as possible is upgrading to faster transportation.
Dear fellow traveler, please, allow me to save you plenty of time and headaches – do not pre-book your ticket to The Catacombs. Any website promising you a private tour with early access on your preferred date is a scam. Kate and I booked a tour as described via Viator (partnered with My Genie in Paris) – not only were we not alerted to The Catacombs being closed that particular day due to a scheduled museum workers’ strike, but the tour guide flat out never showed. We each paid $98 for this tour, and it took a full month of disputing the charge with my credit card company and arguing with Viator over email in order to receive the refund. I state again – do not waste your time or money. Further research regarding these “skip the line tours” reveal that there is actually no skipping of any line. For the tourists whose guide actually managed to show, they still were forced to wait in line with the rest of general admission regardless of any premium they had paid.
What do I recommend instead? Get to The Catacombs an hour before the scheduled opening. Pick up a coffee and croissant on the way. If you’re traveling with a friend, enjoy breakfast and each other’s company until the doors to the attraction open – if you’re alone, may I suggest catching up on your favorite podcasts/playlists. Once the museum opens, you’ll be guided to the ticket window….and then directly into the exhibit. I was as far back as 20th in line, and I was still ushered straight in. I highly recommend getting the audio companion as the history behind this strange burial ground is fascinating, but the information isn’t readily available without the guide.
The tunnels are spooky, odd, and unsettling – if you were ever a fan of the original Gaston Leroux telling of The Phantom of the Opera – a visit to The Catacombs is a must. Be prepared to descend and ultimately climb out of roughly 5 stories of spiraled stairs – also, be sure to take a sweater/jacket if you get cold easily. Similar to Versailles, tourists are only allowed to see just a small portion of the tunnels – apparently more used to be accessible, but people kept getting lost and stuck in the tunnels overnight. I cannot imagine how absolutely terrifying that experience would have been. Even with as straight forward as the tunnels appear today, there are several museum workers stationed along the way to offer additional information or direction.
4. Trocadero – Eiffel Tower
Truly – was there any world where this wouldn’t have made the list? For many, The Eiffel Tower is the primary reason to venture to Paris. Even when serving as a smaller piece to a larger backdrop, The Eiffel Tower stirs up a familiar Joie de Vivre that we have come to recognize from film, literature, and history.
I recommend visiting Trocadero many times, at different times of day; however, that recommendation is almost unnecessary – if you aim to accomplish the most popular sightseeing in Paris, you won’t be able to avoid venturing in and through Trocadero several times.
Go during the morning when you can appreciate the popular sight with less of a crowd (the French are often later to rise – ergo if you head to Trocadero at around 8AM, you will practically have the tower to yourself). Venture back during the afternoon for a charming picnic – don’t forget the brie and baguettes. Finally, and this is my personal favorite, go after dark. There are no open container laws in France, so purchase a bottle (or three) of champagne from one of the street vendors, pick up a sweet crepe (the Nutella was my favorite), and park yourself on a step in order to enjoy the show). The tower glitters at night – and I don’t care what snooty remarks they make about it on Sex and the City – the light show is absolutely stunning in my opinion.
Just a heads up – filming or photographing the light show is apparently prohibited due to copyright and licensing…but honestly…that didn’t stop us or anyone else. I’m not sure how anyone intends to enforce such a law, but I’d just suggest to read your environment and keep a low photography profile if/when necessary.
5. The Louvre
I will preface this section by saying I have every intention of returning to Paris and spending at least 3 days at The Louvre. The amount of time we devoted to visiting this treasure could be considered a travesty by many. In my defense – as you can gather from this list – we had A LOT to see in just 4 short days. In fact, I don’t mind bragging that in 96 hours, we walked the equivalent of 2 full marathons. My feet have never been so bruised, broken, and swollen after a trip abroad (not to mention the heat rash and blisters), but alas…I digress.
Given our time restraints, we ran (literally) to the 3 non-negotiable pieces of art we wanted to see – The Nike of Smothrace, The Venus de Milo, and, of course, The Mona Lisa. All were stunning – and serious props to The Louvre for clearly labelling the clearest route to each piece. I have to say – for how much everyone poo-pooed seeing The Mona Lisa in person, claiming the experience too crowded and not worth it – I completely disagree. Yes – the bitch is popular. You will have to demonstrate patience as you work your way to the front of the room. And yes, Mona is placed behind a case of glass which is then further removed from the crowd thanks to a row of velvet ropes. Regardless, I found the painting incredibly striking. Here was this woman’s face that we have all come to know all too well through endless textbooks and art history classes, and yet, to see her in person…it’s as if no other depiction ever did her justice. They talk about Helen of Troy being the face that launched a thousand ships, yet here is Mona Lisa drawing in crowds by the thousands every day. I truly found the experience remarkable.
6. The Seine/River Cruise
I don’t think a trip with Kate and me would ever be complete without a city tour via boat. How else is one supposed to get accustomed with the true layout of a city? My only wish is that we had taken the river cruise earlier in our trip – however, as already detailed several times in this post, our jam packed schedule just couldn’t have allowed it any sooner.
This would be a great time to mention – if you are planning to visit Paris for the first time (hell, if you are planning to visit for the 15th time), and intend to visit a large quantity of the city’s most popular attractions, look into purchasing The Paris Pass for the duration of your stay. It may seem like an investment initially, but both Kate and I were ultimately beyond thrilled that we had purchased the pass.
It’s fairly simple – you book your Paris Pass based on how many days you’ll be in the city, or even on how many consecutive days you intend to use it, and from there…the sky is practically the limit. The pass includes unlimited entry into several museums and attractions, of which, you get a “skip the line” added benefit (this includes Versailles, The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay – several popular, crowded attractions that you otherwise get to breeze into). You also receive an unlimited metro ticket for the duration of your pass – an essential tool when covering all the ground required of Paris sightseeing. There are also a number of one-ticket events that Kate and I would have otherwise not considered – the boat tour cruise being one, and a local wine tasting another. One word to the wise, however, in regards to the Paris Metro ticket – the actual metro card is the oddest little slip of paper. It is small and easily lost, damaged, or demagnetized. I lost my own about halfway through my stay, and while replacing it wasn’t a terrible financial blow, it was frustrating and felt like an unnecessary stress. Ergo, just plan to be very careful with yours and be sure to utilize the handy, dandy plastic container that Paris Pass provides to help keep it safe.
In addition to enjoying The Seine by boat, be sure to walk the canal during the evening. A handful of charming restaurants and wine bars pop up along the water. If you were to hard press me for my favorite experience during my entire stay in Paris, the glass of wine enjoyed at the river’s edge would be it.
7. Notre Dame & Sainte Chapelle
I have two very good reasons for lumping these two larger than life attractions into one section. For one, the actual physical proximity of the two cathedrals would allow you to pop into both within the same hour, and two, this blog post has already doubled in size from its initial layout – I couldn’t bear to leave one off the list, so this is how I intend to cheat my own system…
In all honesty, I think Sainte Chapelle edged out Notre Dame just a touch in my book. Not to discredit Notre Dame in the least– the infamous cathedral’s presence is overpowering, it’s intricate details mesmerizing, and the climb up to the bell tower is an experience I will never forget. I also have no shame in admitting that Kate and I spent about 15 minutes prior to even entering, listening to song selections from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame through my iPhone. Mock all you want – hearing that choir while looking up at the massive monument that inspired such a story sent chills down my back. It. Was. Awesome.
I think the only reason Sainte Chapelle ultimately won out for me is because I walked in not knowing what to expect. If you’ve ever visited the chapel, or have Googled the space, you’ll giggle in knowing that when I walked into the main room (the lower level that includes the gift shop) I thought that was it. It contained stained glass and a few stunning statues…so I thought it was what everyone was talking about (and obviously I was pretty underwhelmed). That’s when Kate pointed to the steps and motioned that we should head upstairs. Imagine my shock and surprise when we emerged into this (sorry, spoiler alert for anyone like myself who was previously uninformed).
I’m not a particularly religious person, but buildings such as these always give me pause. What incredible beauty mankind is able to build and create, all in the name of God. I only wish we more readily chose to produce such beauty, rather than the hatred and prejudice more commonly found throughout the world today. I will continue to put out into the world the kind of energy I hope to see and receive back. Hopefully at some point, the scale will tip in that favor.
8. Euro Disney
Yup – brace yourselves, I’m taking us to Euro Disney. Now…is Disney a must when visiting Paris – no. But was it a total blast all the same – absolutely! The big draw to visiting Euro Disney are the select number of rides that you won’t see in any other Disney park. Ride the Pinocchio ride – arguably even more terrifying in French. See the original version of the Snow White ride – the one in which the witch kills you at the end. In terms of roller coasters (not to mention the best use of fast passes), go early and snag spots for “Hyperspace Mountain” and “Big Thunder Mountain” – they are the European equivalents of Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain, and yes, Euro Disney really does work to earn that “Big” in the Thunder Mountain title.
Above all else, do not dare to leave without having been on the Ratatoulle ride no less than 3 times. I would also highly recommend dining at Chez Remi. Now, the full restaurant experience you’ll need to have a reservation for, and be advised, it is a prefix menu that is considerably pricey even when considering theme parks’ already inflated price structure. Instead, I recommend grabbing a seat out front – you can order drinks or small food plates a la carte. A good beer and a delicious cheese plate proved to be the perfect half-time to our wild Disney adventure.
Oh, oh! One more thing – don’t forget to venture into the basement of Belle’s castle. You’ll find a very old friend taking a nap there – do your best not to wake her. She can be very temperamental…
9. Musee d’Orsay
I have to give Kate a standing ovation on this one – she really helped to make my visit to Musee d’Orsay unforgettable. You see, for those of you who are unaware, I am a major (re: MAJOR) Doctor Who fan, and there just so happens to be a very special episode centered around Musee d’Orsay and the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, I urge you to look up the final scene from the episode “Vincent and The Doctor.” The scene features Bill Nighy and what I believe to be one of the most beautifully written monologues for television….ever. It’s stunning and painful and beautiful and ugh! It evokes so much emotion and does such justice to the artist known as Van Gogh.
I should mention, our first journey to the museum, we misread the hours of operation and arrived when they had already closed. Seeing as we were on a very tight schedule, I was momentarily worried that we might miss the experience entirely. But we worked around our other appointments and hauled ass to make this dream a reality.
As I walked into the Van Gogh exhibit – unbeknownst to me, Kate had pulled up the monologue aforementioned and read it aloud. I. Was. Sobbing. It was such an emotional experience – not just as an (obsessed) Doctor Who fan, but as someone who has felt the desire to write, build, and create but has also felt the crushing blow of self-doubt, under appreciation, and depression. To me, the Van Gogh exhibit became a catalyst for my own self-discovery and inspiration. I am so thrilled I had the opportunity to experience it and I thank my dear friend Kate for going the extra mile to make it such a unique and special experience.
In addition to all of this, the museum also boasts an impressive collection of Degas dancers, Telus Le Trec sketches, and Renoir paintings. Without a doubt, the Musee d’Orsay has been my favorite museum in a very long while.
10. Arc de Triomphe
I won’t lie – the Arc de Triomphe is a little tricky to get to. No doubt – if you’re anything like Kate and me, you’ll wind up going through a series of tunnels and stair ways, confused as to why you just can’t seem to cross underground and arrive directly underneath the arch. Just for reference – the arch is encircled by a busy road of traffic. There is no crosswalk above ground in order to access the monument, and in fact, there are a series of barricades blocking tourists who might otherwise dare to dart across. Meanwhile, the signs underground are confusing and misleading….and well anyway, you get the picture.
Despite the hurdle that it is to reach the arch, I still very much recommend including it as part of your Paris tour. I will warn you – the climb up to the top will wind you and make your legs burn – I personally experienced a slight case of vertigo due to all the spiral steps; however, if you take your time and make it to the top, you will be rewarded with what I consider to be the best view of Paris.
Make sure to pop into the gift shop on your way back down – out of all the gift shops we perused, I felt this one had the most unique trinkets and keepsakes. You could definitely find something to help commemorate your trip, or even pick up a small gift for a loved one back home. At the very least – it’s definitely worth a window shop.
I would be remiss not to share with you the magic that is a cup of hot chocolate from Angelina’s. I am saying that as someone who does not particularly enjoy hot chocolate (please don’t get on my case – I enjoy chocolate plenty, it’s just chocolate in hot, liquid form that is not my preferred choice). However, hot chocolate at Angelina’s is not a dessert, it’s an experience. From the beautiful interior, to the Instagram worthy self-pour – from the fresh whipped cream, to that first smooth draw of hot, thick liquid. Yes, I realize how quickly that started to read like an erotica novel, but I just can’t possibly care. I meant every word. The hot chocolate at Angelina’s is heaven in a cup and I would welcome any and every opportunity to experience it again.