Last Updated on February 20, 2023

Paris is utterly amazing and worthy the superlatives heaped upon it for centuries – it is truly the pulsing heart of French culture. Its streets elegantly reflect a long and fascinating history; its museums are magnificent and its foods sinfully divine. It can all be overwhelming for first time visitors wondering what to do in Paris, France.

Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of the world’s major centers of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, gastronomy and science. Because of its place on the leading edge in the arts and sciences, as well as its very early system of street lighting, in the 19th century it became known as “the City of Light.”

Unforgettable Paris, however, can feel daunting to a first-time visitor as the city sprawls over 41 square miles. For those of us who’ve been taken in by its many charms, we’re more than happy to recommend the places you should not miss on your first visit to Paris. Yes, there are many ‘hidden gems’ to be found in the city, but first you should enjoy the places and experiences that make Paris…well… Paris.

Just remember that comfy shoes are essential for this city of a thousand walks, landscaped gardens, and cavernous galleries.

The Eiffel Tower

If we had to name one icon representing the whole of Paris, we’d have to go with the Eiffel Tower gracefully reaching for the sky. The 330-meter-high tower is a technological masterpiece in building construction. Nothing like it ever came before or since.

A ride to the very top of this incredible wrought iron structure treats guests to 360-degree panoramic views of the city. But our favorite time to be in the Eiffel Tower is in the evening when the city becomes a magical spectacle of lights you’ll never forget in your lifetime.

The Louvre

Visitors crowd around Mona Lisa inside the Louvre.
Visitors crowd around Mona Lisa inside the Louvre.

Not only is it one of the largest museums in the world, with more than 35,000 works of art displayed over 645,835 square feet, and the most visited, the Louvre is packed with masterpieces from Rembrandt, Reubens, Botticelli, Ingres, and Michelangelo. And of course Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The museum houses three wings, but its biggest stars are located in the Denon wings. The Mona Lisa now has an entire wall to herself. Just behind her enigmatic smiling portrait, guests will find the sublimely beautiful 16th-century Wedding Feast at Cana painting. Another treasure is the armless goddess Venus de Milo that was found on a Greek isle in 1820. Recently restored and lovelier than ever, the Winged Victory of Samothrace reigns in all its glory.

RELATED: Tour the Louvre with a guide.

Cathedral de Notre Dame

Looming above Place du Parvis, this magnificent French Gothic sanctuary with its ribbed vault and flying buttresses is the symbolic heart of Paris and, for many, of the country of France itself.

A heartbreaking 2019 fire almost destroyed the entire cathedral. The roof was practically destroyed and the 300-foot spire collapsed, but after the fire was extinguished, surprisingly, the building was somehow deemed structurally sound. Miraculously, most of its priceless relics and items survived, including the famed rose windows, the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus Christ, the 800-year-old organ, and numerous pieces of classic artwork.

Cruise the River Seine

Bridge over the River Seine in Paris.
Bridge over the River Seine in Paris.

There’s something special about seeing the spectacular Parisian landmarks by water. No matter how much time visitors spend exploring this breathtaking city, a River Seine cruise is a whole different experience.

Many companies offer river cruises varying from one to two hours in length, including brunch, lunch and dinner options and those that are offered during the day or at night. We prefer the night tour to see the City of Lights come to life and dazzle in all her glitz and glamour.

Arc de Triomphe

Inspired by Rome’s Arch of Titus, this colossal, 164-foot triumphal arch was ordered to be built by Napoléon. But if there’s one monument that even today symbolizes the glory of France, it is this mighty archway celebrating the military sacrifices of the French army and the memory of its soldiers’ ultimate sacrifices. France’s Unknown Soldier is buried beneath the arch, and a commemorative flame is rekindled every evening at 6:30 pm.

Guests can also climb the stairs to the top of the arch for amazing views.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées

This is Paris’ most expensive piece of real estate and there’s always something happening here. Nightclubs remain top destinations, café’s offer the best people watching, and here you’ll find the most luxurious of French boutiques like Cartier, Guerlain, and Louis Vuitton.

It’s a 1 ¼-mile stretch of she-she-la-la, but you have to do it and say you did, because this busy, vibrant area sparkles with French elegance.

Cabaret Moulin Rouge

This world-famous theatre show has been entertaining guests in the City of Lights since 1889. The dazzling spectacle of drama, dance, color and music with elaborately dressed can-can dancers is one that shouldn’t be missed, even if you just do it once in your life. After all, this is the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can.

Guests have the option of purchasing tickets for the show alone, a champagne accompaniment or a full dinner.

Château de Versailles

It is almost impossible to describe the incomprehensible opulence of this jaw-dropping palace located in the town of Versailles, just a 14-minute train ride from Paris.

Though I have visited numerous times, the 17th-century estate which once served as the French seat of power is always on my return list. The palaces and gardens are spread over almost 2,000 incredibly beautiful acres. If the palace itself with its dazzling Hall of Mirrors and resplendent rooms isn’t enough, the gardens and fountains of the massive estate are within themselves unforgettable treasures.

Because this is such a highly popular attraction, reservations are recommended and an early morning visit is ideal to beat the crowds.

Musée d’Orsay

March 28 2017: Visitors in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, France.
Paris, France, March 28 2017: Visitors in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France. The museum houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces.

Opened in 1986, this gorgeously renovated Belle Époque train station is housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900. The museum holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world including Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin, and van Gogh.  

If you came to see the biggest names here, head straight for the top floor and work your way down.

RELATED: Guided tour of d’Orsay.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

Many travelers come to Paris and forget that one of the world’s most famous cemeteries is located here. Though cemeteries are not typically at the top of visitors ‘to do’ lists, this is no ordinary graveyard. Père-Lachaise is the final resting places of Oscar Wilde, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, Edith Piaf, Isadora Duncan, Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison, and others.

Laid out in 1803 on a hill in Ménilmontant, the cemetery offers many surprises with its bizarre monuments, unexpected views, and ornate sculptures.

Musée Rodin

Paris is definitely a city filled with incredible museums, which includes the Musée Rodin. The grounds alone are worthy of a visit with picturesque formal garden that include benches, fountains and even a little café. The most famous bronze statue in the gardens is The Thinker, one of Rodin’s very famous works.

Hundreds of pieces are located inside the museum, many of them legendary. They include artwork in terracotta, plaster, and bronze, as well as sketches and paintings. The most famous of the marble works is The Kiss, which was originally meant to appear in the Gates of Hell.

Quartier Latin

The Latin Quarter situated on the left bank of the Seine is home to a number of higher education establishments including the renowned Sorbonne. The area gets its name from the Latin language, widely spoken in and around the university during the Middle Ages.

I love the energy and vibe of this bustling district, one of the liveliest in the city. Its maze of small and charming streets all filled with reasonably-priced restaurants and cafes. Major sights in the area include Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Panthéon, and Luxembourg Garden, along with the lesser-known but highly celebrated cultural destination: Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Get to Know Parisian Food

One cannot come to Paris and not fall in love with Parisian cuisine. Rather than recommend a set of restaurants, we prefer to mention the foods Paris is most known for, then let travelers decide which restaurant or bistro in which area of the city and setting they prefer. Honestly, it’s almost impossible to get anything other than a phenomenal meal here.

One of my favorites is escargots (snails), and they are best cooked with lots of butter and garlic (the French LOVE butter), and Moules Marinières (Mussels) are also quite popular here. You’ll find French Fromage (French cheese) everywhere, in restaurants and markets, and in my opinion, it’s the best cheese in the world.

The French love their bread in many forms, but one of my top choices is the croissant – a crispy, flaky and buttery pastry. Other top choices of are crepes (sweet or savory), Fois gras, duck confit and French onion soup. And one cannot leave Paris without trying their world-famous macarons (if you can stop at just one).

Author

  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant, and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 600 articles in both digital and print publications.

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