First things first, if at all possible, avoid coming to Paris during the high tourist season of July and August. By coming in April or September, for example, you’ll halve your competition for seeing the big attractions and double your chances of feeling like a local instead of cattle in a crowd. The winter is also a good time to visit if you’re on a budget as hotel prices are usually a little lower. For more advice on when’s best to visit the capital, check out our month-by-month guide.
Now, if you’ve read this far and thought, ‘[Insert regionally-specific expletive], I’ve just booked a weekend break to Paris in the middle of August and all I wanted to do was visit museums and climb up monuments,’ then don’t panic: there are still a couple of things you can do to make the most of your trip. The first is the oldest trick in the traveler’s book: wake up early and beat the crowds. If there’s no way you’ll be jumping out of bed with the dawn chorus after a night on the pinot, then try your luck with late openings.
While signing up for a bus tour or Seine cruise may hold the promise of ticking off a long list of landmarks in one foot-friendly ride, the reality is usually less pleasurable: the guide turns out to be a bilingual bore, plumes of exhaust fumes blur your vision and wipe a few months off your life expectancy, and, about five minutes into the trip, once you’ve passed under your first bridge, say, you realize you’ve effectively slapped a giant ‘TOURIST’ sticker to your forehead. Save yourself the disappointment and book an alternative cultural or subject-specific tour instead.
Obviously, areas to avoid would be those in the immediate vicinity of a big attraction – the 7th arrondissement around the Eiffel Tower, for example, is particularly popular with the (unironically) fanny-packed variety of American tourist as is the 8th around the Arc de Triomphe. It can even be overwhelming staying in lively districts like Montmartre or Bastille if you are doing lots of sightseeing elsewhere during the day. Head to one of these other lesser-known and way cooler neighborhoods instead. Another trick for avoiding fellow visitors is opting for an Airbnb (while you still can) over a hotel or hostel.
In an ideal world, we might all pack up our lives and move indefinitely to an attic overlooking the Seine to pursue our literary or artistic ambitions, while slowing sinking into the luxuriantly laidback lifestyle that only the French have managed to finesse. In reality, most of us can only find two nights to indulge in a bit of Parisian joie de vivre. Four nights is probably the minimum you need to see the sights while still having time to explore the quieter quarters but our guides will help you make the most of 12, 24, 48, or 72 hours.
If you really can’t suffer being around a lot of people and you’re in Paris during one the busier times of the year then just forget going up or inside the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Sacré-Cœur, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre. With the exception of the last of these, there’s just as much to appreciate on the outside as there is on the inside. To kill all five birds with one stone you can go up the Tour Montparnasse and take advantage of its 360-degree rooftop terrace.
For every attraction in Paris that more than a million people visit every year, there’s an equally fascinating monument that practically no one knows about and that you’ll never have to fight the hoards to get in. These lesser-known architectural treasures include the Institut du Monde Arabe, a great alternative to the Centre Pompidou, and the Basilique de Saint-Denis, which is packed with all the kings and queens of French history and a fraction of the crowds you’ll find at Notre-Dame.
The last point on our list is something that every visitor to Paris should do, regardless of their partiality to crowds: get well off the beaten path and discover micro-neighborhoods where there aren’t any star attractions but plenty of hidden gems. These 12 offbeat spots are a great place to start your exploration. Another great way to discover the unexpected is to look at a map of Paris, pick a far-flung metro station (perhaps even one in the suburbs) whose name you like the sound of, go there, and wander around until you stumble across something interesting, which probably won’t take you too long at all.