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Views from the Sacré-Coeur │© Mike Norton / Wikimedia Commons
Views from the Sacré-Coeur │© Mike Norton / Wikimedia Commons

The Top Things to See and Do in Paris

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 24 May 2017

Paris has some of the world’s most incredible attractions, monuments and artworks people wait (and save) a lifetime to experience. However, it can also be overwhelming (just ask sufferers of the endemic syndrome) and so having a clear idea of what to see and do before arriving is essential. Our guide offers 15 top tips for getting the most out of the French capital.

Take in a late-night exhibition at one of the big three museums

Taking advantage of late openings is a great way to avoid the tourist crowds and get the most out of the city’s amazing museums. The Louvre stays open until 9.45pm on Wednesdays and Fridays and the Musée d’Orsay does the same on Thursdays. The Centre Pompidou is normally open until 10pm but this is extended by one hour on Thursdays for the Level six shows.

Watch a triple bill of late-night movies at an arthouse cinema

Paris is famous for its love affair with cinema and its plethora of arthouse theaters. Le Champo in the Latin Quarter is one of its most famous. The cinema is beloved for its late-night movie screenings which start at midnight and end with breakfast, allowing you to see a handful of brilliant independent films in one sitting for just €15.

Challenge a local to a game of chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg

The Jardin du Luxembourg is one of the capital’s oldest and most popular parks. It has numerous attractions, from toy boating to beekeeping, but for the last 30 years it has been the home of Paris’ chess enthusiasts. In its northwest corner, you’ll find 12 tables and dozens of players, many of whom will be willing to give you a game for free, though you may (unwisely) choose to make a wager.

Cycle, walk, run, or roll along the banks of the Seine

For 15 years, the local government of Paris fought to make the highway that cut through the center of the city a car-free zone. In 2017, they finally succeeded and opened the newly landscaped Parc Rives de Seine. The 10-hectare urban garden, which will be developed further over the coming months and years, with new restaurants and public amenities, is the perfect place to exercise or relax in the sun.

Parisians and tourists at the Parc Rives de Seine │© Jean-Baptiste Gurliat / Mairie de Paris

Parisians and tourists at the Parc Rives de Seine │© Jean-Baptiste Gurliat / Mairie de Paris

Go behind the scenes at the Palais Garnier

The Palais Garnier is as discussed for the merits and demerits of its architectural style as for the works of art it has inspired in its 140-year history. Guided tours of the public areas of the opera building, which run every day and include a presentation of its history, architecture, and current activities, cost just €15.50 for a standard ticket and last 90 minutes.

The Grand Stairwell at the Palais Garnier │© scarletgreen / Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Stairwell at the Palais Garnier │© scarletgreen / Wikimedia Commons

Hunt for buried treasure at the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen

The Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, which actually lies just outside the northwest city boundary of Paris, is the largest antiques and second-hand good market in the world. You can easily spend an entire day browsing for furniture, clothes, art, taxidermy, bolts and screws and every other kind of artifact imaginable. The market is open for business from Saturday to Monday and is free to enter.

Day trip to Versailles or Fontainebleau

The Palace of Versailles is definitely worth the 30-minute and €7 trip from Paris. The €20 ‘Passport’ ticket grants visitors access to the palace, its estate, exhibitions, and galleries and a €7 supplement allows you to take in the Musical Fountain Shows that run during the summer months. An excellent alternative day trip is Fontainebleau to the southeast of Paris, which 34 sovereigns called home.

People watch along the Boulevard Saint-Germain

Often described as the national sport, people watching is an essential indulgence for anyone staying in Paris. The beauty of the pastime, of course, is that there are no limits to where it can be practiced but some grounds are more hallowed than others, and none more so than the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Pick any bar, café, or restaurant along its length (you won’t struggle for choice) and watch the world go by.

Rummage around second-hand bookstores in the Latin Quarter

There’s a lot going on in Paris to please book lovers, from free short stories in its train stations to some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful libraries, but one of the best things is the abundance of second-hand bookstores. While these pop up in almost every arrondissement, there is a very welcome concentration of them in the Latin Quarter, particularly in the streets adjacent to the Sorbonne.

Soak up the street art along the rue Oberkampf

As far as street art and Paris are concerned, the general rule goes that the further east and north you go the better the variety and quality of work. The Rue Oberkampf in the 11th is where things start to get really good. Though almost every surface is fair game for local artists, one wall, simply named Le Mur, has been designated as a dedicated space, with a new work commissioned for it every few weeks.

Journey to the heart of the fashion universe with Colette

While it might seem in the news like fashion is something that happens to Paris for a couple of weeks out of every year, in reality the party never stops. And at its epicenter is colette, the mother of all Parisian concept stores. The brand recently turned 20, a ripe old age in retail terms, and celebrated by throwing a massive beach party at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Get lost in the Marais

Aside from being an ancient part of Paris, and thus a place where getting lost in a maze of narrow, winding streets is more of an inevitability than a probability, Le Marais is also one of the city’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods. Today, its three main communities are Jewish, Chinese, and LGBT and these are reflected in the choice of restaurants, bars, and even museums.

Drink coffee like a local

Strangely, Paris for a long time had a terrible reputation when it came to coffee. The story went that all the flavor and ingenuity was contained in the first three courses of a meal and there was nothing left over for the coffee at the end. However, that didn’t stop a specific local culture of coffee drinking developing and visitors should certainly attempt to blend in.

Go boating on the Canal de l’Ourcq

That Paris has a significant network of canals, some of which run underground, is a surprisingly little-known fact. However, the Canal Saint-Martin, which joins the Seine to the wider waterways in the 19th arrondissement, is one of the city’s most vibrant areas. Marin d’Eau Douce boat rentals begin at €40 for one hour on a five-person vessel and go up to €310 for a six-hour, 11-person hire.

Climb into the dome of the Sacré-Coeur

There are many places to get an amazing view of Paris – the Eiffel Tower, the Tour Montparnasse, the rooftops of the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps departments stores to name just a few – but one of the best is the dome of the Sacré-Coeur. There are, however, 300 steep and narrow steps to climb before arriving at the top of the tallest building on the city’s tallest hill. Access is from 8.30am to 8pm from May to September and from 9am to 5pm the rest of the year and costs €6. Arrive early to beat the crowds.