With some of the world’s most incredible attractions, monuments and artworks, deciding which things to do in Paris can be overwhelming. Having a clear idea of what to see before arriving is essential – Culture Trip has narrowed it down to the very best of what’s on offer.
Experience a late-night exhibition at one of ‘the big three’ museums in Paris
Taking advantage of late openings is a great way to avoid the tourist crowds in Paris 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 closes at the same time 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 theatres. Le Champo in the Latin Quarter is one of its most famous. The cinema is beloved for its monthly 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.
For 15 years, the local government of Paris fought to make the highway that cut through the centre of the city a car-free zone. In 2017, they finally succeeded and opened the newly landscaped Parc Rives de Seine. Now, the urban garden that lines the left and right banks of the Seine is home to restaurants, sports facilities, children’s play areas and popular bars, and is a perfect place to exercise or relax in the sun.
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, last one hour and 30 minutes.
As if there weren’t enough things to see in Paris itself, the Palace of Versailles is definitely worth the 30-minute trip outside the city. A €20 ‘Passport’ ticket grants visitors access to the palace, its estate, exhibitions and galleries, while a €27 ticket will also include the Musical Fountain Shows that take place on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months. An excellent alternative day trip from Paris is to Fontainebleau, to the south-east of the city, which 34 sovereigns called home.
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 practised. However, 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.
Challenge a local to a game of chess at the Jardin du Luxembourg
The Jardin du Luxembourg is one of the French capital’s oldest and most popular parks and is still one of the best places to visit in Paris. It has numerous attractions, from toy boating to beekeeping, but for the past 30 years, it has been the home of Paris’s chess enthusiasts. In its north-west 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.
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 farther east and north you go the better the variety and quality of work. The rue Oberkampf in the 11th arrondissement 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.
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 neighbourhoods. Today, its three main communities are Jewish, Chinese and LGBTQ, and these are reflected in the choice of restaurants, bars and even museums.
Strangely, Paris for a long time had a terrible reputation when it came to coffee. The story went that all the flavour and ingenuity was contained in the first three courses of a meal in the city and there was nothing left over for the coffee at the end. However, that didn’t stop a specific local culture of coffee drinking from developing, and visitors should certainly attempt to blend in.
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. Boat rentals are reasonably priced, and there is also a range of cruises to choose from.
There are many places to get an incredible view of Paris – the Eiffel Tower, the Tour Montparnasse and 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-Cœur. 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. Arrive early to beat the crowds.