Cover: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
Whether it’s your first visit or your twentieth, Paris is a city that takes your breath away.
Truly like no other, Paris is a timeless beauty filled with monuments, galleries, cathedrals, boutiques, cafés, and museums – so much so that it can be a bit overwhelming, especially on your first visit.
Getting around Paris
Paris is composed of 20 arrondissements or districts. Often described as resembling a snail shell, the twenty arrondissements start from the middle of the city and are arranged in a clockwise spiral. In other words, arrondissements are simply a way to subdivide the city into segments, which helps to identify a location.
For example, the 1st arrondissement of Paris is located on the right bank of the River Seine. It is one of the oldest and the smallest by both area and population and is where the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Gardens are located. The Paris Opera and the Bourse, or Paris stock exchange, are in the 2nd arrondissement.
As far as getting around, walking can be the fastest method in the congested areas. For longer journeys, the Paris subway, called The Metro, is fairly easy to navigate and less expensive than taxis, which are in abundance but can be quite costly.
Like most large cities, driving and parking can be a challenge. However, rental car locations are available throughout the city. If you don’t rent at the airport and are already in the city, one of the more easily accessible locations for renting and returning a car, with a variety provider options, is Gare de Lyon train station in the 12th arrondissement. A note concerning petrol/gas stations when driving in France – many stations are not manned and credit cards from the United States do not work at quite a few locations, so keep the gas tank frequently filled when you spot a station with an attendant that accepts cash.
A good option for getting around to tourist sites is the hop-on and hop-off tour buses. While many offer recorded tours heard through earbuds in your language of choice, don’t set your expectations too high. The recordings can be of poor quality.
However, if you use the buses simply as a method of transportation from one spot to the next, it is far more economical than taking cabs. Most hop-on and hop-off buses offer unlimited usage per day. Also, be sure when choosing a bus tour that their route and schedule includes stops where you want to go and frequent drop offs/pickups.
Things to do on your first trip to Paris
When you’ve been to Paris quite a few times, your daily itinerary differs from the first few times you’ve visited. For example, when we were in Paris in July, we dedicated an entire day to Notre Dame to photograph the cathedral in morning, afternoon and sunset light.
But, on your first trip to Paris, go ahead – be a tourist, roam the city, and discover the iconic sites in person. Here’s ten that should make your Paris to do list.
Stroll the boulevards and do some café time
This may sound like an odd place to start with all the Paris attractions, but there is nothing like sipping a glass of wine or coffee while watching Paris go by in front of you.
So, before you head out with your long list of sites to visit, work in some time wandering the streets of the infamous city and simply being in Paris.
Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe
Located in the 8th arrondissement and stretching two kilometers from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is considered to be la plus belle avenue du monde (the most beautiful avenue in the world).
Starting on the east end of the Champs-Élysées, an Egyptian obelisk which was given to the French by Egypt in the 19th century sits in the center of the Place de la Concorde. Two fountains also occupy the Place de la Concorde, which were built during the time of Louis-Philippe.
The site of the arrival of the Tour de France, Bastille Day celebrations and countless movie scenes, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is lined with restaurants, boutiques, jewelers, perfumeries, hotels, nightclubs, and a public park, the Jardin des Champs-Élysées.
On the western end of Champs-Élysées sits the Arc de Triomphe in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle. Honoring those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, the Arc de Triomphe is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
The Eiffel Tower (La Tour Eiffel)
Everyone wants to see the Eiffel Tower when they come to Paris and you’ll need to keep that in mind when planning your visit. The Eiffel Tower is the most visited paid monument in the world with seven million visitors each year. Built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the Eiffel Tower’s construction took 2 years, 2 months and 5 days and it stands 324 metres (1,063 ft) tall, the tallest structure in Paris.
Do you need a ticket to visit? Yes and no. If you just want to see the Tower, you can stop by anytime day or night (it’s in the 7th arrondissement). However, if you want to go up in the Tower or dine in the restaurant, you’ll need tickets and reservations. Open every day, tickets sell out far in advance for peak times, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Find out more on La Tour Eiffel website.
Notre Dame de Paris (Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris or Notre Dame de Paris, which means Our Lady of Paris in French, is one of the most well-known cathedrals in the world.
Located in the 4th arrondissement on the Île de la Cité, the cathedral dates back to the 12th century, when work began on the French Gothic church. Taking over 300 years to complete, Notre Dame was one of the first buildings in the world to use the arched exterior supports, also known as flying buttress.
Notre Dame de Paris houses some of Catholicism’s most important relics including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails and is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris.
Home to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and nearly 35,000 other works of art, The Louvre is the world’s most visited museum, with nearly 10 million visitors annually. Located in the 1st arrondissement, the museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, a former royal palace dating back to the medieval period. The museum is open daily except for Tuesdays.
Palais Garnier, Opéra de Paris
Well-known as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, the Phantom of the Opera, the Palais Garnier or Opéra de Paris is home to the Paris Ballet. One of the most opulent buildings in Paris, the Palais Garnier is located on the Boulevard des Capucines in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.
With the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, the Musée d’Orsay is a delight for art lovers with works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Located in the former railway station, the Gare d’Orsay, the Musée d’Orsay sits along the left bank of the Seine in the 7th arrondissement.
View Paris from a Bateau Mouche®
The River Seine is the heart of Paris and cruising it by Bateau Mouche is a wonderful way to see the landmarks from a different vantage point. Bateau Mouches are open excursion tourist boats, with the concept first created by Jean Bruel in 1949. While many boat tours now exist on the River Seine, Bruel’s The Compagnie des Bateaux-Mouches is still one of the largest and actually trademarked the name Bateau Mouche, although the term is widely used to refer to all Paris boat tours. Boat tours can be found throughout the year, including hop on/hop off tours and lunch and dinner cruises.
Located in the heart of Paris on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the Grand Palais is a historic monument, exhibition hall and museum complex in the 8th arrondissement. The Grand Palais is home to major art exhibits and cultural events, the science museum, the Palais de la Découverte, and many events, including haute couture runway shows each year.
See the City of Light (La Ville Lumière) at night
Frequently called the City of Light because of its role during the Age of Enlightenment, and because Paris was one of the first European cities to install gas street lights, Paris is stunning at sunset and after dark.
From the illuminated 37 bridges that cross the River Seine to the landmarks and monuments, Paris shines at night. A stroll along the river, a night boat ride, or watching Paris twinkle from a sidewalk cafe, are the perfect way to end your Paris day.
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