Paris is a truly magical city. There is no shortage of places that make you feel as if you’ve wandered onto a movie set. So we’d be willing to bet money that a visit to Paris is already on your bucket list. And if it isn’t, we are certain you’ll be adding it after reading this guide. We’ve been to Paris several times, and with so much to see and do, we try to make time for our favorites and discover something new. And on this visit, we experienced Parisian New Year’s Eve.
When traveling to Paris for the first time, you must cover all the monuments and iconic attractions such as the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. There is plenty already written about the must-see things in Paris, which you will find easily in a search. Instead, we want to share our top favorite activities in Paris, handpicked from all our experiences. So, if you are looking to deep-dive into French culture and break away from the crowds, here is everything you need to know to have an unforgettable stay in Paris!
Best Way to Get Around Paris
Paris is hands down best explored at a walking pace. It is easy to see why as you stroll around the city, following the scent coming from boulangeries, admiring artists at work, and the incredible architecture. With that, it’s important to point out that comfortable footwear is essential. While Paris is the fashion capital, tackling cobblestone in heels is highly impractical, and you won’t see the French doing it.
We also embrace the metro when venturing out to farther neighborhoods, which is fairly easy to navigate once you’ve used it a few times. The routes are color coded and Google Maps or Apple Maps will help you navigate easily. Our point is, there is absolutely no need to take taxis and sit in traffic!
Where to Stay in Paris
Paris is filled with charming neighborhoods, and luckily almost every one of them makes a special place to stay in Paris. The city is divided into 20 neighborhoods, called arrondissements, which are arranged in the shape of a snail. The lower the number, the closer you are to the city center. Depending on your preference, we recommend picking accommodation within walking distance from the center, near the metro, or sticking to the outer arrondissement to avoid crowds. We love staying at the Hotel de la Bretonnerie, located in the Marais district in the 4th arrondissement. Staying there, you are guaranteed to have a quintessentially French experience, and it’s the perfect location for museum-goers too. Plus, the staff is incredibly nice!
Best Things to Do in Paris
Visit Museums and Art Galleries
Regardless of the weather outside and the number of times you’ve visited Paris, popping into world-class museums and art galleries is always a fantastic idea. And in Paris, there is an exhibition for every type of connoisseur. In winter, though, you get to spend one-on-one time with your favorite artworks, thanks to lesser crowds.
Musee d’Orsay is one of the richest fine art museums, which holds a special place in our hearts. There is little about this museum that we are not completely in love with – from the breathtaking collections and the restaurant to the history of the building. It also houses Bev’s favorite painting – The Gleaners by Millet, and the works of Van Gogh, John’s favorite artist. Our daughter Ashley and her husband, Tom, also joined us on this trip, and with our collective art and history background, you can bet that we basically camped out at Musee d’Orsay. We think this is the number one art museum in the world, so don’t skip it!
Located on a prestigious street, Rue de Rivoli, this former squat has been transformed into a modern art gallery that will expand your perspective and occupy you for hours. The gallery feels like a workshop where life is constantly bubbling, and you have the opportunity to enter the creative process of artists at work. Browse unusual artwork and perhaps find a favorite up-and-coming artist of your own.
Explore the Eerie Catacombs
Stepping into the catacombs in winter is spookier than any other time of the year. Chills begin running down your spine as you walk under the inscription warning imminent entry into the empire of death. The temperature drops as you descend the 131 steps into the tunnels filled with human bones and skulls from floor to ceiling.
Though tourists can access only a small portion, the 13th-century tunnels stretch for nearly 200 miles. They served as a solution to overcrowded cemeteries in Paris in the 17th century and contain the bones of 6 million Parisians. It takes about one hour to visit the catacombs, which we recommend doing on a guided tour that you can book in advance.
Take in the Iconic Views over Paris
You can’t tire of the incredible views over Paris and its architecture. For one of the best panoramic vantage points, head to the rooftop of Galeries Lafayette shopping center. The outdoor terrace located on top is free to enter and offers spectacular 360-degree views over Paris. And if you fancy staying for a drink, the rooftop is adorned with a terrace bar.
We enjoyed walking around this high-end shopping center and admiring the dome of stained glass. It was so beautiful!
Design Your Own Perfume
France is home to some of the most amazing fragrances in the world. So, what better souvenir to walk away with than designing your own perfume using the most exquisite scents of France. You can join a workshop or head directly to one of the many boutiques, such as L’Officine Universelle Buly, which has been operating since 1803, to pick up one of their pre-mixed local scents in various types of mixtures.
Relax in the Best Outdoor Spaces in Paris
Paris will treat you to stunning public spaces and gardens filled with fiery foliage, cherry blossoms, or luscious greens, depending on the time of the year you are visiting. But here are two of our favorite parks in Paris that are less popular with tourists.
Place des Vosges
Located in our favorite neighborhood Marais is one of the oldest squares in Paris. Surrounded by beautiful pink facades, the central garden is blocked off from the outside world and makes for a wonderful place to unwind, which many locals love to do there. On weekends, the garden is wrapped with flea market stalls. Of course, you already know the drill – vintage clothes, antiques, and unique decorative pieces at affordable prices. But what is priceless is the atmosphere created by vendors, shoppers, and street performers.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
It is a charming place located in the 19th arrondissement. This peaceful oasis has caves, waterfalls, hanging bridges, and even a temple perched at the top of a cliff above an artificial lake. It is a popular local spot that only sometimes makes it to the sightseeing lists of tourists.
Hotel de Ville
And if you are visiting in the winter like we did this time, wander around the Christmas tree display with a spectacular backdrop of Hotel de Ville (the city hall), located in Marais, near the beautifully decorated BHV department store.
Shop the Amazing French Produce
French produce is exquisite. Do like the locals and dedicate stomach space to only foods of the best quality. The fresher they are, the better. So, head out handpicking ingredients at the markets and specialty stores. We loved shopping at Rue des Martyrs, but you can find them located in every arrondissement. Pick up some berries, cheeses, and cured meats and pop into a bakery. Any place that says ‘boulangerie’ on the storefront, wafting delicious scents, will suffice, but we recommend paying a visit to Poilâne – a historic bakery holding up traditions since 1923. Take your produce on a picnic or to your balcony and indulge in Parisian favorite pastime activity – people-watching.
Join a Macaron Making Class
Whether you are escaping the weather outside, taking a cooking class is our favorite way to bring back a lasting souvenir. And given our daughter, Ashley, is a foodie and loves to cook, we had to spend an afternoon learning how to make macarons. Then, in a company of locals who fed us interesting facts and stories about France, we baked melt-in-your-mouth sugary pillows that we got to take home. Though the stash didn’t last long, it was an unforgettable experience.
But if you don’t want to make your own and lining up outside the world-famous Ladurée is not appealing, head to the highly acclaimed Jean-Paul Hevin Chocolate Bar to pick up the best Paris mouthwatering macarons that pack more flavor than you can imagine.
Indulge in Scrumptious Experiences
The French know all too well that the fastest way to a foodie’s heart is through their stomach. And Paris is the perfect foodie playground where you can start your mornings with coffee and croissants at your neighborhood cafe, sample crepes with various fillings, eat the best macarons and kick off your evenings discovering French wine varieties.
Our favorite dining experience of the visit was our New Year’s Eve dinner at Chez Julien. We sat next to some lovely American women, and had a great time listening to the saxophone player entertain us. After tasting the best seasonal ingredients and authentic French cooking right along the Seine, we took a stroll along the glowing Champs-Elysees to watch the fireworks explode around Arc de Triomphe at midnight.
It was the perfect finale of an incredible year spent in an enchanting destination that we keep coming back to. And we are certain that even before setting off for the airport to head home, you will already be planning your return, too.