Tree-lined boulevards, buzzing cafes, medieval churches, the Eiffel Tower glittering after dark — Paris calls to mind images that are iconic even to those who haven’t visited the French capital. But these are just a few of the sites and scenes that give Paris its charm. To make the most of a trip to Paris, balance landmarks with local favorites. Here’s how to pack both into one visit.
Know before you go
The Seine River cuts Paris into the Left Bank and Right Bank, with a natural island called the Île de la Cité in between. Bridges link the two banks and the Île de la Cité. Crossing these bridges (like Pont Notre-Dame, which overlooks the cathedral of the same name) and strolling along the river bank offers standout views.
Administrative districts called arrondissements further divide Paris. Within the 20 arrondissements are neighborhoods with distinct characters, like the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, Montmartre, and Le Marais, to name a few.
You’ll notice both of these geographic markers in guidebooks and on more detailed maps, and having an idea of which sites are in which area can make navigation simpler.
Navigating the language is important, too. While a lot of Parisians speak at least some English, learning a few French phrases goes far, says Kate Marks, who has lived and worked in Paris for 11 years.
“I’ve always found that if you at least try to say something in French, especially a bonjour, Madame or Monsieur — hello, ma’am or sir — the locals are much more open to trying to understand what you are trying to say,” she says.
Take it from a local
Marks recommends checking out a couple of books for an overview of what Paris offers: The New Paris, which she says covers “the ever-evolving food, fashion, and design scene in Paris,” as well as Paris in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide.
“My favorite way to see Paris is just to walk around,” she says. “Even when I am in a neighborhood that I’m familiar with, I always see something new. It’s also a great way to see Parisians out and about during their daily life.”
Parks are part of life in Paris. “If the weather is nice, find a park bench in the Tuileries Gardens and people-watch,” Marks suggests. Some parks, like Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, are well-manicured green spaces.
Others are less traditional but as impressive. The Coulée Verte René-Dumont stretches over what used to be elevated train tracks. Dating back to pre-Revolution France, Parc Monceau has an eclectic feel thanks to the landscape architects hired to shape this green space during the 18th and 19th centuries.
To experience more of local life, check out some of Paris’ most popular events, like the Tour de France, which finishes each year with multiple tours down the Champs Elysées, Marks says. If you can score tickets, go to a home game for the city’s well-known football (soccer) team, Paris Saint-Germain. Rugby games also draw a crowd.
“If you happen to be in France around the July 14, the French national holiday, then make sure to go to one of the Bal des Pompiers (Firemen’s Balls), organized by local firefighters, where you can dance the night away and celebrate Bastille day,” she says.
Paris boasts historic sites, world-class museums, architecture, and picture-perfect vistas. Here, choosing what to see can prove more difficult than stumbling upon a major monument.
“Don’t miss out on the monuments. The view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe is amazing,” Marks says.
The Arc overlooks the Eiffel Tower, which, of course, also provides top-notch views of Paris. But catching a glimpse of the tower from an unexpected vantage point — whether from a bridge like the Pont de Bir-Hakeim or while on the Métro — can be more exciting than visiting the tower itself.
“Taking a tour on a Bateaux Mouche boat along the Seine is another great way to see a lot of Paris. The tours run during the day and into the evening,” Marks says. Dotting the Seine are landmarks like Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the Musée d’Orsay, which are also worth visiting if time allows.
Need to try
France’s reputation for food precedes it. But good meals aren’t just found in bistros and brasseries. Even as street food becomes more popular, Parisians still value the old-fashioned food market.
“The outdoor markets are a must when visiting Paris. Every arrondissement has its market, which is set up on a certain day of the week. Other markets are open almost every day of the week, such as Marché d’Aligre and Marché des Enfants Rouges, one of Paris’ oldest food markets,” Marks says. “These daily markets are great for finding all the elements for a picnic lunch. Cheeses of all sorts, bread, fruit, or vegetables — you will find it all at the Paris markets.”
Make the most of your experience
With so much to see and experience in Paris, carving out time for rest and reflection seems, well, counterproductive. But it’s not — if it’s downtime done well.
Churches double as landmarks and spiritual sanctuaries, making them ideal places to seek out peace. Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, and Sacré-Cœur are the most famous. Other gems include Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Saint-Eustache, and Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame exemplifies French Gothic architecture with its stature, six-part rib vault ceiling, and stained-glass windows. It is currently under renovation after its roof caught fire, and is expected to be closed for at least five years, but as Europe’s most popular site for visitors, it is still worth taking in, even from the outside.
Another Gothic masterpiece, Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1241 and 1248 to house relics from Jesus’ suffering and death. Light floods in through this former royal chapel’s delicate stained-glass walls, which depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
Built between 1875 and 1914, Sacré-Cœur resembles Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and San Marco in Venice more than a Gothic cathedral. This example of Romano-Byzantine architecture features a striking mosaic (one of the largest in the world) of the risen Christ. Because the name of the church translates to “Sacred Heart,” this image of Christ depicts his heart in gold.
For another modern alternative to Gothic architecture, check out the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Painted white and blue and adorned with gold leaf, the shrine fills with worshippers for Mass. More a place for pilgrimage than tourism, this modest church has an authentic, intimate feel.
Outside of Rome itself, Paris is one of the best cities in the world to experience a beautiful church. Gothic architecture was intended to raise the eyes — and mind — to heaven, and that sense of the sacred is inescapable in these spaces. People have been gathering here to pray for centuries — it’s a rich heritage of faith that can touch anyone.
Historic and multifaceted, Paris has it all. Don’t feel pressured to check all the boxes off some must-see list, though. Whether it’s stumbling upon a medieval church or sauntering down a crooked cobblestone street, some of the experiences that make Paris memorable need not be planned at all.