Paris Travel Sights, France

night view of Paris from Arc du Triomphes, France

Paris seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe by Benh Lieu Song.

Why Paris Travel?

‘When good Americans die, they go to Paris’: Oscar Wilde

Paris is the most visited city in the world and deserves the attention because it’s stunning, stylish and sensual, with a dramatic past and a buoyant present. Paris is a seductive place of grand structures, world-beating museums, attractive walks, spacious gardens and fine eating in both large and small establishments – all tied together by an efficient public transport system.

Some myths blown
Parisians have finally shrugged off their reputation as sullen hosts. When we visited a couple of years ago waiters, shop assistants, monument and museum staff, metro personnel were, almost without exception, charming and helpful.
Streets lined with dog poo? Not any longer as far as we could see.
Crazed, inconsiderate traffic? Nope. Mind you you need to understand when it is your right to cross the road. e. g. on zebra crossings that have no stop lights, look the lead driver in the eye and then cautiously walk out onto the crossing. Do wave thank you since they have been kind enough not to kill you.

Driving to France from the UK, hints and links on ferries, tolls, speeding controls, insurance.

Downsides

• Unlike London, almost all museums/attractions require an entrance fee so prices add up, though the Museum Pass helps both in time and money.

• Grey skies and sudden changes of weather are not unusual.

• Naturally tourists rampage through Paris all year round. Getting to your primary attractions early (which does not mean 6 a. m. ! 9 o’clock is usually sufficient to avoid hordes) is the key to survival.

Paris Sights Map

Paris weather

Best: April-July, September, October, with average highs of 15C-25C (59F-77F) and lows of 7C-14C (44F-57F) but rapidly changeable conditions. Christmas is luminous with romance and decorative lights and January hot for bargains in the sales.
Not so good: August when the weather is likely to be fine but may be over-heated, will be over-crowded and – oddly but so French – many places are closed and staff are on holiday! C’est la vie ici.
January – February will be cool with average daytime highs of 7C (45F) and lows of zero to 2C (36F), but short daylight hours and probably miserably wet weather.
Rain makes a regular appearance but less so in the summer months.

Things to Do

Right Bank

The city is very walkable and even the furthest sights can be reached easily by clean and efficient Metro or bus.
Both left and right banks of the River Seine are crammed with attractions.

The right bank of the Seine River:

The Arc de Triomphe, the world famous arch commissioned by Napoleon, runs down the lengthy tree/shop-lined Champs-Elysées to the Place de la Concorde, where a well-traveled 3, 300-year-old Egyptian obelisk oversees the city’s chaotic traffic.

On the other side of the Concorde, through the peaceful, statue and tree scattered Tuileries Garden, you arrive at the incredible Louvre, a vast building with glass pyramid entrance, where ‘Mona Lisa’ still smiles at her adoring, smartphone-toting fans. If you enter via the Porte des Lions at the south-east corner of the museum the queues are much shorter and it’s the quickest way to reach the Mona Lisa.

Other notable buildings are Opéra Garnier (an imposing theatre), Centre Georges Pompidou (a modern art museum with wacky pond and exterior), Sacré Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) with a shapely white dome set on one of Paris’ few hills, Montmartre.

Two adjacent islands right at the core of the city:

– Ile de la Cité embraces the magnificent Notre Dame Gothic cathedral which is free to enter, but get there early, about 9 a. m. is good. It’s worth queuing and paying to climb the 387 steps for a breathtaking view of Paris (better than the Sacré Coeur) and close look at some scary gargoyles.

One of the city’s almost hidden treasures, inside the Palais de Justice (law courts) is Sainte-Chapelle, a little Gothic masterpiece of religious art offering incredible, massive, full-surround 13thC stained glass windows. Really awesome.

Finally the Conciergerie is a former prison where 3, 000 guillotine victims including Marie-Antoinette were kept warm.

Ile St-Louis, connected to both banks and the Ile de la Cité, offers no serious sights but is a tranquil retreat from tourist overload.

Left  Bank

The left bank of the Seine River:

The Eiffel Tower, the 320m tower landmark of Paris is infamous for a long wait (1 or 2 hours? ) for the lift. Book waaay in advance to secure a timed arrival. We tried one week in advance and got nothing.

The adjacent park, Champ de Mars is pleasant for picnics for weary visitors while the newish Musée de Quai Branly (Branly Museum) is a stunning modern work of art in itself, let alone the mass of bizarre, exotic artefacts housed in the spookily-lit, open-plan interior.

Other popular museums are the Musée d’Orsay for an exquisite collection of Impressionist works and the Hôtel des Invalides for Napoleon’s grandiose tomb and appropriate military museum.

The Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) is an intellectual district enlivened by students of the Sorbonne University and masses of bookshops and stalls.

It’s also home to the arty ex-church Pantheon (tombs in the crypt, panoramic views on the roof and some superb sculptures and mosaics in the middle), Musée du Moyen Âge (Middle Ages museum), Arénes de Lutéce (a Roman amphitheatre) and one fine park, the Jardin du Luxembourg.

We were unimpressed by the Jardin des Plantes but the adjacent Natural History Museum is apparently an excellent place for kids and the Mosquée de Paris hammam (spa) works brilliantly for mums.

West of the city centre is a relatively new attraction, La Défense, a massive and modern skyscraper group, including Grande Arche (a 20th century version of Arc de Triomphe), with open-air contemporary arts exhibits.

Walks

There are delightful walks along the banks of the River Seine for big sights, through the district of Marais for trendy boutiques and restaurants, the Latin Quarter for a more cultural experience and around Monmartre hill village, Paris’ highest point.

A less lively but no less interesting walk can be had in the Père Lachaise cemetery where various dignitaries lie, such as Jim Morrison (not an impressive resting pace for the ‘lizard king’), Oscar Wilde and Chopin (now quietly decomposing).

Cheap bicycles

Paris has a network of thousands of self-service bike rental stations around the city. The Velib (bike-freedom) system requires a credit card and a euro to get on one of the chunky, three-speed machines and is relatively cheaper the less time the bike is used (free for the first half an hour); the idea is that with many bike stations around you use one to go from A to B then drop the bike at another station. Nice has a similar system – Velib pictures and information.

Inline Skating

‘Friday Night Fever’ massive in-line skating rave every week. Hundreds if not thousands of high speed skaters scoot the streets for up to 3 hours escorted by police.
10pm from Gare du Montparnasse, but not if the streets are wet and not for beginners.
Other skate routes, times and guided tours are available but less well known.
Skate hire from Nomades, 37 Boulevard Bourdon.

Public Transport

Metro and inner-city rail (RER) stations are everywhere and reasonably easy to use, unless you’re carrying suitcases, though still possible even with serious baggage. Varied deals are available but complex and hardly worth considering unless you’re going to be in Paris for months or years.
The easy, short-term solution is to buy a packet of ten tickets for use anytime on buses or trains. This is called a carnet (carnay) and reduces the cost per ticket from 1. 70 euro to 1. 20 euro. More.

Arts/Culture

Museums:
Get a Museum Pass to save time and money:
some of the world’s great museums are here, such as the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. Do not be overwhelmed by their size, try to aim at a few important exhibits, or visit smaller, specialised museums. e. g. Musée Quai Branly (exotic artifacts in a glorious modern environment) Musée Picasso, Musée Rodin, Musée National du Moyen Âge-thermes de Cluny (Middle Ages museum) and the Hôtel des Invalides (War Museum and Napoleon’s tomb).

The Children’s Gallery at Pompidou Centre and Grande Galerie de l’ Évolution (part of the National History Museum) are fantastic for kids.

Galleries:
For innovative work see the north part of the Marais; for young artists check around the Bastille; for avant-garde or traditional sculpture and paintings check around St-Germain-des-Prés; and for big contemporary names try the Champs-Elysées.
The annual art fair, Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain is held in September and October.

Entertainment:
Check ‘Pariscope’ magazine (including ‘Time Out’ weekly insert in English) for event info/listings. Booking ahead is advisable through travel agencies or ticket outlets, but discounted tickets for same-day performances can be bought at an agency called Kiosque Théâtre.

Live Music:
Venues are on every corner of the city, from huge halls such as Chatelet-Théâtre Musical and Cité de la Musique to tiny bars and smoky jazz clubs, even in Metro stations. Classical concerts are also regularly held in churches and museums.

Dance/Opera:
Two of the best Opera houses are Opéra Bastille and Opéra Garnier, though good seats are sold several months in advance.

Theatre:
Unfortunately most of the city’s productions are in French, but a few are in English. Look for Metro posters or information in magazines.

Accommodation

Paris is a pricey destination and hotels are a large part of that cost, especially in the high season from May to September. As usual book early and avoid high season if possible. The bugcrew managed to rent a reasonable apartment in the Latin Quarter (4th arr. ) which made walking to most major sights quick and easy. See the map below for sights vs arrondissements.

Apartments are an attractive option for mid/long term visitors, those who prefer to look after themselves or low-budget groups but beware the amount of paperwork required by law and by owners before they will let barbarians through their doors, unless you get a self catering apartment through an efficient international organisation.

Cheapest prices for a Paris hotel will be found outside the centre (arrondissements/districts 1-7), which is not so bad as the metro works well. Lively – though not necessarily interesting – areas outside the centre are Bastille (11), Opera (9) and Montmartre (18).

Food

Produce everywhere is usually fresh and seasonally appropriate, thus richer in flavour than some neighbours (e. g. UK).
Traditional French meals are no longer everybody’s choice (sauce fatigue? ), but modern French cuisine – light and healthy, in stylish bistros or even supermarkets – is more and more popular.

There is also a fantastic selection of ethnic foods thanks to ex-colonial immigrants from Indochina, the Middle-east, Caribbean and South Pacific.

But best of all is taking your time over a simple petit déjeuner (breakfast) – a big cup of strong coffee and brandy with a perfect croissant.

Short Trips out of town

Head out to Versailles Palace and gardens. The gardens are vast and great for walks and there’s an excellent sound and light show June-September, especially worthwhile on fine days. It’s 23 km (30 minutes by train) from Paris.
Compiègne (extravagant hunting lodge) is 80km away; Pierrefonds (neo-medieval castle); Fontainebleau (royal castle and town) 65km south-east; Disneyland Paris Resort 39 km east; Chantilly (castle in a lake) 41km; Parc Astérix 36km north-east of the city.

Shopping

This city is not only a fun place to shop, but also to window-shop, due to generally stunning presentation and decor.
Classy: Grands Boulevards such as Avenue des Champs-Elysées or any other big street in district 8 like Ave. Montaigne.
Trendy: Marais, St-Germain, St-Sulpice, or Passy areas.
Wacky: back-streets on the Left Bank.
Intellectual, bookish but lively: The Latin Quarter. It’s called that because students at France’s top university, the Sorbonne, used to all speak Latin to each other.
Flea market: Marché aux Puces in Paris officially opens at the weekend only, but go there on Friday – when stallholders are unpacking – to find treasures.
Europe’s biggest market is St-Ouen in Clignancourt in the north, Porte de Vanves is known for its fine bric-a-brac, and try Montreuil in the east for quality second-hand clothes.
Marché Bastille, a Sunday food and flower market will give you sensory overload.

Festivals

Jan 1st, Grand Parade, massive and colourful.

June, Fête de la Musique, thousands of musicians give free concerts of all kinds all over the city.

end June, Gay Pride March

end June, Course des Garçons, 8km race by waiters in full kit.

July 13/14, La Fête Nationale, Bastille Day, France’s biggest street festival, with parties, parades, fireworks.

mid Sept, Techno Parade, Paris’ version of Berlin’s Love Parade.

early Nov, Marjolaine, huge eco-festival.

Take care

Beware kind men offering assistance at the incomprehensible ticket machines at Eurostar Gare du Nord station. They usually buy you unusable tickets and charge a silly price. Make sure you have €uros change and don’t accept help!

Also avoid Rue Saint Denis and Bois de Boulogne at night. See the Safety page.

How to get to Paris

By Air: Most international airlines fly to Paris. Paris is served by Aéroport d’Orly and Aéroport Roissy Charles de Gaulle, both well linked by public transport to the city centre. Charter companies, Ryanair and other budget airlines use Aéroport Paris-Beauvais, 75km north of Paris.
Cheap flights to Paris from London tend to use Luton airport.

Europe By Train: Thanks to super-fast TGV (train à grande vitesse) service, of which the French are rightly proud, many of the most attractive cities in France are within a few hours of the capital via one of six major train stations, each with its own metro station.
Each station carries passengers to different parts of France and Europe. SNCF Information and booking. Gare du Nord is the terminus for trains to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.

London to Paris by train: The fast, low-stress Eurostar rail line links Gare du Nord with London’s St Pancras International in a mere two hours, though travellers still need to go through security checks, immigration and pre-boarding queues.

St Pancras is linked to many other stations in the UK and an excellent, modern facility, quite unlike Waterloo or Paris’ equally hideous Gare du Nord. It’s now possible to buy a through-ticket, to or from Paris, to 68 regional stations in Great Britain. Eurostar booking.

Europe By Bus:
Eurolines is an association of 30 national and private bus companies linking Paris to destinations all over Europe, Scandinavia and Morocco. Paris’ international bus terminal, The Gare Routière Internationale de Paris-Galliéni, is in the inner suburb of Bagnolet. Eurolines Booking.

By Car, London to Paris: the easiest route is via Eurotunnel from Folkestone to Calais and then the A1 autoroute to Paris, taking at least 7 hours, door-to-door. This is also a more expensive way to reach Paris, not to mention the mad traffic and parking nightmares in this hectic city. So. . . only consider this route if you need the car to explore the rest of France afterwards.