If you are going to be visiting Paris with the expectation that you are going to visit the most romantic city on earth, then this is not the list for you. I am just going to assume you will walk along the Champs–Élysées, check out the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, so you won’t find those things here. After half a dozen visits to this incredible city, there are some things I think are always worth a look, a re-visit, others to skip. A short trip to Paris can be incredible and dare I say, even relaxing, if you plan to take in sites in between promenades, and cheeky drinks along the Siene and let the ambience take over.
How to MuseumThere is a fine art to going to see art. Nothing makes you unhappier faster than being hangry, sore and tired and shuffling around a palace full of art – much of which looks basically the same. As someone who travels to see museums and archaeological sites exclusively, I double down when I travel alone and see as much as possible, but if there is another human with me, I (grudgingly) stick to a one large museum a day rule. As tempting as it is to visit a few together to save time, it diminishes your ability to appreciate and enjoy them. Breaking up the visits means you won’t literally run through rooms of incredible art just to sit down. I know there are only so many paintings of the crucifixion you can take in on any one visit. Don’t make seeing this stuff a performance of penance.
1. The LouvreI know what you are thinking; OBVIOUSLY you will be going to the Louvre. However, you will never see everything in the louvre, so don’t try. Rather, pick two themes that interest you; Greco-Roman statues and Near Eastern pre-historic art? Tapestries and Medieval painting? Sure, you may not see every highlight, but by focusing on things you are interested in versus what you ‘should’ be seeing, you will likely enjoy it more.
Pro tip: visit the Louvre in the evenings if you can since it is significantly less busy then, and you have the Venus di Milo all to yourself rather than struggling to find a spot in between tour groups. Wednesdays and Fridays the museum is open until 10pm/ closed on Tuesdays.
2. Musée d’Orsay/ Musée Orangerie For relatively more modern pieces of art, the impressionist painting collection of d’Orsay and Orangerie are worth the visit. If you’ve ever been curious to see the ‘L’Origine du monde’ (Origin of the World), now is your chance! If you are lucky enough, there might be some performance art happening there during your visit! Both buildings are gorgeous, and worthwhile for a visit. Places for good eats: Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger & Cafe de la Nouvelle Marie
3. Place de la Concorde For me, nothing says going to Paris like staring at some Aegyptiaca. The big attractive Obelisk of Luxor and ornate fountains symmetrically placed at the center of Place de la Concorde, with Egyptian-styled decoration throughout the square is an interesting throwback to France’s imperial days. The site of execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, among many others. Surrounding crowds of jeering revolutionairies cramming into this space – briefly named ‘Place de la Révolution‘ during this period- is a viceral mental image of social and political upheaval to conjure.
4. Musée de Cluny (Musée national du Moyen Age) The museum de Cluny is full of art and artefacts from the Middle Ages, as you would expect from the name, but part of the treasure of this place is the building itself, built atop a Roman bath which you can see in the basement, the higgledy-piggledy building features of the exterior are sort of charming.
5. PantheonThe Pantheon feels as far away from its Roman predecessor as one could find; a monument to the civic spirit and fraternity of the famous French individuals. Once a church, a ruined abbey of Saint Genevieve, re-created by Louis XV in the mid-1700s. Interred within the Pantheon are the remains of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau among others. There is something quite unique about such a ornate resting place for writers, philosophers and poets – secular heroes seldomly receive this type of hagiographic treatment.This area is great for wandering and grabbing a coffee and these sites are only 4 minutes walk from the Musée de Cluny. If nothing else, there is a famous macaron shop nearby which is worth the visit. Sweet treats near the Pantheon: Sebastien Degardin (Patisserie de la Pantheon) and La Macaron Laduree Paris.
6. Montmartre and Sacré-CœurThe stairs leading up to Sacré-Cœur and the Montmartre are the devil. It is a beast to get up to the top, but don’t cheat and take the funicular. It’s good for you and will build character.The neighbourhood around the basilica is lovely and winding, with a large number of cafés and restaurants priced to keep the likes of me away. Atmospherically, it’s a an area with a relaxed vibe. There is often music floating around by street performers, interesting architecture and artisans with a plethora of stalls selling their paintings/prints. Stopping in at a café with a decent view, this is one of my favourite areas to sketch urban life scenes.
7. Versailles Jumping on the a few metros and RER train out of town, visiting the Palace of Versailles is a pretty solid day trip. Built up from a swamp around his family’s hunting lodge, Louis XIV captured all of France’s nobility in his guilded cage of Versailles. Through elaborate specatcles to entertain them whilst there, and incredibly pedantic and restrictive court etiquette, Louis was gaslighting the French aristorcacy until they competed with eachother to help him put on his pants or use the toilet, as a sign of his favour.
There are so many architectural and decorative wonders in the palace; the public spaces like the Hall of Mirrors and each private room you amble through unveils small reminders of the period where Europe’s most influential art and fashions were being created in Versailles.
In addition to the historical interst of visiting Versailles, the grounds are exquist if you are partial to a manicured garden. Next-level landscaping. The fountains, which were unable to all be used at the same time in his life-time, now put on incredible water shows to classical music. The small cottage of Marie Antoinette in the gardens, the Hameau de la Reine, has lovely neo-Classical temples and picturesque views for some quiet contemplation and maybe some cake.
8. Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Saint-Germain-en-LayA 40 minute ride on the RER, and you end up in the suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Lay, about 19 km west of Paris. There are nice gardens around the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye which house the archaeological collection, that offer a nice picnic space to nap post-Museum.
This is not a journey I would suggest if you have just a few days in Paris, or if you have never been before since there is so much to see and do in the city center. However, if you’ve seen the main sites and are looking for something different and a little quieter/less busy, this would be a worthwhile visit.
9. Spend as much time as possible picnicking and drinking wine along the Seine
I don’t know how much needs to be said on this, but most of the best moments I’ve shared in Paris, with friends or my fiance, have been taking some wine and picnic down to the Seine and hanging out in the sunset. As one of the busiest European tourist destinations, it can be hard to find places to just chill out and take in the majestic views (for free), but along the river you can have all those deep talks, relaxation and watercolour painting opportunities.
10.Make some art!
A small travel kit of water colours and watercolour brushes in tow, and you’ve got the makings for an art filled break. Even if you aren’t sure you are going to be a Renoir or Monet, a cheap and portable set of paints and watercolour pen can be the best companion on your trip. Unlike a photo, trying to make a small artistic rendering requires looking a little differently at the world around you, and a slower pace. Your mom will totally put your painting on her fridge.
Bars and nightlife
The Strasbourg St. Denis area is great for bars, chilling out till the wee hours with the unusual opportunity to hear French being spoken all around you. Nice space to unwind with decent food prices in this neighbourhood.
The Paris Pass
The Paris Pass is a great purchase; after a visit or two to the big museums, it will be evident that this little pink pass has paid for itself. Click here for a link.
There are many ways you can get into the city-center from the airport, but I tend to use the tested and true coach buses. It can be about €15.00 approximately. Click here for a link to a summary site on the transportation options.
Some nice spots to stay in town:
This AirB&B accomodation was an aboslute gem on a research trip last year, small but fully functional and very well situated. Just 10 minutes or so from the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, with many small bakeries, grocery stores and bars nearby.
Hostel Oops is a throwback to my backpacking days, but it’s cheap(ish) and really bloody cool inside as hostels go. Right in the Latin Quarter next to some movie theatres and other fun establishments. It need not be mixed accomodations with strangers, as they have some private rooms, but that’s not as much fun…until you are 25.
À la bientôt!