Paris is one of the most visited cities on the planet. And with good reason. Type famous landmarks of the world into a Google search and the Eiffel Tower consistently comes top of the results lists.
Paris is packed with historical, cultural, architectural and culinary marvels. Trying to fit in as much of these marvels is the challenge for a visitor to the City of Lights.
In this guide I will outline a 3-day itinerary for Paris for visitors. Each day starts with an iconic landmark and includes time for classic Parisian activities such as café culture, flaneuring (I’ll explain later) and galleries/museums. Visiting general areas are earmarked for the afternoons, to balance crowds/queues and soak up the city’s unique atmosphere.
General travel tips for travelling to France can be found in my Visiting France for the First Time post.
EIFFEL TOWER: Inevitably, the whole itinerary begins with the iconic Eiffel Tower. Designed by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World Fair, this impressive work of engineering attracts millions of visitors each year so pre-booking is an absolute must. The structure has three levels with shopping and dining opportunities on each level. The Eiffel Tower is situated on the Left Bank in the 7th arrondissement.
TROCADÉRO: The gardens around the Eiffel Tower are a beautiful place for a stroll as are the Trocadéro Gardens located directly across the river from the tower. Chaillot Palace was built for the 1937 World Exhibition and offers a great view of the Eiffel Tower. It was here that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Chaillot Palace also houses the Naval Museum, Ethnology Museum and National Monuments Museum.
RIVER CRUISE: Given the central role the Seine plays in Paris, a river cruise is the next activity to take as boats leave from the docking station near the Eiffel Tower. Stunning views of equally iconic stunning buildings can be had from a river cruise. Some cruises serve lunch and some offer evening dinner options.
6th ARRONDISSEMENT: If you are looking for typical Parisian café culture, chic design, and literary tradition then the Left Bank’s 6th arrondissement is unmissable. This is the Paris of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and a young Samuel Beckett.
The landmark cafes of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore are here as are a number of educational institutions, the Odéon Theatre, Luxembourg Gardens and Église de Saint Germain des Prés, the latter being the oldest church in Paris.
The 6th arrondissement is great for flaneuring/flânerie, which is, strolling around the streets absorbing the atmosphere. It comes from the word Flâneur which was a 19th century literary male strolling observantly. The cafes around Place Saint-Michel are great for people-watching while Gibert Jeune is excellent for reading material and maps.
LOUVRE: With over 9 million visitors per year, the Louvre is the world’s most visited museum. It goes without saying that pre-booking is essential. Based in the former Royal Palace, it opened as a museum in 1793. It is located in the heart of the 1st arrondissement on the Right Bank.
The Louvre has an extensive collection of paintings, decorative arts, sculptures and objects from ancient civilisations. Famous works include Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller and of course da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The latter’s popularity means the queue is akin to a rugby maul. Even if art isn’t your thing, the Louvre building itself is well worth a visit.
TUILERIES GARDENS: Immediately west of the Louvre are the Tuileries Gardens. Dating back to the 17th century, the Tuileries were designed by André Le Notre of Versailles fame. Around the Tuileries Gardens one will find the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, shopping street Rue de Rivoli to the north and the Joan of Arc statue adjacent to Rue de Rivoli.
PLACE DE LA CONCORDE: This square is immediately west of the Tuileries Gardens and is the largest public square in Paris. In the centre are two fountains and an Egyptian Obelisk. The perimeter of the square is a vehicular roundabout.
Place de la Concorde has a grisly past. Originally named Place Louis XV, it was here that hundreds of people were executed by guillotine during the French Revolution, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The nearby Hotel de Crillon and the Hotel de la Marine are historic buildings. The French-American Treaty of 1778 was signed in the former while the latter was the Nazi naval force HQ during World War II occupation.
AVENUE DES CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES: The main street that runs west from Place de la Concorde is the world renowned Avenue des Champs-Élysées. At 1.9km, it is one of Paris’s longest streets and ends at Place Charles de Gaulle. It hosts Bastille Day celebrations and is the finish line of the Tour de France cycle race. Iconic French brands and international chains have their shops on this street.
ARC DE TRIOMPHE: At the west end of Avenue des Champs-Élysées is Place Charles de Gaulle/Place de l’Étoile. In the middle of Place Charles de Gaulle/Place de l’Étoile, the world’s most insane vehicular roundabout, is the Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victories, the monument has a viewing tower and is the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
MONTMARTRE: If the quaint Paris seen in the film Amélie is the Paris you want to see, then head north to Montmarte. This area was the heart of bohemian 19th century Paris and its cobblestone streets still retain an element of that atmosphere.
The main site in Montmatre is the travertine white Sacré-Coeur Basilica whose hilltop position has magnificent views over Paris. But Montmatre is great for café culture so start at Place du Tertre and meander around the area.
A cemetery may not sound like the usual holiday site but the gravestones of Montmatre’s cemetery is like a roll-call of French cultural players: Hector Berlioz, Edgar Degas, Alexandre Dumas, Francois Truffaut among others.
CENTRE POMPIDOU OR MUSÉE D’ORSAY: As this is a 3-day itinerary for Paris, I only have time for one more museum so here is where you must choose. Centre Pompidou is one of the best modern art museums in Europe in one of Paris’s most unique if controversial buildings (the mechanical systems are exposed on the outside). The British-Italian designed, Irish-engineered Centre Pompidou is located on the Right Bank approximately 1km east of the Louvre.
On the other hand, Musée d’Orsay has the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist artworks in the world. Located in the refurbished 19th century d’Orsay railway station, it houses works by greats such as Monet, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh.
ILE DE LA CITÉ: This is one of the Seine islands and has a number of sites worth seeing. Its main site, the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, has been closed since a fire caused significant damage in 2019. The restoration completion date is estimated to be early 2024. You can still view the cathedral from a distance.
The Sainte-Chapelle is a good alternative to the Notre-Dame and a joint ticket can be obtained for here and the Concierge. The latter was the first royal residence of Paris and was where Marie Antoinette was held prisoner during the French Revolution. This complex of buildings also houses the Palais de Justice where France’s highest law courts operate from.
Ile de la Cité has some beautiful bridges including Pont Neuf, Pont au Change and Pont Saint-Michel.
5th ARRONDISSEMENT: Those who know me best are wondering when I was going to mention the 5th arrondissement, the part of Paris that is my favourite. The 5th arrondissement on the Left Bank is also known as the Latin Quarter. It’s the location of the Panthéon mausoleum and the world famous Sorbonne University.
The 5th is great for flaneuring, café culture, arthouse cinemas and reasonably-priced shopping. Rue Mouffetard Market comes recommended as does English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company.
EXTRA DAY IN PARIS
If you are lucky enough to have your travel plans disrupted, an extra day in Paris will not be wasted. The Marais district is well worth a stroll around. The Marais is located on the Right Bank and divided between the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in the 20th arrondissement, is the world’s most visited cemetery. A whole host of notable French people are buried here including Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust and Georges Bizet. Prominent international public figures buried here are Irish writer Oscar Wilde, US musician Jim Morrison and Polish composer Frederic Chopin.
3-DAY ITINERARY FOR PARIS: FINAL THOUGHTS
For many visitors, Paris is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Truth be told, one could spend a lifetime discovering Paris.
This itinerary is pretty packed but getting a feel for the city and soaking up the atmosphere should be a priority. Paris is a state of mind as much as it is a place. Cultivating that Parisian state of mind by applying style to the simple pleasures in life is the great life lesson you can take from your trip to the French capital.