Ideally, you'll want to be able to spend more than a day in Paris as it's a rich, diverse, historic city that is on most everyone's bucket list. But if for some reason you only have 24 hours at your disposal during your first visit, you'll want to make that day a memorable one.
On your first visit, avoid trying to squeeze a top-ten attractions list in over the course of one rushed, frantic day. Instead, read up on how you can put together a reasonable 24-hour itinerary that is both flexible and manageable at a fairly easy pace. These suggestions will show you some of Paris' most exciting and historic places, offer a fair bit of diversity, and allow you to make the most of your day-long sojourn without too much stress. If you are lucky enough to have 48 hours, you'll be able to experience even more.
To fully enjoy this one-day self-guided tour of the city and make sure you find your way without getting too turned around/off course, procure a good city map (ideally a good neighborhood-by-neighborhood guide) or a good Paris travel app for your phone or tablet.
Purchase plenty of Paris metro tickets, or the Paris Visite Pass, to make sure you don't have to keep buying tickets along the way. You can use them for city buses too.
Early Morning: Notre Dame Cathedral and Latin Quarter
Start your day early—before 9 a.m. After consuming some delectable croissants or pain au chocolats from your local boulangerie/bakery, Leg 1 of your whirlwind day in Paris starts with an early-morning visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most elaborate and breathtaking Gothic-style cathedrals in the world. Arriving early will ensure you avoid long lines, especially if you want to climb the towers to enjoy Paris from a gargoyle's panoramic perspective—and to admire the gargoyles and grotesques themselves.
In the spring and early summer, make sure to spend a bit of time admiring the lush foliage and gorgeous flowers in the rear gardens. This view of the cathedral is especially lovely, showing off the elaborate flying buttresses.
Metro: St-Michel or Cité
Head Over to the Latin Quarter
Once you've taken in all the splendors of Notre-Dame, it's time to cross the river via the Pont St Michel, just west of Notre Dame and head south to the historic Latin Quarter.
Crossing the bridge, you'll find yourself in a neighborhood known as St-Michel, after the angel that slew a demon (a fountain depicting him stands triumphantly on the Place St-Michel). This neighborhood has been a center of scholarship and intellectual discovery for centuries, as the hub of the old Sorbonne University, dating to the medieval period.
From here you can explore some of the area's most iconic places, including the Sorbonne and its pleasant, leafy square, and the famed English-language bookshop Shakespeare.
You'll need to track back to Notre Dame for Leg 2 of the tour.
Mid-Morning to Lunchtime: Take a Boat Cruise on the Seine
After exploring the old Latin Quarter and the St-Michel district, follow your Paris area map to the Quai Montebello, facing Notre-Dame on the south side of the Seine river.
From here (between late March and November only), you can board a sightseeing cruise boat with the Bateaux Parisiens company for a one-hour tour of the city via the water. You'll see some of the French capital's most important and beautiful monuments and hear the historical commentary.
If you're visiting between November and early March, forego this step and head over to the Eiffel Tower from the St Michel RER (Commuter Train Line C). From there, you can always opt to take a Seine cruise later in the day—Bateaux Parisiens and several other companies offer regular hourly excursions from the Eiffel Tower area.
Take a lunch break. Whether you've disembarked from your cruise at the Eiffel Tower or back near Notre-Dame, there are plenty of little cafes and food stands in both districts. Take a quick lunch, perhaps from a food stand, if you want to make the most of the remainder of your day. If you prefer a quick sit-down meal, choose a good corner "brasserie" for a relatively inexpensive lunch special.
Noon and Early Afternoon: Eiffel Tower and Environs
After lunch, visit the city's most recognizable landmark, The Eiffel Tower. Attracting millions of visitors a year, the tower merits a visit, but you're not obliged to go up if you don't feel like it. Walking around the majestic Champs de Mars and the area known as the Trocadero will supply plenty of vibrant impressions, and during high season, the lines at the Tower can take hours. Bring your Paris area map or app so you can find your way around what can feel like a confusing and sprawling neighborhood.
Metro: Bir Hakeim or Trocadero (Line 6), Ecole Militaire (Line 8)
Late Afternoon: Champs-Elysées or Musée d'Orsay and Tuileries Gardens
To offer some flexibility and a bit more choice, our one-day self-guided tour of Paris gives you two options.
Stroll and shop around the Champs-Elysées. From the area around the Eiffel Tower, take the metro or bus to a stop on the famous avenue, now a hub for luxury shopping, iconic nightclubs, and big Parisian revues.
The best stops are Franklin D. Roosevelt (to start at the foot of the Avenue) or Charles de Gaulle-Etoile (to start at the top near the Arc de Triomphe.) Spend some time ducking into luxury shops, nibbling on macarons and tea at the famous Laduree shop, and seeing Paris from Napoleon's vantage by visiting the Arc de Triomphe.
Or, visit the fantastic art collections at the Musée d'Orsay. If you are less interested in shopping and glamour and more interested in arts and culture, head back east on the metro or bus from the Eiffel Tower to the Musée d'Orsay (Metro: Solferino; RER Musee d'Orsay). The collection of impressionist and expressionist painting and sculpture from the likes of Monet, Manet, Gaugin, and Degas is simply sublime.
After visiting the museum, and if time allows, cross the bridge closest to the Orsay over the Seine to the Tuileries Gardens adjacent to the Louvre Museum. These were formerly royal gardens when the King's palace was based at the Louvre. Admire the ponds and classical landscaping, and take a break on one of the benches. You won't have time to visit the Louvre this time around, but from here you can admire the imposing facades of the gargantuan museum.
Hop on Metro Line 1 and take the train eastward from Tuileries to "Chatelet les Halles" or "Hotel de Ville" for some early evening touring.
Early Evening: Explore the Centre Pompidou and "Beaubourg"
For an hour or so before dinner, stroll the vibrant neighborhood around the Centre Georges Pompidou, known to locals as "Beaubourg." This area is fairly representative of contemporary Paris. It's diverse, bustling, friendly, experimental, and doesn't rest on its history.
At a minimum, explore the lobby of the massive Centre Pompidou (and maybe go up to the rooftop if time and budget allow) and then using your area map get a sense of the lively district surrounding the Pompidou.
Metro: RER Chatelet-les-Halles or Metro Hotel de Ville
Evening: Dinner and Drinks in the Old Marais District
The final leg of your self-guided tour brings you to the gorgeous old district known to tourists as the Marais, an area that preserves the narrow streets, architecture, and old-world charms of medieval and Renaissance-era Paris.
After enjoying some dinner, take a nice evening stroll in the area and finding a spot in a good bar or brasserie for an after-dinner drink or two. Beware, though, on the weekends finding a spot anywhere here can be incredibly challenging.
Metro: Saint Paul or Hotel de Ville (or an easy 10-15 minute walk from the Centre Pompidou area using your Paris area map or app).