First visits to Paris can be as daunting and disorienting as they are enchanting. It's often hard to know where to begin: what should you be prioritizing on your first days of sightseeing and exploring in the capital? It's just so easy to get drawn down charming little cobbled streets and old passageways, or to feel overwhelmed by the endless list of city museums and monuments suggested in your guidebook.
Most of the city is, of course, worth seeing and exploring. But especially if you're a first-time visitor to the French capital, there are a few tourist attractions that you'll likely want to focus on when you arrive.
Without further ado, here are our picks for the city's 22 most unforgettable sights and attractions, singled out for their mass popularity, historical importance, and sheer "wow" factor. And yes, you guessed it: One of these is the sublime Notre-Dame Cathedral, pictured above.
Visit the Louvre Museum and Old Palace
To learn the Louvre inside and out, you might need half a lifetime. Still, one has to start somewhere. The site of the world's most extensive and most diverse collection of pre-20th-century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, the Louvre is a global touristic drawcard. Not forgetting the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, make sure to visit less crowded wings, to bask in the works of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and countless others. The centuries-old palace itself is a testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present.
See the Notre Dame Cathedral, a Gothic Marvel
No first trip to Paris is complete without a visit to this marvel of gothic architecture, dating to the 12th century. One of the most unique and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral's dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away.
Witness firsthand the spot that was once the heartbeat of medieval Paris, and that took over 100 years of hard labor to complete. Climbing the North tower to see Paris from the hunchback Quasimodo's vantage is essential, too. You'll soon understand why Notre Dame is one of Paris' top attractions.
Go to the Top of the Eiffel Tower
More than any other landmark, the Eiffel Tower has come to represent an elegant and contemporary Paris—but this wasn't always so. The iron tower, which was built for the 1889 World Exposition by Gustave Eiffel, was wildly unpopular with Parisians when it was unveiled and was nearly torn down.
It has since attracted over 220 million visitors, and it would be hard to imagine Paris now without it. The tower crowns the Paris night sky with its festive light and glitters up a storm every hour. It has also recently firmly entered the twenty-first century, retrofitted with solar panels and glass-floored observation platforms, to the delight of some and the vertigo of others. Cliché? Yes, maybe. But essential.
See Breathtaking Impressionist Art at the Musée d'Orsay
Walk over the bridge from the Louvre to the Musee d'Orsay and witness a literal and figurative bridge between classical and modern art. Housing the world's most important collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting, the Musee d'Orsay's light, airy rooms whir you through three floors of modern wonders, from Degas' ethereal dancers to Monet's water lilies, all the way to Gaugin's verdant jungles. Significant works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Manet, and others await you, too.
Walk Around the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter
The Sorbonne University is the historic soul of the Latin Quarter, where higher learning has flourished for centuries. Founded in 1257 for a small group of theology students, the Sorbonne is one of Europe's oldest universities. It has hosted countless great thinkers, including philosophers René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Enjoy a drink on the café terrace in front of the college before exploring the winding little streets of the Quartier Latin behind it.
Marvel at the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees
The 164-foot Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Emperor Napoléon I does exactly what it was made to do: Evoke sheer military power and triumph. It was built in an age when leaders erected monuments in their own honor and scaled to their egos. The arch's beautiful sculptures and reliefs commemorate Napoléon's generals and soldiers. Visit the Arc de Triomphe to begin or culminate a walk down the equally grandiose Avenue des Champs-Elysées. You can't help but feel grand yourself.
Visit Centre Pompidou and the Beaubourg Neighborhood
Parisians consider the Centre Georges Pompidou to be the cultural pulse of the city. This modern art museum and cultural center, located in the neighborhood affectionately dubbed Beaubourg by locals, opened in 1977 to honor president Georges Pompidou.
The Center's signature skeletal design, which evokes bones and blood vessels, is either loved or reviled—no in-betweens. If wacky design isn't your cup of tea, the permanent collection at the National Museum of Modern Art is a must and features works by Modigliani and Matisse. Rooftop views of the city are also in order.
Explore the Sacré Coeur and Montmartre
With its unmistakable white dome that some compare to a meringue crowning the city, the Sacré Coeur sits at the highest point of Paris on the Montmartre knoll, or butte. This basilica, which was consecrated in 1909, is best-known for its garish gold mosaic interiors and for its dramatic terrace, from which you can expect sweeping views of Paris on a clear day.
Take the funicular up with a metro ticket and stop off at Sacré Coeur before exploring the winding, village-like streets of Montmartre. And after expending all your energy climbing Montmartre's formidable hills and stairs, consider spending an evening at a traditional Parisian cabaret such as the legendary Moulin Rouge or the ultra-folksy Au Lapin Agile.
Take a Boat Tour of the Seine River
Seeing some of Paris' most beautiful sites glide past as you drift down the Seine river is an unforgettable and essential experience. Companies such as Bateaux-Mouches and Bateaux Parisiens offer one-hour tours of the Seine year-round for about 10 Euros. You can hop on near Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. Go at night to enjoy the shimmering play of light on the water, and dress warmly—the wind from off the Seine can be chilly. You can also take tours of some of Paris' canals and waterways, which will allow you to see a semi-hidden side of the city of light.
Stroll Through Père Lachaise Cemetery
Paris counts within its walls many of the world's most poetic cemeteries, but Père-Lachaise outdoes them all. Countless famous figures are buried here: the most popular being The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, whose tomb is kept constant vigil by fans. The French playwright Molière, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Richard Wright are a few others. On a sunny day, climbing to the cemetery's summit and looking down on the lavishly designed crypts can be surprisingly joyful.
Admire Sculptures at the Musée Rodin
Tour a great sculptor's studio in a romantic setting at the Musée Rodin, completely renovated and re-opened to visitors in November 2015. Set in an 18th-century mansion, the museum is home to more than 6,000 works by Rodin, including "The Thinker"and "The Kiss". There are also 15 sculptures in the permanent collection from the French sculptor Camille Claudel, another master.
After seeing the sculptures, make sure to spend some time admiring the extensive collection of drawings and cast molds on display. The lush grounds are home to a rose garden, café and fountains. More iconic sculptures from Rodin grace the gardens, including "Orpheus" and bronze studies for "The Burghers of Calais".
See World-Class Contemporary Art at the Foundation Louis Vuitton
This stunning new foundation designed by Frank Gehry offers world-class contemporary arts shows and one of the most unique additions to the Parisian skyline in recent years. The collection houses work owned by Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of LVMH. You'll see everything from giant Gerhard Richter paintings to interactive installations by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Afterward, have a picnic or a stroll at the sprawling park and wood known as the Bois de Boulogne.
Shop (or Window-Shop) on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
If you want to shop like a Parisian high-roller—or at least pretend to—head to Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the surrounding district. Joining the 1st and 8th arrondissements (districts), the street is lined with the biggest names in fashion and luxury, ranging from old-school couture labels like Goyard, Hermès, Gucci and Prada, as well as contemporary, coveted houses and designers (Apostrophe Jun Ashida). You can also find bespoke perfume, high-end jewelry, scrumptious pastries and even old-world, fine luggage. It's no wonder it's included in our guide to the best shopping districts in the French capital.
Find a Vintage Treasure at the Marché aux Puces de Clignancourt/St Ouen
It's easy to get overwhelmed at this sprawling Parisian flea market. After all, the 150-year-old puces-- literally, "fleas"-- is among the world's largest. But with a bit of focus and perseverance, you can find a treasure within the labyrinth of stalls, regardless of if you're hunting for antique silver cutlery or vintage Chanel couture. The market is located on the edge of north Paris, where the 18th arrondissement meets the suburb of St. Ouen.
The easiest way to get there? Take Metro Line 4 to "Porte de Clignancourt" and follow the signs to the market. You can also take line 13 to the Porte de St Ouen station (and to the side of the "puces" that stretch into the suburb).
Wander Through the Marais District
If there's a better French neighborhood for strolling, sightseeing, shopping, tasting and people-watching all in a single morning or afternoon, we haven't found it. The Marais, which spans the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, has a rich history in Paris: It's home to the city's historic Jewish Quarter (pletzl), and also serves as the heartbeat of the city's vibrant LGBT community.
Within the always-bustling, you'll also find stunning hôtel particuliers (old-school mansions), numerous medieval sites and landmarks, a plethora of high-end and designer boutiques, and many of the city's best museums, including the Musée Picasso.
Relax & Stroll at the Luxembourg Gardens
Even if you know very little about the French capital, you might have a mental image of Parisians relaxing in lawn chairs on terraces overlook ornate, manicured lawns and ponds. This is an iconic image you can play out for yourself by visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, an Italian and French-style haven that was once the stomping grounds of the Queen Marie da Medici.
While it's a favorite place to relax with a picnic, the Renaissance-era formal gardens are popular among joggers and walkers, and children who race their sailboats behind the Sénat. Also be sure to admire the collection of statues: some of our favorites include stately sculpted images of the different Queens and other royal women of France throughout history.
See the Largest Public Collection of Picasso's Work
After closing for nearly five years, the Musée Picasso in Paris re-opened at the end of 2014, fresh off a pricey renovation. Now, this world-class museum spans more than 50,000 square feet and houses thousands of works by the inimitable Spanish artist. The main building, a 17th-century mansion in the Marais (see #15), features furniture designed by the legendary Diego Giacometti.
Housing masterpieces as well as works from lesser-known periods in Picasso's work, the museum also offers temporary exhibits showcasing the work of artists such as Giacometti. It's a must-see for anyone interested in the history of 20th-century art.
Eat Some Famous Parisian Ice Cream
Tucked away on the Ile Saint-Louis, you'll find nearly 100 flavors of ice cream at the famous Berthillon. Depending on the season, you can try everything from wild strawberry to peach, hazelnut, pistachio and white chocolate. The shop's idyllic setting—nestled on a small island in the Seine, across from Notre-Dame Cathedral—makes it a must-visit. You can stroll the streets, lined with 17th-century mansions, while you enjoy your cone.
Looking for more places to try excellent ice cream in Paris? See our full guide here.
Satisfy Natural Curiosities at Deyrolle
Seeking a bit of the old-fashioned and the strange? Deyrolle is an old Parisian boutique (open since 1831) that notably specializes in taxidermied animals (none are recent, though, a potentially reassuring point for those concerned with animal rights).
Located in the 7th arrondissement, this veritable cabinet of curiosities houses life-sized tigers, bears, birds, and more, as well as countless drawers filled with every possible butterfly, bug, or insect you can imagine. Many of the boutique's subjects have been used in the study of botany, entomology, and zoology. This is certainly one of the weirdest shops in Paris-- and well worth a visit, if you can handle the taxidermy.
Shop at a French Food Market
The French take their food very seriously and there's no better way to experience that first-hand than to visit one of the city's many open-air food markets. These markets are typically held several times throughout the week, and there's one in almost every neighborhood. Even if you're staying in a hotel, you can stock of up on fresh fruit, cheese, charcuterie, and other snacks—perfect for taking in a picnic along the Seine.
Also see our mouthwatering guide to the Marché d'Aligre, a favorite farmer's market among locals in the city.
Get Lost Inside an Old-World French Department Store
In addition to being masters of all things cuisine and gastronomy, Parisians are also expert shoppers. This is evidenced by their sprawling, elegant department stores.
These multi-storied behemoths--many built during the elegant turn-of-the-twentieth-century period known as the "Belle Epoque"-- stock everything from wine to haute couture to hardware and home supplies. Among our favorites: BHV, in Le Marais, Galeries Lafayette, and the Le Bon Marché, the first-ever modern department store.
Amble Around the Latin Quarter
Nothing quite says Paris like a day strolling through the Latin Quarter, one of the city's most storied and beloved districts. Start by browsing books at the beloved English bookshop Shakespeare and Company, before heading over to the Sorbonne University square to have a coffee. Then check out the medieval treasures at the Musée Cluny, browse rare books and antiques near the Jardin du Luxembourg, and wind through the narrow little streets behind the Pantheon to the Place de la Contrescarpe.
Or just wander and make any number of your own discoveries: morning light hitting the tops of the buildings; the joy of tasting fresh bread, pastries and fruit on the market-centric Rue Mouffetard or the Place Monge...the possibilities are nearly endless.
Explore the Canal St Martin & Its Hip Shops, Restaurants
Anyone who wants to understand contemporary Paris should spend some time strolling up and around the Canal St. Martin, one of the city's most vibrant and innovative areas. Walk to the center of one of the graceful, metallic green bridges to watch boats float down the canal (and come through complex lock systems).
Enjoy a glass of wine and a few small plates at a wine bar, or nosh on eclectic cuisine in one of the area's countless, utterly hip new restaurants. Browse boutiques and art bookshops for the latest in style and design. You can even have a picnic right by the water-- a favorite local pastime.
See Some of Monet's Most Beautiful Work at This Small Museum
Many visitors to Paris completely overlook a small collection at the west end of the Tuileries gardens that harbors one of Impressionist master Claude Monet's most breathtaking works of art. But they shouldn't.
Pay a visit to the Orangerie Museum and witness the sweeping, poetic beauty of Nymphéas, a series of murals that plunge you into Monet's distinctive world of color, light and watery landscapes. His waterlilies are a symbol of world peace, painted following the end of the first World War as a gesture of hope and reconciliation.
In addition to Monet's stirring masterpiece, the Orangerie museum also hosts the Jean Walter - Paul Guillaume collection, with remarkable works from the likes of Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Sisley, Matisse and Modigliani. After you've seen the Orsay and the Centre Pompidou collections, an afternoon here offers another dose of artistic inspiration-- and education.
Take a Day Trip to Versailles
Versailles and its world-famous palace and gardens are a quick one-hour trip outside the city, making it an essential and easy day trip from Paris.
This 17th-century palace had humble beginnings as a hunting lodge before turning into an opulent palace under the rule of Louis XIV, also known as the "Sun King". Today, strolling through the extensive formal gardens and visiting the incredible Hall of Mirrors is an experience you won't likely forget. Also make sure to reserve some time for the quieter, lesser-known buildings and gardens, including the Petit Trianon and Queen's Hamlet, where Marie Antoinette retired from the pressures of court life and even pretended at times to be a humble shepherdess or milkmaid.
Go Underground into the Catacombs
It doesn't have to be Halloween for you to thoroughly enjoy the creepy experience of going far underground to see the Catacombs of Paris. There are dozens of miles of tunnels dug way below street level, but only a small portion of these can (legally) be visited.
Here, after buying a ticket and descending a long spiral staircase, you'll be plunged into a strange world of death. Millions of human bones and skulls are neatly stacked (in curious, very French fashion) alongside the pathways-- souls who were transferred from overcrowded cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some will find this attraction decidedly chilling, while others will enjoy it as an archaeological and social curiosity. Either way, it's well worth a couple of hours.
Eat Some Delicious French Bread & Pastries
A trip to the French capital would be incomplete without ducking into a few warm, inviting bakeries and patisseries (pastry shops) to taste their tempting creations. From all-butter croissants and pain au chocolat that boast the ideal balance between flakiness and softness, to crusty, impeccably baked baguettes, creamy lemon mini-tarts and fluffy eclairs, there's a whole gourmet world to discover out there.
Yet you shouldn't be intimidated. While stunning, these products are part and parcel of daily life in Paris. To find out where to find some of the best bread, browse this guide. For mouthwatering pastries and cakes, see our guide to the city's best patisseries.
Visit the Old Paris Operahouse...and See a Ballet There
Confusingly enough, the Palais Opera Garnier doesn't actually host opera performances these days-- that's the job of the newer Opera Bastille. But this historic site, now home to the French National Ballet, is a remarkable place to visit, inside and out.
Its sumptuous, elegant design can be admired from far down the equally regal Avenue de l'Opéra-- an iconic sight well worth seeking out. Inside, the magnificent stairway in the entrance and main theatre, crowned with a moving ceiling painting from French painter Marc Chagall, is simply sublime.
Enjoy Fresh Air at the Bois de Boulogne
Sometimes, a little breathing room away from the stress and noise of the city is in order. When you're not up for a full day trip but wouldn't mind a little green and fresh air, head over to the Bois de Boulogne-- and enormous wooded park sculpted from an old forest.
Enormous green lawns, tree-lined walking paths, ponds inhabited by ducks and wild birds, an open-air theatre, puppet shows for kids and even an old-fashioned horceracing track (Hippodrome) await here. Pack a picnic, put on your walking shoes, bring a camera and enjoy a day away from the city-- right on its very edge.
Toast Like the French at a Local Wine Bar
As you might expect, Paris boasts a remarkable number of excellent wine bars. Go enjoy a simple glass or two at one of these laid-back bars, where you might also tuck into a plate of fragrant, creamy French cheeses or savory charcuterie. Some of those that made our list of the best also specialize in small plates that fit the definition of gourmet.
Whether tasting a light, fresh Beaujolais Nouveau for the harvest season or trying more complex, "challenging" reds and whites from Burgundy or Bordeaux, there's something for everyone at these bars. After all, in France, wine isn't a snobby affair-- it's something most people enjoy.