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Iconic Things to See and Do in the City of Light
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 really focus on when you arrive.
Read related: What to See & Do in Paris (A Complete Guide)
Without further ado, click through to read our picks for the city's 10 most unforgettable sights and attractions, singled out for their mass popularity, historical importance, and/ or sheer "wow" factor. And yes, you guessed it: one of these is the sublime Notre-Dame... Cathedral, pictured above.
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Top Parisian Attraction #1: 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 largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is a global touristic draw card. 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 testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present.
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Parisian Attraction #2: 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 singular and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral's dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away.
Read related: Take This One-Day Self-Guided Tour of Paris
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.
As shown in the picture above, visiting the cathedral on a winter holiday trip to Paris or for Christmas can be especially sublime.
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Top Parisian Attraction #3: 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 absolutely essential.
Read Further:Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Top Parisian Attraction #4: 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 leafy jungles. Major works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Manet, and others await you, too.
Read Further: Musee d'Orsay Visitor Tips
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Top Parisian Attraction #5: 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.
Charming Places to Explore in the Latin Quarter:
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Top Parisian Attraction #6: 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.
Read More: Complete Guide to the Arc de Triomphe
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Top Parisian Attraction #7: 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.
Read More:Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Top Parisian Attraction #8: 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.
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Top Parisian Attraction #9: 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.
- All About the Seine River: History, Facts, and How to Enjoy
- Boat Tours of Paris Canals and Waterways
- Seine River Cruise & Dinner Packages (Book Direct at TripAdvisor)
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Top Parisian Attraction #10: 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.
- Complete Guide to Père Lachaise
- Père Lachaise in Pictures
- What To See and Do Around the Père-Lachaise Neighborhood
Okay, so you've seen the good stuff...
But what about the bad and the ugly? It's just as fun to ponder the things that make many people go "grrrr" in the city of light-- from dog "business" left on the sidewalk to overcrowded metro cars and surly service in certain restaurants or cafes.
Check out our gripe list of the top 10 things we really dislike about Paris. Also... make sure to read my advice on what not to do in Paris, from getting lured into tourist traps to staying stuck in routines and habits carried over from home, rather than engaging with the local culture.
Meanwhile, If you want to dig deeper into Parisian history and see beyond the city's idyllic surface, check out our visual guide to 10 strange and disturbing facts about Paris. From secret underground networks to forgotten aspects of the city's twisted history, this piece isn't for the faint of heart!
Finally, if you're on your third or thirteenth visit and have already covered the top-ten many times over, consult our guide on the most unusual and off-the-beaten-track things to do in Paris.
Stay in touch with me and ask questions: