The best attractions in Paris
Paris’ suburbs often play second fiddle to the city’s intra-muros attractions, but you’d be wrong to ignore Boulogne-Bilancourt. There’s the Bois de Boulogne for a start – Paris’s western lung, filled with lakes and parkland. Then there are its excellent museums, three of which are well worth an afternoon of your time: Head to the Musée Belmondo if you’re into sculpture, the Musée des Années 30 for everything Art Déco and the Musée Albert Kahn for wonderful sculpted gardens and collections of 19th-century photography.
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Loose yourself in the Marais’ narrow, cobbled streets: this quartier is all about intimate museums, elegant mansions and (along rue des Rosiers) Jewish restaurants that sell the best falafels in the city. Start at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Jewish art and history museum) or the Musée Carnavalet, which covers the history of Paris, then nip down rue des Archives to the Marais’s quirky hunting museum, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. Top off your day in Places des Vosges, where writer Victor Hugo’s former apartment (la Maison de Victor Hugo) is bedecked with fabulously garish decor and rafts of fascinating memorabilia.
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Off the beaten tourist track, the hauntingly beautiful Château de Vincennes feels like a forgotten treasure. Built in the 14th-century by Charles V, it’s one of Europe’s best-preserved fortresses with a dungeon that once imprisoned the Marquis de Sade. Grab an audio guide, then work your way through Charles V’s sparse but interesting former living quarters, before entering the chapel, a masterpiece of flamboyant Gothic style, modelled on Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle. To make a day of it, pack a picnic and find a shaded spot in the Bois de Vincennes just over the road.
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Slow the pace with a leisurely cruise along Paris’ Canal St-Martin. Canauxrama’s canal trips start at the Port de l’Arsenal at Bastille, then float gently northwards for two and a half hours towards Bassin de la Villette at Stalingrad, past Paris’s revamped industrial quarters, old locks and elegant footbridges. When you get to Bassin de la Villette (where Canal St-Martin becomes Canal de l’Ourcq), two MK2 cinemas, linked together by a tiny boat, show both blockbuster and art-house films; or carry on along the canal edge (on foot) to sample Parc de la Villette’s science and music museums.
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You’ll come across plenty of cool sights and sounds as you stroll around central Paris. But getting an insider’s feel is a little trickier – unless you sign up for an afternoon with Parisien d’un jour. Led around by passionate volunteers, you’ll see some of Paris’s most interesting districts, hear anecdotes, go where the locals go and generally mix with people so in love with their city, that you’ll get stars in your eyes too. Parisien d’un jour runs two-three hour visits in English and French.
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Bask in the delights of Monet at Musée Marmottan Monet. This former hunting pavilion on Paris’ western edge is home to a vast collection of Monet paintings and provides a rare chance for you to follow the evolution of the artist’s technique, from caricatures in his early career to the world-famous lily canvasses painted at Giverny. Monet’s Impressionist friends (Pissaro, Sisley, Renoir and Daumier) are also well represented, as are art and furniture from the First Empire – an eclectic mix that makes this one of Paris’ most enchanting museums.
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Paris may look old and stately on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story: kick-ass modern and contemporary art joints pepper the capital, from the Musée d’Art Moderne, famed for its fauvists and cubists, to the experimental Palais de Tokyo next door. Cross the river to Fondation Cartier to see highlights of Paris’s art scene over the last twenty years, or peruse cutting-edge photography at the Jeu de Paume. If you’re looking for art so contemporary you can watch it being made, try 104, where resident artists frequently open their workshops to the public.
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Yes, you’ll get some cheesy commentary, but seeing Paris in one majestic sweep on a bateau mouche (riverboat) is something everyone should do at least once. Many of the city’s most gorgeous monuments cling to the banks of the Seine and the river’s bridges are truly beautiful, providing Kodak moments galore. Riverboat companies Bateaux Parisiens and Bateaux Mouches both offer hour-long tours and restaurant cruises.
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There’s nothing like stuffed animals and dinosaur bones to keep kids entertained, and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) has plenty of both, including a plump little dodo and gigantic whale bones. When the little ones have had enough of skeletons, cross the Jardin des Plantes to the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle’s menagerie – the world’s oldest zoo - where century-old giant tortoises and red pandas rub shoulders with owls, ponies, creepy crawlies, wild cats, giant sloths and even toothsome crocodiles.
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At Le Bourget’s Musée de l’Air et l’Espace (Air and Space museum) you'll find over 350 flying machines, including Concorde and a Boeing 747. Fasten your seatbelt for the flight simulators, where you can test your take-off and landing skills, or climb inside the cockpit of a Douglas DC-3. Most exciting of all, however, is Le Bourget’s space section, where you can see a Soviet moon buggy, space suits and a scale model of Ariane’s rocket launchers.
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The best things to do outdoors in Paris
Enjoy a couple of hours picking your own fruit and veg at the Vergers de Champlain in La Queue-en-Brie. There really is nothing like getting out of the city centre and back to nature then cooking with food you picked yourself. If you’ve not got time, buy a readymade basket from the Vergers de Champlain boutique. They stock fresh dairy and locally sourced meat too so you can grab a whole dinner’s worth in one swoop. Bon ap!
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Fifty years ago Bastille had a train station with a viaduct that carried trains into the centre from Vincennes. The station is no more (the Opera Bastille stands there now), but the viaduct is a permanent Paris fixture thanks to the Coulée Verte – an elevated garden (like New York’s High Line) that you can follow across Paris’s 12th arrondissement. Pop on your walking shoes and climb atop the Viaduc des Arts (the first part of the promenade, set over artisanal workshops), then grab a Vélib for extra speed on ground level along the Coulée Verte’s shaded old train lines.
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Paté? Check. Baguette? Check. Wine? Check. Now you’re ready for your panoramic picnic. Of all Paris’s parks, the Buttes Chaumont has the highest levels of charm and views, with waterfalls, a lake and lovely, hilly expanses that look over the city's northern extremities. Its parklife is also rather eclectic: you’ll spot everyone from meditating Tibetan monks and joggers, to groups of friends, and families walking their dogs. When the wine runs dry, Rosa Bonheur (the Buttes Chaumont’s guinguette) has a well-stocked bar where you can finish your day.
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Every Friday night, the whoosh of tiny wheels on tarmac can be heard throughout the capital as thousands of rollerbladers whizz around town with Pari Roller. Don your pads and helmet and join the throngs at Place Raoul Dautry at Monparnasse when the clock strikes 10pm. You’ll cover around 27kms in all (with a pause halfway round), and just when your knees can take no more, you'll head back to base at 1am. Just remember that Pari Roller cancels the ride when il pleut, as roads get dangerously slippery in the rain.
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Marie de Médici's Jardin du Luxembourg is a looker: parterres of lawn, tree-shaded alleys, statuary, water fountains and even an apple orchard make a postcard-perfect backdrop for an afternoon’s stroll. Kids are entertained too thanks to miniature sailing ships, pony rides and puppet shows. On your way round, look out for Bartholdi’s original Statue of Liberty (before he made the one for NYC); and spare a thought for Hemingway: when he was down and out in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg was his hunting ground for plump pigeons.
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Bring your bat ‘n’ balls and test your reflexes on the Canal de l’Ourcq’s table-tennis tables. Then, when you’re all ping-ponged out, head to the Bar de l’Ourcq (after 3pm) for liquid sustenance, before battling it out with a game of boules – also known as pétanque. The bar is set by a flat sandy stretch on the water’s edge and will usually let you borrow its balls. They’ll give you plastic glasses too, so that you can sup Chardonnay while you take in the Canal de l’Ourcq’s urban skyline.
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Navigating the French capital on two wheels may feel daunting at times, but since the arrival of Vélib, Paris’s fab self-hire cycle scheme, drivers are more tuned-in to cyclists and the number of cycle lanes has multiplied. Grab a Vélib from a stand then pedal your way around Paris for free for 30mins. When your time’s up, find a stand and return the bike, or carry on and pay 1€ for every extra half hour.
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Paris’ RIP VIPs are mostly at Père Lachaise, the city’s most famous cemetery, where the likes of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde get to party together in the afterlife. Bring a book and soak up the quiet; it’s surprisingly soothing, with trees, flowers and birds. Or grab a map and check out the tombs: as well as from Oscar and Jim, you’ll find Gertrude Stein, Balzac, Sarah Berhardt and Colette. One of Père Lachaise’s most visited graves belongs to Bonne Maman (division 94), a 19th-century spiritualist whose tomb is said to have healing powers.
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When the kids need to let off steam, a trip to the Jardin d’Acclimatation usually does the trick. Start with a ride on the mini-train from Porte Maillot to the park; then it’s full steam ahead to the funfair, the wooden climbing frames, the Enchanted River Cruise, which takes you along a winding waterway in a flat-bottomed boat, and the magic mirror garden. The Jardin d’Acclimatation also has educational sections with an organic veggie patch, beehives, a little Normandy-style farm and a giant aviary.
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Louis XIII’s medicinal garden, the Jardin des Plantes, offers visitors a fine, floral-scented afternoon amid rows of roses, poppies, herbs and centuries old trees. Eleven gardens make up the park, including glorious 19th-century greenhouses filled with exotic shrubs, and the Alpine garden, where over 2,000 species of mountain flora grow. This is also where you’ll find the pistachio tree that botanist Sébastien Vaillant used in 1718 to prove that plants have a gender. If you’re travelling with kids the Jardin des Plantes’ Menagerie is a lovely little zoo with reassuringly happy-looking animals.
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