Eiffel Tower – tick. Louvre – tick. Notre-Dame – tick. We’re sure you’ve got those most obvious of Paris sights and attractions right at the top of your holiday hit list. But what else should you try to squeeze into your packed Parisian itinerary? There’s almost too much to see and do in the French capital, let’s be honest, so we’re here to give you some guidance. From a charming mecca for bibliophiles to a stunning off-the-beaten-track park near Belleville, trust us: you’ll never get bored in the City of Light. This is our ultimate guide to sightseeing in Paris.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Paris
Sightseeing in Paris
Imagine the gaping hole in the Parisian skyline (and our hearts) if all 18,000 metal parts of Gustave Eiffel’s jaw-dropping monument had been taken down at the end of the 1889 World Fair like originally planned. Thankfully, this elegant Parisian icon is still standing and poised for selfie opportunities galore. You can ascend to different levels of the 300-metre structure – though bear in the mind the very upmost part is closed at certain times of the year.
Number two on your must-see-in-Paris list has to be the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a regal reminder of a time when Napoleon Bonaparte ruled the roost, proudly standing its ground as the roar of traffic whirs around its stone buttresses. In the Arc’s museum, you can learn about its 200-year-old history through interactive screens before jetting up to the roof, where gorgeous views of the city await.
Despite its location on the fringes of Paris, it would be sacrilege to overlook Versailles, one of the most lavish buildings on the face of the earth. Making a full day of it is essential – wander through the ornate state apartments, marvel at the pink marble palaces tucked away from the pomp of the court, and check out Marie-Antoinette’s digs: a deliciously twee and saccharine chocolate box of a house located on a fairy-tale farm.
Few cities are as synonymous with style, flair and fashion as Paris. And if you are in Paris to picking up designer duds, make a beeline for the Galeries Lafayette, a sprawling shopping mecca where you can lose hours to retail therapy. Come for Dior, and stay for the drop-dead gorgeous domed roof, which looks particularly exquisite at Christmas when there’s a tree laden with fairy lights underneath it.
While the mosaics inside the beautiful 19th-century basilica are très jolies, the real reason you’ve scaled the hill (or taken the funicular – if you’re over 80 or feeling lazy) is to take in the sweeping vistas of the city. The cobbled, bistro-lined streets behind Sacré-Coeur are well worth exploring, too – just try to sideline the keyring-shaking touts.
Deep beneath the Parisian streets lie the neatly stacked bones of around six million people. As the sign outside reads (in French). ‘Here lies the Empire of Death.’ And yes, it makes for a pretty unnerving experience, walking through this corridors of stacked skulls. You can tour a section of the 3,000km (1,864-mile) tunnel network – just make sure you wrap up warm, the temperature in the tunnels is a cool 14°C.
Yes, it’s the home of the Mona Lisa (you might have to wait until the crowds disperse to get an eyeful of Leonardo’s gal and that enigmatic smile), but there are some 35,000 works of art and artefacts to explore at the Louvre, so get your walking shoes on and start exploring. Whatever you do, don’t try to do it all – that would take days on end. Pick a few rooms you like the sound of, and spend time properly savouring the treasures inside.
If the neatly trimmed bushes and rigid, gravel-covered paths of many Parisian parks are a total turn-off, make your way to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where meandering walkways, cascading waterfalls and charming temples make for a idyllic setting for the more curious traveller.
If it’s glitz and glam you’re after, dig out your sparkliest glad rags and sashay over to the world-famous Moulin Rouge. Drinks will be flowing freely, the costumes flamboyant and – naturellement – there’ll be more high kicks than you can shake a feather boa at. But don’t think you can just rock up and catch one of the Moulin’s spectacularly successful shows – book ahead to avoid disappointment.
If you know the Hunchback, you know the cathedral. After Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’, Disney’s plucky ’90s movie brought the wonderfully foreboding Gothic architecture of the historic icon (built between 1163 and 1345) to a whole new generation. Even after the inferno that tore through the roof in April 2019, which millions watched unfold on screens worldwide, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame still stands majestic on the Île de la Cité. On your next visit, look up at its timeless façade and imagine its future – just how will they rebuild this sacred beast?
The problem with going up the Eiffel Tower is that as you look out across the Parisian skyline, it just seems so conspicious by its absence. And you’re certainly not going to be able snap a decent photo of it. That’s where the 209-metre steel-and-glass Tour Montparnasse comes in handy. You’ll be lapping up those city views within seconds of hopping into the lift.
A gentle stroll through the vast gravelled paths in these gardens beside the Louvre makes for the perfect antidote to a day of tourist jostling – whether on a chilly winter’s day with a coffee or in the blazing summer sunshine, when you can grab an ice cream and admire the perfectly coiffed hedges.
What with the crowds, the queues and the painfully slow map navigation, sightseeing in Paris can be stress-inducing stuff – but at least you can find some respite among the mellow hues of Monet’s ‘Nymphéas’ (water lilies) paintings, which wrap around two white oval-shaped rooms of the Orangerie.
For quirky establishments brimming with the kind of characters you’d find in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, look no further than Canal Saint-Martin. This is where certain scenes of ‘Amélie’ were filmed. Édith Piaf often sang about it. And you’ll find Sisley’s ‘View of the Canal Saint-Martin’ in the Orsay. Take a laid-back stroll along here and stop off at one of the independent bars for a bière or bite to eat.
After the Louvre and the Pompidou, the next stop for gallery hoppers should be the Musée d’Orsay, originally a train station designed by Victor Laloux in 1900. Its extensive collection ranges from 1848 to 1914 – expect to see work by Delacroix, Corot, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, Monet, Caillebotte, Cézanne, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and others.
Opera fans are in safe hands in the lavish surroundings of this 2,000-strong auditorium. Arrive early to marvel at the false ceiling painted by Marc Chagall in 1964 and saunter down that grand staircase like you’re royalty. Opulent and grandiose, this place will transport you back to the days of 19th-century haute société – and that’s all before you even sit down to enjoy its stellar programme of opera, ballet and theatre.
Its playful nursery school colours, exposed pipes and exterior escalators make the Centre Pompidou – designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers – one of the best-known sights in Paris. If modern art’s your bag, you’re in for a treat, because this place holds more of it than anywhere else in Europe. Certain parts are free entry.
Like much Parisian architecture, Père-Lachaise cemetery is incredibly photogenic. Winding, cobbled pathways wind between leafy trees, ornate headstones and extravagant mausoleums. Tourists flock here because of the famous names buried here – Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Balzac – but it’s a pretty place to wander in its own right. Check out our handy guide to help plot your route through the cemetery.
In 1969, hoary French crooner Joe Dassin released ‘Les Champs-Elysées’, a perfect slice of cheesy French chanson whose lyrics go, ‘in the sunshine, in the rain, in the dark or in the day, all you need’s on the Champs-Elysées’. The song captured the avenue’s status at the time as one of the most fashionable streets in Paris. Today it remains as such, with big-name brands like Levi’s, Hugo Boss and, er, Marks & Spencer all headquartered here. Come armed with cash and plenty of it.
You’ll be lucky if you can find a nook to squeeze into that isn’t already taken at this always bustling Left Bank bookshop. But you should definitely make a go of it. The original Shakespeare & Co, run by Sylvia Beach – and frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway – closed in the 1940s, before a new shop opened in 1951. With its tome-lined passages and charming alcoves, this is an enchanting place where writers, readers and bohemian bibliophiles flock from all over the world.