The First Trip: A Four Day Paris Itinerary

a view of the eiffel tower from a paris apartment

Bienvenue à Paris!(!!!). This is your four-day Paris itinerary, de luxe.

Paris is one of the world’s best destinations. It is also one of its busiest, and while definitely not one of its biggest, it can be the most overwhelming. Like, it’s Paris!! How can you possibly decide what to see and what not to see?

If you want to just skip to the recs for our four-day Paris itinerary, go here:
Day 1: Arrival + Louvre + crepes + more
Day 2: Batobus + Eiffel Tower + Le Perchoir + more
Day 3: Versailles (or Giverny) + BigLove + more
Day 4: Vanves + Montmartre + more

And let’s make reservations at: Breizh (not necessarily except for peak times), Septime (100% necessary), BigLove (do it) and Boite aux Lettres (probably not necessary mais pourquoi pas?)

The first time I came to Paris, I came for three days, the second time for two days (both because I was living in London, not because I owned a private jet and could travel hither-thither as I liked.) On my third trip to Paris, I stayed for two months, and on my fourth trip to Paris, I got an apartment. Paris (fingers crossed) isn’t going anywhere. I’ve seen more trips ruined by doing too much than by doing too little, so if anything, I would strongly suggest subtracting from this itinerary wherever you like. The essence of France, the thing that makes it the most-visited country in the world, isn’t the art — it’s the way of life. And the French way of life strongly emphasizes three-hour-long lunches and leisurely apéros over cramming in as many museum trips as possible.

I take itinerary designing seriously, and this, I believe, is a suitable four-day Paris itinerary for a first-time visitor — especially the sort of visitor who wants to see all the big stuff before heading home. Personally? I haven’t been to the Eiffel Tower since the actual ’90s. This itinerary is broad, not deep. But it’s a logical way of hitting all the major spots in an orderly fashion. And I do love everything on it but the Eiffel Tower. One good switch would be to head to Montmartre later at night (depending on the season) and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle-show from the steps at Sacré Coeur. Would I also go shopping at Sézane, Merci, BHV? Of course. Would I get lunch at Eataly and that little Chinese place that has the world’s best fried rice with pork belly? Gimme some now. But would I recommend that to first-time visitors? Yes, and no. The purpose of this four-day Paris itinerary is to cover all the basics. Another four-day Paris itinerary will cover just my personal favorites, and involve even more naps than this one does. But I’m confident that anyone using this itinerary would see the best the city has to offer in a reasonable, un-rushed but comprehensive way.

Why four days, and thus a four-day Paris itinerary? Four days is a reasonable amount of time for a short-ish trip to Paris. For people coming from North America, that probably means arriving very early morning and leaving from early morning to early afternoon, which gives you three full days and a solid portion of your arrival. The days here, by the way, were not selected at random: If you’re coming to Paris for four days, I suggest arriving on Thursday morning and leaving on Monday. I nearly always leave Paris on a Monday: If you leave on Sunday, you lose that precious weekend day to travel — plus Sunday has a distinctly different rhythm to it, and it’d be a shame to miss it. And if you leave on Tuesday, that means your last full day was a Monday, which is less than ideal as many restaurants and museums are closed.

A final note: Reflecting my personal … vibe, this itinerary veers toward art and away from food experiences — I stand by the four dinner choices, but they’re personal favorites rather than a hit list of Michelin-starred restos (well, except for Septime.) Also, there are a lot of naps scheduled here. Life is better with naps.

a gallery at the louvre

Day 1: Thursday, Baseline
6:00 a.m.: Arrive Charles de Gaulle airport.
If you’re me, you’re hustling on down to the RER B to central Paris; otherwise, you might be taking a taxi/Uber to your hotel. In either case, it’s usually a few hours between leaving the plane and leaving the airport.

10:30 a.m.: Drop bags at hotel
Most hotels don’t allow check in this early but — definitely accustomed to the early-morning arrival patterns of North American customers — will take your bags off your hands for a few hours. For the purposes of this four-day Paris itinerary, we’ll be staying at the Hotel du Petit Moulin, which is both pleasingly decorated (by designer Christian Lacroix) and well located, in the heart of Upper Marais: beautiful limestone buildings! Centuries-old fruit and vegetable markets! Chandeliers, if you know which windows to look in! It’s all here.

Noon: The Louvre
We’ll leave the neighborhood sites for later, because the Mona Lisa vous attend, if you know what we mean. Head south on rue Vieille du Temple, just down rue Poitou, window-shopping along the way. This is basically the French version of a high-end international mall (Aesop, Veja, Uggs, concept store version of Lush, etc.), but intermittently charming. Head for the line 1 métro at Hotel de Ville, and take it a couple stops to the Palais Royale/Musée du Louvre.

Once inside, the Louvre is yours to explore. It is amazing, overcrowded, wonderful, overwhelming: everything. If you don’t mind crowds, head for the grand masters of European paintings and Greek sculpture. My favorite spot here, though, is one its quietest: the Islamic art galleries. Take the stairs down to the lower level and there’s a seating area in the back corner that’s as close as the Louvre gets to a lounge.

2:30 p.m.: Lunch
Once you’ve had your fill, exit via rue de Rivoli and you have a couple options for lunch, depending on your level of hunger and your tolerance for lines: if both are high, head to Kunitoraya, which makes its udon noodles on the premises and is “excellent” in proportion to “crowded”: This is the one place in Paris I’ll wait in a line (which often snakes down rue Villedo from the entrance). Otherwise, get a sandwich at busy but low-key Maison Keyser, which is consistently rated as one of the best gluten-free bakeries in Paris and offers two wonderful things: a public bathroom (downstairs) and a huge, comfortable seating space (upstairs).

Side note: If you are interested at all in one of the jewelry equivalent of Sézane, make a detour for the new-ish Lou Yetu showroom on rue Volney.

4:00 p.m.: Palais Royale
From either spot, the Palais Royale is around the corner. Once home to Cardinal Richelieu — sort of the Littlefinger of 17th-century France — it was later occupied by Louis XIII before he decamped to Versailles. Now, the courtyard (lovely enough?) and gardens (fine, but not as good as the Tuileries across-ish the street?) are open to the public. If you’ve ever seen an Instagram shot in Paris, it was definitely taken here, with someone standing on one of Daniel Buren’s black-and-white columns — in fact, an installation called “Les Deux Plateaux.”

Tired yet? Head home via métro or Uber. Feeling more energetic? Head a few minutes’ walk south, to walk back via the Seine, or walk back along rue Saint-Honoré, which has the first arrondissement’s ritziest shopping (Louboutin, Chanel, Goutal, Miu Miu, Balenciaga, etc.) Last option: grab a book at one of Paris’s two best anglophone bookstores — W.H. Smith and Galiagni — and head to the Tuileries to read it (ideally under the sun).

6:30 p.m.: Nap at hotel

9:00 p.m.: Dinner!
Where to go on your first night in Paris? Crepes, obviously. Even better, they’re just down the block. You’re going to Breizh, considered in many corners (including all corners of my apartment) as the best crepes places in the city. Maybe you made reservations before you came; otherwise, just show up (usually, later is better); your odds are best if the weather’s good and they’re offering outdoor seating as well as indoor. I’ve only ordered one thing the last five years, but I assume all the other crepes are as good as the “vendangeurs”, which come with lettuce, red grapes, blue cheese, honey, and pine nuts.

10:30 p.m.: Drink?
If you’re like me, you’re going to sleep just about now. If, however, you have a better sense of joie de vivre, you might be going out for drinks. The buzziest place within walking distance is Le Progrès, the neighborhood’s see-drink-and-be-seen café. The action is usually en terrasse, but those booths inside are awfully comfortable.

the eiffel tower on a sunny day

Day 2: Friday, By River
9:30 a.m.: Croissants
Make your life easier by going to the nearest decent bakery, which would be Manon on rue de Bretagne. These are best eaten on a bench at the square du Temple. On the way from A to B, have a wander through marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest (founded: 1628) covered market in the city.

The best part of today is that we will be traveling by boat! Specifically Batobus, and not just because my first boyfriend in Paris was a captain (he was like 28, I have no idea how he got that job. But it was very interesting because I would call him in most ways an extremely reckless person, except in all matters of locomotion, like this was for the most part I person who did not rant but could talk for 30 minutes about how much he hated cyclists who rang their bike-bell at people, because the fact was that if you were ringing your bell you were going too fast.)

Anyway: Batobus is great, and a much more dignified experience than the evening-time cruises. Hop on board at Hotel de Ville, and take it all the way to the Eiffel Tower.

10:30: The Eiffel Tower
We have to go, right? It feels like we have to go. So: off we go! I felt like I couldn’t put a four-day Paris itinerary together without stopping at the Eiffel Tower, though I will note that any of the half-dozen times my family has come to visit, we’ve never gone, having decided that the view of it is better than the view from it. Honestly, I went on my first-ever trip to Paris, and all I remember is the line. Ignore me, I’m a crank.

Next, we take the Batobus to the Invalides stop (or walk along the Seine, it’s about 25 minutes).

12:30 p.m.: Lunch
For lunch we are going to Rosa Bonheur. Fact: The food’s not like the best food, but this is nonetheless my favorite lunch experience in all of Paris, owing to the fact that it’s served on a boat, and it’s all extremely magical. You may be less enamored of eating on top of a river than I am.

Walk (10 minutes) or Batobus to the Musée d’Orsay stop.

2:30 p.m.: Musée d’Orsay
Now to somewhere I love very much! The Musée d’Orsay has a superior collection of artwork, particularly French Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. I actually find it more exhausting than the Louvre, probably because I have a pass to the Louvre and go all the time so, with practice, have found a sufficient number of quiet corners. Here, I’m still a newbie. But it’s wonderful. If you have ever bought a postcard with an Impressionist painting on it, it’s probably here….

(Walk across the small pedestrian bridge in front of the museum, officially the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor.)

4:30 p.m.: Orangerie
And if it’s not, it’s possibly here, at the Orangerie, which has a couple marvelous rooms, designed by Monet himself, that are without doubt the best spaces to see his water lily paintings (just hope that it’s not too crowded).

For the second day in a row, we’ve ended our day at the Tuileries. From here, you can either Uber, métro, or walk home. Alternatively, get back on the Batobus (this time from the Louvre stop), which would repeat your voyage through Musée d’Orsay, and either complete your circuit (boats go round-trip, in one counterclockwise direction) or take it to the Notre Dame stop, and walk from there.

6:30 p.m.: Nap at hotel

7:30 p.m.: Drinks
Hop in an Uber (or walk, but it’s a hike) to Le Perchoir, just a very lovely rooftop bar with views from the 11th arrondissement, taking in Montmartre and just about everything else. I like coming on the early side, to avoid crowds. 

9 p.m.: Dinner
If you made a reservation (precisely three weeks earlier, when booking opens), we’re going to the hugely esteemed Septime, with its famous contemporary-French seven-course tasting menu. It figures regularly on lists of Paris’s best restaurants.

If you didn’t (I definitely would have forgotten), you can try the still excellent-but-easier-to-book Clown Bar, next to the Winter Circus, closer to home.

versailles four day paris itinerary

Day 3: Saturday, Day Trip!
8:30 a.m.: Two choices
Oh, the Paris day trip. France’s excellent — fast but pricey — train network makes it possible to visit even far-ly flung destinations during a single day: Mont Saint Michel, the landing beaches of Normandy (either with a car or by tour), Le Havre. Lyon and Strasbourg, once five-hour train trips, are now only two hours each way. I mean — you can get to London in a couple hours if you wanted to, but we don’t, because this is about Paris. My advice: travel less, see more.

So the question becomes: how to use this precious, wonderful, weekend day? For me, on a first trip to Paris, it comes down to two destinations: the Palais de Versailles or Giverny. Very different vibes, same level of crowdedness.

Versailles, of course, is the spectacular Paris-suburb palace once inhabited by French royalty, perhaps most famously by “Sun King” Louis XIV, who in 1642 moved the royal court there (“the defining symbol of his power and influence in Europe”) — but also of course by his grandson, Louis XVI, and his unfortunate wife, Marie Antoinette. I love the Sofia Coppola movie of the same name, and it’s well worth watching before a visit. (It was shot at Versailles as well as other palaces, including Vaux-le-Vicomte and Château de Chantilly.)

Versailles is a full-day trip, as there’s not just the main palace but Andre Le Nôtre’s gardens and the Petit Trianon. Personally, I find the palace interiors a little boring, outside of the Hall of Mirrors, and it may be that a smaller, less crowded castle would suit your day-trip needs.The cheapest way to get there is via RER C to Versailles Château – Rive Gauche; the fanciest is by Uber. Well, probably by limousine or helicopter, but also by Uber. Expect to pay about €40 each way (wildly dependent on conditions).

monet's garden in giverny

The alternative is Monet’s garden at Giverny, which tends toward being perilously overcrowded but is so spectacular that it can’t be missed — it’s just a wonderful place, especially if you’ve followed our advice and visited the Orangerie the day before. When is best? Spring or summer? I can’t decide. But if you’re looking for particular flowers — tulips! roses! dahlias! iris! — it can help to consult this flowering calendar, which share what blooms when, more or less.

Monet was 50 and a well-established painter when he bought the house in Giverny, and after a visit here, it’ll be clear why he considered his garden to be his masterwork, along with, obviously, the paintings. This is Monet’s story in his own words, as published in Le Temps in 1900.

Obviously you want good weather for Giverny — even more so than Versailles, though a good portion of that trip should be spent outdoors as well — so mix-and-match the daily itinerary based on the weather.

To get to Giverny, you’ll either want to drive (eh) or take the train to Vernon, switching either to a bike (it’s three miles) or to a convenient shuttle, which leaves the station 15 minutes after the arrival of the train from Paris.

8 p.m.: Dinner
After a full day at one of those two options, we’re keeping it very low-key for dinner, at local spot BigLove, part of a chainlet of buzzy Italian restaurants — look for the line outside, and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Killer pizzas and pasta, most of it vegetarian.


Day 4: Sunday, comme vous voulez
What to say about Sunday? I love the way Paris shuts down on Sunday (and holidays, and August, and a portion of Mondays, etc.) Sundays feel different from Saturday, and I hope they stay like that forever.

Because you’re staying in the Marais, plenty of shops in the neighborhood actually will be open — so save them for later, if you’re feeling like souvenirs. In the morning, though, let’s head to the flea market at Vanves, my favorite in the city. Take the métro to the Porte de Vanves stop, then wander the market — more crowded than it used to be, but still offering a superior atmosphere to the more iconic (but also busier and more expensive) flea market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city. Here, you’ll find vintage clothes, enamelware, small furnishings, fabric, paintings, silverware, doll figurines, latte bowls, and more — it’s the best.

I start at the part of the market immediately south of the métro stop, work my way to the other end, and then finish with a brioche suisse at the best nearby boulangerie, Aux Délices du Palais. (Also providing seating, also providing a bathroom, though you’ll need to be buzzed in.)

1:30 p.m. Montmartre
From here, we have precisely one afternoon left to explore Paris on our four-day Paris itinerary. Where to go? To Le Bon Marché, my favorite of all the department stores? To the Jardin des Plantes, my favorite botanical garden in the world? To see contemporary art at the Centre Pompidou? To the Champs Elysées, if for nothing else (and literally nothing else) than to see the Arc de Triomphe? Back to the Tuileries for some more intense self-care/reading? To the Chateau de Vincennes, an actual castle just on the city limits and accessible by métro?

For me, no first trip — or indeed, no four-day Paris itinerary — could be complete without stopping in Montmartre, and sitting on the steps of Sacré Coeur. So from here, we’re taking the métro up to Montmartre, and then the funicular up the rest of the way. This neighborhood — especially the area right around the basilica and the Place du Tertre are wildly popular, and so very busy. But singular enough that it’s worth fighting through crowds. If it’s open, please eat lunch or dinner at the Boite aux Lettres on rue Lepic — I used to live on rue Gabrielle and ate lunch there every day for months.

My idea would be to start at the top and wander your way down —if Boite aux Lettres is closed, stop instead at another of my favorite restaurants, Bouillon Pigalle. Even if there’s a line, it moves fast — there are hundreds of seats inside.

As you make your way down the hill toward the Marais, definitely walk rue des Martyrs; it’s famous packed with specialty grocers.

7:30 p.m.: Dinner
If you’re still hungry afterward, plan on dinner at neighborhood hang Café Charlot, a spiffy see/be seen sort of place. If you want the same sort of good-but-casual-but-stylish vibe but with a walk before and after, head to their sister restaurant, the St-Regis, on Ile St-Louis, which under other circumstances would deserve an entire day of its own. (The island, not the restaurant.)

9:30: Drinks
Back to Le Progrès! I’m definitely a believer in sticking to a couple spots for things like this — croissants, drinks — and going deeper (repeated trips to the same place) versus broader (trips to different places). Sit inside, sit outside, as you like. It’s Paris. Bottoms up!

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