What to Do in Paris: 101 Ideas for Museums, Food, Day Trips, Festivals, and More

What to do in Paris: The Absolute Must-Dos

1. Sit along the banks of the Seine as the sun sets — ideally in June, but if you get lucky with the weather, you can do this literally all year round. And ideally you’ll get to do this several nights in a row — which means you can try out a bunch of different spots. My favorite include: the Right Bank right below the Sully-Morland métro stop, the southern bank of the Ile Saint-Louis, the stretch of the Left Bank between the Sully and the Jardin des plantes, in the Jardin Tino Rossi. If you’re there in August, look for the Paris Plages.

2. Well, you probably have to go up the Eiffel Tower; it’s required.

3. Even better, though, watch the Eiffel Tower put on its nightly sparkle show from the steps in front of Sacre-Coeur, up in Montmartre. Obviously you’ll want to go late; follow it with dinner at La Boite aux Lettres, on rue Gabrielle. The show lasts five minutes, and starts every hour on the hour.

4. Have you even been to Paris if you haven’t take a boat ride along the Seine? Batobus is the best of all the options — more utilitarian, sure, but there are better places to have dinner in Paris, and with a Batobus pass you can trade the métro/Uber for a day to roam the river to your heart’s content.

5. Notre Dame is now one of the world’s most expensive construction sites, but it’s still a necessary stop. Go to the eastern end for a view of the damaged roof; on the western end, take a look at the temporary exhibits along the sidewalk showing the interior of the structure, and then head all the way to the western tip of the island to see the beautiful (if small) Square du Vert Galant.

6. Sainte-Chapelle is right next to Notre Dame — but for an even better historic chapel, hop on ligne 1 to go just across the city limit to the Chateau de Vincennes. (Here’s a full field report.)

7. The Chateau de Vincennes feels like a military fortification (there’s even a moat!). If, however, you want a chateau in the sense of a palace — well, for that, you obviously want Versailles, easily accessible by RER (or Uber, if you’re swimming in cash). Do whatever you can to avoid crowds (coming off-season will help) and just accept the fact that there will likely be crowds. If you like, watch Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette beforehand, even if the film was largely shot elsewhere (including Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Château de Chantilly).

8. The Jardin des plantes is just the most wonderful place in Paris, and that’s really all there is to it. Possibly most beautiful in April, as the cherry trees are blooming, but the hard-working gardeners make sure there’s always something to see. Bring a lunch and grab one of the benches beneath the plane trees. This is the first place I take people when they visit.

9. If you’ve had your fill of outdoor drinks along the Seine, next up is outdoor drinks along the Canal St-Martin.

10. Keep walking north along the canal to where it intersects with the elevated ligne 2 — then continue beneath it to the Bassin de la Villette, with its own outdoor drinking spots, plus swimming during the summer and paddle boats, too. There’s a movie theater on each of the facing quais in case you’re looking for something slightly less active.

 

What to do in Paris: Museums

1. If you’ll be in Paris for any length of time — maybe a month? — do yourself a favor and become an Ami du Louvre, which allows you free access to the museum. Go every day, get to know a single specific gallery, and spend the next six months boring your friends back home with every detail of the Islamic Gallery (which is exactly what I did). The trick with the Louvre is to bite off precisely as little of it as possible, and go deep, versus wide. I mean, go wide too, and see everything, but come back with your membership pass and dive into a single room.

2. You’ll probably want to see the Mona Lisa, but the painting I always make a beeline for is Jeune orphéline à la cimitière, by Eugène Delacroix.

3. Other than that, the sculpture garden in the Cour Marly is extremely lovely.

4. The Orangerie is a spectacular way to see Monet’s eight, huge water lily paintings — depending on your tastes, it’s might the best visual art experience in the city.

5. You wouldn’t want to miss the Musée d’Orsay, with its spectacular setting (a former train station) and world-class collection of mostly pre-WWI French art (basically every painter you were ever tested on in art history).

6. The Centre Pompidou is worth visiting when it has an excellent exhibition on (this happens often). Of course, the building, by Richard Rogers, will be of interest to architects; those not excited by the whole world of aesthetics will want to get a look at the Parisian skyline from the top of its bank of escalators. Note it will close in 2023 for a years-long renovation.

7. The Palais de Tokyo doesn’t have a permanent collection, but its exhibitions — showcasing the most contemporary of contemporary art — can be excellent.

8. Fondation Cartier feels midway between a museum and a gallery (a very beautiful, high-end gallery, of course). The grounds themselves are worth a look, with architecture by Jean Nouvel and a small woodland to the building’s rear, designed by German conceptual artist Lothar Baumgarten.

9. It’s worth trekking out to the Bois de Boulogne to see the Fondation Louis Vuitton, with a collection safely tucked inside a building designed by Frank Gehry. If you’re looking for a post-museum activity, you’ll be right near the starting point of the GR1, a 500+ kilometer trail that swings all the way around Paris.

10. Especially if you don’t want to leave town to see one of the palaces, the Musée Jacquemart-André is part stately home, part art gallery. The former includes what is undoubtedly the prettiest stairway in Paris.

11. I really should not mention the Musée Nissim de Camondo because I find it a bit boring compared to the other museums on this list, but it does have the most Wes Anderson-y, beautifully designed bathroom.

12. If you’ve been to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, I’m not sure that the Paris version is worth the time, especially if you’re on a tight schedule — it really depends on the quality of the visiting exhibitions, which have ranged from sublime to so-so. The building itself is beautiful, and take the time for a drink at La Perle, the neighborhood hotspot about 50 meters west.

What to do in Paris: Food

1. My favorite thing to eat in Paris is a croissant. There are all sorts of lists of where to buy the best, but I love all croissants equally. (Though possibly those at Miss Manon in the Marais slightly more than all the others.)

2. I do not love all beignets equally. In fact, I am quite a snob about them, and only eat beignets from the Coquelicot bakery in Montmartre, which was my local spot before moving back down that massive hill.

3. Speaking of bakeries! It’s French law: You need to eat a baguette within 30 minutes of buying it (yes the entire thing) or you are sent to jail. Seriously, though: It’s not Wonder Bread (I was raised on Wonder Bread, I’m not judging), so forget “saving it for the morning.” Note that a tradition is the better version of a baguette. (Here’s a primer on the differences.)

4. You might like those cute little épiceries with a half-dozen products for sale. I, however, am from New Jersey, and so I must naturally gravitate toward the most mall-like offering — in this case, La Grande Épicerie at Le Bon Marché, which has everything — a fishmonger, a bakery, a cheese shop, etc. etc. — a person could want from a French food experience (as well as an entire shelf devoted to American products, including Fluff.)

5. If you’re looking for a slightly more refined experience, try Maison Plisson. Don’t let all the perishables on the ground floor put you off — head down the steps for a travel-ready selection of oils, snacks, sweets, wines, and much more.

6. If you would prefer to actually go to several specialty shops instead of just one, it is time for a tour down rue des Martyrs in the 9th. It is sort of a food paradise, with one fancy food shop after another — my favorite is the local outpost of mini-chain La Meringaie, which sells nothing but meringue pastries with seasonal fruits.

7. If you want to eat and drink how actual Parisians are eating and drinking, head for one of the Wild & the Moon locations — it’s “vegan to go” as inspired by the co-founder’s time in New York (presumably taking a lot of meetings at Sweetgreen). I would be lying if I said I hadn’t ordered many, many protein shakes from the one on rue Amelot.

8. Of course, you might want something more sophisticated than an acai bowl. In that case, it’s time to go to one of Paris’s many Michelin-starred restaurants. And oh — what’s this? A list of 17 Michelin-starred restaurants offering meals (read: lunch) at under 55€?

9. The trick at 99% of cafés with lovely Parisian outdoor seating is: Don’t eat there. Just drink there. My current favorite is Le Bastille.

10. If you’re still looking around for somewhere to eat, Le Fooding is your next stop. I found most of my favorite restaurants by plugging my postal code into their “best restaurants” finder, including Le Mary Celeste and the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie — plus, it’s free and in English!

What to do in Paris: The Day and Weekend Trips (Local)

1. Nothing can beat Monet’s garden at Giverny, which is just staggeringly beautiful. Crowded, always, but for some attractions, you just gotta live with it, and this is one of them.

2. There are several Van Gogh-related attractions in Auvers-sur-Oise, but the best choice in the matter is to do as Van Gogh himself did, and head out into the surrounding countryside for a wander. The French love a hike, so if you do, too, just search for “randonnee” plus your destination — for example, here’s Visorando’s hikes around Auvers.

3. Thanks to the super-fast TGV trains, Lille — a three-hour drive — is but a one-hour, extremely comfortable, not-cheap-but-not-cataclysmically-expensive ride away. I love Lille, especially as a counterpoint to Paris — it’s right on the border of Belgium, something that should be evident from all the Flemish-y architecture and the seemingly universal preference for beer over wine. While you’re there, visit Louvre Lens (the Louvre satellite in nearby Lens) and La Piscine in equally nearby Roubaix, which is part museum, part spectacular indoor/highly Instagrammable pool.

4. Le Havre is just as great as Lille, and with an entirely different feel: Norman, not Flemish. While in Lille you can still hear the echoes of World War I, here it’s the effects of World War II that remain visible: The city was heavily bombed (by the Allies, and particularly the British Air Force) toward the end of the war, leaving literally half of its 160,000 inhabitants homeless. The modern architecture, though a product of tragedy, is beautiful: Be sure to see Auguste Perret’s Star Wars-esque Eglise St-Joseph, the excellent Museum of Modern Art, and Perret’s apartments, created after the war to provide immediate low-cost housing to the displaced.

5. Imagine the Hamptons, if instead of a beach you had rolling French countryside, and you have le Perche, where generations of Parisians head to their parents’ magnificent country homes. It really is beautiful. I don’t like all the travel writing in the Times, but this account of visiting, though from 2007, is spectacular: “It’s two hours from Paris, I was told, in lower Normandy, not far from Chartres. “It has glorious manoirs and chateaus and is famous for its Percheron,” Michèle wrote to me, “the noblest, absolutely most gorgeous horses in the world.” Let’s go!!!

What to do in Paris: The Day and Weekend Trips (International)

1. London!!! If you haven’t been, you must. There is nothing more magical than heading north for the weekend, and coming back on Sunday with a suitcase full of books, Cheddar cheese, Marks & Spencer snacks, and as many Sunday newspapers as will fit. Go via Eurostar, from the Gare du Nord. 

2. Amsterdam: In under three hours via Thalys, you can go from the Louvre to the Rijksmuseum, for a sunny stroll along the canals. Amsterdam is just wonderful, as is the surrounding, easily accessed countryside — especially in April, when the entire place is carpeted in tulips (well, maybe not the entire place, but enough.) Go via Thalys from the Gare du Nord.

3. Zurich: It is, rather unbelievably, possible to do Zurich as a day trip from Paris, as long as you don’t mind spending a lot of time on the train. If you go in winter, head immediately to the Thermalbad spa, with heated pools overlooking the surrounding mountains — and if you’re there in summer, join the rest of the city at the many outdoor poolsGo via TGV Lyria from the Gare de Lyon.

4. Luxembourg: When will you have another chance to see an entire country in a single day? What’s there to do? Not much. The Adolphe Bridge is very pretty, as far as bridges go. The cathedral? Why not! Then hop back on the train and come back to Paris. Go via TGV from the Gare de l’Est.

5. Antwerp: Personally I prefer Antwerp to teeny-tiny Bruges, which to me feels a little Showcase of Nations. Antwerp feels like a real city, inhabited by real Belgians, who may or may not be very involved in the making of designer chocolate. Go via Thalys from the Gare du Nord.

What to do in Paris: Festivals

1. The Paris Marathon is usually in April (after taking place in the fall in 2020 and 2021), right when the cherry blossoms are blooming. The course goes from bois to bois, mostly along the Seine, where the crowds are best.

1. Speaking of: Cherry blossom season in Paris is super-magical. See here for my favorite places to spot them.

1. The Salon du Livre, or Paris Book Fair, is a giant festival of books, held at a conference center at the Porte de Versailles, on the city’s southern rim. It’s definitely better if you speak and/or read French, but even anglophones will find plenty to enjoy from the hundreds of book-loving exhibitors. There are tons — tons! — of great small presses in France; this is the easiest way to find them all, and quickly.

2. Fête de la Musique is the best night of the whole year in Paris. It’s also the shortest: On the summer solstice (a.k.a. June 21), bands big and small play in every corner of Paris, and long into the night. It’s magical.

3. Bastille Day (July 14, or “quatorze juillet”) is like a three-quarter speed Fourth of July, with fewer barbecues but just as many fireworks, which in Paris are set off from around the Eiffel Tower.

4. “Late August” isn’t officially a holiday on the French calendar, but it is certainly an unofficial one, with anyone who can taking off for the hinterlands (read: beach cottage/country manor/castle). That means Paris, in late August, is marvelously devoid of Parisians, and the city slows down to a crawl — if you like wandering through a beautiful city in the late-summer heat and stopping frequently for wine, this is your time. People start leaving for the rest of the season as early as Bastille Day, with every weekend seeing more departures until everyone comes back in early September.

5. Paris’s version of the international phenomenon known as Nuit Blancheis in early October, with events and parties going all night long. At my first Nuit Blanche, I saw a Cai Guo-Qiang fireworks show on the Seine, and it was spectacular, and none has been quite as good, but hope springs eternally.

6. So you’ll definitely need to leave Paris for the best Christmas markets — in my opinion, you’ll want to head east and not stop before you hit Strasbourg (even better, keep going all the way to Baden-Baden, my superior Christmas Market destination). The right Christmas market, in my opinion, is one of those rare things that’s as good as their press: cheerful, singular, and full of mulled wine. These are all excellent.

What to do in Paris: Cafés and Bars

This is a highly personal list of my favorite cafés and bars: Your list, surely, will be different from mine, not least because mine is largely dependent on including options only within a five-minute walk of where I’ve lived. Rule: It is the rare cafés that offers food equal to the pleasures of sitting outside with a glass of wine; it is perhaps unfair of us to expect a café to do the work of a restaurant. Choose wisely (or go on a full stomach, or with reservations for dinner afterward).

1. There are so many cafés on Ile Saint-Louis (my first Paris home, on my second time in Paris), but for whatever reason I always seem to end up at this one (I literally had to Google the name: La Brasserie de l’Ile Saint-Louis) — most likely because it has a very sunny view of Ile de la Cité.

2. The outdoor seating is supposed to be thing at the Café Delmas, spilling out onto the place de la Contrescarpe, but equally appealing are the warrens of indoor cubbies offering semi-private drinking for small parties.

3. There are a half-dozen cafés overlooking the traffic roundabout known as Bastille, but my favorite is the Bastille, because of its extremely stylish vintage decoration.

4. I feel like this might be the perfect Paris café – Le Progres isn’t as much about sitting outside as it is watching everyone walk through Montmartre through the gigantic windows.

5. I wrote half my book (my new book) on a banquette in the back of La Barbouille. (I always get the salad with goat cheese. And a Diet Coke lol.)

6. Cafe de l’Industrie has a very special place in my heart, as it is the café where I both met my first-cousin-once-removed Ashley and where she and I crawled under a chair because we thought we were about to be killed by terrorists. (Here’s that story.) It’s still a first-rate café! (Don’t get the pasta.)

7. With its industrial-style steel finishes and subway-tile walls, La Favorite is the pumpkin spice latte of Parisian cafés – it’s that basic – but it is also delicious and extremely comfortable and has both excellent wifi and enough electrical outlets to go around. J’adore.

8. With a similar style, Café Charlot offers prime people-watching along the fashion-y rue de Bretagne — it’s an entertaining nightmare during Fashion Week(s).

9. The “cafés and bars” section here is perilously short of bars — perhaps to make space for the Comptoir Générale, half-hidden down a courtyard in the 10th. Once inside, you’ll find a sprawling complex consisting of a huge bar, shop (including a brand-new “épicerie cave à rhum“), gallery, and more. Extremely friendly, extremely busy; go off-hours unless you like a crowd.

10. If you like to see how the other 1% lives, make a res for cocktails at Bar Hemingway, the authorially themed bar located in the Ritz and made famous by Hemingway himself. If you’re traveling on a budget, an evening here can more than suffice as the night’s activity; just be sure you bring someone who’s good for gossiping about all the Richie-Riches at the surrounding tables. Do go downstairs to the bathrooms, for a look at a bit of luxury.

What to do in Paris: Parks

1. There are no big parks with the very center of Paris, though the banks of the Seine are a good equivalent of Central Park or Hyde Park: that lovely place in the middle of everything where everyone goes when the weather’s nice. The closest exception would be the Jardin des plantes, which is as close to perfect as it gets: restful, ever-changing, immaculately cared for. It’s just wonderful.

2. Just slightly west of the JDP and along the bank of the river, you’ll find the Jardin Tino Rossi. It’s best known as a spot for nighttime dancing in the summer, but it’s lovely in the spring, when the willow trees are leafing out and the cherry trees bloom.

3. Speaking of! There are cherry trees all over Paris, but the best collection might be at the Parc Sceaux, which has both a lovely garden and a chateau of its very own.

4 & 5. Paris’s two bois — the Bois de Boulogne on the west and the Bois de Vincennes on the east — are wilder and woolier than, say, Central Park. I like the Bois de Boulogne because it’s near the start point of the GR1, a 325-mile circuit around Paris, and it includes the Fondation Vuitton, a worthy art museum in a spectacular, Frank Gehry-designed building. The Bois de Vincennes is worth visiting, too, for the Parc Floral (more cherry trees, obvs) and access to the nearby Chateau de Vincennes. I don’t, though, consider them must-visits like the Jardin des plantes, or, if it’s convenient, the Parc Monceau.

6. Speaking of! The Parc Monceau is like if the Upper East Side (Paris equivalent: the 8th arrondissement) had its own swath of Central Park to itself. It’s extremely manicured but/and lovely, and abuts the Musée Cernuschi and the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

7. The Jardin du Luxembourg is a friendlier, bigger park, with a famous basin (perfect for little sailboats), statues and flowers, pony rides, snack kiosks, and tennis courts. There’s a higher percentage of tourists here than at the other parks on this list, but its charms are undeniable.

8. The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is just lovely. Way up in the 19th, it’s both quite far north and on a hilly elevation, which means if you climb up to the Temple de la Sibylle, you’ll get terrific views of Montmartre. There’s also a suspension bridge above an artificial lake designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, plus an excellent outdoor bar at Rosa Bonheur.

9. The Coulée Verte (a.k.a the Promenade Plantée) might be the top cool-tourist attraction on this part of the list. If you’ve been to the Highline in Manhattan, you get the idea (the Highline, in fact, was modeled on the Coulée Verte): a narrow, verdant pathway above the city. The truly ambitious can walk all the way from Bastille to Vincennes, though the best parts are closer-in to Bastille.

10. Obviously you can’t miss the Tuileries, once the private garden of Catherine de Medici. Head there after the Louvre, when you’re in need of a long sit-down. I prefer it in the spring and summer (I prefer everything in the spring and summer), but it feels the most itself in the fall.

11. Beyond the Palais Royal’s Insta-omnipresent black-and-white columns — more officially a public art installation by Daniel Buren called Les Deux Plateaux — is the former palace’s garden, which is beautiful, not least for its extremely French vision of highly manicured lime and red chestnut trees.

12. I’m not sure you’d want to dip out of central Paris to visit the Parc André Citroen, but if you’re near the 15th, it’s well worth stopping by — weirdly modern park, not least because it’s built on the grounds of a former Citroen automobile manufacturing plant.

13. Just across the Paris line in Boulogne-Billancourt, you’ll find the Jardin Albert Kahn, with a Japanese-style garden that was apparently meticulously constructed after M. Kahn’s revelatory trip there.

14. Possibly saving the best, or at least the most under-the-radar for tourists, is the Roseraie du Val-du-Marne, a spectacular rose garden that’s only worth seeing in bloom (obviously) — but for those few weeks is an utterly spectacularly, rose-filled sight. Here’s my trip report.

What to do in Paris: Shopping

1. If I had to choose one store to shop at for the rest of my time in Paris, it would be Le Bon Marché: prohibitively expensive, yes, but with neat, smart buys that won’t break the bank, plus excellent installations from leading contemporary artists. The grocery hall — it’s too elegant to call it a mere “grocery store” — is a delight. Best of all are the seasonal pop-up shops, bringing in all sorts of unexpected treasures — often quite cheap — from here and there. (One of the rare disappointments: a collection of J. Crew from an L.A.-themed pop-up. What??)

2. Of course, that being said, LBM is way across town, so my actual, rather than ideal, one-stop-shop is BHV, the gargantuan, definitely cheaper department store in the figurative shadow of city hall (the titular hôtel de ville, BHV officially being the Bazar du Hôtel de Ville). There’s always something new to see here — the Diptyque concession, a plant boutique that took over when Anthropologie moved into its own digs down the street. I mostly go directly to the third floor, for books and art supplies, though I once exited the basement hardware shop with a giant ladder that I consider, to this day, the best purchase I’ve ever made in France.

3. Empreintes is like if Macy’s were Macy’s but it only sold extremely fancy handmade goods from the best of France’s artisans (specifically, those represented by Ateliers d’Art de France).

4. Similarly, Merci is a multi-level concept shop in the Upper Marais, only instead of $100 sandstone vases (like Empreintes) it stocks the hippest-of-the-hip brands in clothing, accessories, and homewares. The women’s clothing is back to the right, but my favorite part is the giant space you walk into from the street, which is where their thematic pop-up collections are shown.

5. I don’t care if it’s a cliché at this point, I just love Sézane.

6. Similarly, Lou Yetu is selling a very specific take on the Paris-girl vibe, but I love it, so I don’t care if it’s the France-jewelry version of pumpkin spice latte. I usually go to the seasonal location in the Marais, but the flagship near Opéra is gorgeous, in that soft-pink velvet and brass way.

7. Controversial opinion: Shakespeare & Co. is for tourists. After a while, you graduate to the half-anglo, demi-français Galignani on rue de Rivoli, which is just a beautiful bookstore with a smartly curated gallery of international fiction, in English, in the back. A very friendly staff, and — bonus — no lines out the door.

8. Aroma Zone. This is so embarrassing but I legit love this store — selling essential oils, carrier oils, creams, and other materiel for making your own soaps and cosmetics — and it is packed with Parisians. The French :: tourist ratio is higher here than anywhere else I’ve been outside of, like, a medical office.

9. I hate to put two bookstores on this list, but 0fr is a national treasure: part fancy magazine shop, part art-book store, part gallery. Uh, while you’re here, stop by Yvan Lambert, about five minutes away, for even more art books and gallery shows.

10. Papier Tigre has extremely cute paper goods.

What to do in Paris: Events

1. I know I just said that Galignani is a better bookstore than Shakespeare & Co., and I stand by that, but if you’re wondering where the anglophone literati are at, check to see if S&Co. has an author event coming up.

2. Parisians love their movies. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, I heartily recommend the UGC pass — there’s nothing better than sitting in the UGC at Les Halles and just going from salle to salle to salle. It’s mostly big-box stuff, but they get plenty of weird, tiny movies here, too.

3. If you’re looking for a higher class of cinema, try one of the myriad independent cinémas. Le Champo offers a 10 movies for €50 pass.

4. I don’t, like, immediately connect to the Moulin Rouge vibe, but I swear, everyone I know who’s been has loved it.

5. Meetup is a really great way to meet a bunch of people as quickly as possible. Events are always of varied quality, but if you want to get out and see the countryside but don’t want to do it alone, the Power Hiking Paris group does proper workouts of 10 miles and up.

6. So you wanted to make real-deal poets in Paris? (Mostly anglophone poets?) Paris Lit Up hosts weekly open mics at Culture Rapide — stick around after for drinks afterward.

7. La Bellevilloise has an extremely eclectic roster of jazz, world music, brunch, films — basically everything — in a fun and open-late neighborhood. Some events are in English, some are in music, if you know what I mean.

8.

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Hi, I'm Diana. I've written about travel for The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, Outside, and lots of other places. This is my blog.