Paris has been my favorite city in the world since I first visited as an awe-struck teenager. Several trips since have cemented its place in my heart. I love the easy walkability along leafy streets lined with elegant eggshell-hued buildings. Its café culture and incredible restaurant scene are unmatched. Then there are all the interesting things to do in Paris, from museums and landmarks to shopping centers and gardens. The city truly offers something for everyone. In this guide you’ll find the top attractions in Paris, plus some unique places you might not know about. Wondering where to eat in between all that sightseeing? You can get my restaurant recommendations here.
Is there a more iconic landmark than the Eiffel Tower? The Iron Lady was unveiled in 1889 as the centerpiece of the World’s Fair. At the time, the 324-meter-high tower was the tallest structure in the world – a title it held on to for over forty years. The engineering marvel, designed by Gustave Eiffel, features hydraulic lifts to take passengers up the curved legs to an observation deck on top. For the momentous 1999 New Year’s Eve celebration, 20,000 light bulbs were added to the lattice frame. The Eiffel Tower sparkles for five minutes every hour from nightfall to one in the morning.
In April 2019, the world watched in horror as Notre-Dame burned. The massive cathedral, which has graced the banks of the Seine since the 12th century, was undergoing restoration when the roof caught fire. Although the exterior was heavily damaged, the cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling saved the interior from destruction. The rose windows, pipe organ, and altar survived relatively unscathed, but the bells and clock were lost to the flames. I was fortunate to visit before the fire when the towers and rooftop walkway were open. It was thrilling to come face-to-face with the flying buttresses, gargoyles, and chimeras made famous by Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Hopefully future visitors will have that same opportunity.
The Sacré-Cœur sits on the highest hill of Montmartre and is visible all across the city. Work on the church began in 1870. Meaning “Sacred Heart,” it was built as a penance for France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War and ill-fated Paris Commune. Today, the steps out front are a popular hangout spot for the sweeping views of Paris.
The Panthéon is a mausoleum for some of France’s most distinguished citizens. These include many politicians and military officers, but also writers, scientists, and activists. To qualify for burial in the Panthéon, individuals must be designated as national heroes by parliament. Here you’ll find the tombs of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, and Louis Braille, among many others.
Another famous resting place in Paris is Montmartre Cemetery. This sprawling graveyard sits below street level in a former gypsum quarry. It is crammed with crypts, many belonging to artists who lived and worked in Montmartre. Some names you might recognize are the writer Stendhal, Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, writer Alexandre Dumas the son, dancer Margaret Kelly, and singer France Gall.
A red windmill marks the entrance to the Moulin Rouge, a cabaret venue famous for its can-can dancers. The nightclub opened in 1889 along with the Eiffel Tower and World’s Fair. It offered free-flowing champagne, high-energy entertainment, and seductive courtesans. Toulouse-Lautrec painted the advertisements and soon the club was drawing a distinguished crowd that included young European royals. It burned down in 1915 and was reopened a few years later. Performances haven’t stopped since. (Though the prostitution side hustle ended in the 1940s.) Everyone from Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra and Elton John have performed at the Moulin Rouge. Today it’s one of the hottest tickets in town.
What began as a small family-run business in 1912 is now the largest department store in Europe. It is also the most beautiful. The Galeries Lafayette boasts 70,000 square meters of luxury shopping space spread over 10 floors. Rows of gold-trimmed Art Nouveau balconies encircle a central hall, which is topped with a show-stopping stained glass dome. Up on the roof, a terrace offers the best free views in all of Paris.
A café is one of the top attractions in Paris? Mais oui! People queue for hours to indulge in Angelina’s hot chocolate and signature Mont-Blanc pastries. Originally opened as a tea room in 1903, it’s chocolate that put Angelina Paris on the map. You won’t find any cocoa powder diluted with milk here. Angelina’s hot chocolate is literally that – a cup full of steaming melted chocolate. Paired with decadent pastries, it is the ultimate indulgence.
You can walk off some of those extra calories across the road in the Tuileries Garden. This expansive public park was once the private sanctuary of Catherine de’ Medici, who had it created in the 1500s after the untimely death of her husband, Henry II. She brought in a landscape artist from Florence, her birthplace, to design the gardens in an Italian Renaissance style. Catherine also commissioned a grand new residence, the Tuileries Palace, next door to the Louvre. (The Paris Commune burned down the Tuileries Palace in 1871.)
Louis XIV enlarged the gardens, adding fountains, symmetrical flowerbeds, and alleys of chestnut trees. Over the centuries, the gardens were the stage for many momentous events, from the flight of the first hydrogen balloon to Napoleon’s wedding procession. Today, the gardens are an open-air art gallery with an abundance of sculptures. Monet’s waterlilies are in the former orangery.
Domaine National du Palais-Royal
Another royal abode turned public meeting place is the Domaine National du Palais-Royal. The palace was originally built in the 1600s for Cardinal Richelieu, who bequeathed it to Louis XIII. It was later given to the Duke of Orleans, Louis XIV’s brother, who is said to have thrown some legendary parties. The central shopping arcades and public gardens were reportedly hotbeds for prostitutes and Freemasons. Happenings inside the palace are much more sedate these days as it houses three functions of French government. The gardens and arcades are still open to the public, but more suited to having an Aperol spritz than a scandalous tryst. Don’t miss the striking black-and-white columns by Daniel Buren in the courtyard.
Place de Vosges
This petite park began as the oldest planned square in Paris. It sits on the site of the infamous jousting tournament that cost Henry II his life. Catherine de’ Medici was so distraught, she had the hosting palace torn down. A perfect square of identical houses was erected in its place. The red brick facades are seamless, and you’d never guess that there are 30 individual buildings. One of Place de Vosges’ most famous residents is Victor Hugo, who lived there for 16 years. His former home is now a museum.
No visit to Paris would be complete without stops in the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. These are two of the greatest cultural attractions in France. But did you know that Paris has the world’s largest collection of medieval art? Or the second largest collection of Picasso’s works? No matter your artistic interests, Paris has a museum that covers it. I’ve highlighted the best ones along with a few hidden gems in this detailed guide. If this is your first trip to Paris and you plan to visit several museums, you might want to consider a Paris Museum Pass. (Not a paid endorsement.) I invested in the 6-day pass and found that it saved money, time in line, and encouraged me to check out a few places I might have missed otherwise.
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