A Comprehensive Guide to Paris
Let me start this Comprehensive Guide to Paris by imploring you: please, go to Paris. Please go visit this city that I was fortunate enough to call home at some point in time in my life. And visit this city in a way that makes you fall in love with it the way I did (I’m here to help you with that).
If you’re planning a trip – I hope you have an amazing, amazing time. This guide is here to help you in your Parisian planning endeavor. It’s got your best museums, neighborhoods, monuments, cheap eats, and markets all packed into one compact little post for you to reference again and again.
I love sharing this city with people, and I’d love nothing more for you to visit Paris and love it the way I do after visiting for yourself.
First important thing – with all the resources out there,
Why should you bother with my Comprehensive Guide to Paris over anyone else’s?
Well, for one I lived there. I lived there as a student for 6 months in college, and I worked there as a teaching assistant for a year after college. I’ve been back a handful of times since I left. I know Paris, but I am no longer so entrenched in local life that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a traveler in this city.
Second important thing. My Paris is not your Paris, is not your friend’s Paris, is not Anthony Bourdain’s Paris, is not ANYONE else’s Paris except for yours. So make it yours. What do you like? Google that + Paris and I’m sure you’ll find something to keep you entertained.
Your Comprehensive Guide to Paris = The things YOU like to do
Are you into food tours? Paris has that down without a doubt. Salsa dancing? Google it! Book stores? For sure. Gardens on repurposed former train tracks? Got that too. A place to satisfy intense curiosities for urban sewer systems? There’s a museum for that. Fancy rooftop bars? Why do you think you flew to France?
My point is – make it your own. You can shuffle to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the Latin Quarter, but only do those things if you want to – don’t do them because other people (ahem, I realize that is me) tell you to. You do you, and you’ll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.
So, to kick off this uber comprehensive guide to Paris, I’ll start off with some practical info about the city to give you a better idea of the place as you look at things you want to do.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: General Info
Paris is divided into 20 neighborhoods called arrondissements. They spiral out of the city center like a snail. The lower the number of the arrondissement the closer to the center of the city you are. So the 20th arrondissement is on the far eastern corner, the 1st arrondissement is smack dab in the middle.
The Seine River runs directly through the middle of the city dividing it into a northern half and southern half, more or less. You might hear them referred to as Rive Droite (North) and Rive Gauche (South). Along the river is where you’ll find most of your major museums and monuments, making the riverbanks and bridges the hands down best place to take in all the grandeur of Paris.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Getting Around
Getting around Paris is wonderfully easy and efficient. The metro is easy to navigate and will get you pretty much anywhere within the limits of Paris. The lines are numbered 1-14 and are named using their number. There are RER lines that are more train-like and go out to the suburbs. They’re named A through D. If you go to the Palace of Versailles, you will take the RER C out there.
There are also buses and trams in Paris, but I literally never took them when I lived there. The metro is just so efficient you don’t need much else. It’s good to note that in every platform of every metro station there is a map called the “Plan du Quartier.” This is a zoomed in map of the area of Paris you are in, with all possible exits (sorties) of the metro station labeled on the map.
Depending on how long you’ll be in the city – I would recommend buying a Paris Visite pass which gets you unlimited metro rides for 5 days, and/or a couple of carnets (10 single ride tickets).
Here’s a good link that explains how the Parisian metro works:
There are also bike stations (called velibs) scattered all around the city. If you are comfortable riding bikes in the city, I would HIGHLY recommend doing this. You experience the city in such a different way. You can pay for a day or a week pass and take velibs out as you please. (The catch is you have to return the bikes every half an hour in order to ride for free; otherwise it’s a euro for every half hour beyond the first one. Just find a station, return your bike, wait a few minutes, and take out another to avoid charges.)
If you’re in town on a Sunday, this is when I recommend trying out the Velibs. On Sunday’s the traffic is much slower, and many of the major roads close and become a zone piétonne or pedestrian only traffic, with bike lanes still being open. Here’s the site:
All of that transit info being said, Paris is really best explored on foot. It’s only about 8 miles across and surprisingly compact.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Where to Stay and How to Plan
I’m a big advocate for staying in Airbnb’s in Paris over hotels. Even the most minimal of hotels in Paris are expensive. Staying in an apartment is usually much cheaper and allows you to immerse yourself in daily life much more readily.
Also, staying in an apartment usually gives you access to a refrigerator so you can buy to your heart’s content at any of the wonderful food markets throughout the city. And you could end up with views like this from your balcony:
For those interested, this balcony view came from this Airbnb listing, which was small but perfectly lovely for a quick stay. This sunrise every morning certainly didn’t hurt either!
I recommend looking for places that are near a Metro station first and foremost – preferably one that connects to multiple lines. You’ll find it much easier to move around this city this way and see more of what YOU want to see. I also recommend staying somewhere in the middle of the city – pretty much anywhere that touts itself as being in the “Marais” will be check these boxes regardless of whether or not they are truly in the small little quarter that is the actual Marais.
After you have a place to stay you can start planning your attack on visiting the city. My one recommendation here is take it easy. Don’t try to cram everything you possibly can into however many days you have in Paris. Pick a few must see sites and anything extra is just that – extra.
So set your priorities and then leave room for having a picnic along the Seine, for getting lost in a quaint neighborhood, for people watching in a park, and for lingering over meals. This is what will make your trip to Paris truly special.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: What to do and see
And to help you pick out those few must do things, I’m going to give you the highlights in all my favorite categories. This is a highlight reel – there are plenty of smaller, off the beaten path things to seek out too. But this should give you a very good starting place.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Churches
Notre Dame–It’s the most well known for a reason. It’s in a great location near the center of the city, the exterior is impressive, the interior is impressive, it was built almost 900 years ago, and it is free to visit. I would say this is obligatory.
Sainte-Chapelle—If you want to be wowed by stained glass, this is the place. It’s not nearly as large as some other European churches, but the stained glass is awe-inspiring. Get there early, because the lines get long quickly.
Sacre Coeur Basilica—A Beautiful basilica on a hill looking over all of Paris. The views are great and the church itself is beautiful. You can pay to go to the top of the dome for an even higher vantage point to see the city, otherwise the interior is free to visit.
Whichever Church is Closest to your Accommodation – Beautiful places of worship are everywhere in Europe, and almost every single one of them has something lovely to offer. Walk on in to whichever church is in the neighborhood where you’re staying. It will get you out of the main tourist circuit.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Museums
The Louvre—Be forewarned, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed and lost in this museum. Wednesdays and Fridays the museum stays open late until 9:45 pm, and I think this is by far the best time to go. The crowds have cleared and there is something really special about being at a museum at night.
Rick Steves does an awesome walking tour of the Louvre in his guidebooks, which makes it more manageable. Winged Victory, the Egyptian level, Napoleon’s Chambers, and the first floor of the Denon wing are all musts. The Mona Lisa (La Jaconde) is small, but worth a look. This is home to art from the ancient world to 1850.
The Musee D’Orsay—If I absolutely had to choose, I would say this museum is my favorite in Paris. It’s an old renovated train station and is still large but much more manageable than the Louvre. The Orsay has art from 1850- mid 1900’s, so if you like impressionist art, this is your place. Best of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, etc.
The Centre Pompidou—This is the Parisian modern art museum. It’s worth a visit if you like modern art, even the architecture of this building is a form of modern art.
The Musee Rodin—This is basically a museum in a garden and is great to do on a nice day. You’ll find all of his sculptures, like the Thinker and the Gates of Hell, sprinkled throughout the grounds here. It’s very tranquil.
The Orangerie—This is where Monet’s giant water lily paintings are. The rest of the museum is small and quaint. It would be especially worth it to come here if you are able to actually go to Giverny to see his real water lilies.
A museum that sounds interesting to you:—I always recommend a smaller museum that has something of particular interest to you. There are some really great ones tucked throughout Paris. Some of my favorites are the Carnavalet Museum (history of Paris), the Arts et Metiers Museum (scientific inventions), and the Picasso Museum. I’ve also heard lovely things about the Jacquemart-Andre museum (private art collection) but have never been.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Monuments
Eiffel Tower—You can take the stairs to the second level at a reduced fare and for normally no wait time, and the views are more or less the same as going all the way to the third level. Don’t waste your time going waiting in line to go all the way to the top. Having a picnic next to it is WAY better than going up in my opinion.
Also, make sure you still go and see the Eiffel Tower at night when it’s all lit up. Start at the Trocadero and work your way down the grass leading up to it. Bring a bottle of wine, sit on the lawn, and enjoy!
L’Arc de Triomphe—The monument dedicated to the French army at the end of the Champs-Elysees. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here, and you can go to the top for spectacular views of the city.
La Grande Arche/La Defense—The business district to the east of Paris. It feels like you’ve been transported to Chicago or LA. If you have time it makes for quite the contrast and is interesting to see.
L’Opera Garnier—This has an absolutely stunning interior. You can do a tour during the day, or you can buy tickets for a show at night at see the same thing but make sure you buy tickets in advance. Also make sure the venue is the Palais Garnier and not Opera Bastille.
The Pantheon—This is at the end of my absolute favorite street in Paris in the heart of the Latin Quarter steps from where I went to school. The inside is worth a visit with Foucalt’s Pendulum and tombs of important French citizens. But if nothing else, you just have to walk around it.
Hotel de Ville—This is probably one of my favorite buildings of all time. It’s right along the Seine in the 4th arrondissement and has a great square in front of it for people watching. Occasionally they will do photography exhibits there; otherwise the building is for government business only.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Neighborhoods
The Marais—This is the old Jewish quarter, which has great food, great shopping, and great people watching. This is in the 4th arrondissement near the Hotel de Ville. The best falafel I’ve ever had is in this neighborhood. The streets here are quaint and winding: exactly what you picture when you think about wandering around Paris.
Saint Germain Des Pres—This is a great area to walk around in with lots of cute little shops and cafes. Boulveard St Germain runs east to west parallel to the Seine and is where most of the activity will be. Les Deux Magots, the famous café whose patrons included Picasso, Hemingway, Camus, and Sartre is located here.
The Latin Quarter—There are lots of students around here, and it has been the intellectual center of Paris as far back as Parisian history goes. It can be touristy but entertaining at the north of the Latin Quarter. The further east and south you go, the more it turns quaint with lots of students and cafes. It pretty much encompasses the entirety of the 5th arrondissement.
The Canal St. Martin—This is where I used to live! Obviously I have a strange attachment to it because of that, but it’s also a fun up and coming neighborhood and a great, great place for a picnic. If the weather is nice, all the Parisians will be drinking wine and eating cheese along the canal.
Montmarte—It can be a bit touristy but is still incredibly charming. It’s by the Sacre Coeur (the church on the hill overlooking Paris) and is also very close to the Moulin Rouge and the Parisian equivalent of the red light district.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Parks
One of my most favorite things about Paris is how much they incorporate gardens into the city. If it’s nice weather I would say this is where you should spend the majority of your time. It’s definitely where all the Parisians will be!
Luxembourg Gardens—This is right by the Pantheon in the 5th/Latin Quarter. It’s where I used to go eat lunch when I studied here. There are a lot of chairs but no grass to sit on.
Tuilerie Gardens—These are the gardens of the Louvre. It makes for quite the beautiful promenade and a great place to do people watching.
Parc Monceau—This is a hidden gem not far from the Arc de Triomphe. This one you can sit in the grass, sometimes they have pony rides, there’s an old roman aqueduct, a pretty pavilion, and is all in all just beautiful.
Buttes Chaumont—This is a little on the outskirts of Paris not far from Pere Lachaise cemetery. It’s huge, grassy, with rolling hills and a huge waterfall. You don’t feel like you’re in Paris at all…one of my favorites.
Bois de Vincennes/Lac Daumesnil—There are two “forests” on either side of Paris to the west and east. The one to the east is called the Bois de Vincennes. While it is not really a forest, it is very large. This is great for bike riding. On the far western side of the park there is the Lac Daumesnil, which is a large lake with islands you can walk to in the middle. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also rent paddleboats here.
Jardin des Plantes—This one is wonderful in the spring when all the flowers are blooming. There’s a little labyrinth, a zoo, a large exotic plants greenhouse, and an evolution museum. It’s also really close to one of my favorite spots in Paris for relaxing, the Cafe Mosquee of Paris. You can buy Turkish pastries, and sip on mint tea in the garden of the mosque.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Eats
I have to clarify here, I am NOT an expert on fine dining out in Paris. At the time in my life when I lived there, I just didn’t have the money to eat out in the city. But the great thing about Paris is that – yes, you can pay money and eat incredibly well – but you can also pay a little and STILL eat incredibly well. Let me show you how:
Berthillon—This is a famous ice cream store on one of the islands in the Seine River. You will recognize it based on the line. Amorino also has good gelato and is normally less crowded.
L’as du Fallafel—A Falafel restaurant in the Marais. So. Freaking. Good. There are a few imitators on the same street, but you’ll know you’re at the right place by the size of the line. It’s closed Saturdays, Mondays, and all Jewish holidays. Trust me, the line is worth it, it’s cheap and fantastic. Take it to go and eat it in the Place des Vosges, a picturesque square a few blocks from here.
Au P’tit Grec—This is another cheap eat that is wonderful. They specialize in savory crepes (gallettes) with a greek twist. I love the galette p’tit grec or the galette savoyarde. This is on Rue Mouffetard, which is a great street to explore near the Latin Quarter.
Angelina’s—This is a somewhat upscale, very ornate restaurant in the 1st arrondissement right across from the Tuilerie gardens. Their specialty is hot chocolate that literally tastes like a melted candy bar, it’s sooo good.
Nutella Banana Crepe—you can get this at any crepe stand throughout the city, and they are amazing every time. Obligatory.
Les Papilles—This is a nice restaurant in the 5th/Latin Quarter that serves only one dinner each night. The last I checked, it’s 30 or so euros for an appetizer, main course, cheese course, and dessert. The chef goes to the market each day and changes what he serves each day. This would be perfect for a nice date, but make sure you make reservations in advance.
A Market Meal–Not only can you buy cheese, bread, wine, fruit, etc. from the markets in Paris, many of them have prepared food as well that’s nothing short of spectacular. I keep saying this, but you have to have a picnic in Paris at least once!
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: Best Markets and Shopping
The food market culture in France is next level, and Paris is no different. If I could pinpoint one thing that I miss the most, it would probably be going to the markets. The best thing is to buy food as you make your way through the stalls, and then take it somewhere to have a picnic (have I convinced you yet?).
Le Marche Richard Lenoir: This is an open-air food market, which takes place every Sunday and Thursday at Bastille (Ave Richard Lenoir). It’s the biggest in Paris and I absolutely LOVE it. It’s where I used to buy almost all of my groceries when I lived there. I would give just about anything to go shop at this market again. You could easily take your purchases and have a picnic along the Canal St. Martin afterwards.
Le Marche des Enfants Rouge: A covered market in the 3rd which specializes in a lot of Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. It’s closed Mondays and for a couple of hours in the middle of the weekdays. This has more prepared food and less produce.
Le Marche Raspail: An open-air food market in the 6th. It operates Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.
Printemps/Galeries Lafayette: The famous department stores of Paris, otherwise known as Les Grands Magasins. These are on Blvd Haussman, which has great shopping in general. There are biannual sales that happen in Paris every summer and winter, and it’s a real treat to be there for that!
Rue de Rivoli/Forum des Halles: This is cheaper shopping than the “Grands Magasins,” but still has the European staples like Mango, Zara, Uniqlo, H&M, etc.
Bercy Village: In the 12th arrondissement, this little village has a beautiful park and an outdoor shopping center. Not very touristy.
Shakespeare and Co: The old bookstore right along the banks of the Seine, bordering the Latin Quarter. This is an English language bookstore, is old, creaky, and so charming. You can get a little stamp in your book if you buy from there, which is kind of fun.
Comprehensive Guide to Paris: In Summary
All of the monuments, and museums, and tourist attractions are great. But that’s not what makes Paris, Paris. The city, to me is sitting outside on a café terrace sipping on café au lait and people watching. It’s being outside in the gardens or on the street. It’s buying food from the markets and eating it on the banks of the Seine.
Paris is about slowing down and enjoying the simple pleasures—eating outside, good wine, good coffee, engaging conversation, observing life of the street. That’s the thing that I really love about the city, and I really, really hope you do too!