Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world and with so many famous attractions and landmarks it can get very confusing to make the most of the available time while visiting “la Ville Lumière”, especially for a first time visitor. Don’t panic! For the last few years, we’ve been visiting Paris and all of Ile-de-France countless times. With Cristina’s family living right at the doorstep of the city, we have been exploring every bit of it, some places multiple times, and always looking for something new for our next time around.
Our friends and colleagues often ask us a bunch of questions about Paris, starting with the most obvious “What is there to see in Paris?” (duh!), to the curious “What else should I visit besides the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre-Dame?”, “How many days to visit Paris?” or “How should I plan my visit?”. After helping out with creating some itineraries in the past, we decided to put together this high-level overview on how to make the most of 3 to 5 days in Paris.
3 to 5 days in Paris
This range of days allows for a very good understanding of Paris and is the most common visit duration we’ve been helping to plan. Since Paris is very walkable and boasts an excellent network of public transports, you should try to take advantage of combining the two. We recommend walking unless covering greater distances. It’s the best way to absorb everything Paris.
The world-class Musée du Louvre needs no introduction. If you like museums, our suggestion is to go there for two or three hours. Try to take advantage of the late closings on Wednesdays and Fridays as this allows to extend your day to the fullest and visit the museum with fewer people around. On the other hand, if museums aren’t your thing, just go and take a look outside. The building is magnificent.
Next to the museum, the Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden ) is very pleasant for a walk all the way up to Place de la Concorde. Also within easy access is the Palais-Royal (Royal Palace).
Les Halles & Marais
The highlights of this area are the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the gothic Tour Saint-Jacques and Centre Pompidou. Centre Pompidou, which houses the National Museum of Modern Art, has a very intriguing architecture and offers excellent views from the terrace. Keep an eye on the outdoor performances happening in the atrium outside.
The historic district of Marais is a great place to go out for a walk, with its narrow old streets with cafes, shops, and galleries.
Île de la Cité
Île de la Cité is an island in the middle of the Seine. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (Notre-Dame Cathedral) is the main attraction and a masterpiece of gothic architecture, one of the world’s most recognized cathedrals. Sitting at the eastern tip of the island, Notre-Dame can be visited for free except for its towers, which are worth queueing for as they offer excellent views over the city, along with the opportunity to get close to the gargoyles. To access the towers use the entrance to the left of the main one, just around the corner.
But there’s more to Île de la Cité. One of our favorite places in the city is the medieval gothic chapel Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel). The stained glass windows are stunning! It’s actually not that easy to find as it’s located inside Palais de la Cité, now Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice). Right next door is the Conciergerie, a former prison. Both can be accessed along Boulevard du Palais.
There are multiple bridges to get to the island, from either side. The westernmost bridge Pont Neuf (New Bridge) is the oldest bridge across the Seine. Don’t let its name fool you!
Tour Eiffel & Les Invalides
The crown jewel of Paris is definitely the Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), the most-visited paid monument in the world. Queuing can be a pain, and during peak times the queues can last hours. Ideally, buy tickets in advance, try off-peak times or go to one of the restaurants. Access to the top floor is weather dependent. On a clear day, the views are superb. At the foot of the Tour Eiffel is the big green space Champ de Mars and across the bridge, over the Seine, is the Trocadéro, a popular spot for photos.
Close to the opposite end of Champs de Mars is Les Invalides, a complex of buildings about France’s military history. The highlight is the Dôme des Invalides, where Napoleon tomb can be found. Not to be missed.
Montmartre is best known for the Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart). This beautiful church sits atop of a hill, the highest point in the city. The steps in front of the church are very popular as the view is really impressive. Also available is a paid tour to the top. The area nearby Sacré-Coeur is somewhat different from the rest of city and worth exploring.
The area that extends from Place de Concorde up to l’Étoile is a very busy one, mostly due to the huge number of shops. Start at Place de Concorde and its Egyptian obelisk and move along the Champs-Élysées up to Arc de Triomphe. Before the shopping section of the avenue begins, there are a couple of interesting stops. On the left, Petit Palais and Grand Palais, and on the right, the Palais de L’Élisée (Élysée Palace), the official home of the French president. Finally, after passing all the shops and eventually with a few bags on your hand, you’ll find Arc de Triomphe, a major war monument. Although not very high, it offers great views, especially at sunset towards the Tour Eiffel.
Across the Seine from Île de la Cité is another part of the city worth visiting, the Quartier Latin. This area is heavily associated with the Sorbonne, the University. Wandering along these streets is an opportunity to find something fascinating and unexpected. The main attraction is the Panthéon, its architecture is remarkable.
Down the street from the Panthéon is the Jardin du Luxembourg, one the best green spaces of the city. Take the opportunity to sit and relax. A few minutes walk away is the Saint-Sulpice, a Catholic church.
Use the rest of the day with one or more activities from the free time section, a bit further down in the article.
Day trip dedicated to visiting the Château de Versailles, very close to Paris. King Louis XIV ordered the construction of this superb Château, now a very popular historical landmark. It’s worth getting the ticket that gives access to the whole estate. The gardens, created by Le Nôtre, are one the finest examples of a French garden. To get there use the regional train RER C.
A visit to Paris isn’t complete without trying out some French food or learning some basic French words. Start with a polite “merci” for thank you.
There is no shortage of things to do in Paris. We just sampled a few of the most important, but there’s plenty more. Paris is home to many museums, fine architecture and countless other places of interest.
Depending on the free time available we recommend the following:
- Musée D’Orsay – One the most important museums in Paris, housed in a former railway station
- Bateau Mouche – Classic Seine river tour
- Opéra Garnier – Paris Opera house
- Madeleine – Catholic church
- Jardin des Plantes – Botanical garden and Natural History Museum
- Montparnasse – Skyscraper with excellent 360º views
- Père Lachaise – Garden cemetery where famous and important French people are buried
- La Défense – Business district of Paris with skyscrapers and the Grande Arche
There are many other places that we could have suggested, but we’ll leave some more to another article.
Mapping the itinerary
To have a better understanding of the city, here’s a map with all the important places mentioned above. The colors represent each day of the itinerary.
Have you been to Paris? What’s your favorite thing about it? Let us know!
Read our other articles about France.