Travelers heading to Paris often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities the city offers. And that’s completely understandable. Paris is dotted with gorgeous monuments, and it also has its fair share of noteworthy museums, neighborhoods, and parks. Add in the abundance of possible day-trips, and it’s difficult for first-time visitors to know how to spend their time. That’s precisely what we’re here to help with. Follow our guide, and you’ll end up with a customized plan for seeing the best of Paris in five days.
In Part One, we’ve divided the most exciting things to do into several categories — you just need to choose the activities that interest you most. In Part Two, you’ll insert your choices in the indicated spaces. Not so bad, right?
On y va!
Eiffel Tower — This 1,063-foot (324-meter) giant is the real star of a trip to Paris. It symbolizes the city and, somehow, holds magic in its iron lattice — just ask the millions of people who have fallen in love with it. Originally built for an 1889 universal exposition, it was supposed to be dismantled after just 20 years, but the city saved the tower to use its antenna for radio communications. Whether you choose to ascend to its highest platform and admire the city from above, wander around its base, take a photo from the Trocadéro Gardens, or watch the structure sparkle in the evening, you’ll love your time at the Eiffel Tower.
Arc de Triomphe — Built to honor France’s soldiers and commemorate its military triumphs, the Arc de Triomphe stands at the confluence of 12 Parisian streets, including the legendary Champs-Élysées. If you take the stairs to the top, you’ll have an excellent panoramic view of the city. And on your way down, you can pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the arch.
Notre-Dame — Following the French Revolution, Notre-Dame was in a sorry state. But Victor Hugo (who wrote “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) successfully revived public interest in the cathedral, and his work led to major restorations. Today, the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece is one of Paris’s focal points. If you go, take time to appreciate the stained-glass windows, and then head back outside to explore the surrounding area. You’ll want to peruse the goods that merchants (called bouquinistes) sell from nearby green kiosks before stepping inside the popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Sacré-Coeur — This domed cathedral was built as a sign of humility following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, but the Sacré-Coeur is best known for its striking white exterior. The most notable interior feature is the massive mosaic, and the cathedral provides respite from the summer heat. Remember to admire the view from the church as well, and spend an hour or two roaming Montmartre while you’re at it.
Palais Garnier — If you’re a “Phantom of the Opera” fan, you won’t want to skip the building that inspired the story. But, even those who aren’t interested in stepping into Christine’s or the phantom’s shoes will enjoy a visit to the Palais Garnier. From its grand staircase to its main auditorium, the opera house is elegant and well-appointed — making it one of Paris’s most impressive monuments.
Choose one or two
Musée du Louvre — Home to masterpieces like the “Mona Lisa,” “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and “Venus de Milo,” as well as collections of everything from Islamic art to Egyptian antiquities, the Louvre is one of the world’s chief museums. It would take an entire lifetime to see all 460,000 pieces, so you’ll need to prioritize just a few exhibits.
Musée de l’Armée — If you’re interested in military history, this is the museum for you. Not only does it feature Napoleon’s tomb, but it also includes exhibits on medieval armor and weaponry, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the World Wars. After your visit, head outside to admire the Invalides (the domed building that houses the Musée de l’Armée) and the Pont Alexandre III, which is widely considered the loveliest bridge in Paris.
Musée d’Orsay — Located in an old train station and devoted to Impressionist art, the Musée d’Orsay is a true stunner. It’s less overwhelming than the Louvre, so it’s possible to see much more of this museum’s collection in just one visit. Don’t miss the sculptures by Rodin or the paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne — they’re all striking works by French (or at least francophile) artists.
Musée de l’Orangerie — Like the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie is best known for its Impressionist offerings. Fans of Claude Monet’s work won’t want to miss the rooms that feature massive paintings from his “Water Lilies” series. After getting your fill of fantastic colors and swirls, you can view works by other famous artists, including Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse.
Centre Pompidou — The quirkiest museum on this list, the Centre Pompidou showcases Europe’s largest modern art collection, featuring more than 100,000 works created between 1905 and the present day. Outside the museum, you’ll find a people-watcher’s paradise — keep an eye out for street performers, chalk artists, and awestruck tourists.
Montmartre — A little over 100 years ago, this neighborhood was the stomping grounds of artists like Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh. Since then, Montmartre has been the setting of films like “Amélie” and “Moulin Rouge,” and the neighborhood has somehow retained its allure in the face of modern tourism. Once you’ve seen the Place du Tertre, where travelers and artists converge in a bustling square, take some time to wander through the hilly streets and search for landmarks like La Maison Rose.
Seventh arrondissement — Paris is subdivided into 20 semi-autonomous districts called arrondissements, and the seventh is the ritziest of them all. Here, you’ll find tourist hotspots like the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides, and the Musée d’Orsay, but you can also catch your breath along the district’s quieter streets. Whether you roam the area surrounding the Musée Rodin, grab an outdoor table at a café, or shop at the market on Rue Cler, you’re bound to fall in love with this charming neighborhood.
Le Marais — Located in the third and fourth arrondissements, the Marais is marked by cobblestones and tightly packed buildings. It’s Paris’s historic Jewish quarter, and for centuries, it was also the preferred abode of many aristocrats; today, it’s the most LGBT-friendly neighborhood in the city. While there, spend a few hours getting lost in its streets — just make sure that you don’t miss the elegant Place des Vosges.
Champs-Élysées — Although this famous boulevard is touristy, it still affords a can’t-miss glimpse into old Paris. The Champs-Élysées runs from the Arc de Triomphe to just outside the Tuileries Gardens, featuring upscale restaurants, high-end shopping, movie theaters, and more. Remember to stop at Ladurée for macarons!
Saint-Germain-des-Prés — This neighborhood, located in the sixth arrondissement, is organized around the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Its streets are filled with landmarks like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore (both restaurants frequented by famous writers), making it a bibliophile’s mecca. So, if you’d like to get in touch with Paris’s literary side, this is the neighborhood for you.
Vaux-le-Vicomte — In the early 1660s, this ornate château inspired Louis XIV, the “sun king,” to transform one of his own hunting lodges into the grand palace of Versailles. But even though the architecture and interior design are sumptuous, the most beautiful feature at Vaux-le-Vicomte is the grounds. If possible, visit on a Saturday evening in the summer, when candles appear throughout the grounds — the soft lighting imbues the castle with a fairytale feeling.
Versailles — This estate was the center of French government for more than a century, but it was also the pride and joy of Louis XIV. And while the palace’s interior (especially the Hall of Mirrors) is impressive, the huge, inviting grounds really take the cake. When you’re done wandering through the neatly manicured gardens, head farther into the park to rent a bike or canoe. You can also visit the satellite palaces and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, which the royals used to get a little privacy.
Giverny — Just 45 minutes outside the city, you’ll find the paradise that Claude Monet created on his own property. At Giverny, which is open from early spring to late fall, you can visit the artist’s home and set forth in his beloved gardens — the subject of many of his paintings, including the famous “Water Lilies” series. This day trip is a foray into the mind of history’s greatest Impressionist — so get ready to be dazzled.
Rouen — If you dream of streets lined with half-timbered buildings, you’ll want to spend a day exploring Rouen. This city boasts centuries of history — it’s where Joan of Arc died and Monet repeatedly painted the same Gothic cathedral. While there, you can also explore lively pedestrian streets, impressive art museums, and a plague-era ossuary.
Mont Saint-Michel — Located a few hours outside of Paris, this Gothic abbey-on-an-islet is one of France’s most famous sights. It took centuries to construct the buildings on the island, and the site itself is more than 1,000 years old. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mont Saint-Michel was also an important destination for pilgrims during the Middle Ages. To make the most of your visit, arrive early in the day, when the lighting is beautiful and the crowds are thin.
Choose one or two
Jardin des Tuileries — Just outside the Louvre, you’ll find the Jardin des Tuileries, a traditional French garden and the most famous green space in Paris. The man who landscaped Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles also designed the current layout of the Tuileries Gardens, so you might recognize his style during your visit. Note that the Musée de l’Orangerie is located in the garden’s southwest corner.
Jardin du Luxembourg — The Jardin du Luxembourg is more than just another formal garden. Take a moment to stroll through its tree-lined alleys, or people-watch from one of its lounge chairs. You might even spot children taking pony rides or steering remote-controlled boats across a large fountain. Regardless of what you do, we guarantee that you’ll enjoy spending a peaceful hour in this garden.
Jardin des Plantes — The Jardin des Plantes is home to France’s natural history museum, but this botanical garden caters to locals, rather than tourists. It’s a quiet, yet beautiful, green space in Paris’s fifth arrondissement, making it the perfect place for a leisurely walk.
Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes — In the mid-19th century, the Baron Haussmann began modernizing Paris, which was then more or less a medieval city. Luckily for modern Parisians and visitors, building up the city’s green spaces was one of Haussman’s top priorities. He created the Bois de Boulogne (on the western edge of the city) and the Bois de Vincennes (on the eastern edge) — today, they’re the two biggest parks in Paris, each considerably larger than Manhattan’s Central Park.
Choose one or two
Jazz club — What could be more Parisian than enjoying live jazz music? Whether you visit Le Bal Blomet (the oldest jazz club in the city), 38 Riv (a venue located in a 12th-century cellar), Caveau de la Huchette (a locale that hosts nightly concerts and appeared in the epilogue sequence of “La La Land”), or one of the city’s countless other clubs, you’re in for a treat.
Rooftop bar — Relaxing at a rooftop bar is a great way to end any day, but that’s especially true on a summer evening in Paris. You’ll find these delightful terraces all over the city, but some of the best options include Le Perchoir Marais, Terrass’ Hotel, and Maison Blanche. Santé!
Late-night stroll — In the mood for a moonlit walk around the city, à la “Midnight in Paris”? Wait until a couple of hours after sunset, especially in the summer, when locals flock to the Seine with their friends. While most of the city is lovely after dark, we suggest exploring the streets and bridges between Hôtel de Ville and Île Saint-Louis — this area should be both safe and quiet, and you’ll even pass Notre-Dame along the way.
Choose up to four
Seine river cruise — Need a quick overview of Paris’s history and geography? Take a cruise on the Seine, where you’ll be treated to splendid views of the city’s monuments (and historical insights to go with them). To find a tour operator, head to the stretch of the river near Notre-Dame, Pont Neuf, or the Eiffel Tower.
Sainte-Chapelle — This cathedral, located within walking distance of Notre-Dame, is small but delightful. With more than 1,000 stained-glass windows, the Sainte-Chapelle is almost always awash in jewel tones, making for a highly memorable outing.
Catacombs — In the late 18th century, after realizing that local burial practices were causing a public health crisis, the French government began moving human remains to subterranean quarries in Paris. Today, the Catacombs contain the bones of millions of people, and tourists are more than welcome to walk through the macabre tunnels. Just make sure you stick with the group!
Père-Lachaise Cemetery — Some of France’s literary heroes (including Balzac, La Fontaine, Molière, and Musset) are buried in this cemetery, where you’ll also find the final resting place of Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. Before leaving, stop by Oscar Wilde’s grave, where fans leave lipstick prints to show their devotion to the Irish playwright.
Marché aux Puces de St.-Ouen — Take metro line four to Porte de Clignancourt and you’ll come across a massive flea market (actually comprised of 15 individual markets). While you could purchase just about anything here, the Marché aux Puces specializes in antiques, so a visit to this market will feel like a bona fide trip to vintage Paris.
Montparnasse Tower — Looking for the best view in Paris? This is it. From the 56th-floor observation deck of Montparnasse Tower, you’ll be able to spot the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, Montmartre, the business district of La Défense, and just about everything else in the city. Don’t forget your camera!
- Explore a neighborhood
- Visit a main attraction
- Experience the city’s nightlife
- Tour a museum
- Spend time at a park
- Explore a neighborhood
- Take a day trip
- If you venture to Versailles or Vaux-le-Vicomte, you might have some extra time on your hands. We suggest eating in a café, relaxing in a park, or crossing an alternative off your list.
- Visit a main attraction
- Tour a museum or choose an alternative
- Experience the city’s nightlife or choose an alternative
- Visit a main attraction
- Explore a neighborhood
- Spend time at a park or choose an alternative
Ta-da — there’s your itinerary! If possible, stay in the same general area for a while, thereby limiting your time on the metro. (For example, visit the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées together, or Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre, or the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries.)
You’ll still need to research accommodation and transportation, but you now have an outline for how you’ll spend each day. The itinerary is flexible, so don’t hesitate to change your plans based on your individual needs. Who knows, you might even find a few hidden gems by following your whims.
Congratulations— you’ve planned the bulk of your getaway, and the City of Lights awaits. Bon voyage!