First Time Visiting Paris: 13 Best Things To See + Food, Tours & Neighbourhoods

France By

Paris is a polarising city. You either love it or hate it.

But I’ve discovered a squishy middle spot.

It’s a city you must experience at least once in your lifetime. But to fully appreciate Paris and get the most out of it, you need to adjust your expectations.

Significantly.

The vibe can seem a bit colder and more distant than Rome, and less sensible than London. If I had to use one word to describe Paris, it would be “tough”. Don’t romanticise the city - the culture is rough around the edges, shaped by centuries of tension, conflict, and turmoil – domestic and international.

Paris is one of the world’s most densely populated capital cities – and the squishiest capital in Europe. Space is a premium. 

Forget about the unrealistic Emily In Paris, and set your expectations low. Then everything will be a bonus. If you don’t, be warned... Paris Syndrome is real.

However…

…there is still an endearing side to Paris.

So when you know what to expect, and where to look for special, authentic experiences, your first time visiting Paris can be really rewarding.

Read on to discover more.

Essential reading: If your trip to Paris will be part of a larger trip around Europe, check out my must-read guide on how to plan a trip to Europe.

How To Save Money in Paris

Travel costs in post-pandemic France have reached dizzying highs. Demand from consumers is higher than ever, and suppliers can’t keep up. Add to that inflation and labour shortage, and you can see why you need to be extra vigilant to stretch your travel dollars further.

Use Public Transport

The underground metro network is the best way to cover longer distances in Paris. Then the bus network fills in the gaps for the remainder. Many times the metro is faster than taxis due to traffic congestion, and a lot cheaper too. Single tickets are just €1.90, or pre-pay a 10-pack, and unlimited day passes are available for 1-5 days.

Paris’ underground metro. Not the most modern trains, but it does the job.

Don’t Use Cash

If your home bank charges a fee for withdrawing cash in a foreign country, never fret. You can frolic around Paris with very little hard cash. Card payments are accepted in most places – from public transport to supermarkets to food trucks. The only exception is public toilets which require coins (Euros). If your home bank charges high foreign transaction fees, consider the Wise debit card.

Free Self-Guided Tours

If you’ve got time to stroll and prefer to do things on your own, download the MP3s and PDFs for Rick Steve’s free audio guide tours. He covers 6 separate walks: Historic Paris, Louvre Museum, Orsay Museum, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Rue Cler, and Versailles Palace. 

Supermarkets are Your Friend

Eating out can be pricey in Paris – with street food the exception. Like Rome, full-size breakfast options are slim, so make your own from small supermarkets. Local chains to look out for are Monoprix, Franprix, and Carrefour. Vegan-friendly and gluten-free options are harder to find, but not impossible.

Free Museums

A collection of Paris’ museums offer free entry on the first Sunday of every month. These include: Musée d'Orsay, Rodin Museum, Picasso Museum, Museum of the Orangery, and more. Louvre Museum is on the list, but only after 6pm. If you’re willing to cram multiple stops back-to-back, you can save some serious dosh. 

Turbopass Paris City Pass

One option for saving money on museums, attractions, and transport in Paris is the Paris City Pass. I’ve used this in cities like London and Rome, which offered better value. Unfortunately, the Paris version is a little more clunky. It’s not digital, and has to be picked up from a central location. Basically, it’s the Paris Museum Pass bundled with a public transport card. It’s simply cheaper to buy those products separately. Keep in mind that the Museum Pass is annoyingly only available for 2, 4, or 6 days. You really need at least 4 days for enough time to use most of the primary benefits.

Getting Around Paris

Walking. You’re going to do a lot of it. Paris is a relatively pedestrian-friendly city, but major attractions are spread over a significant distance (from Arc de Triomphe to the central bus station is 8.6kms). I racked up over 15,000 steps daily on my Galaxy Watch, so pack comfortable walking shoes and thick socks (these are my recommended socks).

Public transport is convenient and relatively fast, although traffic jams can hit during peak times. Bus drivers may opt to deviate from the scheduled route to avoid traffic, so stay alert about where you are at all times. Sometimes you’ll have to look hard for the metro entrance – signage isn’t that great or consistent. Some cutesy, whimsical signs are over 100 years old and weren’t designed with readability in mind.

Someone thought this sign design was a good idea 100 years ago. They were wrong.

Tip: Download and print a copy of the PDF metro map as a backup in case your phone goes flat.

Taxis & Rideshare are very expensive, and not necessarily any faster than the metro, especially over longer distances. The most popular e-hailing apps are: Uber, Bolt, G7, and Free Now

There’s no shortage of e-scooter options in Paris. But you’d have to be pretty crazy to navigate on major roads between zig-zagging car drivers. But if you prefer white-knuckled thrill rides, the most popular options are: Lime, Bird, Bolt, Tier, Voi, and Dott.

Driving. OMG, Paris is a nightmare for parking and traffic. I can’t say Parisians don’t know how to drive – they do, but just have very little patience or courtesy. You need nerves of steel if you dare to try. Parking costs are exorbitant, and if you try to park illegally, even for a few minutes, there’s a very good chance of being fined (which is a whole other story of bureaucracy – don’t ask). I picked up a rental car from Orly Airport for a road trip around the countryside which was bearable. However, when returning the car, the roads around Orly Airport and the signage, or lack thereof, were beyond infuriating.

Getting to Orly Airport (ORY) is a royal pain in the ass. To reach the city centre, it either takes 2 standard buses or 2 trains and a bus – around 1 hour. And the taxi option is very expensive at 45 minutes, with high chances of being stuck in traffic. For a major international city, this is quite disappointing. The most cost-effective way is the OrlyBus which connects the airport to not-so-central Place Denfert-Rochereau (€8.30pp, every 8-15 minutes, 30-minute travel time). Tickets are available from automated vending machines.

On my last trip to Paris, I arrived by bus, which luckily turned out to be much smarter. So if Paris is part of a longer trip around Europe, I suggest using a bus or train to arrive and depart, if possible. 

Essential Tours in Paris for a First-Time Visitor 

Paris In A Day Tour

This is THE tour that will hit the most highlights in one day. The amazingly knowledgeable and friendly guide, Manny, kicked off the tour with Sacré Coeur Basilica and Montmartre followed by a snack stop. We meandered through the Latin Quarter and to the front of Notre Dame. With skip-the-queue tickets at the Louvre Museum, Manny whisked through dozens of must-see exhibits, including Venus di Milo, and the Mona Lisa. There was enough detail to feel the cultural richness but not too much to get overloaded. And the day finished off with skip-the-queue entrance to the Eiffel Tower with time to wander around at our leisure. The package includes a Seine Cruise ticket which can be used at any time afterward. This tour is hands-down the best way to get a comprehensive overview of Paris from a local. Manny was entertaining and relatable and filled in the gaps, so every guest gained a better understanding of what makes Paris tick.

Ultimate Paris Food Tour

Food is central to every culture. And one of the best ways to get knee-deep in Parisian food culture is on this expertly guided tour from Devour (sister company of Walks). Paris is a melting pot of cultures from all corners of the globe, and our guide Juan led us through the nooks and crannies of Paris to uncover places I would have never found by myself. He was kind enough to customise the itinerary to suit my dietary requirements (vegan). Every location has a story behind it, and Juan brings these to life. Typically the tour includes 11 tastings, including bread, pastry, chocolate, crepe, macaron, cheese, meat, wine, and more.

Essential Things To Do in Paris for a First-Time Visitor 

Eiffel Tower

This world-renowned structure needs no introduction. Don’t buy your tickets on the spot, unless you enjoy queues of 2-3 hours. Buy them online before your trip, as they can sell out up to 2 months in advance. Otherwise, express entry was included with the Paris in a Day tour. One of the best vantage points for photos of the tower is the nearby Fontaine du Jardin du Trocadéro.

Fun fact: The satellite view on Google Maps gives a unique perspective on this phallic-shaped fountain.

Champ de Mars

This freely-accessible 780-metre-long rectangular landscaped green space has been drawing Parisians and tourists alike since 1780. Bring a drink and snacks, and watch the sun slip over the horizon behind the Eiffel Tower. After nightfall, the iconic tower lights up in a brilliant display for 5 minutes, every hour, on the hour, until 1am. Regardless of cliches, I found this was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had anywhere in the world.

Louvre Museum

This is the world’s most visited museum for a good reason. This former royal palace was transformed after the French Revolution in the 18th century, and now holds over 615,000 pieces in its art collection, with 35,000 on display. Highlights are easily recognisable: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Liberty Leading the People, and The Coronation of Napoleon. You could spend all day here and not see everything, so plan your visit ahead of time. Buy your timed entry tickets online to skip the queues, or choose a guided tour to gain the most insight into this vast artwork collection. Otherwise, express entry was included with the Paris in a Day tour.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

This medieval Catholic cathedral stretches 69 metres into the sky – pretty tall, considering it was completed in 1260 AD. Unfortunately, this icon of French Gothic architecture was devastated by a raging fire In April 2019 while renovations were being undertaken. Now you can only see the Notre-Dame from the outside, and the scheduled re-opening is April 2024 (in time for the Paris Olympic Games).

Arc de Triomphe

This famous monument honours soldiers who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Arc de Triomphe is located at the juncture of 12 avenues, forming a hub with spokes. I call this one of the craziest roundabouts in the world. But for some daft reason, witless tourists try to cross it anyway. There’s a safer underpass, so please use that. The best free vantage point is this exact spot just before sunset, but be patient, as other tourists will have the same idea. Once inside the arch, it’s 284 steps to the top, but the city views sprawling out from Champs-Elysees are worth it. Allow 1 hour total visit time, and buy tickets online to skip the queue.

Tip: It can be tricky to identify buildings from the rooftop viewpoint, so download the free official app to fully appreciate the vista.

Musée d'Orsay

Welcome to the home of the world’s largest collection of Impressionist art, with around 6,000 pieces by influential figures such as Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Degas, and more. The actual museum is an artwork too – formerly a train station that has been beautifully renovated and restored. Buy skip-the-line tickets online.

Sacré-Coeur Basilica & Montmartre

Built on the highest hill in Paris, this basilica was only completed in 1914, which is relatively new by Parisian standards. The site is traditionally associated with the martyrdom of Saint Denis – the patron saint of Paris. Its construction was inspired by France’s perceived decline in morals. However, the design and specific location draw on fascinating political undertones I discovered on the Paris in a Day Tour. Entry is free however, if you wish to climb the dome, a paid ticket onsite is required. It’s best to get before 7am as queues can grow quickly.

The surrounding area, Montmartre, has been a bohemian hotbed for artists and anarchists for centuries. Today it’s the cobblestone-clad artistic district with a vibrant nightlife. While it’s free to wander on your own, a guided tour will help you discover the true essence of this district.

Sainte-Chapelle

This 13th-century chapel was built by French royalty in just 7 years to house one of the most sacred relics – Christ’s crown of thorns. However, it wasn’t just for the sake of pretty stained glass windows, but to reinforce religious and political influence in Europe. In saying that, these are probably the prettiest stained glass windows you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Buy skip-the-line tickets online.

Tip: If you have pre-booked tickets, then when you arrive, walk past the queue winding out the front door, and show your ticket to the front desk. I made the mistake of waiting in the queue – whoops!

Seine River Cruise

This is one of those cliché things that tourists do in Paris. I must admit, I didn’t find it very riveting, and the onboard audio commentary was basic. It’s more like a cattle cart on water. Still, it made for a well-deserved 1-hour break from walking all over Paris. A ticket is included with the Paris in a Day Tour, otherwise you should book online for the lowest price.

Pont Alexandre III

This is the most ornate bridge across the Seine River. Lined with art nouveau cherubs and nymphs, it is bookended by 19th-century golden-clad winged statues. You can’t take a bad photo of it.

Palais Garnier

Opened in 1875, this is the largest opera house in Europe, and is considered the most beautiful in the world. It wows from the outside and inside. The design blends elements of Baroque and Renaissance architecture, with the pièce de résistance a spectacular 7-tonne chandelier set against an ornate painted ceiling. It’s free to enjoy from the outside, or book tickets online to explore the interior.

FlyView Paris

If you want to try something a bit different and cheesy, take a virtual reality flight around Paris and see the sights from a different perspective. I’m a little prone to motion sickness, and ended the ride looking paler than usual. This is included with the Turbopass Paris City Pass or buy tickets online.

Chill At Sunset Along The Seine

There’s a strong social culture in Paris, and it’s common to find Parisians of all ages strewn along the banks of the Seine River in the early evening with friends. Catch the last hour of daylight at this specific spot for a combination of gorgeous views and plenty of sitting space. Bring a drink or snacks, and a friend, and you’ll experience the real Paris. And it’s totally free.

Essential Food to Try in Paris

Ignore what the media has shown you; there are usually no frog legs on the menu. Snails (escargot) in garlic butter are a delicacy but not especially filling. Instead, look for the time-tested classics below. With over 40,000 restaurants in Paris, there’s something for everyone – from sidewalk cafes to Michelin-star fine dining to rooftop brasseries and even picnics in the park.

Tip: When you’re short on time in Paris, I recommend a guided food tour with a local foodie.

Baguette

I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect bread to taste so good. But now I know what the fuss is about. It’s probably the easiest food to find in Paris, just follow your nose. And bread goes with anything and everything. The French take their bread seriously, and there are strict laws for bakeries to ensure a high standard everywhere.

Food tip: There’s a right way and a wrong way to eat a baguette. Don’t take a bite out of the whole loaf, but rather break off a piece with your hand or cut it (if a knife is handy). Manners first!

France tip: A specialist bread bakery is called a ‘boulangerie’. A pastry shop is called a ‘pâtisserie’, and according to French law, it must employ a maître pâtissier (master pastry chef). These shops are always clearly signed.

A boulangerie AND patisserie

Onion Soup

If it’s cold outside, this is guaranteed to warm you up quickly. Hearty, rich flavours evolve from slowly stewed real beef stock. And, of course, there’s the melted cheese on top. Pair it with French bread and you’ve got a winner.

Chocolate

There’s a world of difference between cheap chocolate and edible hand-crafted art pieces. Award-winning chocolatier, Jean-Paul Hevin, has been operating a small chain of stores in Paris since 1988 and earned the tricolour collar of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen in France) in the patisserie-confectionery branch. You have to try his flavoured chocolates and macarons while you’re in Paris.

Macarons

These are easy to find all over Paris, from small and dainty to beasts as big as your hand (and I’ve got big hands!).

Crepes and Galettes

Originating in Brittany, these are now found all over Paris. Crepes are made from wheat flour and are usually sweet, whereas galettes are savoury and use buckwheat flour. These thin pancakes are stuffed with an assortment of goodies. Popular sweet versions add Nutella, ice cream, caramel, berries, or banana, and savoury options include egg, ham, cheese, and vegetables. 

Cheese and Cured Meats

France is known for its cheese, and for a good reason. Its quality is unmatched all over the world. Try high-quality artisanal goat and cow cheese, salami with pepper, dry sausage, and Prince ham at a quaint store called At the town of Rodez

Street food at Marché des Enfants Rouges

This is not a specific dish per se, but you can find a melting pot of cuisines from around the world at this hole-in-the-wall market dating back to 1615. Prices are very reasonable by Paris standards. I tried a mouth-watering Moroccan-style vegan pancake.

Extra Tips for First-Time Visitors to Paris

Avoid the dreaded Paris Syndrome, with these essential insights to set your expectations.

Expect Tiny Accommodation

Space in Paris is at a premium. So any hotel or apartment will likely be much smaller than you’re used to… unless you’re from Hong Kong. Most inner-city buildings were constructed a long time ago and soundproofing wasn’t a thing, so with the cramped space also comes noise from neighbours. Bring earplugs just in case.

Choose Your District Wisely

It might be tempting to scrimp and choose an apartment rental on the outskirts of town, but you’ll end up spending an hour or more travelling to the centre of the city each day. That’s not the best way to spend the little vacation time you have. Each district has a very distinctive personality (see the end of the article). Research your prospects before booking.

Language

Many Parisians speak at least a little English, but a significant do not – or prefer not to. It pays to learn a few basic phrases in French. Make sure you download offline translations in the Google Translate app. The “audio transcribe” tool may save the day – you never know.

Stay Connected

Pick up a SIM (or eSIM) card so you’re connected to the Internet – don’t rely on jumping between insecure public WiFi hotspots. Read my article for more info on eSIMs in Europe. I used a SIM from Holafly, with unlimited data, to stay connected all over Europe. It was my lifeline in Paris. 

Navigate Like A Pro

I highly recommend the mobile app Citymapper (iOS, Android) rather than Google Maps for navigating the public transport network. The live arrival times help to avoid wasting time standing at a bus or metro stop, when you could be cruising the Sein or strolling through another museum.

DIY Breakfast

Big breakfasts are not a common occurrence in Parisian culture. The city is go-go-go. If you’re staying at a self-catered apartment, pick up a couple ingredients from a local supermarket, such as a fresh baguette and jam.

Double Check Operating Hours

The French take their rest time seriously, and there are strict laws about working too many hours. Some businesses, such as pharmacies, can close earlier than other European cities, and on weekends you’ll find even fewer businesses open. If you come in mid-summer, many Parisians take up to 1 month’s vacation and just close their shops. I was so sad to discover that a vegan patisserie I was looking so forward to was closed when I arrived.

Toilets

Public toilets can be hard to come by in Paris. And if you do locate one, it often requires payment in the form of coins (Euros), so keep a few handy. A sneaky hack is to look for buildings with a French flag adorning the front, as it’s likely to be a public building with greater chances to find a (free) public restroom. 

Security

The safety situation in Paris varies from district to district. Some areas are relatively safe, while others are sketchy. Keep an eye on your valuables in crowded areas like train stations, buses, and tourist attractions. If anyone offers you something for free on the street, just ignore them. Don’t be afraid to be rude. And only carry enough cash that you need for that day. The French love to protest, but if you see any, just steer clear – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

IRL Tourist Help is Available

On the ground floor of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann (shopping mall), you will find “Point Info Tourisme”, staffed by friendly tourism representatives that speak multiple languages. 

It can be a little hard to find. Look for the mall entrance closest to Café de l'Opéra, and stay to the right.

Paris Does Not Equal “France”

There is Paris. And then there’s the rest of France. This dynamic is pretty common in many major cities around the world. Do not paint the whole country of France with the same brush as one specific busy metropolis. The countryside around France is absolutely beautiful, with very peaceful regions and abounding natural and cultural beauty. If you don’t like Paris for some reason, please don’t write off France altogether. There’s a lot to love about France.

Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
Beach in Saint-Malo, Brittany
Cha?teau Royal d'Amboise, Loire Valley

Do Your Research

French history goes back thousands of years, and to really grasp modern Paris, it pays to understand its backstory. Check out these series, movies, and documentaries:

Netflix: Versailles, The King.

YouTube: a YouTube video playlist of 6 vids.

Where to Stay in Paris

Paris is split into 20 districts called “arrondissements”, which are numbered in a spiral starting from the centre. On your first visit to Paris, you should allow at least 4 days to see all the major attractions, although 5-6 days might be a more comfortable pace. 

Latin Quarter (5th Arrondissement) – one of the most central districts, popular with tourists and students. Bars and cafes abound.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés (6th Arrondissement) – oozing with luxury boutiques and 5-star hotels, this is one of the most expensive districts.

Le Premier (1st Arrondissement) - the centre of the action, and close to many tourist popular tourist attractions. It’s unsurprisingly pricy.

Montmartre (18th Arrondissement) - steep hills with cobblestone streets, and expansive picturesque vistas. Slightly further from the action, but quieter at night.

Montparnasse (14th Arrondissement) – most family-friendly area.

Le Marais (3rd & 4th Arrondissement) – trendy and hip, with lots of shopping options along with bars and clubs. It’s known for being the gay district.

Pigalle (9th & 18th Arrondissement) – home to the Moulin Rouge and the red light district, caters to adult entertainment.

That’s A Wrap!

You made it to the end of this jumbo-length article! If you can do that, then you can tackle Paris like a pro. 

Now you’ve got everything you need to start preparing for your first time visiting Paris. Remember to temper your expectations and forget the romanticised Hollywood vision that really doesn’t exist. Just brace yourself, take a deep breath, and plunge into the chaos head-first. 

That’s the secret to experiencing Paris’ true magic.

Reader Comments...

"I respond to every comment by direct private email. I look forward to your feedback" -

Great article just keep on posting this.

Esem Mayaki Jan 6th, 2023

Write Your Comment