Highlights of Paris
Infused with extraordinary art and architecture, exceptional cuisine and its signature sense of style, Paris' highlights are endless, making it hard for first-time and even returning visitors to know where to start. Follow our guide to discover the French capital's unmissable attractions, from its most emblematic sights to its hidden treasures.
Gliding along the Seine past Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, monumental museums and the city's palatial Hôtel de Ville (town hall) gives you an idyllic introduction to the city. Year-round, numerous companies run river-cruise tours with multilingual commentary, such as Bateaux-Mouches. To sightsee along the way, Batobus runs a hop-on, hop-off service docking at nine key locations along the Seine, allowing you to spend as long as you like between stops. Paris Canal Croisières combines cruises of the Seine with trips along the Canal St-Martin, which flows through the city's northeastern neighbourhoods, spanned by footbridges.
2. Eiffel Tower
The first image that comes to mind when you think of Paris is likely the art-nouveau Eiffel Tower. Rising to a height of 324m (1063 feet), the wrought-iron tower provides unique perspectives of the city from each of its three viewing platforms, with a Champagne bar at the top. Book ahead to avoid queuing for lift tickets (you'll still need to pass through security queues to enter the glass barriers surrounding the base), and consider taking the south pillar's stairs from the 2nd floor to the ground for the most immersive way to experience this feat of engineering.
Laid out like a vast carpet at the foot of the tower is the green expanse of the Parc du Champ de Mars.
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3. Arc de Triomphe
Some of the most magnificent views of the Eiffel Tower – and the city – radiate from the rooftop viewing platform of the Arc de Triomphe. The 50m-high (164 feet) Roman-style triumphal arch, adorned with intricate sculptures, was commissioned by Napoléon to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz in 1805 and completed some three decades later. East along the axe historique (historic axis), vistas stretch along the city's most glamorous avenue, the luxury-shop-lined Champs-Élysées. Westwards, you'll see the arch's modern counterpoint, the 1980s-built Grande Arche de la Défense.
Beneath the Arc de Triomphe is the eternal flame guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Swirling around the arch is the city's busiest roundabout (descend the stairs on the Champs-Élysées' northern side to access the subterranean pedestrian tunnels so you don't get skittled by traffic).
4. Museums and galleries
Scores of museums and galleries are scattered all over the city, but three are absolute musts. First and foremost is the Musée du Louvre, sprawling over a medieval fortress-turned royal palace-turned museum that today contains an astonishing 35,000 artworks and artefacts from antiquity to the mid-19th century. Along with crowd-pleasers like the Mona Lisa, it has countless other masterpieces in its lesser-explored corners.
Picking up where the Louvre leaves off, the Musée d’Orsay displays impressionist, post impressionist and art nouveau works from 1848 to 1914 in a resplendent 1900-built former railway station. It's packed with instantly recognisable paintings by artists including Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh and Monet. (Monet fans should also check out his enormous Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries, and the world's largest collection of his works at the Musée Marmottan Monet).
Modern and contemporary works from 1905 to the present day are showcased at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, within the “inside-out”-designed Centre Pompidou, which also hosts major temporary exhibitions.
From fromages (cheeses) and boulangerie (bakery) staples like baguettes and croissants to cosy bistros, wine bars and multi-Michelin-starred restaurants, Paris is revered for its gastronomy. Browsing the open-air street markets that set up all over the city will give you a taste for Parisians' passion for food; great ones include the lively Marché Bastille and chef favourite Marché d’Aligre. Gourmet emporiums such as La Grande Épicerie de Paris are also dazzling.
Ticking the city's best places to eat off your list could take a lifetime, but be sure at the very least to try exquisite sorbets and ice creams from Berthillon; pastries from 1730-established Stohrer; classical French cooking at a traditional bistro such as Chez Dumonet; innovative tapas-style “small plates” at a wine bar like Frenchie Bar à Vins; and, if you're splashing out, haute cuisine at a culinary icon like Restaurant Guy Savoy.
Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent are among the creators who cemented Paris' position as a world fashion capital, and the city remains at the forefront of the industry. Department stores such as the stained-glass-domed Galeries Lafayette – which also hosts fashion shows – offer a snapshot of the latest trends.
Sustainability is today's byword in Parisian fashion, with the city aiming to become the world's most sustainable fashion capital by 2024 through its Paris Good Fashion initiative. Pioneers include Sézane, with eco-conscious, affordable designs. French-made fashion and accessories (as well as fashionable items for the home) fill the shelves at L'Exception and Empreintes. Vintage and upcycled pieces are also more sought after than ever, with long-standing and new boutiques citywide.
7. Parks and gardens
In Europe's most densely populated city, its beautiful parks are a true breath of fresh air. The most enchanting, especially for families, is the chestnut-shaded Jardin du Luxembourg, with old-fashioned children's activities including marionette (puppet) shows. There are also puppet shows at sprawling Parc Monceau and Parc Montsouris. The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a hilly, forested haven, while the futuristic Parc de la Villette is another winner with kids.
To get even closer to nature, head to one of Paris' two rambling woodlands, the eastern Bois de Vincennes and western Bois de Boulogne, to the west. Both have extensive recreation facilities, including lakes with row boats.
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Paris' beloved cathedral, Notre Dame, was ravaged by fire in 2019, with years of rebuilding ahead, but the city has numerous other churches worth seeking out. Notre Dame's services are being held at the Gothic- and Renaissance-style Église St-Germain l’Auxerrois, near the Louvre. Gothic Église St-Eustache is renowned for its acoustics, and is a superb place to catch organ recitals and concerts, as is the neoclassical, Grecian temple–style Église de la Madeleine. The distinctive white-domed Sacré-Cœur basilica crowns the hilltop above the village-like neighbourhood of Montmartre.
Ethereal Sainte-Chapelle has luminous original 13th-century stained glass. Left Bank highlights include the city's oldest church, the 11th-century, Romanesque Église St-Germain des Prés, and, at military complex Hôtel des Invalides, the Église du Dôme, containing the ornate tomb of Napoléon.
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Article originally published in December 2014 by Nicola Williams and updated in February 2020.