Paris' monument-lined boulevards, masterpiece-filled museums and diverse patchwork of neighbourhoods are endlessly absorbing to explore. Even if you're visiting on a quick break, the city's excellent transport network makes it easy to cover a lot of ground. This itinerary takes in the French Capital's unmissable highlights and local secrets to give you an unforgettable weekend in Paris.
Centrally located on the Left Bank, Paris' lively Latin Quarter – named for the language students prevalent here until the French Revolution – remains a student hub today, with prestigious university La Sorbonne at its heart. This vibrant neighbourhood is an ideal place to kick off your time in the French capital, and you’ll see it at its most rambunctious as the sun sets on Friday evening.
Begin with an apéro (aperitif; pre-dinner drink) at a riverside cafe such as Café Panis. Then bypass the overpriced, touristy restaurants in the maze of tiny streets between the Seine, rue St-Jacques and bd St-Germain and seek out authentic bistros like Le Petit Pontoise, with bare wooden tables, crimson banquettes and blackboards chalking up classics like cassoulette d'escargots (snail stew), or contemporary Baieta, with a sleek charcoal-hued dining room and refined Niçoise cuisine.
After dinner, pop into late-opening Shakespeare & Company, a magical warren of book-lined rooms, before making your way to one of the quarter's famous jazz clubs like Caveau de la Huchette, atmospherically set in a medieval cellar used as a torture chamber during the French Revolution, or convivial Café Universel. Finish your evening with a stroll along the Seine's lamp-lit bridges with Paris' illuminated monuments reflecting in the rippling water. C'est magnifique.
Rouse yourself for the day ahead (and shift any traces of a Sauvignon hangover) with an expertly brewed coffee and vegetarian dish (including vegan and gluten-free options) from charming little cafe Cuppa. From here, it's just a few footsteps to the Musée d’Orsay, set in a magnificent former railway station and showcasing France's national impressionist, post-impressionist and art nouveau collections from 1848 to 1914. Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro and Van Gogh are among the many artists whose instantly recognisable works comprise a greatest hits parade.
Close by, the Musée Rodin has sculptures by Auguste Rodin in his former workshop/showroom, the 1730-built private mansion Hôtel Biron (including the white-marble The Kiss), and its serene rose-filled gardens (where you'll find the bronze-cast The Thinker).
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Continue west along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower (if you've never been to the top before, now is your chance; just be sure to pre-book a time slot to minimise the queues). Take a Vedettes de Paris river cruise or jump aboard a hop-on, hop-off Batobus to get a peaceful perspective of the city from the water.
Stretching from vast place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, is Paris' most famous boulevard, the plane tree–shaded av des Champs-Élysées, flanked by luxury shops and showrooms. At its western end is the mighty Arc de Triomphe, commemorating Napoléon’s 1805 victory at Austerlitz: climb its 284 steps for an incredible panorama of the city.
The area around the former wholesale markets of Les Halles is loaded with restaurants; enduring favourites include 24-hour brasserie Au Pied de Cochon, with gleaming mirrors and frosted-glass lamps (its pigs trotters are a house speciality and its onion soup is Paris' best); and Michelin-starred neo-bistro Frenchie (if you can't get a reservation at the latter, try its walk-in wine bar Frenchie Bar à Vins, serving small-plate sharing dishes).
Book ahead to take in a performance at Paris' splendid opera house the Palais Garnier. If clubbing is more your scene, check out house and techno stalwart Le Rex Club. Or continue up to hilly Montmartre in Paris' north for can-can at the Moulin Rouge, beneath its namesake red windmill; live music gigs at venues like Le Divan du Monde; or cocktails at absinthe specialist Lulu White (one of a string of bars along the same small street), or Le Très Particulier, a jewel hidden in the walled garden of a 19th-century mansion-turned-hotel (ring the buzzer to gain entry).
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Trawl 150-plus stalls selling seasonal fruit and vegetables, freshly baked breads, cheeses, seafood and much more at Marché Bastille. For an even more local scene, browse nearby Marché d’Aligre, which also has a covered food market and a bric-a-brac-filled flea market (a post-market glass of wine at rustic wine bar Le Baron Rouge is a neighbourhood tradition).
Armed with picnic supplies, make your way to the terraced, flowering park Jardin du Port de l'Arsenal, on the eastern side of Paris' 230-berth marina Port de l'Arsenal (from where cruises head underground en route to Canal St-Martin), or at charming hidden square Place des Vosges, ringed by elegant symmetrical houses with cloister-like arcades.
Stroll west to the tangle of narrow, medieval streets of Le Marais, one of Paris' coolest neighbourhoods, which teems with hip cafes, bars and boutiques selling designer homewares and fashion in both the lower Marais and Haut Marais (upper, ie northern Marais). Le Marais is among the city's ZTIs (international tourist zones), permitting shops to open on Sundays (though some still close). Bring France Home is a standout address for unique French-made gifts and souvenirs.
Northeast of Le Marais, picturesque Canal St-Martin, criss-crossed by wrought-iron bridges, also has a slew of art, fashion, jewellery and homewares shops on and around its banks that also open on Sundays. Its shaded tow paths are lovely for a stroll, or you can just hang out at laid-back cafes like waterside Chez Prune. If you have time before your train or flight, end your Parisian weekend at one of the cornucopia of restaurants here, such as tiny bistro/wine bar Le Verre Volé.
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