Paris has more recognisable monuments than any other city in the world, but its tree-shaded boulevards, romantic bridges illuminated by wrought-iron lamps and wicker chair-lined café terraces all have a timeless familiarity too. There is so much of it to explore; however, if you only have one day in Paris, here’s the best way to maximise your time.
Start your morning on the southern bank of the Seine, and observe the 360-degree panorama of Paris’ most famous sights from Place de la Concorde. Paris spreads out around you, with views of the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and along the Champs-Élysées. Its 3300-year-old pink granite obelisk was a gift from Egypt in 1831. In 1793, Louis XVI’s head was lopped off by a guillotine set up in the northwest corner of the square near the statue representing the city of Brest. During the next two years, another guillotine – this one near the entrance to the Jardin des Tuileries – was used to behead 1343 more people, including Marie-Antoinette and, six months later, the Revolutionary leader Danton.
Take a stroll through the sprawling grounds of the Hôtel des Invalides, the 17th-century war veterans’ residence which includes a military museum and Napoleon’s tomb.
Make your way over to the Musée de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s Waterlilies as well as paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Sisley, Soutine and Utrillo. Don’t linger too long before crossing the river to the Musée d’Orsay for more Monet and other impressionist masters, both in this former train station, and the sculpture filled rose garden at The Rodin Museum. Take a rest in one of the most relaxing spots in the city, with its garden bespeckled with sculptures and shade trees in which to contemplate The Thinker, which resides here.
Wander west along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Lifts yo-yo up and down the north, west and east pillars of Paris’ signature tower; change lifts on the 2nd floor for the final ascent to the top. (Anyone nervous will be relieved to know that the lifts are monitored by computer, and in the event of overloading they’re automatically immobilised and unable to leave.) If you’re feeling athletic, you can take the south pillar’s stairs – some 1665 of them – as far as the 2nd floor.
After you’ve admired Paris’ greatest viewpoint, catch a Batobus – a hop-on, hop-off waterbus – to the Jardin des Plantes. Founded in 1626 as Louis XIII’s herb garden, Paris’ botanical gardens are a serious institute rather than a leisure destination, but fascinating all the same. Sections include a winter garden, tropical greenhouses and an alpine garden, as well as the school of botany, and a menagerie.
Poke around the Latin Quarter (so named because university students here communicated in Latin until the French Revolution and it was renowned worldwide as an intellectual incubator), the centre of academic life in Paris. The quarter centres on the Sorbonne’s main university campus, which is graced by fountains and lime trees. In the surrounding area you’ll encounter students and professors lingering at its late-opening bookshops and secondhand record shops on and around the ‘boul Mich’ (blvd St-Michel). You’ll also encounter them researching in its museums like the Musée National du Moyen Âge (aka Cluny); at the library within its exquisite art deco-Moorish mosque; in its botanic gardens, the Jardin des Plantes – or simply relaxing in its pigeon-filled squares and gardens. To really take the area’s pulse, head to its liveliest commercial street, medieval rue Mouffetard, a colourful jumble of student bars, cheap eateries, market stalls and inexpensive clothing and homewares shops.
Arrive at St-Germain des Prés. Here’s a chance to put your feet up in the evening and people watch at a historic café. Literary lovers, antique collectors and fashionistas all flock to this mythological part of Paris. Legendary writers such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein and Joyce hung out in the cafés of St-Germain des Prés, drinking, scribbling and engaging in earnest debate. Now decidedly upmarket, today’s St-Germain des Prés accommodates exclusive homewares and clothing boutiques, though the original literary cafés still exist.
While you’re in St-Germain des Prés, take the opportunity to grab some dinner and a few drinks, then leave some time in your day to book-end it with a stroll over the lamplit bridges. If you’re in love, strolling over the bridges at dusk as the wrought-iron lamps cast a sepia glow on the darkened water, sipping champagne in olde-worlde hotel bars, and dining à deux (as a couple) in candlelit bistros make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a giant film set – with nonchalant waiters the supporting actors and buskers providing the soundtrack. If you’re alone, fall in love with Paris as the curtains fall towards the day’s end.
Carry a personal tour guide in your pocket, with Lonely Planet's Paris Audio Walking Tours for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad - location-aware, with themed route maps and full audio commentary on the sites you'll see along the way.