There are endless, extraordinary Paris sights to discover! It can be difficult to know what is worth the hype and the Euros, especially on your first sojourn. That’s why I’ve compiled this shortlist to help you prioritise the best things to do in Paris.
These are the top level, iconic, historically and culturally significant Paris sights to experience on your first or second visit. I’ll be adding another post, which digs down a little deeper and gives you some more focused and nuanced sightseeing inspiration if you have more time or make a subsequent visit. Allons-y!
1. Eiffel Tower
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, or the 300-metre/984-feet Tower that stands over and above most of Paris. The Iron Lady was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (aka World’s Fair) and was originally only meant to stand for 20-years. But here we are, well over a century later, still admiring it and admiring Paris from its three observation decks.
The Eiffel Tower is visible from much of Paris, standing well above most Parisian buildings. However, it is worth getting a close-up at least once. The parklands either side of Tower: Jardin de la Tour Eiffel and even mores-so, Jardins du Trocadéro, will provide a great view of Paris’ icon. Sunset is busy but a great time to see the Tower in the day and when the lights come on bathing it in a golden glow. The twinkling lights sparkle for 5-minutes every hour up to lights-out at 11:45pm.
You can also scale the Tower. Tickets are pricey and really only worth the admission if it’s a nice day weatherwise. See ticket prices and times on the official site here. Buy your ticket in advance and arrive early to clear security.
2. Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées
These two are inextricably linked. The Champs-Élysées alone is well, a bit “meh”. It’s lovely, but a tree-lined boulevard with expensive shops is hardly unique in the modern world. What it does have going for it is the two-kilometre/1.25-mile straight-line it draws from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.
The best place to really enjoy this uninterrupted thoroughfare is not from street level, but from the top terrace of the Arc de Triomphe. The triumphal arch in the style of the Ancient Roman Arch of Titus, was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to the glory of the Great Army and his ego. However, it was not completed until after the Emperor’s exile and death.
The Arc de Triomphe stands on the Historic Axis of Paris, at the centre of Place Charles-De-Gaulle, a busy intersection with possibly one of the maddest round-a-abouts you’ve ever seen. Thankfully a subterranean tunnel provides access to the monument so there are no kamikaze-style road crossings required. Adults (over 18 years) pay €13 to enter or flash your Paris Museum Pass.
Unfortunately, the Arc de Triomphe wasn’t built with accessibility in mind. A project is underway to provide elevator access to the viewing terrace—check here for updates on its progress.
3. Place de la Concorde
Also located on the Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Concorde is one of the five royal squares of Paris. A royal square is one that was commissioned by- or dedicated to- a monarch, and usually sits adjacent to a former palace or royal residence.
Place de la Concorde sits on the edge of the Tuileries Garden and is the second-largest square in all of France. There’s a lot to see and as long as you have leg-power, it’s all free.
Highlights include the 3000+ year old Luxor Obelisk, two monumental fountains representing the seas and rivers of France, and perimeter sculptures representing eight major cities of France – Brest, Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Rouen and Strasbourg. Also of note, and thankfully no longer in place, the plaza was the site of the guillotine during the French Revolution.
4. Orangerie Museum
On the east side of the Place de la Concorde, you’ll find the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens and the Orangerie Museum (Musée de l’Orangerie). The Orangerie was formerly just that, a place to overwinter the Palace’s citrus trees.
Since, the space has become an art museum most noted for its customized display of eight monumental Water Lillies (Nymphéas) paintings donated to the State by Claude Monet. The artist worked with architect Camillee Lefèvre to design two elliptical spaces lit naturally through skylights, in order to display he’s elongated works and provide an almost 360-degree experience.
Unlike the Louvre, you don’t need a lifetime to explore this museum. You can be in and out in under 2-hours and feel quite satisfied. Adult admission is €12.50 with an additional €5.00 for the audio guide. Pre-booking a time is well-advised. This L’Orangerie is also covered by the Paris Museum Pass.
5. Tuileries Garden
The L’Orangerie is located on the edge of the Tuileries Garden or Jardin des Tuileries. This part of Paris had once been rooftile factories, which is where the name comes from, tuilerie translating to “place for manufacturing tiles”. Queen Catherine de Medici had the factories razed for construction of yet another royal palace, Palais des Tuileries, and an Italian-style garden.
During the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th-century, the King commisioned André Le Nôtre to transform the landscape into a French design that is still evident today. You might know Le Nôtre from his park and garden designs at Chateaus Versailles, Chantilly, Fontainebleau and Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The Palace was burnt down during the 1871 Revolution but the gardens remain. Take a stroll for free or maybe pack a picnic and settle in for a while.
6. Notre-Dame Cathedral
Another Paris sight that needs little introduction, is the mighty medieval cathedral, Notre Dame (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris). Located on the Île de la Cité, an island in the Seine River, it presides over the birthplace of the city, but more on that in a minute.
As you might have heard, Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was damaged by a fire in 2019. The Cathedral is under restoration and is somewhat visible from the exterior (minus the construction zone around its base), but is not open to visitors yet and is unlikely to be for some time. I suggest you pop by anyway to at least view the outside, as the Cathedral’s Gothic architecture is part of its significance.
7. The Crypt
While you are at Notre Dame, make sure you visit the Crypt (Crypte archéologique de l’île de la Cité), you’ll find the entrance right next to the Cathedral. Beneath the surface you’ll be intrigued by an archaeological site that dates back 2000 years to before Paris was even called “Paris”.
The excavations reveal remains of the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, Paris’ predecessor, when the area was inhabited by a Gaulish tribe known as the Parisii! Adult entry is €8 and the Paris Museum Pass is accepted.
8. The Louvre
The Louvre (Musée du Louvre): palace turned world’s largest and most visited art museum. Surely that’s on your bucket list? The Louvre was built as a fortress in the 12th-century and was reconstructed as a royal residence during the 16th-century. It was added to and renovated by various monarchs until Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles in the 17th-century. The Louvre housed exhibitions here and until post-revolution when the National Assembly opened the Louvre as a museum in 1793.
Today the Museum boasts a collection of 300,000+ objects, of which about 35,000 are on display at any given time. The art and artifacts span over 10,000 years of history from the sixth century B.C.E. to the 19th-century C.E.. Highlights include the Ancient Greek scuptures Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace; Renaissance treasures including Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, various works by Titian and Raphael; paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens. The list goes on…
Visit early or late if you can. You won’t see it all, so focus your time on seeing the highlights at first and don’t forget the palace is all part of the spectacle. General admission is €17. There are no discounts to be found, but if you use the Paris Museum Pass enough during your time in the City of Light, you will save money overall.
9. D’Orsay Museum
Housed in a former train station, the d’Orsay Museum (Musée d’Orsay) picks up where The Louvre leaves off in the 19th-century. The collections spans the years 1848 to 1914, from Realism to Cubism and everything in between. There is a very tidy number of works by Van Gogh, along with a fine cohort of French artists such as Delacroix, Corot, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and more.
A full price ticket is €16, and yes, you can gain entry by flashing your Paris Museum Pass here too.
The Palais-Royal is a former royal palace – surprise! It was constructed for Cardinal Richelieu in the 1630s and was extensively reconstructed by Louis XIV. The grand building is now the seat of the Ministry of Culture and other government bodies.
The courtyards and garden are open to the public, gratuit. It’s column-lined galleries and formal French landscaping are very photogenic—I stumbled upon a class of architecture students sketching the lovely Courtyard of Honor. It’s worth a half-hour lap or linger longer.
This is your Gothic substitute for Notre Dame, except that it’s no substitute at all. It earns its own place on this list quite capably. Sainte-Chapelle took a mere seven years to construct and was completed in 1248, which is remarkable given the detail involved.
Sainte-Chapelle was intended to house Christ’s crown of thorns that had supposedly been acquired by its commissioner, Saint Louis. The real treasure of this church is the exquisite, towering stained glass. Fifteen elongated panels, each fifteen-metres in height, reach up the sides of the chapel, depicting biblical stories in vibrant colour. A rose window bookends the narrative with the Apocalypse.
The Paris Museum Pass will get you in of course. If not, it will set you back €11.50 for a full priced adult and booking a timeslot ahead is recommended.
12. The Conciergerie
The Conciergerie (La Conciergerie) was the first royal palace in Paris and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 6th century on Île de la Cité, this is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the capital city and houses Paris’ first public clock.
In the 14th-century, the Conciergerie’s royal residents moved to the Louvre and the empty castle was transformed into the Palace of Justice. During the French Revolution, nobodies and notables such as Marie-Antoinette were tried, imprisoned and awaited the guillotine at the Conciergerie. The building takes its name from “Concierge”, a position once appointed by the king to oversee law and order.
Tickets are best booked in advance due to the security detail around the Conciergerie. Adult admission is €11.50 and the Paris Museum Pass is accepted.
Located in the Latin Quarter, the Neoclassical-style Panthéon was originally constructed as a church. It was intended to house the relics of Saint Genevieve, however during the French Revolution it became a secular monument and mausoleum instead. The building’s interior is decorated with murals and mosaics that depict pivotal moments in French history.
Today, its crypt is the final resting place of notable French citizens including philosophers, writers, scientists and politicians, not to mention the architect of the building itself, Jacques-Germain Soufflot. You might recognize some of these famous names: Voltaire, Émile Zola, Pierre and Marie Curie, Andre Malraux, Jean Monnet and Victor Hugo.
You’ll also find a curious pendulum in the centre of the Pantheon. This is a copy of an experiment by physicist, Léon Foucault that was originally installed in the Panthéon during the 19th-century. It demonstrates the rotation of the Earth.
Entry to the Pantheon is included in the Paris Museum Pass or pay the €11.50 admission.
14. Pont-to-Pont Seine River walk
Some of my favourite moments in Paris were just walking along the Seine River, observing daily life, the surrounding architecture and individual personalities of the many ponts (bridges). Wander along the Right Bank from Pont Marie to Pont Alexandre III or take a picnic lunch down to the riverside whenever you get the chance.
I also took a River cruise and was not particularly impressed. In theory, a river cruise is a relaxing and affordable way to take in a lot of Paris in a short space of time, especially if you are not particularly mobile or are just out of steam. However, the high River banks make it difficult to see far beyond the immediate surrounds. Therefore, if you do choose to take a cruise, make sure you select one with an upper deck that can give you more height. Note, that upper decks are usually open, so dress to be out in the elements.
15. The Catacombs
The Catacombs has to be one of the most fascinating and unique Paris sights. Able-bodied travellers will enjoy an audio-guided tour of the municipal ossuary situated in a former limestone mine beneath the Left Bank. Learn more about the Catacombs, their history and significance here.
You can visit the artistically arranged bones and abandoned tunnels on an audio guided, walk through a 1.5-kilometre/0.9-mile section of the Paris Catacombs. Adult entry is €29 including the audio guide.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris aka Sacré-Coeur was built in late 1800s, intended to redeem France spiritually after its military defeat by Prussia. The Romano-Byzantine style Basilica is clad in travertine that leaches calcite in contact with rain, a self-cleaning system that keeps it white. The apse mosaic depicting Christ’s resurrection, is one of the largest tile artworks in the world.
You’ll spot Sacré-Coeur, located on the peak of Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs) in the north of Paris, from various locations around the city. It’s hilltop position has a great, panoramic view and will draw you through Montmartres artistic community on your journey there. I recommend spending some time in the neighbourhood taking in more of Montmartre’s sights and experiences along the way.
Bon voyage, dear reader. Have a magnifique time exploring these Paris sights and feel free to drop any queries or comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,