Main Tourist Attractions in Paris
Paris has it all. Few cities on this Earth are as dramatic and iconic as the capital of France. If you were to go around the world and make a list of its most beautiful cities, Paris, with its unique monuments and charming streets, would always be in the top ten.
Since the Age of Enlightenment, Paris, the City of Light, has attracted fashionistas, artists, history buffs, and writers, all inspired by its bohemian culture and abundance of museums and grand boulevards. Paris is like no other place on earth. To quote Owen Wilson, “…from far out in space you can see these lights, the cafes, the people drinking and singing. As far as we know, Paris is the hottest place in the universe.”
The unique heartbeat of Paris casts a spell over the hearts and minds of those who have ventured into this dramatic city. Even travel writers fall under the spell of the winding streets, sidewalk cafes and inspiring Seine boat cruises. With its Champs-Élysées and Place des Vosges, the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, Paris is the original model for other great capitals of the world, all claiming their own prototype of great elegance and sophistication.
But where do you start? Whether this is your first time or your next, there is so much to see and experience that you will probably find yourself dazzled and even a little overwhelmed. Start with these top six iconic attractions: two museums, two monuments, and two churches. Plan to travel down the Seine, whenever possible, using the fun little Batobus, with its glass roof and convenient variety of stops at most of your favorite attractions. This will make getting there as much a part of your travel adventure as getting there.
Two museums: Louvre and Orsay
You probably already know which two museums you should put at the top of your “to do” list for any trip to Paris: the Louvre and the Orsay. Even if you’ve visited these museums on previous trips, come back to them again this time, and every time you’re in town. Show yourself a little mercy, though, and plan on visiting just one of these colossal buildings per day.
The Louvre. There is not much that compares to the Louvre. Even walking through the courtyard will cause a gasp when confronted by IM Pei’s great glass pyramid. The photos just don’t do it justice. The pyramid stands as a disconcerting backdrop for the mid-size version of the Arc de Triomphe, a companion piece to Napoleon’s other arch at the opposite end of the triumphal road (the “Triumphal View”). This smaller arch is topped with the bronze horse-drawn carriage from Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice that Napoleon stole in 1798 (the carriage has now been returned to its rightful place and replaced by a copy). As you stand in this courtyard, the vast building that surrounds you dates from oldest to oldest, containing a 12th-century castle fortress within a 16th-century palace.
To get to the Louvre, take the Batobus and get off at the Louvre stop. Look across the river for a stunning view of Orsay, the former train station, now an art museum, which you’ll visit another day. Have a solid plan before entering the Louvre through the pyramid. And of course have a pre-purchased Paris Museum Card so you can skip the lines.
As you walk through this ancient palace, you’ll follow in the footsteps of kings who walked these very halls and galleries, reveling in their priceless collections of paintings and sculptures. Look around, up, down, and out the windows at the lavish palace itself, as well as the works of art it contains.
Save time during your visit to winged victorytea Mona Lisa, Venus of the Miloand the Apollo Gallery (where the Sun King, Louis XIV, held audiences). Visit the Caryatids Hall to see Roman copies of Greek sculptures collected by French royalty, including four caryatids, female forms that serve as columns, balancing the gallery of musicians on their heads. Locate the underground medieval tower and moat of King Philip’s 12th-century fortress. These ruins were discovered during archaeological excavation to remove and preserve unparalleled artifacts prior to the construction of the pyramid.
Stand on the glass ceiling, lit by the sun, marly yard, with the magnificent and powerful Marly horses and other sculptures in the gardens of the Château de Marly, the country palace on the banks of the Seine where the Sun King received his relatives towards the end of his reign. Stop for a rest at the Café on the landing of the Mollien Stairs. Sit on the terrace overlooking Napoleon’s Courtyard and the pyramid.
The Orsay. As essential as it is for you to visit the Louvre, it may be even more important to set aside enough time to explore Orsay. The collections here are so amazing that they will be etched in your mind forever. As you tour this massive former train station, built to impress the masses of visitors who flocked to the city for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, you’ll pass room after room of priceless artwork from iconic Impressionists like Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Dégas, Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec. Exquisite sculptures extend to the level of the old railway tracks and on the balconies, now sculpture terraces, where commuters waited for their trains.
Just inside the entrance to the museum is a 1/16 scale model of the Statue of Liberty that France gave to the US in 1876 to honor the 100th anniversary of American independence. Plan ahead (and make reservations) for lunch in the old dining room of the turn-of-the-century Grand Hotel that once stood by the train station.
Two monuments: tower and arch
Of course, any trip to Paris must include visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. These are the quintessential Parisian monuments, one built as an entrance to the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris and the other designed to glorify Napoleon and commemorate his victories. From the top of each of these, you’ll have glorious views of the entire city.
Eiffel Tower. Make your reservations at the Eiffel Tower well in advance of your visit to ensure entry at a specific time. Consider making a wonderful splurge by combining your visit to the tower with lunch or dinner at the 58 Eiffel Tower Restaurant on the 2nd level. While on the first level, walk to the glass floor and look down, if you dare. Ask someone to take a picture of you as proof.
If you take the elevator to the top, pause for a glass of champagne as you gaze out over Paris from what was the tallest building in the world for more than 40 years. If you feel the tower swaying slightly in the wind, you’ll have even more stories to tell once you return home.
Arc de Triomphe. At the Arc de Triomphe, take the tunnel under the hectic traffic surrounding the monument and spend some time reading the inscriptions. Possibly climb the 284 steps to the top for another unbeatable view of Paris. Even better, climb to the top at night to experience Paris resplendent.
From your vantage point atop this triumphal arch, look back along the triumphal road to the smaller arch in the courtyard outside the Louvre where you were before. This will give you insight into the extent of Napoleon’s self-admiration. Look up at the Sacré Coeur basilica in Montmartre, perched atop its hill overlooking Paris. See the Champs Elysées, with its dazzle of shops and shoppers. If you’re so inclined, take this opportunity to spot some top-tier fashion emporiums and pay an extra visit later to see what you can find.
Two churches: Notre Dame and Saint-Chapelle
Finally, on your “must see” list are two churches, a cathedral and a chapel, both located on the largest island in the Seine, Ile de la Cité. This island is where the Parisii first settled in the 3rd century BC. C., which gave Paris its name. Two centuries later, in 55 a. C., the Romans destroyed and pillaged the Parisii settlement, then rebuilt the city according to their own design, with the Temple, the Colosseum, the Forum and the Roman Baths.
our lady. The first of these must-see visits is Notre Dame, built on the site of an ancient Roman temple. This massive architectural masterpiece took over 200 years to build, beginning in 1160, and has stood for all these centuries despite revolutions and wars, neglect and renovations. It has now been badly damaged by a tragic fire that caused its spire to collapse onto its already burning roof.
Notre Dame remains majestic even in its compromised state. It will be years before visitors can go back inside to sit quietly, gazing at the rose window. For now, you will only be able to see it from the front, from behind and from each side. Give yourself some time with this extraordinary building. Cross the bridge to the Left Bank and find a floating bar boat moored along the pier. Select a table by the railing and order a glass of wine. As you look across the river at Notre Dame, marvel at its remarkable life story, from its construction during the Middle Ages, before the benefits of modern tools and technologies, to its rescue from total destruction by the 400 firefighters who they came here to save him from the fire.
holy chapel. Saving one of the best for last, he walks to the opposite end of the island from Notre Dame to sit for a while in the ethereal Sainte-Chapelle, hailed as one of the Western world’s greatest architectural masterpieces. The faithful of the Middle Ages considered this chapel as a “gateway to heaven”. Surrounded on all sides by some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world, amazingly preserved for over 770 years, you will be dazzled by the intensity of color and light. If you can get tickets to a concert in this exquisite setting, do so. You will remember it for life.
Now he’s off to a good start in Paris. But there is more, much more. Paris is a city you will have to return to again and again. Every time you revisit it, you will fall in love a little more.