There are so many top things to do in Paris that visitors often feel like they're racing against a stop-watch as they sprint to tick them all off. But really, one of the best things to do in Paris is soak up the city's atmosphere by simply strolling the backstreets, browsing the markets and lingering by the river or in a cafe.
That said, there are, of course, some top Paris attractions that you shouldn't miss. The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre are just some of the best things to do in Paris—and are great for seeing the city from their viewing platforms.
And even if you're not normally a museum junkie, you'll be blown away by the art here. Paris’s attractions include a staggering 300-plus list of museums, from the majors like the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay and Centre Pompidou to specialized spaces (which, in typical Parisian style, includes the finer things in life: chocolate, wine and perfume).
If you are a museum junkie, you should definitely invest in a Paris Museum Pass, which offers unlimited entry to over 60 of the best.
The city's efficient transportation means it's easy to combine any number of Paris attractions in flexible itineraries. A couple of tips: buy tickets or passes for Paris museums ahead of time where ever possible to save wasted hours waiting in line. And wear flat, comfortably fitting shoes (the cobblestones rapidly lose their charm if you don't). Above all, don't forget to slow down once in a while. You're on vacation, after all.
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From the top of Paris’s 1,64ft-high triumphal arch (reached by 284 stairs—there is an elevator for those with limited mobility or young children only, but even then there are still some unavoidable stairs), facing east gives you a straight-shot view down the Champs-Élysées to place de la Concorde, the city's largest square. Facing west it's another straight shot to the Arc de Triomphe's modish mirror image: the skyscraper district of La Défense's 1989-built Grande Arche (which does have a full elevator—and some pretty awesome views of its own). First-time visitors are frequently baffled as to how to actually get to the Arc de Triomphe, which was built in 1836 to honor Napoleon’s 1805 victory at Austerlitz, although it remains one of the top things to do in Paris. The Arc is now surrounded by the world's busiest roundabout, the Étoile. Do not, repeat, do not battle the traffic. Take the stairs to the pedestrian tunnels (not connected to metro tunnels), which deliver you safely at the base of the arch.
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The builders of Paris’s hulking cathedral weren't in it for instant gratification. This Gothic marvel took an unimaginable 200 years to construct, from 1163 to the early 14th century. Yet, like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame too was nearly demolished, following damage inflicted during the French Revolution. Fortunately, fans of Victor Hugo's timely best-seller The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, petitioned for renovations. Nearly two centuries on, it's the most visited site in the world's most visited city.
It's free to enter the cathedral's stained-glass interior and/or take a tour (including versions in English), and to check out the flying buttresses from square Jean XXIII at the back. But it's worth paying to climb 387 stairs (you guessed it: no elevator) into the towers for close-ups of the gargoyles and panoramas over Paris.
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With 645,000 square feet of exhibition space, there's no way you'll be able to see all of this 12th century fortress-turned-palace-turned-world's largest museum. But the best way to see as much as possible is to pick up a free map of the Louvre from the information desk and cherry-pick from its collections spanning antiquity to the 19th century. Or follow one of the thematic trails (a good introduction is the Masterpieces of the Louvre, which includes the Venus de Milo, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, and, of course, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which takes around one-and-a-half hours).
The main entrance is I.M. Pei's once-reviled-now-loved glass pyramid but the lines to enter are shorter at the Musée du Louvre exit of the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre metro station or the Carrousel du Louvre.
The Louvre is open every day except Tuesday. Entry's free on the first Sunday of the month (which is also when it's at its most crowded).
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Paris’s artistic baton passes from the Louvre to the Musée d'Orsay, which showcases the country's national collection from 1848 to 1914, covering the Impressionist, Post Impressionist and Art Nouveau eras. So it's fitting that this Paris museum is housed in the grand Art Nouveau Gare d’Orsay railway station (or rather, former railway station).
Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Cézanne, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and Degas are just some of the masters represented here, along with Renoir, whose Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and Girls at the Piano are two of the d'Orsay's jewels.
The d'Orsay is closed on Monday, and open late Thursday night. Savings tip number one: entry is cheaper late in the day (and free on the first Sunday of the month). Savings tip number two: check out the various combination tickets with other museums (including the nearby Musée Rodin, where sculptures include Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ in its tranquil rose garden).
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Plumbing, pipes, vents and scaffolding aren't normally design features. Hence it took Parisians a while to get used to Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers' out-there 1970s creation. But the nation's premier cultural center is now a Paris icon.
Tube-enclosed escalators run up the building's western facade to the sixth floor with phenomenal panoramas from its viewing platform (and from its pricey restaurant, Georges).
Inside, cultural offerings include temporary exhibitions, the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (public library) and cinemas. Its pièce de résistance is the Musée National d’Art Moderne, which picks up the baton from the Musée d'Orsay by housing over 65,000 works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Plastic arts, new media, design, photography and architecture star alongside such modern masters as Chagall, Kandinsky, Miro and, most impressively, Matisse, with dozens of his works on display.
The Centre Pompidou is closed on Tuesdays but opens late the rest of the week; head here after 5PM to skip the worst of the crowds.
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You know a city takes its culture seriously when one opera house isn't enough. Paris opera also extends to the modern monolith Opéra Bastille, but the copper-domed Palais Garnier, built between 1860 and 1875 by Charles Garnier remains its grande dame.
While the statue-topped exterior is striking, it doesn't hint at the opulence inside, which rivals the Palace of Versailles. From the multicolored marble Grand Staircase to the auditorium of gold and red-velvet seats beneath the Chagall-painted ceiling and 8-ton chandelier, it's one of the most memorable places in the world to see a production if you can.
Even if you can't, unaccompanied visits allow views of the foyer, opera museum and (if there's not a performance or rehearsal in progress), the auditorium. But a real Parisian highlight is a 90-minute guided tour, running Wednesdays and weekends year-round, daily in July and August. As well as accessing otherwise-off limits areas, guides reveal fascinating behind-the-scenes tales of the building where the Phantom of the Opera roamed.
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This storied cabaret at the base of Montmartre is a bastion of Paris’s belle-époque past and one of the best things to do in Paris. Today's namesake red windmill rotating on the rooftop is a 1925 replica, but the Moulin Rouge has been here since 1889. Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to paint its early posters and had his own reserved seat in the house. After its less-than-salubrious beginnings, it became a pioneer of less risqué music hall entertainment featuring show-stopping sequin-and-feathered-costumed routines, including the high-kicking can-can chorus lines that it also pioneered.
The extensive choreography and exhaustive rehearsals that go into each production mean new revues premiere only every 10 to 12 years, with the latest scheduled to take the stage just before Christmas 2010.
Ticket options include a pre-show dinner, but your best bet is the show-and-Champagne deal, as dining-wise you can get better value for money elsewhere in the neighborhood.
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It's hard to believe that the Marmottan is off the radar of most Paris vacation itineraries and even for many Parisians, considering it houses the largest Monet collection in the world. Fair enough, it is a bit out of the way (on the edge of the wooded Bois de Boulogne in a grand former hunting lodge) but it's inside central Paris’s ring road and easily reached by metro.
Seminal works include Monet's Impression: Sunrise (for which the Impressionist movement's named), along with many by Monet's friends (Gauguin, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and Manet among them). But the biggest treat is in the basement, where you'll find a magnificent series of Monet’s Waterlilies.
(Monet fans should also check out the eight massive Waterlilies canvases in two oval rooms at the Musée de l'Orangerie in the city center.)
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