Thanks to my Francophile mom and an extended stint living and working in Nice, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Paris. Even though it can seem like a museum city and it’s full of so many favorite places I love going back to, it’s constantly evolving and I always discover something new.
But if you’ve never been to Paris before: it’s magical. It’s walkable. It’s wonderful. And when it comes to those “rude” French people: learn how to say bonjour, s’il vous plait and merci and say them all often, be extra polite and understand that to some degree, brusqueness is part of the culture. Here’s a loose itinerary for three days in Paris: the days can interchanged in any order and be sure to leave room for wandering and people-watching.
Yay! Welcome to Paris! Start your day with a coffee and a pain au chocolat (or a croissant, or a pain aux raisins, or whatever floats your boat) at a local cafe or bakery. To really step it up a notch, head over to Ladurée near Madeleine for the most delicious pastry in the world–my personal favorite is the pain au chocolat with pistachio!
For one of the best views of Paris: head up the Arc de Triomphe. There are a lot of stairs, but it’s totally worth it: you have 360-degree views of the Champs Elysee, Eiffel Tower and Haussman boulevards.
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is sort of like Fifth Avenue: most locals will try to avoid it, but it’s something that’s worth doing at least once. It’s lined with fashion chain stores, a few embassies, mostly terrible restaurants and flagships for French corporations like Louis Vuitton.
Walking straight down the Champs-Élysées will lead you to Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Garden. The Orangerie Museum is the home of Monet’s Water Lilies murals and plenty of works by other impressionist masters. It’s a super manageable size, so it’s a nice little break to look at something pretty.
But if you want to do the grand thing: you’ll run into the Louvre Museum if you keep walking through the Tuileries. The Louvre is HUGE and can be really intense, so choose two or three things that you absolutely want to see (i.e. Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, etc. if you’re at all interested), go see those things, and then get the hell out. You can waste a bunch of time just dealing with the crowds and the layout of the place if you go in without a plan.
You can walk up the Avenue de l’Opera to see not only the incredible Opera building–but also a block away from Galeries Lafayette. It’s one of the grandest department stores in the world, and the interior is so decadent that it reminds me of a luscious pastel layer cake! I almost prefer just peeking over the top balcony and watching everyone scurry back and forth in the name of fashion to actually shopping here–although there is definitely good shopping to be had! Insider tip: the bathroom is super clean and modern, and the rooftop is open for free views year-round and drinks in the summer.
Across the street, pop into Galeries Lafayette Maison for home goods and a delightful food store in the basement. There are a bunch of different counters to eat at: my personal favorite is Le Green Point for salads and juices, and I like to splurge on my favorite fancy tea at the Mariage Frères counter.
You can then take the subway (and either a bunch of stairs or the funicular) up to Montmartre: home of Amelie! This neighborhood used to be home to plenty of artists and avant-garde types, but now it’s become a bit of a tourist hub. Either way, Sacre-Coeur is a beautiful cathedral and there’s plenty of people-watching (and sunset-watching!) to see from the steps.
Take a cruise down the Seine, hopping on at Notre Dame: it’s touristy and corny, but it’s a great way to get a feel for the city. And it’s always wonderful to be out on the water on a nice day!
The Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beautiful example of French Gothic architecture, and it’s simply stunning inside and out. You can spend as much (or as little) time as you want here: there are guided tours and options to climb up the cathedral towers, but it can definitely be crowded. I also love walking around behind the Cathedral for an interesting alternative view and for a stroll through the gardens.
From here, it’s easy to walk across the pedestrian bridge to Ile St Louis, usually lined with buskers in nice weather. Ile St Louis is one of the oldest (and ritziest) neighborhoods, and it’s especially nice to go down the stairs for a wander along the banks of the Seine. Bonus: there’s ice cream at Berthillon!
Next stop: the Left Bank! You can pop into Shakespeare & Company to see one of the most iconic literary and expat hangouts in Paris–it’s also nice to pick up a tote bag or an English-language book with the Shakespeare & Company stamps as a souvenir or a gift.
If you’re at all interested in medieval art, don’t miss the Cluny Museum: the building itself is exceptional, and the tapestries are absolute masterpieces. There’s also a lovely back garden that feels like you’re ages away from the city.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is one of the most elegant neighborhoods in Paris, and it’s the perfect place for an afternoon stroll. It’s where you can find Rue Christine (!) and Rue Mouffetard, and I also love Rue de Seine. Honestly, though: just get lost. Go down the side streets and the squares, pop into the boutiques and the churches–maybe stop for an afternoon espresso or a gelato, or people-watch from an outdoor bistro table.
Another lovely place to while away the afternoon is the Luxembourg Gardens: there are the most exquisitely planned gardens, tree-lined promenades, children playing with model sailboats.
And look, you can’t miss the Eiffel Tower. Going up the Eiffel Tower is always insane (lines, crowds, etc.) and the skyline looks so strange because it’s missing its most important landmark. So! I always prefer to do a picnic on the grounds underneath it–it’s especially good going from late afternoon to sunset to night when it twinkles. Picnics are easy to do in Paris: grab a loaf of bread, some gooey cheese and cold cuts, fresh fruit, a chocolate bar and a bottle of wine. Or pop over to Le Café du Marché on Rue Cler for the most delicious Caesar Salad with tandoori chicken, and then pick up a bottle of wine to enjoy under the Eiffel Tower.
Paris is home to a super up-and-coming cafe scene, so if you love good coffee: double-check this list for the best Parisian cafe near where you’re staying. My personal favorites: Loustic, Telescope, Holybelly.
Rue Montorgeuil is such a cool market street, and it’s a great way to get a feel for Paris food culture: you can pop into La Fermette for cheese, the city’s oldest bakery Stohrer, the butcher and the fish shop and the chocolate shop. Everything is such high quality, and it’s just such a foreign experience from the American supermarket experience.
I never miss checking out Centre Pompidou: the structure itself is super modern and interesting, and the art inside can be really funky and weird. The exhibits are always changing, so it’s worth double-checking to see if what’s there interests you–but even if you’re not sold on the art, the gift shop always has the coolest stuff. That’s where I found my anti-stress coloring book last time!
The Marais is another great area to explore: traditionally the Jewish quarter, it’s now a very gay-friendly neighborhood and full of super hip and trendy boutiques and restaurants. A few favorites: Hotel de Ville usually has interesting exhibits, the BHV is another great department store and the vintage stores on Rue des Rosiers.
Don’t miss (the BEST) falafel at L’as du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers (if you walk up past the storefront toward Rue Pavee, there’s a little kind of hidden courtyard on the left that has some nice benches and gardens to sit and eat it if you take it to go!). There’s a gelato shop called Pozzetto not too far from here, and it is AMAZING. And if you’re ready for a drink or an espresso, Les Philosophes has the best outdoor seating to watch the boho-bourgeouise crowds wander by.
Place des Vosges is one of the oldest and finest planned squares in Paris with beautiful covered arcades surrounding it: it’s lovely to relax in the sunshine in the square, or pop into one of the (overpriced but fancy) cafes for a cup of tea.
You can walk over to see the most Instagrammed car in Paris at design-y concept shop Merci, and the go see the most surprisingly colorful street in Paris, Rue Cremieux.
Not too far of a walk, or a short subway ride away is Cemetery Père Lachaise. Fun fact: did you know that Jim Morrison’s grave is the most visited tourist sites in Paris? It may sound a little strange, but Cemetery Pere LaChaise is actually a really cool place to explore. It’s the largest cemetery in Paris, and the final resting place to such extraordinaires as Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Colette, Jean de la Fontaine and Edith Piaf.
A few extras
Food: Breizh Cafe for crepes, Grande Mosquée for mint tea and Middle Eastern treats in a beautiful setting, La Ferrandaise for a nice lunch, L’ebauchoir for an upscale bistro, Marché Beauveau for a cool covered market to walk through
Accommodation: I highly recommend staying in the Marais neighborhood: it’s centrally located and one Metro ride away from most tourist destinations (on the 1 line), it has plenty of hip and trendy food and drink options, and most importantly, it still feels like a neighborhood where Parisians live, work and play. That said, it can be pricey–so I recommend the Bastille neighborhood to the east for being a little more up and coming. More than anything: rent an apartment!!!
Transportation: The Metro is quick, clean, efficient and affordable. Buy a carnet of 10 tickets for 14,10 to save a little cash and make getting on/off easily. And if you’re daring: try VeLib to bike ride around the city! No matter what, wear comfortable shoes because Paris is such a delightfully walk-able city.
What would you add to a first-time Paris itinerary? p.s. happy birthday Katelyn! Have the best time in Paris!