The top sights to see in the French capital, Paris
The most visited city in the world is Paris and dam right it holds that honour. From its history, culture, cuisine, beautiful buildings, river cruises, museums, theatres and shopping, it has everything. Blended in with people coming from all over the world to live here as well as the locals (like my home city of London), then the vibrancy of the city is one which sparkles and dazzles twenty-fours a day. Here is my guide to Paris and the top sights which visitors should do on their first visit.
Ile de la Cite
The heart of Paris, where it all began for Europe’s most visited city is here on the island in the river Seine. This was a typical small village on an island when Julius Caesar was passing through with his Roman Empire but eventually kings made the area the political power of France. Over the years beautiful buildings were built, no more than the Gothic masterpiece known as the Notre-Dame. The island itself is pretty small and can be explored within a few hours and here is a few things to do and see which I highly recommend.
One of France’s most famous landmarks, the Notre-Dame was first built way back in 1163 when Pope Alexander III laid the first stone. It took over 170 years to build this amazing cathedral, many of those involved were Gothic architecture and medieval craftsmen. Standing on a former Roman temple, the cathedral is around 130m long and has two 69m high towers which dominate the main entrance. Below that is the West Rose Window which is huge but more importantly depicts the Virgin in a medallion of blues and rich reds.
However most visitors will usually queue up on the northern side street (Rue du Cloitre Notre-Dame), and take the 387 steps up the north tower which leads onto the balcony. Here the famous gargoyles can be found but more truly, the views overlooking central Paris is truly amazing. I felt the view from here is better than that from the Tour Eiffel and the Sacre-Coeur cathedral, overlooking rooftops, seeing the other famous landmarks and I could see for miles and miles. Even looking down below over the river was a beautiful sight.
Outside the cathedral on the eastern end, outside attached to the cathedral is a structure known as ‘The Flying Buttresses’ which have a span of 15m. Not sure why this is here but to me it’s a beautiful piece of art and gives the Notre-Dame a more spooky feel in the winter months.
The cathedral at the time of writing is currently closed due to a fire breaking out in April 2019 which damaged the roof. Hopefully in a few years time visitors will be able to be let inside and check out the beauty of the place.
On the main square outside the western entrance of the Notre Dame is a slab of stone on the ground which is known as Point Zero. It is here where all distances within France are measured from. In England (my home country) we call this ‘Mile Zero’.
Other sights to see –
Don’t forget to include a visit to nearby Sainte-Chapelle cathedral which is known for is stained glass (not as famous as the Notre-Dame but can be more beautiful in my eyes), a walk through the quaint streets of Ancien Cloitre Quartier (to the east of the island) which was once homes for students and medieval clergymen and behind the Notre Dame is the beautiful square of Jean XXIII which is so close to the river.
Unless you got a bank account which is financed by Credit Agricole with you, try avoid eating and drinking in the restaurants and cafes on this island, it is very expensive and will leave you with open wallet surgery. I stupidly made the mistake of going to a cafe on the corner of Rue d’Arcole and Palais du Parvis-Notre Dame (can’t miss it, it is the big one on the corner), ordering two hot drinks and a litre of beer and came away feeling €30 lighter.
There are two good ways to get here by metro and RER. The Metro passes underneath the island and stops at CITE (line 4) and to the south of the island (a few minutes walk), St Michel (line 4). However the RER stops at St-Michel Notre-Dame and Lines B (north to south) and C (west to east) stop here.
Try and avoid all the African immigrants who are trying to sell goodies and selfie sticks at bargain prices. They are knocked off goods and don’t last long. Just say ‘non-merci’ when they approach you and walk on. If they become aggressive just shout out ‘police’ or ‘au secours’ – at the major tourist sights there are police everywhere. Not trying to scare visitors off but they are becoming a nuisance over the last twenty years.
When leaving the island, head north over the bridges which will take visitors into the Beaubourg and Les Halles area of the city and south will lead towards the Latin Quarter. No need for the metro as it’s not far to walk.
The beautiful area of the Tuileries is surrounded by the huge Place de la Concorde to the west and the Grand Louvre to the east. With palaces, expensive shopping streets on the Rue de Rivoli and Rue St-Honore and luxury hotels, this area is tolled with cash but anyone can enjoy the delights of the main attraction, Jardin des Tuileries (the Tuileries Gardens).
The main sight has to be the Louvre museum, one of the most famous art galleries in the world because it is known for having the world-famous Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (which is not as big as people think, it’s tiny!). Pour moi it has to be the outside (or should I say ‘street level’) as the main entrance to the museum is underneath glass pyramids in the middle of the Napoleon Courtyard. The surrounding buildings started of as a fortress back in the 12th century to protect Paris from those nasty Vikings from Norway. After that, the French Royal Family kept expanding the buildings and has stayed the same ever since until the glass pyramids were constructed back in the late 1980s.
Walking westwards away from the museum, go through the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries which used to be part of the gardens of the nearby palaces. The good thing about walking through the gardens is that it is parallel with the River Seine so river views are also taking in. In the summer there are plenty of people relaxing on the grass, sitting by the water fountains and is also a romantic place to come, there are plenty of lovers holding hands and taking in the blissful surroundings, away from the traffic of the Paris streets.
However at the western end of the Jardin des Tuileries is the Place de la Concorde, which is one of Europe’s most historic and magnificent squares. The square was known as Place Louis XV as it had a statue of the king way back in the 18th century. Then the square got a revamp which somehow opened up as an octagon ship with the north side of the square having some impressive mansions. After a while the square became known as the Place de la Revolution, the statue of the former king being replaced by a guillotine (nice!). Here over 1,000 people got beheaded including famous people like Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. Eventually the square got renamed to Concorde and got a grand refit and also a 3,200 year old obelisk which came all the way from Luxor in Egypt now stands in the heart of the square. Along with two fountains, eight statues which personalities French cities, it certainly has a touch of glass these days.
This area, I say once again, is stunning and has class but is one of the best places to go for an afternoon stroll. Who needs the metro to get between points around here when there is plenty to see. (For those interested, the nearest Metro stations are Louvre-Rivoli, Tuileries, Pyramides, Madeleine and Concorde).
Eiffel Tower Quarter
The Eiffel Tower Quarter and the Invalides Quarter makes up most of the south bank of the River Seine in Central Paris. As you can guess, the Eiffel Tower Quarter doesn’t has much to do there apart from, oh, you know, I say, to see one of the most historic landmarks in the world, Le Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower).
Built way back in 1889 to impress visitors to the 1889 World Expo (Universal Exhibition), the tower was only meant to be a temporary addition to Paris landscape but for reason has stood here ever since, with locals in two minds about whether if they like or not like the world’s largest climbing frame in the centre of their city.
Here are some handy tips which will help visitors visiting the number one landmark in France:
If possible, buy your tickets online so you don’t have to queue for ages just to buy a ticket! If queuing for a ticket, this could take anything from 30 minutes to two hours and is even worse in July and August. If not buying a ticket online, get there really really early to avoid the queues.
At the first level which is fifty-seven meters high (after walking up the first flight of stairs or taking the elevator), there is a small museum which tells visitors of the history of the tower and the stories of when Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler came to town. There is also a post office and visitors can also see the Hydraulic lift mechanism which is still in working use to this very day.
On the second level (115 meters high) there is ‘Le Jules Verne Restaurant’ which is suppose to be one of the best restaurants in Paris which also offers fantastic views (of course, but remember to bring lots of cash!). From this level there are Double-Decker elevators which takes visitors right to the top of the tower. However in busy times queues to get on and off takes a very long time.
At the top the viewing gallery is the place to be and on a clear day visitors can see maybe up to 45 miles (72km). The views are absolutely amazing and one not to be missed. The nearest RER station to visit the Tour Eiffel is Champ de Mars which is a five minute walk away to the west and the nearest metro is Bir Hakeim.
To the south of the Tour Eiffel is the Champ-de-Mars which is a huge garden stretching from the tower to the Ecole Militaire building. This is a great place to chill out on the grass in the summer months but also take in the views of the beautiful tower.
There is a castle in Paris. Yes, a proper castle which doesn’t look like a palace. Easy to reach on the Paris Metro, Château de Vincennes has stood here since the 14th century (with bits and bobs added on during the 17th century). When the castle was built it was located in the town of Vincennes but with Paris growing at an alarming rate, the city sucked in the town and castle and is now part of Paris (with Vincennes being a suburb of the French capital). The main highlight is the keep located in the centre of the grounds with the outside walls and towers surrounding it turning the castle into a major fortresses to keep out unwanted people approaching Paris from the east.
To check out other castles as well as the Vincennes Castle, then check out my top six castles to explore in the Paris region HERE.
Jardin Des Plantes Quarter
Really? An Roman arena in Paris? Oui, you heard me straight, there is an arena in Paris. Arènes de Lutèce is located in the Latin Quarter (nearest metro station: Place Monge), and once used to seat 15,000 people for the regular combats which took place here. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the arena was partly demolished with the centre of it still there (which was used as a park or gardens) and homes were built around it, literally right up to the arena walls. Then somehow around the 19th century when Paris was getting rebuilt to accommodate new tram lines etc, the arena was discovered around 1860. The plan was for a tram depot to be built where the arena stood but eventually it was saved from demolition.
Today the arena is surrounded by apartment blocks to one side and lots of trees on the other. Part of the seating area is still used by locals and some of the blocks in the seating area are used as tables to play chess on during the warmer months.
This is probably the quietest area of the centre of Paris, the Luxembourg Quarter offers gardens, nice wide boulevards and a palace (as well lots of history of course). Walking around the Jardin du Luxembourg, pour moi, the prettiest and best park to visit in the city. The layout of the garden consists of the famous Palais du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Palace) in the centre and a beautiful octagonal pool. Walking around the broad avenues, there are plenty of statues of former queens of France dotted about as well as Saint Genevieve the patron of Paris.
Once the area which drawn in many painters, sculptors, novelists and poets, Montparnasse as now somewhat become the modern quartier of the city. The area still hasn’t lost its appeal and still has lots of trendy cafes and theatres but the highlight here has to be the tallest building in Paris, Tour Montparnasse. When first opened in 1973, the building was Europe’s tallest and still dominates the skyline today. The views from the top are spectacular (especially seeing the Eiffel Tower up close) and has a bar/restaurant to chill out in (and gaining a view whilst eating and drinking).
The area around the Avenue des Champs-Elysees is known as Champs-Elysees. This avenue has it all, five star hotels, fine restaurants, shops etc but at the north end is the world-famous Arc de Triomphe. History stats that when Napoleon won the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, he said to his troops that “You shall go home beneath triumphal arches”. Then the following year the first stone was laid of what visitors can see today. Standing at 50m (164ft) high, the Arc de Triomphe is now used as the starting point for parades and crazy celebrations. Visitors can pay a fee now to go to the top of the Arc and get in fantastic views of the Champs-Elysees (to the south) and the Grande Arche de la Defense to the north.
For over 200 years artists have been flocking to this steep ‘butte’ (hill) known as Montmartre. Street artists still flock here today and can be seen everywhere painting the beautiful cobbled-streets, buildings with flower hanging baskets outside the windows and the green spaces in between streets. Most visitors will flock to the Place du Tertre which is a bustling square where artists try and sell their works whilst cafes and bars surround the area.
Of course one of Paris main landmarks is also located here, the Sacré-Cœur, a massive church built on top of the hill which overlooks the centre of the French capital from the north. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870’s, there were two catholic businessmen who made a private religious vow to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Christ should France be spared from the war. The two men lived to see Paris saved from invasion despite the war breaking out and the work on the church commenced. The church (now built as an basilica) was completed in 1914 but didn’t get its consecration until 1919, a few months after the Great War where France was victorious.
The best view to capture the Sacré-Cœur is from the gardens below (and it’s fantastic in the summer where locals take picnics and lounge around on the grounds or seeing a romantic young couple having a kiss and a cuddle). The main feature of the basilica has to be its Ovoid dome which can been seen from all over the city. Fun fact, the dome is the second-highest point in paris after the Eiffel Tower.
TIP: If coming from the south to visit the Sacré-Cœur and don’t fancy walking up the hillside, there is a funicular (cable railway) which runs from the bottom of the hill to the top and the best thing is, metro tickets and cards are valid on it.
Right on the southern edge of Montmartre is the world famous Moulin Rouge on Boulevard de Clichy (nearest metro: Blanche), which has stood here since 1885. Since the early 1900s there have been many wild dance shows which includes the famous ‘can-can’ where lots of legs are seen kicking into the air to keep the crowds happy.
One time I actually went to see a show and to be honest, with an open-mind, I had the time of my life. I went to a show around 23:00 and got treated to dinner and champagne and had a great view of the stage. Our eyes were watching every move and my ears listening to all the songs. The lighting, the props, the background scenery, the acting, is totally amazing and dazzled us. The show is definitely worth checking out, I know not everyone likes this sort of show and even some locals disapprove of it but go with an open-mind. It is not as seedy as everyone thinks.
I hope you like my guide to Paris and I am sure I will be adding to this in the near future as there is always something new to see in the city when I do my usual five trips a year to this amazing place. Have you been somewhere great in the city and want to share it, then leave a comment below. I would love to hear your experiences on Paris and find out where I should be going next, on your recommendations.