It’s overwhelming… planning a trip to a city you’ve never been to before, especially if you don’t know the language, culture or customs.
I still remember my second trip to Paris when I was in college (the first was with the orchestra in high school where the entire trip was planned for me and I was surrounded by my English-speaking friends the entire time). My mom and I flew over and only had a few days to do whatever we wanted. But I spent the first couple of days jet-lagged and overwhelmed with trying to understand all of the French swarming around me. I was an engineering major at that point and hadn’t had a French class in quite a while. It wasn’t until our last day there that things finally settled in my head, but then it was time to leave!
So while this post won’t immediately make you fluent in French, I hope it will at least give you some guidance on what to do if you only have a few days in Paris and want to hit the highlights!
Paris is by far one of my favorite cities and I LOVE when people ask for suggestions on what to do when they go because I know how wonderful the city is and I’m excited that someone else is about to experience it too! I’ll be doing another post in the near future of things to do and see if you’d prefer a little less-touristy experience.
We’re going to assume you only have 3-4 days for this trip. If you have longer, you’ll get through this list fairly quickly but will then have an idea of other things you want to see and do before going home. Or you can wait for the next post of what to do in Paris for the “less-touristy” edition and add those things into your itinerary!
- From the airport, you can either take the RER (about 12 euros) and metro (1 ticket is less than 2 euros) into the city or take a taxi or an Uber (both of these are around 50 euros but you’ll be taken directly to where you want to go and won’t have to carry your luggage through the metro)*
*all prices are from summer 2017
- Go ahead and purchase a metro ticket for zones 1-3 for the number of days you’ll be in Paris. This will give you unlimited rides for most places in the city without having to purchase tickets all the time. There are kiosks in most metro stations and they’re easy to use and they take credit cards.
- Be sure to walk a lot too! The city is best experienced on foot.
- Google Maps on your phone will be your best friend. I used it ALL the time to figure out how to get where we wanted to go. It is super helpful because it gives you the directions for walking, metro lines, and by taxi/Uber.
Sights to see:
- Eiffel Tower: your first day there would be a good day to go up the Eiffel Tower! Purchase tickets ahead of time so you can jump any lines that you might have to wait in. Purchase your tickets to go to the top and then walk down the stairs to leave. This will still give you all the views from each level without wearing you out by walking UP the entire thing!
- OR… if you’d rather have the view in the photo above, go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe just before sunset. You’ll walk up a spiral staircase for what feels like forever, but you’ll have a view OF the Eiffel Tower instead of the view FROM the Eiffel Tower.
- Montmartre: Try to plan on going up to Montmartre and Sacré Coeur one morning. Then you can have lunch up there before heading back into the city. It’s so pretty and refreshing first thing in the morning and probably won’t be nearly as crowded as it will be later in the day.
- Notre Dame: walking through the church is completely free so definitely do that and walk AROUND to the back of the church into the gardens so you can see the back of the church too. That’s where the flying buttresses are and it’s beautiful back there. I’ve only paid to go to the top of the towers once and it was ok, but not necessary for the short amount of time you have in the city.
- Pont Alexandre III: at some point you must go to this bridge… it’s perfectly 19th century and you can easily access stairs to walk down by the Seine. It’s my favorite bridge in the city and it’s just beautiful!
- Quartier Latin: ALWAYS worth walking around in!
- The Louvre: this is totally up to you. If you’ve never been to Paris and you enjoy museums, I would recommend going. The first time I went (in high school), I went in, found the Mona Lisa and left. The next time I went, I actually took my time and wandered through a bit. Then, when Ben and I went for our honeymoon, we were in there for at least 3 hours… and that wasn’t even my first time there! So, just be warned that you can spend as little or as much time in there as you’d like :-)
- Bonus stop: Palais Royale is directly across the street from the Louvre. The main courtyard (below) is worth seeing and taking a rest in.
- Versailles: If you have at least 3 full days, go ahead and use one of those days to go out to Versailles. It will be completely worth it! You’ll need to buy different metro tickets for this trip because the palace is in zone 4 and you’ll need to take the metro and then the RER to get out there. It’s the last stop on line C so it’s really easy to find. Go through the castle if you like, but then go down to the gardens and at the point where you can rent row boats, take a right and walk about a mile to Le Grand Trianon and Le Petite Trianon. You’ll also want to go back to the Hamlet (Marie Antoinette’s little village she had built to pretend like she was a peasant). I finally saw these parts of Versailles this past summer and could have spent so many more hours there than I did! Totally and completely worth your time and the walk.
Places to eat:
- There are all kinds of cafés around the city that are perfectly fine for grabbing lunch and a café crème (if you like coffee, apparently this is the way to go!).
- For dinner, the main place I’d recommend is Chez Georges (1 rue du Mail, 75002 Paris, France) with the yellow doors/windows. Try and go by there on your first day or so if you can so that you know where it is because it can be a little tricky to find. But, when you do find it, walk in and make reservations for that evening or another evening to ensure you’ll have a table. Both times Ben and I have been there, it’s been pretty packed. Also, Europeans like to eat late so while we always thought 7pm was on the later side, it starts getting full around 9pm!
- Boulangeries (bakeries) may be the downfall of any diet you might be trying to do. Pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) is the best thing you will ever put in your mouth. I always eat at least one a day… you’ll be walking enough that the calories from these won’t actually stick to you ;-)
- At least once, you need to buy a baguette and then find a fromagerie (cheese shop) for some cheese and wine so you can have a picnic in the Tuilleries Gardens. You also need to have at least one crepe from a street vendor – NOT in a café. My favorite place to get one is at the base of the butte of Montmartre, before you walk up to Sacré Coeur. There’s a little café on the corner that is directly across from the carousel so it’s pretty hard to miss. The crepe station is on the outside of the café so you can just walk up to order one and they’ll make it right there, fold it up, and hand it to you. It’s the perfect snack to eat while you sit on the benches by the carousel and people watch!
What to pack:
Less is always more! Plus, most Parisian apartment buildings don’t have elevators. And if they do, they’re super tiny and don’t always work (I know this from experience). And if you take the train/metro from the airport, you won’t want to be lugging huge bags around (I also know this from experience!). I think there’s one metro stop (maybe 2) that has an elevator. The rest have nothing but steps.
- Take a few staples and then accessorize those to switch up outfits. Plus, you’ll do some shopping and will want to wear what you buy, right??
- A comfy and cute pair of flats… plus those little stretchy sock things because, well, they’re just always a good idea.
- A small umbrella. Trust me on this one.
- European outlet converters (like this one HERE).
- DO NOT TAKE A U.S. HAIRDRYER. It will be too much for the outlets (even with a converter) and will fry. So either be fully European and don’t dry your hair, see if the place you’re staying has a european hair dryer, or purchase one when you arrive. Curling irons and straighteners will do just fine with a converter.
- Download Google Translate… it’s not perfect, but it will help!
A few cultural tips:
- It’s polite to say “Bonjour” when you enter a shop to the shop owner and “Merci, au revoir!” when you leave.
- Learn the phrase “Parlez vous anglais?” (Do you speak English? Also, that last s in anglais is silent.) Many Parisians speak at least a little English, especially in restaurants and stores, but it’s amazing how much more helpful they will be if you at least make an effort in French first :-)
- Go ahead and order some euros before you leave. I know with Bank of America you can order them online and they’ll ship to your house in a couple of days. The exchange rate will be better than if you use one of the exchange places at the airport or anywhere in town (other than ATMs). Most big places will take cards, but it’s easier to have cash on you for those pain au chocolat and ice creams :-) Also, they use 1 euro and 2 euro coins a lot so don’t be afraid to use your change. The smallest paper bill is 5 euros so the coins really do go a long way.
- Tipping isn’t necessary like it is in the states. If a waiter is beyond amazing, a 1 or maybe 2 euro tip is appreciated but still not expected.
- Many places are closed on Sundays so just be aware of that.
Hopefully this was helpful! If all else fails and even this is too overwhelming, just café hop around the city drinking café crèmes, enjoying all the baguettes and eating pain au chocolats while you people watch.
For other posts about Paris, click HERE.