First visits to Paris can be daunting: nearly every square inch of the city seems to be seeping with history and beauty. All of it is worth seeing and exploring, but there are some Paris tourist attractions that simply shouldn’t be missed. Here are ten of the best Paris sights and attractions, chosen for their mass popularity, historical importance, or sheer aesthetic appeal. If you want to experience Paris’ most essential attractions, this guide will help you pinpoint what to see and do first.
More than any other landmark, the EiffelTower has come to represent an elegant and contemporary Paris. The iron tower, which was built for the 1889 World Exposition by Gustave Eiffel, was wildly unpopular with Parisians when it was unveiled, and was nearly torn down. It has since attracted over 220 million visitors, and it would be hard to imagine Paris now without it. The tower crowns the Paris night sky with its festive light, and glitters up a storm every hour. Cliché? Maybe. But essential.
To learn the Louvre in and out, you might need a lifetime. Still, one has to start somewhere. The site of the world’s largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is definitely one of Paris’ most coveted attractions. Not forgetting the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, bask in the works of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and countless others. The palace itself is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present. The Louvre Museum is the largest and most visited museum in the world, welcoming over 8 million visitors annually.
No first trip to Paris is complete without a visit to this marvel of gothic architecture. One of the most singular and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral’s dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away. Witness firsthand the spot that was once the heartbeat of medieval Paris, and that took over 100 years of hard labour to complete. Climbing the North tower to see Paris from the hunchback Quasimodo’s vantage is essential, too. You’ll soon understand why Notre Dame is one of Paris’ top attractions with 13 million visitors each year.
CHAMPS ELYSEES AND ARC DE TRIOMPHE
The 164-foot Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Emperor Napoléon I does exactly what it was made to do: evoke sheer military power and triumph. It was built in an age when leaders erected monuments in their own honour, and scaled to their egos. The arch’s beautiful sculptures and reliefs commemorate Napoléon’s generals and soldiers. Visit the Arc de Triomphe to begin or culminate a walk down the equally grandiose Avenue des Champs-Elysées. You can’t help but feel grand yourself. The square is still called l’Etoile (the Star), because on it as many as 12 roads converge. The most important of the 12 roads is surely the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The French like to call it the “most beautiful avenue in the world.” With its cinemas, cafés and luxury shops, the Champs-Elysees, which extends from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, is one of the most famous streets in the world.
SACRE COEUR and MONTMARTRE
With its unmistakeable white dome, the Sacre Coeur sits at the highest point of Paris on the Montmartre knoll, or butte. This basilica, which was consecrated in 1909, is best-known for its garish gold mosaic interiors and for its dramatic terrace, from which you can expect sweeping views of Paris on a clear day. Take the funicular up with a metro ticket and stop off at Sacre Coeur before exploring the winding, village-like streets of Montmartre. And after expending all your energy climbing Montmartre’s formidable hills and stairs, consider a traditional Parisian cabaret at the legendary Moulin Rouge.
Walk over the bridge from the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay– and see the bridge between classical and modern art. Housing the world’s most important collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting, the Musée d’Orsay’s light, airy rooms whir you through three floors of modern wonders, from Degas’ ethereal dancers to Monet’s water lilies, all the way to Gaugin’s leafy jungles. Major works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Manet, and others await you, too.
HOTEL DES INVALIDES
The complex known as the Hôtel des Invalides was founded in 1671 by Louis XIV, the Sun King. He wanted to provide accommodation for disabled and impoverished war veterans.
Today, a visit to the Moulin Rouge is still very popular with adult visitors to Paris. You’ll find myriad tourists snapping photos of the huge red windmill that sits on top of the theatre and many visitors make reservations here for a nightly show.
The show features more than 100 performers decked out in the most extravagant costumes, which include lots of feathers, rhinestones, and sequins. The sets are equally as spectacular. But remember, this is adult entertainment, so those with kids should choose a different activity or find a reliable baby-sitter and enjoy a night out sans children.
Seeing some of Paris’ most beautiful sites glide past as you drift down the Seine River is an unforgettable and essential experience. Companies such as Bateaux Parisiens offer 1-hour tours of the Seine year-round for about 10 Euros. You can hop on near Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. Go at night to enjoy the shimmering play of light on the water, and dress warmly– the wind from off the Seine can be chilly. You can also take tours of some of Paris’ canals and waterways, which will allow you to see a semi-hidden side of the city of light. The world famous boats on the Seine are a privileged point of view on the beauty of Paris.
The Château de Versailles, which has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for 30 years, is one of the most beautiful achievements of 18th-century French art. The site began as Louis XIII’s hunting lodge before his son Louis XIV transformed and expanded it, moving the court and government of France to Versailles in 1682. Each of the three French kings who lived there until the French Revolution added improvements to make it more beautiful.
The Hall of Mirrors, the King’s Grand Apartments, the Museum of the History of France. The Château de Versailles, the seat of power until 1789, has continued to unfurl its splendour over the course of centuries. At first it was just a humble hunting lodge built by Louis XIII. But Louis XIV chose the site to build the palace we know today, the symbol of royal absolutism and embodiment of classical French art. It receives about 7 million visitors each year.
Among other tourist attractions in Paris, we can mention among others the CENTRE-POMPIDOU, a cultural center dedicated to modern art, contemporary art, literature, design, music and cinema; the CEMETERY OF PÈRE-LACHAISE, the largest of the civil cemeteries in Paris, and one of the most famous of the world, where among other Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Delacroix, Jim Morrison, Balzac, Bizet, and Moliere are buried; the OPERA, historic and charming neo-Baroque theater and architectural masterpiece; the GRAND PALAIS AND THE PETIT PALAIS exhibition hall built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 and that today characterize the architecture of Paris; the LUXEMBOURG PALACE, the royal palace that now houses the Senate, with its Luxembourg Gardens, the largest public park in Paris; the CONCIERGERIE, a former prison in Paris, known as “the antechamber of the guillotine,” because there was established the Revolutionary Court that sent 2600 prisoners to the guillotine, including Queen Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and Danton; the CATACOMBS OF PARIS, an almost endless (200 km) underground tunnels system which were then converted into a huge cemetery and ossuary since 1786; the Latin Quarter, a district that stretches around the Sorbonne and other institutions, schools and universities, known for his dynamic and charming atmosphere, its cafés and bistros.