Make the most of your visit to the enchanting city of Paris
Ernest Hemingway said “There are only two places where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” When you travel to the French capital, the problem becomes what to do in the limited time you have available. Should you hit the usual touristy spots (and suffer the long queues) or gravitate toward less well known activities and sights?
There is no such thing as a ‘best things to do in Paris’ list. There’s too much to see and too many tastes to cater for. But if you’re only in Paris for a short while and want some unforgettable experiences.
Here are our top 10 things to do in Paris:
#1. Experience the Tour Montparnasse
Everyone who visits Paris wants to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower. But the problem with this is that you don’t have a view of the tower you’re standing on.
The solution to this dilemma is to get your stunning city view from atop the 56th floor observation deck of the Montparnasse Tower – with a superb view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. There may be no more spectacular view in Paris and it’s especially breathtaking at night.
You still get a bird’s-eye view of the city (including sights like The Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe), but with less cost and fewer crowds than you’d experience by going up the Eiffel Tower. As you enjoy a champagne or coffee and gaze out at the 360 degree panorama, life will seem very elegant indeed.
#2. Take a walking tour through the Paris Catacombs
In 1785, Paris had a bit of a problem – their cemeteries were overflowing. To fix this, they dug up the bones of the deceased and relocated them to the tunnels of some abandoned quarries.
This was the birth of The Catacombs, a series of underground corridors stacked with bones. They’re 20 metres beneath the Parisian streets and contain the remains of around 6 million Parisians.
A number of tour operators offer walking tours through the Catacombs. Make sure you wear something warm and be prepared for the occasional bit of dripping water.
A visit through the 2 kilometres of tunnels lasts around 45 minutes. A guard will check your bags when you exit (they hate it when crass tourists try to souvenir a bone or two).
#3. Explore the back streets of Paris by bicycle
As you wander through the streets of Paris, you may notice bike racks full of rental bicycles. There are hundreds of these Velib rental spots around the city and it’s a simple matter of using your credit card to unlock the pushbike from its mooring, ride it to another part of the city and drop it off at a different Velib rack elsewhere.
You can buy a day ticket for one Euro which provides unlimited free rides of up to 30 minutes at a time. The longer you have the bike, the more you pay, so don’t delay in getting it back when you’ve completed your forays.
This is a great way to venture into some less touristy (and quieter) parts of Paris and if all that pedalling becomes too much, there are plenty of sidewalk cafes where you can take a breather. Beware: even with a map, you’ll probably get lost a few times!
#4. Take the bus tour for people who hate bus tours
What combines superb French cuisine, fine wines and a low-key tour of some of this city’s best attractions – all while on the move in a luxurious bus? The answer is the Bustronome, a unique idea for seeing Paris in a totally different way.
Forget the traditional Seine River dinner cruise – hop on the Bustronome for a 2-hour lunch or 2.5-hour dinner tour instead!
Although the idea of dining on a moving bus while seeing the sights may seem a bit strange, in practice it works surprisingly well. The huge windows and glass-top roof on this double-decker bus give eye-popping 360-degree views of attractions that include the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Champs-Elysees and the Louvre.
Instead of a tour guide blaring away at you, a discreet audio guide helps you learn about the sights as you move through town. You board the bus near the Arc de Triomphe and then sit back and relax while you soak up the scenery and savour a 4 or 6 course gourmet meal in true French bistro style – c’est magnifique!
#5. Stroll through the Tuileries Gardens
When you need to get away from the city’s hustle and bustle and surround yourself with spectacular trees and impressive architecture, the Tuileries Gardens will not disappoint. These gardens are located in the largest park within Paris and are nicely positioned along the Seine River between two iconic landmarks: the Avenue des Champs Elysees and the Louvre.
There are two excellent museums within the park. The Musee de Jeu de Paume contains fascinating temporary exhibitions and the Musee de l’Orangerie is where you can see some of the famous Nymphea paintings by Monet.
This park has plenty of picturesque statues, sculptures and fountains as well as quiet places to recline on the grass with a book and a croissant and while away a sunny afternoon. If you plan to visit an urban park in Paris, start with this one.
#6. Immerse yourself in the magic of the Latin Quarter
The Latin Quarter is the oldest district in Paris – a lively collection of narrow streets, thriving cafes, quaint bookshops, funky bars and elegant restaurants, all nestled in an area renowned for housing some of the city’s finest universities, including La Sorbonne. Victor Hugo and Voltaire were educated here, which says something about the intellectual history of the place.
This is a rather noisy part of the city to stay in (right through the wee hours), but it’s perfect for a neighbourhood walk or a leisurely French lunch. Although it has its share of souvenir shops, there’s still a feel of ‘old Paris’ as you wander around and window shop. It’s very centrally located and close to lots of other iconic Paris attractions including Notre Dame Cathedral.
#7. Go skydiving – indoors!
The Aerokart Wind Tunnel must surely be one of the most original activities you can get up to in France. This ‘free fall simulator’ is a technological marvel that’s used for training by professional parachutists and is also a unique tourist experience.
A blower system perfectly recreates the sensations of a parachutist in flight with instructors accompanying and supervising each free fall session. Because you’re basically in a wind tunnel being cushioned by a powerful blast of air from below, it’s a very controlled environment and extremely safe, with helmet, goggles and wind suit provided.
With wind speeds of up to 250 kilometres per hour, it’s the closest you’ll get to the feeling of skydiving without jumping out of an airplane. Reservations are essential.
#8. Learn to cook like a Parisian (with classes in English)
Cook’n with Class is just one of many cooking schools in Paris that cater (pun intended) to English-speaking food lovers. The different classes on offer are mind-boggling. You can try the cheese and wine class, the chocolate class, the baguette baking class or a class devoted entirely to Macarons (the French macaroon).
The Evening Market Class in Paris is also a treat: you shop with the chef for fresh ingredients at a local market and then create a hands-on, four-course meal back at the school. If Chocolate soufflé and Crème Brulee are more your style, then go for the French Bistro Dessert Class. Bon appetite!
#9. See Paris from a motorcycle sidecar
One of the coolest ways to see the sights of the French capital is with a company called Retro Tour Paris that operate motorbikes with sidecars.
Your guides will happily recommend routes but will also allow you to create your own custom ride to concentrate on the parts of the city you most want to experience. On a 90-minute trip, it’s amazing how much of Paris you can enjoy from a motorcycle sidecar – much more than you’d see on a dozen walking tours.
If the lopsidedly positive TripAdvisor reviews are anything to go by, this tour company makes a lot of people very happy!
#10. Visit a hidden gem – The Salvador Dali Museum
You could spend weeks visiting all the famous museums in Paris – and some people do. But many of these are touristy, expensive and so big that you’ll quickly wear yourself out exploring them.
Tucked away in the heart of Montmartre at 11 Rue Polbot (to the side of the Sacre Coeur) is the small Salvador Dali Museum (or Espace Dali Montmartre, as the French call it).
It’s only about 11 Euros to get in and you can wander at your leisure, marvelling at Dali’s drawings, art and extraordinary clock sculptures. If you treasure the uniqueness of Dali and want a low-key, affordable museum experience in Paris, look no further!