With each of my trips to Paris, I uncover a new area of the city. I like to pick a different arrondissement to serve as home base each time I visit, and try to discover the special shops, restaurants and food stores in the area.
For my most recent trip, we rented an apartment in the 2nd Arrondissement - just around the corner from the terrific market street of Rue Montorgueil. We traveled with my in-laws and it was their first visit to Paris. Having an apartment can be a great option for a larger family or multigenerational travel, because it gives you common space to hang out together. I also love cooking, so I enjoy going to the local markets and making dinner in the evenings.
If you have not yet been to Paris or are thinking about taking a trip, here are what I consider the essential elements of the city.
A visit to Paris must include art. The Louvre is one of my favorite museums, even if it can be intimidating. Here are a few tips:
I highly recommend a guide. The amount of time you will save by not fumbling with the map, getting lost looking for what you want to see and struggling with your audio guide will make up for the cost. Novices rarely leave feeling satisfied, but a three-hour guide will make you feel like your time was well spent and you will really get insight into what you came to see.
Order your tickets in advance online. The website is very easy to use: simply choose the day you want to go and the time you would like to enter.
If the day and time you want are somehow booked, you can typically book the “special exhibit” ticket that includes entry to the entire museum for just a few Euro more. This will allow you entrance when the normal tickets are sold out. But remember, if the times are sold out, it means you will have big crowds.
You don’t have to enter the museum through the pyramid. Take your photos and then use the entrance on the side - it is often shorter.
The audio guides at the Louvre make me crazy. Recognize that they can help you move around and navigate a bit, but I suggest actually doing the tutorial in the beginning.
Don’t try and do it all. You can’t. I recommend doing a bit of research the night before to pick out a handful of paintings or a section of the museum to see.
There is a PAUL bakery in the main entrance so you can get a coffee before you embark on your viewing.
When you exit, they will shepherd you into what is essentially a Parisian shopping mall. They have some good Parisian outposts - including chocolate - but avoid the “food court.” Instead, put “Pret” into your Google Maps and grab a much cheaper and higher quality sandwich or salad.
Beyond the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay is a crowd pleaser. I dare anyone not to fall in love with this place. While it is enormous, it is not as overwhelming as the Louvre and is filled to the brim with the art everyone is most familiar with. The museum even has a lovely cafe for a quick lunch and a beautiful patio for some great views of Paris. Many of the same rules apply - I recommend a guide and buying tickets in advance.
Some of the most wonderful art in Paris can be found in museums you may not have heard of. Also, be sure to check out the special exhibits before you plan your trip to see if there is something that interests you. For example, the Courtauld Collection will be exhibiting at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris from Feb - June. My favorite visit this trip was to the Pompidou for a terrific exhibit on Cubism, and the Musée de l'Orangerie is a wonderful museum that features Monet’s grand scale paintings. But be sure to check opening days - most museums are closed at least one day each week.
Another thing one must do in Paris is eat. We have a great partner in the city that does food tours of the Marais that will be the best three hours you have spent in a long time. The Marais in Paris is one of the parts of the city that remains as it was. The narrow streets and individually-owned shops and restaurants seem stuck in time.
I also had no idea how similar Paris was to Tokyo, in that so many of the great artisans really focus on just one thing and do it really, really well. You can be introduced to a shop that only does pig - every way you can imagine - and has a sandwich that you purchase by the length. The Popolini store only makes pastries that could be compared to a doughnut, but that would not give credit to the lovely dough and classic french pastry cream that fills its center.
Cheese purveyors are an obvious part of the mix, as is a wine shop. You can visit shop after shop with samples along the way, and the tour is amazing with kids as well.
The second essential food experience in Paris is a market street. No matter where you stay in Paris, you can locate your closest market street to visit. You will encounter bakeries that offer an amazing array of baguettes, beautiful vegetables and fruits and seafood specialists who can create a platter of fresh oysters for you. These streets are as much for people watching as purchasing food, giving you a sense of what it is like to live in this wonderful city. Marché d'Aligre (outdoors) and the Beauvau Market (indoors), with its great cheese shop, homemade pasta and oysters, are worth seeking out if you are staying on the Right Bank.
Finally, you must visit some of the fantastic restaurants. In Paris you can find any food you can imagine, but I suggest planning ahead to get into one of the iconic restaurants of the city. You can also seek out small bistros that are more casual and rustic. I always recommend checking in with the concierge at your hotel (or even if you rent an apartment, our partners always have a concierge service included) about what is best for your particular area or any timely suggestions. I have a map that I have created with my favorite wine bars, market streets and quintessential restaurants that I share with my clients heading to Paris
A final option centering around food is a cooking class, and there are so many options to choose from. There is a great cooking school that is simple and small, focusing more on actually learning to cook using what you might have in your own kitchen at home. I really enjoyed our trip to the local market street to gather ingredients, followed by a cooking class and dinner.
You can also go the complete opposite route and take a pastry or bread-making class in a shiny, professional kitchen. The experience is a bit more polished, even if it might be hard to replicate once you are home. The one class I typically suggest clients don’t try is the macaron class. These lovely gems are not easy to make, and while yes, they are very Parisian, you might get frustrated as you try and make your way through the process from scratch.
One last note to mention: I also highly recommend a leisurely coffee (or hot cocoa) in a typical Parisian cafe. The French do this well, and before Starbucks came along, they couldn’t imagine actually getting a coffee to go. I have my favorite cafes, including L’ambroisie off of the Place des Vosges, but there are plenty of great options across the city.
I always try to find a way to inject some learning into our itineraries. French history, and the French Revolution in particular, is really notable. It is incredible to learn about how so much came together to spark the protests, and it becomes so much more interesting when you actually get to see the spaces and places that make the story come alive. You can do this as a 101 if you have kids, or as a real nuanced version that gets into the complexities and helps clarify much of the incorrect history we were taught.
Depending on how long you have to spend in France, I might also recommend a trip to Normandy. We have an amazing partner who specializes in Normandy, and many of the guides are actual historians who can share amazing stories of individual soldiers, making the history really come to life. If you have family or friends who were in Normandy, they can even help you with a “follow my steps” tour that they will research in advance. You can take the train down to Bayeux in two hours direct, and you can also plan to spend the night and include a trip to Mont St. Michel.