The Top 15 “Must See Sights” for First Time Visitors

First time visitors to Paris should see the obvious “picture postcard” tourist destinations quickly and the best way to do this is to use the open top tourist bus. It sounds cheesy but it really is the best way to see the list below. You could see the lot in a day, except for Versailles, if you start early and don’t go inside. Go back the following day to any that you want to visit properly.

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 1.Musée d’Orsay

  • On the left bank of the Seine, in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station, opened in 1986, it is now the largest art museum in Europe, featuring mainly French art dating from1848 to 1914 including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Personally, I think the impressionists are all a bit samey – just grown up finger paintings, but I do accept that this is a minority view!
    • 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007

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  1. Palais Garnier – Opéra National de Paris
  • A 1,979-seat opera house, opened in 1875 to house the Paris Opera and known as the Palais Garnier, in recognition of its opulence and its architect, Charles Garnier. In 1989, the Paris Opera relocated to the ghastly Opéra Bastille at the Place de la Bastille and since then the Palais Garnier has been mainly used for ballet. Tickets are extortionately expensive, but if you walk around the back you will find a small, poorly signposted box office where return tickets are sold cheaply. The Palais Garnier also houses the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra de Paris (Paris Opera Library-Museum).
    • 8 Rue Scribe, 75009

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  1. Musée du Louvre
  • Located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the Louvre Palace, it is the world’s largest museum. Originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century under Philip II, it was converted by Francis I into the main residence of the French Kings in 1578. Louis XIV moved out to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, leaving the Louvre as a place to display his royal collection. After the French Revolution the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum which opened on 10 August 1793. The most famous exhibit is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, rather small and underwhelming, the other Da Vinci’s on display are better! The Louvre has three entrances: the main entrance in the pyramid, an entrance from the Carrousel du Louvre underground shopping mall, and an entrance at the Porte des Lions (near the western end of the Denon wing). Avoid the main entrance during busy periods, in other words, don’t use the main entrance!
    • 75001 Paris

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  1. Eiffel Tower
  • The wrought iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower as the entrance to the 1889 World Fair, was initially criticized by some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but has become a global cultural icon of France and the most recognisable structure in the world. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world; 6.91 million people ascended it in 2015, the queues are atrocious, so book a timed ticket in advance.
    • Champ de Mars, 5 Avenue Anatole France, 75007

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  1. Notre Dame Cathédral / Towers / Musée
  • “Our Lady of Paris”, the medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité, was one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttress, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. In the 1790s it suffered extensive damage during the radical phase of the French Revolution and was overly restored in 1845 by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who ostentatiously included a statue of himself on the roof, leading three apostles. His right hand holds a long rule, bearing the inscription “Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc erected this”! The centre of Paris (known as Kilometre Zéro or Point Zéro) is located at the front of Notre Dame in Parvis Notre-Dame, marked by a brass star set into the paving, but this is a crowded touristy area and the cathedral looks flat and out of proportion from the front. To appreciate its elegance, look at it from Quai de la Tournelle, Pont de la Tournelle, or Quai d’Orléans on the l’Île Saint-Louis. The queues to get inside are awful at any time of year, so to get in, book an after-hours tour.
    • 6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004

Notre Dame de Paris, East View,

  1. Pont Alexandre III / Pont-Neuf / River Seine
  • 37 bridges span the Seine within Paris, my favourites are the Pont Alexandre III and Pont Neuf (meaning New Bridge, not Bridge Nine!), which dates back to 1607. There are some good pop up snack bars on the river side at Port des Invalides on the south west side of Pont Alexandre III. A river boat trip is an essential part of any first visit to Paris, but those leaving from Port de la Bourdonnais, Port de la Conférence, or Square du Vert Galant tend to be over packed cattle truck affairs. The hop on hop off Batobus can be useful but the views of Paris are limited because you are so close to the water. The evening dinner cruise from Quai Malaquais is much better. I also found an underutilised boat trip from Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, next to Pont Marie which had an electric powered boat. Yachts de Paris from Quai Henri IV look good but expensive, alternatively try Green River Cruises from Quai d’Austerlitz. Please note that no Parisian would ever cruise the Seine, they prefer the Canal Saint Martin.
    • Pont Alexandre III, Quai d’Orsay, 750076-pont-alexandra
    • Pont Neuf, Ile de la Cite, 75001 6-quai-de-conti-pont-neuf

 

  1. Arc de Triomphe / Champs-Élysées 
  • The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile stands at the western end of the Champs-Élysées and honours the dead from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. It is the linchpin of the Axe historique (historic axis) – a sequence of monuments and roads on a line which runs from the Louvre to the Grande Arche de la Défense. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées follows this line to the Place de la Concorde. The name is French for the Elysian Fields, the paradise for dead heroes in Greek mythology. The French call it “la plus belle avenue du monde” (the world’s most beautiful avenue). I don’t like it, to me it is “Oxford Street on steroids” and, moreover, it is the worst place in Paris to get hungry or thirsty. If you want to conserve your euros, head down Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Café Le Carré Élysée, they do a great French Onion soup and hot dogs with melted cheese and frites.
    • Place Charles de Gaulle, 75008

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  1. Sacré-Cœur / Moulin Rouge / Montmartre 
  • The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is located at the summit of Butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city. A decree of the Assemblée Nationale, 24 July 1873, specifies that its purpose is to “expiate the crimes of the Commune”, which started in Montmartre. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was designed by Paul Abadie, construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914, spanning the period known as the Belle Époque. The Moulin Rouge (Red Windmill) is a cabaret best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. If you can suspend your street cred for long enough, take “Le Petit Train de Montmartre” between Sacré-Cœur and Moulin Rouge for a guided tour of Montmartre, meaning ‘mountain of the martyr’; after the martyrdom of the Bishop of Paris, now Saint Denis, patron saint of France, who was decapitated on the hill around 250 AD. The views from Sacré-Cœur are spectacular and despite the tourists it is also worth checking out Place du Tertre, a small, cafe-lined cobbled square with buskers and artists, Le Moulin de la Galette, the subject and title of several paintings by Vincent van Gogh in 1886, and the Saturday street market on Rue Caulaincourt. When visiting Montmartre by métro, always use line 12 to Abbesses which exits into a lovely part of Montmartre, rather than line 2 to Anvers, a haunt of pick-pockets which exits onto the tacky Boulevard de Rochechouart.
    • Sacré-Cœur, 35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 750188-sacre-coeur
    • Moulin Rouge, 82 Boulevard de Clichy, 750188-moulin-rouge

 

  1. Musée de l’Orangerie /  Jardin des Tuileries
  • The Tuileries Garden is located between the Louvre Museum and the Place de la Concorde. Created by Catherine de Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace in 1564, it was opened to the public in 1667, and became a public park after the French Revolution. Located in the west corner of the Tuileries Gardens is the Musée de l’Orangerie, a gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, most famous for being the permanent home of the eight Water Lilies murals by Claude Monet which is genuinely very impressive and well worth visiting. The cafés in Jardin des Tuileries are expensive – better to bring a picnic!
    • Jardin Tuileries, 75001

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  1. St. Michel / Latin Quarter / Rive Gauche
  • At the centre of bohemian Paris, the Place St. Michel with its baroque fountain of St. Michel killing a demon continues to evoke the spirit of Camus, Sartre and Beckett and attracts demonstrators, hippies, artists, writers, poets, dancers, musicians and students. This is the site of numerous protests and social uprisings, from the French resistance to the occupying Nazis to the uprising of 1968, when students took charge of the square in the face of tear gas and police clubs, declaring it an independent state!
    • Place St. Michel, 75006

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  1. Boulevard St. Germain / Saint-Germain-des-Prés Quarter 
  • Saint-Germain-des-Prés is one of the four administrative quarters of the 6eme, located around the church of the former Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. After the Second World War the Boulevard Saint-Germain became the intellectual and cultural centre of Parisian life. The quarter is famous for its cafés, including Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, le Procope, and the Brasserie Lipp. It is also a thriving high-end shopping street with posh shops for posh people. If you ever suffer from delusions of being well off, come here to discover that you are not – the perfect place for grounding therapy!
    • Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006

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  1. Place de la Concorde
  • The largest square in Paris, constructed in the form of an octagon bordered by large moats which have long disappeared. During the French revolution a guillotine was installed at the centre of the square and those beheaded included King Louis XVI, Marie Antionette, and eventually the revolutionary Robespierre. In the 19th century a three thousand year old obelisk from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes was installed where the guillotine once stood.
    • Place de la Concorde, 75008

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  1. Panthéon
  • The temple to all the gods overlooks Paris from the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve to house the reliquary containing her relics, it now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens including; Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Louis Braille, Jean Jaurès and Soufflot, its architect. Marie Curie was the first woman interred based on her own merits although she was born Polish. I found three Carnots in there, but the pioneer of refrigeration was not amongst them!
    • Place du Panthéon, 75005

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  1. Palais du Luxembourg / Jardin du Luxembourg
  • The Luxembourg Palace at 15 rue de Vaugirard was originally built to be the royal residence of the Queen Regent, Marie de Médicis, mother of Louis XIII. After the Revolution it was refashioned into a legislative building and since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate. Immediately west of the palace is the Petit Luxembourg, now the residence of the Senate President; and slightly further west, the Musée du Luxembourg, in the former orangery. On the south side of the palace is the formal Luxembourg Garden, populated with statues of queens and famous women of France, writers and artists, a small-scale model by Bartholdi of his Statue of Liberty and a modern sculpture by Zadkine.
    • Rue de Vaugirard, 75006

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  1. Palaise de Versailles
  • Technically not in Paris, but just a short ride on RER C (the yellow one) from St. Michel station. Versailles was the seat of political power from 1682, when Louis XIV moved the royal court there, until the French Revolution. It became the seat of government again during the Paris Commune of 1871. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. Undoubtedly the most impressive palace in the world, except for one small detail, the original design made no provision for sanitation and all the merde was just thrown out of the windows, making it the stinkiest palace in the world! As with the best attractions in central Paris, plan your visit and buy tickets well in advance.
    • Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles15-versailles-12-01-14
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2 Comments

  1. I have only been to France once, but we are returning in April 2017. I so enjoy reading your blog and have learned a lot about what I missed before and what I need to do. Now, to find a place to stay that is somewhat local to all. Thanks for your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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