This is my straight-talking guide to the best things to do in Paris. I’ve tailored it specifically for those who are short on time and hungry for a real taste of the City of Light. It will help you sidestep the tourist traps and get straight to the juicy bits…
So pour yourself a glass au vin and get ready to say… Paris, je t’aime!
In Paris, the streets hum with the frenetic buzz of scooters and the gentle rumble of the joie de vivre.
Wafts of espresso and cigar smoke fill cafe terraces where paperback princes read in withering slivers of sunlight. People live to the rhythm of the sun here, in this city of light.
And then there are the restaurants, where the welcome is warm and the food exhilarating. From classic bistros serving traditional French fare to progressive restaurants that are changing the world of gastronomy forever.
It’s all here in abundance, in a multicultural melting pot waiting to be discovered and devoured at whatever pace you feel like.
Here are a few excellent places to start…
1. Brunch it up with hipsters and the best crêpes in Paris
If you’re going to eat crêpes, you might as well eat the best crêpes in Paris! Check out Breizh Cafe in the hip and arty area of Marais (equally classic and chic).
Keep it simple with classics such as lemon and honey with brown sugar, or brunch it up a la Paree with oozy gruyère cheese, fried eggs and hunks of salted pork.
Hell, why not go crazy and order the crêpes with oysters – you’re in Paris!
As if this place could get any better, they also serve a wide selection of artisanal ciders. Order a bottle or a small jug, as we did, and wash those fluffy, buckwheat crêpes down in style – you’ll never have a better excuse than Paris!
2. Take a (very) quick walk through the Louvre
Let’s face it, if it’s your first time in Paris, you’re going to want to see the Louvre. And you should – it’s magnificent!
But you could easily spend a couple of weeks inside and still not see everything, so if you’re short on time, I ask you: why even bother? It’s certainly not how the Parisians would spend their free time in the city.
The No Bullsh*t Way: Take a walk through it, don’t worry about going inside. Get a picture, move on. I mean, do you really need to see the Mona Lisa? Really, really?
Nearest Metro Stop: Palais-Royal–Musée du Louvre station
3. Be enigmatic with Paris’ rich and famous at Café de Flore
For the quintessential Parisian cafe experience, it doesn’t get better than Café de Flore. This classic Art Deco cafe, with its green and gold-rimmed tables and bow-tied waiters, has remained almost unchanged since the Second World War.
It’s one of the oldest coffee houses in Paris and famous for its celebrity clientele. In fact, as Sylvie and I found out, a quick cafe creme here could quite easily end up being one of the biggest adventures of your trip. But that’s a whole different story!
Smoke a cigar, read poetry, be enigmatic – that’s what it’s all about.
4. Step back in time with lunch at a classic Parisian bistro
These days, young Parisians are trying to shake the stuffy, exclusive approach of haute French cuisine and replace it with a more democratic approach to gastronomy.
This is bold and exciting stuff, but if you’re visiting Paris for the first time and want to experience the classic dishes, you simply must eat lunch at an old-school Parisian bistro. I don’t care what they say, as far as I’m concerned, the past is the future.
Sylvie and I met a few very charming Parisians on the terrace of Café de Flore. They were smoking fat cigars and doing their best “to be seen” whilst sipping away on espresso.
We got into a rather interesting conversation, which ended in one of them recommending us a bistro called Chez Fernand. They cook up the entire back catalogue of French cuisine and I promise you, you will never taste anything so succulent and soulfully-rich as the boeuf bourguignon that they serve in giant, steaming pots here.
It’s a dining experience I will never forget and I absolutely recommend you pay them a visit.
5. Master the art of the flâneur, in the Luxembourg Gardens
To experience Paris like a true Parisian you’ll need to learn how to flâner. That is to say that you will need to learn to dawdle, to saunter, to do nothing, to stroll aimlessly and simply lounge around… it’s what Paris is made for.
Picture the scene: you’ve eaten your weight in coque au vin and over-indulged on wedges of unctuous, squidgy cheese. You’ve put away a few glasses of plonk au table and it’s time for a little bit of quiet time in the sun. This is the time to take a gentle stroll through leafy Luxembourg Gardens.
It’s a flowery, peaceful retreat where the only sounds are of old men playing chess and small children wearing flat caps playing with wooden boats. C’est magnifique!
Do as the locals do: pull up a chair, take in the sun, read a book, close your eyes and empty your mind. Do as little as possible and do it for as long as long as you can. You’ll be an expert flâneur in no time.
Nearest Metro Stop: Odeon
6. Pose for pictures at Notre Dame and the “Love Lock Bridge”
Ah yes, Paris’s most famous Gothic cathedral. It’s a masterpiece of stained-glass and hideous gargoyles, another perfect photo opportunity you won’t want to miss. But honestly, there’s so much more to a Paris than this…
The No Bullsh*t Way: Take your photo and move on. I recommend taking a stroll through its beautifully landscaped gardens and making the most of the the views over the Seine River. But going inside? Non, non, non! You’ll also find flocks of tourists locking “padlocks of love” to the nearby Pont de l’Archevêché (AKA: Love Lock Bridge).
Top Tip: This area, as with most of the major tourist hotspots, is where the gold-toothed gypsy thieves stalk their pray. One of their favourite tricks is to approach you with a clipboard inviting you to sign a “petition” to support “worthy causes.” Of course, whilst you’re happily filling it out, their hand will be in your bag. Ignore them and they will soon leave you alone.
Nearest Metro Stop: Saint-Michel
7. Do the Eiffel Tower without the bullsh*t
It’s impossible to see the Eiffel Tower without your jaw dropping wide open. It is the most iconic symbol of any city on earth, after all. The truth is, although you can see the Eiffel Tower from many points around the city, I would still recommend getting up close and personal with it, even for the briefest of moments.
The No Bull Sh*T Way: Do as we did and walk towards it as soon as you can see it. We followed the Seine River for about two miles, enjoying the anticipation as it grew ever taller and more profound as we got closer.
Once you get there, find a spot in the huge park/green space that sits just next to it and put your newly-honed flâner skills to good use.
Reflect on the moment, take a few photos, uncork a bottle of champagne and chow down on some cheese. But whatever you do, do not waste half of your day getting to the top of it.
Nearest Metro Stop: Champ de Mars / Tour Eiffel
Top Tip: I actually preferred the views (see below) of the Eiffel Tower from the rooftop terrace of the decadent and sumptuous Lafayette shopping centre.
8. End your day and begin your evening with an apéritif in Marais
In Paris, the time for an aperitif is usually between 6.30pm and 8.30pm, and you’ll notice many bars offering “happy hour” bargains. It’s important because it marks the moment when you decide to end your day and begin your evening.
Do as the locals do and find a table in the last rays of sun. Give yourself an hour or two to unwind and reflect on what you have seen and done. Order a drink, any drink; perhaps a vermouth or a negroni – it doesn’t really matter – and get your bon vivant on.
I recommend a charming little “village square” called Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, which is surrounded by casual cafes and restaurants. It has that small, neighborhood vibe that Marais is so well known for and I can honestly say that eating escargots here is one of the happiest memories I have of our time in Paris.
Once you’ve done this, it’s time to get a little bit Hemingway. I recommend a cosy little restaurant called Les Bougresses, just off the square. They serve rustic French cuisine at reasonable prices in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The pitchers of house wine are good and cheap and I’m sure, like us, you’ll leave with a huge grin on your face.
But remember, if all else fails, just eat some cheese and get fu*ked up – you can’t go wrong in Paris!
Where to Stay in Paris
Let’s face it: the best thing about Paris is the food and the wine! But it’s so gosh darned expensive to eat out all the time. But fear not, mon ami, for there is a way to experience more of the City of Light’s seductive treats without spending a small fortune.
Do as we did and book yourself an apartment in the heart of the city. It will allow you to splash out at the markets and keep a well-stocked fridge full of gorgeous cheeses and meats and bottles of glorious French wine. But most importantly, it will give you a better feel for what it’s like to actually live and breathe this iconic capital city, and to see how the locals really live on a day-to-day basis.
Book a chic Parisian apartment, hotel or a more budget-friendly hostel at Booking.com