Paris for First-Time Visitors

Barbara White Crockett

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FINALLY… after dreaming about it for so many years, you are going to Paris! There is so much to do, and so little time. However, with proper planning and a sense of adventure, you can experience the true essence of Paris, irrespective of budget or time frame. All you need is a good pair of walking shoes, an Uber account and an open mind. Let's go…
For a first-time visitor, Paris can be daunting! Narrowing down your priorities and strategizing your days will ensure a successful visit and allow immersion into the Parisian experience.

Aerial view of Paris with Eiffel tower during sunset



Ile Saint-Louis, Paris

Mornings in Paris are special, and your first morning should be one where you establish your agenda for the remaining visit. No better place to start than at the center of Old Paris, the Île Saint-Louis (4ème). A tiny, natural island located in the middle of the Seine, just behind Notre Dame, you will find quaint, narrow streets bursting with small shops, restaurants, hotels and locals beginning their day. Or, roam around the perimeter, on the Quais, overlooking the Seine. To me, this is the quintessential experience where you are transported into the Paris you have always imagined – and a great spot for a "Selfie"!

For a morning visit to the Île Saint Louis, I usually find myself at the La Brasserie de l'Île for a quick café, omelet and croissant. Here, actually, it's less about the food and more about the ambience and organizing your day, all while enjoying a seat at the center of Old Paris.



Notre Dame de Paris cathedral

After, you will want to meander through the adjacent streets, do a little shopping and maybe grab an ice cream, before heading over to the Île de la Cité for a quick walk around the exterior of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, to admire the gargoyles and lofty flying buttresses. (Ravaged by the fire in 2019, the interior may not be open.) Then make your way to the Left Bank (Quartier Latin; 6ème) via the Pont Neuf. Built from 1578-1607 this World Heritage Site is the oldest existing bridge in Paris, and reveals ornate sculptures worthy of a moment to pause.

Paris, panorama of the Pont-Neuf

To complete your late-morning exploration, take a stroll up the Boulevard Saint-Michel (6ème) – the student/bohemian district of Paris, where you will find book stores, amazing crèperies and sandwiches to-go. The "Boule Miche" is an area where you can deviate from your plan, make your own personal Parisian experience, and wander until your heart's content, around the adjacent small streets - many of which lead to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Here there are even more boutiques, patisseries, boulangeries, and the ever-famous Café Les Deux Magots. Continuing back to the Boulevard Saint Michel, take another quick side-step to the rue Saint-Jacques, one of the most picturesque streets in Paris, for a quick "Selfie". But, on sunny days, it is certainly worthwhile to end your morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Crèpe in hand, sit and enjoy the massive gardens and the architectural beauty of the Luxembourg Palace.


Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Paris

Another tour best pursued in the morning is a visit to the Sacré Coeur basilica, with its glistening white dome, located in Montmartre (18ème). Be prepared for a challenging hike up steep streets that twist and turn, combined with many steps. Or have an Uber deliver you to the Place du Tertre. Once there, you can actually climb the additional 300 steps inside the basilica, for an amazing photo op. Or just come early to experience this site of famous artists like Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, and avoid the bulging crowds of tourists who will arrive, later in the day. Don't leave without taking another "Selfie" in front of the Sacré Coeur, with all of Paris as your background.


Mornings quickly blend into afternoons as you lose track of time. The architecture, bouquinistes, neighborhood grocers and galleries can easily interrupt your progress. As many galleries, shops and restaurants do not begin to open until late morning, the afternoon is best saved for shopping and venues that open later.


Buren columns in Palais royal, Paris

Walking through the arcades of the Jardin du Palais Royale (1ère) brings you back to the time of French royalty. The Palace itself is now used for government offices. Here, you will find columned arcades filled with designer boutiques, upscale cafés and restaurants, where you can watch school children kick the soccer ball, while government officials walk to and from their jobs.


Chanel shop during Christmas., in Paris

If you are coming to Paris for designer fashion, exquisite jewelry, perfume, and the inimitable French macaron, the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is the area to explore. Whether for shopping or people-watching, this is where the chic, international celebrities can often be found. From Hermès to Christian Louboutin, the boutiques are unparalleled; Ladurée is world-renown for their macaron, and the well-known Guerlain offers the highest-quality perfumes.


Place Vendome, Paris

Close by, the l'Hôtel Costes is also favored by the rich and famous, and is easily accessible to both the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and the Place Vendôme. This 5-star hotel offers spa treatments as well as late-night cocktails and dining. If for no other reason, watching the glamorous people as you have tea or cocktails is worth a visit. The nearby Place Vendôme, which centers around the well-known copy of Trajan's Column, also houses very high-end shops and, of course, the famous l'Hôtel Ritz.


Paris city view - Arc de Triomphe

It is not a trip to Paris without walking the famous Champs Elysées, and exploring the Arc de Triomphe. Although this iconic, tree-lined boulevard overflows with thousands of tourists, it exudes electricity and offers a great spot to watch the world go by, as you take a break for a coffee or glass of wine. Also, nearby is a well-known chain restaurant, L'Entrecôte de Paris, rue de Marignan. Reasonably priced and famous for its specialty steaks, fries and secret sauce, people stand in line to wait for a table. It's a fun, casual place for lunch or dinner.


Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Another great afternoon option, especially for the art-lover, is the Musée d'Orsay (7ème). To avoid the tourist rush, the best time to visit this amazing Impressionist Museum, located in a renovated train station on the Left Bank, is after 3:00 PM. A totally different experience from the Louvre, here, it is best to take advantage of the English Audio Headphones, while admiring the wonderful pastel paintings.


Evenings in Paris are magical. As the sun goes down over the Seine, the city begins to sparkle – centering around the Eiffel Tower, which bursts into hourly light-shows. If you have no specific plans or budget to do any evening event, take an Uber ride around the city, and checkout how neighborhoods are transformed into theatrical spectacles.


Louvre Museum in the evening in Paris, France

For any trip to Paris, the Musée du Louvre is a must-see experience. Why is it listed as an evening suggestion?? The Louvre is open at night until 9:45 PM, on Wednesdays and Fridays. At these times, there are no school visits and fewer people. The nighttime atmosphere makes the visit more intimate and the IM Pei Pyramid twinkles as you approach this daunting structure. This is a great evening option for the first-time visitor. There are many restaurants and bars nearby, for dinner or an aperitif.


Hotel Palace Ritz on Place Vendôme in Paris

Paris became famous, as much, because of the extraordinary thinkers, authors and artists who lived here during the late 19th and early 20th centuries - many of whom hung out at cafés, salons and bars, as did Ernest Hemingway. Honoring his name, the world-renown Bar Hemingway, at the Hôtel Ritz, (1ère) is an excellent, club-like bar and cocktail lounge, where visitors from around the world enjoy the original creations concocted by the celebrated mixologist/ bartender. Hemingway, himself, spent many hours in this famous drinking hole. Here, you are encouraged to chat with the other patrons and have a party.


Bateaux-Mouches on Seine River, Paris

There is no better way to experience Paris at night than by boat. Enjoy a delicious traditional French meal and bottle of wine, as your sightseeing cruise slowly meanders down the Seine and illuminates the iconic monuments and important sites of the city - with music playing in the background. Or, you can actually take a similar, shorter cruise at night, just to see the sights – without dinner, and sit outside on the deck, in the fresh air, as you watch the city roll by.


Famous Hotel Ritz on Place Vendome, Paris. Man walking to the hotel. Concierges at the entrance.

Evenings in Paris offer many dining and late-night cabaret and club options – which generally change with the seasons. So it is preferable to check with the Concièrge in your hotel, for the best, local recommendations. A good Concièrge is invaluable, so make him/her your friend! Whatever choices you may make, Paris is the most exciting in the evening and during the late-night hours.


To be immersed in the daily lives of the regular Paris citizen, walking through the numerous open markets is a must.


Rue Cler, market street in Paris

One of the more famous markets is found on rue Cler, (7ème), offering amazing specialty foods, chocolates and flowers. The cobblestone street is original, the people are local, and the photo opportunities are numerous. Here you can stop at any of the many cafés, one of which is the Café du Marché, offering a great view of all the action. Or, visit one of Paris' oldest open markets on the rue Mouffetard (5ème), - teaming with lots of local energy from the adjacent neighborhoods. The open market is where most Parisian's do their grocery shopping on a daily basis, so it's fun to observe how they carefully choose their foods and wine, just for one evening meal.


Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

However, my favorite is the Marché Grenelle (7ème). Offering a glorious array of foods and goods, this is a smaller, covered market located in a lovely neighborhood, just next to the Eiffel Tower. (Open Wednesdays and Sundays, from 7:00 AM – 2:00 PM). Whichever market you visit, (and there are many all over Paris), the vendors will offer everything from fresh cuts of beef, to desserts, flowers, candles and table cloths. For me, the Cheese vendors are where I head first. Rows and rows of creamy French cheeses are presented at the optimal ripeness, which combines beautifully with a fresh baguette and bottle of wine.


Wide angle shot of the Eiffel Tower taken from the Champ de Mars

After a stroll through the market, take your baguette, wine, and of course, a chunk of famous French cheese, for a mid-afternoon picnic. Find a spot on the Champs de Mars, under the looming Eiffel Tower (1887-1889). This is an excellent way to experience the Eiffel Tower and spend a leisurely afternoon where you can take in all that Paris has to offer. And…if you are looking for a special place to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, the 5-star restaurant, Jules Verne, located on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, offers amazing views along with excellent cuisine.


Montmartre district of Paris

While volumes could be filled advising each new visitor to Paris about what to do and see, I encourage everyone to try to occasionally deviate from your original plan, walk in the neighborhood of your chosen hotel, and discover a favorite croissant, café, boutique or local restaurant. Each block, each "arrondissement" in Paris exudes a special personality.

Getting to know your own neighborhood will make your first trip to Paris a uniquely, special experience.
Whether for a long, romantic weekend or an extended family vacation, you will never be out of things to do or see in Paris. So don't even try to do it all. Because once you have fallen in love with Paris, as I have, you will be sure to return again and again.

About the Author

Barbara White Crockett is a Travel and Culture freelance writer. She has studied and lived in Paris - and returns regularly.

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