Where to go on your first trip to Paris

Where to go on your first trip to Paris

The consistently stunning architecture, the unique personality of each arrondissement, the delicious food proudly served by surly waiters, and the pedantically perfect parcs – for me, Paris will always be perfect.

Why Paris?

You’ll be able to tell from this post that Paris holds a special place in my heart. My family lived in the 17th for a few years when I was growing up, and even now, 15 years later, I feel at home as soon as I step off the Eurostar.

I really struggled to narrow down all my favourite parts of Paris into this relatively short list of things a first-timer really can’t miss. Hopefully this post will persuade you to experience this beautiful city for yourself!

Trocadéro

This was one of the first places my parents took my sister and I when we moved to Paris. As a ten year old I stood on the paved terrace of the Trocadéro and looked out at this cultural icon, in the foreign country that was to be my home for the next three years, not knowing what the rest of the city would be like but falling totally in love with that skyline.

In the years after we would return to rollerblade clumsily through the Trocadéro gardens, play in the fountains in the hot Parisian summers, and show off the best view in the city to our friends from England.

As a 25-year-old on my first holiday with my boyfriend Matt, showing him what has always felt like my second home, this view had to be his first experience of the Eiffel Tower. For me, the impact of that view is still as emotional as it ever was, with the dark skeletal silhouette of the tower stretching up into the sky and the surrounding landscape giving way, designed to give the tower the most breathing space possible.

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At the base of the Eiffel Tower, with the Trocadéro in the distance across the Seine.

Now, since the innocent youthful days of the early 00’s, the Place de Trocadéro has become a popular spot for “salesmen” flogging key rings, sunglasses, little metallic Eiffel Tower models, and knock off designer hand bags. Unless you want to buy this stuff (and I really recommend you don’t), avoid and ignore at all costs.

Eiffel Tower

Tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower can be bought from the kiosks in the legs of the tower. The queues often snake up and down across the whole area, although if you go off season the wait will be much shorter. There are lifts all the way up to the third floor, but if you can, I recommend climbing the 600 steps to the first and second floors to avoid the biggest queues.

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The history of the Eiffel Tower is actually really interesting. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel as the entrance to the Exposition Universelle in 1889, a World Fair to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. The proposed tower was so controversial and unpopular, that a petition was signed by 300 French artists and architects to stop its construction.

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Left: The Eiffel Tower from Quai Branly. Right: Being super couply on the second floor.

When I was a kid living in Paris it always annoyed me that visitors wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower. What a cliché! I even tried to persuade some of our family friends that there was no point going all the way to the top because the view from the third floor was the same as the view from the second floor, everything was just a bit smaller.

Of course, visiting over a decade later with my boyfriend, the very first thing we had to do after seeing the Eiffel Tower, was climbing up the Eiffel Tower. And on your first trip to Paris I implore you to do the same, even if you have to drag a moody pre-teen up with you.

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The view over Paris from the Eiffel Tower viewing platform.

Arc de Triomphe

The second most famous monument in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile stands proudly at the Western end of the Champs-Élysées, at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle (aka the craziest roundabout in Europe). Twelve avenues radiate out from this point, together making up the aforementioned “Étoile“.

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Posing in front of the Arc de Triomphe on our first holiday together.

The Arc was built to honour all the French soldiers who died in the Revolution and Napoleonic wars, and there’s also a monument beneath the arc with an eternal flame lit in memory of all the unidentified soldiers that died in both world wars.

The Arc de Triomphe is the perfect place to arrive if you want to walk down the Champs-Élysées, where you can pop into all the massive designer shops. Lots of the car display shops do really extravagant campaign activations, like cars hanging from the ceiling or 3D video projections. I always like visiting the Swatch shop, the Disney store and Nike Town.

Place de la Concorde

Spread out over 21 acres at the Eastern end of the Champs-Élysées is the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris. It’s famous historically as the site of many public executions by guillotine during the French revolution, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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The view over the Place de la Concorde with the Roue de Paris on the left, the Luxor Obelisk in the centre, the Grand Palais on the right and the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

The 32m yellow granite Egyptian obelisk in the centre of the square is over 3,500 years old, decorated with hieroglyphs celebrating the reign of the pharaoh Ramesses II. It was gifted by the Egyptian government in the 19th century, and the French government added the gold leaf pyramid to the top in 1998. The pedestal at the foot of the obelisk is decorated with diagrams explaining the technology they used to transport it from Egypt, a pretty impressive feat considering it weighs over 250 tonnes.

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Left: The Roue de Paris. Right: The view of Pont Alexandre III from Pont de la Concorde.

Standing 200 feet tall between the Place de Concorde and the Tuileries gardens is the Roue de Paris, a transportable ferris wheel installed in 2000 to celebrate the millennium. In 2002 it left Paris for a few years, appearing in Birmingham, Manchester, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Antwerp and Rimini, returning to Paris in 2015.

My favourite part of Place de la Concorde is the massive road that laces through it, from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Quai des Tuileries. It’s about five lanes wide and ducks underground at a few points, making it perfect for roller blading, which you can do every Friday night and Sunday when the roads are closed to traffic!

Jardins des Tuileries

The Tuileries garden was first created by Catherine de’ Medici in 1564, but was developed and expanded repeatedly by subsequent monarchs until 1667, when it became a public park after the French revolution.

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Jardin de Tuileries bordered by the Rue de Rivoli.

There’s a surprising amount to do within the rigid symmetry of the garden. In the summer you can rent little boats to float on the vast ponds, watched by locals from the metal chairs ringing the water. You’ll find kiosks where you can buy ice cream and drinks. Under the canopy of trees there are two cafes – café Very and café Renard – as well as many pieces of contemporary sculpture.

At the Western corner of the garden by the river you’ll find the Musée de l’Orangerie, where you can see Claude Monet’s Water Lilies displayed on huge curving canvases, just the way he intended them to be viewed.

Angelina

On Rue de Rivoli, under the covered walkway of shops and hotels, there is the place I always recommend to people on their first trip to Paris – Angelina.

Named after the founder’s daughter-in-law in 1903, this grand tearoom has hosted the likes of Proust and Coco Chanel. At the entrance you are greeted by a counter of the most intricate little French pastries, perfectly and extravagently decorated with bright icing and chocolate sculpture. You can buy pastries and rainbow selections of macaroons to take away, or you can join the queue for a table in the tearoom, where you simply cannot leave without ordering Angelina’s signature African hot chocolate.

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Angelina’s African hot chocolate is served with Chantilly cream on the side.

Made with a secret recipe from three types of African cocoa, Angelina’s hot chocolate is the thickest, richest and smoothest that I have ever indulged on in my whole life. Nothing is more filled with promise than a full jug of velvety melted chocolate and a small cup of whipped Chantilly cream, waiting for you to mix at the ratio that you desire.

Musée du Louvre

The Louvre is the largest art museum in the world, with 403 rooms, 17km of corridors, 35,000 works on display and another 430,000 in storage. If you looked at each piece for a minute it would take you 64 days to see it all. So here’s my radical suggestion: Don’t bother.

After Louis XIV moved from the Louvre palace to Versailles in 1682, it became a residence for artists under Royal patronage. In 1750, Louis XV displayed the first royal collection of 96 pieces of art, including work by Raphael and Rembrandt, among others. Louis XVI was starting to develop the Louvre into a French museum of art when the French revolution rudely interrupted. The Louvre became a public museum and the royal collection became national property.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800.

The Grand Louvre Pyramids and their underground lobby were added in 1989. Today, the Louvre has many displays including ancient art and sculpture from Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire.

As a child living in Paris my favourite collection was always the Egyptian antiquities. I found the Renaissance dull and never understood the fascination with the Mona Lisa, which from my perspective, standing on tiptoes trying to see this tiny painting over the heads and cameras of dozens of tourists, was tragically underwhelming.

So back to my original proposal: Enjoy the Tuileries garden, marvel at the sheer size of the Louvre from the outside, and save the inside for another trip.

île de la Cité

The île de la Cité is a natural island in the middle of the Seine river, and the centre of medieval Paris. Sights on the island include the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle and Notre-Dame Cathedral. If you enter the island from Pont au Change, you will see the Tour de l’Horloge du palais de la Cité – the first and oldest public clock in Paris.

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View of  île de la Cité from Pont Notre-Dame.

The île de la Cité is also home to my favourite restaurant in the whole world – Le Caveau du Palais. It first earned this lofty title on a family visit, where I had literally the most tender, juiciest steak and the most buttery, flaky little roast potatoes I’ve ever eaten.

When I brought Matt to Paris for the first time we ate our Valentine’s meal there, an experience I will never forget, not least due to the surprise set menu.

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Left: Dressed up for our Valentine’s meal. Right: The set menu at Le Caveau du Palais.

We threw caution to the wind and enjoyed five mouthwatering courses, featuring ingredients I would never normally order like mushrooms and shellfish, but which were redeemed beyond possible expectation by being drowned in butter, and paired with rich steak and perfectly seasoned avocado, respectively. At the end of the night, we were so far past the point of full, merrily tipsy on French red wine, that we happily weaved our way around the island for a good half an hour recapping what is to this day the most sensational meal of my life.

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Left: The Notre-Dame seen from Pont Saint-Michel.

If an unforgettable meal for two isn’t romantic enough for your couple trip, you can visit the Pont des Arts or the Pont de l’Archevêché, known on Instagram as “Lovelock Bridge” because of the layers and layers of padlocks attached to the railings. The relatively new tradition is to lock a padlock to the bridge and throw the key into the Seine to symbolise your ever lasting love. The practice has become so popular that the bridges are threatening to collapse under the collective weight of the padlocks. On your head be it!

La Conciergerie

On the west of Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine sits the Conciergerie, a building that stands out from the surrounding architecture with a clean pale stone facade and wide corner turrets. This was where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned during the French Revolution before being executed, and you can visit the cell she was kept in on a tour around the old palace.

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The Conciergerie from the North river bank, over Pont au Change.

The main benefit of visiting the Conciergerie, aside from the beautiful arching ceiling of its Hall of the Guards, is that you can buy a joint ticket for the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle that lets you jump the queues.

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The Hall of the Guards, one of the largest surviving medieval parts of the Conciergerie.

Sainte-Chapelle

Got your joint ticket from the Conciergerie? Good news! You now get to skip the insanely long queue into Sainte-Chapelle.

Like the Conciergerie, Sainte-Chapelle was part of the old palace, built by King Louis IX to house holy relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns, the Holy Lance and fragments of the True Cross (now in Notre-Dame). It’s considered to be one of the greatest architectural achievements of the time, and although 2/3 of the stained glass windows are still original, much of the rest is recreated because of destruction during the French Revolution (are you sensing a theme yet?).

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Left: The upper level inside Sainte-Chapelle. Right: In case you forgot, I went there with Matt.

As you can see, inside Sainte-Chapelle is a truly breathtaking sight. Once you’ve had your ticket checked you’ll enter the gift shop and climb up a tight spiral staircase to get to the upper level of the chapel. As you emerge at the top, the towering stained glass windows will reveal themselves all at once. You’ll spend the rest of your visit with your neck craned upwards, absorbing the gold starred ceiling, the intricately portrayed scenes in the windows, and the warm purple glow cast over everyone in the room.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Arguably one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, the Notre-Dame de Paris is a stunning example of Gothic architecture, bristling with gargoyles, laden with statues and laced with intricately carved archways. Anyone who grew up with Disney movies will be deeply familiar with the symmetrical lines of Notre-Dame’s western façade, with the twin bell towers casting their long shadows over Place Jean Paul II.

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Notre-Dame‘s western façade from Place Jean Paul II.

Outside the Cathedral are two queues to join – one to enter the cathedral and the other to climb the bell towers. If you have the time, I highly recommend you do both. The atmosphere alone inside the cathedral is serene and peaceful, the stained glass rose windows throwing geometric shapes of pink light on the sculpted walls and stone floors. The most striking feature for me, aside from the rose windows, is the monstrously large organ, with no fewer than 8,000 pipes.

The route up to the bell tower spirals around stone stairways and weaves through pillars, archways and statues. You’ll get to admire Paris from two levels – the base of the bell towers and the top of the southern bell tower.

Selfies at the top of the southern bell tower.
Left: The view towards the Grande Arche. Right: The view towards the Sacré-Cœur.
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Left: The flying buttresses of Notre-Dame. Right: The spire and Jean XXIII Garden.

Side note, Matt’s had that left photo set as his Facebook cover photo ever since our second Paris trip in 2015.

Sacré-Cœur

The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur sits at the highest point in Paris, crowning the city’s most rebelious neighbourhood, Montmartre. The architecture is really unusual, built in bone white travertine stone with three bulbous domes, the largest of which you can climb for a stunning panoramic view of the city.

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The front of the basilica from Place Louise Michel.

To get to the basilica you can climb up the steps of the butte Montmartre, weaving between tourists and salesmen trying to sell you tat, or you can catch the funicular train up the hill.

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Left: Place Saint-PierrMichel. Right: Place du Tertre.

My favourite part of a visit to the Sacré-Cœur has always been wandering through the surrounding streets of Montmartre, especially the Place du Tertre, where you’ll find a forest of easels papered with sketches, caricatures and paintings. This is a great place to buy a souvenir painting of your favourite Parisian monument, or get your caricature done if you don’t mind having all your greatest insecurities exaggerated and exposed to the world.

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Montmartre, the home of rebels.

Trocadéro

OK yes, I’m repeating myself here, but with a key difference. The Trocadéro at night is a whole other experience. The illuminated Eiffel Tower with its spotlights sweeping around Paris are a sight that can only be fully appreciated from the Place de Trocadéro. Time your visit on the hour to witness the unmissable sparkling lights – a “temporary” feature installed for the millennium that everyone loved too much to take down!

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The crowds gathered to watch the hourly sparkling lights.

It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, make sure this is on your itinerary. It’s one of the most romantic sights in the world, and you’ll find yourself joining in with the crowd’s collective “Ooooh!” when the lights start. I recommend planning it for your last day of the holiday – surely there’s no better send off?

Verdict

Paris is amazing, if you’ve not been before, why not? Go there immediately! If you have been before then how long ago was that and could it be time to visit again? Is there a friend or family member who hasn’t been? Give them the gift of experiencing this magnificent city!

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Sophie Whitehead

I’m Sophie, a writer and blogger living in London, traveling, eating, and telling you all about it.

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