Each time I visit a city, I try to come up with a list of the “top things to do” by reading reviews on Trip Advisor and Rick Steves to plan an unforgettable trip. The list will contract or expand based upon the amount of time I have. I always like to mix city/historical tours with off the beaten path activities. Below is a list my top 10 things to do when visiting the lovely city of Paris.
10. Take in a Moulin Rouge cabaret show.
The Moulin Rouge cabaret was built in 1889 by Joseph Oller and is close to Montmartre (a must see during a walking tour) in the Paris district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement (it is marked by the red windmill on its roof). “The Moulin Rouge is best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance revue evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe.” (Wikipedia). Today the Moulin Rouge is a tourist destination, offering musical dance entertainment for visitors from around the world. Be sure to book your tickets in advance as the shows tend to sell out. I also recommend you watch the 1941 “Moulin Rouge” film starring Josephine Baker as Princess Tam-Tam before you go.
9. Shop til you drop. Paris is the place for fashion. I find myself people-watching just to figure out how I should update my wardrobe. You can either book a shopping tour (including a Discount Couture tour) or strike out on your own and visit boutiques, street markets or local department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Bon Marche). I picked up an invaluable etiquette tip from my Rick Steve’s “Paris” guidebook:
- Before you enter a Parisian store, remember the following points:
- In small stores, always greet the clerk by saying “Bonjour” plus their title (Madame, Mademoiselle, or Monsieur) and say “Au revoir, Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur” when leaving.
- The customer is not always right. In fact, figure the clerk is doing you a favor by waiting on you.
- Except for in department stores, it’s not normal for the customer to handle clothing. Ask first.
- Forget returns (and don’t count on exchanges).
- Saturday afternoons are busiest.
- Observe French shoppers. Then imitate.
- Don’t feel obliged to buy. The expression for “window-shopping” in French is faire du lèche-vitrines (literally, “window-licking”).
8. Get a scoop (or more) from a Berthillion ice cream shop.
Berthillon is a French manufacturer and retailer of luxury ice cream and sorbet. I first became addicted to their ice cream during the summer of 2010. Berthillon’s fame results, in part, from its use of natural ingredients, with no chemical preservatives or artificial sweeteners. Its ice creams are made from only milk, sugar, cream and eggs…just like homemade ice cream. Their flavors are derived from only natural sources (cocoa, vanilla bean, fruit, etc.). Fifteen flavors are produced everyday by the chefs depending of the season, the availability at the market and customer demand. In total, about sixty different flavors are produced throughout the year. Try to get there early to have a greater selection of flavors. Personally, I love the raspberry and chocolate flavors! Berthillion’s has 3 locations on Ile St. Louis (31 rue St. Louis-en-l’Ile, another across the street, and one more around the corner on rue Bellay). It’s a perfect stop after visiting the Notre-Dame!
7. Relax at a café.
There are tons of cafes in Paris and you would be remiss if you didn’t stop in one for a café au lait, croissant or crepe. I usually like to pop in during the afternoon for a light treat since most restaurants in Paris do not open for dinner until at least 7pm. Cafes are a perfect place to take a break after a busy day of sightseeing.
6. Explore the Catacombs.
The catacombs are an underground ossuary in Paris. Located south of the former city gate (the “Barrière d’Enfer” at today’s Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuary holds the remains of about 6 million people and fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of Paris’ stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867. The Catacombs entry is in the western pavilion of Paris’s former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters to the darkness and silence broken only by the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct channelling local sources away from the area, and after passing through a long (about 1.5 km) and twisting hallway of mortared stone, visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector. Soon after, they would find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la Mort (‘Stop, this is the empire of Death’).
Beyond begin the halls and caverns of walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement. Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised “La Samaritaine” because of later-added engravings. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs – many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours. (Wikipedia). I first heard about the catacombs when I did the Paris Ghost Tour in September 2011. I found out there is an entire culture down there! The “cataphiles” (people who are basically obsessed with the catacombs and very familiar with the layout) have parties, film festivals, concerts, etc. However, note that you should never try to visit the catacombs without a proper escort/guide…because you will get lost & never find your way out.
5. Cruise the Seine River.
The Seine is a 482 mile-long river and an important commercial waterway within the Paris Basin in the north of France. It rises at Saint-Seine near Dijon in northeastern France in the Langres plateau, flowing through Paris and into the English Channel at Le Havre (and Honfleur on the left bank). I suggest taking one of the excursion boats (i.e. Bateaux Mouches) that offer sightseeing tours of the Rive Droite and Rive Gauche within the city of Paris. I suggest the Champagne Tasting Seine Tour or Night Bike Tour. It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the city.
4. Take a French cooking class.
There are only so many cathedrals & museums I can visit before I’m ready to do something different. I love to cook and try out new techniques and recipes. To that end, I registered for a baking class with Cook’n with Class. We learned (through hands-on instruction) the proper techniques for making croissants, pain au chocolat, focaccia, pain au raisen, etc. It was awesome and the chefs are absolutely delightful! They offer several different classes: Baking, Classic French Desserts (crème brulee, molten chocolate cake, souflee a Grand Marnier), Macaron (3 different flavors), Morning Market (where you will go to a local market and learn how to select fresh produce & ingredients) and many others.
3. Visit the Louvre.
I highly suggest you take a couple of hours and tour the Louvre. It’s massive so you will need to strategize and prioritize what you want to see (i.e. Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, Egyptian collection, etc.). If museums aren’t your thing, you still should walk or bike past it to see the magnificent exterior. It’s absolutely breathtaking at night!
2. Visit the Eiffel Tower.
Love, love, LOVE the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889, it has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world; millions of people ascend it every year. Named after its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. Three hundred workers joined together 18,038 pieces of puddled iron (a very pure form of structural iron), using two and a half million rivets, in a structural design by Maurice Koechlin. The tower was much criticized by the public when it was built, with many calling it an eyesore. Newspapers of the day were filled with angry letters from the arts community of Paris (Wikipedia). Which I find interesting as it is now considered one of the most beautiful structures built. I love to sit and stare at it. Especially when it lights up at night. That 5 minute “sparkle” is spectacular! I highly suggest you buy your tickets online to decrease your wait in line. The Eiffel Tower’s online reservation system, which lets you skip the ticket line, is up and running (www.toureiffel.fr). At the tower, attendants scan your ticket (which you’ve printed at home or at the hotel) and put you on the first available elevator. Even with a reservation, however, you still have to wait in line with the masses to get from the second level to the summit.
1. Walking Tours. Take a bike ride thru the city.
The top thing to do in Paris? Take a walking or bike tour (or both)! It’s a great way to see the city and learn the history.
- For walking tours, I suggest Sight Seekers Delight (tours of the city, Montmartre, & Jewish Tour of Marais for a cost of 35-40 euros), Discover Walks (which offer free 90 minute tours of Notre Dame, the Left Bank, Marais, and Montmartre by native Parisian guides) and the Paris Ghost Tour (a neat tour thru the Jewish Quarter focusing on the myths & legends of Parisian ghosts & hauntings…suspend belief and roll with it), and Paris Chocolate & Pastry Food Tour (which is a walking tour of Paris’ finest chocolate & pastry shops…tastings are included).
- For bike tours, I suggest Fat Tire Bike Tours. I’ve taken 3 of their tours in Paris. They have offices in London, Barcelona and Berlin as well. All of their tours are phenomenal. It’s an American company and employs expats to conduct the bike tours in English. They are a fun way to see a lot of the city in a 4 hour span of time. They also do a bike tour of Versailles (which is awesome and lasts 8.5 hours).