These are the parameters: You have five sleeps and four full days in Paris. One of you has been before, but it was almost 20 years ago. The other has never been and has a significant (ahem) birthday to celebrate. And the birthday person is as wide-eyed as any Paris newbie can be and wants to hit all the major tourist spots. A tall order, right?
Here’s our experience. Of course we couldn’t do everything, but we had a marvelous time even without our luggage (that’s a whole other story!). Best of all, we know we’ll be back. And with some of the more overcrowded touristy things out of the way, we’ll have time to dig in deeper at some of our favorite sites (hello, Louvre) and get away from the beaten path.
Here’s our must-do list for Paris if you only have a few days.
1. Get a Paris Pass.
This will save you lots of time by giving you fast-track access to the most-visited tourist attractions and also unlimited access to the Metro and other public transit.
2. Ride the hop-on, hop-off bus on your first day.
These open-air, double-decker buses might seem a little cheesy, but they’re a great way to get oriented and learn about sites you’ll want to return to later on your own. There are a few operators, but we chose Big Bus Tours. A single-day ticket includes unlimited ons and offs for two routes and is included in the Paris Pass. After hopping off for lunch, spending time at the Arc de Triomphe (included in the Paris Pass), and visiting a couple of other quick sites, we spent a good part of our first day on the bus.
Day 1 Photo Highlights
3. Visit the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay.
Paris is a city of museums, but if you have only a few days, these two should be at the top of your list. Also, know that each is worthy of at least a day on it is own, so give yourself permission to choose one or the other. We wanted to hit both, with the idea that we’ll be back someday to spend more time. And it’s a good thing, too, since we spent about four hours at each museum and barely skimmed the surface. In fact, we never really got out of the ancient Greek statuary in the Louvre (it was just TOO fantastic to breeze through!). Check their opening days, since, at this writing, the Orsay is closed on Monday and the Louvre is closed on Tuesday.
A few more notes about the Louvre:
- We made sure to be there right at opening and got lucky – there was virtually no line at the main entrance to go through the metal detectors. (This line – the one at the famous I.M. Pei pyramid – can be insanely long at times). From there, we were able to walk right in with our Paris Passes.
- Our bike tour guide showed us a “secret” entrance that few people know about. Of course, this was the day AFTER we visited the Louvre! (But it will come in handy next time.) Look for the entrance down to the underground shopping mall, Le Carrousel du Louvre, near the Arch de Triomphe du Carrousel. (Don’t confuse this with the bigger and much more famous Arch, several blocks to the northwest). Once you’re down the escalators, walk past the shops and the famous “inverted pyramid” and you’ll see the entrance with little or no line.
- OF COURSE you should see da Vinci’s La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa. Just be prepared for two things: it will take a significant chunk out of your time budget, and – frankly – she’s a bit underwhelming. Even with our quick entry, it STILL took an hour to get through the line to see her. She seems so small and unassuming, especially in her current temporary location in a hall of huge paintings. Plus, the surly security guards rushed us by with barely a chance to take a picture. We’re glad we saw her, but honestly, we’re glad she’s ticked off the list. (By the way, here’s an interesting article I just came across about the existence of another Mona Lisa.)
- We made an unexpected discovery – a fantastic exhibit deep under the Sully section, where they’ve excavated some of the original Louvre castle walls and part of the dungeon dating back to medieval times. Fascinating.
4. Get high at sunset.
Hold on, that’s not what it sounds like! Twilight and into dusk is when the City of Lights is at its most magical, in our opinion. It’s the best time of day to experience the views from on high, which we were able to do from both the top deck of the Eiffel Tower with champagne (happy birthday, Susan!) and the dome of Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre hill. NOTE: The Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur are NOT included in the Paris Pass. Your best best bet for the Eiffel is to buy skip-the-line tickets in advance, here. Trust us, this will save you a TON of time. Sacré-Cœur is easy to see in late afternoon.
5. See Paris from the Seine
Viewing Paris landmarks from the Seine is not to be missed, and we had two opportunities. First, we took a late afternoon (that radiant LIGHT again!) boat tour aboard the Bateaux Parisiens, included in the Paris Pass. And for Susan’s big birthday, we celebrated with a sunset dinner cruise aboard Le Calife. This small-ish and lovely boat, originally launched in 1939, is oozing with atmosphere. It’s a cozy and romantic setting to enjoy an outstanding dinner and stunning nighttime views of the Eiffel Tower and other riverfront sights.
Day 2 Photo Highlights
6. Do a bicycle tour.
On Day Three of our four days in Paris, we joined up with Fat Tire Tours for a three-hour ride to take in key points of interest on both sides of the Seine. Our guide Chris was extremely knowledgeable and full of insider tips (like the secret Louvre entrance above). We were able to learn interesting tidbits about key landmarks such as the Military Academy and Les Invalides, and we covered a lot more ground than we could have on foot. We enjoyed this tour so much that we took another Fat Tire tour in Versailles.
7. Visit the Catacombs.
Formerly quarries that supplied much of the stone for medieval Paris, these vast underground tunnels house the mortal remains (think artfully arranged femurs and skulls) of something like six million people. The Catacombs are as creepy and fascinating as they sound, and not to be missed. One caveat: Be prepared to descend 131 circular steps and then climb another 112 to get back out – there’s no elevator.
Day 3 Photo Highlights
8. Don’t skip the Île de la Cité.
The Île de la Cité is probably best-known as the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, which you’ll recall (unless you’ve been living under a rock) suffered a catastrophic fire last April. Of course the cathedral itself is off-limits and now shrouded in scaffolding, but we did explore two more gems on the Île: Sainte Chapelle and the adjacent Palace of Justice. Small and accessible, the Sainte Chapelle is a stunning Gothic church that dates back almost EIGHT FREAKING CENTURIES, with stained glass that will take your breath away. The elaborate Palace of Justice also has medieval sections dating back many centuries and, until 2018, housed the Paris Law Courts.
After we toured the Sainte Chapelle, we wandered over to the Palace and went a little rogue, finding our way into some creepy abandoned courtrooms and offices that apparently haven’t been touched since the Law Courts people left, over a year ago! There’s also a museum (that we didn’t see) in the former prison where Marie Antoinette was held just before she lost her head on the guillotine.
If you’re visiting these two sites around lunchtime or just looking to have an Aperol spritz (Susan’s new favorite cocktail) and catch your breath, the Brasserie les Deux Palais is a great choice – it’s right across the street.
Day 4 Photo Highlights
What are we saving for next time?
- Touring Les Invalides, the sprawling military museum complex and chapel where Napoleon’s remains are (supposedly) interred.
- Touring the Palais Garnier – the Paris Opera House – and maybe seeing a show there.
- Spending at least a day really digging into the Louvre.
- Wandering the back streets of Montmartre.
- Notre Dame. We might be in a for a long wait on that one – probably five years, at a minimum, before it’s open for visitors again. Here’s an interesting article about the challenges they’re facing with reconstruction after the tragic fire earlier this year.
- Uncovering more gems on the Île de la Cité.
A Few More Tips
- Location, location. Try to stay in as central a location as possible, preferably close to a Metro station. We loved our hotel, the Relais des Halles, located in the First Arrondissement. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the Louvre and other key sites. It’s also two blocks from the huge Châtelet – Les Halles transportation complex, where we fetched up after taking the train from Orly airport after our flight from Madrid.
- Warm up those walking shoes. To do all the things we list above with only four days in Paris means you will have to hoof it – a lot. And be ready to climb plenty of stairs. According to our fitness apps, we walked an average of almost seven miles every day!
- Use Metro. Taxis are super-expensive in Paris, but Metro goes just about everywhere (and you have unlimited access with your Paris Pass). It’s a great way to save time and give yourself a break from walking. Our favorite Metro station, Etienne Marcel, is on the super-useful 4 line and only a block from our hotel.
- Fave restaurants: Mobilis in Mobili (great seafood, especially shellfish), Robert et Louise (60-year-old hole in the wall with fantastic steaks), Le Cafe de Paris near the Arc de Triomphe, and the before-mentioned Brasserie les Deux Palais.
We crammed as much as we possibly could into our four days in Paris, and we got a real flavor for the city and a 10,000-foot overview of its incredible history. We’d love to know how other visitors have approached a short visit to Paris. What did you see, and what did you leave out? What can’t you wait to see, on your next trip? Let us know!
Coming up next: Two Days in Versailles!