First visits to Paris can be daunting. It can be difficult to know where to begin and what to see first. Most of the city is worth seeing and exploring, but there are some Paris tourist attractions that first-time visitors in particular will want to home in on. So we prepared a list with best sights and attractions, elected for their mass popularity, historical importance, or sheer aesthetic appeal. If you want to experience Paris’ most essential and iconic places before exploring in more depth, this guide will help you pinpoint what to see and do first.
1. The Louvre
To learn the Louvre in and out, you might need a lifetime. Still, one has to start somewhere. The site of the world’s largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is definitely one of Paris’ most coveted attractions. The palace itself is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present.
No first trip to Paris is complete without a visit to this marvel of gothic architecture. One of the most singular and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral’s dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away. Witness firsthand the spot that was once the heartbeat of medieval Paris, and that took over 100 years of hard labor to complete. Climbing the North tower to see Paris from the hunchback Quasimodo’s vantage is essential, too. You’ll soon understand why Notre Dame is one of Paris’ top attractions.
3. Eiffel Tower
More than any other landmark, the Eiffel Tower has come to represent an elegant and contemporary Paris. The iron tower, which was built for the 1889 World Exposition by Gustave Eiffel, was wildly unpopular with Parisians when it was unveiled, and was nearly torn down. It has since attracted over 220 million visitors, and it would be hard to imagine Paris now without it. The tower crowns the Paris night sky with its festive light, and glitters up a storm every hour. Cliché? Maybe. But essential.
Walk over the bridge from the Louvre to the Musee d’Orsay– and see the bridge between classical and modern art. Housing the world’s most important collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting, the Musee d’Orsay’s light, airy rooms whir you through three floors of modern wonders, from Degas’ ethereal dancers to Monet’s water lilies, all the way to Gaugin’s leafy jungles. Major works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Manet, and others await you, too.
The Sorbonne University is the historic soul of the Latin Quarter, where higher learning has flourished for centuries. Founded in 1257 for a small group of theology students, the Sorbonne is one of Europe’s oldest universities. It has hosted countless great thinkers, including philosophers René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Enjoy a drink on the café terrace in front of the college before exploring the winding little streets of the Quartier Latin behind it.
The 164-foot Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Emperor Napoléon I does exactly what it was made to do: evoke sheer military power and triumph. It was built in an age when leaders erected monuments in their own honor, and scaled to their egos. The arch’s beautiful sculptures and reliefs commemorate Napoléon’s generals and soldiers. Visit the Arc de Triomphe to begin or culminate a walk down the equally grandiose Avenue des Champs-Elysées. You can’t help but feel grand yourself.
7. Centre Georges Pompidou and the “Beaubourg” Neighborhood
Parisians consider the Centre Georges Pompidou to be the cultural pulse of the city. This modern art museum and cultural center, located in the neighborhood affectionately dubbed Beaubourg by locals, opened in 1977 to honor president Georges Pompidou. The Center’s signature skeletal design, which evokes bones and blood vessels, is either loved or reviled– no in-betweens. If wacky design isn’t your cup of tea, the permanent collection at the National Museum of Modern Art is a must and features works by Modigliani and Matisse. Rooftop views of the city are also in order.
With its unmistakable white dome, the Sacre Coeur sits at the highest point of Paris on the Montmartre knoll, or butte. This basilica, which was consecrated in 1909, is best-known for its garish gold mosaic interiors and for its dramatic terrace, from which you can expect sweeping views of Paris on a clear day. Take the funicular up with a metro ticket and stop off at Sacre Coeur before exploring the winding, village-like streets of Montmartre. And after expending all your energy climbing Montmartre’s formidable hills and stairs, consider a traditional Parisian cabaret at the legendary Moulin Rouge.
9. Boat Tour of the Seine River
Seeing some of Paris’ most beautiful sites glide past as you drift down the Seine river is an unforgettable and essential experience. Companies such as Bateaux-Mouches and Bateaux Parisiens offer one-hour tours of the Seine year-round for about 10 Euros. You can hop on near Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. Go at night to enjoy the shimmering play of light on the water, and dress warmly– the wind from off the Seine can be chilly. You can also take tours of some of Paris’ canals and waterways, which will allow you to see a semi-hidden side of the city of light.
Paris counts within its walls many of the world’s most poetic cemeteries– but Père Lachais outdoes them all. Countless famous figures are buried here: the most popular being The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, whose tomb is kept constant vigil by fans. The French playwright Molière, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Richard Wright are a few others. On a sunny day, climbing to the cemetery’s summit and looking down on the lavishly designed crypts can be surprisingly joyful.