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Paris sunset on the Seine at Notre-Dame

I’ve discovered that you’re either a Paris person or you’re not. With so much lore about the City of Light–songs, movies, books, and famous quotes–it’s easy to build up a lot of expectations about it. Some people love it; some people are disappointed by it. 

I’m a Paris lover. I love big cities, beautiful architecture, thoughtful food, beautiful pastries, incredible art, and romanticism. Paris is more than that (including plenty of not-so-great things), but I like any love interest, I choose to focus on its best qualities. 

So let’s talk about some of the good stuff, why don’t we? I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in Paris on a few occasions over the past 6 years, and I’ve compiled a list of my favorite places (along with some other useful information about traveling to/in Paris). As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the best places because sadly I haven’t gotten to try them all!

How to get there:

Paris has two major airports, Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) northeast of the city and Paris-Orly (ORY) south of the city. Both airports have flights to and from big cities in the US, although CDG is larger and typically has more nonstop flights available. 

Bus, train, and taxi are all options to get into Paris from the airports. Taxis are typically quite expensive, so public transportation is recommended. The Paris Metro system is fairly extensive and a cheap way to get into the city from the airport. The trains from both airports take about 30-40 minutes to get into central Paris. The bus from Orly is about 30 minutes as well, but the bus from de Gaulle takes more than an hour. You can purchase bus or train fares at the airport (the train from CDG to city center is around 10€, or about $11, per person).

Several trains per day run between London and Paris. The trip time is about 2:15 from London-St. Pancras to Paris-Gare du Nord. This is a relatively quick and economical way to get to Paris–especially if London was already on your itinerary–but be aware of delays from labor strikes.

View of Paris from Notre-Dame in winter

Where to stay:

The Westin Paris – Vendôme – A chain hotel with Parisian flair in the center of the city. The classic French building retains a surprising amount of charm for an American brand, and it sits just across from the Tuileries Gardens. The Louvre Museum is a couple blocks away–making the location ideal for exploring the city’s attractions–yet the hotel’s interior courtyard provides an escape from the city. Being part of the Marriott Bonvoy program (formerly Starwood / SPG) means that you can expect easy, online booking, English-speaking staff, and the comforts of home–like the Westin Heavenly beds and good wifi. (We stayed here in January 2014.) 

Relais Christine – A luxury boutique option with a lush courtyard in Saint Germain. This historic building was recently renovated with a chic and charming result. Most rates include breakfast, which is a great spread of cured meats, cheeses, pastries, fruit, and eggs cooked to order. The hotel is part of the Small Luxury Hotels portfolio and is now bookable with World of Hyatt points. The cherry on top is the Angelina chocolates on your pillow every night at turndown! (We stayed here in March 2019; read more here!)

Where to eat:

Bakeries & food shops

Gerard Mulot – Our favorite bakery in the heart of St. Germain with signature pink branding and incredible pastries.  

Gerard Mulot bakery in Saint-Germain, Paris

Fromagerie Laurent Dubois – A little cheese shop with all the gooey glory you could ever want for a Parisian picnic.  There’s not a whole lot of English spoken there, so I recommend having an idea of what types of cheeses you might like before going in (or you could just play cheese roulette!).

La Grande Epicure – A massive (and perhaps overwhelming) department store of epicurean delights.  It’s got every food-related thing, and it’s a spectacle in and of itself.

Artéfact Marais – A delightful tea shop in the Marais neighborhood.  Stop by for a cuppa, or grab some bags of tea for souvenirs.  Their French Morning tea (a black tea with vanilla) is a personal favorite. 

Circus Bakery – Go for the cinnamon knots, and maybe you’ll be lucky and get to watch them being glazed right out of the oven. The space is small, so walk a block with your goods and eat them in the René Viviani Square, next to Église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre (one of the oldest churches in France) and across from Notre-Dame!

Circus Bakery cinnamon knot, Paris

Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse – The Michelin-starred chef’s namesake chocolates do not disappoint! Get a discovery box of truffles to take home. 

Yann Couvreur Pâtisserie – This tiny bakery in the Marais makes a limited number of mille-feuilles everyday. Their take on the classic French dessert is made-to-order with crispy sheets of puff pastry layered with creamy custard. 

Yann Couvreur Patisserie mille-feuille, Paris

Des Gâteaux et du Pain – Gorgeous pastries and bread line the cases of this woman-owned bakery. 

Henri Le Roux – The chocolate here is sublime, but the real reason to go is their salted butter caramels.  

Casual

Little Breizh – You’ll find Breton crepes and galettes at their finest in this Saint Germain hole-in-the-wall. They don’t take reservations and the line can get long at peak meal times.  I recommend going on the early end, just before they open at noon and 7pm. Don’t forget to order a glass of cider to wash everything down! (This is the smaller sister restaurant to Breizh Cafe.)

L’Ilot Vache – This cozy Île Saint-Louis restaurant serves a damn fine traditional French meal for a great price (39€ for 3 courses). I’ll spare you the whole story about the time we couldn’t get into a hip restaurant, ended up walking miles in the rain while I cried about wasting a meal, and then happened upon this darling spot like an oasis in the desert.  The quirky cow decor (a nod to the island’s former inhabitants) is charming, and so is a birthday celebration complete with a sparkler on your dessert and Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” blaring. 

L'Ilot Vache restaurant, Ile Saint-Louis, Paris

Michelin stars

Ze Kitchen Galerie* – This Left Bank spot isn’t a restrained, traditional French restaurant.  Its Asian-influenced, contemporary French dishes are as bold as the contemporary art filling the walls.  The menus are more reasonable than many 1-star establishments, but the food is no less impressive. (Lunch starts at 41€ for two courses, and dinner starts at 85€ for six courses.)

Le Meurice** – Inside the magnificent Le Meurice hotel, just across from the Louvre and Tuileries Gardens, is their eponymous, 2 Michelin star restaurant.  It is hands down one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the world, and a meal here feels like a three hour experience of being royalty. The food is beautiful and expertly prepared, and the service feels nothing short of a choreographed ballet.  Jackets are required for men.

Epicure*** – My birthday lunch at Epicure, in the stately Le Bristol hotel, lived up to my three Michelin star expectations.  Every detail is attended to, like a chicken course (the best plate of chicken I’ve ever eaten) served on a porcelain dish discreetly stamped with chicken footprints.  The dining room looks out into the hotel’s lush interior courtyard, making it feel like you’re eating in a gorgeous private home. And they’ve figured out the best way to end a meal: a white-gloved waiter wheeling over a cart full of macarons and chocolate truffles that are yours for the choosing.  Jackets are required for men.

What to see & do:

Museums, churches, & landmarks

Paris Museum Pass – if you plan to visit more than one or two museums or landmarks, the museum pass can save you both time and money.  With the pass, you get to skip the ticket line at each destination; most museums have a separate entry lane for pass holders. It covers more than 50 destinations around the city, including the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe, Sainte-Chappelle, and Versailles.  You can purchase a pass at the airport, or at various locations around the city. It has 2-, 4-, and 6-day options, starting at €52. 

Musée du Louvre – This landmark art museum in the center of Paris holds so much important art history, it’s hard to comprehend.  It would take weeks (months? years?) to do it justice, but even a glimpse is amazing. Plan your visit(s) accordingly.  Expect large crowds in front of Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, among other notable pieces. Closed on Tuesdays.

Musée d’Orsay – This art museum is housed in a beautiful, old train station, and it’s much more manageable in size relative to the Louvre.  I particularly love this museum for its collection of late 19th and early 20th century works, including many paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and others.  Closed on Mondays.

Musee d'Orsay

Musée de l’Orangerie – This building at the end of the Tuileries Gardens holds more than just Monet’s Water Lilies, but that’s still the main reason to go.  Large, oval skylights were built specifically for the rooms holding the massive, curved Nymphéas (water lilies) paintings so they could be viewed with natural light.  Sure, you’ve probably seen photos of the paintings dozens of times, but seeing them in person adds a totally different dimension, both literally and figuratively. Closed on Tuesdays.

Musée Picasso – A 17th century home-turned-museum, this ode to Picasso’s work is a unique experience.  The spaces are much more intimate than a typical museum, and the architectural features like the grand staircase are almost as enjoyable to look at as the art.  Closed on Mondays.

Musee Picasso Paris

Notre Dame – Sadly, the fire of April 2019 keeps this world famous cathedral closed, but it’s still worth going to see the stately structure looming over the Seine river.  

Sainte-Chappelle – This Gothic cathedral might be the less famous of the two on the Île de la Cité, but it is a favorite of mine.  It’s much smaller than most cathedrals, making the space quite intimate, and more than 1,000 stained glass windows line the walls!

Sainte-Chappelle cathedral Paris

Pantheon – Here you can see a stunningly intricate monument along with the burial places of famous people like Marie Curie and Victor Hugo. 

Eiffel Tower – You can see it from all over Paris, but getting an up close view of the symbol of Paris is pretty cool.  I recommend taking a picnic to enjoy in the linear park–Champ de Mars–that stretches from the base of the tower into the 7th arrondissement.  (I’ve never chosen to spend the time or money to go up into the tower, so I can’t speak to that.)

Luxembourg Gardens – The formal gardens surrounding the 17th century Luxembourg Palace are open to the public.  It’s a great place to take a picnic or go for a leisurely stroll. 

Luxembourg Gardens in winter

Versailles – You can take the train out to the Palace of Versailles for an easy day trip–it’s a quick walk from the train stop to the palace (just make sure you get on the correct train line out of Paris!).  Hear me out on this one: the Palace is incredibly beautiful, and it’s wild to see such an opulent place that people once lived. However, the infrastructure put in place for visitors and the lines of tour buses sitting outside are a little off-putting in my opinion.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, but know that it’s going to be packed with tourists, even during low season. You could lose yourself in the grounds for hours or days, so plan your time accordingly. But the fountains are only in use during the warmer months.  

Shopping

L’Officine Universelle Buly a Paris – You’ll find the most romantic skin care, perfumes, and candles in this dreamy shop (there are multiple locations in Paris).  The natural formulations smell divine and everything comes packaged with your name written in stunning calligraphy. Every time I use my bottle of antique rose body oil, I’m instantly transported back to Paris!

E. Dehillerin – This maze of a cookware shop is full of just about every kind of kitchen item you could dream up.  From copper pots to madeleine pans to truffle molds, this is the place to find a French souvenir for your kitchen. 

Bonpoint – A darling children’s clothing boutique with locations throughout the city.  Their collections include lots of beautiful stitching, ruffles and dainty details, like their iconic cherries.

Jacadi – Another upscale French children’s clothing brand with multiple locations in Paris.  You’ll find sweet everyday outfits, as well as special occasion ones. Their signature bodysuits with embroidered collars make wonderful gifts.

Tips & local customs:

Tipping is not typically expected in the way Americans are used to.  At a cafe, you might round up your bill if paying with cash, or leave a euro or two.  At nicer restaurants, 5-10% is a good gesture for excellent service, though many don’t give you the option to tip with a credit card.

It’s generally considered rude for a waiter to bring your bill without you asking for it, so ask for the check when you’re finished.  Most restaurants will bring a handheld credit card machine directly to your table. If you have the option, pay in the local currency (euros) because the USD option likely has an exchange fee added. 

Tax (VAT) is included in most instances.  Menus often have a note at the bottom that says “VAT included,” and you’ll see on your receipt that it’s broken down in the subtotal line (but already included in the price you paid). 

Say hello!  It’s considered rude to not greet someone or return the greeting of someone with whom you’re interacting.  You can simply say “bonjour” (hello / good morning) during the day and “bonsoir” in the evening (good evening / goodnight).  If you aren’t comfortable with the French words, “hello” works just as well, and it can tip them off that you don’t speak French.

Paris in the spring

Why I loved it:

I mean, where do I begin?  The architecture, the art, the pastries, the river, the cathedrals, the champagne, the cheese, the history, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower… and the flowering trees in the spring.  It may not be the place for everyone, but it’s a place I’d like to return to over and over again.

(We traveled as a couple in January 2014, May 2015, and March 2019.)