The Essential First Time Visitor's Guide to Paris

If it's your first time in Paris and you're wondering where to stay and why, then read on!

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The City of Light is in every way a moveable feast, with hundreds of museums and monuments, generous public parks and green spaces, a vibrant café culture, and ample nightlife entertainment options, all within a radius of 41 square miles (105 square km).

Choosing where to stay in Paris for the First Time

Most first-time visitors to Paris want to stay in the heart of the city—only Paris has a huge heart and plenty of history and character to spread around.

With 20 arrondissements to choose from, settling on one can teeter from tricky to terrifying. Along with cost considerations and length of stay, the decision boils down to this.

Location, location, location.

Split by the Seine river into a southern and northern region, Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank), Paris is subdivided into 20 administrative districts, or arrondissements, each with its own distinctive character and style, history and attractions.

Before locking in on a booking, give some thought to how you’ll be getting around.

  • Does being close to a Metro stop matter? The Paris Métro is safe, clean, and affordable. Lines are numbered 1 through 14 and identified by colour. Station entrances are marked by the distinctive Art Nouveau poled signage. Purchase tickets by the trip, day or as multi-day passes.
  • Other transportation options: Batobus, a riverboat shuttle service, connects commuters and tourists alike to nine station stops along the Seine. A 24-hour pass allows you to hop on and off.
  • Feeling like it’s more about the journey than the destination? Book a scenic lunch or romantic dinner cruise on Bateaux Mouches. 
  • Vélib’ Métropole, a city-wide bike sharing system enables you to see the city under your own steam.

Looking for crooked cobblestone lanes and a Belle Epoque artist vibe? If so, Montmartre is a solid bet.

Eiffel Tower view a non-negotiable? Staying across the Seine in the Trocadéro (16th Arrondissement) affords a fairytale view of the tower, including the evening light show.

If your idea of downtime is to shop ‘til you drop, a pied-a-terre proximate to the Champs des Elysees or Le Bon Marché seems like a match made in retail paradise.

Or maybe you’re a street food aficionado, and you’ve made it your mission to find the perfect falafel? Putting up in the Marais makes a lot of sense. The Latin Quarter is also a haven for tasty cheap eats.

Six Must-See Sites in Paris

With your accommodations locked down, you’re free to let loose and roam. But where to first? While no one’s keen on having their vacay morph into a forced march, for the first visit to Paris, you’ll want to keep the café lounging on the backburner, at least until after you’ve hit these six iconic spots.

Musée Rodin/Rodin Museum (7th Arrondissement)

The Rodin Museum is housed in the former Hotel Biron where the famous sculptor let rooms during the last decade of his life along with other notable artists and savants of the Belle Epoque era. Purchase the dual ticket, which provides admission to both the museum and gardens. If it’s nice weather, save the indoor exhibits for last and stroll the garden where the world’s most famous sculpture, The Thinker stands on display along with The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell and other notable works.

Le Tour Eiffel/The Eiffel Tower (7th Arrondissement)

More than any other single structure, the Eiffel Tower is synonymous with Paris. And yet when built by Gustave Eiffel as the opener for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the four-legged iron latticework pyramid was intended as a tear-down. Considered an eyesore by some, it was to be demolished in1909. Public opinion softened over the years, and “Eiffel’s Folly” was permitted to stand indefinitely.

Soaring 1,062 feet from its perch upon the Champ du Mars, the Eiffel Tower remains Paris’s tallest structure if no longer the world’s. The tower is accessed by lift or stairs—a whopping 1,710 steps to the top. Beat the lines and buy your ticket in advance online. If you’re feeling flush, splurge and book a reservation for one of the two wall-to-wall glass restaurants. Otherwise, relax with an impromptu picnic on the Champs du Mars and then stretch your legs with a stroll along the Seine where docked houseboats offer a glimpse into a more laidback Paris.

Le Jardin du Luxembourg/Luxembourg Gardens (6th Arrondissement)

On the border between Saint-Germain-des-Près and the Latin Quarter, Le Jardin du Luxembourg or Luxembourg Garden is Paris’s second largest public garden. (The largest and oldest is the Tuileries). Commissioned in 1612 by Queen Marie de Médicis, the gardens are home to more than 100 monuments, fountains, statues as well as Luxembourg Palace. Modelled after the Pitti Palace in Florence, today the palace houses the French Senate. Be sure to pay your respects to the 20 sculpted figures of former French queens and female saints perched on the terrace balustrades.

In spring and summer, pick up a snack from one of the food kiosks for an impromptu picnic along the central octagonal fountain basin. If you’re lucky, you might encounter a pétanque match in progress. Pony rides, puppet theatres, and miniature sailboat rentals are favourites among families with young children.

Musée du Louvre/The Louvre (1st Arrondissement)

A former royal fortress on Paris’s Right Bank, the Musée du Louvre, or simply the Louvre, first opened as a museum in 1793, when leaders of the French Revolution decreed it should be used to display the nation’s treasures to its citizens. Today the Louvre is the world’s largest museum, with 380,000 objects and 35,000 works of art covering 652,000 square feet (60,600 square meters).

You could easily spend your entire trip in the Louvre without coming close to seeing it all. If you’re in a rush, hit the highlights, starting with a visit to the museum’s most famous occupant: Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci’s s enigmatic masterpiece is housed in the museum’s Salle des États and screened by bullet-proof glass. Reserve tickets online to avoid the legendary lines.

Montmartre (18th Arrondissement)

Stepping out from the Abbesses Metro station, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve left one Paris and wandered into another. Set on the butte (hill) on the north side of the city, Montmartre retains much of the charm of its Belle Epoque heyday as an artist colony. Then, as it is now, the village is known for its nightlife, though the atmosphere has tamed from the time when its most famous denizen, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, immortalized its cabaret culture on canvas.

By day Montmartre sees a brisk tourist trade, with no shortage of souvenir sellers as well as local “artists” shilling to sketch your portrait. For a break from the madding crowd, climb the summit to Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. The church wasn’t consecrated until 1919 but, sited on the highest point in the city, it’s almost impossible to imagine the skyline without its big white dome. Descend and wend your way through the edgier Pigalle district, pausing to pay homage to the Moulin Rouge, the birthplace of the can-can, its entrance announced by a red windmill.

Catacombs/Les Catacombes (14th Arrondissement)

The Catacombs probably won’t be the first attraction you visit in Paris, but this underground labyrinth may well provide some of your more memorable offbeat moments. Built to connect Paris’s ancient stone quarries, the ossuary was added around 1774 in response to the city’s mounting cemetery crisis. The tombs hold the remains of more than six million Parisians, most transferred from above ground burial plots in the late 18th through mid-19th centuries. During World War II, members of the French Resistance used the Catacombs in their fight against the Nazi occupation.

Plum Picks – Our Favourite Areas to Stay in Paris

Saint-Germain-des-Prés (6th Arrondissement): SPRING IN ST GERMAIN

This posh left bank enclave is home to Jardin du Luxembourg, Musée du Luxembourg (Paris’s oldest museum), and Musee d’Orsay. Film buffs, be sure to check out the latest international showings at Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe, one of France’s five national theatres.

Park yourself en pleine air and people watch at Café Flore or soak up the intellectual vibe of Les Deux Magots, where Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other great minds of the 20th century gathered to hobnob.

The Marais/Le Marais (3rd and 4th Arrondissements): COURTYARD RETREAT

The Marais has sufficient boutiques and trendy bars, cafes and restaurants to delight your inner hipster. In recent years, it’s become a hub for gay culture and nightlife. The storied Rue des Rosiers was the heart of this historically Jewish quarter known to locals as the “Pletzl,” (Yiddish for "little place”), although in recent years many of the Jewish bakeries, delicatessens and kosher butchers have given way to trendy mainstream businesses.

Visit the Maison de Victor Hugo, Hugo’s flat in the Hôtel Rohan-Guemenee in the Place des Vosges and wander the rooms where the great author lived and wrote for 16 years.

The Latin Quarter (5th and 6th Arrondissements): DIZZYING HEIGHTS

This Left Bank neighborhood, traditionally a hub of student life, is home to several higher education institutions, most famously, the Sorbonne. Today the Latin Quarter retains it lettered, bohemian vibe, its narrow, storied streets lined with eclectic shops and budget-friendly eateries and restaurants.

Ile de la Cité: RUE D'ARCOLE

Dominated by the French Gothic cathedral immortalized by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ile de la Cité provides a window to the ancient Roman and medieval city. Sharing space on this tiny tear-drop shaped island is The Palais de Justice including the Conciergerie, used as a prison during the French Revolution.

Eiffel Tower District: A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

This mostly Left Bank neighbourhood straddles the Seine. Along with the tower from which it takes its name, to the north, there’s the Champs-Elysée and its eponymous avenue, known the world over for its luxury shopping and swank cafes and theatres. Avenue des Champs Élysées is also the official route for the annual Bastille Day parade, which marches from l’Arc de Triomphe to La Place de la Concorde.

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