When it comes to traveling, some of us might not have the luxury of spending many days in one place. Whether it’s due to rushed planning or limited vacation time off from work, it can be hectic trying to research and cram in as much as possible into sightseeing a city or country. In the end, it might be exhausting, and it perhaps could detract you from enjoying your adventure away from home.
Having been inspired by the many Internet articles (one of the most-famous including the New York Times’ “36 Hours in…” segment) that showcase ideal itineraries in a set destination, I’d thought that I would also start a similar series on this blog to offer some of my own suggestions of things to do, see, and eat in well-renown cities in the world.
What makes my series different from the others online would be the fact that I’m by no means a professional traveler (e.g. no sponsors, all-paid resorts, etc.), and that what I will suggest are based on my own personal experiences having visited a certain place at least twice, in order to ensure a more-comprehensive outlook on the city itself.
Many online articles in the same vein also tend to cater towards mid-to-upper class travelers who can actually afford hotels and fine-dining restaurants, which I assume many people in their 20’s, even 30’s, can’t have. That’s why I’m catering this series to the budget-friendly, backpack-traveler nomad who doesn’t mind staying in hostels, taking overnight buses, or eating at hole-in-the-wall joints while still getting a fulfilling experience in traveling. This one’s for you, folks!
72 Hours in Paris: Things to See and Do
Over 40 million visitors come to the French capital every year, and it’s no wonder. With its refined cuisine, elegant architecture, and fashionable residents, Paris attracts the romantic in all of us for a piece of its iconic sites, including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Sacré Coeur.
I went to Paris for the first time in 2014 for a summer studying abroad. Although it was a short stay (nor did I improve my French that much), I had a fantastic time and that inspired me to return to France after university. I did just that, as I moved back a year later to work as an English teacher for the next four years. While I didn’t live in Paris, I had plenty of opportunities to visit the capital during les vacances– I must’ve gone at least 20 times over the years, and I’m very happy for that!
There’s so much to do in Paris, from the touristy sites to the obscure. One can honestly spend a lifetime there and still not see everything that there is to see. For the sake of this post, I’ll present what a first-timer to Paris can do on a 72-hour limit, which will evidently include the major places to check out. I will, however, throw in some of my personal favorites into the mix, so as to maximize one’s fulfillment of the capital. C’est parti!
Day 1 (Châtelet/les Halles)
We’ll focus on the very heart of the city today, which encompasses the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd arrondissements. This particular area is the busiest part of Paris, as it’s not only packed with some of the most-iconic landmarks (musée d’Orsay, musée du Louvre, cathédrale Notre-Dame…), but also the Châtelet metro station that connects almost all of the major metro lines to the city. That said, there’s always something going on, so don’t be intimidated!
Start by heading early to Stohrer, the city’s oldest boulangerie, for a pastry breakfast. Established in 1730, this tiny store-front sells incredibly rich viennoiseries and small cakes to take away– I personally suggest opting for their pain aux raisins or baba au rhum.
As you enjoy your pastry, head over to la Sainte Chapelle on the île de la Cité before it opens around 9:00. There’s always a long line to get in 30 minutes prior, so arrive early to stake your spot in the crowd. Just around the corner is the cathédrale Notre-Dame (which unfortunately was partially burned by a fire in April 2019) that you can check out from the outside after the visit. It costs about 11,50€ ($12.60 USD) to enter la Sainte Chapelle, and the interior is sure to blow you away. You don’t need more than 30 minutes inside, just enough time to snap some photos and admire the stained glass before exiting.
Cross back to the Right Bank and head over to le Marais, a part of the 3rd arrondissement famous for its notable Jewish and LGBTQ population. It’s a trendy part of town to wander in, all the while have some delicious food. Feel free to take a moment to rest at the Place des Vosges (where you can also see Victor Hugo’s former home) before heading to L’As du Fallafel for their massive falafel sandwiches. It’s a solid establishment for locals and tourists alike, and you’ll definitely be stuffed for lunch afterwards.
Take the half-hour walk west of le Marais to le Palais Royal to burn off your lunch. Along the way, you’ll pass by the colorful, pipe-inspired Centre Pompidou. Should you have more time in Paris later, I encourage you to visit it and check out classic contemporary artists (e.g. Picasso, Warhol, Modigliani) for your pleasure– it’s a solid museum!
You’ll reach the jardin du Palais Royal (especially stunning in spring) and enjoy a stroll through. You’ll also come across les Deux Plateaux, a permanent exhibition designed by Daniel Buren in the 1980’s– its quirky art is perfect for a quick photo-shoot. At the very end of the Palais Royal is the Galerie Vivienne, one of the many passages in Paris. It’s a beautiful architectural spot, with plenty of expensive boutiques indoors; it’s worth merely a walk through and, in general, le Palais Royal is merely a pass-through as you continue into the 1st arrondissement.
The musée du Louvre is just 5 minutes from le Palais Royal. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth visiting, especially if you’re just going for the Mona Lisa (which is super-small and super-disappointing). I would say just to take a photo of its pyramid structure and move on– if you happen to have more time in Paris, you can then opt to visit inside.
It’s more or less mid-afternoon by the time you reach the massive jardin des Tuileries. If you have the time (and money), I would say splurge on afternoon tea time at Angelina— the chocolat chaud is to die for, along with a decadent Mont blanc. Otherwise, head to the very end of the garden and pay for entry into the musée de l’Orangerie. Especially if you’re a Monet/impressionist fan, this museum is beautiful and small enough to spend the rest of the afternoon at.
Just before dinnertime, return to Châtelet/les Halles for a pop into the église Saint-Eustache before it closes. It’s one of my favorite churches in Paris, with a towering interior and gorgeously-painted chapels, including one with quirky stained-glass of a pig (as it formerly was a slaughterhouse location). Definitely underrated and definitely worth it.
A minute’s walk from the church is Comptoir de la Gastronomie, which is the perfect place for dinner. Seating is limited, so get there once it opens around 19:00. This restaurant specializes in everything foie gras, including foie gras steak and truffled foie gras ravioli. I suggest getting those dishes, along with a plate of escargots and a pichet du vin– it’s one of my favorite eateries in Paris, as it’s the ideal introduction to French cuisine while also being a bit fancy. You can then relish in your food coma as you return to your accommodation for the rest of the night.
Day 2 (Montmartre)
Second day will be spent north and east of Paris, with the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements mixed in. Aside from the Sacré Coeur, this part of the city isn’t as heavy with tourists as west of the center– it’s more residential, but still boasts plenty of hidden gems to check out. This area (especially the 19th) is my personal favorite of Paris.
Indulge in another pastry breakfast, this time at Du Pain et des Idées just a block away from the picturesque canal Saint-Martin. This boulangerie is famous as it has won several awards for the “best baguette” in the past two to three years. However, I would suggest getting either their pistachio-chocolate or berry escargot (not actually a snail, but shape-wise) to eat– not only are they delicious, but also really pretty!
Catch the metro to the Sacré Coeur. I would suggest getting off at the Anvers stop and walk up the hill to the basilica– you’ll burn off your breakfast that way! You can either zigzag through the bohemian, yet touristy streets in the center of square Louise-Michel, or take the straight path up via the rue Foyatier stairs (also a famous photo spot). There’s also a funicular if you want to pay, but I would suggest just walking up.
You’ve reached the Sacré Coeur! I would suggest first lining up to access its dome (about 6,50€/$7.00 USD) where you get one of the best views of Paris from the top. You can then head down and enter the basilica itself, free of charge. Take about 30 minutes to go around its interior to admire it before heading back out and heading slightly down to its panoramic point for some more decent photos of Paris.
Make your way through the twisting and hilly streets of Montmartre to reach place du Tertre, a small square home to plenty of artists and their works. Take some time to observe the locals painting, and perhaps purchase one as a souvenir. Then head down the stairs to le mur des je t’aime (“I Love You Wall”); it’s not a big wall, but it’s packed with “I love you” texts from 100+ languages. A perfect place to pose with your friends or significant other!
Lunch time is here, and it’s time to head a minute’s walk to la Cave gourmande. It’s a tiny restaurant with only one chef (the owner) who prepares everything cooked to order. Arrive once they open so that you’ll get your food first. The place is famous for its hearty, red wine-infused boeuf bourguignon, but I would also suggest its sides which I believe are the star of the show: the cuisses de grenouille (stereotypical, I know, but delicious) and bone marrow, which is ridiculously rich and heavy. Have plenty of red wine to wash everything down!
Take the metro to the 19th arrondissement and spend a couple of hours strolling the large and hilly parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Although tourists flock here, it’s more-or-less a residential park for locals, especially families with children, to enjoy a nice day out. Lounge on the grass, and head up to the temple de la Sybille, where you get clear views of the Sacré Coeur, where you’d just been in the morning.
One hidden place I want to share with you is only a two-minute walk from the park. It’s the paroisse Saint-Serge, an Orthodox parish for Russian refugees in the early 20th century. Entrance to the spot is inconspicuous, so keep your eyes peeled! The exterior is a colorful sight to marvel– it requires booking an appointment to go inside, but I can imagine it’ll be worth it!
Head back towards canal Saint-Martin and stop for an afternoon coffee at Ten Belles. Service is a hit-or-miss, but their coffee is pretty good, and slice of lemon cake tangy and divine. Stroll along the beautiful canal as you head to atelier des Lumières, a digital art center with various exhibitions changing per year. Granted, it’s located in the 11th arrondissement, but it’s on the way to the 20th all the same. Prepare your pre-purchased tickets and spend the next hour or two immersed in the massive digital exhibitions from Klimt to Monet to van Gogh.
End sight-seeing for the day at the cimetière du Père Lachaise. Might be morbid to finish at a cemetery, but in any case, you’ll come across plenty of famous tombs, including Oscar Wilde’s, Edith Piaf’s, and Jim Morrison’s. It’s a large cemetery, so be careful not to get lost in its maze-like structure!
Walk or take the metro to place de la Bastille, where you’ll see the tower that commemorates the lives lost during the French Revolution. Have dinner on rue de Lappe (no particular restaurant, although the street has everything including Japanese, Indian, and Moroccan) before hitting up any of the bars on the same street– it becomes lively at night and if you’re into the bar-club scene, this is a good place to dance the night away.
Day 3 (Champs-Élysées/Tour Eiffel)
This is the last full day in Paris, and we’ll focus on the 7th, 8th, and 9th arrondissements, home to some of the most-posh neighborhoods created by Haussmann in the 19th century. Have a quick breakfast at your accommodation before heading early to the Palais Garnier (aka Opéra). Have your pre-purchased ticket ready to enter the extravagant opera house built on behalf of Napoleon III back in the day. It really pays to visit the grand staircase, along with the Grand Foyer, and you’ll be dazzled at the sheer opulence of it all.
Three minutes on foot, and you’ll reach the Galeries Lafayette, a massive department store that sells expensive name-brand items (Armani, Chanel, Burberry…). Unless you like shopping, there’s no reason to visit except for the colorful, dome interior and free, rooftop views of Paris on its 7th floor. Its rival, Printemps Haussmann, is a block away with free views, too, and it’s worth a pop in.
Stop by the église de la Madeleine, a Roman temple-inspired church that towers in its small plaza. That same plaza also includes Fauchon, a pâtisserie that specializes in éclairs. They’re super well-made and rich, and worth buying one for a snack!
You’ll soon hit place de la Concorde (with its towering obelisk) and soon enough, the Champs-Élysées. It’s crowded with tourists strolling the wide pedestrian streets and plenty of tourist-trap restaurants and stores. I would only suggest strolling the entire 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) for the vibrant atmosphere, perhaps a quick stop at Ladurée to purchase a few macarons to go before heading straight to the Arc of Triumph.
After somehow figuring out how to cross the confusing Charles de Gaulle roundabout, you’ll reach the Arc of Triumph. Pay the admission fee to head to the top of the arch, where you’ll get one of my favorite views of Paris.
As mentioned, most restaurants along the Champs-Élysées are tourist traps, but head a bit off the main street, and you’ll hit Framboise, a crêperie that’s a decent place for lunch. There are both savory and sweet crêpes to choose from, and you can’t go wrong with a smoked salmon one to start it off!
Head down to the Trocadéro, upon its platform you can get perfect views of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Continue further down and cross the pont de Bir-Hakeim (bridge famous for wedding photo-shoots and filming location for Inception) to head back to the Eiffel Tower, this time up close and personal. You can opt to pay for an hour-long boat ride along the Seine, which will take you past some famous monuments of the city. Plus, it’s a good way to sit back and relax after nearly 72 hours of walking all over town.
At this point in the afternoon, you have a few choices: either check out some of the modern art museums (musée d’Art modern or Palais de Tokyo) or just stay near the Eiffel Tower and sunbath on the Champ de Mars during the warmer months until the sun sets. After all, your visit is coming to an end, and what better way to do so than to put aside the hectic sight-seeing and just enjoy the present?
Enjoy an apéritif at le Bateau Apéro before heading to dinner at La Coïncidence. It’s not too far from the Trocadéro, and it serves plenty of classical French dishes, including tartare. You can’t go wrong with any of its steak or duck items, and its desserts are pretty good, too. Once you finish, it’s probably already dark enough to head back to the Trocadéro and see the Eiffel Tower light up at night. It lights up every hour, so you won’t miss it. The views are truly magical, along with representing a beautiful end to a beautiful time in the City of Love. It’s then time to return to your accommodation to rest before the trip back the next day!
…72 hours in Paris is certainly not enough to see everything– while it’s feasible to hit the main sights, you’ll also miss out on plenty of other lovely places. I’d chosen only to capture the highlights in town, choosing to skip out on museum visits and the Left Bank, which also have lots of great sites. That’s why, should you have an extra day or two in the city, I would suggest adding these places to see:
** The Latin Quarter** (5th and 6th arrondissements)
The Latin Quarter is home to a notable university district, as the Sorbonne is located here. There’s the picturesque rue Mouffetard down which you can stroll (and perhaps grab a hefty galette at Au P’tit Grec for lunch). Just 10 minutes away is the gorgeous Grande Mosquée, where you can sit down for afternoon tea (their mint tea is to die for). Otherwise, sunbathe at the jardin du Luxembourg or browse books at Shakespeare & Company. There’s also le Panthéon, églises Saint-Sulpice and Saint Germain des Prés to check out some cool architecture, along with cool history to back them up.
** Gare de Lyon** (12th arrondissement)
It might be strange that the area around a train station is worth seeing, but there are some lesser-known gems worth visiting. Inside gare de Lyon itself is le Train Bleu, a beautiful restaurant from 1900. While you might not want to splurge for lunch here, a peek at its fresco interior is worth it. Heading out the train station, and you can pop over to rue Crémieux, a small street with a rainbow color of houses. Plenty of visitors flock here for photos, and it’s no surprise why. Even more north is the Promenade plantée, an elevated 5-kilometer (3 miles) park built along a former railway. It’s a unique kind of park where you can sunbathe on a summer’s day, as well as jog its perimeters through some interesting structures.
** Montparnasse** (14th and 15th arrondissements)
The Montparnasse neighborhood is quieter and more residential than other parts of Paris. However, it’s home to the famous Catacombes where you can visit the six million deceased people and their bones underground (careful: wait times can be upwards of three hours, so book in advance and arrive early!). If you’re into more creepy sites, la Petite Ceinture is also worth a quick wall through its former railway days. There are sections of it abandoned and sprayed with graffiti, as well as overgrown with bushes– yet, it remains a fascinating, relatively-obscure place to visit. Finally, for some of the iconic views of Paris, it pays to go up la Tour Montparnasse, both in the day and evening. You’ll see it in all of its glory, high above every other building in the city.
…and of course, there remains dozens of museums (Louvre, d’Orsay, Rodin…) to check out, as well as day trips to Versailles, Giverny, and Fontainebleau. Again, you could spend forever in Paris and still not see everything, but even for a piece of it all, it’s worth it in the end.
Have you been to Paris? What are some sights that you would recommend? Let me know!