More insider guides for planning a trip to Paris
The problem visitors to Paris have is there is just too much to do, from its world-class museums to utterly staggering art galleries. Here is Telegraph destination expert Hannah Meltzer’s guide to the very best experiences in the city, from ripping down the Champs-Élysées in a quirky retro sidecar and eating dinner in the home of a local Parisian food blogger, to insider tips on tackling classics like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower like a pro.
Explore the secret passages of Paris
Paris Urban Adventures, the local-led city tour branch of Intrepid Travel, offers off-the-beaten track tours of the Marais, the Left Bank, Montmartre and the secret passages of Paris, as well as bespoke packages. Expect charming and informed local guides and plenty of hidden sights. Highlights include a traditional game of pétanque on Place Dauphine on the Bohemian Paris tour, or a cheese tasting along lively Rue Montorgueil in Secret Paris.
Insider’s tip: If you meet Arnaud on the Gourmet Marais tour, be sure to ask for an explanation of his ‘magical map’ – the most charming and comprehensive introduction to the wines of France you’re likely to come across.
Contact: 00 33 644 28 08 90; parisurbanadventures.com
Take a French film-themed walk
Film-themed walks by Set in Paris take in sights featured in Ratatouille, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Before Sunset and more. Specialist themed tours are also available, including Coco Chanel, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City and Amélie. The tours take in some of the prettiest area of Paris as well as refreshment stops – a legendary Angelina hot chocolate in the Chanel tour or a ‘cosmo’ in the SATC walk.
Ride around town in a retro sidecar
You will need to expect a spot of pointing in the street if you take this atypical jaunt around Paris from the sidecar of a motorbike with Retro Tours. A dapper ‘Gentleman Sidecarist’ will be your guide as you whizz through the key sights of Paris attached to vintage motorcycles and decked out in Chevignon jackets. Night tours complete with a champagne stop are also available.
Insider’s tip: If you would like an idea of what you’re in for, you can watch Richard Ayoade & Mel Giedroyc try out the experience on Channel 4’s Travel Man.
Contact: 00 33 185 390 707; retro-tour.com
Experience French cooking in a local’s home
Eat With is a kind of ‘Airbnb for food’ that started in Paris, connecting food enthusiasts with local cooks around the world, who prepare food in their homes. A huge range of culinary hosts are on offer in the capital spanning traditional French cuisine (hearty quiche followed by chocolate pudding) to modern organic brunches (quinoa salads and juices). Your host may be a gregarious local keen to meet new people or a more professional food blogger type, trying out new recipes.
Insider’s tip: You are not required to arrive with anything, but it is customary in France to bring along a little something – and wine is almost always welcome.
Chug through the cobblestone streets in a classic French car
Lean in to the full French cliché by discovering Paris from the back seat of a vintage Citroën 2CV with 4 roues sous 1 parapluie. A number of private tours are available including winding round the streets of Montmartre, a movie-themed offering and packages that incorporate Seine cruises and Eiffel Tower visits, as well-as out of town options in Versailles and Champagne.
Insider’s tip: If you have very little time and wish to cover a lot of ground, criss-crossing the town on ‘“four wheels under one umbrella’ is a great way to see a bit of everything (in 90 minutes you’ll cover all the big hits).
Contact: 00 33 158 59 27 82; 4roues-sous-1parapluie.com
The historic centre
Discover hidden treasures at the Louvre
The crowd-drawing Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo in the Denon wing are only part of what this vast former palace has to offer. Head to the underground Medieval Louvre to see surviving remnants of the 12th-century fortress that once stood in this spot; marvel at the sarcophagi in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities or contemplate the exquisite carved ivory of the Pyxis of al-Mughirathe in the Department of Islamic Art.
Insider’s tip: You can avoid the often long queues to enter by purchasing a timed ticket in advance on the Louvre website. These ensure access to the Pyramid entrance within 30 minutes of the time on the ticket (without a ticket the wait can be 2-3 hours in summer months).
Contact: 00 33 1 40 20 50 50; louvre.fr
Nearest metro: Pyramides (lines 7 and 14), Palais-Royal–Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7)
Become an expert in Parisian gems
Visitors can take short classes in gemmology, lacquer work, enamelling, watchmaking and the history of jewellery at the city’s L’École des Arts Joailliers, in the surrounds of an elegant 18th-century mansion. Since the 19th century, Place Vendôme has been the home of Paris’s most exquisite jewellers and the École des Arts Joailliers allows visitors to penetrate in to the inner workings of this rarefied world of gem stones and gentry.
Insider’s tip: Take the Jewels Through History class with US-born art historian Paul Paradis and you are guaranteed to be inspired by his passion for the gems and diadems of the collection. Magnifying glasses at the ready!
Immerse yourself in Impressionism
Visit the Orsay not only for its impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, but also for the unique architectural backdrop of this former Belle Époque railway station: the views our of over Paris from behind the vast clock face are a particular highlight. Don’t miss Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, Monet’s Rouen ‘Cathedrals’, Van Gogh’s self portrait and Degas’ delicately beautiful dancer sculptures. The current arrangement gives ample space to the impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces on the top floor.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the art nouveau galleries where you can wander fine furnishings and even recreations of whole rooms, to the backdrop of glorious Seine views.
Contact: 00 33 1 40 49 48 14; musee-orsay.fr
Nearest metro: Solférino (line 12)
Take in the city’s best art nouveau architecture
The spectacular glass vault and art nouveau curls of the Grand Nave sometimes overshadow what’s inside, but it’s always an event to come to the Grand Palais, the grandest reminder of the World’s Fair that drew millions in 1900. The north wing is used for prestigious art exhibitions. The rue Franklin D Roosevelt wing contains the Palais de la Découverte science museum.
Insider’s tip: The west wing of the Palais houses the Palais de la Découverte, a vast science museum adored by children for its interactive exhibits and planetarium show.
Opening times: Daily, 9.30am-6pm
Nearest metro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau (lines 13 and 1)
Ogle the world’s most incredible stained-glass
Louis IX (Saint Louis) built the magnificent stained-glass edifice Sainte Chapelle in the mid-13th century to house the Crown of Thorns and other Holy relics. The lower level with its star-painted vaulting was for palace servants. The upper level, intended for the royal family and clergy, is a flamboyant masterpiece gothic, with glorious stained glass, where hundreds of roundels depict Old Testament scenes and the crucifixion.
Insider’s tip: Try to come on a sunny day when the deep blues and reds stand out best. Tickets can be bought in advance, but you still have to queue for security checks (no metal objects).
Contact: 00 33 1 53 40 60 80; sainte-chapelle.monuments-nationaux.fr
Nearest metro: Cité (line 4)
Check out the best in French modern art
The Centre Pompidou’s 40-year-old post-modern design that was so shocking when it was first built – criss-crossing primary coloured pipes and a diagonally rising tube escalator – still stands out today. The gargantuan edifice houses a significant collection of modern art, as well as a a café, art shop and library. The programming is generally excellent.
Insider’s tip: For a special treat, sit down for a meal at Le Georges, the top-floor restaurant that offers gorgeous views over the rooftops and monuments of Paris, as well as the bustling square below, a hotbed for street entertainers in the warmer months.
Contact: 00 33 1 44 78 12 33; centrepompidou.fr
Nearest metro: Rambuteau (line 11), Hôtel de Ville (lines 1 and 11), Châtelet (lines 1, 4, 7, 11 and 14)
Get lost in the world of Picasso
Converted noble mansion, Hôtel Salé, houses the largest collection of Picasso’s works in the world. It spans all Picasso’s incredible variety of styles and ceaseless invention, from the early blue period, classicism, cubism, surrealism to the painter and his model series, bullfighting, and beach scenes. The display is complemented by Picasso’s collection of Cézanne, Renoir and others in the attics, and huge, grotesque sculptures in the cellars.
Insider’s tip: Pre-book tickets with a timed entry to avoid queues. On a sunny day, be sure to stop for a coffee on the rooftop terrace.
Contact: 00 33 1 85 56 00 36; museepicassoparis.fr
Nearest metro: Saint-Paul (line 1), Saint-Sébastien-Froissart (line 8), Chemin Vert (line 8)
Learn about the country’s most famous sculptor
The Musée Rodin is beautiful rococo mansion where Auguste Rodin had his studio in the early 20th century has been thoughtfully restored with new parquet, subtle lighting and an inventive new presentation that is part chronological, part thematic. Visitors can immperse themselves in the artist’s early portraits, and pioneering armless bronze and stone sculptures encrusted with fragments of antique statuary.
Insider’s tip: Be sure to visit the gardens too, where there are numerous sculptures, including The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, and a pleasant café.
Contact: 00 33 1 44 18 61 10; musee-rodin.fr
Nearest metro: Varenne (line 13)
Drink in the views from the world’s most famous tower
Despite being such a familiar icon, the Eiffel Tower never fails to impress with its iron latticework, its 2.5 million rivets and the thrill of the old-fashioned elevators. The summit, some 1000-foot up, is still the highest viewing point in Paris, while the second level viewing platform allows for 360-degree monument spotting. Visit at night to delight at the tower sparkling (on the hour for five minutes).
Insider’s tip:Tickets bought in advance must be reserved for a specific slot; otherwise, note that queues are shorter if you come late at night, or if you walk up as far as the second level – 704 steps – and then buy tickets for the very top.
Contact: 00 33 8 92 7012 39; tour-eiffel.fr
Nearest metro: Bir-Hakeim (line 6) Ecole Militaire (line 8)
Indulge your inner history boffin
Standing out with its gilded dome, and still surrounded by an impressive row of cannons, the Musée de l’Armée is an imposing baroque ensemble, originally housed invalid soldiers wounded in Louis XIV’s numerous wars. Much of it now contains the national army museum, an extremely diverse approach to war that ranges from renaissance armour as works of decorative art to powerful Second World War film footage.
Insider’s tip: Be sure to visit Napoleon’s red quartzite tomb in the Eglise du Dôme to discover reliefs portraying Napoleon as heroic administrator and emperor – so different from the British image of Trafalgar and Waterloo.
Contact: 00 33 8 10 11 33 99; musee-armee.fr
Nearest metro: Invalides (lines 8 and 13) Varenne (line 13)
Scope out the city’s finest African and Asian art
Tribal art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas is showcased with flare at the Quai Branly, a striking Jean Nouvel designed building, featuring a vertical garden with over 15,000 plants. Exhibitions flow into one another in the expansive, modern space where you’ll find sculptures, textiles, jewellery and headdresses, ritual objects and musical instruments. The circuit is enhanced by video and archive photo,
Insider’s tip: The museum has a lovely café in the garden and upmarket restaurant, Les Ombres, on the roof.
Champs-Élysées and the West
Sample the city’s wackiest art
Palais de Tokyo, a vast 1930s edifice on the banks of the Seine, houses Paris’s home for contemporary art with the most experimental temporary art exhibitions in the city (French artist Abraham Poincheval once spent three weeks sitting on and hatching chicken eggs) – it may not always be to your taste but you definitely won’t be bored. There’s a permanent collection in the eastern wing taking in Picasso and Matisse. The bookshop has the biggest collection of art books and design journals in Paris.
Insider’s tip: The complex hosts restaurant ‘Monsieur Bleu’- try the terrasse in summer for gorgeous Eiffel Tower views.
Contact: 00 33 1 81 97 35 88; palaisdetokyo.com
Nearest metro: La Muette (line 9)
Make a trip back to the Middle Ages
Very few vestiges of medieval Paris remain (thanks to Haussmann’s renovation), and even fewer of ancient Roman settlement Lutetia – therefore the Musée de Cluny, incorporating the remains of Roman baths and housed in the Gothic town house of the abbots of Cluny – is a rare treat. This is the usual home of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the heads of the kings of Judah: the stone monarchs that adorned the façade of Notre-Dame were torn down during the Revolution and each beheaded, only to be found in a long-forgotten cellar in 1977.
Contact: 00 33 1 53 73 78 16; musee-moyenage.fr
Nearest metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne (line 10), Saint-Michel (line 4),
Take in a world-famous classical monument
The Panthéon, a majestic neo-classical edifice, identifiable throughout the city by its vast dome, was first built as an offering to Paris’s patron saint, Genevieve, from party-loving King Louis XV. After the Revolution, it was transformed into a secular temple and burial place of the “great men” of France, including Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Rousseau. Marie Curie was the first woman to be buried there: today there are still only five, including holocaust survivor and pioneering politician Simone Veil.
Insider’s tip: Climb the 206 steps to the viewing platforms of the recently restored dome to enjoy a magnificent 360-degree view of the city.
Contact: 00 33 1 44 32 18 00; pantheon.monuments-nationaux.fr
Nearest metro: Saint-Michel (line 4), Place Monge (line 7)
Experience the lavish lost world of France’s formers kings
If you make just one excursion out of Paris, then it should be to Versailles, for its vision of royal absolutism — “the state is me”. Today, its extravagant ceilings, hall of mirrors, and king’s and queen’s bedchambers remain fascinating for their excess. The formal garden created by André Le Nôtre, are integral to the design and every bit as exquisite as the house.
Insider’s tip: Head down the steps at the Grand Perspective to explore the magnificent “bosquets” (groves) with their spectacular fountains and ornate décor. On a warm day, grab picnic ingredients and have lunch by the Grand Canal.
Contact: 00 33 1 30 83 78 00; chateauversailles.fr
Nearest metro: RER Versailles Rive Gauche
Visit the birthplace of Gothic architecture
The ‘banlieue’ of St-Denis has certainly changed its image since its days as a pilgrimage centre and burial site of French monarchy, but the magnificent abbey church still stands out amid the sprawl. Rebuilt in the 12th century, it is considered the birthplace of gothic architecture, combining pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses for the first time.
Insider’s tip: The highlight is the royal tombs, providing a trail through sculptural history, including magnificent monuments to François 1er and his wife Claude de France, and Henri II and his wife Catherine de Médicis.
Contact: 00 33 1 48 09 83 54; saint-denis.monuments-nationaux.fr
Nearest metro: Basilique de St-Denis (line 13)
Indulge your inner child at Disneyland
Just 27 miles (45 km) east of Paris, you enter another world comprised of the main Disneyland Park, smaller film-themed Walt Disney Studios Park and Festival Disney containing shows, restaurants and souvenir shops. Small tots are entranced by the parades and the teacup ride, Big kids (including adults) enjoy the thrills of Star Wars-themed Hyper Space Mountain and the eery Tower of Terror.
Insider’s tip: It is far more relaxing to stay in Paris than in one of the Disney resort hotels. Buying tickets online is cheaper than on the door.
Contact: 08448 008 898 (from UK); 0825 300 500 (in France); disneylandparis.co.uk
Nearest metro: RER A Marne-la-Vallée — Chessy
Visit the flamingos at the zoo
The 1930s Vincennes zoo has been reborn as Parc Zoologique de Paris, ‘a new kind of zoo’. It is laid out as five biozones intended to create optimal conditions for the animals, giving them plenty of space and appropriate vegetation. Animals can be hard to see, but it’s fun spotting snakes and parrots in the tropical forest greenhouse, watching manatees swim underwater, or wandering across the pool, amid flamingoes.
Insider’s tip: The zoo stays open late in the summer and hosts special events where you can watch feeding sessions or the process of getting the big cats to bed; prices are reduced, too.
Contact: 00 33 1 40 79 31 25; parczoologiquedeparis.fr
Nearest metro: Porte Dorée (line 8)
Watch a match at one of the world’s most iconic stadiums
Stade de France in Saint-Denis, in the north of Paris is an excellent place to soak up some sports atmosphere a la française. Here, the formalities of Parisian interaction are forgotten – the atmosphere is relaxed and festive with plenty of waving tricolores, songs and sloshing pints of beer. There are often last-minute tickets available for international fixtures (football and rugby).
Insider’s tip: Die-hard supporters go to the north stand – it’s nothing dangerous but you can expect a lot of jumping around and loud French chanting, so potentially one to avoid if you’re en famille.
Contact: 00 33 155 93 00 00; stadedefrance.com
Nearest metro: St Denis – Porte de Paris (line 13)