It’s got to be the most well-documented, well-travelled city in the world – Paris, capital of France, city of light, cliché of romance movies and perhaps the most oversold city in the world. Sure, Paris is full of incredible, historical tourist attractions, but some of them are more ‘tourist’ than ‘attraction’, and it can be hard for a Paris neophyte to tell the difference. Though some of Paris’ more venerated icons might be worth the visit, some are just plain overrated, while other interesting landmarks remain unfrequented. For the uninitiated, we’ve taken the time to sip hot chocolate and people-watch at cafés, wander quiet cobblestone streets, peruse the booksellers by the Seine and generally find all the best places to go and do and see in the paramount city of the world. Some you’ll know, but others are surprisingly well-kept secrets. Here are 10 highly recommended sites to visit in Paris.
1. La Place Saint-Michel
Saint Michael’s Square is the place where everything happens. Opening off Pont Saint-Michel, one of the main bridges across the river Seine, Place Saint-Michel is in the centre of the tourist district, surrounded by restaurants, bookshops, and the best crêperie in Paris. It also features the rather nice Fontaine Saint Michel, depicting Saint Michael the Archangel flanked by two dragons, and is also a popular site for protests on the many issues the French love to protest. Basically, it’s your necessary first stop to check out what’s on and what’s not on in Paris right now.
2. La Cimetière du Père Lachaise
Paris’s largest cemetery is in fact a famous landmark in its own right. Best known as the burial place of Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison, Père Lachaise is so big that you can’t see from one side to the other. Filled with old gravestones and huge marble tombs to long-forgotten dynasties, a walk through the cemetery is something of a must-do for every visitor to Paris – and it’s an interesting walk through history at the same time.
The Holy Chapel was built as a private chapel for the Royal Palace on Ile-de-la-Cite by order of King Louis IX, and was completed in 1248. Though tiny, it’s well worth a visit. Originally built to house Louis’ collection of religious objects, nowadays it’s famous for the incredible size and colour of the stained-glass windows in the church’s upper section. The high, vaulted ceiling of the upper section, painted blue and gold to resemble a starry night sky, adds to the sense of wonder and beauty of the building.
4. Quartier Latin
The most famous area of Paris, full of architectural and historical significance, no trip to the City of Light would be complete without a trip to the Latin Quarter. Centred around the original building of the University of the Sorbonne, now 13 separate universities of which three still bear the Sorbonne name, the area earned its name from the Latin language frequently spoken around the university. The picturesque Sorbonne building still exists as the main campus for Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris I University, and the Quartier also boasts landmarks such as the Pantheon and the Luxembourg Gardens, as well as plenty of shopping, bars and eateries.
5. La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur
The iconic white church on the hill is one of the most famous monuments of Paris, and with good reason. Offering stunning views over the city of Paris from its exalted position atop the Mount of the Martyrs, Montmartre, Sacré-Coeur is unusual for being circular, white, and very, very big. Pictures are not permitted inside, which simply adds to the mystery and allure. You can even pay a little extra to walk up to the domes atop the basilica and down into the crypt, an offer well worth taking up.
6. La Tour Montparnasse
At 210 metres, the Tour Montparnasse is the tallest building within the Paris city limits. Located in the Montparnasse district, not far from the Luxembourg Gardens, the Tour’s claim to fame is the incredible view of Paris AND the Eiffel Tower, a view that can’t be had from the Eiffel Tower itself. By day you can see up to 40km from the tower, while at night you have front-row seats to the Eiffel Tower light show as well as the nightly fireworks at Disneyland Paris to the east.
7. Le Dernier Bar Avant La Fin Du Monde
Nerds unite! Known as the geekiest place in the world, Le Dernier Bar Avant La Fin Du Monde or ‘The Last Bar before the End of the World’ is a great place to hang out, grab a drink or a bite to eat and revel in the company of fellow nerds. The changing menu is a tribute to everything geek-culture, featuring drinks like ‘42’, ‘Death Star’ and ‘Liquid Naquahdah’ and snacks called ‘Inigo Montoya’ and ‘So Hoth’, while their ‘ludothèque’ is stashed full of games that patrons are welcome to play. Even the décor is classic nerdery, from R2-D2 guarding the front door to the Tardis on the bottom-most floor.
The smaller of two natural islands in the middle of the River Seine, Île-St-Louis represents a little slice of peace and quiet in the middle of the city centre. Less famous than its neighbour, the Île-de-la-Cité, St-Louis was designed as a wealthy residential neighbourhood, and retains all the charms of wrought-iron balconies, wooden coach-house doors and riverside views. These days a number of small craft shops, ice cream parlours and clothing stores along the cobbled one-way streets give the illusion of a small French village against the distant backdrop of the noise of Paris.
9. La Tour St Jacques
The Tour St Jacques is the sole remnant of a church that was destroyed, along with many other monuments, during the French Revolution. The Gothic church of St James of the Butchery, so-called for the nearby meat market, represented the Parisian start of the pilgrimage to the Galician Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. French scientist Blaise Pascal conducted one of his famous experiments on barometric pressure from the tower, while French alchemist Nicolas Flamel was buried in the attached church. Located near Chatelet-Les Halles, the biggest metro/RER station in Paris, the tower is now surrounded by a small green park popular with dogwalkers.
10. La Basilique de Saint-Denis
Technically a little outside the Paris city centre, though still within the metro system, the Basilica of Saint Dennis is well worth the extra bit of travel. Situated in the quieter neighbourhood of Saint-Denis, the Gothic Basilique de Saint-Denis represents more than just another beautiful cathedral. The contemporary burial place of the monarchy of France, it features a traditional kitchen garden out the back as well as beautiful examples of mediaeval architecture, but its main attraction is the crypt. In addition to the dozens of kings and queens from the 5th century onwards, the Saint-Denis crypt boasts the tomb of Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, along with their son, the Dauphin. At the very base of the crypt you can even see the original burial place of Saint Dennis, who gave his name to the cathedral and surrounding district after being decapitated at Montmartre and marching to Saint-Denis reciting a sermon as he carried his head in his hands.