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Paris, Ile-de-France, France

Iconic Sites and Hidden Gems

A guide to must-see sites and some fantastic less-visited places

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Difficulty: Easy
Length: 12.0 miles / 19.3 km
Duration: Multiple days
Family Friendly
Overview: The "hidden" gems in this guide aren't exactly hidden but they tend to get overshadowed by Paris' big-ticket attractions, and often get bypassed by first-time visitors to a city that is spoiled with dramatic cultural riches.

No visit to Paris is complete without seeing highlights such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe, but that doesn't need to be at the expense of other fascinating nearby sights that can be more fun, less crowded and give you a fuller sense of the city's passionate, colorful and sometimes dark nature.

While the POIs mainly focus on sights, the guide is planned so you can enjoy the feel of this unique city as you walk between them. You need at least four or five days to do justice to the full itinerary. If you are here for less time, it would be better to pick your favorite POIs and save the others for a future visit rather than rush frantically through a Paris checklist.

Tips: This route takes you on a mixture of Paris' grand boulevards and smaller colorful streets but if that's too much walking, use the Metro for some sections. It's one of the best subway systems in the world. See the link in other resources for ticket options.

If you are coming from, or via London, don't even think about flying to Paris--the Eurostar is a much better option. This high-speed train that goes under the English Channel takes you from central London to central Paris in three hours. That's probably less time than most people would spend getting to Heathrow airport and passing the security checks. Take a picnic and a bottle of wine and start your trip on the train.

Points of Interest


Notre Dame Cathedral (highlight)

The island in the middle of the Seine, the Île de la Cité, has been the center of Paris since there was a Paris and it has been dominated by Notre Dame Cathedral for nearly 700 years. It seems like a fitting place to start the tour.

The huge Gothic masterpiece has survived the French Revolution, housed the Crown of Thorns, seen an English royal crowned king of France, hosted the coronation of Napoleon and inspired Victor Hugo's legend of a hunchback bell ringer. To say it's part of the city's cultural and religious lifeblood is a massive understatement.

Its construction began in the 12th century and finished in the 14th--spanning the entire Gothic period--but the finished product can hold a congregation of 6,000. It's significant from a medieval engineering perspective because it was one of the world's first buildings to use "flying buttress" (the support arches attached to the exterior at the garden end of the cathedral).

The highlight inside is the enormous stained glass rose window, but there are just as many fans of the humorous gargoyles with rooftop views you encounter on a climb up the tower. Very Gothic, very Paris!
6 Place Parvis Notre Dame
+33 1 53 10 07 00
Cathedral hours:
Monday-Friday 8am-6:45pm
Saturday-Sunday 8am-7:15pm
Tower visit hours:
April 1-Sept. 30
Daily 10am-6:30pm
Saturday-Sunday in July and August 10am-11pm
Oct. 1-March 31
Daily 10am-5:30pm
Adults 8 Euro
Kids 5 Euro

Sainte Chapelle (hidden gem)

This royal chapel sharing Île de la Cité with Notre Dame has a history that is even more incredible than its stunning Gothic stained glass windows.

It was originally built in the 1200s to house religious relics from the crucifixion of Jesus, including the Crown of Thorns and pieces of the cross. The relics were brought to France by King Louis IX after they were pawned in Venice by a cash-strapped emperor of Constantinople. The price paid was more than three times the cost of building the chapel.

The relics remained among the country's most prized possessions until the French Revolution in the late 1700s. Being in the courtyard of a royal palace made Sainte Chapelle a prime target for the revolutionaries and the chapel was ransacked and most of the relics have not been seen since. The Crown of Thorns did survive and is now kept in Notre Dame.

The building was badly damaged in the revolution but rebuilt in the 19th century. Most of the original windows have survived. The chapel is split into two chambers: the ornately carved and painted downstairs for royal servants, which you think is really impressive until you step upstairs to the kings' chapel and its jaw-dropping elongated stained glass. If you are up on your Bible studies, a circuit of the windows covers the holy book from Genesis to the Apocalypse.
Address: 4 boulevard du Palais

March 1-Oct. 31, Daily 9:30am-6pm
Nov. 1-Feb. 28, Daily 9am-5pm
Adults 8 Euros
Kids 5 Euros
Other Resources
Sainte Chapelle

Stravinsky Fountain at the George Pompidou Centre (hidden gem)

This is Paris' bold statement that art should not be an elite cultural experience. The fountain is probably better described as a water sculpture garden with numerous whimsical, colorful mechanical structures spraying water about in a way that is supposed to represent the music of Igor Stravinsky.

You can ponder the meaning of that or just enjoy the fun of the visual spectacle.

Either way, it is a perfect neighbor for the George Pompidou Centre, a post-modernist steel-and-glass structure that not only exposes all its pillars and pipes but makes them a featured highlight. The escalator to the entrance crawls along the outside of the building like a giant glass caterpillar. Paris may have a fascinating past, but it is not a city that is content to live in it.

Among other things, the center houses Europe's largest museum of modern art. As a rough guide to how Paris divides its art among its major galleries, anything from the 20th century onward will be here, works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (such as Monet, Renoir, Degas and Van Gogh) from the 1800s are shown in the Musee d'Orsay, and anything older is in the Louvre.

Address: Place Georges Pompidou
Phone: +33 (0)1 44 78 12 33
Hours: Daily, 11am - 9pm
Admission: 12€
Other Resources
Centre Pompidou

Louvre (highlight)

This art lovers' mecca is arguably the most famous museum in the world--it is certainly the most popular, attracting more than 8 million visitors each year. Most of them seem to be permanently gathered around the "Mona Lisa" or the "Venus de Milo."

The former royal palace was transformed into a museum during the French Revolution (bucking a trend because that period is usually associated with the destruction of cultural objects). What started as a collection of 500 paintings in 1793 has grown to more than 35,000 works ranging from Egyptian antiquities to Renaissance masterpieces--more than can be displayed at once despite the gigantic gallery space.

This place holds some of history's greatest artistic treasures. Your visit should be inspirational but the sheer scale of contents can be overwhelming. The best advice is not to try to "do" the Louvre in one day (it would be impossible in a week). Do some pre-trip research on the website (see link in other resources) to pick a list of favorites you'd like to explore over two or three hours. If this whets your appetite, plan a second visit rather than risk sensory overload.

You can enter through the glass pyramid in the courtyard (the French are not afraid of mixing new with old--one of the reasons why Paris is such a dynamic cultural city) but there are other entrances if the lines look horrific. You can avoid the lines by buying tickets online beforehand.

Wednesday and Friday evenings can be quieter times to visit.
Address: 75058 Paris cedex 01
Phone: +33 (0)1 40 20 57 60
Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 9am-6pm
Wednesday, Friday 9am-9:45pm
Closed on Tuesdays
Admission: 10 Euros, under 18 free
Other Resources

Musee d'Orsay (highlight)

If travelers to Paris choose to visit just one art gallery, it is usually the Louvre, but it should be this one. You can leave the Louvre drained; most exit Musee d'Orsay exhilarated.

The Louvre was developed at a time when museums tried to capture all knowledge and achievement in one place, resulting in a collection spanning 4,000 years that's impossible to comprehend in one visit. Musee d'Orsay, on the other hand, focuses on the highlights of 75 years of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Even if you are not familiar with all the names, you will be with much of the work; it has been reproduced in advertising for decades. When Impressionists first went public (mid-1800s) they were considered radical and controversial. Influenced by the invention of photography, they rejected traditional formal composition and studio recreations of historic subject matter for the "impressions" of how light falls on everyday scenes in a fleeting moment. Poses are candid, the play of light is captured by how the painters used color, not shading. Post-Impressionists, notably Van Gogh, took the use of color a step further, using it unrealistically to create an emotional response (which in turn laid the early foundations for abstract art).

The building itself is a work of art--a former grand railway station that became obsolete and was transformed for its current purpose in 1986. Original features such as the huge clocks and windows have been retained, and the roof terrace is a great vantage point for views across the Seine, Louvre and beyond.

Address: 62, rue de Lille
Phone: +33 (0)1 40 49 48 14

Hours: closed Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday 9:30am - 6pm, Thurdays 9:30am - 9:45pm

Admission: 8€, 18 and under free
Other Resources
Musee d'Orsay

Musee de l'Orangerie (hidden gem)

Musee d'Orsay (POI 5) has some of Monet's work, but this is the place to visit if you want to experience the full impact of his gigantic "water lily" paintings. They stretch along entire walls of galleries especially designed to exhibit his huge canvases.

The small Musee de l'Orangerie also displays work by other Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Matisse and Picasso.

Address: Jardin des Tuileries
Phone: 33 (0)1 44 77 80 07

Hours: Daily 9am - 6pm

Admission: 7.50€, free entry on the first Sunday of each month
Other Resources
Musee de l'Orangerie

Paris Opera House (hidden gem)

This grand Beaux Arts building (officially known as the Palais Garnier) was the home of the Paris Opera for more than a century, until the company moved to a modern theater at the Bastille in 1989. While no longer a major venue, it still hosts its share of operas, ballet and concerts.

Even if you don't go for a performance, it's worth visiting during the day to take in the sumptuous gilt and marble interior. Two particular highlights are the ornate grand staircase and the wonderfully theatrical ceiling painted by Marc Chagall. From the ceiling hangs the grand chandelier. When part of this fell in 1896, killing a patron, it inspired the "Phantom of the Opera" legend.

Address: Corner of rue Scribe and rue Auber (Paris 9ème)
Phone: + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23
Other Resources
Paris Opera House

Shopping (highlight) and Paris from the rooftops (hidden gem)

Paris shopping is a summer sale pilgrimage for millions of international visitors every year, but in the blur of credit card activity most will miss some of the best city views.

Several of the major department stores, including Galeries Lafayette opposite the Opera House, have rooftop cafes offering birds-eye outlooks across Paris.

It's a useful compromise for avoiding couples' quarrels about whether spending an afternoon at the sales is a legitimate use of precious Paris holiday time. Women can enjoy the views, while their men explore the fashion racks below.

If you spend significantly, international visitors can claim back the 15 percent French sales tax. You need to produce the goods and claim forms when leaving the country. Ask in stores for details.

Pont Alexandre III (hidden gem)

This is the most elaborately decorated bridge across the Seine (and possibly in the world). Named after a Russian tsar who formed an alliance with France in the late 1800s, its cherubs and nymphs would not be out of place on a camp theater set. Indeed, it has been a well-used film location over many decades.

On a more practical side, it was regarded as a major engineering achievement during its day--constructing a single arch low enough to avoid obstructing views of the Champs-Élysées and surrounding landmark buildings.

Arc de Triomphe (highlight)

This iconic military memorial was built over 30 years in the early 1800s to honor the French killed in Napoleon's campaigns. Since then, the eternal flame underneath was added to mark the tomb of an unknown soldier from WWI, and it has served as a propaganda backdrop for every subsequent military victory by the French or armies invading them. The Germans famously marched their troops beneath it for the cameras in 1940 to mark the start of their WWII occupation, and the Allies repeated the process four years later to record the end of it.

It has also become the world's craziest roundabout with 12 major avenues converging on it with drivers of French temperament. It is a rite of passage to approach it in your rented car and successfully negotiate the lane-changing required to exit again. Pedestrians without a death wish should reach the Arc via the underpass from the Champs-Élysées.

Eiffel Tower (highlight)

It's hard to think of any place that has created a symbol so synonymous with their city. Nothing says "Paris" more than this steel lattice tower built as a temporary entrance arch to the 1889 World Fair.

It was supposed to be torn down after 20 years--none too soon for many Parisians who were outraged by its ugliness--but it quickly became a global attraction and today nothing in the world gets more paying visitors. That means you can wait in line for hours for the elevator to the top or just climb the 300 steps to each of the first two stages. Or, as a radical concept, don't climb it at all. If the point of going to the tower is to see it, then the top is the one place in Paris that assures you can't see it.

It's much more fun to see how many different ways you can photograph it while wandering the surrounding streets.

Address: near Quai Branly and Av. de Suffren

Daily: 9:30 am - 11 pm
From June 17 to Augut 28: 9am - 12am

Admission: Adult 13.4€, 12 - 24 11.8€, Child 4-11€, 4 and under free
Other Resources
Eiffel Tower

Paris in Winter (hidden gem)

Paris, for good reason, is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations and it absolutely heaves with visitors in the summer heat. After centuries of practice, the city copes pretty well with the influx but it should be regarded as a top destination in any season.

Winter is a great time to visit, with fewer crowds and cafe lounging continuing indoors or under outside heating. The food (another major French attraction) changes with the season and the food markets and menus fill with local game meats and winter produce. Target the foodie streets such as Rue Cler (the target of this POI marker) for a fantastic visual and gourmet experience.

Paris is a particularly good pre-Christmas location to pick up some unique presents and enjoy the stylish street decorations that the Parisians take very seriously.

Musee Rodin (hidden gem)

Perhaps the world's most famous Romantic sculptor, Auguste Rodin moved into this former hotel in 1908, making it his home, studio and finally leaving it and his sculpture to the state on condition it be preserved as a museum dedicated to his work.

Fortunately, the state was more than happy to oblige and visitors can wander the house and grounds to see his most famous work, including "The Thinker," "The Kiss," "Balzac" and his monumental "Gates of Hell," which remained unfinished after 40 years of labor.

There are also some pieces by sculptor Camille Claudel, Rodin's one-time student and lover. Their turbulent relationship was immortalized in the 1988 film "Camille Claudel."

Address: 79, rue de Varenne - 75007 Paris
Phone: +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10

Hours: Closed Mondays, Open 10am - 5:45pm

Admission: 6€, 12-25 5€, entry to certain exhibits are extra
Other Resources
Rodin Museum

Catacombs of Paris (hidden gem)

This is easily Paris' most bizarre tourist destination, but it has been attracting visitors for more than a century. You are either going to find it humorous, shocking or frightening.

Essentially you walk through a series of underground streets, decorated on all sides by human bones precisely stacked by workers with a macabre sense of interior design. It's a legacy of Paris cemeteries becoming so overcrowded by the 1700s that decaying human matter had started to leach through the soil and contaminate the city's well water supply. The solution was to create new cemeteries that were (then) outside the city for new burials, and dig up the old bones and place them in some distant unused stone mines (what is now the Catacombs).

You can just imagine the Catacomb workers checking the weekly roster: "Oh God, I'm on bone stacking duty again. Oh well, let's make the most of it by creating some patterns."

It's a good option if you are visiting Paris with Goth teenagers who weren't wowed by Monet's water lily paintings. To get you in the mood, the trail approaches the Catacombs through the Montparnasse cemetery (one of the "new" cemeteries once outside the city boundaries). This is the final resting place for a long list of famous artists and intellectuals including French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his American contemporary Susan Sontag (see link in other resources for a full list of residents). This is not the cemetery where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried--that's Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the city's east.

Address: 1, avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris
Phone: 01 43 22 47 63

Hours: Closed Mondays, 10am - 5pm

Admission: none
Other Resources
Catacombs of Paris

Sacre Coeur (highlight)

This lily-white basilica stands out like a beacon at the highest point in Paris, attracting tourists in the thousands every day and late into the night. I haven't put it on the trail because, unless you have a particular interest in Franco Catholic architecture, its hilltop setting makes it more spectacular to view from a distance.

If you are not convinced, it can be an interesting climb up through the former artist hangout of Montmartre, although the art sold at the numerous stalls along the way is the kind that excites you while you are on vacation and then spends its life in the garage when you return home. At night, Sacre Coeur is a great destination if you have a craving for street musicians singing "American Pie" and Simon and Garfunkel hits.

If you are wondering how it remains so white when grubbiness inflicts so many other European city buildings, it's because it's built from travertine stone that releases a kind of natural bleach when it gets wet.

Monet's Garden at Giverny via Gare Saint Lazare (OPTIONAL hidden gem)

If you were inspired by Monet's huge water-lily paintings at Musee de l'Orangerie, why not take a day trip out of Paris to where they were created?

Monet's house and garden outside the village of Giverny, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Paris, is a monument to the famous Impressionist painter. The house and studio are OK for a glance but the real attractions are the gardens and water lily lake with Japanese footbridge that he created and featured in his most famous paintings.

It's best to come in the mornings before the tourist buses descend in the afternoons. The fast train from Gare Saint Lazare (see POI marker) takes less than an hour and local buses are timed to meet the train. You can get a joint train/bus ticket from Gare Saint Lazare.

Open April to October.

Address: Fondation Claude Monet, rue Claude Monet 27620
Phone: 02 32 51 28 21

Hours April 1 - November 1, Daily 9:30 am - 6pm

Admission: Adults 8€, Children and students 5€, Children under 7 free
Other Resources
Monet's Garden at Giverny
Pictures in this guide taken by: garyspink, indy500, tomguiss

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