Because of my life-long connection with Paris, I have been receiving questions from first time visitors as long as I can remember, usually wondering how to make the most of their limited time in the city. Then recently, I have noticed a new trend: “how can I do Paris in one day? I especially want to see…” A long list of the main tourist-magnet sites follows.
Start with a Reality Check
While it’s conceivable to “do” Paris in one day, and even be able to actually see some of it, it’s physically impossible to visit the all the main sites in this short a time. But don’t despair first time visitor, you can still enjoy your day in Paris. All you need is stamina and a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
Paris started over two millennia ago on a small spindle-shaped island in a bend of the Seine. From there, most of the notable palaces and monuments developed westward along the banks of the river. A six-kilometer (just under four-mile) walk, and an hour-long boat ridge will take you to most of the main historic spots of the city. But Paris hosts over 16 million overnight tourists a year, twice that if you add all the day-trippers. Which translates into huge lines everywhere you go. To actually get inside and do justice to any of the monuments and museums, you’ll need to add roughly half a day per main venue to your schedule, of just pick two and be content to walk by the others.
L’Ile de la Cité
Start on the island where it all began. Built on the eastern end of the Ile de la Cité, Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris, or simply Notre Dame) sits on top of the ruins of two earlier churches, themselves predated by a Gallo-Roman temple to Jupiter erected on what was first a Celtic sacred ground. Started in 1163, Notre Dame was intended to assert the prestige of Paris as the capital of the French kingdom. Construction took almost two centuries, but the outcome is one of the finest examples of early gothic cathedrals anywhere. Walk around the exterior, admire the countless statues and gargoyles, the spectacular flying buttresses, three monumental rose windows and intricate rooflines, including the two 69 meter (226 foot) tall towers, and the 90 meter (295 foot) spear that was added in the nineteenth century.
Then walk along the Quai past the next two bridges. At the third bridge (Pont Saint Michel) turn right onto the Boulevard du Palais, past the gilded grillwork of the formal courtyard of the Palais de Justice (courthouse). On weekdays, you may even catch a glimpse of the black-robed magistrates going up the grand staircase.
At the corner, a massive rectangular tower, once a watchtower, holds the first public clock in the city (circa1418). Cross the Seine and continue west along the Quai de la Messagerie. Look back on the Ile de la Cité for the best view of La Conciergerie. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings of the medieval royal palace. A former prison, now a museum, La Conciergerie is best remembered for its most famous inmate, Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was imprisoned there before her beheading.
Keep walking past the Pont Neuf (or New Bridge, but actually the oldest standing bridge in the city), to the next one, the pedestrian Pont des Arts that had its railings virtually destroyed recently by the weight of all the padlocks left by tourists as a memento of their visit! Please, ignore the bridge and turn right instead through the elegantly arched entrance of the Louvre. You are now in the Cour Carrée (Square Courtyard), surrounded on all side by the oldest part of the Louvre. The Renaissance-style wings were started in the sixteenth century by King François I and added upon by almost every subsequent monarch until Louis XIV’s move to Versailles. Sit on the fountain in the center of the vast courtyard and enjoy the view. On each wing, look for the monograph of the king under which it was built.
Go through the archway at the center of the west wing (also known as Pavillon de l’Horloge or Clock Pavilion). You are now in the New Louvre with its north and south wings and pavilions that extended the palace by some 500 meters (1,600 feet) on either sides of the Cour Napoléon in the nineteenth century. Since 1989 it is the home of the Pyramide du Louvre, the famous glass and metal pyramid designed by Chinese American architect I.M. Pei, that now serves as the main entrance to the The Musée du Louvre. The Louvre is one of the oldest (circa 1793) and with over 38,000 pieces of art displayed across more than 60,000 square meter (646,000 square feet) of gallery space dedicated to permanent exhibits, one of the richest art museums on the planet. Consequently it draws almost 10 million visitors annually, and during the high season lines can stretch for hours in front of the pyramid. But there are two (perfectly legal) shortcuts to access the main entrance hall and admire the pyramid from below. My Parisian friends may shun me if I broadcast them, but I am happy to share with you. If interested, just contact me.
Le Jardin des Tuileries
Go to the triple-arched Arc du Carousel to your left across the road from the Louvre (mind the traffic!) and stand in front of the center arch. From there you get a great view clear through the Jardin des Tuileries, the Obelisk in the center of the Place de la Concorde and all the way up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. You are now in the Jardin des Tuileries created by Catherine de Medicis in the sixteenth century on what was then a clay quarry surrounded by roof-tile factories (or tuileries). A century later, the Tuileries were redesigned by André Le Nôtre, the landscape architect and royal gardener of Versailles who made the formal Jardin à la Française famous throughout Europe. Parisians have been strolling here since 1667. The garden has been renovated many times, most recently in the 1990’s, but Le Nôtre’s formal design remains intact.
La Place de la Concorde
At the far end of the Tuileries, you arrive Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris (8,6 hectares, or 21 acres), created in 1755 as Place Louis XV, after the then reigning monarch. At the north end, two superb identical building, prime examples of Louis XV Rococo architectural style, sit on either side of the Rue Royale. The one on the left side is now the famous luxury Hôtel de Crillon, named after its previous owner.
During the Revolution, the square was renamed, you guessed it, Place de la Revolution. It became the scene of many well attended public executions including King Louis XVI (grandson of the original namesake of the square), Queen Marie-Antoinette, a number famous noblemen and revolutionaries alike and some 2500 others were guillotined here. The square was renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795, as a gesture of national reconciliation after the turmoil of the Revolution.
The giant Egyptian obelisk inscribed with hieroglyphics exalting the reign of Pharaoh Ramsesses II that stands at center of the Place de la Concorde was offered by the Egyptian government to the French in 1829. The 23 meter (75 foot) high column of yellow granite is one of a pair that marked the entrance of the Luxor Temple. It was erected at its current spot and flanked by two neo-classical fountains in 1836.
Les Champs Elysées and Le Grand Palais
Once you get across the Place de la Concorde, you are at the bottom of the Champs Elysees. Stay on the left side of it and enjoy the view up the avenue with the Arch of Triumph at the top, until you get to the Avenue Winston Churchill on your left. There are two large “palaces” facing each other across the Avenue Winston Churchill.
On your right, the Grand Palais is a unique Belle Epoque exhibit space built for the 1900 Universal Exposition. With its Ionic-columned façade topped by a colossal Art Nouveau glass roof, it is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. It hosts over 40 major art expositions and international events per year in three separate exhibition areas, including the central nave with its 13,500 square meter (145,000 square foot) floor space topped by the largest glass roof in Europe. But the Grand Palais is equally famous for its striking exterior executed by over 40 artists of the time. Notable artworks are the massive mosaic frieze behind the colonnade of the façade, and the two quadrigas (four-horse-drawn chariots) that top the front corners.
Le Petit Palais
By now you have walked about five kilometers (three miles) and you probably feel ready for a break. Cross the Boulevard Winston Churchill to the Petit Palais. Like its big brother across the street, it is a Beaux Arts style extravaganza built to hold a major exhibit of French art during the 1900 Exposition. It was meant to be a temporary structure but Parisians loved it and mercifully refused to let it go. It became a city-owned museum in 1902. Think of it as a mini-Louvre without the lines. Entrance to the permanent collection is free. If there is a high profile temporary exhibit (in which case there will be a line going up the stairs to the main entrance), walk around to the door under the right side of the staircase and tell the security guard you are here for the permanent exhibit only. I especially like their Art Nouveau and Art Deco period permanent collection, but my favorite part of the building is the exuberant interior garden, relatively peaceful and with an above average cafeteria-style coffee shop. In good weather there are bistro tables around the vaulted gallery surrounding the garden, or you can take your tray and sit in the garden for a quiet picnic in verdant surroundings right in the heart of Paris.
Le Pont Alexandre III
Also built in time for the 1900 Exposition, this is the most spectacular bridge in Paris, dotted with giant candelabra-like lampposts and flamboyant sculptures of cherubs and nymphs. Both ends are punctuated gilded winged statues on 17 meters (56 feet) high granite pillars. Admire, but don’t cross the bridge. Rather go down the stone stairs to the bank of the Seine and continue westward for 10 minutes to the dock of the Bateaux Mouches.
Les Bateaux Mouches
The oversized glass-enclosed boats, with their long open roof terrace depart at least hourly year-round and more frequently during the high season. Just sit down and let the city come to you. The cruise goes upriver from the Eiffel Tower to beyond Notre Dame and back to its starting point in about 70 minutes. You get a close look at the bridges, both banks of the river and all the historic monuments, including some you’ve already seen at street-level, from a different perspective, with a recorded commentary in multiple languages. The Bateaux Mouches began cruising the river over six decades ago. Since then a number of other companies have begun offering similar services. I prefer the Bateaux Mouches because their height and open roof deck give me the best photo opportunities.
La Tour Eiffel
If you still have enough energy once you get off the boat, walk across the Pont de l’Alma to the Eiffel Tower. By now it’s probably getting late and the lines may have subsisted sufficiently for you to consider going up the iconic Paris landmark. You’ll be rewarded with the ultimate view of the city. Elevators can take you all the way to the top (third floor) although service from the second to the third floor may be suspended in case of high winds.
Enjoy your day in Paris. Should you decide to follow this itinerary, please share your thoughts so we can keep refining it for future visitors.
Good to Know
- The Jardin des Tuileries is open daily from 7:30am to 7:30pm from the last Sunday in September to the last Sunday in March and from 7am to 9pm for the remainder of the year.
- The Petit Palais is open year-round, Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Like all City of Paris Museums, it is closed on Monday, as well as some national holidays. The coffee shop closes at 5pm.
- Les Bateaux Mouches are docked at the Pont de l’Alma. http://www.bateaux-mouches.fr/en. Contact: tel. +33 1 43 25 93 10.
- La Tour Eiffel is open year-round. From mid-June to early September, elevators run from 9am to 12:45am. Last ride up is at midnight for the first and second floors and at 11pm for the top. The remainder of the year, elevators run from 9:30am to 11:45pm. Last ride up is at 11pm for the first and second floors and at 10:30pm for the top. http://www.toureiffel.paris/en.html.