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Tourist Things to Do (and to Skip)

There are a zillion things to see in Paris. See them all. I've listed here some of my favorites, some of the classics, and some of the weirdest. You decide which is which. The thing I've listed first here is there for a reason: most people never check it out, and it really is the coolest thing in the world.SaintDenis

Basilica St. Denis. First gothic cathedral, really. A must see. Take the metro (line 13) to the stop Basilique de St-Denis (the St. Denis—Université line). You'll see it as you get off the metro; if you don't, just follow the signs. This is so worth it that you won't believe you never came here before. The gothic cathedral owes its existence to the Abbot Suger, who believed that God is light, which led him to try to build towering structures that would admit large amounts of light. The walls couldn't support the weight and they would collapse during construction, which led to the famous flying buttresses (Tom's father was obsessed with those). When you visit, make sure to get the really cool headphones they have that know what you're looking at and narrate to you what you're seeing in whatever language you choose (within reason, of course). Make sure to see the crypt—really. They have all (well many) of the dead kings' tombs here (I guess it's lucky they're dead), and they have Louis XIV's heart in a reliquary (although it's kind of hard to see). This might be the single most interesting thing to see in Paris (actually it's just outside of Paris, but leave me alone, I've been writing for a long time).

Notre Dame. Of course. Even if you've never been in a single church in your life, go here (and this isn't a church; it's a cathedral). You'll be awestruck by the architecture and by whatever it was that motivated people to build this thing almost a thousand years ago. Go to the archeological dig in front of the Notre Dame at sunsetcathedral (the crypt). Walk through every inch of the place. Do everything. Climb the towers, which you do by going around the left side of the building and paying 12 euros or so. If you're there in the summer, go up around 10:00 at night (I think it's Tuesday night they're open, or maybe Thursday—check. Do I have to do everything?). The view you get as the sun is setting is absolutely breathtaking and you'll feel changed by it. There used to be a very unusual man at the very top of the towers who would show you the bells and creep you out. Lines get long in the summer for both the towers and the crypt, so choose wisely (but almost no one knows you can climb the towers at night two days a week in July and August—Friday and Saturday, until 11:00—so you can skip merrily up without waiting (all 387 steps), all the while looking and feeling smug). If you promise not to tell anyone I told you, there are two things to do that you're not supposed to do but are worth it if you can get away with it. First: they often have the far end of the sacristy closed off for people who want to pray. This is perfectly fine in Tom's book. If you'll promise to look very respectful and reverent, and do it perfectly silently and creeping along like a cat, Tom recommends that you slip through the barrier, looking as though you're headed to the service in back, and check out this area, paying special attention to the tombs there. Second: um, never mind—this one's too risky.

Less than a stone's throw away from Notre Dame is the absolutely breathtaking Sainte-Chapelle. Situated on the Ile de la Cité, within the complex constituted by the Palais de la Cité and the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle is a thirteenth-century chapel that was situated within the palace on the Ile de la Cité where most of the kings of France up through the fourteenth century lived. Legend has it that the Sainte-Chapelle was constructed to house the crown of thorns (which is currently in Notre Dame). The Sainte-Chapelle is constructed in what's called the rayonnant Gothic style, which means that the lines of the architecture draw your eyes upwards. But the thing you can't miss—and likely can't get over—is the absolutely stunning stained glass. With something like fifteen windows, each more than forty feet high and over 1,000 scenes depicted, this is perhaps the most breathtaking stained glass display you will ever see. I put a picture up of the structure, but it just didn't do the glass justice, so you'll have to take my word for it and just go. You'll find the 10 euros well worth it.

ConciergerieAttached to the Sainte-Chapelle is the Conciergerie. This entire complex (see Sainte-Chapelle above) was part of the complex housing the kings of France until the 14th century; when Charles V moved his lodgings to the Louvre, the Conciergerie became an administrative structure and it also became a prison. During the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, the Conciergerie housed those prisoners who were about to face the guillotine. There's a really striking room that has the names of the people who were beheaded during the terror (there's something like 2,500 of them), and you can see the cells of famous people, including Queen Marie Antoinette. They sometimes have the blade of the guillotine on display. Tom's not saying that he's touched it.

FuniculaireStepsMontmartre. This is a nighttime thing. Take the metro to Abbesses and then follow the signs to Sacré Cœur, which is a 19th-century basilica. You'll have to climb a lot of hills and stuff. Or, if you don't want to take the 220 odd steps you see here, you can take the funiculaire that goes up the same slope, and, interestingly enough, your metro tickets and/or pass navigo work there. Once you get to FuniculaireSacré Cœur, look at the amazing view of the city. This is best just around sunset. Watch the young people dancing on the steps to the latest music they're piping out of their boom boxes. Just—really—take in the amazing view. Remember, though, that there are going to be a lot of people here. Now go to the top of the stairs and follow the crowd around the left side of the church (as you're facing it) and head into the crowded streets that lead to the Place du Tertre, which used to be a place where real artists painted but is now frequented by charlatans who will ViewMontmartreNightask you for insane amounts of money to paint an unflattering caricature of you. Resist absolutely. Thing is, for all the stuff not to like about Montmartre, it's pretty great. Do not eat at any of the restaurants facing the main square, but some of the ones around back aren't half bad. You'll note a certainly Disney-like feel to this place, owing in part to the lighting and also in part to the insane amount of memorabilia shops aimed at tourists. But don't just stay at the very top: wander around a bit. By all means—and this is something you should do during the day, of course—go inside the basilica (although it is open at night as well). There are some interesting diagrams on the right side as you enter about where bombs fell during the war, and the byzantine opulence of the interior is well wroth seeing. Above all, do climb to the top of the basilica's dome dome(the entrance is around to the side of the building). At the first level you'll be able to look out into the basilica's interior from quite a ways up. If you're not claustrophobic, you can climb all the way to the top of the dome, and get one of the most remarkable views imaginable of the entire city of Paris. This is not for those who dislike tight places, by the way: if someone is coming down the top-level steps while you're trying to go up, you'll, um, get to know them very well. If you like the movie The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain, for example, you can see the real produce market where a lot of it was shot. Go to the top of the Rue des Trois Frères, and you'll see it—and you'll know it, too, because the owner has a lot of stuff aimed at people who want to see the place. You can take your picture there, too, since they don't mind (and the Rue des Trois Frères has some pretty decent restaurants). You should also just walk around the little streets here, and you'll find great places to eat and drink all over. By the way, you should also check out the area at Abbesses, where I told you to get out of the metro. It's got one of only two few remaining original covered metro stops. Take a walk along the rue des Abbesses heading west, to where it turns into the rue Joseph de Maistre—good eats and drinks there. Go up the rue Caulaincourt. Go to the Bateau Lavoir, where Picasso first started doing his cubist paintings, and where other artists hung out, too, at the Place Emile Goudeau (get there by following the rue Ravignan).

Boat ride on the Seine. Yeah, you should probably do this. It will look really hokey when you look at the boats from the shore, but once you're on the thing I'm sure you'll love it. You can do meal cruises on these things, with prices ranging from 50 euros for lunch to 135 euros for dinner, but you can also get away with just riding on the boats and enjoying the scenery for under 15 euros. You'll note there are almost a dozen companies that operate these these river cruises, too, so you'll have to either (a) do your homework or (b) just jump on the nearest one and see what happens (Tom would opt for choice b). I suggest taking one of these at sunset.

 

Tom's Map of Tourist Things To Do

 

Tuileries. Metro Tuileries, Palais Royal, or Concorde. This is a garden type thing at the west end of the Louvre. Hang out here and sit in one of the iron chairs. Watch old ladies. Look at the flowers. You should definitely go to the Tuileries, which are quite beautiful. It's good to go here after you've spent a long time in the Louvre, because you can kind of get your vision back after focusing closely on very detailed stuff for a while. Often in the summer they'll have strange festivals here with rides and such. You should absolutely go on the giant Ferris wheel if it's up when you're there (but the jury is still out on whether you should buy the truly odd picture they take of you when you're getting off the wheel). Be forewarned that the ferris wheel might seem like a bit of a ripoff, since you only get a couple revolutions. Interestingly, even people who are smart often don't know that the name IronChairs"tuileries" comes from the factories that used to be around this area that produced roof tiles (tuiles). There, now you know, and you can lord it over people.

Now, speaking of those iron chairs, they have the same ones in the Jardins du Luxembourg, where you should, of course, also go. But I don't feel like describing that lovely spot right now; I want to talk about those damned chairs. There are two different kinds, and if you're new to this you won't notice and you will hence get screwed out of a more comfortable visit. Regulars, however, know the difference, and they train their hawk-like eyes on the ones that have armrests. It's not just about the armrests themselves—these chairs are engineered better, and there's something about the angle of the seat to the back that makes them more ctom's feetomfortable. OK, so much for the physics of this. The really interesting part is the sociology of the whole thing. Most people sitting in one of these parks that have the iron chairs will do everything they can to (1) get an armrest chair; and (2) get another, non-armrest chair to put their feet on. It's not just that they'll try to do this: watch the subtle way they go about rounding up their prized iron possessions. Since you can't legitimately deprive someone else of a place to sit just so you can rest your tired dogs, you have to be very crafty in arranging things so you get one of the good chairs to sit on and one of the cruddy ones for your feet. And people won't ever quite lunge for a good chair—they'll kind of walk nonchalantly toward one, increasing their speed if they see someone else aiming for the same chair. It's really a trip.

Invalides. Metro Invalides. This is paradoxically both boring and interesting. Go here if you like Napoleon. He's buried there.

EiffelBelowEiffel Tower. This is on my list of things both to avoid and to do. Don't like paradox? Deal with it. First, I think you'll spend a lot of time waiting in line to go up to the top, and once you get there (if you haven't had all your money stolen by the pickpockets who congregate there like flies on shit) you're so high up that you have no perspective on anything and you just want to spit off the tower anyway. The view of the city is much better from the top of Notre Dame or from the top of Montmartre. A big plus, however, is that you can pee up there (there's a bathroom); there's something oddly exhilarating about this. Mark my words: if you go up here you'll be sorry you wasted your time. Then, I think, it's really cool. You look at the positively massive structure of the thing and you can't believe it was ever built in the first place. The view from the top, although alienating, is also breathtaking. Even from below, as in the image above, it's stunning, and you look up at it and marvel at the thing's construction. It's also good to take the stairs (but they only go to level 2, not all the way up). It turns out not to be anywhere near as hard as you'd think to climb the stairs (weirdly, it's much harder going down), and you don't have to wait anywhere near as long in line (and it's cheaper). There's also a bizarre sign half way up in French and English that says, "Please do not leave EiffelObjectobjects on the Eiffel Tower." I don't know why this strikes me as weird, but it does (and as you see here, some people do leave objects on the Eiffel Tower, at least on the stairs going up). There are two restaurants on the Eiffel Tower: Altitude 95, on the first level; and Le Jules Verne, on the second level. I haven't eaten at either one of them, so anyone who has, I'd appreciate your input here. ADDITION: Jackie tells us that the Jules Verne is great (see Restaurant page). BTW, to get to the Eiffel Tower, take the metro to Dupleix or Bir-Hakeim. Alternately, you can take the RER to Champ de Mars/Tour Eiffel. Weirdly, it's not as easy to get here as you'd think.

Paris Saint Germain Football (that's soccer to you). Even if you're not a soccer fan, I'll bet you'll have a heck of a time at a Paris Saint Germain football match. The team plays in the Parc des Princes, a nice stadium that holds 48,000 screaming fans (emphasize the screaming and you'll get a brief idea of the action here), and it's easily accessible by RER (line C, station Boulevard Victor) or metro (Porte de Saint Cloud or Porte d'Auteuil). The stadium's address, in case you're driving or going by cab or something is 24, rue du Commandant Guilbaud. Don't be alarmed if you see buses of security guards (CRS)—that just means the game will be good. The fans are rowdy and hence interesting, and the matches are usually pretty exciting. Check here for the schedule and other information about the team.

Père Lachaise Cemetery. Metro Père Lachaise (surprise, surprise). It's not creepy unless you get lost in there (which is quite easy to do) near closing time. It's easy to find Jim Morrison's grave, because all sorts of Americans have left signs that say things like "This way to the end." Kids will be camped out there really stoned and acting weirdly religious and solemn, and they actually have guards posted there. The bathrooms are truly disgusting.

PainAuChocolatAs you're walking around, you'll no doubt get hungry, and you'll be tempted to bop into one of the many, many pâtisseries (bakeries) that you see all over Paris. Do it. You'll quickly learn that most of the stuff is even better than it looks. Tom's absolute favorite thing in this domain is the pain au chocolat, which is often described as a chocolate croissant by people who are idiots. A pain au chocolat is, rather, a pastry that consists of more or less the same pâte feuilletée (although ever so slightly sweetened) you find in a croissant, and it's got a few morsels of real, good, bittersweet chocolate in it. It's not sickeningly sweet, because there isn't that much chocolate in it—there's just exactly enough. I'm still trying to find the best one in the world, so we're taking nominations here.

So far the standout winner here is Eric Kayser. They have a number of outlets in the city, but Tom's favorite is at 14, rue Monge, in the 5th (metro Maubert-Mutualité).

Arènes de Lutèce. Lutèce was the original name of Paris, by the way. No one goes here—most people aren't even aware of this place—but you should definitely go. It's a real Roman arena right in the middle of Paris (and Allen points out that you can see Sharon's finger in this picture). Take the metro to ArenesLuteceJussieu, go up the rue Linné and turn right on a little street (Rue des Arènes). It's so bizarre you won't believe it. Dead calm hidden right in the middle of one of the city's busiest areas. People will be playing lawn games there, and some folks will likely be picnicking in the stands, which turns out to be a very fun thing to do (and there are a few boulangeries in the neighborhood that sell sandwiches in addition to the pastries you'd expect). They claim that over 10,000 people could fill this arena, which was built some time after the first or second century CE; it was only uncovered in modern times in the middle of the nineteenth century. Read the plaques if you can: apparently they used to fill the darned thing with water and do battle ship contests here, too. There's a whole website, by the way, dedicated to the playing of pétanque—lawn bowling, bocce, whatever you happen to call it—in the Arènes de Lutèce.

Nat reminds me that I really have to put something in here about the Catacombs, and he's right, of course (but don't tell him). Absolutely gazillions of bones (those of six million people) dating back hundreds of years, all there for you to enjoy several dozen meters under the streets of Paris. They're open odd times, so call before you go (01 43 22 47 demBones63); as of this writing you can check the dead people out every day from 10:00 to 8:30 (although they stop letting people in at 7:30). The official entrance is at 1 av du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, but it's really just right on the place Denfert-Rochereau (metro or RER of that name). It's 12 euros to get in. Wear cruddy shoes, because it can be pretty wet down there (you really are quite a ways down beneath the city), and you might get chilly even if it's really hot out. I'd wear old clothes, too, because if you brush up against, um, stuff, you can get crud on your clothes, and since you're not really sure what it is, better off not ruining your Chanel outfit (people were bandying about the phrase "corpse juice," but Tom's pretty sure that's not what any of this is). You'll likely want to use the flashlight app on your cell phone to see some of the details here (and to check out some of the darker recesss). If you spook easy, don't do this—you really have absolutely no idea how many bones there are, and once you're down there, you pretty much have to walk all the way through (a half mile maybe?). You desensitize to it, and then all of a sudden you turn a corner and you think, "Oh my god, how can there be that many bones here?" The really cool thing is that the galleries extend through all parts of the city, but you're more or less limited to being under the 14th arrondissement. As a word of warning, the catacombs have become very popular of late, so if the line extends around the two curves of the square, you're talking about a wait time of between 1.5 and 2 hours. Just so's you know.

Champs Elysées. I'd just avoid the whole thing, but if you want to take a stupid andMarseillaise sickening walk, get off the metro at Charles de Gaulle Etoile and walk all the way down to the Place de la Concorde (which, by the way, leads into the Tuileries described above). Don't go to a café here because you'll have to mortgage your house to have a cup of coffee. Don't buy anything here for the same reason. Don't even go here. But while you're there, do go to the Arc de Triomphe. If you take the metro that I recommended above, you'll emrge up the escalator to a rather striking view of the monument, and just ahead of you, slightly on the left, you'll find the entrance to the underground passage that will take you safely to the arch. (Do not try to access the arch by crossing the incredibly busy traffic circle that surrounds it.) For a mere 12 euros you can climb—yes, climb, because there's no elevator—to the top of the arch and get a stunning view of the city. You can furthermore learn a lot about French history, you can view the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I, and you can also see the astonishing sculptural reliefs on the sides of the arch (you're seeing the Marseillaise here).1Pietons

In the same general category, I suppose, are the little pedestrian streets between the boulevard Saint Michel and the rue Saint Jacques. They're completely charming, of course, and they're jam-packed with people strolling around looking at the various restaurants, mostly Greek and other Mediterranean varieties. You'll have to learn to avoid the animateurs who stand out front and literally grab you by the arm to try to get you to come into their fine establishments. These places are very cheap, and there's generally a reason why (see the Restaurant page for further information here). Tom doesn't really recommend that you eat here, unless it's to grab one of the sandwichs grecs and eat it on the run—these are actually quite excellent, especially with frites. But you will enjoy walking around this area.

OperaGarnierThe Opera, at the métro stop and place of the same name, is a wildly ornate nineteenth-century structure engineered by Garnier. You can visit it—guided for 10 euros or on your own for 6—but if you want to see the main auditorium you're pretty much going to have to go for the guided tour or have some guts. The guts part is, of course, more fun. If you do the 6-euro visite libre they restrict you to going into one of the little opera boxes on the first balcony level, and it's pretty much of a rip-off. However, if you wander around enough, you're bound to find an open door on the main level. Go in and sit in one of the plush seats. You'll get yelled at and chased out, but it's worth it. Otherwise the visit itself isn't.

Moulin Rouge. 82 boulevard de Clichy, métro Blanche (01 53 09 82 82). You've seen the movie with Nicole Kidman. Well, this is nothing like that. Which is not to say that you shouldn't MoulinRougego—only that you shouldn't go expecting, well, that. What you've got here is basically a Las Vegas style show, only it's French. I went once—a friend of a friend was a dancer there, and she got us front-row seats—and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but you'd better bring a sense of irony if you go. The thing is, the dancers are truly amazing, and they make what they're doing look effortless. In the famous can-can, they're actually kicking back up and over their shoulders. If you're sitting close you can see the strain on their smiling faces. The horses are good, the dogs, everything is good. But it's so weird that you can't quite believe it. If you do decide to go, consider not doing the dinner show, but one of the later ones, where you get a bottle of champagne. You might need it. Thing about the Moulin Rouge, though, is its history: the place has been there since 1889, and so much has happened there that it's worth checking out even if you decide not to go in.

Sex shows, shops, etc. The sex shows are often called "life shows," which really tickles me. If you want to go to one, go to FoliesPigallethe ones at Pigalle rather than any of the other ones you might see. You'll probably end up around Pigalle anyway, especially if you go to Montmartre, since one of the main metro stops (Pigalle) is there. Take a walk down the boulevard Clichy toward the west and you'll see these gigantic, neon-facaded sex shops and clubs with these guys out front who will take you by the elbow and try to entice you in. Don't worry—they're not terribly hard sell, and if you just say "merci" or nothing at all they'll simply leave you alone. If you want to avoid them completely and still see what's going on at Pigalle, just walk down the broad middle strip of the boulevard Clichy. Thing is, these places used to look really sordid, with bizarre and lurid giant color photos out front hinting at what you'd find inside. Now they have these really forbidding exteriors that make them look like fortresses—I suspect a city ordinance of some sort made them change their look, since they all have adopted more or less similar facades. (Do not, by the way, go to the porn shops or sex shows on the rue Saint Denis. In fact, try to avoid the rue St. Denis (which is a street in Paris, 2nd arrondissement and not the suburb where the basilica is), particularly at night, or at least the couple of blocks between the rue de Tracy and the boulevard Bonne Nouvelle. The rest of it is more or less fine. It used to be pretty scary, with a lot of prostitutes and people who looked threatening hanging about. It's not exactly anybody's kindergarten today, but it got a facelift much like the one Disney (or whoever) gave to Times Square a while back. Now it's got some very popular restaruants and cafés on it, but you'll still see sex shops and the odd (I chose that word advisedly) prostitute. I don't advise going sight-seeing here. Oh, and btw, the picture above happens to be at the Place Pigalle, and it's not a sex show. It's actually a really good night club.

This brings up the question of safety. Paris is remarkably safe for a city this size. For example, although a couple million people take the metro on a given day, there are on average only 6 violent crimes per day. You can walk around almost anywhere (almost! but you're not very likely to wander into the sections I wouldn't walk around in at night, so don't worry) at all hours of the day and night and not be bothered. This is cool.


Readers Chime In...

Lee writes: "I recall going to the Lido to see the show. I had read, perhaps in one of Arthur Frommer's books, that if you request a ticket for the "Promenoir" or the bar, you can get to see the show for less money. Promenoir may have been at the Folies Bergère where you eventually can get a seat once the show starts; the bar at the Lido. Anyhow, if you avoid the dinner shows and take advantage of the bar or standing in the rear of the theater, you can do well. In each place, the show was great." 116 bis Avenue des Champs-Elysées; metro Georges-V or Charles de Gaulle-Etoile. Check them out here.

Steven has this recreational tip: if you like motorcycles, cars, boats, and other hobby items, the Avenue of the Grande Armée is the place to be. Go between the Arc de Triomphe and the Seine River to the northwest and you will find dozens of places that appeal to these interests.

Ryan suggests seeing Paris by Segway. He writes, "City Segway Tours (formerly Mike's Bike Tours) rents Segways. It's especially neat to see Paris by Segway by night. My mom and grandma and I rented Segways in 2003. My grandma was 73 at the time and their oldest rider thus far. It was awesome. Segways are fun. You can ride all over the sidewalks and all sorts of people came up and asked for brochures. We stopped at an ice cream place and recharged." You'll find their web site here, and Tom will add that he's listened to their tour guides' descriptions of Paris, and let's just say that, well, they're no Tom.

César recommends a trip to the top of the Tour Montparnasse (metro Montparnasse-Bienvenue): "You can climb up to the last floor of the tower by a high-speed elevator. There you will have 360-degree view of Paris with maps to help you locate the main tourist attractions. There is also a café to enjoy the view while drinking something and you can climb up by stairs to the very top of the building. Bring a coat because it is very windy there. The price for students is 6 euros. It's, of course, nicer in summer daylight. You will get amazing pictures form there."

Anne L. of Rochester, NY, recommends the view from the Pompidou Center: "The view from the outside escalator going all the way to the top of the Pompidou museum is quite wonderful. When you get there the restaurant on the top floor of  the museum is chic and modern; the service is good and the food quite tasty if rather expensive."

Isn't it time you submitted that thing to do in Paris that you've been thinking about? Do it now, and do it here.


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Tom's Guide to Paris. Copyright 2017 by Thomas DiPiero. All rights reserved.