Paris Tourist Traps
Every year, France’s glorious capital welcomes over 15 million visitors, many of whom spend hours on end queuing up at some of the city’s “must-sees.” But is the visit worth the wait?
Short answer: sometimes.
Most everything in the city has its charms, says Paris expert April Pett, owner of the award-winning April in Paris Tours — but some sights are more worthy of your time than others.
To help with your planning, we’ve rounded up 12 of the hottest tourist attractions in the city...and ranked their must-see status. (Insider tip: According to April, the one place you should absolutely skip is Galeries Lafayette, a nothing-special department store that's become a tourist trap.)
Read on to find out what attractions can, and absolutely cannot, be missed.
#12. Avenue de Champs-Élysées
Fashionistas often hear the sirens’ call of the shops on the picturesque Champs-Élysées in the 8th arrondissement — many major brands have opened beautiful flagship stores along this renowned avenue. (The Louis Vuitton flagship store often has a queue that wraps along the side of the building, allowing just a few clients in at a time.)
If shopping is what you want, it can be done here, but it’s not an entirely unique experience; many of the shops are the same brands that can be found all over the world.
Advises April: “Come here for the macarons at Pierre Hermé, but leave the shopping for Le Marais,” a historic district where you can find actual Parisian brands and cute boutiques.
#11. Cafe de Flore & Les Deux Magots
In a city with no shortage of cafe terraces, there are two in particular that have found international fame and an ongoing rivalry: Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore. Located within a block of each other on the trendy Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés, these cafes became hotspots in the 1920s, and have welcomed writers, artists, intellectuals and luminaries like Picasso, James Joyce and Julia Childs.
Today, they are still exceedingly popular for the Parisian pastime of having a drink and people-watching. But there are caveats: For one thing, you’re more likely to find tourists here than locals. And on days when the weather is excellent, finding a table can be challenging (if not entirely impossible).
April also notes that prices are a concern. While you can “channel your inner Hemingway when visiting these cafés,” she says, “you will pay a pretty penny for a simple espresso.”
#10. Père-Lachaise Cemetery
This famous resting place in the 20th arrondissement is a major pilgrimage site for fans of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison and other cultural icons like Molière, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde. With over 70,000 burial spots spread over 110 acres, it’s Paris’ biggest cemetery — and the most visited in the world. It’s also the city’s biggest park, and makes for a serene way to spend a few hours.
While not quite as special as some of the other entries on this list, April says this is a wonderful addition to the itinerary if you have the time. “At the entrances of the cemetery, there are plaqued maps to help mark out the graves you would like to visit,” she says. “Make sure to wear comfy walking shoes as you can easily wander around the cemetery for hours on end, admiring the beautiful tombs and monuments and searching for your favorite celebrities.”
#9. Quartier Latin
When the Sorbonne was founded in the 12th century, Latin was the official language used at university and would often be spoken on the street by students in the neighborhood. The area became known as the Latin Quarter, and though you probably won’t hear much Latin being spoken these days, you’ll find that this arrondissement is still full of students from all over the world.
The world-famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore is located here, as well as a handful of museums, the gastronomical wonderland of Rue Mouffetard and souvenir shopping on Rue de la Huchette. April notes that since it’s the student quarter, budget-friendly eats are plentiful here too.
“You can find three-course meals starting at 10 euros per person, where you can sample French onion soup and the classic steak frites, and end with a chocolate mousse or cheese platter. These are not the fanciest establishments in town, but you can taste the flavors of France without breaking the bank,” says April. “You can also make the most of happy hour in the evenings, and listen to some live jazz at La Cave de la Huchette.”
While not as immediately impressive as Paris' more iconic sites, this is a top spot for exploring Paris' youthful side like a local.
#8. The Moulin Rouge
Before Baz Luhrmann created his whimsical version for the big screen, the Moulin Rouge was a performance venue for some of the biggest entertainment names in France (Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, to name a few) and the birthplace of what we know today as the can-can.
Recognizable by its high kicks, cartwheels and splits, this physically demanding and energetic dance was captured in paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In operation since 1889, the original building burned in 1915, and was rebuilt and its format transformed a few more times until it became today’s version: a cabaret venue showcasing a revue called “Féerie,” performed while patrons enjoy dinner.
According to April, it’s a fun night out on the town with three shows each evening (and your ticket price includes half a bottle of champagne!).
#7. Catacombs of Paris
The subterranean world of the Paris catacombs includes over 200 miles of tunnels, left over from quarries under the city. Part of these tunnels are now a final resting place for the bones of over 6 million bodies moved from overcrowded Parisian cemeteries in the mid-18th century.
Only about a mile of the tunnels is officially open to the public for touring these days (though that doesn’t stop some “cataphiles” from exploring further). If you’re into skulls, crypts and a bit of history, definitely put this on your “to-do” list.
April advises buying “skip-the-line” tickets (about 30€) in advance to beat the hour-long lines. “If advance tickets are out of your price range, I would recommend arriving early, before the doors open,” she suggests. “Once you exit the metro, grab a croissant and coffee and have breakfast while waiting in line to be sure you will be one of the first to get in.”
#6. Tuileries Garden
Stretched between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, the nearly 70-acre Jardin des Tuileries was commissioned by French queen Catherine de Medicis in 1564 to serve as the royal gardens (where noblefolk were able to peacefully stroll), eventually becoming a public park after the French Revolution. The garden is host to several sculptures, artfully placed plants and many species of trees, all meticulously maintained.
“Grab a green chair aside one of the fountains and take a break from touring,” recommends April. “It's a perfect place to stop and smell the flowers. La Terrasse de Pomone is a wonderful little café tucked inside the gardens, a nice spot for some lunch and a glass of wine under the sunshine. There is also a carousel in the Tuileries, fun for the kiddies! And in July and August, a fun fair is held in the gardens.”
#5. Les Bateaux-Mouches
If you want to see the sights but desire a change of perspective, consider taking a cruise on one of the many boats on the Seine. These river boats, called bateaux-mouches, were originally an inexpensive method of transport before the existence of the Paris Metro, but are now one of the best ways to view popular attractions without having to navigate through pedestrian crowds and traffic.
Says April of this top-five pick, “One million percent, do this! Take a river cruise along the Seine at sunset to capture the magic of the City of Light.”
The boat’s route passes by sites like the Grand Palais, Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, which you can view from the comfort of your seat while having a coffee, lunch or even dinner. No advance tickets are required: Just be aware of the departure schedules (boats leave every 20-30 minutes depending on the time of year).
#4. Montmartre the Sacre Coeur Basilica
French film fans may remember the popular Montmartre neighborhood as the setting for the movie "Amelie."
“Montmartre is the perfect place to watch the city transform from day to night, since it is atop the hill overlooking Paris,” says April. “Go inside Sacre Coeur and have a stroll through Place du Tertre, where you can purchase a painting for your mantel and enjoy a crepe or a glass of wine, or both!”
Beautiful and majestic over Montmartre, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica requires a bit of a climb and can be uncomfortably full of tourists and potential scammers and pickpockets on any given day. But if you're a fan of Romano-Byzantine architecture and old, beautiful churches, it's nonetheless 100% worth a visit, enough to land it high on this list despite those drawbacks. You can even skip the physical labor by paying for a tram to take you to the top.
Ascending on foot? Be watchful of the pushy vendors at the bottom of the hill, prepare for the climb, and enjoy the spectacular view from the highest point in Paris.
#3. The Louvre Museum
If you have a major interest in art, the Louvre is an obvious choice for a site to visit — it’s the biggest and most visited museum in the world.
Note, though, that this popular spot can be overwhelming; April strongly recommends a guided tour to make its exploration manageable. If you decide to go it alone, either purchase your tickets online and print them out in advance, or expect to wait in a long line just to get tickets (unless you show up before opening).
“There are 35,000 pieces of art on display at the museum. If you spent 30 seconds looking at each piece, you would be inside for 18 days,” April says. “Of course everyone wants to see the ‘Mona Lisa,’ and she is fabulous, but make sure to check out Napoleon's Apartments and the Galerie d'Apollon, which served as a model for the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.”
#2. Notre-Dame Cathedral
Before Victor Hugo published "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," the church was in bad repair, but the book became its best piece of PR. Today, Notre-Dame is the second most visited tourist attraction in Paris, and while it still needs a bit of restoration, it’s a sight to behold with its 12th century French Gothic architecture, impressive stained glass windows and a powerful 8,500-pipe organ. The line in front may be long, but it moves fairly quickly since admission is free and simply requires a bag check to enter.
April suggests climbing up the bell towers of Notre-Dame for a beautiful panoramic view of Paris, where you will come face-to-face with the gargoyles and Emmanuel, the 13-ton bell that rings every hour. To visit the bell towers there is a 422-step climb to the top and the cost to visit is 10€.
#1. Eiffel Tower
No Parisian tour would be complete without visiting Paris’ Iron Lady, built for the World’s Fair in 1889. The looming figure of the Tour Eiffel has become synonymous with the City of Light, and has served as the city’s centerpiece for nearly 130 years.
If you have reservations about going to see the most hyped attraction in the city, it’s understandable, but April highly recommends a trip up the tower at least once. From the top, you get a 360-degree view of the entire city and its landmarks. Ticket queues can be long and even sell out, so consider buying your tickets in advance. Or book a restaurant reservation at Le Jules Verne that can get you to the 2nd floor.
“She is just magnificent, both day and night,” remarks April. She recommends seeing the tower "from afar or the ground at night, especially when she twinkles for five minutes on the hour, every hour.”
A final word of advice from April: “Don't overplan your trip to Paris.” She says that often, tourists plan every moment of every day and by the end of their stay, they are exhausted. Allow for some free time for a real Parisian experience. And remember that you essentially can't go wrong no matter what you fill your time with.