With so much to see and do in Paris, it’s hard to narrow it down to the essentials while still experiencing a bit of everything it has to offer. We’ve selected the crème de la crème of the city, mixing in the classics with some off-the-beaten-path gems to help you plan a weekend, a longer trip or even your next few visits. Most of all, the sites listed here make up le vrai Paris and are sure to provide a memorable — and authentic — experience.
Housed under the soaring roof of one of Paris's grand old Beaux-Arts railway stations, the recently renovated galleries of the Musée d'Orsay contain the world's largest collection of Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Gaugin, and many others. With two excellent cafés and a magnificent restaurant original to the train station, dining is a breeze and guided tours of the museum highlights in English are available every day (see the museum website for times and scheduling). There's also a fabulous bookstore for stocking up on gifts.
Once the great sculptor's studio, this stately 18th-century mansion is one of Paris's most beautiful museums and contains more than 6,000 of Rodin's sculptures, including his great masterpieces The Thinker, The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell, along with 8,000 drawings and gouaches. The lovely grounds of the Musée Rodin, complete with a fountain, rose gardens, and a pleasant outdoor café make for a delightful afternoon outdoors. The museum also hosts special exhibitions and a cycle of exhibits on contemporary works. Following three years of renovations, the museum fully re-opened in November 2015.
Far from the noise and bustle, these serene formal gardens and elegant shops tucked behind the walls of a 17th-century palace are a delightful haven and one of Paris's best-kept secrets. Once a royal residence, the hushed arcades and manicured gardens of the Palais-Royal are now home to world-class perfumers, antiquaires and designer boutiques—including Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, and Pierre Hardy-and two of France's most important glove makers (Maison Fabre and Lavabre Cadet). Enjoy lunch or teatime outdoors or splurge like Zola, Proust, and Colette did at the gorgeous Grand Véfour restaurant. Afterward, explore the lovely Jardin des Tuilieries.
Fondation Louis Vuitton
Rising up out of the Bois de Boulogne like a magnificent ship sporting billowing crystal sails, Frank Gehry’s contemporary-art museum and cultural center is the most captivating addition to the Parisian skyline since the unveiling of the Centre Pompidou in 1977. Commissioned by Bernard Arnault (chairman and CEO of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH), it houses Arnault’s substantial private collection, including pieces by Pierre Huyghe, Gerhard Richter, Thomas Schütte, Ellsworth Kelly, Bertrand Lavier, Taryn Simon, Sarah Morris, and Christian Boltanski, among others. La Fondation Louis Vuitton also hosts extensive temporary exhibitions, like the mesmerizing light installations of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
Nothing says Paris like the Luxembourg Gardens. Bordered by Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, these lovely gardens are beloved by Parisians longing to bask on a lawn chair in the sunshine or enjoy an impromptu picnic. Children of all ages race their sailboats in the basin behind the Sénat, romp in the enclosed children's' playground, take in a puppet show, or ride the city's oldest merry-go-round. A favorite circuit for joggers and amblers, the many paths are also perfect for an afternoon stroll past espaliered orchards and the old apiary, where beekeeping is taught and the honey is sold in the fall. Don't miss the excellent art exhibits at the renowned Musée de Luxembourg.
Just behind the Notre-Dame gardens, the Pont Saint-Louis pedestrian bridge leads to the atmospheric streets and lively shopping of the Ile Saint-Louis. A perfect walk for flaneurs just taking in the majestic facades and quiet courtyards of beautiful 17th-century mansions, this peaceful island is truly an oasis. Enjoy traditional Parisian fare at the Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis or sample one of the 90 scrumptious flavors of handmade, all-natural ice creams and sorbets—in flavors like wild strawberry, noisette, rum raisin, and white chocolate—at Bertillon, Paris's most famous ice-cream maker.
There's nothing quite like seeing Paris from a boat on the Seine—and there's no lack of boats to choose from. See Paris's graceful bridges up close along with the city's most famous landmarks on a relaxing 2 to 4 hour boat ride. The bateaux mouches offer everything from a gourmet meal, a flute of champagne or just sightseeing with commentary. Another option: the Bateau Bus operates continuously from 10am until 9:30pm every 20 minutes from eight stops around Paris. For 15€ you can hop on or off wherever and whenever you like all day long. Stops include the Musée d'Orsay, Louvre, Eiffel Tour, Champs Elysées, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
This immensely popular museum rose phoenix-like in late 2014, when it finally reopened after an ambitious (and often controversial) five-year makeover that cost an estimated €52 million. Home to the world’s largest public collection of Picasso’s inimitable oeuvre, it now covers almost 54,000 square feet in two buildings: the regal 17th-century Hôtel Salé and a sprawling new structure in the back garden that's dedicated to temporary exhibitions. Diego Giacometti’s exclusively designed furnishings in the former are an added bonus.
The most recognized symbol of Paris is the Tour Eiffel, but the ultimate traveler's prize is the Louvre. This is the world's greatest art museum—and the largest, with 675,000 square feet of works from almost every civilization on earth. The three most popular pieces here are, of course, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory. Beyond these must-sees, your best bet is to focus on whatever interests you the most—and don't despair about getting lost, for you're bound to stumble on something memorable.
Looming above Place du Parvis on the Ile de la Cité, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame is the symobolic heart of Paris and, for many, of France itself. Napoléon was crowned here, and kings and queens exchanged marriage vows before is altar. There are a few things worth seeing inside the Gothic cathedral, but the real highlights are the exterior architectural details and the unforgettable view of Paris, framed by stone gargoyles, from the top of the south tower. Begun in 1163, completed in 1345, badly damaged during the Revolution, and restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, Notre-Dame may not be France's oldest or largest cathedral, but in beauty and architectural harmony it has few peers—as you can see by studying the facade from the square in front.
For the rest of your best Paris bets, including the foodie stretch Rue des Martyrs and the world's largest and oldest flea market, visit Fodor's.