20 Ultimate Things to Do in Paris

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With so much to see and do in Paris, it's hard to narrow it down to the essentials while still having an experience that's a good balance of everything the city has to offer. We've selected the crème de la crème of the city—some places are well known, others off the beaten path—to help you plan a long 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. —Jennifer Ladonne

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Musée d’Orsay

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.

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Musée Rodin

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.

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Palais-Royal Gardens

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.

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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.

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Luxembourg Gardens

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.

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Ile Saint-Louis

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.

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Bateau Mouche

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.

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Musée Picasso

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.

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The Louvre

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. 

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Notre-Dame

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.

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Rue Saint-Honoré

If designer shopping and elite French brand names set your heart all aflutter, get thee to the rue Saint-Honoré. The favorite haunt of fashionistas the world over, here you'll rub elbows with everyone from Japanese DJs to Saudi Princesses. Whether it's the ultra-hip (Colette, Damir Doma, Comme des Garçons), French status labels (Goyard, Hermès, Chanel), or something a bit less pricy but every bit as stylish as the big boys (Zara, & Other Stories) you're sure to find it here. Beginning at the Palais Royal and ending at the Elysée Palace, it's an afternoon prowl to satisfy the most indefatigable shopper.

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Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen

A world unto itself, the 150-year-old market is the world's largest and most famous flea market. Within the Marché aux Puces‘s labyrinthine alleys and stalls can be found every imaginable curiosity and treasure at a price for every pocketbook—from vintage couture and antique luggage to gilded mirrors and burnished silver, there is truly something for everyone. Even if you don't love antiques, you'll still adore the market's ambiance, totally unique to Paris. The Village Vintage offers the best of mid-century modern fashions and furnishings, and all of Paris is flocking to Philippe Stark's stylish Ma Cocotte restaurant.

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The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is to Paris what the Statue of Liberty is to New York and what Big Ben is to London: the ultimate civic emblem. French engineer Gustave Eiffel—already famous for building viaducts and bridges—spent two years working to erect this iconic monument for the World Exhibition of 1889. Today it is most breathtaking at night, when every girder is highlighted in a sparkling display originally conceived to celebrate the turn of the millennium. The glittering light show was so popular that the 20,000 lights were reinstalled for permanent use in 2003. The tower does its electric dance for five minutes every hour on the hour until 1am.

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The Marais

Hands down the best shopping neighborhood in Paris, the Marais is all that and so much more. Located in the historic 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the Marais's ancient hôtel particuliers (private mansions), superb museums (Musée Carnavalet, Cognacq-Jay Museum, and the soon-to-reopen Musée Picasso), great restaurants, cafés, Paris's famous old Jewish quarter, and the lovely Place des Vosges make it an absolute must-see. Wander up the rues Vieille du Temple and Franc Bourgeois, two of the neighborhood's central spines, and discover the charming side streets and the quartier‘s many hidden delights.

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Rue des Martyrs

Paris's old market streets are often overlooked by visitors busily running from one monument to the next. This is a mistake, since they are an authentic part of Paris that's not always easy to come by, especially on a short trip. If you visit only one, this bustling street full of fromageries, boulangeries, and boucheries should be it. A central neighborhood market for over two hundred years, the older purveyors of everything from fruit to fish share the street with newer, more high-end pastry shops, chocolatiers, gourmet cafés, and upscale boutiques, adding to the street's considerable charm and lively atmosphere.

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Basilique du Sacré-Coeur

It's hard to not feel as though you're climbing up to heaven when you visit Sacred Heart Basilica, the white castle in the sky, perched atop Montmartre. The French government commissioned it in 1873 to symbolize the return of self-confidence after the devastating years of the Commune and Franco-Prussian War, and architect Paul Abadie employed elements from Romanesque and Byzantine styles when designing it—a mélange many critics dismissed as gaudy. Construction lasted until World War I, and the church was finally consecrated in 1919.

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Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Make no mistake: the Champs-Élysées, while ceding some of its elegance in recent times, remains the most famous avenue in Paris—and, perhaps, the world. Like New York's Times Square or London's Piccadilly Circus, it is a mecca for travelers and locals alike. Some Parisians complain that fast-food joints and chain stores have cheapened Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but others are more philosophical, noting that there is something here for everyone. Anchoring the Champs is the Arc de Triomphe, Napoléon's monument to himself. At the other end, the exquisitely restored Grand Palais plays host to some of the city's grandest art exhibitions. 

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Deyrolle

A cabinet of curiosities par excellence, the superb taxidermist Deyrolle has been charming and educating Parisians since 1831. But the word “taxidermist” falls short in describing the wonder of this beloved boutique. More like an enchanted forest, with tigers, bears, and a gigantic giraffe lounging peacefully before cases brimming with birds, insects, butterflies, animals, shells, corals and reconstructed skeletons. Drawers hold every imaginable insect and butterfly to create your own box or peruse examples of the many botanical, entomological, and zoological posters that have graced the walls of French classrooms for 150 years. 

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Covered Passages

Precursor to the shopping mall, these architectural gems, with glass ceilings, marble walls, and mosaic floors, were a place for well-heeled Parisians of the early 19th century to gather under the glow of gaslights in the warmth of the heated arcade's luxurious shops, restaurants, and cafés. Now the charming vestiges of a time long past, these beautifully preserved passages offer a cornucopia of alluring boutiques, bookshops, art galleries, candy shops, and much more. Although there are dozens to see, some of the best include Galerie Vivienne, Passage du Grand Cerf, Passages Joffroy & Verdeau, Passage Molière, and the Cour du Bel Air.

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Mini Palais

There's nothing like a spacious outdoor terrace to while away an hour or two, but even better—a terrace with a view, great food, and terrific wines by the glass. The gleaming Monsieur Bleu restaurant at the Palais de Tokyo center for contemporary art is just such a place. With sweeping views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, the large, open terrace is fast becoming Paris's most sought-after spot. But with one of the most beautiful décors in all of Paris, you may be torn between indoors or out. For a less pricey all-hours spot, try the Mini Palais‘s soaring terrace overlooking Pont Alexander III. Open nonstop from 10am to 2pm, it's a rarity in Paris.

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