A perennial favorite of tourists, Paris fires up the imagination, delights the senses—and draws the crowds. According to the 2013 Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index, Paris is the world's third most-visited city. Short of skipping those iconic sites, how can the savvy traveler maneuver Paris without wasting precious time in long lines or falling into tourist traps? While there's no magic trick for escaping the crowds, the tips below will help ease your way, so you can see the best the city has to offer and cherish the memories.
Consider foregoing the museum's hyper-crowded, all-star triumvirate—the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory (under renovation until summer), and Venus de Milo—in favor of tantalizing treasures and smaller exhibits located far from the teeming crowds. Check out the superb new Islamic wing; the Greek, Roman and Etruscan room under Cy Twombly's azure ceiling; and Rembrandt's luminous Bathsheba at Her Bath. To avoid interminable lines at the central pyramid entrance, buy tickets in advance, in person or online, at any FNAC store (there's one in the Carousel de Louvre underground shopping mall next to the museum) and enter via one of the alternate entrances, in the Carousel du Louvre or the Passage Richelieu. There's also a second, lesser-known ticketing entrance at the Porte des Lions.
Insider Tip: After leaving the teeming Louvre, cross over to the beautiful Palais Royal gardens, where you can stroll under Linden trees, relax on a lawn chair next to the central fountain, and explore some of Paris's best boutiques in the former palace's elegant arcades.
Sacré-Coeur and Place du Tertre
The views from the 19th-century basilica and Montmartre's old-world charm are legendary, and so are the crowds. In high season, Place du Tertre is best avoided, as are the tourist cafés and shops below the church. Instead, visit the basilica early or late in the day (sunset is lovely and can be surprisingly uncrowded), wander the meandering streets off Rue des Abbesses, or head up to one of Paris's last remaining vineyards (les vignes de Montmartre) behind Sacré-Coeur, at 14-18 Rue des Saules.
Insider Tip: Rue des Martyrs, an old market street, is one of the city's best lanes for exploring, shopping, and eating. Begin at the Place des Abbesses and head downhill to discover super-chic boutiques, cafés, and gourmet shops.
Unfortunately, there's no avoiding the lines if you want to see the cathedral's interior during daytime hours (a must for the gorgeous windows), view the gargoyles up close from the towers, or descend into the crypt (both have separate entrances). In the summer, late weekend nights have fewer crowds, but your best bet may be an evening musical performance (you can purchase tickets online or at the cathedral's reception desk, from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm, or at 8:00 pm on the night of the event). The cathedral's online calendar offers detailed information on all events.
Insider Tip: The surrounding gardens of Notre Dame offer a nice alternative view of the cathedral's exterior. Take a stroll over the bridge to the lovely Île Saint-Louis for some Berthillon ice cream or sorbet, some of Paris's best. For a tea salon, your best bet is at opening or during the late afternoon on a weekday (closed Monday and Tuesday and in August). Alternatively, you can find a cone or cup from one of a dozen vendors on the island.
As Paris's second most-visited monument, lines at the Eiffel Tower are daunting. Buying tickets online ahead of time is essential, but you'll still end up in the ticket-holder's line. If you're intrepid—and fit—a good way to save hours in line is to walk the 328 steps up to the first level (340 more to the second) and take the lift from there. For the rest of us, one of the best techniques for skirting lines can also be a pricey one—reserve a table at 58 Tour Eiffel, the tower's first-floor bistro (lunches start at €40.50, €18.50 for children 12 and under) that comes with a lift ticket and priority access to the first floor. Lunch or dinner at Alain Ducasse's superb Le Jules Verne restaurant (second floor) gives you breathtaking views from the comfort of a plush dining room and VIP access on a dedicated lift (lunch €98; dinner €185 and €230). All reservations can be easily made online.
Insider Tip: Skip the lines altogether, with the bonus of a knowledgeable guide, by taking Easy Pass Tour's Skip-the-Line Eiffel Tower guided tour (€59), offered two to three times a day, depending on the season. If guided tours aren't your thing, they also offer Priority Access Tickets (€40) where you skip the line with the group, but once in, you're on your own.
- The Paris Métro has all but done away with ticket booths in favor of machines. Although easy to use and in English, the machines don't take American-style strip credit cards. If you don't have euros, you can go to the information booth where strip credit cards will be accepted by the attendant. A carnet of 10 tickets costs €13.70; if you're taking the Métro frequently, multiple-day passes can save time and money. The RATP also has an excellent app for all the information you could possibly need.
- The Paris Museum Pass can be a good way to avoid waiting in line and is greatly optimized if you are planning to visit two or three museums a day for several days in a row. Know what you want to see and do the math in advance. For example, many museums are free for children under 18 and offer discounts for people 62 and older, but not all. Be aware that the pass does not always allow you to skip lines.
- A wonderful way to see Paris is by water. The Batobus (boat bus) operates exactly like a bus, arriving at 20-minute intervals at eight of Paris's most frequented monuments, including Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Musée d'Orsay. An all-day adult pass is €16 (€7 for kids under 16), and allows you to hop on and off at will or ride as long as you like.
Don't be scammed
Like any big city, Paris has its share of scams and pickpockets. Here are some basic pointers to keep in mind:
- The ring trick is popular here: if you're approached by someone asking if you dropped a gold ring, walk away.
- Paris pickpockets are skilled. Wear cross-body straps for bags and camera cases at all times. That way, if your hands are temporarily needed for something besides clutching your bag, you won't be an easy target.
- Do not be distracted from your belongings by a squabble or other disturbance. Don't pull out your wallet in public or carry it in your back pocket. It's advisable to keep cash in multiple places (that you won't forget) and leave your passport in a hotel safe or securely within your luggage.
- Don't ever allow assistance at an ATM. If it's jammed or your card won't work, do not use your PIN code in the proximity of a stranger.