What are the best places to visit in Paris? Think of me as your Paris guide throughout the city’s historical treasures. As with most European capitals, Paris is a history buff’s dream, so narrowing down my list of “can’t miss” places is a herculean task. But after giving it much thought, I narrowed my list down to just 21 places—I never was good at playing favorites! As is my nature as a historian, my “places to visit in Paris” list progresses chronologically. This post highlights some of my favorite Parisian sites starting with the ancient times and progressing through the Age of Discovery.
Originally called Lutetia (or Lutece in French), reminders of the city’s Roman roots exist in a few places throughout the city. In front of Notre Dame at the Archaeological Crypt, visitors are transported back in time 2000 years as they visit the city from its earliest stages. I found it particularly thrilling to descend beneath the city and see the layers of the town throughout the ages unfold.
- Tip: You might want to consider purchasing the Paris Museum Pass. The ability to bypass ticket lines is practically worth the cost alone, but it covers so many museums and monuments that I found myself visiting places that I might not have otherwise. Since I wasn’t paying an additional admission fee, I didn’t feel guilty about not thoroughly exploring a spot or just stopping in to see what a site is best known for. The pass has 2,4, or 6 day options and you can enter as many times as you want during the duration. Stop by the Louvre and see Renaissance art one day and come back on another for an afternoon stroll through the ancient galleries.
At the Arenes de Lutece, visitors can see the archaeological remains of a Gallo-Roman amphitheater). Constructed in the 1st century AD, the theater’s remains are located in the 5th arrondissement. When we were there, we had the place to ourselves. Although certainly not as well-preserved as other theaters I’ve visited, I enjoyed climbing about the ruins. There are some great food markets nearby (rue Monge) and the arena would be a great place for a picnic amid historical ambience. Best yet, it’s free to see the ruins.
Ancient meets medieval at the Musee Cluny. Housed in the former town house of the abbots of Cluny (1300s-1400s), treasures of the Middle Ages fill the unique Gothic building designed with Renaissance elements. Visitors can see the famed tapestries depicting the Lady and the Unicorn, as well as original statues from Notre Dame and other medieval artifacts. To the side of the monastery are ancient Roman baths dating from the 2nd century AD. It’s a visual feast!
Speaking of gorging on art, the Louvre draws visitors by the millions—as well it should. Holding some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, the former palace isn’t too shabby either. Visitors can see the palace’s medieval underpinnings dating from the 12th century, as well as more recent (still a few centuries old) additions. Gaze up at frescoed ceilings, descend down elaborate staircases, look out wrought-iron windows at the gardens, or view the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, The Wedding at Cana, Liberty Leading the People, and so much more!
On the Ile de la Cite (island in center of Seine River and the heart of Paris), within easy walking distance of one another are two famed churches and one famed prison. Interestingly, the buttressed ceilings of the prison remind me of the churches. The stained-glass windows at Sainte Chapelle (1248) and Notre Dame (1345) are works of art rivalling those in the Louvre. The nearby Conciergerie (from 1200s) was the prison where Marie Antoinette spent her final days before losing her head.
Bridging the Middle Ages with those of the Age of Discovery (1400-1700) is the area of the Marais. This delightful district is one of my favorites. It has fabulous architecture, wonderful shops, and great eateries. In all, it is pretty perfect. While wandering down cobblestone lanes on a Sunday afternoon, I kept encountering antique markets (brocante). It seemed that every medieval arch I found led to a courtyard where vendors were selling their vintage wares. Even if there are no brocantes being held while you’re there, stroll around and see the Hotel de Sens (a late 15th century mansion), the Hotel de Ville (city hall dating from 14th century), the Hotel de Carnavalet (building dating from 16th century now hosting a history museum) and the Place des Vosges—a ritzy building complex (early 17th century) where Victor Hugo lived (you can tour his home). I guarantee you will be on sensory overload from seeing so many architecturally-rich buildings. Make sure to have a meal in the Marais. I found their cafes to be some of the best with a nary a tourist trap in sight. Restaurant Tip: Listen to hear if patrons are speaking French. Look for menus in French. Avoid places with menu boards that have pictures of the food.
Although it may be difficult to drag yourself away from the Marais, you simply cannot miss the chance to stroll through some of Paris’ public gardens. Two of my favorites are the Palais Royal and the Luxembourg Gardens—both dating from the 1600s. Although in completely different areas of the city, both have gorgeous palaces to gaze upon. The Luxembourg Palace housed Marie de Medici and that family’s wealth and art patronage is evident by the architecture, statuary, and gardens. I enjoyed my favorite sandwich—jambon beurre (ham and butter) on a crusty baguette while watching older men playing boules (like bocce ball).
Military buffs and those who dream of being an emperor will enjoy Les Invalides. This complex holds what may be Europe’s greatest army museum, as well as Napoleon’s Tomb. Look for a gilded dome if you are lost trying to find it. The tomb is something not to be missed. Napoleon definitely thought a lot of himself, as did those who constructed the marble sarcophagus that holds his remains and its surrounds which deify the former emperor. The dome above the tomb features beautiful frescoes. Although the military museum was a little too war-mongering for my tastes, I did enjoy seeing suits of armor, tanks, and artillery. I was fascinated by the sheer size of this former hospital for aged and unwell soldiers. Les Invalides’ location in the 7th arrondissement is also close to some of the sites in my next article (Paris Part Deux) where I uncover more places to visit in Paris. We would look at Paris tourism sites covering the Enlightenment Age through La Belle Epoque. Hint: one is by a guy named Eiffel who built a tower.