First time in Paris? 7 things you should do
It was a cold night when I climbed the stairs from the Parisian Metro up to the city street above. It was twenty days before Christmas, and the street was lined on either side by the type of wooden shop stalls you see in movies - painted festive red, stacked high with giant industrial-size jars of Nutella and signs promising warm edibles if you'd only care to step closer.
I walked past an ice skating rink, set up especially for the winter season. Further up the street, orbs adorned with blue and white fairy lights rested on the surface of a fountain. They were outdone only by the lights draped from street post to street post, beckoning you further up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe and the clumps of tourists posing for their snapshots.
What to expect in Paris
A tourist haven. There is a reason millions of people flock to Paris every year and eagerly scrawl the French capital's various sites on their bucket lists: the city caters to their desires with exquisite food, exclusive shopping streets, incredible views and an intoxicating mix of history, art, culture and style.
But it's not all magical Christmas fairs, the smell of roasting chestnuts and sparkling lights - Paris also has an often unexpected amount of grit and graffiti thrown in the mix. For example, I don't feel comfortable standing in some of those Metro stations for much longer than the 3 minutes it takes for the next train to arrive, thank you very much. But in other sections of town, I could wander the streets alone for hours.
But in a city with so much to see, what should you do first?
Wander among the artists of Le Marais
This lovely area of cute cafes, historical buildings, boutique bakeries and the beautiful Place des Vosges was a more recent discovery for me, but it's a nice change of pace if you've been queuing for major tourist attractions all week.
I even stumbled on a market on my way to Le Café des Chats (yes, that's a cat cafe), before securing a patch of grass in the Place des Vosges and enjoying some Parisian sunshine.
Descend into the catacombs
Interested in the darker side of the city of light? Well, the decaying remains of six million people are open for display underneath the streets of Paris.
While bones arranged in various creative displays in deep underground tunnels may sound like a nightmare to the sensitive and claustrophobic, it's an interesting opportunity to pretend to be Indiana Jones for a day learn more about the history of the area and imagine what life must have been like to the people now collected in this subterranean cemetery.
Devour a macaron (or two, or three...)
Where better to eat the popular French treat than in France? They are available everywhere -- even the McDonald's stores in Paris sell macarons (really, I took photos).
If you want to go gourmet, Ladurée is one of the go-to luxury retailers, while Paul's is one of the bigger bakery chains you'll run into every five minutes (give or take). But it may be worth browsing the pâtisseries you spot on your wanders around the city to see what you come across (taking this path lead me to giant macaroons from a bakery in Montmartre, which I promptly had for dinner three nights in a row).
There is also a strictly enforced rule (that I made up) that one cannot leave Paris without eating a crêpe au Nutella. Make sure you find the time faceplant into this handheld slice of gooey goodness.
Steal a glimpse of (or from) The Eiffel Tower
Despite what you've seen in movies, Le Tour Eiffel is not visible from everywhere in Paris (and almost certainly not from your hotel room window, unless you parted with a significant amount of cash monies to get that view) -- you're going to have to get in closer.
It does look beautiful at night (they light it up on the hour every hour after nightfall until the very early morning) and if you get off at the Trocadéro Metro stop, you'll have that perfect view almost the second you emerge from the underground station.
If you want to ascend and not just observe, be warned that the queues can be insane and steal a chunk of your sightseeing time, especially during the warmer months. If you want to head up in winter, you may have less of a wait, but bring your fluffiest knitwear - it's even colder up top.
Stroll along the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe
The iconic archway is one of my favourite monuments in Paris, and isn't as much of a time-eater if you're on an express trip. It's also situated on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (the famous shopping street) so consider jumping off the Metro at the bottom of the street and walking up towards the Arc so you get to experience both attractions. In summer, you can grab a scoop of ice cream from Häagen-Dazs on your way, and in winter, the lower end of the street plays home to a Christmas market.
As the Arc is also lit up at night and the shops stay open relatively late, this is an activity that is easy to squeeze in at the end of a day. Incidentally, Notre Dame is another architectural landmark that looks beautiful after dark, if you would rather stand in awe and snap a photo than enter the cathedral itself.
Explore the side streets of Montmartre
This artistic neighbourhood is best known for a cabaret and a church. Yep. While it gets incredibly crowded as you near the Moulin Rouge or ascend the hill to the Sacré Coeur (the view is worth the climb, despite what your legs may grumble in protest), if you wander off a bit, you can spend a leisurely afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets.
Grab some fresh fruit to snack on at a quaint grocer's shop (no overly-processed, shrink-wrapped goods here - they lay the vegetables in open trays nearest the street to entice you inside), investigate the handmade tarts in a bakery, or navigate the quirky stalls and shops while soaking up the personality of the area.
Take a day trip somewhere magical
If you've got a craving for roller coasters, pirates and princesses, Disneyland Paris is worth the trip out of the city. The haunted house is particularly frightening if you don't speak French (somehow, it doesn't sound nearly as creepy when the show is in English, right?).
More a fan of Marie Antoinette than Mickey? The stunning Palace of Versailles lies just outside Paris, with its mirrored halls, history and the most incredible, intricate ceilings (how did they get gold leaf up there!?) you'll probably ever see.
In love with Paris? What would you recommend as a must-see for first time visitors? Let me know in the comments!