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The Paris Dream Trip (Part 5): What To Do

(This article is part 5 of 8 in The Paris Dream Trip)

OK, so this is The Big One. You’ve planned the vacation, blocked out the time, found your lodging and worked out the transportation. But now, what exactly are you going to do?

Coming up below: Introduction, Big Advice (AFHNTGTWUIYE), Monuments, Museums, Neighborhoods, Parks, Cemeteries, Entertainment.


Remember, this series of articles is for the (relative) newcomer to the City of Light. Many of the Secrets of Paris articles are for old hands, where we introduce you to some hidden corner of the capital. But for the wide-eyed visitor fresh off the plane, Paris seems like an embarrassment of riches. Where to start?

Worse yet, Paris is the city that everyone knows before they arrive. It’s the city of Amélie, Jean Valjean, Ratatouille, hunchbacks, last tangos, red balloons, and those flashback scenes from Casablanca. Everyone knows Paris—or at least they think they do. Since you were old enough for your parents to prop you in front of a TV, you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower a million times. Who has never heard of the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame, or the Moulin Rouge? What about the Louvre, with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo? Newcomers know more about Paris than they do about any other first-time destination in the world.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem: you’re tempted to track down all the sites you’ve seen a bazillion times in films and magazines, as if to convince you that they really exist. Yup, you say while standing before the Iron Lady, that’s the Eiffel Tower all right! You elbow your way through the crowd to find the Mona Lisa, never getting closer than ten feet—only to discover that it’s smaller than you thought, and maybe—just maybe—seeing it doesn’t set your heart aflutter.

Then you feel a little let-down. The Japanese even have a name for it: Pari shōkōgun, Paris Syndrome—the depression people feel when they visit Paris and find that it’s now what they expected it to be.

How to fix this? First, we’re going to let you in on two little secrets.

First: Paris isn’t what you expect.

Second: It’s better.


Now comes the old sage portion of this article, filled with chin-stroking and finger-wagging. We call it Advice For How Not To Get Too Wrapped Up In Your Expectations. Or AFHNTGTWUIYE for short.

It’s really simple. Our advice falls into four points:

  1. Don’t Worry. In particular, don’t worry about hitting all the Big Sites. It is actually not currently a crime to go to Paris without going up the Eiffel Tower or setting foot in the Louvre. Yes, yes, that’s what everyone else seems to be doing—but that’s how lemmings think. Are you a lemming? This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do the Big Sites. Sure, the Champs-Élysées are kind of fun. The Louvre has great art. But only visit places you’re truly interested in. Don’t do it because you think you should.
  2. Get Lost. It’s a big city, and you’re bound to get a bit disoriented. That can be frustrating if you have an eight o’clock reservation somewhere, but if you have the time, allow yourself to stray. Even—or especially—if you’re at the Big Sites. For instance, go the Louvre, but spend time in the Antiquities section. Wander through the neighborhood you’re staying in.
  3. Give Yourself Time. Yeah, there’s a lot to do, but you can never do it all. Rather than trying to hit all the sites, just choose a couple of things each day, leaving plenty of time to eat, stroll, eat, have a coffee, people watch, eat, and shop. Oh, and don’t forget to eat.
  4. Be Open to Surprise. This is really just the combination of the first three points. Paris like a book full of plot twists and unexpected flourishes. If you try to try to “read” the city like a guidebook, you blunt its force. Only one thing is sure: the most important part of your trip will be something you haven’t planned. So leave room in your schedule for the unforeseen. Be ready for the unexpected.


Home to some of the most famous monuments in the world, Paris does a good job of showing it off. Many of these structures shape the skyline, and that may be enough. Others you’ll want to visit. Maybe just pick one or two? (Oh, and if you choose that famous A-frame tower, maybe check out the most-visited article of the Secrets of Paris site: How to Skip the Lines at the Eiffel Tower!)

Monumental (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, etc.)

Religious Architecture (Notre-Dame Cathedral, etc.)


Let’s take a deep breath. At last count there were 206 museums in Paris, so unless your visit is a couple of years long, you probably won’t get to all of them. All this to say that it’s overwhelming before you even begin, so maybe start by scaling down your expectations.

Most people get museum-brain (not to mention museum-feet or museum-lower-back) if they spend more than a couple of hours traipsing through galleries and exhibits. That’s OK: just recognize that you’re human and plan accordingly. If you’re really into it, maybe you can manage a museum a day. Maybe one day you could even do two. Most of us are regular mortals, and we get saturated fast.

What to? Well, choose carefully, for one thing. Remember, it’s not a crime to skip the Louvre! (If you do go there, choose your shoes carefully. The Louvre has 14.5 kilometers of galleries, 10,000 stairs, 35,000 art objects. To see everything at this one museum, spending ten seconds to admire each piece, you need three days and two nights, non-stop.)

Our advice: find something you’re especially interested in – the Postal Museum, the Museum of Hunting and Nature, the Sewers Museum….

Find a Museum:

The Big Three: Louvre, Pompidou, Orsay

Museums by Category
Museums by Arrondissement
Museums by Name A-L
Museums by Name M-Z

Also, don’t forget to check out the Museum Passes. And check here for Latest Openings and Renovation Closures


One of the great things about Paris is how each neighborhood has its own character. The city is really a collection of villages, and each one is worth a wander. Don’t just stay indoors!

Choose a neighborhood to wander through. 


And while you’re in that neighborhood, check out the parks. Paris has an astounding amount of green space, from tiny squares to sprawling woods. Want a pony ride for your kid? Looking for a place to job? Hoping to picnic without being hustled along by park guards? We spell it out.

Find the nature within the city.


OK, OK, so you find this a little morbid. Why on earth would you want to hang out with a bunch of dead people? Well, in part because the necropolis (literally “city of the dead”) mirrors the metropolis—with its spit and polish, its panache, its ruins, its ravages. Amidst the modest tombs of the poor are the grand crypts of the rich. Fame and anonymity rub shoulders. And, of course, you can stop at the tombs of Baudelaire, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Delacroix, Rossini, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Colette, and more. Definitely worth a stop.

Choose your cemetery!


All too often people think of Paris as a museum under glass. But no! It’s a thriving, vibrant place where people live, sing, dance, laugh and more. Don’t miss the opportunity to delve into some of the best entertainment you’ll find anywhere in the world. No, we’re not talking about the Moulin Rouge (though that’s there, too). But the city has more movies (including English-language) than you’ll find in any city in the world, stunning jazz, world renowned classical music and opera. Plays will often only be meaningful if your French is awfully good (though there are some English-language options), but the ballet and modern dance in Paris is second to none!

Are you with kids? Race off to the Parc Astérix, or track down the circuses and marionette shows. Or how about catching a soccer game at the Stade de France?

Learn more about the entertainment options.

Where to Eat

We know just what you’re thinking: How could Secrets of Paris do a mega-post about What to Do in Paris, and not talk about food! Here’s the good news: we fully appreciate how central food is to the Paris experience! Now the bad news: it’s such a huge topic that we’ve reserved the entire next post to deal with it.

That will be coming up next!

Remember, this is Part Five of an eight-part article that includes:

  1. Introduction
  2. When to Travel What are the best times of year to travel to Paris? What days should you avoid? What holidays get in the way?
  3. Where to Stay What are the best/safest/most interesting neighborhoods? How can you identify a good hotel? What are the apartment rental options?
  4. How to Get About Just a quick primer on the public transportation (buses, métro, RER light rail, trams, Vélib bicycles, etc.)—how to use it and how to avoid problems.
  5. What to Do This is a big one! How do you handle the “must-sees” while also personalizing your experience? The task seems Herculean, but don’t worry; we have the secret key to happiness.
  6. Where to Eat  Everyone knows how to look up ratings on Trip Advisor, but be honest: would you really trust your brother-in-law’s recommendation for where to eat? We thought not. So why blindly follow the tips of the corn-fed public? We guide you from restaurant selections to specialty diets (gluten-free, vegetarian, and more!)
  7. How to Handle Daily Needs There are all those pesky realities: getting hold of cash, finding a doctor, reporting a crime, getting a haircut, recycling your wine bottle… This is the bin o’ answers.
  8.  How to Shop The capital is a shopping Mecca—even for those not wanting to drop a year’s salary on a pair of LV socks. Get hints on deals, sales, and more.

Secrets of Paris has hundreds of articles in its archive, and as we walk you through these main topics, be ready to hop on a link to one of our specialty articles.

Next item coming up: Where to Eat!

Scott Dominic Carpenter is Contributing Editor at Secrets of ParisThe Author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth, Scott writes often about life in Paris.

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