People dream all their lives of visiting Paris. So when they finally get the opportunity, they want to see EVERYTHING. They research top sights on Google, make lists, read Tripadvisor, buy guidebooks, and generally try to pack in as much as possible.
But holidaying is more than just ticking off items of a bucket list and seeing everything from a speedboat. You need to consider as well what not to do in Paris, and how to avoid those Parisian tourist traps.
The 4-day Itinerary to Paris
When planning a trip, tourists often ask locals like me for advice about itineraries like this:
- Day 1: Airport to the hotel, lunch near Notre Dame Cathedral, boat trip on Seine, Eiffel Tower, and Champs Elysées & Arc de Triomphe.
- Day 2: Louvre museum, Tuileries & Concorde, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre.
- Day 3: Conciergerie, Musée d’Orsay, Luxembourg Gardens, Pantheon, Saint-Germain-des-pres, Latin Quarter, and Catacombs.
- Day 4: Day trip to the Palace of Versailles and visit the Marais & Bastille neighborhoods in the evening.
After reading this type of itinerary, I usually sigh and point them to my bucket list tips of things to do in Paris. It may be technically possible to follow this itinerary, but I hope you brought a comfortable set of shoes!
While we don’t want to ditch that plan completely, it perhaps needs to take a few tweaks into consideration. Here is are my top tips on what not to do in Paris, in order to make that 4-day itinerary a more enjoyable one.
I. Things not to do
1. Don’t rush around on holiday
The French have a lovely word called “flâner”, which is the art of strolling around. Why would you want to rush around, especially on holiday?!
Most French people do not rush around on their vacations, even when visiting a city like Paris. (It could also be because they generally have 6-10 weeks vacations compared to the North American 2-3 weeks, but I digress.)
Flâner involves wandering towards whatever catches your eye, discovering hidden corners, and seeing beyond the facade. The itinerary I have above is doable, but one that misses the French idea of flâner.
It doesn’t see the forest for the trees. It is also one that doesn’t consider long queues, public holidays, strikes and other unforeseen closures.
So if there is one thing NOT to do in Paris, it is rush around.
2. Don’t take the metro everywhere
There is always that “ah-ha! moment” when you figure out the Paris metro system, and how simple it is. And it is even better if you have a daily or weekly metro pass giving you unlimited travel. But if you don’t get a feel for the city if you just head to the various sights underground.
It might take a bit longer to walk, but it is much nicer to walk above ground through the different areas of Paris and see what catches your fancy.
3. Don’t wait in line at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, or Palace of Versailles
Now, I recommend being spontaneous, but for certain popular attractions, you will just be waiting in line if you don’t plan in advance.
Sights like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum should be booked in advance because lines are long, quite unaccommodating to being a flâneur/flâneuse.
4. Don’t skip the smaller museums
One thing to accept when visiting the Louvre Museum is that you could spend a full week there and still not see everything. Add to that the crowds, long lines, and general fatigue. This is where the smaller museums come in.
If you want to see some Impressionists, instead of Musée d’Orsay, head over to the Musée de l’Orangerie or the Picasso Museum. If you enjoy sculptures, head to Musée Rodin. There are many smaller hidden gems that are much nicer and easier to visit, so don’t count them out. You can see a list of the top museums in Paris here.
5. Don’t be afraid to take a day trip outside of Paris
Once tourists figure out the Paris metro, they are sometimes loathed to venture any further. However, there are some of the best attractions around France are outside the city center and are easily accessible.
Quite a few of them like Mont Saint Michel and the Chateau de Chantilly are world heritage sights, so it would be a shame to come all the way to Paris, and not try to visit them. Here are my top recommendations for day trips from Paris.
6. Don’t avoid historical tours
It is quite tempting to enter into “the bucket list” mode and try to tick off everything on your list. But the reason that the attractions in Paris are so well known is because of their history.
You may be able to walk through Chateau de Fontainebleau really fast, but a tour guide explaining why Napoleon considered it the “Home of the Kings” and the world history that took place there will be vastly more interesting.
As an example, why not try a French Revolution themed walking tour of Paris?
7. Don’t avoid food-tasting and other experiences
Paris is more than just its sights. It is also about the food! There are several food and wine tastings that you can experience in Paris. You can also take a cooking class to make a 4-course meal (with French farmers’ market visit), or a bakery class to make macarons.
It is the experiences that you will hold on to, rather than the names of every painting in the museums. You can read more about foods and drinks to try in Paris here.
8. Don’t eat in the tourist areas
There are certain restaurants like the Deux Maggots that are world-famous. I have nothing against the Deux Maggots, but I see no reason to queue up for 40 minutes in order to have a meal there. Most of the restaurants and brasseries in the tourist areas have a “touristified” watered down menu to attract that market, rather than catering to the more exigent French palate.
Pick a restaurant hidden away from the tourist zones and you will find the quality of the meal to be much better.
9. Don’t be afraid to eat like the French People do
If you are coming to France, there is no need to order a burger. Why not try instead a bit of foie gras or a traditional coq au vin? A big part of French culture is eating the food as the cook has presented it. We don’t usually ask for substitutions or changes unless there is a medical reason.
So do as the French do. Try a bit of everything, and then thank the chef for that wonderful experience.
☞ READ MORE: When in France, hold the ketchup!
10. Don’t limit your shopping to the Champs Elysées
Try as I might to put this kindly, the truth of the matter is that no one shops on the Champs Elysées other than tourists. Most of the Champs Elysées has been taken over by big main street names like Apple, H&M, Zara, etc. that you could easily find in any North American mall.
Instead, head over to the grand magasins like Printemps and the Bon Marché to get a bit more variety.
☞ READ MORE: The French Woman: Style tips for visiting Paris
11. Don’t wear uncomfortable clothing
This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many tourists I see walking around in high heels, ready for that “perfect Instagram photo”. If that is important to you, by all means, I won’t hold you back.
But if you are looking to truly experience Paris, dress like a Parisian: flat shoes, comfortable pants, and a practical purse. You will fit right in!
12. Don’t wander around town carrying your valuables
One sore point amongst locals and tourists is the number of pickpockets and petty crime that occurs in Paris. To avoid spending lengthy amounts of time at the police or your country’s embassy, leave the valuables at home.
Keep a digital copy of all important papers starting with your passport. If you have a safe in your hotel, consider leaving it there. In addition, keep an eye on your purse and wallet at all times, especially in the metro and in restaurants.
II. Paris off the beaten path
As I have said before, visiting Paris should be more than ticking off a bunch of places off of a list. Paris is about wandering about and stumbling into a tiny secret garden in the Marais, hidden in a square.
Notice that street food vendor that seems to be serving something so delicious, a long line of locals are patiently waiting their turn. Walk down the Canal Saint-Martin at dusk and watch the locals play pétanque and enjoying their apéro picnics by the water. Wander through Belleville and come across a pig’s head in the window of a boucherie (butcher’s shop). Right next to it is an artists’ hideout and art gallery.
The real Parisian experience is about looking around and noticing the plaque on the wall outside an elementary school, honoring the young Jewish students deported by the German Reich from that very spot.
Paris is the beauty and the history, the sadness and the triumphs, the search for the soul of the city. In French, the word for soul is “âme”, from the Latin word “anima”, meaning the breath and respiration.
When I visit any place, I want to breathe in the space and imagine what it would be like to live there. In Paris, just pondering the depth of history of the people who have walked in those same footsteps is amazing.
And not just the famous people, but the ordinary people, whose lives became extraordinary because of the events of their time. Revolutions, wars, liberations, things that have all marked the city and its inhabitants.
Just imagine if you saw the Mona Lisa on display at the Met Museum in New York, instead of at the Louvre. It would be wonderful, but it is not the same. Going to the Louvre Palace is imagining King Philip II ordering the peasants to construct the original fortress to protect Paris from the English in Normandy.
And just imagine Napoleon Bonaparte striding down its halls with his bounty of plundered loot from across Europe!
☞ READ MORE: A Guide to the 20 Paris arrondissements
III. How to organize your trip
So next time you are planning a trip to France, rather than following a set itinerary, I suggest: book one set of tickets per day for the sights you want to see and get a general idea of where you want to go.
But after that, just wander around. Go where the locals go, discover your own Paris, and make your own memories. You’ll cherish it a lot more than seeing the Mona Lisa with a hundred other people trying to elbow you out. A bientôt!