If you started studying French in eighth grade and are anything like me, traveling to Paris is something you dreamed about for a long time. The idea of visiting France when I was younger was all I ever thought about. Going to Paris was my number one bucket list destination for my semester abroad, as cliché as it may seem. Hearing my teachers tell stories of their time spent in the city of love and finally being able to see it with my own eyes was incredible.
Whenever I speak with travelers about Paris, it seems to be a city that they either love or hate. Coming in with a lot of preconceived ideas, I was a little surprised when I arrived to our hostel in the trendy Monmartre area, and Paris looked like a city in Europe. I have found when traveling I always need to be careful about romanticizing places before I visit. This was a moment when I had to remind myself that Paris was not going to be exactly how imagined it. After my reality check, I found pieces of the “Paris” I dreamed about everywhere I looked. Elegant buildings, stunning churches and traditional duck confit could be found among modern billboards, bustling Parisians and inspired ethnic cuisine.
I did not have the chance to visit everything I wanted to in Paris, but that comes with traveling in a group of eight people and only having two full days to squeeze in the must-sees. When I return, seeing a show at the Moulin Rouge will be my top priority, but if you only have one weekend hitting the Paris classics is a great way to spend your time.
Where to Stay
By far, the worst part of Paris is how expensive it is compared to traveling to Budapest or Prague. If you’re on a budget and still want to be in a good area, my recommendation is to stay in a hostel. Usually when I travel in a big group, Airbnbs are always the cheaper option, but to be located near a central arrondissement and not go broke, hostels are the way to go. Paris is broken up into 20 arrondissements. The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées are all within the seventh and eighth arrondisements. Luckily, if you end up staying in one a little further from the city center than you would like, the RER (Paris’ metro) is very easy to use and efficient at bringing you to all the spots on your itinerary.
- St. Christopher’s Gare du Nord ($): My friends and I stayed in an eight bed private room here, and it fit our expectations perfectly. The wifi worked well, and there was free breakfast. The best part of this hostel was the bar. Both nights we were in Paris, it was raining, but we did not even have to worry about leaving the hostel for a fun night. This seemed to be the “it” place in Montmartre because the bar was packed every night until the early hours of the morning. It is also centrally located to the Gare du Nord metro station.
- Les Piaules ($): Located in the Belleville neighborhood, this hostel is just a short metro ride away from all of Paris’ popular tourist spots. The rooms are colorful and funky, and there is a rooftop terrace. Breakfast is not included, but there is a restaurant in the hostel.
- The Loft Boutique Hostel ($): This hostel is also located in the Belleville neighborhood and offers bright rooms with charm and character. They have a terrace to enjoy your drinks from the bar on and free wifi.
- Hôtel Eiffel Turenne 3 Étoiles ($$): This 2 star hotel is one the cheapest options near the Eiffel Tower. It is a 4 minute walk to the tower, and a 3 minute walk from the École Militaire metro station that can bring you to surrounding destinations like Versailles, Sacre-Coueur, Notre Dame and the Catacombs. The rooms are simple, but the price cannot be beat.
- Les Jardins d’Eiffel ($$): This hotel is situated in the seventh arrondissement, the home of the Eiffel Tower. They have a continental breakfast each morning that is served on their terrace in the warmer weather. The bright rooms are neutrally designed and have a large connecting bathroom.
- Hôtel Passy Eiffel ($$): Located in the sixth arrondissement, this hotel is a quick ten minute walk across the river to the Eiffel Tower. It is centrally located to the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre as well. The charming rooms are well-designed, but on the smaller side.
- Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel ($$$): This 4 star hotel is a more expensive option, but it won’t break the bank. It offers views of the Eiffel Tower, and the rooms are spacious and modern. The hotel has an onsite fitness center and a restaurant as well.
What to Do
Churches to See
Above: The small details of the Gothic inspired interior and exterior at the famous Notre Dame Cathedral are breathtaking. Photos by Meg Williams.
- Notre-Dame Cathedral: This church is a must-see especially if you are a fan of Disney. The inside looks like the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast, and the outside is adorned with sculptures and gargoyles that are brought to life in the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The display of Gothic architecture is unlike many other churches you will see across Europe.
- Saint-Chappelle: Small but astonishing, this small, Gothic royal chapel is home to one of the most beautiful collections of stained-glass windows. If you do not know what you’re looking for this dazzling display can be easy to miss. Upon entering, you will see two small staircases on each side of the entrance to the chapel. Make your up the stairs, and you will immediately be blown away by the colorful biblical scenes depicted.
- Sacré-Cœur Basilica: This basilica sits on the highest point of the city in the hip Montmartre neighborhood. Unlike Saint-Chappelle, Notre-Dame and many other monuments in the city, Sacré-Cœur does not follow the French Gothic architectural style, so visiting is a great way to see a different side of Paris.
Above: The Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch and the French Crown Jewels can be found in the Louvre. The entrance to the museum is located underground beneath the glass pyramid pictured. Photos by Meg Williams.
- Discover the Louvre: One of the most famous museums in the world, the Louvre is home to a huge collection of amazing works of art and pieces of history from every culture. If you have no other reason to go, you have to see the Mona Lisa in person. It is impossible to explore everything the museum has to offer, so make sure if you want to check out specific exhibits to look at a map first and set a plan.
Above: The Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomphe and Catacombs are all popular spots that should not be skipped on a first-time trip to Paris. Photos by Meg Williams.
- Unearth the Catacombs: I’m not sure what I expected from the Catacombs before going in, but it was definitely not piles and piles of meticulously organized bones that seemed to stretch on forever. Visiting this underground graveyard was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life, and a memorable part of my trip I will not soon forget.
- Visit the Eiffel Tower: This one kind of goes unsaid, but you can’t visit Paris and not even catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Seeing this for the first time, I thought I would be let down, but I surprisingly wasn’t. It was much bigger than I imagined. If you really want to get the full Eiffel Tower experience, you can pay to go up or eat dinner inside.
- See the Arc de Triomphe & shop on the Champs Élysées: Seeing the Arc de Triomphe and meandering down the famous Champs Élysées are one in the same. You can walk the street towards the Arc or wander down it after getting a good look at the historical monument. On the first Sunday of each month the avenue is closed to cars making this day a great time to go.
Above: There are three beautiful parts of Versailles to take in: The gilded gold exterior of the palace, the luxurious interior and the sprawling gardens behind the palace. Photos by Meg Williams.
- Take a trip to Versailles: Visiting this royal palace is the perfect half day trip from Paris. Depending on how many station transfers you need to make, you can be here via RER in 30-45 minutes. It is a quick walk from the station, and there is so much to do and see. An audio tour comes with the price of a tickets. It will lead you throughout the stunning estate in about an hour and a half or two hours, and tell fascinating stories of when the royals lived there. I wish I had the chance to go in the summer to see the gardens in bloom, but they were still impressive without flowers and green grass.
- Watch a show at the Moulin Rouge: Possibly one of the most popular nighttime attractions in Paris is to attend a cabaret. If you want to see the most famous show, you have to visit the Moulin Rouge. Tickets are pricey, but everyone I know who has gone says it is worth it.
Cover photo: No trip to Versailles is complete without a trip to Ladurée. Photo by Catherine Simms.