With so much to see and do in Paris, it's hard to narrow it down to the essentials while still having an experience that's a good balance of everything the city has to offer. We've selected the crème de la crème of the city-some places are well known, others off the beaten path-to help you plan a long weekend, a longer trip, or even your next few visits. Most of all, the sites listed here make up le vrai Paris, and are sure to provide a memorable-and authentic-experience.
Housed under the soaring roof of one of Paris's grand old Beaux-Arts railway stations, the recently renovated galleries of the Musée d'Orsay contain the world's largest collection of Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Gaugin, and many others. With two excellent cafés and a magnificent restaurant original to the train station, dining is a breeze and guided tours of the museum highlights in English are available every day (see the museum website for times and scheduling). There's also a fabulous bookstore for stocking up on gifts.
Once the great sculptor's studio, this stately 18th-century mansion is one of Paris's most beautiful museums and contains more than 6,000 of Rodin's sculptures, including his great masterpieces The Thinker, The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell, along with 8,000 drawings and gouaches. The lovely grounds of the Musée Rodin, complete with a fountain, rose gardens, and a pleasant outdoor café make for a delightful afternoon outdoors. The museum also hosts special exhibitions and a cycle of exhibits on contemporary works. Following three years of renovations, the museum fully re-opened in November 2015.
Far from the noise and bustle, these serene formal gardens and elegant shops tucked behind the walls of a 17th-century palace are a delightful haven and one of Paris's best-kept secrets. Once a royal residence, the hushed arcades and manicured gardens of the Palais-Royal are now home to world-class perfumers, antiquaires and designer boutiques-including Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, and Pierre Hardy-and two of France's most important glove makers (Maison Fabre and Lavabre Cadet). Enjoy lunch or teatime outdoors or splurge like Zola, Proust, and Colette did at the gorgeous Grand Véfour restaurant. Afterward, explore the lovely Jardin des Tuilieries.
Fondation Louis Vuitton
Rising up out of the Bois de Boulogne like a magnificent ship sporting billowing crystal sails, Frank Gehry's contemporary-art museum and cultural center is the most captivating addition to the Parisian skyline since the unveiling of the Centre Pompidou in 1977. Commissioned by Bernard Arnault (chairman and CEO of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH), it houses Arnault's substantial private collection, including pieces by Pierre Huyghe, Gerhard Richter, Thomas Schütte, Ellsworth Kelly, Bertrand Lavier, Taryn Simon, Sarah Morris, and Christian Boltanski, among others. La Fondation Louis Vuitton also hosts extensive temporary exhibitions, like the mesmerizing light installations of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
The most recognized symbol of Paris is the Tour Eiffel, but the ultimate traveler's prize is the Louvre. This is the world's greatest art museum-and the largest, with 675,000 square feet of works from almost every civilization on earth. The three most popular pieces here are, of course, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory. Beyond these must-sees, your best bet is to focus on whatever interests you the most-and don't despair about getting lost, for you're bound to stumble on something memorable.
Looming above Place du Parvis on the Ile de la Cité, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame is the symobolic heart of Paris and, for many, of France itself. Napoléon was crowned here, and kings and queens exchanged marriage vows before is altar. There are a few things worth seeing inside the Gothic cathedral, but the real highlights are the exterior architectural details and the unforgettable view of Paris, framed by stone gargoyles, from the top of the south tower. Begun in 1163, completed in 1345, badly damaged during the Revolution, and restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, Notre-Dame may not be France's oldest or largest cathedral, but in beauty and architectural harmony it has few peers-as you can see by studying the facade from the square in front.
If designer shopping and elite French brand names set your heart all aflutter, get thee to the rue Saint-Honoré. The favorite haunt of fashionistas the world over, here you'll rub elbows with everyone from Japanese DJs to Saudi Princesses. Whether it's the ultra-hip (Colette, Damir Doma, Comme des Garçons), French status labels (Goyard, Hermès, Chanel), or something a bit less pricy but every bit as stylish as the big boys (Zara, & Other Stories) you're sure to find it here. Beginning at the Palais Royal and ending at the Elysée Palace, it's an afternoon prowl to satisfy the most indefatigable shopper.
Avenue des Champs-élysées
Make no mistake: the Champs-élysées, while ceding some of its elegance in recent times, remains the most famous avenue in Paris-and, perhaps, the world. Like New York's Times Square or London's Piccadilly Circus, it is a mecca for travelers and locals alike. Some Parisians complain that fast-food joints and chain stores have cheapened Avenue des Champs-élysées, but others are more philosophical, noting that there is something here for everyone. Anchoring the Champs is the Arc de Triomphe, Napoléon's monument to himself. At the other end, the exquisitely restored Grand Palais plays host to some of the city's grandest art exhibitions.
A cabinet of curiosities par excellence, the superb taxidermist Deyrolle has been charming and educating Parisians since 1831. But the word "taxidermist" falls short in describing the wonder of this beloved boutique. More like an enchanted forest, with tigers, bears, and a gigantic giraffe lounging peacefully before cases brimming with birds, insects, butterflies, animals, shells, corals and reconstructed skeletons. Drawers hold every imaginable insect and butterfly to create your own box or peruse examples of the many botanical, entomological, and zoological posters that have graced the walls of French classrooms for 150 years.
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower is to Paris what the Statue of Liberty is to New York and what Big Ben is to London: the ultimate civic emblem. French engineer Gustave Eiffel-already famous for building viaducts and bridges-spent two years working to erect this iconic monument for the World Exhibition of 1889. Today it is most breathtaking at night, when every girder is highlighted in a sparkling display originally conceived to celebrate the turn of the millennium. The glittering light show was so popular that the 20,000 lights were reinstalled for permanent use in 2003. The tower does its electric dance for five minutes every hour on the hour until 1am.