Paris is an amazing city. Full to the brim with interesting places and things to do. The city’s offer of world-famous monuments, museums, restaurants, and cafes is almost endless.
In fact it is said to have the largest number of tourist attractions in France. My mother loves France and so I have been visiting since my earliest childhood and I still have not seen all that there is to see.
When I come to Paris with a group, this creates a dilemma. While almost every tour I have led to Paris includes a city tour, one or two days in this city is just not enough time to see it all. We are inevitably driven to make choices and I am often asked some version of “what do you recommend that people do on a day in Paris?”. In all honesty there is no good answer to this question and so I tend to recommend a set of locations and activities that you can expand upon or be flexible around.
Every tour is different and has different experiences included. So, when you are preparing for your day, take a little time to study your itinerary and identify what you are interested in. Also look if any of it can be done as part of your tour. In my experience, if your tour includes visits or an optional tour to sights you are interested in then you should go with the group. Often, the organized visits have pre-arranged entry times and tickets and so save you a lot of time and hassle. This also allows you more time to explore when you do strike out on your own.
Make sure you have a map of the city center with your hotel marked on it. You would not believe how many people head out for a great day at the Louvre and don’t have the details of the hotel with them. The maps also have a Metro map which can sometimes come in handy. I prefer to walk when I’m in Paris, but the Metro can be a great alternative and help you hop from point to point.
Day 1 in Paris
If it is your first time in Paris, I generally recommend starting in the area around the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Louvre. The Distances are short walks and there is a lot to see and do in the area. In addition, there are many restaurants and cafes in the area so lots of spots to take a break or just to enjoy the atmosphere. If you just want to take a walk and see the sights and then move on to other locations, you can do it in an hour or so. However, I would usually recommend at least spending an afternoon.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Made internationally famous by Victor Hugo and his tale of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Our Lady of Paris Notre Dame Is considered one of France’s finest gothic structures. Although heavily damaged in a fire in 2019, the outside is still gorgeous, and it is worth spending a little time here to admire the architecture.
It is thought that the site that the cathedral stands on today is the same location that a temple to Jupiter stood in Roman times. The Temple was replaced by an early Christian basilica and over the years several churches have stood here. However, in April 1163, King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III, laid the cornerstone of a new cathedral and construction started on Notre Dame.
As like many cathedrals built at the time, the structure was built in phases over a 200-year period. Understandably, this meant that as time progressed and building technology developed the plans and designs for Notre Dame also changed. Probably the most notable and noticeable for its time, was the introduction of flying buttresses. The Flying buttresses distributed the buildings weight and allowed the walls to be higher and thinner. This, in turn, meant that much larger and finer windows could be added.
In its history, Notre Dame has played a central role in the history of Paris and France. It was the church where Louis IX deposited the passion relics including the Crown of Thorns and a nail from the holy cross on 1248. Notre Dame took the place of Reims Cathedral, when In 1431, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France during the Hundred Years War.
During the French Revolution, the cathedral was seized and declared public property. Heavily damaged and plundered, Notre Dame fell into disrepair and for a time was used as a storehouse. However, between 1801 and 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte had the cathedral restored. It was here, on Sunday December 2, 1804, that Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Fire and Reconstruction
Throughout its history, Notre Dame has needed to be restored many times, in particular, after the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, every gothic cathedral needs constant maintenance and work. It is suspected that the fire of 2019, was started through carelessness during another round of renovation work on the roof.
In a series of mishaps and errors, the fire that broke out in the attic of the cathedral at 18:18 PM, was not reported to the Fire Brigade until almost 30 minutes later. The fire brigade arrived ten minutes after being notified but it was too late, and the fire was raging. It took until 10 PM, for the fire to be brought under control. The fire fighters saved the main structure, stained glass, and the great organ. In a strange way, the ongoing renovation also saved many elements as they had been removed during the work.
Immediately after the fire, the French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that Notre Dame would be restored. The first stage of the reconstruction project started in October 2019, and continues to date. The stated aim is to have the reconstruction finished by the 2024 Summer Olympics.
For more info and to donate see friendsofnotredamedeparis.org/
Originally conceived by Phillip II, Louvre Castle was built at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. Since then, it has developed into the world’s largest art museum. Today the Louvre houses more that 380,000 objects of art, dating back as far as prehistoric times.
The Louvre Fortress was built to defend the city of Paris from the English soldiers based in Normandy in the 12th century. By the 14th century, the defenses were no longer needed and Charles the V had the fortress converted into a residence.
However, King Francis I laid the foundation for the Louvre’s famous painting collection. In 1516, Francis invited Leonardo da Vinci to work at Clos Lucé. It was Leonardo that brought the Mona Lisa to France and the painting remained in the country after his death. in 1518, the painting was sold to Francis I, and it was kept in Fontainebleau Palace until being moved to the Louvre in 1779.
When Louis the XIV moved out of Paris to Versailles, royal patronage allowed the Louvre to become a residence for artists. In the following years, the palace housed many famous artists of the time. Theses included four generations of the Boulle family including the famous cabinet maker and inlay specialist, André-Charles.
The French Revolution saw the transformation of the palace into a public space. In 1791, worried by reports of damage and theft during the chaos of revolutionary Paris, the National Constituent Assembly transformed the Louver to a public museum. Their aim was to make a “place to bring together monuments of all the sciences and arts”. As a result, The Museum opened on the 10 August 1793, with a mission to preserve the national memory.
The Louvre Today
The layout of the Louvre has evolved over time. Over the years, wings and courts were married together to form an almost perfect rectangle. But in 1983, Francois Mitterrand announced plans to renovate the museum and the area surrounding it
The internationally acclaimed architect I. M. Pei was awarded the project and oversaw the construction of the famous glass pyramid and the area of arcades and shops beneath. Completed in two phases in 1993, the glass pyramid and its matching stoned mirror below, were made famous in ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
Visiting the Louvre
It may surprise you that I am often asked if I recommend visiting the Louvre. In short, of course I recommend visiting to everyone. However, do take a little time and think about what you want to see and do while you are there. Also take into account how much free time you have in Paris and what else you might want to do while you are here.
Most visitors to the City of Lights want to spend some time in the museum and see the ‘highlights’. In my opinion, these visitors are definitely best served taking a tour with a local guide. In general, a local guide usually manages entry to the museum and know the best paths from display to display. As you tour, they fill you in on the histories and stories that bring the displays to life. In addition, taking a tour can save you a lot of time allowing you more time for other sights and experiences in Paris.
At any one time the museum displays around 35,000 of its works of art in eight distinct sections. You can spend days touring the different exhibitions of the museum. If you want to explore all the exhibits, it may be worth spending a day or two extra in Paris before or after your tour.
The Louvre is probably most famous for its paintings, first and foremost the Mona Lisa. However, this collection started by Francis I, extended upon by Louis the 14th and added to by Napoleon Bonaparte, today boasts over 7,500 works of art by predominantly French and Northern European artists.
The foundations of this stunning collection of items lies in the original royal collection and the efforts of Dominique Vivint’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, as part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign. Today the Louvre houses one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts of the Nile civilizations.
Greek, Etruscan and Roman Exhibits
Home to some of the Louvres most famous displays, including the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, this section holds masterpieces from the Mediterranean basin dating back to the Neolithic era. One of the museums oldest collections are the displays covering the period from the Cycladic period to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Many years ago, I took a walk around the Louvre with a historian and he (quite wrongly in my opinion) described the Sculpture collection as ‘the leftovers’.
Over the years, the museum has amassed a huge number of sculptures from all over the world. Some of these find their home in the exhibitions and displays of those regions, for example, the Venus De Milo in the Greek section. The Sculpture collection is home to those pieces of art not in specific displays. For example, if you are interested in the development of sculpture in France through the ages, then this is the place to go.
An eclectic collection of all types of decorative art covering the time from the middle ages to the late 19th Century. In between the beautiful displays of Gold, jewelry, ceramics, enamels, and stained glass works, you can find the coronation crown of Louis the XIV and Charles V Scepter.
Drawings and Prints
Based around the Cabinet Du Roi (Royal Collection) comprising over 8000 prints and drawings. The collection today comprises over 70,000 pieces of art, only a representative portion, of which are on display, at any one time.
Near Eastern Antiquities
Dating back to 1881, this is a collection focused on Near Eastern civilizations pre dating the arrival of Islam. The exhibits focus on areas of the Levant, Iran, and Iraq.
The collection of Islamic art continues from the Near Eastern collection focusing on pieces collected from throughout the Islamic world from Spain to India.
Until 1871, the main courtyard where we find the entrance today was a closed square. The now open side of the square was the location of the Tuileries Palace, which burnt down during the period of the Paris Commune. The ruins were later removed leaving the open area to enter the gardens, created by Catherine de Medici and later landscaped by the architect Le Nótre.
During the French Revolution of 1789, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were forced to stay in the palace protected by their Swiss Guard. During that time, the royal couple were allowed to use parts of the garden for their walks.
During the period of their forced incarceration, tensions between the King and the Revolutionary Legislative Assembly grew, in particular, when Louis tried to veto some of the assemblies more radical measures. The mood turned deadly when the Austrian and Prussian Armies threatened ‘unforgettable vengeance’ on the people of Paris if they should harm the Royal Family.
On the 10th of August 1792, Paris National Guardsmen and armed revolutionaries stormed the palace. The king famously left before the first shot was fired. In the morning, he reviewed the troops and ordered them to defend the palace. When he was finished, he was escorted to safety at the National Assembly. The gendarmerie left their posts, and circa 1000 Swiss Guardsmen were left to defend the palace. During the action, hundreds of Swiss Guardsman killed circa 400 revolutionaries.
During the 19th Century, the garden became a popular focal point for Parisians to walk, relax, and picnic.
West Terrace of the Tuileries and Musée de L’Orangerie
At the Seine side of the western end of the Garden, you can find the Orangerie Terrace and Museum. It is here that the large paintings of Water Lilies by Claude Monet are on display. Alongside you can see a collection of Impressionist paintings. On the terrace, four sculptures by Auguste Rodin can be found.
Thank you for a wealth of information.