Paris in 12 hours

If you’ve never been to Paris you may wonder if it really could possibly measure up to all the hype it gets. The answer is a big, resounding “Oui!” I can’t possibly explain all the ways and reasons j’adore this city. But if you find yourself there for a day or two (or even just a 12 hour layover like I recently had) then you absolutely should make an ambitious list of your top must-not-miss places, plot it out on the map, and then be prepared for the likelihood that nothing will go as planned and relish the spontaneity that ensues.

Paris, eiffel tower in the winter

© Hannah Elaine

You could literally spend an entire week just visiting the most famous of Paris attractions before exhausting your options (heck, you could spend an entire week just in the Louvre museum and not see everything) and it would take another lifetime of exploring to feel like you were even beginning to get a grasp on all there is to see and do.

Since a quick trip is all most of us ever get I’m sharing my top favorite things to see in Paris for the first time when on a tight time-budget (Warning: wear comfortable shoes and a pedometer because you’re going to clock roughly around 8,000 miles walking while in Paris).

Start your day out with a hearty petit dejeuner at the cafe des Deux Moulins, (15 rue Lepic; Métro: Blanche) made famous for being the adorable little restaurant that Amelié works at in the movie of the same name. After you’ve had your fill begin the trek up the great hill of Montmarte. Take your time winding through these steep streets heading up. Many creatives of days gone by have passed the hours on this hill. It’s remarkable views of the city has been fodder for every kind of artist and the tradition continues today. Explore the work of local artists who line the streets and alleys with their drawings and paintings of the neighborhood. At the top of the hill is one of the most spectacular views of the city of Paris, and is the site of the glowing white basilique de Sacré Coeur (35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre). I’ve seen a lot of ancient and beautiful buildings in my day, but this one still stands out to me as particularly striking, and the interior is no less worthwhile. One could happily while away the hours atop this hill taking everything in and I definitely recommend reserving some quiet moments to sit, look, breath, and appreciate.

They say your trip isn’t complete without a visit to the Notre-Dame cathedral (6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II; Métro: Cité), and aside from the sheer beauty of the place, a brief look into it’s history will confirm why it’s a much revered landmark. Construction of Notre-Dame dates back to 1160 and has survived the Huguenots, the French Revolution, the Nazi’s and countless other wars and sieges on the city of Paris. As an American it’s completely mind blowing to me that structures built so long ago can still exist.

front of the notre dame cathedral in paris france

© Hannah Elaine

Every detail about this incredible building is interesting. It’s free to go inside but you’d do well to get a guided tour or audio guide. Each of the figures adorning the exterior represents an actual person or saint from history and learning a little about some of these adornments really enhances the quality of the visit. One of the most recognizable figures on the front left portal of the cathedral is Saint Denis who, having been beheaded, poses holding his own chopped off noggin in the crook of his arm. Legend has it that after he was killed, he picked up his decapitated head and walked 6 miles north, preaching repentance the entire way. It’s totally weird and awesome.

the statue of saint denis holds his head in his hands

© Hannah Elaine

As with any of the cathedrals you visit in Paris, you might be interested to look up when the services are held and participate in mass. I was lucky enough once to wander in during one of the services and, needless to say, it was a truly beautiful experience. And if you’re feeling particularly spry hop in line to climb the 387 steps to the top of the South Tower (entrance is on the outside of the building, on the left side if you’re facing the front doors).

Before you move on to the next location, give yourself a few seconds to pop down to the Pont Neuf park at the very tip of the island for a fantastic photo op of the river Seine.

This next suggestion is going to be a detour strictly for the literary nerds. From Notre-Dame you’ll want to head south just across the Seine to the famous Shakespeare & Company book store (37 Rue de la Bûcherie).

the shakespeare and company books in paris france

© Hannah Elaine

If you want to get a true taste for all the mind blowing history and magic this little shop holds you must read this Vanity Fair article written in november ’14.  Ferlinghetti called it “a literary octopus with an insatiable appetite for print, taking over the beat-up building … room by room, floor by floor, a veritable nest of books.” I personally feel it is the kind of place that belongs smack in the middle of Diagon Alley, so naturally I fell head over heels in love. Although we didn’t spot anyone famous, we were lucky enough on our last visit to spot the store chat blanc (white cat) napping in an armchair, totally undisturbed by the crowds.

As I mentioned before, the Louvre (Métro: Louvre-Rivoli) can be completely overwhelming, especially if you are short on time. However, if you just can’t imagine being in Paris without taking a peek at the Mona Lisa, then why shouldn’t you? Grab a museum map and plot out ahead of time all the main things you’d like to see and — very important — give yourself a time limit. The Louvre is a veritable labyrinth — you will get lost — and once you go down the escalator via the glass pyramid entrance you immediately get sucked into a time vortex. But it can be done if you’re deliberate about it!

If the Louvre sounds a little too daunting but you’re still looking for a museum fix I recommend the much more manageable (and somehow no less impressive) Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur) just across the Seine on the left bank (closed on Mondays). This museum is located inside the gorgeous former Gare d’Orsay train station and boasts an incredibly impressive collection of art. It can be done in just an hour or two if that’s all you have and will most definitely satisfy that art lover’s thirst.

If you find yourself in need of a cappuccino, head just east from Musée d’Orsay on Rue Saint Germain and grab some refreshments at either the Cafe du Flore (6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés), or it’s rival cafe Les Deux Magots just next door, both notorious for hosting famous clientele over the years such as Camus, Picasso, Hemingway, James Joyce, Sartre…the list goes on and on.

Once you’ve gotten a healthy dose of fine art and coffee, head over to the Tuileries Gardens via the Champs-Elysées and meander around a bit. It’s a beautiful area to take your time and explore, but if you’re in a hurry there’s the option to rent a bike from one of the many Vélib’ bike share stations along the Rue de Rivoli to speed the journey up just a tad.

the champs-elyseeses and arc de triomphe paris france

© Hannah Elaine

I am admittedly not much of one for shopping but there’s a reason the song about this famous street boasts “Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées,” meaining: there’s everything you could want on the Champs-Elysées! And It’s true. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Benneton— just to name a few — all have shops along this gorgeous thoroughfare. There are cafes galore sprinkled all up and down the path and, as it is admittedly an exhaustingly long hike from one end to the other you’re going to want to stop at least once for some refreshments. The reward for your tired feet will culminate where the street ends at the magnificent Arc de Triomphe, which is in the center of Place Charles de Gaulle, the most giant roundabout you’ve probably ever seen.

the arc de triomphe at night in paris france

© Hannah Elaine

The Arc honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Take the staircase that leads down to the tunnel running underneath the street leading to the Arc. Here you can look back out on the Champs-Elysées and take in the view from the opposite side. You also have the option to take the elevator up to the top of the Arc for yet another brilliant view of Paris.

The Eiffel Tower (Champ de Mars, 5 Avenue Anatole France). I spent two weeks in Paris years ago and have made another two trips since and no matter how many times I see it, no matter what time of day, the Eiffel Tower never ceases to enchant. It still floors me every time.

I’ve never yet taken the elevator all the way up to the very top, but most people I’ve spoken with say they prefer the view from lower levels anyway. If you’re feeling extra mighty, save yourself some money and take the 704 stairs up to the 2nd level. I recommend going at night (or better yet, in the most romantic “blue hour” just after sunset if you can swing it). Grab yourself a cup of chocolat chaud and enjoy the spectacular nighttime view of the very aptly named City of Lights.

the eiffel tower at night in the winter

© Hannah Elaine

It’s an ambitious plan for one day to say the least but when I took my husband to Paris for his first visit this is essentially the plan we followed. So it can be done!

And if you’ve done all of the above and want to keep going, check out this post and see what you can find.