Paris is a captivating city, densely packed with things to see and do – but with so much choice, how can you choose what to do on a day trip to Paris? This article is a guide to how to make the most of a short amount of time, such as a day trip to Paris or a very short stay.
Maybe you live not far from Paris (like me) and are considering a day trip there; maybe you’re travelling elsewhere in Europe and want to add Paris into your itinerary, or maybe you’re stopping over in Paris on the way to somewhere else entirely. Whatever your scenario, this article will help you make the most of Paris in a day.
I’ll outline my rationale for building the perfect Paris day trip itinerary and then I’ll share the itinerary – but if you want to jump straight to the details – use the table of contents below.
Can you explore everything in Paris in a day?
I’ll start by laying it out plainly: no you definitely can’t see everything in just one day in Paris. The capital of France is a big city with a lot of sights, varied architecture, plenty of museums, great restaurants and so many gorgeous streets to wander. You could easily stay a week or two and still not have seen everything, so you definitely can’t see it all in one day in Paris!
So does this mean that you shouldn’t bother going to Paris if you only have a short amount of time? No! I don’t accept the view that if you can’t spend x amount of time in a place in order to see everything you shouldn’t go. Sure, a week or two or three in Paris would be much better than one day in Paris, but equally, one day in Paris is better than no days in Paris! My view is that it is worth going to Paris even if you only have one day or a small amount of time because whatever you can experience in that time is likely to be wonderful!
However, you should accept that you won’t see it all and make a plan to maximise the time you do have, specifically to cover the key things and themes that are unique to Paris.
Living in London, Paris is relatively easy and quick for me to get to, and I have done lots of short trips there, including two day trips, where I went there and back without staying overnight, and one overnight stay of just 24 hours in Paris – and I loved every minute of all of them! I thought about sharing one of the day trip itineraries I have followed, but I thought it would be too specific.
Instead, I will outline the building blocks of a good day trip to Paris and suggest an itinerary you can flex around those building blocks.
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The building blocks of a great day trip to Paris
In my opinion, there are a number of key things you’ll want to experience in Paris, no matter how long you are there – so the question is, how to fit them into 24 hours?
Here are the key building blocks I recommend you build into a Paris day trip itinerary:
- The Eiffel Tower
- The Seine
- Gothic Paris
- ‘Fancy’ Paris of the 16th-19th Centuries
- Paris of the Belle Epoque
- Bold, Modern Paris
- World Class Art
- French Cuisine
- A Viewpoint over the City
I’ll elaborate on these options and make some recommendations on what I would do on a day trip to Paris. Then at the end, I’ll show how they can work in an itinerary.
And if you’re thinking there are too many of these to squeeze into a day trip, don’t worry – some of these can be combined into one activity.
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower is normally on the list for people visiting Paris – even if they’ve been before – because it is so iconic, you won’t be able to resist seeing it.
However, if you are only in Paris for a day, I don’t recommend you go up the tower. There are queues and it takes a long time; you will spend a lot of your precious single day in Paris here if you go up the tower. And, frankly, there are better views of Paris elsewhere because the view of Paris from the Eiffel tower doesn’t have the Eiffel tower in it!
However, if it is your dream, of course, you should book a ticket to go up the Eiffel tower – you should always try to do things you’ve longed for. If you go this route, dress warm, because it can be windy up there even in summer, and freezing if you’re visiting Paris in winter.
However, if you just want to see the Eiffel Tower, then you can do that from the grounds around the tower and from other viewpoints in the city, which is my recommendation.
In many cities, the river is the life of the city; and the Seine is no exception. In fact, the banks of the Seine are how we have come to understand Paris: the Right Bank was known as elegant and sophisticated: establishment Paris. The Left Bank became associated with writers and artists: bohemian Paris, leading to the saying ‘Paris learned to think on the Left Bank’.
Even the literal river banks themselves are iconic (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site): the quays that line the river provide walkways closer to the water than many other cities have. They’re a great place to wander or to sit and watch the water rush by.
Lining the river are some stunning examples of Paris architecture: The Eiffel Tower, the Grand and Petit Palais, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Crossing the river are 37 bridges, including the famous Pont Neuf.
My recommendation for your day trip to Paris is to include a Seine river tour. It is touristy, sure, but it is also a great way to see this central part of Paris and to do it without taking hours, which it would if you were to explore the same areas on foot. Also, boats are fun!
Paris has been an important city since the middle ages, and whilst a lot of the city was rebuilt in the 19th century under Napoleon III, there are plenty of examples of gothic architecture remaining in the city, in particular in the Latin quarter, including Sainte-Chappell.
The most famous and impressive example if is course the Cathedral de Notre Dame, on Île de la Cité. If you had more time, you could explore the cathedral and the area around it, but as you have only one day in Paris, my suggestion would be to satisfy yourself with seeing this area and the stunning cathedral from the river, as part of your river tour. Notre Dame is right by the river, so you will get a good look at it as you go past.
Fancy Paris of the 16th-19th Centuries
OK, so I am crudely grouping several centuries of history and many styles of architecture together here! Forgive me, but a), I’m not knowledgeable enough about history and/or architecture to tell the various styles apart and more importantly, b), you don’t have enough time in your Paris day trip to try to pay homage to all of them, anyway.
What I’m talking about here is the flamboyant and ostentatious styles of the Renaissance, Baroque architecture and Napoleonic eras. In plain terms, the stuff with fancy carvings, gold leaf and /or proud declarations of French victories and values. I’ll also include the wide mansion-lined boulevards in this category: the vision of Georges-Eugène Haussmann who redesigned the centre of Paris during the Second Empire of France.
There’s lots of this ornate architecture dotted in and around Paris, including the Louvre, the Hotel De Ville and Les Invalides and the Palace of Versailles. You won’t have time to visit all of them and you certainly won’t have time to get out of the city to Versailles and back if you want to do much else in Paris that day.
Feel free to pick the landmarks you are most interested in, but I suggest you include the Arc de Triomphe in your Paris day trip itinerary. This grand monument was installed by Napoleon to honour those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. As well as being impressive as a monument, it is also a great place from which to view Paris: you can climb to the top for an unrivalled view across Paris.
And you will also see some fancy bridges on your river tour, including Pont Alexandre III, with its gold crests, and plenty of ornate buildings along the Seine.
La Belle Époque
Paris is also famed for being the centre of La Belle Époque, that heady time in the late 19th century and early 20th century that saw a brief period of peace in Europe and a boom in cultural and artistic expression.
In the arts, both impressionism and expressionism came to the fore and the swirling, romantic Art Nouveau style emerged. It was also a time of invention and discovery: neon lights were invented in France and Marie Curie worked in France, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. The Eiffel tower opened for the world’s fair in 1899.
Other than the Eiffel Tower, to feel get a little taste of this side of Paris’s history, my recommendation is to visit Montmartre, home of Toulouse Lautrec and the famous Moulin Rouge. And while you’re over that way, why not visit the romantic-looking Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the same time.
Bold, Contemporary Paris
Paris has this rich, textured history going back centuries, but one of the things I like about this city is it continues to innovate, to surprise with modern additions. I see this most clearly in the city’s architecture.
In 1977, the Pompidou Centre was finished: a polarising inside-out building that is seen by some as innovative and by others as ugly. In 1984 came the glass pyramid at the centre of the Louvre complex: a bold addition that works perfectly to blend new with old. In 1989, a new, modern arch was built on the outskirts of Paris, directly opposite the Arc de Triomphe if you look along Avenue Charles De Gaulle and Avenue de la Grand Armee. La Grande Arche de la Défense is a gleaming angular arch-shaped building, around which has sprung up many other uniquely shaped skyscrapers.
I suspect it will be hard to fit La Défense into your Paris day trip. However, you could easily stop by to see the Louvre’s pyramid, and you will see in my itinerary that the Pompidou Centre features, doubling up as a place from which to get a viewpoint over Paris.
World Class Art
For centuries, Paris has been a magnet for artists and art. In particular, in the 19th century and early 20th century, communities of artists established themselves in the city, with art schools associated with some of the finest painters of the times. Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Art Deco and Abstract art movements, among others, all evolved in Paris, and Paris has played a key role for painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and many others.
Paris is home to many galleries and museums exhibiting work from artists around the world, most famously the Louvre, the world’s most-visited museum and home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa since 1804.
However, the Louvre is too big to explore on a day trip to Paris – it exhibits 38,000 objects from prehistory to the present day. In any case, the Mona Lisa is likely to disappoint as she’s a small painting, exhibited behind an extra layer of glass high up on a wall, normally with a huge crowd around her. It is, unfortunately, hard to experience and appreciate this particular work of art. You also need a fair amount of time to explore the glorious Musée d’Orsay, so my recommendation is to save this for when you have more time in Paris.
Therefore, my recommendation if you only have one day in Paris is to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie instead: this is a much smaller museum, best known for being home to Monet’s waterlilies: 8 of the biggest of his paintings in this series. They are housed in two large oval-shaped rooms, flooded with daylight from skylights above. The effect is very experiential: you really feel like you’re kind of immersed in the art, not just looking at it. And there’s an added bonus of knowing this is how Monet had envisioned these works would be displayed: he had championed for them to be displayed in this venue.
You can get it all over the world, but if there’s one place you should eat French food it should be France, right?
Paris is a multi-cultural capital and you’ll be able to find cuisine from all around the globe, but when I’m in the capital of France, I always try at least one thing something quintessentially French. I might have a croissant for breakfast or Croque monsieur for brunch. I’ll snack on crêpes from a stall and indulge in boeuf bourguignon. However, I have to say I have not yet been brave enough to try that uniquely French delicacy: escargot (snails). Maybe one day…
There are lots of great results in Paris, including ten with Michelin stars. However, I’ve recommended a couple of restaurants that are mid-range in price – one is eclectic European and the other very classically French in style and menu, so you can definitely tick that box for French food.
A Viewpoint Over The City
Other than the La Défense area, Paris has few skyscrapers, so there isn’t a dramatic skyline like there is in NYC, Hong Kong or Singapore. However, it is still beautiful from up high: there are iconic landmarks, most prominent of which is the Eiffel Tower, of course – but also churches and cathedrals. And the rooftops themselves are very attractive: both the older houses and Haussmann’s mansions have handsome grey rooftops.
Paris in a day: Itinerary for an Epic Day Trip
OK, after all that chat, here’s the actual itinerary for a great one day in Paris
There’s a lot in this itinerary – but this is about maximising your day. To stop it feeling like a rush, I’ve built in plenty of time into the itinerary, so if you want to linger in some places, that’s fine; you can still do everything else.
For the timing of daylight hours, I have assumed you will visit in Spring or Autumn (both lovely times of year to see Paris, after all) when the sun sets around 8 pm. If you go in Summer or Winter, you will need to adjust for different daylight hours. For example, in winter the sun sets so much earlier, you’ll want to start earlier and finish earlier to catch the sunset.
Itinerary – Paris In A Day
9:30: The Eiffel Tower – as I said earlier, I don’t recommend you to up the Eiffel Tower, but it is worth admiring it from the ground. You can wander the Champ De Mars gardens in which it is located. If you are interested in photography, there are some good locations from which to capture the tower frames by trees and buildings on the side streets off Avenue de la Bourdonnais: Avenue Silvestre de Sacy and Rue de l’Universite.
10:30: Travel to Musee de l’Orangerie (~30 minutes). You can take the Metro from Champ de Mars or Pont de I’Arme to Invalides and then cross the Seine over Pont de la Concorde. When crossing the bridge, enjoy the view to the left of Pont Alexandre III and the Grand Palais, and you’ll pass Place De La Concord, a busy intersection with an Egyptian obelisk in the centre. Alternatively, you could get the hop-on-hop-off Batobus river cruise from the Eifel Tower to the Musée d’Orsay, but this will likely take longer.
11:00: Musée de l’Orangerie. I’m suggesting an hour here, but if you are short of time or not so keen on art, you could be in and out within 15 minutes without being disrespectful, as the main exhibit is the two rooms with Waterlilies in. If you don’t spend an hour in the Musée de l’Orangerie, you could wander eastwards towards the Louvre to admire its architecture from the outside.
12:00: Seine River tour. There are various boat tours on the Seine, but I recommend the hop-on-hop-off kind, which gives you flexibility about where you get on and off and how long you spend on the boat. Batobus is a good option. With this itinerary, the best place to get on is across the river at Musée d’Orsay – this is because from here the boats head east. Boats depart every 25 minutes and it takes 2 hours to do the whole tour. However, my recommendation is to go from Musée d’Orsay to Hotel de Ville and get off there. Taking this route you will see the best parts of the river once, including passing by the Notre Dame Cathedral and Île de la Cité.
13:30: Travel to Pompidou Centre (15 minutes). From the boat stop at Hotel de Ville, you can walk to the Pompidou Centre.
14:00: Late lunch at Le Georges – Le Georges is on the top floor of this iconoclastic building. If you don’t appreciate the building itself, that’s OK because you will undoubtedly appreciate the view from the top floor restaurant. You can see to Sacre-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower on one side and to the Gothic Tour Saint-Jacques on the other side. The food is also amazing: when I went, I had icy strawberry and tomato soup and a Spritz Hugo and it was divine.
15:30: Travel to Anvers metro station via Metro line 4 (~30 minutes). Coming out of this station, take a moment to notice the Art Nouveau style entrance. You’re now in prime Belle Epoque territory.
16:00: Sacré-Cœur & Montmartre. I’ve allowed plenty of time for you to take it easy and explore at a leisurely pace here. Walk the steps up to the Sacré-Cœur, enjoy the ethereal building; gaze at Paris from up high. Play with perspective at the buildings on Rue Lamarck. And then explore the Place du Tertre, a leafy square normally packed with artists and a great place to people-watch – although, as you’d expect, the prices at cafes here are high. Wander down the hill across Montmartre. Take a seat in a street-side café and watch Paris do its thing. While you’re in the neighbourhood, maybe take a look at the Moulin Rouge on Boulevard de Clichy.
18:00: Travel to Arc de Triomphe (~15 minutes).. I’ll assume you make it as far as Pigalle, from where you can catch metro line 2 to Charles de Gaulle, which is near the Arc de Triomphe.
18:30: Arc de Triomphe: as well as admiring the arch from the outside, you can also go up into the arch to the viewing platform on top. This is a wonderful place from which to view Paris and I highly recommend going at sunset, so you can see the sunset over Paris and watch the lights come on: it is really special. From the Arc de Triomphe viewing platform, you can look down the 12 straight boulevards that go out from Place Charles de Gaulle, including the one that goes to La Defense, and the famous Champs Elysee. And of course, you’ll have a brilliant view of the Eiffel tower, which puts on quite the light display at night. If you have time, you could check out Champs Elysee before you go up the arch. Top tip: check the sunset times for the day you are going and plan your visit around that.
20:30 Travel to Les Philosophes (~20 minutes): via metro line 1.
21:00: Dinner at a French brasserie. There are lots of great places to eat in Paris, but I am recommending Les Philosophes for its authentic Frenchness – it is a classic and high-quality brasserie that both looks & feel perfect (cosy interior; wicker seats outside on the street) – but also offers high quality traditional French food. I can highly recommend the onion soup and the crème brûlée.
Map – Paris In A Day
Here’s a map of the main attractions and optional detours you can take with my Paris Day Trip itinerary.
Staying in Paris
I have done day trips to Paris, without staying over, but I have also some some short trips where I stay just one night. If you need a place to stay in Paris after exploring the city, I can recommend these hotels, which I have stayed in recently:
- Mid-range: the Hotel Auberge Flora, also called La Finca, which is close to the Bastille area. Rooms are small but it is bright and comfortable and has everything you need. I liked the cheerful bar downstairs and they offer a simple, affordable breakfast in the morning
- High end: the Hotel Regina Louvre, which is a 5-star hotel next to the Louvre. It is old-school, very luxurious and has some lovely Art Nouveau design features. Some rooms have a view of the Eiffel Tower, which is pretty special. I only stayed here one night, but it was a real treat – I loved it!
I hope you enjoy your day in Paris!
It is a wonderful city, one of my favourites cities that I have visited anywhere in the world and one that continues to delight me more than 20 years after I first visited it. And if you want inspiration on other big, exciting European cities, check out my articles on Barcelona and Lisbon. Or for lesser-visited gems, consider Ljubljana, Krakow or Riga.