24 of the best things to do in Paris that will take you back in time
Romance, magnificent art, Old World charm, and cafe culture—our Paris tours have it all. But along with its wide boulevards and enchanting arrondissements, the City of Love is steeped in a fascinating history that draws you back in time. Whether walking the cobblestone streets of Rue Crémieux, browsing the stalls of Shakespeare and Company, or surveying the city’s panoramic skyline from the dome of the Panthéon, Paris, France, is the place to embark on an unforgettable magical history tour. To help you turn back the years, we’ve put together a list of the places and experiences in Paris that will whisk you back in time.
1. Marvel at the Mona Lisa and other gems of history
With over 15 acres of galleries and nearly half a million works of art, the Louvre can be one of the more formidable places to visit in Paris. But with its treasure trove of history, the former royal palace is worth the crowds, the wait, and the cost (it’s 17 euros, but it’s free for all visitors on Bastille Day, July 14).
Unless you’re planning to spend the better part of a week wandering through its maze of galleries, make a plan before you go. Download and print a map from the museum’s official website. Then map out your favorites, from Mona Lisa to Venus de Milo. Your Tour Director is also a great resource to tap into if you’re interested in visiting the Louvre.
2. Have a Les Mis moment at Place de la Bastille
This is sacred ground for Parisians and one of the best places to visit in Paris. While the Bastille prison no longer stands on this spot, the prison’s storming on July 14, 1789, ignited the French Revolution. Built in the 14th century, the medieval fortress served as a castle and repository for royal treasure before it began its infamous run as a prison during the reign of King Louis XIII. Though the original structure is gone, you can view its foundations in the underground Bastille metro station.
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3. Travel back in time at Sainte-Chapelle
On a sunny day, the spectacular stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle will dazzle you. Louis IX had this Gothic gem built in the 1200s to house his collection of holy relics, including a fragment of the cross, a nail, and the crown of thorns. The religious relics are no longer kept there, but the towering stained glass windows, depicting over 1,000 historic scenes, make Sainte-Chapelle a bucket list stop for history buffs during their Paris sightseeing tour.
4. Sip pastis and drink in the beauty of historic Paris sites
The cloudy alcoholic concoction known as pastis is practically synonymous with spending a summer afternoon in a Parisian cafe with nothing more than people-watching on your mind. The anise-flavored drink was created in the 1930s after absinthe was banned, and boasts 40% alcohol content, so you’ll need to dilute the spirit quite a bit. (It’s typically served with a carafe of water.) If you’re wondering what to do in Paris, France, head to Harry’s Bar and order Le Perroquet—a generous pour of crème de menthe turns the pastis parrot-green.
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5. Watch Foucault’s pendulum demonstrate Earth’s rotation at the Panthéon
The magnificent dome of the Panthéon set against the Paris skyline is inescapable. Go ahead and let the dome draw you to this neoclassical masterpiece and its historical treasures. The Panthéon is one of the top places to see in Paris. Commissioned in 1750 by Louis XV, the structure has served as an abbey and a mausoleum where the greats are buried, including Rousseau, the Curies, and Voltaire. Foucault’s original pendulum was installed here in 1851. You’ll see a working copy in place today. For unforgettable views of Paris, climb the more than 200 steps to the top of the dome.
6. Step back into the Belle Époque at Chez Paul
This hidden gem of a bistro in the heart of the famous Bastille district is full of history and tradition. Opened in 1900, it has served traditional, homemade French cuisine to generations of visitors. Its architecture has remained unchanged for over a century, as has its allure to its faithful patrons. It’s been a favorite of artists, writers, and members of the Lost Generation, and Chez Paul’s hospitality, ambiance, and authentic food still delight at 13 Rue de Charonne.
7. Browse the books at Shakespeare and Company
“They have cozy nooks with chairs to sit and read in and there was even a store cat!” said staffer Thea of one of the best places to visit in Paris. “I could have spent days in there. I loved imagining what it was like visiting this shop when Gertrude Stein held her ‘office hours’ with some of the greatest artists that ever lived. Plus, when you buy a book, they stamp it with their insignia.”
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8. Peek inside Gustave Eiffel’s secret apartment atop the Eiffel Tower
What is Paris known for? There are countless things, but the Eiffel Tower is near the top of the list. Opened to great wonder in 1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a permanent installation. In fact, some French critics declared it a blight on their great city. Today, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most famous landmarks in Paris. But it has a secret: There’s a small apartment on the third level that Gustave Eiffel built for himself. While you can’t enter the apartment, you can take a peek inside on a summit tour.
9. Dine at the favorite hangout of Hemingway, Picasso & other legendary artists
“Dining at La Closerie Des Lilas was an iconic Parisian moment for me,” said staffer Thea. “It was once a haunt for Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds, amongst other great artists. The bar and tables have small plaques noting which famous artist once preferred that spot. The food was amazing, very rich and traditional. The cocktails and wine were also lovely. I feel like this restaurant really does justice to the legacy it stands for!”
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10. Enjoy chestnuts roasted on an open fire
During the holiday season in Paris, France, vendors roasting chestnuts on outdoor ovens magically appear on every street corner. It’s a tradition cherished by Parisians and dates back at least to the 1800s. The nutty, smoky scent of the roasted chestnuts and the warmth of the ovens are enough to tempt you on a cold night. Buy a bag, and you’ve got the perfect walking food for an evening stroll past glittering Paris tourist attractions.
11. Discover an island steeped in history in the center of Paris
Almost every visitor to Paris makes their way to the Ile de la Cité to take in the magnificence of Notre Dame Cathedral, but there’s so much more to discover. Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest remaining bridge, boasts elegant arches and a perfect photo opportunity (especially at night when it’s lit). At the island’s tip, the lawns of Square du Vert-Galant provide a respite from the crowds, while the banks of the Seine are always a great place to stroll and soak in the culture and beauty of this historic city. Ile de la Cité is also home to Sainte-Chapelle and its stunning stained glass windows.
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12. Admire the magnificent exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral
“You can have bread, cheese, and wine almost anywhere, but doing so while directly across from Notre Dame with your travel companions is unmatched,” said staffer Matt of one of the best places to visit in Paris. “It was the spontaneity of the moment and nostalgia of the scene that made it magical. I’m pretty confident if the wine was corked, the bread stale, and the cheese had gone bad, we would have still been swooning over it on our bench in Paris.”
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13. Spend time with the Impressionists in a Beaux-Arts train station
If you visit just one museum in Paris, France, the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank is one of the not-to-be-missed attractions in Paris. It’s housed in the former Gare d’Orsay railway station, which was completed in time for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, and has an iconic iron-and-glass barrel vault ceiling. Nearly demolished, the building was instead converted into a museum in 1986 when the Louvre ran out of space.
Musée d’Orsay’s collection of Impressionist works is the largest in the world, which makes this spot one of the best places to visit in Paris. You’ll find all your favorites here, including Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro, and Monet.
14. Visit the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise Cemetery
Visiting a graveyard is naturally a walk through history, and that’s especially true in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. France’s largest cemetery is steeped in history, art, and culture—and is full of celebrity graves. Chopin, Molière, Proust, and Pissarro are among those interned in the most famous necropolis in the world. But it’s Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison that attract most of the attention from the three million visitors a year at one of the top attractions in Paris. Wilde fans come to kiss his grave while wearing lipstick; Morrison fans leave flowers, photos, and candles.
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15. Take in the historic sights atop the Roue de Paris
The Ferris Wheel at Place de la Concorde may be a modern attraction, but the historic views from the monumental 230-foot-high ride are stunning. During your spin, you’ll have a great vantage point for observing the Seine River, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Cœur, and the Louvre—all some of the top things to see in Paris! When Paris is sparkling with holiday lights, the views are spectacular. You’ll come away with a new appreciation for why Paris is called the City of Light.
16. Discover the Harry Potter connection at the oldest stone house in Paris
You don’t need to dine at the Auberge Nicolas Flamel restaurant to admire its historic nature, but the menu makes it worthwhile. The house was built in 1407 by the alchemist Nicolas Flamel, who is said to have discovered ancient texts containing the secret of turning ordinary metals into gold. If you recognize his name, it’s probably because author J.K. Rowling named the sorcerer in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone after him.
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17. Descend into history at the Catacombs of Paris
If subterranean passageways and the centuries-old bones of over six million Parisians don’t spook you, a guided tour of the catacombs is one of the best places to visit in Paris. Most of the bones were moved there from older cemeteries, but the catacombs were used as a burial site during the French Revolution. Tours of the macabre passageways have been popular since the 1800s. “The pure magnitude of bones makes it impossible to forget!” said staffer Josh of one of the top Paris tourist attractions.
18. Visit Napoleon’s tomb at the Hôtel National des Invalides
The gilded dome of Les Invalides is a masterpiece of classic French architecture and is easy to spot as you approach. King Louis XIV built this collection of buildings to house those who had served in Europe’s greatest army. At one time, over 4,000 resided within its walls. Part hospital, barracks, and military headquarters, it’s the final resting place for Napoleon, and it houses the Musée de l’Armée—each a must-see in Paris for history buffs and military aficionados.
19. Search for Hemingway’s haunts in A Moveable Feast
Published three years after his death, A Moveable Feast is Ernest Hemingway’s love letter to 1920s Paris. Get a copy of the book and hunt the city for the places immortalized by Hemingway. You’ll find many still standing, such as Shakespeare and Company (one of his favorite stops), La Closerie des Lilas (where he hung with Scott Fitzgerald), the Ritz Hotel bar (which he famously liberated in WWII), and Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard Saint-Germain (where the sauerkraut he favored is still on the menu).
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20. Stroll the cobblestoned Rue Crémieux and admire its colorful houses
“When I went to Paris a few years ago, we went down this little cobblestone street with colorful houses called Rue Cremieux, which is called the most colorful street in Paris,” said staffer Meaghan of one of the best places to visit in Paris. “It’s such a cute street and perfect for a photo opportunity. There weren’t any other tourists there so it felt like we found a hidden gem.”
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21. Visit the plaza with connections to the French Revolution
Sill searching for what to see in Paris? Place de la Concorde is a one-stop historic site at the end of the Champs-Elysées. It’s home to the 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk, the fabulous Fontaine des Mers, and Fontaine des Fleuves. Paris’ largest and most important square, Place de la Concorde was an execution site during the French Revolution. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were among many who met their end by guillotine here.
22. Savor a croissant (a French tradition since the 1800s) at a Paris park
“Utopie in Paris’ 11th arrondissement was named the best bakery in France in 2016 by Métropole Television, and has been highlighted by a number of travel publications,” said staffer Tom of one his favorite places to visit in Paris. “I picked up a sourdough croissant and a sesame éclair to eat in a nearby park. They were absolutely incredible. Visiting Utopie can be paired with a stroll along the 11th arrondissement’s Canal Saint-Martin. It’s a lovely way to spend a free morning in Paris.”
23. Stroll through the gardens and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles
Located on the outskirts of Paris, France, Versailles is perhaps the most well-known palace in the world and one of the top things to see in Paris. The original beauty and magnificence of Versailles and its gardens remain intact, even after a tumultuous history that included the reign of three kings and a revolution. The Hall of Mirrors (578 of them!) served as a royal passageway to the chapel for the king and royal family. The 230-acre garden includes a Grand Canal commissioned by the Sun King, where you can take a boat ride tour of the grounds.
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24. Enjoy an afternoon people-watching at a café, just like generations of Parisians
“Spend the early afternoon at one of Paris’ famous cafes,” said staffer Emily. “This was a highlight of my Paris trip because you get to feel like a local and take in the ambiance of the city. Paris’ popular sidewalk cafe seating makes for a great spot to hang out and people-watch. My favorite cafe was Café de Flore! Pro trip: Get the croissant and espresso coffee special, Flore.”
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