I started my first trip to Europe in July 1996 with 5 days in Paris plus 1 day in August before returning home. I then returned in May 1998 for a day here and a day there between my trips to Germany and Spain. Special thanks to Rick, Romain, Nick, Jesus (the garcon at Café Solferino), and everyone who posted to the rec.travel.europe newsgroup for their assistance.
Time. Give yourself at least 5 days in Paris. You really need a week or two, but in 5 days you can at least see the major sights, take a one-day trip outside of Paris, and get a general feel for the city.
Must-See Attractions. These are the places where everyone with a fanny pack and a Kodak converge because if you don't see these places, you haven't been to Paris. If I sound like I have a mild disdain for these attractions it's because I have a mild disdain for things that are touristy, but I went to see them because, well, if I hadn't seen them I couldn't say I'd seen Paris.
- Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower)--This steel monument can be seen from various points around the city, but to get up close I recommend taking the Metro to Trocadero. From the Metro station head towards the Palais de Chaillot to go through the Jardins du Trocadero and over the Pont D'Iena to the tower. In this way you arrive with a full view of the tower and fountains of Trocadero instead of arriving directly under the tower. If you are determined to go to the top, be prepared to pay through the nose (~60 French Francs).
- The Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees--The Arc de Triomphe is the famous arch which lists every French military victory and which makes a traffic circle that is nightmarish for drivers and potentially lethal for pedestrians. You can pay to walk to the top (21 Francs for persons 18-25, more for persons older). It's a long hard walk but there is a nice view of the city and of the Champs-Elysees and there is an elevator ride down. The top of the Arc is special to me because that is where I met Nick from Los Angeles, who has become a very dear friend. The Champs-Elysees is the broad avenue of shops which runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de Concorde.
- Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre--The Basilique du Sacre-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) is a Catholic shrine that stands out along with the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe as one of the classic monuments of Paris. It is still used as a church so be sure to dress appropriately and obey the instructions on talking, flash photography etc. Practically around the corner from the Sacre-Coeur is Rue Norvins, a windy road of shops, souvenirs, and entertainers leading to Place de Tertre, a square full of pricey restaurants and artistes waiting to draw a picture of you. If afterwards you want to see a less touristy area, I suggest you walk down the hill from Montmartre to Rue de Abbesses, where you can find the local person's Paris complete with patisseries, boulangeries, fromageries, charcuteries, and the ubiquitous café.
- The Louvre--Probably the grandest museum I've ever been to. The history, the impressive pieces of art contained in those halls...don't expect to do it all in one day. See the must-sees of this must see (the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo,) and maybe two or three other sections. I myself enjoyed the painting of the coronation of Napoleon. Afterwards (or as a museum break) take a walk through the Jardin des Tuileries. If you are there in the summer you will find the Fete des Tuileries, a sort of fair with food and rides. The fair is controversial because some people think the Ferris Wheel is an eyesore, but when you are young (or young at heart) and strolling through the Fete with someone on a summer night, you're sure to see why Paris is so often associated with romance.
- Cathedrale Notre-Dame, Ile de la Cite, Ile St. Louis, and the Latin Quarter--Okay, the Cathedral is the actual must see with its beautiful stained glass and flying buttresses, but as long as you are in the neighborhood you really should take time to see the other sites. Ile de la Cite and Ile St. Louis are two islands in the Seine that you can walk around in a few hours. Lots of quaint shops. The Latin Quarter is on the Left Bank of Paris and is also known as the Student Quarter since the Sorbonne is there. Lots of narrow streets, bars, and cheap restaurants. I enjoyed the quiche at Miam-Miam, 57 Rue Galande. I also enjoyed a Greek sandwich at a stand whose name I can't remember; when you see people with a pita wrapped up like a cone containing meat, lettuce, tomatoes and french fries, you can ask them where they got it.
- Sainte-Chapelle--This small church sits almost hidden in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice on the Ile de La Cite. For a small price you can enter this building constructed under the reign of king Louis IX and behold literally breathtaking stained glass work in the Haute Chapelle (Upper Chapel).
- Musee d'Orsay--This museum on the left bank is home to an immensely wonderful Impressionist painting collection, among other fine works of art. Tips: In the summer go on a Thursday when they are open until 22 heures (10 p.m.) and don't be fooled into thinking that even with the extra time you will have time for both the regular collections and the special exhibit.
- Centre Pompidou--The museum of modern art whose building design is a work of art in itself. I must admit I am not a fan of modern art, but I did enjoy the exhibits and I enjoyed the escalator rides to the upper floors because on the way up you get a great view of the city. Centre Pompidou is also home to a cybercafe (Cyberia) and a library. Unfortunately it is closed for rennovations until 2000.
- Marais--A neighborhood in the 4th Arrondisement (District) of Paris, noted for the Place des Vosges, the house of Victor Hugo, and the Jewish Quarter. The main street of the Jewish Quarter is Rue de Rosiers. If you happen to see an employee named Richard in Patisserie Nathan de Belleville, tell him Bridget from America sent you. And ladies, if he asks you to marry him, don't be alarmed. ;)
- Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise--Final resting place of many luminaries including Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. The tombstone and crypt structures are impressive. To be honest, I can't say I recommend one cemetery over another having only been to one in Paris, but I do recommend you see at least one cemetery to get an idea of what it's like.
- Musee de L'Orangerie--A small museum off the Jardin de Tuileries which is home to the best presentation of Monet's "Water Lilies" paintings I have ever seen.
Parks and Gardens. Paris is a very green city. Major parks (parcs) and gardens (jardins) that come immediately to mind are: Jardin De Tuileries, between the Louvre and the Place de Concorde; Jardin de Luxembourg, southwest of the Latin Quarter and home of the French National Senate building; Jardin des Plantes, near the Pont d'Austerlitz; and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondisment. But there are lots of smaller parks that are just nice to stop at for lunch or just a little break from walking; when you see one don't hesitate to stop.
Food. Food is definitely expensive in Paris but there are bargains out there. Breakfast is the cheapest meal of the day--a croissant and a cafe au lait will cost you less than 13 francs at a cafe. Lunch is also easy on the wallet. Depending on your budget you have two options: 1) get something simple to go such as a baguette sandwich, a slice of quiche, or a croque monsieur (grilled cheese sandwich) for under 30 Francs; or 2) go to a restaurant or bistro for a 3-course lunch special for 65-80 Francs. For dinner if you want a regular restaurant and you like seafood, I highly recommend Leon de Bruxelles, a citywide chain. It was recommended to me by a local (meaning it's not a tourist trap), and you get a steaming pot of 60 moules (mussels) with pommes frites (French fries, to be eaten with dijon mustard) for as little as 75 Francs.
For light and cheap fare any time try a crepe, available either with meat and cheese or "sweet" and costing less than 30 Francs. My favorite variety has to be a crepe with Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread. One taste and you will be begging your grocery store to stock it (in America it's usually in the aisle with the peanut butter and jelly).
Nightlife. I'm afraid I didn't get invited to the more exclusive clubs in Paris. However, I did manage to go to the Slow Club, a jazz club on Rue de Rivoli (near the Louvre). Hot jazz and swing dancing in a cool, cave-like setting worth the 75 Franc entrance fee.
Lodging. Like a good budget traveller I stayed in hostels. If planning ahead and having advance reservations is important to you I recommend the Hostelling International (HI) Auberge de Jeunesse Le d'Artagnan in the 20th Arrondisment. It isn't central to the main attractions, but it has its own bar and pool table which makes it a great place to hang out and meet people after a day of sightseeing.
If your travel plans are flexible or you can wait until the last minute to make find a bed for the night I recommend staying at one of the hostels in the Bureau de Voyages Jeunesse (BVJ) system. I stayed at the BVJ Louvre, a nice hostel in a great location near Les Halles and the Louvre. They only take reservations 1 to 3 days in advance.
Transportation. The first time I went to Paris I happened to sit on the plane next to a nice Frenchman named Romain who along with his girlfriend gave me a ride from Aeroport Orly into the city. The second trip I flew into Aeroport Charles de Gaulle and took the RER B train into the city and back. It was convenient and fast and at 43 Francs one way was not outrageously expensive. If you are travelling into Orly I recommend the Orlybus which runs from the Denfert-Rochambeau Metro stop for 30 Francs one way.
Once in town, take Metro. It is clean, convenient, but runs only until 12:30 a.m. After that there are night buses with fewer stops and higher prices. If you are there a full week (Sunday-Sunday) it may be worth it to get a carte hebedomaire (weekly metro pass), otherwise buy a carnet (packet) of 10 metro tickets. The best way to get around Paris, though, is on foot. Many sights are close enough together that often I only needed to use the Metro twice, once to get into the city and once to get back to the hostel.
Day Trips. The three day trips (1 hour outside of Paris) that come immediately to my mind are Versailles, the Cathedral at Chartres, and Monet's House at Giverny. I've only been to Versailles; next time I will go to Chartres which is supposed to have impressive stained glass, and maybe to Monet's house and gardens. As for Versailles, I was impressed by the brief glimpse of Louis XIV's palace. What I enjoyed more however was renting a bike and riding it around the immense gardens of Versailles. The bike rental is inside the gardens near the Grand Canal. Note there is a separate entrance fee for the gardens.
Language. If you have time, buy a book and a tape and learn some basic words in French. Or go to the Foreign Languages for Travelers site and learn some words from there. Most people in Paris do speak some English, but some people don't and if nothing else it is considered courteous to at least say in French, "Pardon moi, monsieur, parlez vous anglais?"
Les Pages de Paris / The Paris Pages--Comprehensive information on Paris.
Pariscope, une semaine de Paris--The Web site of a weekly paper in Paris that has entertainment information. Available in English and French.
Le Monde--The Web site of the Paris newspaper.
Societe Nationale de Chemin de Fer (SNCF)--The Web site of the French national railroad system.