101 things to do in Paris: cultural highlights
Find the best of Paris with our ultimate list of things to do in the capital
© Oliver Knight / Time Out
Scroll through the list below to discover our selection of the capital’s unmissable museums, galleries, visitor attractions and landmarks. Think we've missed any cultural highlights in Paris? Let us know and leave a comment in the box below.
The best museums and art galleries in Paris
A behemoth of a museum, the Louvre has galleries and wings so vast you could easily spend a day feasting your eyes on treasures like the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and Egyptian mummies - not to mention on the building itself, which sports sumptuous architecture erected and remodelled over the centuries by the rulers of France. When cultural overload sets in, take a breather in the Café Mollien at the top of the grand Mollien staircase. Great for a restorative sandwich, its terrace also offers one of Paris’s finest views over the Louvre’s Tuileries gardens.
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- Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France
The old Belle Époque Orsay train station was converted into the Musée D’Orsay in 1986 to house one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art. Aside from works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, you'll find a dapper collection of decorative arts from the Art Nouveau era and a wide range of 19th-century sculpture. Digest it over coffee in the café behind the museum’s giant transparent clock. And don’t miss the classical music concerts in the Auditorium. The performances are consistently top-notch and usually involve world-famous musicians.
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- 62 rue de Lille, 7e, Paris, France
As cutting-edge as ever, the ‘extra-skeletal’ Centre Pompidou is home to modern art treasures by (amongst others) Braque, Dubuffet, Matisse and Ernst, plus ever-changing temporary art exhibitions that ensure that no two visits are ever the same. Get there early when the queues are bearable, or arrive at 6pm and stay until closing time at 9pm, after which Georges, the Pompidou’s trendy rooftop bar-cum-restaurant, serves moreish cocktails in a futuristic setting with panoramic views over the city.
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- Rue Saint-Martin, 4e, Paris, France
The 'wedding cake', as the Palais Garnier is nicknamed, wows a highbrow crowd with some of the world’s best ballet and the occasional opera. The building is an ode to opulence, dripping in marble and gold leaf. It’s also rather fascinating, with the underground lake that inspired Gaston Leroux to write Phantom of the Opera (now used by the fire-service for diving training), and beehives on the roof which produce the honey on sale in the Boutique de l’Opéra. To make a night of it, opt for dinner in the Restaurant de l’Opéra - an avant-garde, red and white affair set in the Palais Garnier’s former horse and carriage quarters.
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- Place de l'Opéra, 9e, Paris, France
More than just olde-worlde shopping malls, Les Passages Couverts around the Grand Boulevards are atmospheric old covered passages that date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Glass-roofed and utterly charming, their second-hand bookshops, tea-rooms and gift boutiques make fun alternatives to stores elsewhere in Paris, and some of them wouldn’t look out of place as the setting for a Sherlock Holmes mystery – especially the Gallerie Vivienne and the Passage Jouffroy, which houses the Musée Grévin, Paris’s answer to Madame Tussauds.
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- 2e et 9e, Paris
Not as daunting as it might seem, an afternoon at Drouot, Paris’ main auction house, can be great fun, even if you don’t fancy spending. On the day before the auction (and on the morning itself), drool over the objects for sale, then come back for the show (usually 2pm). Anyone can take part; and you don’t have to sign up beforehand. Neither do you have to worry about sneezing or scratching your head - it’s the role of Drouot’s commissaires des ventes (auctioneers) to distinguish a real bid from nose twitching.
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- 15 avenue Montaigne, 8e, Paris, France
The most famous edifice in the world, the Eiffel Tower, was originally erected as a temporary exhibit for a World Fair. Thank god it wasn’t pulled down! It provides heart-stopping views over Paris and is visible from most vantage points across the city. There’s also a panoramic champagne bar on the 3rd floor, a brasserie, and the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant where Alain Ducasse creates elaborate dishes. At night, cross the river to Trocadéro to watch Eiffel’s girders sparkle like fairy lights on a Christmas tree (every hour, on the hour).
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- Champ de Mars, 7e, Paris, France
Walk your way through 900 years of French architecture at the wonderful Cité Chaillot, set inside the vast Palais Chaillot, built for the 1937 World Fair. Everything from monumental moulded portions of French cathedrals to copies of rare 11th-century frescoes and industrial-era construction models cover the walls, floors and ceiling. If you’re into modern architecture the highlight has to be a mock Le Corbusier apartment, copied from the Cité Radieuse in Marseille. Kids are well catered for with play sections of building blocks and stained glass window puzzles.
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- Place du Trocadero, 16e, Paris, France
Kids love the hands-on aspect of futuristic Cité des Sciences, where mock submarines and rockets, a planetarium and a whole array of interactive science games prove that communications, physics and technology can be fun. Once everyone’s IQ has been bolstered, the grassy expanses of Parc de la Villette are ideal for a stroll or a picnic. You can also combine your ticket with the Géode Imax cinema, which shows fun, science-related 3D films inside a giant silver golf ball structure.
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- La Villette, 30 avenue Corentin-Cariou, 19e, Paris, France
Quasimodo certainly had good taste: the views from Notre-Dame cathedral’s towers are nothing short of stupendous, especially on a cloudy day, when the skies spin a moody hue across the River Seine and on towards the Eiffel Tower. From the top you also get the best view of the cathedral’s famous gargoyles - cheeky little chimeras whose ugly mugs watch over the city below. Unbeknown to most, they’re not originals; architect Viollet-le-Duc added them in the mid 19th-century when he restored the cathedral to its former glory.
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- Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, 4e, Paris, France
Behind its allure as a fairytale castle, the turreted Conciergerie (the first royal palace, also known as the Palais de la Cité) hides a bloody past: During the Revolution it served as a prison for those condemned to the guillotine, including Queen Marie-Antoinette. Remnants of its revolutionary history are still visible in mock prison cells, but the Conciergerie’s main draw nowadays is its stunning medieval architecture. After visiting, head up the road to the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle, which contains some of the finest stained glass windows in the world.
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- 2 boulevard du Palais, 1er, Paris, France
Perfect for a cultural lunch break or a lazy afternoon, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a temple to French interior design, showing how lifestyle and taste have evolved from medieval times to today. Everything from the Duc de Berry’s gold-encrusted cradle to chairs by Philippe Starck are on display. There’s also an interesting set of rooms that reconstructs the living quarters of key figures like couturier Jeanne Lanvin, whose 1920s boudoir, bedroom and bathroom are in on show. At the end of you visit, grab a restorative cocktail in the Arts Décoratifs’ restaurant-bar, Le Saut du Loup.
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- 107 rue de Rivoli, 1er, Paris, France
Power up your legs and climb the 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. The views sweep in geometric splendour between the arc of la Defense and the Louvre. It’s also a plum spot for observing Parisian driving techniques: the unmarked traffic island creates speedy anarchy with cars nipping around invisible lanes like beetles with a death wish. In fact, have an accident here and it’s automatically 50/50 on the insurance claim, no matter whose fault it is. Back on solid ground, spare a thought for the Unknown Soldier whose grave sits solemnly in the centre of the arch.
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- Place Charles de Gaulle (accès souterrain), 8e, Paris, France
Do the Grand and Petit Palais in one day
On Avenue Winston Churchill, the Grand and Petit Palais are photogenic throwbacks to Paris’ 1900 World Fair. The big one houses world-class temporary arts exhibitions and a science museum; meanwhile the little one charms with fine arts that span the period from antiquity to 1918. Ease yourself in gently with the Petit Palais; have lunch at Mini-Palais (the Grand Palais’ restaurant managed by Le Bristol’s acclaimed chef Eric Fréchon); then see which chef d’oeuvres the Grand Palais is concealing beneath its iconic glass roof.
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What the Opéra Bastille lacks in aesthetics (its façade looks like an monochromatic Tetris game gone wrong) it gains with the quality and variety of its opera and ballet performances. Here you can enjoy cutting-edge renditions of 20th-century works like ‘Lulu’ by Alban Berg, or opt for 19th-century French classics like Charles Gounod’s ‘Faust’ and Jules Massenet’s ‘Manon’. Christmas is always a fine time to go, when Opéra Bastille joins forces with the Palais Garnier to showcase international opera favourites by composers like Verdi.
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- 120 rue de Lyon, Paris, 12e, France
A hundred and fifty years of urbanisation have done little to dent the villagey charm of Montmartre: watched over by the neo-byzantine Sacré-Coeur, its cobbled lanes feel surprisingly rural right down to its tiny vineyard. The main attractions are no secret, however, so avoid the tourists by visiting the Musée de Montmartre, a petite, lesser-known museum that recounts Montmartre’s history as a centre for artists like Toulouse Lautrec. Or discover cutting-edge Outsider Art at the fabulous Halle St-Pierre – a former covered market that houses the Max Fourney Art Brut collection.
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On the edge of the Seine, by the Eiffel Tower, Musée du Quai Branly is an urban jungle; an earth-toned, neo-cubist structure signed Jean Nouvel and shrouded in vegetation, including a botanical wall. Inside you’ll find a fascinating collection of primitive art treasures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, all displayed along dimly-lit winding paths. If you fancy a gourmet pause, the Quai Branly’s rooftop restaurant, Les Ombres, serves fusion cuisine with views onto the Eiffel Tower.
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- 37 quai Branly, 7e, Paris, France
Most people visit the Musée de Cluny to see the extraordinary Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. But inside this chocolate-box gothic mansion you’ll also find hundreds of intriguing medieval objects, including the epitaph of 15th-century Parisian alchemist Nicolas Flamel, who supposedly made the philosopher’s stone (if Harry Potter is to be believed). The Cluny’s other draws are an extraordinary collection of ancient stained glass fragments and a Gallo-Roman section, which leads you down below street level to former Roman baths, including a frigadarium (cold bath).
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- 6 place Paul Painlevé, 5e, Paris, France
The Sun King built the gold-domed Invalides as a military compound, but Napoleon got the final word: his tomb takes pride of place inside its Dôme church. The rest of this vast complex is home to one of the world’s largest collections of armoury, with a particularly impressive section devoted to armour from the 13th to the 17th century. The Second World War – or at least Général de Gaulle’s part in it – gets good coverage too in the Invalides’ multi-media Charles de Gaulle section. A must for war buffs.
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- Esplanade des Invalides, 7th, Paris, France
Descend, if you dare, into the entrails of the city. The Catacombs are without doubt the spookiest attraction Paris has to offer, with kilometres of tunnels lined with the femurs and skulls of defunct Parisians. Created 18 metres underground in the late 18th-century to stop disease from spreading from overrun inner-city cemeteries, they now make for a chilling stroll. Just don’t feel tempted to nick any bones: Yorrick might look good on your mantelpiece but the Catacombes look down on grave-robbing and the guards check your bags on the way out.
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- 1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 14e, Paris, France
The Musée Gustave Moreau makes you feel like you’re stepping onto the set of a 19th-century period film: gorgeous knick-knacks fill rooms that look just as they did when the symbolist artist lived here and around 1300 paintings pepper the walls over three storeys. Best of all is the light-filled workshop on the 3rd floor where Moreau used to paint. Climb the swirly iron staircase to feast your eyes on chef-d’oeuvres like the 2m-tall Jupiter and Semele – a hypnotic fest of blues, green and golds, in which Moreau spins his own interpretation of the Classical myth.
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- 14 rue de La Rochefoucauld, 9e, Paris, France
The Marais is an El Dorado for contemporary art collectors, with a maze of streets given over to top galleries. Of all those places, however, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin stands out above the rest. It's the establishment that gave Damien Hirst his first solo show in 1991: since then it has showcased a constant stream of headliners like Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami, Sophie Calle and Tatiana Trouvé. Best of all it’s free to look around, so you can get your art fix for zip.
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- 76 rue de Turenne, 3e, Paris, France
Canoodling opportunities abound in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, without doubt one of Paris’ most romantic green bits, strewn with Rodin’s greatest statues, including The Thinker, The Gates of Hell and Balzac. Inside the Hôtel Biron, where Rodin worked until the end of his life, you’ll find oodles of his works, including The Kiss, but also a touching selection by his tortured lover, Camille Claudel. On a sunny day, grab an ice cream in the garden and eat it on your way to the marble gallery, where Rodin’s most fragile, exquisite statues are displayed behind glass.
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- Hôtel Biron, 79 rue de Varenne, 7e, Paris, France