Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can see with just one day in Paris.
Sometimes the best you can do is make a quick layover in a fabulous city on your way to another fabulous city. I know because I’ve done just that—a lot. Follow this itinerary, and I promise you won’t be disappointed even if you only have one day in Paris.
Paris caters to tourists, so most of the things you really want to see will be open fairly late. That said, I recommend waking up at a reasonable hour so you can make the most of your day without feeling rushed. Paris is the kind of place that’s best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
To get better value for your dollar, stay someplace central but a bit off the beaten path. I like boutique hotels best—they have a certain je ne c’est quoi (See what I did there)!
Two that I highly recommend are the Hotel Eiffel Seine and Hotel Eiffel Saint Charles. They are just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Eiffel Tower. Okay, it’s a long jump. But that’s what keeps the prices affordable for service and style that’s otherwise out of my price range. Still, it’s only a 10 to 15-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower. You can enjoy the local sights and sounds on your stroll. And both hotels are located very near public transport (metro and train).
It’s possible your hotel will offer a free breakfast, many do. Skip it in favor of a street-side café. I know, it’s hard to pass up free, and your budget is tight, but you don’t get to do this every day. Treat yourself—and by that, I mean head to a nearby patisserie. There will be half a dozen in a three block radius, and you can purchase a vanilla cream croissant for about $2. Sit down, relax, and watch the world go by. But only for a half hour or so. There’s a lot left to do, and this won’t be the only café you visit today.
The first stop of the day is the Arc de Triomphe. For 8 Euro you can climb to the top to see the Champs E’Lysées in all its glory. I usually save my money for a ride up the Eiffel Tower later in the day. Instead, I take my pictures of the Arc from the iconic shopping street itself. Then, I meander from shop to shop for the next two hours or so. You do only have one day in Paris after all, and you don’t want to waste all your time shopping at chain stores you can find in any city back home.
Pro tip: only go into the shops that are unique to Paris, have something you’re actually interested in looking at and are within your budget. This will save you some much-needed time. And it will help mitigate the potential risk of blowing your entire budget on that one pair of shoes…you know the ones, I know you do. It’s sort of like shopping for a wedding dress. Never try on one outside your budget. It only ever ends in heartbreak. Splurge on a few French treasures, like a nice perfume.
Before you know it, the mid-day sun will be shining overhead and your tummy will be growling for lunch. There are a ton of great options, from inexpensive street food to lavish restaurants. Again, I like to save my money for later in the day, so I keep it light. A nice option if you want to feel truly posh is Ladurée. Its ornate décor and luxe offerings will leave your mouth watering. But there is often a line to get inside.
If you know in advance this is something you want to do and don’t want to waste time, book a table in advance. If you forget to reserve a table, fear not. The line moves fairly fast. Or to keep costs down and get in a bit quicker, you can go to Le Bar. It’s part of the larger establishment, but it’s got just a few seats around a counter. Here, you can order a drink and a pastry. I can attest to the decadence of the religieuse. So good.
Ladurée’s lofty prices and long lines aren’t for everyone. For a budget-friendly alternative, head to Brioche Dorée across the street. This French bakery chain offers sandwiches, pastries, and other gastronomic delights at a fraction of the cost. And they’re simply delish. With a more fast food type of atmosphere, you can get in and out in a jiffy, leaving you more time for exploring. If you’re a foodie and don’t mind spending a little extra time eating, another great option is to take a bakery tour.
I know you just ate, but before you get too far, do yourself a favor and pick up a few macarons for your afternoon trek. It doesn’t matter if you shell out the big bucks at Ladurée or buy the low-budget version at the McCafé, just treat yourself. They all taste a little bit like heaven no matter where you buy them in Paris. And you’ve got a lot to do before you can stop again for food, so you’ll be glad to have a stash of something to nibble on.
Now that your stomach is sated, it’s off to the Louvre. For all intents and purposes, if you were to walk straight down the Champs E’Lysées from one end to the other without stopping, you could reach the Louvre in about 45 minutes. But I recommend reserving at least two or three hours to make this trek. If you hit the shops right at opening—say 10 a.m.—you’ll be at the Louvre around 1 p.m.
There’s not a lot of time to stop and stare at all of the beautiful artwork on display when you only have one day in Paris. In fact, you really only have time to see the Mona Lisa and a few other pieces along the way. Once inside, you’ll need to go through a quick security check before heading to the ticket counter. (If you’re on your game, you can buy your tickets online in advance, saving you a few precious minutes.) The total cost of entry is 15 Euro, which may seem like a lot for a quick look at a portrait, but do you really want to be the person who spends one day in Paris and doesn’t see the Mona Lisa? I didn’t think so.
To make your life easier, the Louvre has lovely “visitor trails” that take you to what you most want to see: Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, and Mona Lisa. These guides are foolproof and can be downloaded online if you want to map your route in advance. Or you can just pick up a copy when you arrive. Depending on how long you want to stare at each masterpiece, you can be in and out in an hour or two tops.
Next, it’s time for a stroll along the Seine toward the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral. While it’s no longer possible to take a look inside following the fire in spring 2019, it’s still worth a glimpse from the outside. Take the Pont des Art bridge, where, at one time, I would have told you to take along an engraved lock to add to the thousands of locks lovers affixed to it over the years. But in 2015 the locks were cut off. The bridge was literally collapsing under their weight.
Once you’ve crossed the bridge, walk along the Quai des Grands Augustin, where you’ll find countless kiosks of everything from used books to postcards and street art. It’s a delightful little journey. Before you know it, you’ll come to the Quai Saint-Michel, which will lead you, more or less, to the steps of the famed Notre Dame. It’s only a 20-minute walk, but it will likely take you an hour or more.
I have a penchant for all things gothic…I did write a best-seller series of vampire novels, after all. And the Notre Dame is no exception. I could spend the entire day taking pictures of its buttresses and gargoyles in various lighting, and many are still intact for you to enjoy. But alas, when you have only one day in Paris, there’s no time for such luxuries. Take a few snaps of the remaining framework, see the stained-glass windows, and continue on your way.
The area around Notre Dame is bustling. There are all sorts of restaurants and shops. I recommend taking some time to grab a bite to eat—have the mussels and fries, trust me. Be sure to stop in a few stores, and rest your feet. You’ve already covered a lot of ground, and the day is not even close to done.
Just because you’ve lost daylight doesn’t mean the fun has to end. After dinner, take an evening tour by boat or double-decker bus. Either way, you’ll get to see the sights in a new light—literally. You may even catch a glimpse of a few places you didn’t have time to walk to on your whirlwind tour throughout the day. At only $20 to $50 bucks, it’s a great way to cap off your day.
Now, for the pièce de résistance and the very last stop of your one day in Paris itinerary, make your way toward the infamous Eiffel Tower. You thought I was going to forget about it, didn’t you? I believe in saving the best for last—not to mention I personally think it’s most beautiful at night. It’s open until midnight in the summer months, and I really believe there’s nothing quite like seeing the tower’s columns glittering in the moonlight.
Spring for the tickets to the top floor, even if you’re afraid of heights like me. At 17 Euro it’s a steal and an experience you won’t soon forget. When you reach the ground, grab a crepe from one of the street vendors for the twilight walk back to your hotel. It’s the perfect way to cap off your jam-packed day in Paris.
If you’ve only got one day in Paris, don’t fret. Following this easy itinerary, you can catch a glimpse at a lot of the main sights. How would you spend one day in Paris? Share your ideas in the comments!