Summary: Yes, but it helps to have realistic expectations.
More tourists will visit Paris in a typical year than any other European city. So objectively, there must be something here worth seeing, right? Just as famous as Paris itself is the disappointment with the city. Famously, the Japanese refer to it as “Paris disappointment syndrome.” It might be dirty streets, rude service, or the long lines, but there is always something to complain about.
Paris is one of my favorite cities to visit (though I am not sure I would want to live there), and I think a misunderstanding of tourism is responsible for the disappointment syndrome. Paris looms large in popular media as a visual stand-in for a generic “beautifully elegant place” and an Instagram backdrop to convey status. Both cases portray Paris as a lifestyle rather than a destination. Tourists who decide on Paris after watching “Emily in Paris” or follow their favorite Instagram influencer to the city will be disappointed.
As one of the largest cities in the world, Paris is responsible for more than a third of France’s GDP. It’s a far cry from Florence or Venice, which are historical theme parks that cater exclusively to a commodified mass tourism market. Ordinary people live, work and study in Paris, even in the city center. As a result, simply showing up is not sufficient to experience Paris as you might imagine.
The streets are dirty because real people live there and don’t make for good cinema. Americans, in particular, may find servers rude because they are used to a culture that prioritizes customer service over the product. Lines are long because you didn’t book your ticket in advance.
Once you get past the trivial immersion-breaking inconveniences and treat Paris as any other travel destination, you can start exploring how to grasp the kind of immersive experience you want. The easiest way may be to spend more time in Paris. It is a large city with a lot to do in and around it. To live in the cafe and street culture, you have to live there, so spending a week or more in Paris will let you slow down and experience it. A one or two-day whirlwind tour of the city won’t give you much time for a relaxing cruise beneath the Eifel Tower or an afternoon espresso on the Seine.
Should you visit Paris?
It goes without saying that Paris is an effortless city to reach and travel around. With a world-class metro and rail network, the entire city is within an easy ride on public transport. For accommodation, options are available at every price point, and cheap Paris experiences are readily achievable. Paris is an expensive city, though, and even if you find discount flights and accommodation, inexpensive food is virtually impossible to find. Museum tickets can also be expensive, and multiple visits will add up, but compromising too much on cost may leave you bored and underwhelmed. Paris is not the first city on my list for an inexpensive vacation.
I find the historical cityscape of Paris to be its weakest selling point. Though full of immaculately preserved 19th-century avenues, it is also almost all the city offers. Following the failed Revolution of 1848, Emperor Napoleon III had virtually the entire city torn down and rebuilt. Tragically, the ancient Ile de la Cite, on which Notre Dame stands, suffered greatly. Several uninteresting government buildings and a repulsively ugly hospital building replaced the ancient medieval streets. Only the Conciergierie and Sainte Chappel survive.
To find the traces of ancient Paris, you must travel to parts of the Marais District and elsewhere to explore the individual monuments, churches, and palaces that survive. Where they survive, most are carefully preserved and well documented.
I give Paris a seven because I find much of the city repetitive, and after a certain point, I no longer feel the need to keep exploring the city streets. I have my list of specific places to visit, like Saint Suplice Church or the Molin Rouge, but looking down every street reveals few surprises.
Cultural immersion into French (Parisian) culture is certainly possible, but your experience will reflect the effort you invest. Planning and researching the places that offer the best experiences is a necessary first step. You don’t need a precise itinerary; wandering around may reveal some of the best-hidden gems. You will, however, need to know where to walk around.
Taking your time is also necessary. Cultural immersion, in general, takes time. Finding a place where you can talk to or interact with the locals is not something that can quickly happen with the clock ticking.
The ability to speak French will enhance the experience but is not required. The Parisians do not deserve their stereotype of snobbery, but the stereotype of the Parisian only willing to speak French is more deserved.
Paris is a very interactive city, where interaction is allowed. The loss of one point highlights the difficulty in accessing some more popular tourist landmarks such as the Louvre or Eifel Tower. Without an advance ticket, the lines can be unrealistically long. In the case of Sainte Chappelle, access may not even be possible without a reservation. While most of the significant landmarks are open to the public in some sense, as you explore the city, you will notice more than a few intriguing places locked behind closed doors. However, the city is so large that these locked doors won’t be much of an issue.
To get the most out of Paris, you must go into things. That may sound somewhat arcane, but the city is quite large relative to the number of accessible landmarks. If you compare it to an Italian city like Florence, where you can observe much of its charm in its atmosphere of elaborate architecture, narrow alleyways, and public plazas. In Paris, though, much of the city looks the same, and there are few public plazas or green areas. To experience what it offers, you need to visit museums, restaurants, and shops.
The Conclusion: Yes, it has a charming old-town but may require a sense of adventure
Overview of Things to Do in Paris
I won’t attempt anything like a complete guide to the city of Paris. Volumes of material have been written on exploring Paris, and here I will only focus on one perspective, traces of the Ancien Regime. As I lack the expertise to fully explore topics such as the French Belle Epoch and Art Nouveau, I leave the study of modern Paris to other sources. Instead, we look at what remains of the architecture and atmosphere of “old Paris,” that is, the city of the Medieval and Pre-Modern Kings of France.
Traveling with this purpose in mind, the main activities to undertake are museums, churches, and walking tours through the Le Marais district. My highlights are the Louvre, the Cluny Museum, Sainte Chappelle, Les Invalides, and the Place des Vosges.
The only district that at least partially survives the urban renewal campaigns of the late 19th century in Paris is le Marais. Walking around this area will give you a feel for the narrow alleys and streets of the pre-revolutionary capital. Some areas are better preserved than others, and I have marked out three areas where the concentration of these streets is highest. But exploring this area for yourself will undoubtedly be rewarding.
The Louvre, of course, is the world’s most famous fine art museum, but it also has one of the best collections and exhibitions of decorative arts. The building was originally a Renaissance palace, and every French king adapted it for their use. Traces of this and other interiors from throughout French history are on display in this section.
Likewise, the Cluny Museum of Medieval History is an incredible window into the more distant past. Built around a Roman bath house, it possesses one of the world’s best-curated exhibitions of medieval art.
Sainte Chappelle is simply the most beautiful work of Medieval art ever conceived, a church-sized reliquary of stained glass from the high Gothic period.
The Invalides was a hospital built by King Louis XIV for his military veterans, and today also houses a military museum and Napoleon’s tomb. Its impressive scale and imposing architecture make it the premier relic of Louis XIV in Paris.
Finally, though not commonly found on other lists, the Place des Vosges is the only public space from before 1850 to be preserved and is one of the loveliest squares in the city.
Due to the sheer number of places to visit in Paris, I will not list the opening times and days but rather link to the official tourist site for Paris.
Most museums are open from 9-10 until 5-6, with a closing day on either Monday or Tuesday. Some larger museums, such as the Louvre, are open longer and for all seven days a week. Make sure you check before you start planning in detail.
Visit Paris if you want a fantastic experience exploring one of the world’s most beautiful and storied capital cities. It may not meet the expectations set by appearances in popular media, but if you interact with the city, you will uncover a city that you may not want to leave.