4 Days in Paris: Locals Share How Best to Experience the City of Light

Linger in historic public squares or opulent mansions, and indulge in multicourse meals or spas fit for royalty during a long weekend in the city.

Person walking by a cafe with a blue awning

Spend part of your long weekend in Paris indulging in some of the city’s best cafes, like Breizh Cafe.

Photo By Romain Buisson

Whether it’s the haute couture, the Michelin-starred meals, the soaring Haussmanian architecture, or the fascinating history—you could move to Paris and still be surprised and delighted by all it has to offer. I know: I did. I called it home for nearly 10 years and throughout that time fielded inquiries left and right to the tune of “Where should I stay?” and “What should we eat?” from friends, their mother’s accountant, or their friend’s sister’s boss.

The advice I always start with? Let Paris come to you. In other words: Choose your own adventure. Don’t force yourself to wait in line at the Louvre if you’re not into Renaissance art. Don’t plan your day around the hottest table in town if the word “gastronomy” means nothing to you. (Though, if you’re going to broaden your horizons, this is the place to do it.)

With 20 arrondissements, over 400 parks and gardens, more than 2,000 museums and monuments, and a sprawling metro system connecting it all, there’s truly something for everyone in this storied city—whether that’s Monet’s water lilies at the Musée d’Orsay or Shepard Fairey’s mural behind the Pompidou.

If you’re into tours, plan around availability then leave room for spontaneity, disco naps, and extra eclairs. This four-day itinerary is purposely laid out over weekdays and the weekend to accommodate the city’s notoriously fussy opening and closing schedules. Profitez-bien—enjoy!

Thursday: Neighborhood strolls, craft coffee, and sweets

Shake off your jet lag with a mini caffeine and croissant crawl. First, grab a coffee from the closest Noir, a newer chain in the city whose pink-forward cafés are proliferating faster than it takes to froth a cappuccino—and that’s a good thing. (The coffee is top-quality and the atmosphere feels fresh.) Then, head for the Canal Saint-Martin where some of the best bakeries frame this bohemian enclave of the 10th arrondissement: Get a creamy €1 choux pastry from Mamiche, a seasonal-flavored pinwheel from Du Pain et Des Idées, or something more exotic from Liberté.

Cross through Place de la République, a large square featuring a central monument of Marianne (France’s post-Revolution personification) and the city’s hub for protests, parades, and other public events, for the Upper Marais. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends for shopping for French-designed brands such as Veja (vegan sneakers), Maison Labiche (embroidered hoodies), and Oh My Cream! (serums, oils, and gels—oh my!).

Next, stop into the Picasso Museum, which is inside a former hôtel particulier, or mansion, and features some 5,000 pieces by the Spanish painter who spent 60 years in France. That may sound like a lot of art to view before you’ve unpacked or had a shower, but since the space is quite digestible it’s a perfect first foray into culture.

By now, you’re surely ready for a “petite pause” or a snack, which the French call “goûter.” This generally occurs around 4 p.m. when kids get out school. If the weather is nice, find the Places des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, and sit in the sun on the grass or snag one of the benches to read or people-watch. You have a few nearby options depending on whether you want savory or sweet, grab-and-go or sit-down: I’m partial to the chou farci (stuffed cabbage) pita sandwich at Miznon a bit further west, which to be fair is more of a meal. But if you’re still after sweets and want that quintessential French café experience, head to Carette. You’ll likely have to wait for a seat outside, but inside is just as alluring—and where all the locals sit, according to Jane Bertch, owner of La Cuisine Paris cooking school and author of the forthcoming memoir The French Ingredient. “Try the Chausson aux Pommes with its unique baguette shape,” she suggests.

State rooms of the Hotel de la Marine in Paris with rich gilded wall decoration

Hôtel de la Marine is a Versailles-like experience without having to take the RER or an Uber all the way to the former palace.

Andrei Antipov/Shutterstock

Friday: A day of mansions, passages, and fine dining

Skip the urge to sleep in, and let your first full day begin with a self-guided tour of Hôtel de la Marine. (Yes, another “hotel” that’s not a hotel.) Thanks to cool GPS-enabled headphones, you can DIY through room after room of 18th-century French opulence. (Originally it was the home of the Garde-Meuble, the office that managed all royal properties—including Versailles—and Marie Antoinette had an apartment here when visiting the capital.)

From here, you’re positioned well for a walk through the Tuileries Garden up to the Louvre. You could go into the massive structure, originally built in the late 12th century as a fortress, to say “Bonjour” to Mesdames Mona and de Milo. But you’ll wait in line for ages if you didn’t prebook tickets. (Better yet: Go on a private tour with a company like Context Travel.) Maybe seeing I.M. Pei’s pyramid outside is enough, though, and you pop over to the less-crowded Palais-Royale instead. The covered arcades are lined with sweet shops, cafés, and restaurants, and the manicured gardens are full of roses in spring and summer.

For lunch, try the popular Le Nemours or the less-known Cafe Mar’Co. Both are vibe-first recommendations that offer more of a see-and-be-seen meal (as opposed to high-class cuisine) most beloved by fashion folk. I personally prefer a long, leisurely lunch that highlights seasonal, local ingredients courtesy of ever-changing tasting menus, and a midday meal is ideal for diving into one at a more digestible price than at dinner. You’ll have to commit to at least three hours and book ahead, but impressive, centrally located lunch options for modern takes on French food include Granite, Substance, and the recently restored La Tour d’Argent.

Take your food coma for a walk through some of the city’s covered, 19th-century passages, originally constructed to shelter the affluent during their walks on rainy days. “They’re full of curiosities,” says Maelle Tardif, concierge of Maison Proust, a boutique hotel in the Marias designed like the salons of the Belle Époque. “These historical gems are full of tea rooms and antique shops for an assured journey back in time,” she says. “Gallerie de Vivienne and Passage de Panoroma have boutiques for collectors of old books and postcards.”

White building behind a green vineyard in a city.

The Musée de Montmartre was founded in 1960.

Vlasyuk Inna/Shutterstock

Saturday: Movie-like meandering and pharmacy shopping

Today, you’ll tackle two quintessential Paris neighborhoods, both of which appeared in popular films. First up? Amelie’s Paris in Montmartre. This hilly quarter, which locals call “the butte,” will eventually lead you to the highest point in the city. Get lost in the twists and turns of the area’s crooked cobblestone streets where you may run into a mini vineyard, one of two remaining windmills, and the most charming, under-appreciated museum in Paris: the Musée de Montmartre. Area local and owner of gallery-tour company the Seen, Alexandra Weinress, says, “It’s tucked away from the tourist masses that tend to flock to the Sacré Coeur and focuses on the history of the neighborhood as the capital of bohemian life in Paris and artists like Renoir who lived there. The gardens are beautiful, too, and offer a welcome respite from the bustling city.”

Slowly wind your way down, perhaps pausing at the Hôtel Rouchechoart on the boulevard for a rooftop cocktail served with the best 360-degree views of the capital. Now, hop on line 12 to cross the river underground into the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. This is Woody Allen’s Paris, and where much of his 2011 film Midnight in Paris takes place. Then visit the Panthéon where the likes of Victor Hugo and Marie Curie are buried. (From April through October, climb the 206 steps to the rooftop for a panoramic view of the city.)

No visit to Paris would be complete without popping into one of its many pharmacies, and nearby on Rue du Four is the Holy Grail for French remedies, toiletries, and more: Citypharma. “You can’t go to Paris and not stock up on skincare essentials!” says Melanie Masarin, founder of the nonalcoholic aperitif Ghia, which just made its debut in the Marais concept shop Merci. “They carry every brand, often at great discounts. The Skinceuticals Vitamin C and all the products from Avene are so much more affordable there. It’s like the Ikea of French pharmacies!”

For dinner, book a table at Les Arlots in the 10th arrondissement for “the most gourmand and sincere food in Paris,” says Julien Pham, restaurateur and owner of Phamily First agency. He also recommends La Chope des Artistes restaurant and Chop Chop bar in the ninth. “It’s where young creatives and the talented people of Paris gather every night,” he says.

People walking through an open-air food market

Some vendors peel the likes of clementines and slice up mangoes to be tasted, while others sell food to be eaten on-site, such as oysters or hot crêpes filled with nutella or comté cheese.

Photo By lembi/Shutterstock

Sunday: A local market, relaxing like royalty, and sipping in style

For your final full day, start with a walk through the market at the foot of the Bastille monument in the 11th arrondissement. Each area has a “marché” that’s open on specific days of the week, but Sundays at the Marché Bastille really is “its own ecosystem,” says Bertch. The earlier you arrive the better for interactions with sellers. “You get a sense of these not just being a place to buy produce, but they are the heart of each neighborhood,” she says. Take in the sights and sounds, she urges, and sample, sample, sample.

Many shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays, so it’s a great opportunity to take a break yourself by splurging on self-care at the Ritz Club and Spa in Place Vendôme. Bring a book, maybe some headphones, and stay awhile: Whether or not you get a treatment, there’s also a gym, saunas and steam rooms, and an indoor pool surrounded by plush electric loungers from which you can order drinks and snacks.

Don’t overload it in heaven, though. Instead, shower for a final nuit à Paris cocktail at the Rosewood Hôtel de Crillion’s Les Ambassadeurs. This dark and sultry high-ceilinged salon is open to guests and nonguests. With its frescoes, gilded moldings, and chandeliers of chains, it’s the swankiest spot for a tipple in town. Finally, make your way to the Israeli restaurant Kapara for a late dinner. The former and beloved Balagan, which reopened in November 2023 under a new name, retains its original vibe by serving a veritable feast in a party-like atmosphere thanks to the new female chef whose Iraqi and Moroccan heritage adds a new level of spice to match the free shots sent around the room.

Left image shows a bed with a yellow cover in a pastel green room; right photo shows a white building with a red awning

Luxury hotel Le Grand Mazarin is located in the Marais district.

Where to stay

Paris has no shortage of excellent hotels. Two of my personal favorites are Le Grand Mazarin and HOY, the former for its whimsical, art-driven decor including an underground pool and inner courtyard that are covered in frescoes and the latter if you’re looking for a dose of wellness with your sightseeing. (There’s an on-site yoga studio and a terrific vegan restaurant.)

Sara Lieberman is a New York–born journalist who lived in Paris for the better part of the last decade. Her writing also appears in Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Hemispheres, and the Infatuation.
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