When I was wandering Paris this past June, often dodging tourists and gaping at long lines, it dawned on me that I haven’t been in this beautiful city during the height of tourist season in many, many years. I honestly was unprepared for just how crowded it really can be!!! Moral of the story, if you can avoid visiting from around mid-May to mid-September, you’ll be a much happier traveler, not competing with thousands of other tourists for access to its treasures (maybe just hundreds). However, since summer is when MOST people are able to visit, I wanted to give you some tips on avoiding the worst of the crowds. The single best way to avoid lines? Go with a guide. Either private tours or escorted group tours will nearly always get you past the worst lines at the most popular sites. If you're not booked on a private or escorted tour, you're going to need to do some work to avoid lines at the four biggies (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum, the Notre Dame cathedral, and – my favorite- the Musee D'Orsay), as well as some other popular spots. Here’s how to do it:
1) La Tour Eiffel – Going to the top of this symbol of Paris really is on many, many people’s bucket lists. Some people come to Paris JUST for this. Be prepared - the express tickets to the top go on sale about ~3 months in advance & can SELL OUT FAST. You also have to pick a time to visit when you purchase them, so give yourself some flexibility. (Those times are NOT flexible. EG: if you book it for 4pm, you can’t show up at 5pm and expect to have your tickets honored. In fact, you need to show up at 3:30 or before, just be be sure you get your tickets on time.) If you miss the advanced booking window, there are still ways to still get up to the top without one of those tickets. You can make a reservation at either of the two restaurants on level two (lunch or dinner) and continue to the top after your meal, or you can also take the stairs up to level 1 & then continue up the crazy elevators. My two cents? The city is SO beautiful at GROUND LEVEL. Yes, you’re incredibly high up at the top, and it IS such an iconic “thing to do”, but being that high over a mostly flat city just, to me, isn’t worth the hassles of all the crowds. Instead, consider taking your pics of the tower from the Trocadero square, then going to the top of the Arc de Triomphe which offers a fantastic, more-reasonably high, less crowded view over Paris’s rooftops and roads. PLUS you get to actually see the Eiffel Tower from there! Here are some pics of the tower’s crowds, its beauty from various points nearby, and then some pics from the top of the Arc de Triomphe on a perfectly wretched day in February (but you get at least an idea of the views).
2) The Musee du Louvre is amazing, iconic, and huge. You really can’t miss it – the ginormous palace, and the gardens in front really dominate the center of the city. First things first, if you don't have a museum pass or aren't with a group, DO NOT wait in the giant line at the famous glass pyramids, which are the “main entrance”. They’re gorgeous and a very cool architectural feature, but you can EXIT through them with no problem and get to see them then. Go underground. If you take the metro, the "Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre" stop is best, otherwise take your pictures of the palace, then turn around and head towards the smallish pink arch at the start of the Tuilleries (“L’Arche du Carrousel”). There are staircases on either side that will take you down to the underground mall, including the museum shop which is quite good. From the mall or the metro station follow signs for “La Carrousel du Louvre” (which is the name of the mall). There still MAY be a bit of line for security & such, but it is usually significantly shorter than the giant one above ground, plus you’re then protected from any extreme weather. Also, check here for when the museum is open late, closed, and free. Avoid the free days (extra special crowded!), and maybe go one of the days it’s open late. That way you can go later when the bulk of the tourists have moved on. Here’s a few pics from some of my more recent trips to the Louvre – most of mine are apparently printed and therefore old – time for some new ones!!
3) Le Musee d’Orsay is maybe a bit less famous than the Louvre, and definitely smaller, but to me- it’s the best. This refurbished train station is not only a cool architectural building, but it is also home to many, many impressionists’ works. I took a whole class in this building and could just spend hours there. Funnily enough, though, on my more recent trips I haven’t been, because it’s pretty crowded! Like ALL museums in the city, the best way to skip lines is to purchase the Paris Museum Pass. (Sadly, only the Louvre has that “secret” underground second entrance, to my knowledge.) But, if you don’t want to get a pass for a bunch of museums and just want to hit the D’Orsay (or any single museum), you definitely want to at least pre-purchase your ticket online, and have it printed out with you when you arrive. You definitely want to check which day is open late for the D’Orsay, or get there super early. You can risk getting there late in the afternoon on a normal day to avoid the worst crowds, but fair warning- if you’re a fan of impressionism, you’re going to want to give yourself a good amount of time – an rushed hour just won’t do! Again- most of my pics are VERY old, but I did find one that’s electronic- does NOT do justice to this awesome place…
4) Finally, the fourth “must-do” for most visitors to Paris is the amazing Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame. Sadly, there’s no quick or easy trick for getting in easily, and in the summer you WILL have a line (I was SHOCKED at how long it was when I was there mid-day the first week in June). The good news is that it does move fairly quickly, so you’re not looking at an hours-long wait. Estimate about a half hour if it stretches way across the square in front. Some things to think about avoiding the worst of the crowds - visiting during a service can be completely magical and transporting, though you of course don’t have “free rein” to wander around during the service. Other than high holy days, you should be able to get in to attend a service easily. And, if you wait until a service finishes (not the regular mass, but something like vespers), then you often can have an emptier-than-usual view of the rear areas of the cathedral, like the famous rose window (for example). Another super cool thing to do is climb up into the tower. There is a charge, and often a good sized-line for this as well, and obviously you have to be fit enough to climb the teensy, spiral, ancient steps. BUT – it’s one of my favorite views of Paris, and you get to pretend you’re Quasimodo up close to the gargoyles. Here’s a good page to check for visiting either a service or the tower. And here are a few shots of the cathedral (don't forget to go around back, and down onto the banks of the Seine)!
5) There are a few brand new museums which I tried to visit in June, but BOTH had massive, hours-long lines that I wasn’t expecting. We also tried to pop into an exhibition at the Grand Palais, but it was apparently super popular and there was also a long line there. Lesson Learned: PRE-BUY TICKETS! But- the Maison Louis Vuitton out in the Bois de Boulogne is a spectacular building, which itself is worth visiting (but not on a museum pass). Also brand new and very popular, the recently re-opened Picasso museum in the heart of the Marais. Probably my favorite museum is the no longer “hidden” gem over near Les Invalides – the Musee Rodin. That one is really becoming popular, so you may want to plan for a bit of wait there. Honestly – there are SO many museums, that if you’re planning on visiting a bunch – definitely look into the Paris Museum Pass – that will save you a ton of waiting! Here are a bunch of pics of some of these awesome museums:
Now, these are NOT the only places you'll want to explore in Paris, and you may not even want to do all of them, but they are the MOST popular, and the most likely to cause you lots of wasted time if you're not prepared. Like I said at the beginning, if you're on an escorted tour or elect to book some private tours, or work with a good travel adviser (like ME!), then you'll have the best chance of a well-organized visit with minimal pointless waiting. If not, then hopefully this helps you with your DIY Paris vacation!