You could certainly dedicate a full week to exploring Paris — but if you only have a weekend or 48 hours it is possible to hit the highlights!
Hotel: You can find budget hotel outside the city center, and with the excellent metro system you can easily get to the main attractions with ease, but there are several great budget options in the Saint-Germain neighborhood (near the Luxembourg Gardens and Notre Dame). This neighborhood is within walking distance of all of the sites on your whirlwind tour.
Start the day at Notre Dame (opens at 8:00 AM). This Gothic cathedral is in the heart of Paris and is one of the most recognized buildings in Europe. Be sure to take a tower tour — the view from the south tower overlooks all of the main sites you will be visiting later.
The Pont des Arts bridge (aka: Locks Bridge) is just a few steps away from Notre Dame. The locks may be removed (in September 2014 — Paris leaders began trial experiment to remove some of the railings and replace them with glass panes to prevent new locks being added), but this has been the site where lovers have symbolically shown their affection for decades.
The Luxembourg Gardens make a great spot to people watch and have a picnic. While you can’t sit on the manicured green space (a part from small sections) — you can can grab one of the chairs and set them in one of your favorite parts of the gardens. The Gardens are the city’s playground you can generally see kids and adults alike playing a game or two throughout.
The Musee D’Orsay‘s collection is held in a renovated train depot. The museum is the city’s second most famous art gallery and it contains Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on three floors of gallery space.
On your way to the Eiffel Tower grab a bite to eat (details found here in a previous post). Take a spot on the Champs de Mars in front of the tower and have a nice picnic. Afterwards get in line to either take the elevator or stairs up the tower. If you do this in the evening, you can see the sun set and watch the city light up before your eyes.
Get to the Louvre Museum early (be in line before it opens) so you can both skip the lines and get as much time as possible to see the vast collection. You could spend days looking at the different pieces of art and still end up not seeing the whole collection. Take a few minutes to map out your route — as you will not be able to hit all of the collections. The Mona Lisa gallery fills up quickly so you may want to start there.
You will likely spend the entire morning at the museum — you can spend the afternoon on the Champs de Elysees. At one end you have the Arc de Triomphe — a traffic circle surrounds Napoleon’s monument he built in his honor. At the other end is the Palace de la Concorde — a large square with the 75 foot tall Obelisk of Luxor. This square was the sight of gatherings where crowds watched as French Royalty met their fate at the guillotine. In between the two bookends are a mix of luxury stores, fine dining establishments and fast food joints.
Optional: A 1 hour round trip stroll in the Notre Dame neighborhood will take you past 4 of the city’s top bakeries. (Google Map Walking Directions) will star in the Saint Germain area to Pierre Herme, Au Levain du Marais, Ble Sucre and Odette.
Optional 2: Napoleon’s Tomb can be visited as a part of the Ivalides Army / Military museum. While the actual museum can be skipped but the tomb and surrounding room is very impressive. Worth a visit if you have a few minutes to spare and are near the Eiffel Tower.