You wake up and pull back the curtains; the world is still cold and overcast, but somehow the gray heightens the beauty of the narrow buildings sweeping up into black rooftops. People are already bustling on the streets below, stopping on the corner for a cigarette or disappearing into the underground Métro station. Picasso and Hemingway used to spend time at a café just around the corner, and Edith Piaf surely belted some tunes nearby.
I'm not writing any new material by saying that Paris is a magical place. The amount of history, creativity, fine art and architecture in this ever-gray city is astonishing. In fact, deciding what to do with only 24 hours in such a culturally rich place can be overwhelming. Here's my recommendation for a day well spent in the City of Love:
Morning Macarons: Most likely you'll need to don your hat, gloves and scarf before you hit the streets. If you're a fan of sweets for breakfast, duck into the nearest patisserie, where you'll find a wide array of macarons, pan au chocolat, tarts and other delicacies. If savory cuisine is more your style, find a boulangerie to order a take-away baguette and chomp it on the street like a true Parisian. Or, find a boulangerie-patisserie that combines the best of both worlds, plus coffee!
Métro: It's probably a good idea to buy a set of ten passes at the machine inside any Métro station (which costs 13 euros, instead of 17 if bought separately), and a free Métro map from any of the station offices. Taking the Métro will help you see as much of the city as possible and, no matter where you are in the city, you can find a station within approximately 200 meters.
Take the Métro to the Arc de Triomphe (several Métro line options). If you want, walk through the underground tunnel and buy a ticket to climb to the top of the Arc. I hear it's a pretty cool view. If you'd rather avoid the line and the fee, you'll get a great 360-degree view of the Arc as you walk around the traffic circle. Finish your Arc tour when you reach Avenue Champs-Élysées. During wintertime this street is lined with festive shops selling holiday gifts and delicious food and drink to keep you warm. You can also admire children (and adults!) skating around an ice rink with scenes of reindeer, polar bears and... safari animals?
Even when it's not holiday season, the Champs-Élysées offers excellent window-shopping and people watching. Stroll all the way down the avenue until you reach the Place de la Concorde (Concorde Plaza). Cross over to the Tuileries Garden or walk along the river until you reach the Louvre. At this point you can also take a bridge over the river Seine to reach the Musée d'Orsay on the Rive Gauche (Left Bank). Even if you're not a "museum person," you'll enjoy walking around the outside and admiring these world-renowned structures.
Museums: You can skip the potentially crazy lines for the Louvre and buy tickets online in advance for 13 euros (strategize a location to retrieve your tickets by using the list of locations on the website). You're in the majority if you want to see the Mona Lisa, so be prepared to squeeze through a crowd to catch a glimpse. Not to worry, there are plenty of astonishing works you can appreciate in a more tranquil setting.
In my experience, the Musée d'Orsay line moves relatively quickly (check for ticket prices here). When you make it inside, consider getting an audio guide (about 5 euros); I really enjoyed listening to the gems of information it had to share. You must say hello to my friend Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard by Claude Monet. His skill in rendering colors to represent the sun shining through fog above the London Houses of Parliament absolutely blows my mind! Van Gogh's room will send a chill up your spine, both for the story of his life and the skill of his hand. If you're staying for a few days and are interested in spending a good deal of time checking out Parisian art, it might be worth buying the Paris Museum pass.
Notre Dame: If you're not starving yet, continue walking along the river in the direction opposite the Champs-Élysées. You'll soon see the island that houses the cathedral of Notre Dame. It's free to enter, so get in line and walk inside. The high arched ceilings welcome you into the extremely detailed structure. Make sure to make it to the back left corner and admire a small wooden replica of the cathedral. You can catch a nice view of the city from the top of Notre Dame if you exit the church and walk around the side of the building (closest to the exit). You do have to pay, and you will have to climb stairs, but it is pretty amazing on a clear day.
Lunch: When it's time to eat (which you can easily do before touring Notre Dame, as the place I recommend is only a half of a mile away), head to 34 Rue des Rosiers. Here you will find L'As du Fallafel. The name literally means--and this place is--the "Ace of Falafels." For about 6 euros you'll receive a perfectly layered falafel sandwich with tender veggies, tangy sauce and warm falafel in every bite. Definitely grab a fork from the counter before you walk away; it'll be a great aid in your falafel annihilation.
Fresh Air: To take a breather from the crowded city, take the Métro to the Daumesnil stop (M6 or M8 line). Follow Rue de Reuilly to la Coulée Verte. Officially named the Promenade Plantée, la Coulée Verte is a maintained garden that was planted along an abandoned railway line in 1993 (New York City has a younger, similar concept in the High Line). You can walk along the beautiful and refreshing greenery of the path for nearly three miles and get some long-distance views of the tall buildings downtown.
Evening Montmartre Music: Take the M12 Métro to Lamarck and walk in the direction of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. As you wind your way up the cobblestone streets, you'll see a fair amount of foot traffic. This quirky area is popular and rightfully so: you'll find a wide selection of good eats, warm drinks and a nice showing of artists (if you were hoping to get your caricature drawn, this is the place!). Montmartre was also Amélie Poulain's (from the enchanting French film, Amélie) stomping ground, and you'll find it easy to trace some of her steps. Order a cup of spiced vin chaud (hot wine) to warm your hands and your belly as you walk up to the Sacré-Coeur.
The church itself is striking, with pointed domes reminiscent of eastern architecture. There is a long set of stairs in front of the church that leads to a phenomenal overlook of Paris. Just up the road, there's a great spot to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle, which happens for two minutes at the turn of every hour after the sun sets.
If it's Friday or Saturday, there's most likely a live-music performance taking place on the staircase in front of Sacré-Coeur. Maybe there's a man standing with a guitar, taking requests and allowing members of the crowd to join him in singing. Peddlers ask if you'd like a beer from their Heineken cases, and you're singing along to the familiar tunes of Willie Nelson, the Beatles and Bob Marley. The gorgeous domed church is behind you and all of Paris lies in front of you. Soak it in; you and Paris got know each other well today.