On one of my first trips to Paris, I acquired travel bragging rights that I still smugly share to this day. No, I didn’t see a celebrity or acquire a vintage Chanel purse on clearance. The thrill I managed to score was even better than those! I was not only the first person in line at the famed Musée d’Orsay, but I was also the only person in the gallery itself for a blissful 30 minutes. There was an incredible, echoing silence as I glided from room to room, claiming ownership of the world’s most priceless art, if only for a few minutes.
Fast forward three years and I was again in Paris, this time with a friend. She wanted to see the Musée d’Orsay, and so we headed over around midday. We were greeted with one of the longest, slowest lines imaginable. We spent hours waiting, only to get 20 minutes inside the packed museum before we had to move on. The crowds and lines of Paris are very real, folks!
I learned my lesson from that second, ill-fated visit to the Musée d’Orsay, and I’ve avoided crowds and lines in the City of Lights ever since. Happily, every other savvy visitor can do the same.
Here’s how to see the calmer side of Paris.
If Possible, Be Flexible
An estimated 23 million people visited Paris in 2018, making it one of the most-visited cities in the world. There’s really no time of year that is truly quiet, but there are several tricks you can employ to avoid the crowds.
If possible, visit Paris during the off-season. The weather in April and May, as well as in September and October, is still lovely, but far fewer people travel to Paris then than during the peak summer months.
Midweek visits are often a little less busy than weekend visits, when expats and students living in nearby towns come to the city for social time.
And, when your schedule allows, avoid visiting attractions immediately after they reopen for the week. Many Parisian attractions are closed one day a week, and they are often swamped the day after they reopen. Therefore, if a museum is closed on Mondays, like the Palace of Versailles is, try not to visit on a Tuesday.
Prepurchase Skip-The-Line Tickets
There is a long list of passes for different attractions available to visitors to Paris. Depending on how many museums and galleries you want to visit, you can actually save quite a bit of money. But even if you only take advantage of a modest number of the included amenities, these museum and attraction passes are still worth it in order to obtain skip-the-line privileges.
Of course, skip-the-line tickets won’t guarantee that there will be no crowds inside, but they’ll really cut down on the amount of time you’ll spend in line.
Be An Early Bird (Or A Night Owl)
The real secret to my perfect half hour of solo bliss at the Musée d’Orsay was my early-morning arrival. I showed up well before the gallery opened and watched the world go by while waiting to enter.
In all popular tourist destinations — especially in a much-visited place like Paris — being an early bird is hugely rewarding. If you want to soak in the atmosphere of the markets, visit bakeries for fresh croissants, and sit next to locals while you sip a café au lait, all you have to do is wake up early. This, of course, is easier said than done when your alarm goes off at 6 a.m.! Coax yourself out of bed by promising yourself a rewarding midafternoon nap when the streets are at their most congested.
If you’re especially keen on avoiding crowds, you can even hire an early-morning private guide for a few hours to help you make the most of your time. And it’s the perfect time to schedule a private photography lesson! For about the same price as hiring a tour guide, you can hire a photography student to show you around and help you with your craft.
Alternatively, if you are truly a night owl, take advantage of your natural tendencies. Ask your hotel staff for advice on safety, and head out to enjoy museums with late-night hours, poetry readings at bookstores, festivals and musical performances, and so much more.
Try This Eiffel Tower Crowd-Dodging Strategy
Of all the crowds in Paris, my least favorites are those hanging around the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the day. The area is rife with pickpockets, and it’s impossible to get a great photo or even just enjoy a little peace and quiet.
I’ve come to realize that my favorite way to experience the Eiffel Tower is to go to Trocadéro at sunrise — not sunset, when everyone will be there trying to get the same shot. But at sunrise, it will be just you and a few other die-hard photographers who are eager to see the Eiffel Tower in the soft pink light of sunrise with virtually no one else around.
Take Advantage Of Lesser-Known Entrances
Many of Paris’s museums and attractions have more than one ticket booth and entrance. For instance, some people have heard that there is a second entrance to the Louvre. However, there are actually four entrances to the famed art gallery! Even during the busiest times of day, when the main line is at its longest, you can usually get in relatively quickly.
How can you learn about these lesser-known entrances before it’s too late? A good travel guidebook is an essential investment for a trip to Paris. It will give you tips on evening hours and secret entrances. It will also give you key information about nearby attractions adjacent to the main sights.
If all else fails, abandon Plan A, head to a nearby alternative activity, and revisit your original destination a bit later on in the day.
Consider Taking A Guided Tour
Not to brag — okay, maybe just a little — but the Musée d’Orsay isn’t the only Parisian attraction that I’ve enjoyed completely on my own. I’ve also been completely alone in the Louvre, all thanks to a guided tour. A good guide will help you through the crowds and also take you to places where there are very few other people.
I met my friendly Louvre guide and about 10 other tour participants in a garden, and we used our skip-the-line tickets to gain admission in just a few minutes. Our guide prepared us for the crowds inside the main atrium and the most popular galleries. She kept us together and navigated us through the masses. Before long, we had seen the museum’s most famous collections, and we visited another wing of the building, a wing that was absolutely silent — and packed with priceless art. I was able to wander a bit and was indeed very much on my own. Crowd-free bliss!
This is a strategy you can apply to most major tourist attractions.
Ask The Hotel Staff For Jogging Routes
In 2006, I participated in the Paris Marathon. This was one occasion when I welcomed crowds in Paris — I was happy to accept all that cheering! When I asked the hotel staff for a couple of training route suggestions, I was rewarded with a wealth of information.
I was lucky that the staff themselves were into running and had some personal suggestions to make. Back then, running concierges were not nearly so common as they are now. Today, nearly every hotel has a good selection of professionally mapped routes on hand. And while I don’t jog much anymore, these routes are still some of my favorite ways to see the city. They’re the perfect ways to discover new pedestrian-friendly streets that are favored by locals.
An alternative approach would be to join a guided walking tour that focuses on a specific neighborhood. By remaining in a smaller part of town, you will certainly get off the beaten path and away from the crowds.
Visit The Lesser-Known Museums
There are an estimated 150 or so museums in Paris. They include some incredible gems that most travelers miss, and these are fantastic, crowd-free ways to discover the city.
Some of my favorites include the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which honors the legendary fashion designer; the Musée de la Vie Romantique (not what you think — the name refers to the Romantic era of the early 19th century); the Institut Pasteur, which honors scientist Louis Pasteur; and the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra, which showcases sketches, costumes, and jewels that cover 300 years of music and dance.
My best tip for discovering authentic cafés, bakeries, bars, and restaurants is to talk to the gift shop staff at these smaller museums. There’s no better way to get some insider tips! The key is to ask for very specific recommendations. For instance, don’t just ask if there’s a good bakery nearby. Ask where they go to get great pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) within a 5-minute walk. Ask whether there’s a nice place to pick up sandwiches to-go between the museum and the metro. Specific inquiries like these will yield the best results.
Though the crowds in Paris show no signs of letting up, a few strategic choices will help you enjoy a quieter side of the City of Lights.