Since the world was turned upside-down by a minuscule, spike-covered virus, many of us who take joy in travel have had to find creative ways to keep our wanderlust from imploding into gloom. Luckily, as of early 2022 the situation has been easing somewhat, with France lifting travel restrictions and more people feeling comfortable taking long-distance trips, the prospect of seeing Paris in person is looking far brighter these days.
And while virtual experiences can’t begin to replace the invigorating, rich textures of physical travel, they can help to stimulate curiosity and give you a sense of what might interest you when you do manage to get there. If you’re looking for a decent virtual tour of Paris or another online experience that helps you feel re-connected to France, these suggestions may put you on the right track. Most are entirely free.
1. Paris 3D: Through the Ages, from the Gallo-Roman Period to 1889
Let’s start with a virtual tour of Paris that offers a bit of historical perspective. After all, you may as well go back in time if you’re traveling virtually.
While this 12-minute digital simulation of the city’s transformation from the Gallo-Roman period to the century dates to 2013, I continue to find it impressive.
It shows what Paris might have looked like when it was the Roman Empire-ruled city of Lutetia, then speeds us forward to the medieval period, convincingly simulating the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the dramatic fortifications of the Louvre Palace.
We then move to Revolutionary Paris and the storming of the Bastille, followed by the dawn of the city’s modernity with the Universal Exposition of 1889– and the unveiling of a *certain* monument that was initially reviled by almost everyone.
2. Virtual Tours of Leading Museums & Sites, From the Sainte-Chapelle to the Latin Quarter
In recent years, VR-based visits have become increasingly sophisticated and compelling. While you could formerly expect to dimly perceive a painting or street scene through a webcam that transmitted images in poor resolution, it’s now possible to take surprisingly clear, 360-degree “tours” of popular tourist sites, including several in Paris.
This free virtual itinerary from YouVisit offers brief guided commentary and stunning perspectives on 11 key sites in the capital, including the Louvre, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Arc de Triomphe, Opera Palais Garnier (the facade is pictured above), the Pont Alexandre III bridge, and the Eiffel Tower.
While they aren’t as extensive as we might wish they were (and let’s face it, you can use Google Street View to explore the city more widely), they offer a nice initial glimpse of some beautiful places in the capital.
Plus, the guided commentary is a nice touch and added boon: ones that you don’t get by using Street View or other VR tools on your own.
Meanwhile, this list at the Paris Tourist Office directs you to additional free virtual visits of stunning monuments and places in the capital, including the rooftops of the Palais Garnier, the Grand Palais, and the Paris Decorative Arts Museum.
3. Visit Dozens of Free Online Exhibits from Parisian Museums
For so many of us, not getting to step foot into museums and galleries is a source of frustration and sadness at the moment. If you’ve had to delay a trip to Paris and are itching to get a preview of certain museums, Google Arts and Culture is one astounding resource.
Dozens of Parisian museums, monuments and cultural centers are currently showing exhibits for free on the platform.
You can notably take in a multimedia essay on “The Fascinating Characters of Montmartre” that explores the neighborhood’s people and history, see recent acquisitions from the Musée de la Musique at the Paris Philharmonic (Museum of Music), and take a peek at the current contemporary art exhibits and holdings at the Palais de Tokyo.
And for another glimpse of city life and streets, this virtual exhibit on street art in the capital is one way to feel immersed in contemporary Paris.
Elsewhere, the Musée du Louvre has made its VR experience of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa free to the general public. Simply install the app on your smartphone or other device.
The Louvre is also showing several other exhibits online at the moment, as are several other Parisian museums and galleries at their own websites.
From the digital-native gallery Atelier des Lumières to the Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou, most of the city’s major museums have expanded their online exhibition offerings (or created online platforms for the first time). You can see a more complete list here.
4. Guided Experiences & Workshops (From Tours of the Paris Catacombs to Cooking Classes)
We may be living through a moment that questions the value of expertise, but there’s something to be said for it nevertheless.
While all of the virtual tours and experiences I’ve recommended so far are free, it may just be worth paying for a special guided tour or class from someone who can really enrich your knowledge and give you feedback.
The Tour Guy is currently offering a range of interesting, Paris-centric virtual tours and experiences. Visit the Catacombs and its millions of human skulls and bones with an expert on the site’s history, or learn about the life and dark political fortunes of Marie Antoinette on a focused virtual tour of Versailles.
They also offer a dual guided tour of both the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame Cathedral, for anyone hoping to get in more than one attraction at a time. Rather than mere video lectures, these are interactive webinars combining pics, videos, and polls that let you chat live with your guide to ask questions and engage more fully with the material.
You can browse and book guided virtual tours with The Tour Guy here. Also check out their ongoing series of interactive cooking classes with chefs from around the world (browse and book upcoming classes here).
5. David Lebovitz: Instagram IGTV Live Happy Hour (Themed Around French Cocktails)
(Editor’s Note: The IGTV Daily Happy Hour series seems to have concluded, but Lebovitz still posts several times a week from his Instagram account, sharing delightful videos in which he talks about and demonstrates his favorite French cheeses, wines, desserts, cocktails and more. Recent posts have also featured virtual wine tastings with noted French sommeliers.)
The affable, always-engaging pastry chef and food writer David Lebovitz had to cancel a book tour for his latest tome, Drinking French. In lieu of heading out on the road as planned, he’s launched a virtual “Apéro hour” on Instagram Live, where he and his partner Romain demonstrate how to make the Gallic cocktails, aperitifs and coffee drinks featured in the book.
They also share glimpses of their Paris kitchen and daily life– a good way to pretend you’re attending a friend’s early evening “apéro” for drinks at their place, Parisian-style.
So if you fancy learning how to whip up a kir royale, Montparnasse cocktail, May Daisy, and other Gallic tipples, head over to his page every day except Sundays at 6:00 pm CET (Paris time) to learn from the friendly master.
He sometimes also throws in generous demos on how to properly enjoy cheese and other French delights, and these are invariably wonderful.
If you miss an episode that particularly interests you, you can see the whole archive at Instagram under the IGTV tab.
6. Close Your Eyes & Listen to the Soundscapes of Paris
One thing about the past few months that has struck many people: how much the silence of the streets has reconfigured our sense of city life. The incredible lack of urban noise in places like Paris has served as a stark reminder of how much the hum of usual life has been disrupted by the present crisis.
But some “soundscape artists” have worked to arrestingly capture the aural textures of Paris, recording the bustle and vivacity of daily life in ways that can go a long way in reviving a sense of joy and hope.
Visit this page to explore the Parisian soundscapes of UK-based artist Des Coulam, who in an interview on the same page explains his attempt to “exhaust a place in Paris” through sounds.
The Parisian soundscapes of Michael Begg are also compelling. One I particularly like, “Midnight in Montmartre”, layers together various aural impressions captured from street level, chaotically but joyfully smashing together sounds of cars, passers-by in conversation, and an accordion riff.
7. Listen to the Paris Unlocked “Anti-Lockdown-Blues” Playlist
Finally, music is an excellent way to feel carried somewhere else. With that in mind, I created a dedicated playlist of tunes designed to take you straight to Paris, whether from your couch or your kitchen.
Songs that arguably have the spooky capacity to bend how time and space work include Jeff Buckley’s inspired version of Edith Piaf’s “Je n’en connais pas la fin”, several tracks from Yann Tiersen (who co-wrote the Amelie soundtrack), and a sun-soaked, nostalgic croon from Francoise Hardy that might succeed in transporting you to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, or somewhere else on the French Riviera.
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