I’m writing this blog post because three of my good friends are going to Paris this fall and I am insanely jealous. No, in reality, I want to give them some good suggestions of things to do in a limited time there.
I lived in Paris from Jan to June 2006 but had been there a few times before and one time since (and hope to go back in the near future). I absolutely love that city, like everyone else in the world it seems. I believe it’s the number one tourist destination in the world, so there are innumerable volumes of information about what to do and see. I’m hoping here to give a few interesting ideas that aren’t quite as obvious (although you gotta see the obvious ones too if you’ve never been). My disclaimer is that it’s been a while since I’ve been, so certain spots may be closed or different. Definitely Google everything since some museums are closed certain days, to get information about ticket prices and discover interesting walking tours that might take you by some of these sights. We can go into greater detail offline if anyone wants specific metro/travel info/walking tour ideas. Second disclaimer is that I don’t know how to do accents on this Mac computer, so all my French writing will be sans (without) accents…sorry!
I lived in the 5eme arrondissement (5th district or section of Paris, also known as the Latin Quarter due to all the students there) in an excellent spot on Rue Broca. My friend Sara had come to France six months earlier and found this amazingly located apartment that I then took over when she left in January. The only problem with the apartment was the insanely small under-window heating unit that barely heated the two feet in front of it, let alone the whole place. Given the cost of electricity, I mostly kept it off and dressed in layers upon layers throughout the winter months (and that was pretty much through April). At night, I would wear long underwear, sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, and thick fuzzy socks over regular socks. Luckily I had brought my dad’s old down mummy sleeping bag, so I put that in the bed and slept in it under the comforter. Most nights I would boil a pot of water on the stove, toss the water and put the hot pot between my feet, soles wrapped around the contours of the metal. Since Paris is on the water of the Seine river, you get that intensely damp cold that cuts right to your bones and makes you feel as if you’ll never be warm again. Showers are a double-edged sword of life-giving warmth followed by cold misery upon exiting. I immediately chopped off all my hair to make drying it as fast as possible.
Okay, enough about the weather, since these friends are going in the fall and the season will be beautiful! I could go on and on about all the details of actually living abroad, and perhaps one day I will. I kept a daily journal from day one through the flight back home, and maybe I can type it up and turn it into a book someday!
To start, study the map of Paris to orient yourself as to the location of everything. I like this map from http://www.apartment-in-france.com:
Most things are within walking distance, although sometimes it can be a long walk. I prefer strolling through the winding roads (les rues) because you end up coming across different and interesting architecture, signs, cafes, etc. that you may not have seen otherwise. If the weather is bad, the metro and the buses are super efficient and easy to use. They have daily and weekly passes, and there are night buses that run in loops around the city if you find yourself out well after hours and don’t want to pay for a taxi.
Next, go to one of the many magazine stands and purchase a Pariscope magazine. This is a weekly publication that lists literally EVERYTHING going on for the week – from museum exhibits to parades to movie listings. It’s a great way to find out what’s happening NOW so that you don’t miss out on something unique.
Okay, on to some of my favorite things to do/must-dos in Paris and les environs (surroundings):
1. If you’ve never been to Paris, you clearly have to go to the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee, Tuileries, Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine was set up during the Revolution) and the Arc de Triomphe. I go back and forth on whether or not you actually have to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I guess it’s something to do, but I tend to think it’s always a little bit anticlimactic. When Mark and I went up in the fall of 2011, it was completely foggy and you couldn’t see two inches in front of your hand. If you decide you do want to go up to the top, I recommend going early in the morning and queuing before it opens. Once it opens, the line will move quickly, but depending on the weather, if you go later in the day, you will for sure be standing in line for a while as you wait for people to come back down. Bring a snack.
2. Alternatively, go to the Eiffel Tower and take pictures of it from the ground and stand in awe of its sloping metal enormity. Then go to Tour Montparnasse on the edge of the 14th and 15th arrondissements. Until 2011, this was the tallest skyscraper in France, and there is an observation deck on the top from which you have a fantastic view of the city – INCLUDING the Eiffel Tower!! That’s the best part: if you go up the Eiffel Tower you see the city but not the tower itself. Duh. So go to the top of Tour Montparnasse and take in the whole cityscape without actually having to see the large dark glass office building on top of which you’re standing.
3. Museums. Whether you love to hate museums, you have to admit that Paris has the best museums. How could they not? There are so many!! Obviously the Louvre, in which you could spend days and days and never see it all, which has ancient treasures, historic artifacts and “The Mona Lisa”. My personal favorite is the Musee d’Orsay which is in a converted train station and houses a huge collection of Impressionist paintings (among lots of other things). Check out the cafe which is on the inside of the huge outward facing clock. Then there are all the various smaller (but still not that small) museums including: Musee Rodin (dedicated to Rodin, who sculpted “The Thinker”), Musee Picasso, Musee Marmottan-Monet (which houses Monet’s painting “Impression soleil levant” which gave rise to the name of the Impressionist movement), Musee de l’Orangerie (which is in the Tuileries gardens and houses Monet’s huge series of water lilies, les Nympheas, that take up the whole walls). You can purchase a museum pass for 2, 4 or 6 days and check out which museums it gives access to, but one of the best features is that you can go straight to the front of the line, at least for the permanent collections. It does not get you in free to the visiting exhibits, and what’s so cool to me is that Parisians flood these exhibits. On opening day of a new exhibit, you will certainly be standing in line for a while and the museum rooms will be smashed with people elbowing to see what’s on each wall. I feel like Americans just aren’t that pumped about our own museums like Parisians are about theirs. Just Google Paris Museum Pass for details.
4. Outside of Paris, but still quite accessible are Versailles and Giverny. Versailles is the magnificent palace, famous for the hall of mirrors and expansive, manicured gardens. Explore the history of King Louis XIV, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. You can get there easily by train and entrance is included with the above-mentioned museum pass. Giverny is the home and gardens of Monet, where he painted his famous water lilies. It’s a bit trickier to get to – the best way is probably car – but you can take a train and then a cab from there. Giverny is lovely and if you love Monet and flowers and gardens it is a wonderland. Otherwise, it might not be worth using up one of your precious Paris days to head out there. It is not included in the museum pass.
5. On the northern outskirts of town, Le Marche aux Puces, or flea market, is well-worth a visit. They have everything from antiques to Converse to cute shoes and accessories for 5-10 euros. When I went, I got a pair of black pointy flats for 10 euros and a vintage belt with a huge gold buckle. Take the metro to Porte de Clignancourt; check out Frommer’s for a good history of the market and specific walking directions once you exit the metro. Don’t try to walk all the way up here from center city – it’s far and you will pass through some sketchy neighborhoods.
6. My favorite food in Paris are crepes. Savory or sweet, somehow I’ve never had one in the US that can measure up to the ones in Paris. I think it’s because they use different crepe batter for sweet vs. savory crepes. Crepes are a cheap, versatile food for breakfast, lunch or dinner that you can walk with or sit down and enjoy. I find that you really can’t go wrong with a Nutella crepe at anytime of the day or night. I’m pretty specific about my savory crepes, so I can tell you that my absolute most favorite crepe place is Au P’tit Grec on Rue Mouffetard in the 5eme right near my old apartment on Rue Broca. Rue Mouffetard is worth a trip in and of itself: a small market-lined street where you can get anything from fruit to cheese to flowers. Au P’tit Grec is a hole-in-the-wall pretty far up the hill, and at the bottom of the road is a cute square with cafes where you can have “un express” (an espresso) outside overlooking a fountain. There is also a cute square at the top of the road with cafes, but I prefer the square at the base as there is more people-watching.
7. French coffee is wonderful. I don’t know what makes it so good, but I was never an espresso drinker until I got to Paris. Maybe because I was a poor post-grad and espressos were the cheapest drink, but somehow I could make an espresso last an hour. That’s the thing about French cafes – they never kick you out. Just buy something cheap, crack a book and soak up the surroundings all afternoon. I remember one afternoon, I sat at a cafe for hours and various friends popped in and out for a coffees. I also highly recommend the cafe creme. Again, I’m not 100% sure how it is made, but I believe they warm the milk/cream, as opposed to a cafe au lait, where I think they give you cold milk in the hot coffee. Cafe cremes came to be my favorite French drink…somehow better than a latte, although it may be very similar in real life. I’ve never had something like a cafe creme anywhere else in the world.
8. Well actually scratch that. Cotes de Provence rose wine is my favorite French drink. This specific region uses a lot of grenache grape. I don’t find the wine to be overly sweet, and it’s the perfect light, crisp wine. Also, it’s great that you can buy good bottles for 2 euros at the grocery store. It’s fairly hard to find Cotes de Provence rose in Baltimore, so I try to carry back as many bottles as possible in my suitcase.
9. It wouldn’t be my blog without some good pizza references. My two favorite pizza places in Paris are both near my old place and Rue Mouffetard. The first is Pizza Cesar on Boulevard Saint-Michel near the corner of Avenue des Gobelins. Just good, cozy pizza, whereas so many pizzas in France tend to have thicker, carboardier-type crust. What I like about Paris pizza places is that they have spicy hot olive oil on each table, sometimes instead of crushed red pepper. This oil is particularly good on the crust. The second pizza place I frequented was right next to my apartment building on Rue Broca, Matana. Thinner crust and not too heavy on sauce and cheese if I remember correctly. Definitely pop your head in or call ahead if you are making a special trip because the owners are religious and so it may be closed on certain holidays/days of the week.
10. I can’t really say that I have the best suggestions for nicer restaurants, as I never really ate in those while living in Paris, subsisting on cheese and bread, pasta, salad and pizza. I have heard that L’Ami Jean near the Eiffel Tower is “foodie,” trendy and excellent.
11. I love being outside in Paris. You can spend hours wandering the gardens and open spaces. There are the big ones: Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Champ de Mars, but here are a few smaller ones that are hidden spots to visit: on Ile de France, the island in the Seine where Notre Dame is, there is Square de l’Ile de France on one end back behind Notre Dame and Square de Vert-Galant on the other end. You may have to go down some stairs located on the bridge to get to this one…watch the boats float by on both sides of the park. In the Square de l’Ile de France is where the Holocaust Memorial is. It only takes a few minutes to visit but it is incredibly moving. It’s actually called the Memorial of Martyrs of the Deportation, which is appropriate because the structure of the memorial is to make you feel as though you are looking out into the river through slats in the deportation boats. Chilling.
12. Other monuments and memorials are hidden gems to find all over the city. Apart from all the interesting churches that are mostly open for you to go inside and look at the beautiful architecture and paintings (including Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur of course), there are cool architectural features all over the city. There is the fountain at Place Saint Michel. There is the unofficial Princess Diana memorial, which is at Place d’Alma near to where she was killed in 1997. This is a huge golden flame, The Flame of Liberty, that replicates the flame held by the Statue of Liberty and was a gift by the International Herald Tribune in 1989. I think Parisians find it silly, and it’s not worth a visit unless you’re really into Princess Di. Trocadero is a neat area across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower where you can climb up the long, high staircase for a good view of the Tower. If you walk east down Avenue du President Wilson, you’ll come to a cluster of great off-the-beaten-path museums: Musee Galliera (fashion museum), Palais de Tokyo (the gift shop is worth checking out for different and nifty finds) and Musee d’Art Moderne.
13. Bastille and Le Marais. On the northern side of Rue de Rivoli is the historic district of Le Marais. Historically the Jewish quarter, you may be hard pressed to find the temples as they are typically closed to the public and hidden away, but you will find Jewish influences all over the place. Very cute cafes in the winding roads back here, and this is also where Musee Picasso is located. Walk to the east until you come across Place des Vosges – a very swanky residential address along a green square, where you will also find (and can tour) Victor Hugo’s home. Keep walking east until you hit Place de la Bastille – grab a coffee or dinner in one of the many international restaurants.
14. Okay last thing for now, I swear (although I could go on): Laduree. Famous tea shop has THE BEST quintessential French macarons (macaroons). Not cheap, but a must. Stand in line and get 4-6 flavors in a “to go” box and savor them while you walk along the quays of the Seine and look at the bookstalls and art dealers set up along the bank.
P.S. If you have extra time check out La Defense, which is a modern Arc de Triomphe in the financial district. If you take the metro beyond the real Arc, you will reach La Defense metro stop. Walk around, see the modern arch, and as I recall, there may be an art gallery inside the arch at the top. Also if you have extra time, head south on the metro to Place d’Italie for “Chinatown” and other good Asian cuisine, such as pho.
Phew. Everyone feel free to comment on this post with your Paris favorites and soon our friends will have tons to do!