One Week in Paris
When it comes to traveling, I believe in the power of spontaneity. While a pair of tickets to Paris occupied my browser, my husband & I almost talked ourselves out of it. Time. Money. We don’t speak French. Then I impulsively clicked purchase because subconsciously I must have known, I’ve never regretted an adventure, even the poorly planned ones.
We are not the stand-in-line and see-everything-we-possibly-can people. When we travel, we like to come close to understanding what it would be like to live there. So, if you’re looking for a relaxed & exciting (yes, they can coexist) Paris experience, here’s my take:
1. see the sights.
We bought a four day Museum Pass, which at 62 Euros each gives you access to over 50 museums and monuments.
Obviously, the Louvre. The world’s largest and the second most-visited museum has over 38,000 impressive objects that date from 2600 B.C. to the 21st century. The museum is a former palace and is architecturally a work of art. There’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506), which will be very crowded regardless of what time you visit. As you walk up the Daru staircase, you’ll see the beautiful Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 B.C.), and in the Parthenon room on the ground floor is Venus de Milo (100 B.C.), the origin of which is debated by art historians. You can examine the longest surviving text from Old Babylon, the Law Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) as well as the Great Sphinx of Tanis (2600 B.C.). Need I say more? Just go.
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Rainy nights mean shorter lines for all museums and monuments. During a light drizzle just after sunset, we visited the Eiffel Tower, and cruised to the top. From the second floor (377 feet), we could see the City of Light's evening landscape blinking all around us. Still, my favorite view of the Eiffel Tower was seeing it peek around buildings at the end of tiny side streets and watching it from the river Seine as it glowed each night.
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On the Left Bank, the Musée d’Orsay is in the former train station, Gare d’Orsay, which faced demolition in 1970, but after a number of people saw its potential beyond rubble and after numerous plans were proposed, it opened as a museum in 1986. Everyone we talked to before our trip recounted how much they enjoyed visiting this museum. We agree, there's a different pace and a calmer flow. Check out each museum's website before you go because many are open later on certain days. We visited later in the afternoon/early evening on a rainy day and were able to take our time walking through the different rooms. We were awestruck as we stood just a few feet away from impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, and van Gogh.
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Château de Versailles
We took the 30-minute train ride to Château de Versailles (via the RER C) on a sunny Sunday and therefore encountered the longest line of our trip, however it moved pretty quickly. I would imagine the King's palace, meant initially as a refuge, served as a very nice second home. However, the gardens of green hedges, pools and spraying fountains, and sculptures, were the most captivating.
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Arc de Triomphe
We walked up the Champs-Élysées and arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, which was much larger than we had anticipated (clearly a theme of our trip). After figuring out how to get to it (do not cross the rotary—there are two descending staircases that will lead you to a tunnel, which passes under the high-traffic rotary), we climbed the 284 stairs to the top for an expansive view of the city. Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, the arch honors soldiers who fought in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It took 30 years to build. Imagine working on something for 30 years?
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2. picnic on the river Seine at sunset.
On the first sunny day of our trip, we discovered this evening tradition when we were walking back from Île Saint-Louis. The edge of the river Seine was busy with groups of Parisians, who sat on top of blankets and gathered around an unfussy centerpiece of appetizers and drinks. We decided the scene was right where we needed to be the next night.
A Seine picnic all your own.
*Pack a blanket and a bottle opener.
*Grab snacks and/or paninis and a dessert at a nearby patisserie/boulangerie. Most places where you can buy a dessert, you can also pick up a sandwich. Or just buy a baguette or two and an assortment of cheeses. We liked Aux Désirs de Manon and Le Moulin de Rosa.
*Pick up wine at a convenience store or wine shop, most working at the latter are happy to open and re-cork the bottle for you.
Where to go
A few people gathered on the Left Bank near the Musée d’Orsay, but the most crowded spots when we visited were along the Right Bank, which also happened to be where the sunlight lingered the longest before slipping away around 9:30 p.m. We spread out our blanket near Pont Marie, and the next night between Pont d’Acole and Point Louis Philippe, where there was grass and a view of the Notre-Dame de Paris.
And another thing...
When it starts to get dark—stay. Just after sunset the sights start to shine, and just before 10 p.m. every street light turns on simultaneously. It's magical.
3. wander without an agenda.
We found that not having a plan and wandering into a place that seemed inviting was much more rewarding than searching for a particular spot. Settle into a sunny sidewalk table with the chairs facing out towards the street, and enjoy the slow café experience. It's not rude to linger in Paris, better yet, it's encouraged. As someone who does most things quickly, I found myself trying to sip as slowly as possible and discovered it was far more enjoyable that way (and I consumed less caffeine).
4. visit the arrondissements.
There are 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods) that spiral out from the heart of the city like an escargot shell. Aside from the museum neighborhoods mentioned above, here are few favorites:
One of the city’s most beloved market streets is host to a variety of shops and cafés. You can spend an afternoon here, wandering in and out of shops, collecting gifts for friends and family back home. We stopped at Café du Marché, a favorite local hang, where the outdoor tables were buzzing with the excitement of a weekend night and the imminent arrival of spring.
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Île de la Cité & Île Saint-Louis
Even before we arrived in Paris, looking at a map, I was intrigued by the islands in the middle of the river Seine. Of course, there’s the Notre-Dame de Paris on Île de la Cité, but there's another kind of magic. If you have time, walk through the tiny streets of Île Saint-Louis at night, and you'll see what I mean. After crossing the Pont Saint-Louis, where a man was playing piano in the middle of the street, we picked out a table at Canal Café just before it started to rain. Another night, we ordered ice cream from Berthillon at Chaumière. If you have time, order a cone from Berthillon's famous shop on Île Saint-Louis. The line will probably stretch out the door for the homemade ice cream made with all-natural ingredients.
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We stayed in Le Marais, so we became familiar with its tiny, winding streets and numerous cafés. Café des Musées has great window seats and is surrounded by old buildings. It’s a great spot for people watching with a café crème. At one point, my husband said, “I feel like I’m on a movie set.” Being in an old city is so fascinating, we spent a lot of time taking it all in. A bar we went to twice was Le Mary Celeste, which has a Brooklyn vibe and bartenders who speak English and are very open to explaining French beers and wines to you. (Favorite beers: Deck & Donohue and Demory.) We lounged in the sun in the Place des Vosges. Also, in this neighborhood is the Picasso Museum, which is covered by the Museum Pass. We went to Fragments twice, too, where the coffee and the avocado toast are delicious.
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Vincent van Gogh lived in Monmartre for a short period of time. We walked past the apartment he shared with his brother from 1886 to 1887. The area attracted a variety of artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, and Piet Mondrian to name a few. But the most popular and populated sight is the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, built from 1875 and finished in 1919, the church constructed on the highest natural point in the city, has a spectacular view. We avoided the numerous souvenir shops and unfortunately turned down a number of portraits that artists were eagerly offering to sketch, and sauntered through the old neighborhood before making our way to Moulin Rouge.
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5. don’t be intimidated.
Don’t let the language hold you back from doing things. If you don’t speak French, try to learn a few phrases before you go. We found it was more polite to start off the conversation in French, and then move into English. Most people who work in restaurants, museums, and other places you’ll be visiting, speak English. We did wander into a patisserie that we really enjoyed and they didn’t speak English, but we still went back. You might feel nervous and embarrassed for five seconds (or a little longer) as a line gathers behind you, but it’s OK. You’ll be OK. And at least at this particular place, the baguettes were totally worth it.
6. push yourself out of your comfort zone.
A minute of discomfort will be the only consequence for a lifelong memory. You’re vulnerable in a foreign land, especially if you don’t speak the language, but being out of your comfort zone is a piece of what traveling is all about. Experiences such as going the wrong way on the Metro, standing in the wrong lines, mispronouncing numerous dishes make us human and make us connect with others on a more sympathetic level.
7. slow down.
Don’t try to do too much in a limited amount of time. Visit the sights, but also sit at a sidewalk café for a few hours, wander through a neighborhood, or sit in a park and observe. Make sure you step back and breathe it all in, then even long after you've left, you'll be able to transport yourself back to that same happy place.