Paris. The world’s most visited, photographed, romanticised city. Filled with as many tourists as stories. It is one of those cities that tugs at you and draws you in to illusions of Parisian life and love; the style, the instinctive savoir-faire and that subtle suggestion that Parisians do it better.
We have both been to Paris as backpackers and are hoping to go again soon on one of our regular trips to visit family in England. I was 18 months old on my first trip to Paris and as adorable as the snaps are, I can’t remember much.
The second time I was many decades older but not much better dressed, spending months backpacking around Europe. My best friend was about to join me for 2 months and we had chosen to start our journey together with a fortnight in Paris.
I stepped out of the Gard du Nord, having caught the train from Frankfurt, and those first hours in Paris were rather surreal. It looked exactly as it did in my mind. The avenues, the grey stone buildings, but then there was the litter, the noise, the sweatshops, the dog poo everywhere. It is a city of contrasts, but I think ultimately, Paris weaves its spell on everyone who visits it. On my first night alone in Paris, after an imperfect introduction, I watched darkness fall and the lights come up and slowly started to fall for this beautiful city.
So here are a few little tips for visiting Paris. A mixed bag, but then again, you can get endless advice for visiting this glorious city.
- The best activity you can ever do in Paris is walk. It is the perfect city to spend hours walking. Be a flâneur for a day.
- Buy a Museum Pass. It is the single best investment you can make as a tourist in Paris. Not only does it offer discounted entry into some of the best museums and galleries in the world, with it you can skip the queues and go straight in. That alone makes it worth the Euros. You can buy passes for varying numbers of days, depending on how long you are staying in Paris.
- The best time to visit the Louvre is as it opens. It is a little quieter and you can move through the rooms before the buses arrive after 10am. There is also a less busy entrance from the Louvre-Rivoli metro station.
- Want to see the Mona Lisa without a crowd? Be waiting in the queue when the doors open. We mapped our course and when the doors opened raced (literally) to see the Mona Lisa before everyone else arrived. It paid off and we had a full 10 minutes alone with her before anyone else made it through the labyrinth of rooms. We then left to enjoy the rest of the Museum at a relaxed pace.
- Sacre Coeur is one of the most stunning Basilica’s in the world and an absolute must see in Paris. It’s a true architectural masterpiece and located the heart of Montmartre . Have a picnic on the steps or escape the hoards of tourists and explore the neighbourhood which has inspired bohemians and artists for hundreds of years including Picasso, Monet, Dali and Van Gogh.
- You will always look less stylish than Parisians. Accept this and move on.
- If you do want to look stylish in Paris, follow the faultless advice of Inès de la Fressange in video or book. Or find street style on this blog.
- Make time to visit Versailles, and while you are there, take an hour out of your day to visit the Petit Trianon. Versailles is incredible, but perhaps because of the visitor numbers, less stimulating than other residences around Europe. Petit Trianon is less busy and utterly enchanting.
- Climb Notre Dame. It used to be easier but apparently now tower climb every day at 10am. Only a limited number of people can do the climb, so get there early if you want to do it. It’s worth it to see the fantastic gargoyles up close and personal.
- Climb the Arc de Triomphe at dusk. You can see Paris in the light, then watch dusk fall and the lights brighten the night down the Champs Elysee and see the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the night.
- Rotisserie chickens and the potatoes roasted in the sizzling fat are among the most delicious things you will ever eat. You may not see sellers in the swankier, touristy parts of Paris but they are pretty common outside the 7th.
- Know that Paris is a tourist mecca and therefore a petty-thieving one as well. Take care of your belongings at all times but especially when you’re in typical tourist locations.
- The cemeteries of Paris are worth visiting for a quiet stroll and contemplation as you pay respects to some of the most inspiring people who have ever graced the earth.
- Paris flea markets are wonderful if you are more market and retro than designer duds. Marche aux puces Saint-Ouen / Clignancourt are the big flea and antique markets but there are also the Portes de Vanves flea markets and Marché aux Puces de Montreuil. All of them are ‘adjacent’ to Arr., just outside the limits of old-city Paris. Double check opening times before you go.
- If you choose to climb the Eiffel Tower – which you only need to do once, if ever – be prepared to wait and wait. There is no good time to do this, it will always be busy.
- You don’t need to stay in inner Paris to enjoy it. The Paris metro is outstanding and affordable. By staying out in the suburbs, you can experience a bit more of a real working-day Paris at a lower cost. If you are in Paris for a week or more, it is probably more economical to rent an apartment. You will have your own space and kitchen facilities so you can save yourself a few dollars by visiting local markets, picking up some quiches and baguette and a bottle of wine to enjoy at home.
- We found an apartment through this website, though there are now dozens of sites you can look through. Ours was an attic apartment (former servants’ quarters) in the 11th Arr. Our tiny balcony had a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Twice a week, markets appeared in street behind us and there was a patisserie and a rotisserie on the corner. It was a little magical, feeling like part of a neighbourhood for a fortnight.
As always, the best travel advice is; just go. Just go and see it for yourself.