You don’t really need to do a lot of planning in order to have a great time in Paris – almost every street in the old part of the city is interesting and lovely.
That’s good, because my planning ended up being a little loose. I looked at a lot of books and web sites and considered all the advice I got from other travelers – and then left our time pretty open. (We didn’t make a single advance reservation for anything.) In the end, we mostly did exactly what we had thought we might do when we first decided to go to Paris. So I want everyone to know that it is indeed possible to have a great trip to Paris without going into the Louvre. (Sorry, Jeff, Sarah, and the rest of you classic art lovers, but – at least for us – it’s true.)
As for some of the other recommendations that we didn’t quite get to:
We did not have hot chocolate at Angelina’s, even though we fully intended to and actually got part way there. Sorry, Karen. (On the other hand, Lane did have a tasty treat at Berthillon.) Nor did we see the exhibit on Marie Antoinette, take a guided walking tour, or cruise on the Seine, as recommended by Jill Jergel via Wendy Perrin at Conde Nast Traveler. (We did have snacks at the Branly though.) While we spent a little time in the market in the Latin Quarter and at the Branly’s vertical garden, we didn’t get to many of the inexpensive/free suggestions provided by Howard Lewis (also via Wendy Perrin) Nor did we get to many of the wonderful places suggested by Chris Welsch and the readers of the Escape Artists blog.
Actually, with only five days, we didn’t even get to do everything I came up with on my own to do like shopping, listening to live jazz, visiting the 19th century shopping passages, wandering the Viaduct des Arts, and a day trip to Versailles or Giverny.
That leaves a lot to do on my next trip!
Tips for planning a trip to Paris
Guidebooks and general websites
There must be a million guidebooks for Paris, but we particularly liked the Rough Guide and, surprisingly, Paris for Dummies, which has a wealth of practical information that is easy to find and to use.
Rick Steves provides a ton of in-depth information, but he focuses in on things he likes and thinks will appeal to his audience. That is great if you share his tastes and prejudices. It’s a problem if your tastes are more wide-ranging and you want to visit a place like the Arab Institute or the Grand Mosque – neither of which are mentioned in his guidebook. None-the-less, if you can ignore a few annoying prejudices, his book is stuffed with useful information. Enough so that I would buy it again despite the holes.
For a fascinating view of how Paris has changed over time, check the website Mapping Paris.
Can’t get to Paris and want to see more images? Fred Relaix has posted many, many stunning images on Pbase.
Want more info on photography in Paris? A Photographer’s Guide to Paris on Photo Net provides tips for getting great shots while you are there. Note, however, that while some folks discuss using tripods without hassle, I ran into a number of places where I couldn’t use mine, including the Arc de Triomphe and St. Chapelle. VERY annoying, but there clearly is a limit to how much fun you are allowed to have while in Paris!
Language and other myths
My attempt to learn basic French was feeble and the results appropriately dismal. Fortunately, Lane still recalls a reasonable amount of his high school French and people were really, really nice and very patient. If Parisians ever were rude to idiot Americans, that is no longer true. Everyone we met was truly lovely.
Thus, besides the disappointment of not being able to have a meaningful conversation with many people, the real downside of not speaking French was our inability to decipher some of the more inscrutable signs we came across. . . like this one, that appears to prohibit service dogs. And does the graffiti on it say what I think it does?
Traveling to Paris
Charles de Gaulle (CDG) was under construction in an attempt to accommodate all the new traffic coming in under Open Skies agreements in Europe. Many flights, including ours, disembark on the tarmac, with passengers transported to the terminal. Once in the terminal, construction and the lack of signage after passing the immigration counter makes locating luggage a little tricky.
After the confusion of arriving at CDG, I was shocked by how easy and comfortable our departure was. The first person we asked immediately directed us to the check-in counter serving NWA. Check-in was a fast, high-tech operation. While our gate was under construction, it was still comfortable, open and airy, with LOTS of electric outlets for laptop users! The only down-side was NWA’s lack of gate staff and the misdirection provided by the staff that was available.
Getting into the city
CDG is a long way from central Paris, but there are several options for getting there from the airport. Next time we’ll probably take the Air France shuttle to get to the train station nearest our hotel and take transit or a cab from there. For this trip we used the Blue Bus – which was late to pick us up (which meant that we were stuck at the airport for an extra hour while the bomb scare closed off the road to the terminal on top of the extra hour we had because our flight was early) and then rescheduled us for an earlier than necessary pick-up on our return (which meant that we didn’t have time to get to the mosque that morning). If it isn’t rush hour and you don’t have a lot of luggage, I’d just take regular transit.
Which leads to the surprising discoveries that dogs were not welcome in all parks and that the streets were relatively “poo” free. More myths consigned to the dust bin!
Getting around in the city
Paris is a fabulously walkable city and so we walked almost everywhere we went. It was like always being on a free walking tour.
Signage is generally good if you know where to look (although street names can change abruptly and sometimes seemingly at random), so a good map is invaluable. Jeff steered us to Streetwise Paris and it was an excellent choice.
Although the city has a lot of traffic, we never found it particularly difficult to cross streets.
Taxis seemed expensive, but the Metro is an efficient and easy to use alternative. Just don’t expect fancy stations, aside from the stop at the Louvre, the underground component is pretty basic.
We didn’t try the bus system. Nor did we even consider renting a car. Driving in Paris looks like it would be miserable. (We did find a gas station though, tucked into the street level of a parking ramp along with a car wash and a Mercedes dealership. Good luck if you need to find it while driving!)
A bicycle would be the perfect way to travel around the city, but apparently American credit cards don’t work with the Velib system. I wish it did, as the bikes were widely available, cool looking, and seemed well-maintained. It would be a fun way to get around.
We booked our trip as a package, so stayed at a tourist hotel in the Latin Quarter.
The Hotel Sully Saint Germain was an upgrade, but nothing fancy. It’s an old building with a miniscule elevator and funky stairs with a suit of armor at the bottom. (The hotel has a medieval theme.)
It was an excellent choice for us. The staff was helpful and friendly, the rooms large and clean enough, the location perfect, and the views from our window excellent.
We really enjoyed staying in the Latin Quarter and would do so again – it is a lively neighborhood that is conveniently located for sight-seeing – although we would consider the inviting looking Hotel De Varenne near the d’Orsay.
The hotel breakfast was ample and good, so that got us through a good chunk of the day. We usually only ate one really nice meal each day, usually lunch, since that is an affordable way to sample some great cuisine. I mentioned the lovely Le Relaise de I’lsle in my post on the islands. We also had a nice classic bistro dinner at Restaurant Perraudin, and a wonderful dinner at le Reminet. We also had a very nice lunch at a place in the Marais. (I’ll post the link if I can find it.)
Budget options include the ubiquitous creperies and sandwich stands, as well as many of the city’s small ethnic restaurants and food stands. There are, of course, amazing bakeries everywhere.
Notes on a Few of the Sights
In general, because the weekend was in the middle of our stay, it didn’t make sense for us to get a museum pass. As it was, there really wasn’t any other place we would have gone to with our pass, so we wouldn’t have saved money. Also, keep in mind that the real joy of being in Paris can be found while just wandering through the city. Some of the most interesting things you see might well be the behind-the-scenes things that you aren’t supposed to notice, like the pile of extra carved stones piled alongside St. Chapelle or the pigeon spikes that form a halo above most public statuary!
Notre-Dame has a fabulous website that will tell you anything you could want to know about the cathedral.
Note that visitors to the tower are clumped into groups and kept moving along. Time at the top is limited and when it’s up, they will usher the stragglers back to the stairs so the next group can come up. (There is only room for one-way traffic on the stairs, so this sort of crowd control is necessary. If it isn’t a really busy day and you stay out of the way and ask nicely they’ll usually let you stay longer and depart with the next group.)
St. Chapelle doesn’t have a sign that tells you so, but they won’t let you use a tripod. They are very insistent about it.
Musée Marmottan Monet is a house museum and, while noted for it’s impressive collection of Monets (in a special basement gallery and scattered throughout the house), it also has work by a number of other painters from the period, as well as rooms that display the Marmottan family’s collection of earlier European painting. It is a little out of the way, but it is a pleasant walk through a leafy neighborhood from the metro stop. Be sure you know how to get there and back because there is no logical spot from which to catch a cab.
The Bagatelle is located within the Bois de Boulogne. While it is accessible by transit with some walking, you really need to know where you are going. Don’t wing it like we did. The Bois de Boulogne is huge and has a lot of bike trails – it would be a wonderful place to spend a day if one needed a break from the city.
The Arc de Triomphe doesn’t allow tripods, so forget about going up there for great night shots.
I missed the medieval gardens at the Musée National du Moyen Age (the Cluny). Apparently they are wonderful, but we never saw the entrance. Don’t make the same mistake.
Although we found Paris to be very safe, anywhere tourists gather will attract folks running scams. My favorite was that of the Romany girls, as it will only catch the greedy. (Which seem right.) Busy setting up my photos and switching lenses outside the Louvre, I was a perfect target. Indeed, when I heard a girl say “oh my!” and then come running up to me with something in her hand, I had no clue what was going on. She showed me a plain gold ring: “Look! My lucky day! It is heavy, it must be gold. . . ” Without thinking, I told her the Louvre probably had a lost and found where she could turn it in and went on my way.