Intro to Paris
Some trips will leave you with a visual memory forever seared into your mind. For me, one of the most vivid is the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower. Paris should be on every traveler’s bucket list. It is a city full of history, great food, world class museums, charming cafes, and romantic ideals that make travel so special.
Known as the City of Lights, Paris is the capital of France and sits in the heart of main land Europe. The city’s roots began on a little island (Ile de la Cite) on the Seine River, which runs through the heart of Paris today, as a Celtic fishing village about 250 years before Christ. Eventually Julius Caesar and the Romans conquered it around 50 BC and it remained an important Roman city for another 500 years. As Rome fell the Franks took over and made Paris an important christian city. By the ninth century Paris became a frequent target of Vikings raids and the city was forced to shrink back to its original size on that little island on the Seine River. By the 12th century the city was expanding again. The population was growing, the Kings of France who lived in Paris were getting wealthy, and construction of Notre Dame Cathedral had begun. Over the next couple hundred years many of the city’s most famous landmarks were built in a near style called Gothic, its masterpiece being Sainte-Chapelle. Around this time Paris also became one of the principle centers of learning in Europe. The Sorbonne opened its doors in 1257. In the 14th and 15th century Paris suffered through War (usually against the English) and various plagues. The Bubonic plague killed a quarter of the population over a couple years in the middle of the 14th century and Joan of Arc tried to kick out the invading English in 1429. By the time of the Renaissance in the 16th century France, Paris began to regain their prosperity and French kings made the Louvre their home. The good times didn’t last long. Religious wars returned in 17th century. Much of city was destroyed and many of its residents had fled.
In 1638 Louis XIV, aka, the Sun King began his 72 year rule of France, during which he became an all powerful ruler. The lavish lifestyle he embodied, which was passed down to his successors, did not survive the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The French Revolution began in 1789 and King Louis the XVI lost his head only four years later (along with his wife, Marie Antoinette). The new government was no better and the guillotine became a daily part of French life. Calm was only restored when Napoleon rose to power, eventually crowning himself emperor in 1804. Napoleon set off to conquer the world like Julius Caesar before him; and he almost did. He is buried in a very lavish tomb up the street from the Eiffel Tower. After Napoleon, the French reinstated their monarchy, threw them out again, brought back a Napoleon descendant who eventually declared himself emperor, then went back to a republic which has lasted until today. There have been hiccups, the most famous being five years during the 1940s when Paris and most of France were occupied by the Nazis. Through it all Paris has remained a cultural, fashion, food, artistic, and entertainment capital of the world. In fact, it might be because of its turbulent history that Parisians have learned how to sit back and enjoy life. There is no better place in the world to have a two hour cup of coffee and watch the world go by.
Today’s Paris is thriving. The Louvre is the most visited museum on earth, the culinary scene is top notch, the Musee d’Orsay has one of the best collections of French Impressionists, and the Eiffel Tower is, well, the Eiffel Tower.
“I ought to be jealous of the tower. She is more famous than I am.”
― Gustave Eiffel
If you live near a large international airport chances are there are direct flights to one of Paris’ two major airports (Charles de Gaulle or Orly). From NYC it’s about 7.5 hours. Charles de Gaulle is larger and it’s more likely you’ll end up here. Upon arrival at the Charles de Gaul airport is a 40-minute (RER) train into the city. Cabs are expensive and can be about the same amount of time. The RER is like a regional train that runs underground and express in the city. They are well connected to the city’s metro system at some of the larger stations. The RER ticket can be purchased at the airport and are good for a connection on to the metro. The machines are your best option but you’ll often need exact change or a credit card that works in Europe. If not you’ll wait in a long line to buy the tickets at the counter. There is also a bus that runs directly to the Paris Opera but it can be very slow. The RER train is your best bet.
Paris is absolutely one of those places you should visit once as a tourist and at least once more as a (pretend) local. Paris can be done in a week or a long weekend. Three nights and four days is perfect for a first time or just a relaxing weekend. With three nights on your first visit you will exhaust yourself trying to take it all in. But with so much here, that’s perfectly okay.
Paris is a great walking city. Strolling the banks of the Seine is something you should do for enjoyment, not just to get from point A to point B. There are day travel cards available for the metro but we’ve found that you usually won’t take in enough trips in a day to justify it. Instead by a little strip of 10 tickets called a “carnet”. I know, you’d think Paris would have a slightly more technologically advanced ticket system but they don’t. The 10 ticket carnet should last one person 2-3 days depending on how much you like to walk. Each ticket is good on both the RER and the Metro within the city. If you’re going to Versailles you’ll take the RER and need a different ticket.
When we went
We’ve been to Paris in summer, early spring, winter, and fall (November specifically). Fall was our favorite by far. Colder temperatures make for less crowds, better fashion, and oysters. Beware of summer. You probably know someone who hates Paris or claims they “weren’t impressed”. Ask that person when they went and the answer is probably July or August. Many Parisians still take the summer off when the heat and tourists converge on the city.
What we did
The first time you go, see the sights, take the photos, and get exhausted by the end of each day. The next time you go wake up at 10, take two hours to linger in a cafe, and make dinner the biggest event of each day. Paris, like NYC, has many distinct neighborhoods, each with its own vibe and attitude (and easily accessible via the metro). If you visit outside the summer months, you might even say that the French are pleasant!
If you plan on seeing the sights you MUST get the Paris Museum Pass. It’s a prepaid pass available for 2, 4, and 6 consecutive days. It covers 70 sights in Paris as well as Versailles and it lets you skip the lines. At the Louvre you can even enter on the side of the building, avoiding the mile long security lines at it’s famous pyramid (if you’re looking at the pyramid and the Louvre forms a U shape around it look to your left and you’ll see a passage in the building. Enter there. Flash your pass and walk right in). You can buy the museum pass at any participating museum. To avoid the lines buy it at a smaller museum or in a tourist office. Some metro stations sell them too. Depending on where you are staying the Rodin Museum, Cluny museum, Carnavalet, and Jacquemart-Andre Museum are good places to pick one up. If you’re staying in the trendy Le Marais district Carnavalet is a great option because it’s a small museum that covers the history of Paris.
Tip: Purchase the Paris Pass, and do so at a smaller museum where the lines are shorter.
Fun with photography. Everyone has a picture of the Eiffel tower and it’s the exact same picture. And yes, you’ll probably wan’t it too. But France’s most famous structure deserves a better effort. See how creative you can get with the world’s sexiest radio tower. As you ponder the importance of this metal tower on both Paris’ image and its skyline consider that the late nineteenth century Parisians who saw it built for a Worlds Fair wanted it knocked down when the event was over.
Tip: The Eiffel Tower is better at night. Buy tickets and reserve a time slot ahead of time, online.
Here’s a quick long weekend itinerary suggestion for your first time in Paris, assuming three nights.
Day 1 – arrival on a red eye. Get in and get situated. It’s probably around lunch time so find a nice cafe and treat yourself to a light lunch and some coffee. Depending on where you are staying go to a smaller museum (Rodin Museum, Carnavalet Museum, Cluny Museum, etc.) and buy your 4 day museum pass. After an hour or so at the aforementioned museum go to the Musee d’Orsay (don’t forget to skip the line with your museum pass). This is your one major stop for the day because it’s not big enough to ware out the jet lagged traveler. It should take about two hours to admire its Impressionist works. Depending on what time you have dinner tonight is a good night to see the Arc de Triomphe. You might need a metro ride to get there but it’s open late and even if it’s closed you can admire it just the same from outside. Inside is nothing special, nor is the view. Consider planning your dinner route to include a walk along the Seine river, along side the Isle de la Cite. Paris does a spectacular job at flood lighting its monuments, particularly those along the river.
Day 2 – Get a good night sleep and get up early, have a quick croissant, and be first in line to see Saint Chapelle. It’s not a big space and the difference between being inside alone in the stained glass filled interior vs. being there with wall to wall people is night and day. Even those first few minutes are worth it, trust me. Afterwards walk just down the road to Notre Dame. The interior and the roof are separate. Other than saying you’ve been on the top of Notre Dame there is no particular reason to go up there. But maybe you really like climbing lots of medieval steps? Today is a good day for a nice long Parisian lunch. This afternoon you will tackle the Louvre. Chances are it will take up the whole day. Even if it doesn’t, there is a good chance you’ll be finished with museums for the day by the time you leave. Consider a walk down the Champs-Élysées as a good way to unwind afterwards. Make dinner reservations tonight. Consider a boat ride before dinner along the Seine. Most are about 1 hour. See below for more detail.
Day 3 – Sleep in, you’ve earned it after a day of hard core sightseeing. And hopefully you had too much wine at with dinner. Maybe you even closed the place down. After breakfast take an RER train out to Versailles for a day trip. It’s easy to get there, see below for more details. Assuming you return early afternoon consider seeing the Napoleon’s tomb and the Army museum. If you like WWII you will spend more than a couple hours here. Guns and Nazi’s not your thing? Consider another museum you might have missed or take the metro up to Montmarte, the once famous artist neighborhood with the Sacre Coeur, which has a great view of the city. After dinner tonight go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s best at night. Buy your ticket online in advance with a specified time. The later the better so you’re not rushed through dinner. Stand atop the symbol of Paris and feel proud that you have conquered the city.
Day 4 – Depending on how much time you have check out another museum, explore a neighborhood (Rue Cler or Marias…note the Latin Quarter is WAY overrated unless you love novelty tee shirts), or just sit in a cafe with your travel buddy and figure out what you’ll do next time you come back.
Congratulations. You saw the best of Paris and it only cost you two days of vacation!
Next time you come back spend a couple hours lingering in one of the non European wings of the Louvre, never wake up before 10, and try to be the last one to leave a restaurant at least once.
Chez Louis Robert – Imagine sitting in a small stone medieval basement in Paris, you’ve just finished your escargot, you’re sipping a great red wine, and your steak is cooking in a centuries old fire place at the other side of the room. If that sounds appealing then check this place out in the Marais district. In a city full of romantic restaurants this place can’t be beat. Make reservations!
Je the…me – Possibly one of our favorite places in all of Paris. This is a foodies dream come true. It’s a little out of the way in the south western part of the city but easily accessible by metro. You’ll find no tour buses here. Let the wine flow freely as you enjoy their new take on some classic French dishes. The veal kidney with mushrooms was superb. (Note: the only common language between us and the staff was an appreciation for delicious food and wine.) Reservations are must and don’t be late! They take food seriously here…in a very good way.
Le Bistrot Paul Bert – This is a delicious and delightful Parisian bistro in the Marais that serves original and modern cuisine. Instead of a menu they bring a chalkboard with the daily offerings. We had lunch here, the pork steak and pate would have been our favorites had it not been for the awesomely oversized cheese plate we shared for desert. A reservation wouldn’t hurt but isn’t necessary. Hungry for Paris – Paul Bert and thepariskitchen.com – Bistrot Paul Bert
Le Baron Rouge – (near the Bastille). A great unpretentious wine bar where they crack open fresh oysters and pour cheap wine from giant barrels. On the weekend the place overflows with signing Parisians. If you’re going to just one bar for drinks in Paris, make it Le Baron Rouge. No reservation needed. Timeout magazine – Le Baron Rouge and Hungry for Paris – Le Baron Rouge
Cafe de Musees – Another great neighborhood cafe in Marais. The beef tartare is outstanding as is the Fois Gras and escargot. Okay, everything we had was great. Don’t forget the wine too.
Au Piedde Cochon – Cochon means “pig” in French and but the menu is more than just pork. Designed to look like a 1950’s Parisian brassiere this place is open 24/7 and located conveniently in Las Halles. Try the pork sauerkraut.
Cafe du Marche – Sitting in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is the charming street of Rue Cler. If you’re looking for the most quintessential small Parisian street in Paris this is it. It makes for a great stroll before or after a visit to the Eiffel tower. The street is also a good place to stay if you want old school Paris. This restaurant is well situation about halfway down Rue Cler which makes for a great atmosphere.
La Barometre. (near Monte Marte) Solid country style wine bistro, good place for food too. Timeout magazine – Le Barometre
A la Biche au Bois – A very typical French bistro, bargain for the food and not touristy. Hungry for Paris – a la biche au bois
Miss Manon Snc – A great local bakery in the Marais district. Good for a quick breakfast before a day of sightseeing, if you’re staying in the area. For any quick breakfast in Paris you simply can’t go wrong with a chocolate croissant. Many places offer a simple little combo option that has juice, coffee, and a small basket of baked goods.
Angelina – Just west of the Louvre on Rue de Rivoli. It’s a little touristy and a lot expensive but if you’d like to sip a cappuccino before or after the Louvre and feel like royalty, this is a good place to do it.
Museums and things to do in Paris
Museums you must see. (Nearly all are on the museum pass.)
The Louvre – Once the home to France’s kings now it houses the Mona Lisa amongst its other treasures. You’ll need a good hour and a half here just to see the biggies. If you really like art you could spend the entire day. And then the next day too. The European art is where you should focus first. Next time you come back look at the other collections.
Musee d’Orsay – The largest collection of impressionist and post impressionist art anywhere in the world, housed in a 19th century train station.
Notre Dame – Notre Dame, one of the most famous churches in the world, is located on the Ile de la Cite, the island that housed the city’s original settlement. It took them 600 years to build this place! The lighting is great at night.
Saint Chapelle – One of them most impressive gothic buildings you’ll ever see. It was built to house the actual crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. You’ll notice that you have to walk down from street level to get in. It didn’t shrink, rather Paris rose around it. Just next-door is the Concierge, once a prison during the revolution Marie Annoinette spent her last days on earth here.
Eiffel Tower – Built for a worlds fair it was intended to be dismantled when the fair was over. Can you imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Best at night and its open late. There are three observation levels but the difference between the bottom two isn’t much. Spring for the top. Don’t get freaked out about the turn of (last) century elevators. They’ve worked this long so what are the odds they fail now?
Versailles – Nothing says excess like the most famous palace in main land Europe. It’s easy to get here by RER and your museum card covers the entrance. Plan on touring both the inside but especially the gardens. It’s a most do half day trip from Paris.
Second tier sights and things to do.
Seine boat tour – No city understands the importance of flood lights like Paris. Every monument is beautifully lit at night which makes a boat ride down the river a great pre dinner activity. If your here in the late spring or summer it might have to be post dinner. There are a lot of options but we think the boats leaving from the Pont de Nuef are most convenient.
Arch de Triumph – Another great symbol of Paris. If you have time go inside, it’s covered by your museum card…like everything else on this list. If you don’t have time or you’re not in the area, skip it. The only pro to seeing it at night is that it’s open late, after the museums close.
Napoleon’s Tomb and the Army Museum – See the elaborate tomb of one of the worlds last great conquering explorers. The attached Army museum is amongst the finest in the world. Even if you’re not into guns and tanks. If you are you could spend hours here. For obvious reasons the World Wars are very well covered.
Centre Pompidou – Paris’ modern art museum.
Rodin Museum – A nice collection of the sculptors works in a charming house. Can be easily covered in an hour. Makes for a great place to pick up your museum pass.
Carnavalet Museum – The history of Paris in a compact and easy to view setting. Also, a great place to get the museum pass.
Catacombs – During the French Revolution logic and reason were in vogue and the leaders of Paris reasoned that dead people had no right taking up valuable real-estate in the city. As a result four million dead Parisians were dug up and their bones strategically and artistically stacked underground by monks. Some of these people were poor, some were rich, some were victims of the plague, some lived lavish lives amongst the city’s elite…none probably imagined their bones would wind up on the iphones of tourists.
Montmarte and the Sacre Coeur. Once a bustling artists neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Creative types were originally drawn here because of its cheap rent. Now it just kind of feels cheap. The famous Moulin Rouge is nearby. It’s mostly full of Japanese businessmen and has about as much to do with today’s Parisian culture as the mimes you’ll see outside Mssr. Eiffel’s tower. Still, if you look past the novelty shops and pickpockets you can imagine what it once was. Also, if you’re a fan of the movie Amalie the area under the Sauc Couer will look very familiar. If you haven’t seen Amalie make sure to watch it before you go to Paris.
Third tier sights and things to do.
Jacques-mart Andre museum – The mansion of a wealthy 19th century Parisian couple. Heirs to a fortune and without children this husband and wife duo spend their lives (and money) traveling the world and collecting art to decorate their elaborate townhouse.
Grand Opera Garnier – Setting for Phantom of the Opera. A beautiful grand building seemingly constructed only of gold and marble.
The Pantheon – Just as great cathedrals were built to honor saints and other religious figures The Pantheon in Paris was built to honor great thinkers than inspired the revolution. Here you’ll find the tombs of Voltaire and Victor Hugo.
Cluny Museum – Built on what was originally a Roman Bath and full of medieval artifacts. Its most impressive exhibit is a collection of unicorn tapestries.
Maritime Museum – To be honest we’ve not gone in a maritime museum anywhere in Europe that wasn’t worthwhile. They are all mostly the same; oil paintings of great naval battles and intricate ship models. Its a low intensity high quality kind of art viewing. You don’t need a high appreciation of art to enjoy looking at these.
The town of Reims – The heart of champagne country makes for an easy RER day trip from Paris. Its home to many small family run vineyards and some larger ones. Most have tastings and tours in their underground aging cages. In fact, below much of town is miles and miles of chalky white caves filled with millions of bottles of champagne. The town is also famous for its cathedral, which was home to every French coronation and a beautiful stained glass “champagne” window. After the original was broken a group of locals commissioned this one which depicts the champagne making process and Jesus blessing the grapes.
The Bastille – The Bastille was the famous prison, stormed by peasants that helped kick off the French revolution. It was destroyed and never rebuilt. Now its a traffic roundabout. This is one of the worlds great “non-sights”.
Hotel Saint Louis en L’isle – Charming old hotel perfectly situated on Ile Saint Louis, the other island in the Seine river. While Ile de la Cite has Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle, this is the more residential island.
Hotel Caron is well situated in the Marias district. If you’re not doing air bnb this is a good option.
Rue Cler is a nice area to stay if you want to feel old time Paris. The hotel we once stayed in is no longer there.