Bonjour from Paris, the capital of France! I recently spent a few days in Paris with friends, and I was pretty excited as it was technically my first time in the city that I can remember. Years ago I was on an EF tour with a school group, but that was such a whirlwind I can safely say that this was my first real French experience. Now, I’ll say that I came with some preconceptions. First, that the French are rude and stuck up. WRONG! They were very welcoming and overall very friendly. Second, that they detest people who can’t speak French. Again, wrong. I don’t know whether it was because we were primarily in tourist areas (ie. hotels, attractions, etc) that most people seemed to know and willingly speak English, and most knew enough for basic communication of directions, etc. We had three full days so there were a number of things that we wanted to accomplish.
For location, price and overall awesomeness I can recommend the Hotel Tourisme Avenue. It is centrally located, right next to a metro stop and a short walk to the Eiffel Tower. That being the case, the first objective was to get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or the Tour Eiffel :-)! Constructed in 1889 by the engineer Gustave Eiffel as the entrance to the World’s Fair, it is the most visited monument in the world. There are three levels to visit, with restaurants and spectacular views. Elevators take you up to each of the levels. I do have a terrible fear of heights so I didn’t make it to the summit at the top, but the views from the 2nd floor are also spectacular! It is usually open fairly late and I would recommend going at dusk in the evening, as it will give you lovely sunset views. At night, there is also an awesome light show on the hour, which lasts about 5 minutes.
I would also recommend the Hop On, Hop Off bus to orient yourself to the city as it is rather large. The next stop on our must see list was the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral. This cathedral is located on the Île de la Cité. You cross the bridge onto an actual island in the middle of the city. The island goes back to the Gauls and Roman times, but the Cathedral was build in the 13th century, and is known for its architectural uniqueness (ie. flying buttresses and gargoyals). The Cathedral is the point from where all distances in Paris are measured. No, unfortunately I did not meet Quasimoto.
Directly across from Notre Dame is a really neat bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. It is an English bookstore but they have books in a number of languages. They are also known for employing starving writers and giving them lodging, but you won’t see the beds as they are upstairs. Take my advice and get a cool book from this store. Be sure to get a stamp on the inside of the book.
Time for lunch? Head right next door to Le Petit Châtelet. We had a delicious warm goats cheese dish, and I also had the pepper beef sirloin with potatoes and veggies that was so nice and tender, even though I like my meat well done.
The Consiergerie is another, really unique place to visit, very near Notre Dame on the banks of the Seine. Originally built in the 1200s, it is the only remaining part of the original Palais de la Cité. The kings of the Capetian dynasty used it as a royal residence until the Revolution when it was used as a prison. Marie Antoinette was kept there for a time, and her rooms tell an interesting tale of the Revolution. It would later become a courthouse, and today you can see judges taking breaks outside. There is a really cool virtual tour on an iPad that you can take along the way, and it really helps to understand the history of the building.
After a long day of touring, may I suggest dining at Le Procope! Founded in 1686, making it the oldest continuous operating restaurant in Paris, this is a very historic restaurant where all the revolutionaries like Marat, Danton, Robespierre and even Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin dined. You might try going for lunch, if you would like a lighter, cheaper menu, but their dinner menu boasts of French traditions like Coq au Vin and calves head. You could also go simple and have a delicious Croque Monsieur, the french version of a grilled cheese that is out of this world! Have an aperitif and enjoy the profiterols for dessert. Be sure to look around upstairs at all the history.
Be sure to stop by and pick up some eclairs for a midnight snack at L’Éclair de génie, right next door from Le Procope. There are a number of locations throughout Paris.
Other must sees are the Louvre and the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides. The Louvre is a very large art museum, but I bet you didn’t know that it was also used a grand palace at one time. It can be overwhelming if you do not plan your visit out. Hit the masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, Hammurabi’s Code, and some of the great sculptures. You will be shocked at how small the Mona Lisa is! Be sure to see the architectural history museum of the Louvre, where you can see actual remnants of the Louvre palace.
Les Invalides was truly amazing! This was originally dedicated by Louis XIV as a home for invalid soldiers and today is used as a military history museum. It is also the burial site of a number of prominent French military heroes, including Napoleon. There is also an extensive exhibit on the French involvement in WWI and WWII.
Finally, the Catacombs of Paris are a fascinating step into the past of sanitary conditions in Paris during the 17 and 1800s, as well as the Revolution. There are literally millions of Parisians entombed down in the catacombs and to walk through the ossuary is an eerie experience. I would caution you to get your time stamp tickets ahead of time. They are closed on Mondays. Also be aware that you walk down about 90 steps to get down into the Catacombs, and you hike up the same amount of steps to get back out. There really isn’t a way for wheel chair access, etc. It is kinda funny that as you walk out of there are staff members waiting with a defibrillator near by. I had a laugh with them as I was gasping for breath climbing out! LOL. Stick to the trail and pay attention to the audioguide. It can turn into a real maze if you don’t and is obviously illegal. There was a story in the news a few days after my visit about some teenagers who had decided to stray from the path and got lost down there for like 2 days.
If you have the time, one of most popular day trips from Paris is to visit the Palace of Versailles. It truly is a day trip. You take the 25 minute train ride out there, which brings you just a short walk to the palace, or you can arrange a bus tour. I will say that this was certainly not my favorite memory of Paris, but I kind of feel like it is a must do at least once. To say you were there. The gardens are magnificent, and you will be transported back to the time of Louis the XIV and Marie Antoinette as you walk through the Hall of Mirrors and various rooms. It is incredibly crowded, especially if you are crazy enough to try and visit in the summer and on a Tuesday, which we were. We waited almost two hours to get through the front door, even having purchased tickets a head of time. There is a line that snakes around the front courtyard. Once inside, we were disappointed to learn that the Queen’s rooms were closed due to restoration. The sheer ostentaciousness of it all, with the acres of gardens and the three Trianon estates is simply overwhelming. You can imagine the poor, starving peasants coming up to the gates and seeing the palace, and then it’s no wonder there was a revolution. The Petite Trianon was given to Marie Antoinette as a private retreat from palace life. The thing is, all of Versailles closes quite early in the day (5-6pm). You need to plan on getting out there if you want to have time to see it all, which we didn’t. My recommendation, if you have the time, suck it up and do it once, because it is pretty cool. Just be prepared to be uncomfortably stuffed into the rooms of the palace and elbowed by hundreds of obnoxious tourists. Have a hot chocolate at Angelina’s restaurant inside the palace, and it will make up for it! 🙂
I hope you will enjoy all the good food and history that Paris has to offer. Au Revoir for now, gnomies!