Whether you know Paris by its monikers the city of lights, of love or of fashion, there is one thing certain: there is no other metropolis exactly like it. It seemed that people either love or hate the city and because of that it made me want to explore it even more. I was curious to find out what it had to offer and hopefully come up with my own verdict by the end of my stay in the city of lights.
We caught a red-eye flight and by 8am found our feet firmly planted on French soil. A short train ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport later you’ll find yourself in the heart of Paris. Be prepared to ogle at the sights you’ve only ever seen in movies, read about in books, and romanticized.
First off Paris is not really a walkable city as it is much larger than say Boston where I am from. The best way to get around is to take the subway or a bicycle! It has connections to almost every part of the city and runs on time which is GREAT! Although it can get super stuffy during rush hour, heck my backpack got stuck in the door as I tried to rush the train cart. Luckily some people were kind enough to pry me out of my sad state of being. They also have ferries, buses, and commuter rails that are cheap and reliable. If you have the city card you can use all of them any time of the day (when operating of course.)
The city has nothing short of a little something for everyone’s palette. Whether it be museums (think the Louvre), grand castles (Palace of Versailles), architectural marvels (Eiffel tower), or food (let’s be honest there is good food all over the city here). I was beaming with excitement to dip my toes in all of it. Luckily I have compiled a list of things I enjoyed seeing and doing the most during my short stay there. We had 96 hours and you bet your ass we used up all of them!
Once we got situated into our AirBnB a short nap was on tall order after that red-eye. Awoken to a warm spring afternoon in Paris we eagerly left our coats behind and traversed on foot. We opted to walk around to get a feel of the neighborhood we were staying in. This also made for good exercise!
There are things you can see a million times in photos but will never live up to the real thing. Take the Eiffel tower for one of those things. Do yourself a solid and take a walk around the vicinity and just enjoy it for what it is. It will be packed with other tourists but in April it was more than manageable.
On one side there is Champ de Mars (most classic view of the tower) where many people opt to lay a blanket out for a picnic or just soak up the sun. On the other is the Trocadero where you can take a plethora of Instagram photos. We went to both sides and just laid there in the grass and took in the sights and sounds of locals, tourists and hustlers abound.
The structure itself was immense when you’re viewing from the base looking upwards. It was a super surreal moment to behold as I have only ever seen it in photos and movies. The tower was tall, rusty, and copper in color but it is nonetheless checked off my list. There are elevators that you can take all the way up and tour the top but we opted for solid footing instead.
A short walk from where we lay was Paris’s most chic street, Champs Elysees. If shopping is your game then this is THE place for you. The 1.187-mile stretch offers everything from the normal to the extravagant. Time to load up on all those souvenirs! If you’re feeling famished from all that shopping there are plentiful restaurants to choose from. Take it from me and eat far away from the crowds, the food is usually MUCH better. The cool thing about Champs Elysees is that if you stand in the middle of the street you can see all the way to either end. One showcases the Tuileries Garden and the other the most famous arc of them all, Arc de Triomphe.
We’re saving the Arc for another day and made our way towards the Tuileries Garden. There is an abundance of chairs up for grabs so keep an eye out to snag one. Being early spring the flowers were all blooming, the people out in hefty numbers, the chairs all but gone, and the vibe chill. The thing I love most about European culture is that the people DO NOT RUSH.
In this park, you can people watch for hours on end. Families are out in full force, kids running and playing as they should, old folks kindling their love in chairs by the pool of water, tourists taking selfies, and locals making plans for the evening.
Trekking on foot for day 1 was a great way to experience the city but our feet were definitely aching for a rest. At last check, my phone clocked us in at about 25,000 steps or roughly 12+ miles of walking! I didn’t really think I could have broken my Berlin walking personal best but it was smashed wandering around Paris! The bed was well deserved.
Palace of Versailles
If you really want to get away from all the chaos that can be Paris then I HIGHLY suggest taking the train to the Palace of Versailles. The former home to French royalties turned UNESCO World Heritage Site makes for the perfect half-day adventure. You can tour either the palace itself or the garden out back but we suggest you splurge and do BOTH!
Saying the palace is grand is really short-selling it to be honest. It’s HUGE and one simply does not have enough time to explore all of its inner workings. From the larger than life central staircases to intimate bedroom settings and abundant low hanging chandeliers you can get lost quite easily. Even though its sheer size is enormous you can feel stuffed like sardines in a can because of all the tourists that are there.
After our fill of the palace, it was time to get some fresh air in the garden. The garden reminded me a lot of Potsdam in Germany with its lush green setting and enormity. Another perfect place to have a picnic lunch after all the walking inside the palace. If you can find it there’s a stand offering FRESH SQUEEZED orange juice, a perfect drink to compliment the view. In way yonder, there is a pond that I can see people kayaking and paddleboarding in, a cool way to spend an afternoon. Take your time walking around because the grounds are just that beautiful.
Eiffel Tower Nighttime
Heat soaked and tired from the day at Versailles we arrived back at our flat drained and defeated but nothing a quick nap won’t fix. The plan for the evening was to have a picnic at the Eiffel tower because it’s the thing to do. The evening weather was perfect during our stay so we grabbed a couple of cheeses, meats, adult beverages and set out on the night. We weren’t alone in our thought process as the park was filled with other like-minded individuals.
At night the tower comes alive with its lights, a big draw for going during the nocturnal hours. Not only is it lit up but at the top of every hour for about five minutes there is an apparent spectacular light show. It was a very nice surprise as I had no idea it was a daily occurrence. Watch out for people roaming around slinging drinks. Take it from me as it’s not worth it and usually super watered down. Oh, steer clear of the bushes because there are GIANT rats living in them. I mistook a few for squirrels, won’t be doing that again! Aside from the overzealous street bartenders, it was a great way to end day 2.
There is one reason (among many others to be quite frank) to come to the Louvre and no it isn’t about getting that photo in front of you pinching the top of the pyramid structure. Her first name is Mona and last is Lisa. You know the one you’ve seen in history and art books your entire academic life. The most enigmatic painting in anyone’s recent memory. What is she doing? Is she smiling? Who is she looking at? Questions with no clear cut answer. I wasn’t going to travel all this way and miss the opportunity to glance but a few seconds upon arguably one of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work.
They say you need more than two days to explore the entirety of what the Louvre has to offer. Two days? I needed a mere 20 minutes to make a beeline towards the location of the Mona Lisa! OK, to be fair I was there for a couple of more hours taking in a few more exhibits to make it worth it. But let’s get down to the lady of the hour. First expect a horde of people in front of the painting, a HORDE. Next don’t expect to get too close, it is exhibited behind a barricade twenty feet off. Oh did I mention it’s behind a thickly sealed glass case? You can sense the security precautions are at an all-time high here.
If you want that elusive photo then you’ll have to fight fist and elbows to make it through the front. I saw my compatriot almost get trampled trying to get to the forefront of the pack. She disappeared for what seemed like an eternity while I moseyed around the rest of the exhibit, clearly concerned for her well being. Don’t worry she made it out alive from the pack of hungry wolves.
From my brief eye contact with the Mona Lisa, I will say it was more disappointing than I had imagined. Don’t get me wrong it’s a work of art but in person, it didn’t stir my insides like people my entire life has to tell me art should. Having seen it I can now check it off my huge bucket list in life. Let my experience not deter you because the Louvre itself is gigantic and beautiful. There are plenty of other exhibits that will be worth your time and effort to explore.
During one of our breaks to catch our breath from museum sensory overload, I managed to converse with a former Parisian resident. We talked about where his family was living now, funny enough in the south of France, and how they were taking to being a tourist in their former city. “I love Paris, but it isn’t a place to live and raise a family. The south of France is where you should head to next if you want to REALLY see France.”
I left the Louvre with those words of encouragement.
Musee de l’Orangerie
If the Louvre isn’t your type of art then just a short walk from it you can find yourself among impressionist and post-impressionist paintings care of Musee de l’Orangerie. From the many Monet’s, Renoir’s, Picasso’s and Matisse’s it beckons you to sit awhile and ponder deep thoughts, or mainly a break from all that walking you’ve endured.
Of all the art I saw on my trip it was this painting that really captivated me. It evoked both the emotions of rage and tranquility simultaneously that I couldn’t quite figure out. I stared at it quite a while until it started to make sense to me. That’s the thing with art, it can mean many different things to different people. In the end, art exists purely just for the sake of existing. I am no art buff but I can appreciate the emotions behind the stroke, sculpture, or letter, whatever the case may be.
After Musee de l’Orangerie we moved ourselves to wait in the Sainte-Chapelle’s queue. It wouldn’t have been bad but it was raining and we stood in line for a solid 35 minutes, yep it sucked. A good thing to note now is that most if not all the museums or sites you visit in Paris will have an extensive checkpoint. This makes going through anything in the states look like a walk in the park! In the end, I didn’t really mind it if safety is a concern for all parties attending.
A brief walk up a super narrow staircase later you will be greeted with a 360-degree view of the highest stained glass windows Paris has to offer. Each stained glass depicted several shades of colors. Since it was raining during our visit there was no sunlight shining through the glass so one can imagine how it would look inside the chamber on a bright sunny Parisian day.
Sitting atop one of the highest hills in the backdrop of Paris is the Sacre-Coeur or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. A train ride, a walk through a sketchy part of town, and a ton of stairs later (take the funicular if you don’t care about your step count) we arrived at the top of the Roman Catholic church. You couldn’t see much of the skyline view as it was an overcast and drizzly day but I did my best to try and seek out the Eiffel tower’s structure, no luck. The view was refreshing looking back at the city and tracing where we’ve been the last few days.
Admission into the church itself was free but taking photos whilst inside is frowned upon. You try to be the one telling these millennials to just soak it all in rather than just wanting to snap chat everything, myself included. The interior of the Sacre-Coeur reminded me much of the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal fame in sheer size but instead of stained glass windows, the Sacre-Coeur’s biggest dome housed a larger than life mural of Jesus.
No better way to start your mornings than with a cafe and a stroll through a garden in the middle of Paris with freshly bloomed tulips. While life rushed on during the busy hours of the work morning we found ourselves in the middle of the Luxembourg Gardens taking in all of its smells and rays of sunshine. During the warmer evenings of the summer, people flock to their lawns to unwind after work for a catch-up chit chat or some sips of spirits.
The grounds itself is very beautiful being split in half depicting English and French-style gardens. I didn’t notice it until we had gotten closer but it also housed very large geometric trees that my companion wasted no time to ask for photos. Their path led to the center of the garden when you can find a large pond where some locals were taking a dip, not entirely sure if you could do this! What is cool about this park is that there are a ton of activities aimed at teaching young kids environmental conservation through greenhouses and other activities like bee-keeping.
One of the museums I was really looking forward to visiting was Musee d’Orsay. Not often do you get to be in a museum that used to be a train station so you can sense my anticipation when we queued up for the line. After about an hour, yes that long, and security check we grabbed some map layouts of the joint to get a basic sense of where everything was.
After a few steps, you can literally see my face be in awe at what I was seeing. I’m not an architecture expert in any sense but this place had me oohing and aahing. There was a central pathway that displayed a multitude of artwork with splits on either side leading into more exhibits. Corridors that led you up and down and back up again with different display pieces to gawk at. Not only did it span a good length of the River Seine it was parallel to but it was a few stories high as well.
d’Orsay houses many art styles from impressionism, realism, neoclassicism all the way to art nouveau. After walking around and perusing the ground I came to one obvious but not to me fact: professors hold classes in these museums. It wasn’t just here but I also saw a few debates going on with a professor as a moderator in the Louvre as well as the Orangerie museum. But of course why not in Paris, the mecca it seems for the arts.
One can lose track of time in this place but don’t fret as the location has a fix for that! Walk up to one of the top floors, once you hear all the chatter you’ll know you’ve arrived. Another cool thing about d’Orsay is that once you’ve reached this floor you can turn the corner and be met with the giant clock face out looking the River Seine. It’s dark as the natural light penetrates the gigantic glass face with its hour and minute arms ticking to the tee. I stood for quite some time to try to get a photo of the clock face in all its glory but everyone wanted to model in front. Needless to say, the mission failed.
Arc de Triomphe
Sitting on the western end of the Champs-Elysees and at the center of Place Charles de Gaulle is arguably one of the most famous arcs in the world: Arc de Triomphe. The arc is dedicated to all of those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Beneath it also houses the tomb of the unknown soldier from WWI. Luckily we saved the arc for what turned out to be a beautiful day in Paris!
Once above ground from the subway we realized to get across the street to the actual arc there is an underground passage one must take. A cool thing about the arc is that you can actually head to the top of it and have an amazing 360-degree view of Paris! But first, there is a tumultuous amount of stairs you’ll have to climb but we promise it’s worth it.
With tired legs and trying to catch our breath, we poked our heads outside on top of the Arc. We were met with a cool breeze, the sun, and said awesome 360-degree view! Every corner of Paris could be seen leading from this one central point. I took my time checking out each corner on top of the arc all the while soaking in the sun, sight, and sounds. I’d recommend making your way to the top if you’re going to see the arc, because when else will you get the chance?
River Seine Cruise Tour
We’ve seen a lot of Paris by foot and air but it was time to see it by the sea! Or at the very least in a boat on the River Seine. You can find a lot of the boat tours on the River Seine by the Eiffel Tower. There are basic ones all the way to fine dining excursions. The tour we took was included in our city pass and it was a nice way to slow things down on our trip.
A guide was on hand to indulge you in more of the city’s history. There are headphones on offer in multiple languages for your listening pleasure. I spent the majority of our cruise outside on the deck doing some self-reflection on our last day in Paris.
Towards the end of the tour, we passed by a much smaller Statue of Liberty facing westward toward the United States. I learned that as a token of appreciation for the much larger liberty statue gifted to the U.S. from France the states gave France this one. Now the two face each other like sisters our tour guide informed us.
Really wanting to send off our last night in Paris we headed over the Montparnasse Tower, the tallest structure in Paris. When asking some of my friends who’ve been to Paris they always say to visit the observation deck a half an hour before the sunsets. After taking the high-speed elevator to the top of the 56th floor we stepped out onto a brisk observation deck. Despite the windier than expected weather we both enjoyed the views immensely.
With an unobstructed view of 25 miles, it was easy to retrace where we’ve been the last few days. “Oh look you can just make out the Arc de Triomphe over there with the lit fire”, “there’s the Luxembourg and Tuileries Gardens!”, “the Sacre-Coeur looks magnificent in this light.” I used my phone’s hyperlapse feature and decided to tough out the next 45 minutes to get a video of the sun setting and the Iron Lady lighting up in all her glory. Ten frozen digits later it was ALL WORTH IT!
What a day to cap off our 96 hours in Paris.
75% of my traveling is spent thinking about what I will devour once I get to my destination. Coming from years working as a line cook in my folk’s noodle house I have come to appreciate a good meal. Before any new adventure, I do some research on the to-eats while traversing back roads and side streets. With all the TV shows, food articles, and Instagram posts about French cuisine I couldn’t help but hold Paris in high expectations.
Truth be told the cuisine did not disappoint whatsoever. Every meal we had, when we had a chance to eat, was great in both visual aesthetics and most importantly the NOM factor. From a hot cafe latte with a pain au chocolat in the morning before heading out for the day, to the 1 kilo of meat paired with grilled bone marrow at dinner time everything had me salivating at the mouth. I am sad to report however that I did not try their escargots OR the revered baguettes. The latter of which I saw nearly every other Parisian munching leisurely on no matter the time of day!
One of the best meals I had while there occurred on our very last night. Not one for a hoity-toity type of restaurant but when your AirBnB hostess recommends you a place you make the journey to check it out. L’Epi Dupin was located on a very unassuming side street but the food it housed was excellent to the palette.
We came with no prior reservation, slightly underdressed and overly hungry so everything was playing against us. Lady luck had a table empty and to our gleaming eyes, our bellies would be full. The menu is only in French, a language I swore I would’ve taken in high school had not been for Latin, made ordering less than easy. Rather than guessing, we opted for the chef set menu, in his hands we trust.
Right from the start, everything that came out of that back door leading to the kitchen was sublime to the taste buds. Course after course the flavors complimented what came before and led into what was coming up next. I couldn’t remember any of the names of the courses we had but just how much each made me smile. To me, this is dining, whether in an upscale restaurant or on a stool at a street cart, if you aren’t smiling after each bite did you really eat?
At first, I wanted to visit Paris solely on the fact that when I looked at my world map the “visit” pin was missing. Never in my wildest dreams did I thought that I’d actually fall in love with the city.
From early morning strolls to parks around the city to the late-night picnic visits in front of the Eiffel Tower it had a bit of everything for me. The people courteous, the sights grand, the culture-rich, and the coffee strong. I almost said my usual “Fuck It” and canceled that flight home.
Ever so often I need a trip like this to reset my body but more importantly my mind. Traveling abroad has helped me become an extremely open-minded person to the world beyond my own soil. Until we meet again au revoir Paris!