Tour Guide: Paris

As usual, caveat emptor; my experience may not be everyone’s, and I make no guarantees. But I left thinking, why are people so intimidated by Paris? It’s just a city.

There are two great things about Paris. First, it’s gorgeous; after a while I was wondering why I bothered to turn my camera on and off. You could walk around holding your shutter button down all day and most of the pictures would be beautiful!

Second, few cities reward wandering around without a plan like central Paris does. My advice to you is to do what I did: If you’re there for a week, do the big things first. See the museums and the Eiffel and the Arc. But for the latter part of your stay, don’t have any schedule. Get lost. Walk around and explore. Sit on the beach; watch the girls; drink some coffee; read the inscriptions; don’t rush. Save your shopping for the last day or two before you leave. Parisians speak anywhere from quite good to minimal English. If you wear sweatpants and demand to be served in American English you will be treated brusquely. I tried to dress well and spoke my best mangled French. People generally appreciated my trying and I had no serious problems.

• Where to Stay

It’s not a cheap place to stay. We wanted to be downtown and so I found a website (Paris Attitude) which does short-term rentals of vacation apartments. We stayed in a small apartment in St. Germaine about five minutes from the Seine. There was quite a lot of paperwork, but this is a great way to stay in Paris because it can be a good deal and you can cook or bring home food when you get tired of going out.

• What to Eat

I think my favorite meal was breakfast. Every morning I went down to the corner bakery and bought fresh bread and fruit. Tom’s Guide is helpful for advice, but I found that the set menus at restaurants (prix fixe) were generally good value. A caution that water is usually extra and rather expensive. In the Latin Quarter there are also kebab or pizza diners or take-out places for simpler fare. My wife didn’t really like French food and found it too rich, but I loved it. It’s not the 19th century and Paris does have Subway and Burger King, but at very least you need to try the bread and pain du chocolat.

• Essential Tip

Buy. the. museum. pass. You can get a 2, 4, or 6 day pass. It’s not cheap, but you won’t have to wait in long lines to buy tickets and if you’re a museum hound like I am, after four or six places you will save money. You can buy one before you go, but people don’t seem to realize that you can go to a little office on the bottom floor of the Louvre and buy one there, enabling you to sail right in.

• French Waiters

The stereotype is that they’re going to yell at you or be rude, but Parisian waiters are like civil servants, in a good way. They’re not there to be your buddy, or list off ten specials, or ask if it’s a special occasion, or tell you what they’re majoring in, or ask you every five minutes if "you’re still working on that." They ask you politely what you would like, bring it, and leave you be. I much prefer that, actually.

• Café Culture

One of the best things about Paris. Instead of an American cardboard pail of mediocre coffee, you get a little cup of fantastic coffee. It is true that you will pay more at a table than if you sit at the bar, but either way it’s not that expensive unless your cafe is right in a tourist trap. I generally paid one euro for a cup at the bar, allowing me to sit as long as I like and read. Perfect.

20 Things to See in Paris

You don’t have to see everything on my list. You’re on vacation. It’s fine to make a schedule, but ignore people who say "If you go to Paris you have to see the x." Whatever you see, it’s going to be interesting. I have no grudge against the catacombs or Versailles, etc.; I just didn’t have time to see them.

1. Arc de Triomphe

The walk from the Louvre and Tuilleries along the Champs Elysees is long but pleasant, and at the end you have the arch. You can wait in line, or sail in with your museum pass, and take the fun but claustrophobic stairway to the top for a great (but windy) view of the city. Not essential but worth seeing.

2. D’Orsay Museum

The D’Orsay museum, along the Seine banks, is filled with beautiful paintings, but the restaurant is worth a trip in itself. The ballroom is elegant and the food is wonderful. I had raw steak and frits. Stay a while with coffee. One of the highlights of my stay, I think.

3. Eiffel Tower

Sigh. It’s inevitable that you will see this, right? It’s surprisingly out-of-the-way to get here and the lines are endless. I don’t actually think the tower is much to see in daytime, but it’s breathtaking at night. Wait a little later and go to the much shorter lineup to take the stairs rather than the one for the elevator. You can’t go to the very top on foot, but you’ll save time and money and still get a fantastic view of the city at night.

4. Museum of the Middle Ages

The Musee du Moyen Age is also rather hard to find, tucked away in the south part of the Latin Quarter. I had to see it because I’m a medievalist and the artwork is beautiful. If you have the museum pass this really is worth seeing and it will probably be much more peaceful than the Louvre.

5. Latin Quarter

South of Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter is named for the language the medieval university students spoke. It’s no longer a place for a poor student to live, but it still has some downscale charm and has lots of little restaurants and take-out donair or sandwich & frits places. Tom’s Guide warns you not to sit on the sidewalk balconies or else peddlars and musicians will bug you, but it really is a swinging place in the evening.

6. The Louvre

Listen to me! A. Don’t be one of those pathetic people on a tour group who race in to photograph the Mona Lisa and then scurry out. B. Don’t try to see the Louvre in one day! C. Remember rule B! My advice is to buy the pass and spend three afternoons here, two if you’re not a museum person. Choose a period or culture you like (paintings, sculpture, Roman, Egyptian) for each visit. If you try to do it all in one day you will be so overwhelmed that you will be frustrated. Take the Louvre in bite-sized pieces. You cannot see it all. You could spend a day just looking at the ceiling art alone (which I would recommend).

7. Luxembourg Gardens

Later in your visit, you might spend an afternoon doing a very Parisian thing, which is to have some morning coffee and then sit in the Luxembourg gardens, in the south of St. Germaine. There are nice lounging chairs, and you can read or watch the kids play with boats in the fountain. Put down your camera for a morning and do things.

8. Paris Subway

I was attacked in the Mexico City subway in ’02, and so crowded subways always put me on edge. I don’t like the Paris subway. It’s dirty and seedy and the trains are old and sometimes jammed with people. But some people like this gritty quirkiness, and that’s fine. I’ll admit that fun things seem to happen there, like a string orchestra in the walkway, or a tuba player busking on the train.

9. Montmartre

Montmartre is an area below Sacred Couer in the north end of the city. It feels a little touristy and Disneyesque but there are beautiful old buildings and if you need to fill up on tacky souvenirs this is a place to do so and to stop for supper after visiting the cathedral.

10. Notre Dame

I never made it to the rooftop as the lineups were ridiculous, but the Notre Dame interior is really striking. The stained glass and artwork are wonderful, the pillars and architecture are magnificent, and the entire place is simply enormous. If you are there during a service the choral singing is also enjoyable, and if you attend as a worshiper you can bypass the line.

11. Pompideau Centre

This place will float some people’s boats. I thought it was hideous, like someone on drugs building a Costco, with colored pipes and tubes running everywhere and nowhere. In general I didn’t like the West Bank / Marais district but many do go there for shopping or to lounge on the grass near the Pompideau in the evening. I guess it’s worth seeing, but I wouldn’t make a day trip of it.

12. Pont des Artes

One of my favorite places in Paris was the Seine bridges. The view is spectacular by day or night. In particular I like the small Pont des Artes footbridge which leads north to the Louvre. For some reason lovers have begun affixing padlocks with their names on them on the bridge and there are thousands of them. They may or may not be there when you go, as their combined weight is a nuisance to the bridges.

13. Sacred Couer

I didn’t care for Sacred Couer because it’s way up north and you pass through a pretty seedy area to get there, and once you do arrive you can’t take pictures inside. Otherwise it’s a beautiful cathedral and the view from there down to Montmartre is very nice. Buskers play outside and people seem to hang around for whatever reason.

14. Paris Plages

For Paris this is very cheesy, but it’s fun to sit by the Seine and pretend you’re at the beach. Every summer sand is trucked in and the hot-dog concessions spring up and the bikinis come out. Parisians do not seem to take the whole idea too seriously and it’s enjoyable to sit here with a book even if there’s no swimming.

15. Shakespeare and Company

Well, with my Kindle I admit to not buying that many paper books anymore, and most here will be in French. But if you’ve seen Midnight in Paris or have a fantasy of hanging out in Sylvia Plath’s bookstore and seeing Gertrude Stein or Hemingway in an easychair, this is the place. In a way it’s admirable that the store is entirely a functioning bookstore and is not for gawkers.

16. St. Chapelle

I won’t break my word by saying "you must see this!" but St. Chapelle, in the Concierge near Notre Dame, is magnificent. Built as a royal chapel and not a cathedral, the two-floor chapel is a stunning house of stained glass and candles. It’s especially beautiful in the early morning or when the sun sets against the glass.

17. St. Germaine

St. Germaine is a slightly tamer, saner, and more upscale partner to the Latin Quarter, but it’s still a lively area. The whole area is brightly lit at night and there are lots of fruit shops and cafes in the daytime. This is where our apartment was and I would recommend it as a location for staying in. It’s close to everything you’ll want to see in Paris.

18. St. Louis Island

Ile Saint-Louis is a tiny island next to Ile de la Cite (where Notre Dame is), and one of the oldest parts of Paris. Your pocketbook might not allow you to stay here but it’s enjoyable to poke around or shop here. For some reason the island has developed a reputation for ice cream shops, and it doesn’t exactly look like a center for nightlife.

19. St. Sulpice

There are many, many cathedrals in Paris besides Notre Dame, and some are more beautiful. I found two alone in St. Germaine, and St. Sulpice in the southern part of the district is uncrowded, placid, and attractive with its soaring arches letting in the morning sunlight. In any other city Sulpice would be a centerpiece.

20. Tuileries

Once you leave blinking and frazzled from the Louvre there is a very pleasant park connecting it to the Champs Elysees and Arc in the west, the Tuilleries. Like the Luxembourg Gardens, it’s a nice place to sit or mill around in. Again, you’re in Paris; try to put away the Lonely Planet for a few minutes and sit!