When my husband Chris and I were deciding where to go to celebrate his 50th birthday, we considered locations like Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Italy. All amazing places we’d for sure enjoy, but we kept coming back to, “”What about Paris?” We’d both been a few times before, but we just couldn’t resist a return trip. If there’s such a thing as “too much Paris,” I haven’t yet felt it.
My question on Facebook about what to do in Paris yielded scads of helpful comments, so it seems we’re not alone in our love of the city. We took some of the advice, used a guide book a bit, and figured out a few things on our own. Here is my not-at-all-professional guide to the city and my suggestions for what to do when you make a visit of your own. Chime in with your own thoughts and opinions in the comments (which I’m sure many of you have) and let’s make this review le meilleur de tout les temps! (“The best ever” for those of you who didn’t suffer through four years of high school French like moi.)
COMMUNICATION EN FRANCAIS
While I did indeed study high school French, that was a very long time ago and I really don’t remember much besides a few curse words. To refresh my skills before we left, I used the free Duolingo app for 30 minutes a day. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, so it wasn’t super helpful unless I saw a man with an elephant during my trip or ate an insect (“Je mange l’insecte.”) The line “Where is the bathroom?” was nowhere to be found.
Fortunately, unlike in past visits, more of the locals addressed us in English this time. I don’t know how they immediately knew we were from America because both of us were dressed generically in Uniglo and Nike, but maybe it was the unsophisticated gleam in our eyes whenever we saw a macaron. At any rate, that definitely made it easy to communicate. If you’d like to be more prepared than that, there are also plenty of great translation apps available if you need to figure out a few words or phrases. Or just scream, “Merde!” (one of the curse words I remember) and no doubt someone will rush to your side to shut you up.
WHERE TO STAY: UN HOTEL OU UNE MAISON?
Paris has 20 different neighborhoods, which are called arrondissements, and the districts spiral out from the center in numerical order. The 7th arrondissement is where the Eiffel tower is located, the Champs-Élysées is in the 8th, etc. We decided to stay in the 5th arrondissement on the left bank of the River Seine, near the Sorbonne and the Pantheon, mostly because I found this lovely place on Homeaway. There are many similar rentals available for reasonable prices, and there also seems to be no shortage of both boutique hotels and big brands like Starwood and Hilton if that’s more to your liking. (Note: The hotels all seemed to be $50 per night more expensive than what I saw on Homeaway.)
We really enjoyed having our own flat because it was easy to come and go, and we had a lot more space than a hotel room. It was on the sixth floor of a 17th century building, with a loft bedroom and a well-stocked kitchen that we didn’t use because hell if I was going to cook when I had PARIS just outside the front door. Cute, huh?
Every night, we could see the Eiffel Tower’s light show on the hour out our window, so that was fun. Here’s the daytime view:
If we visit again, as much as we loved this property, I think we’d instead choose to stay in the Saint-Germain neighborhood because it was more central to everything we did, and it had more stores and restaurants. But the real key to your location is to make sure you’re within a few blocks of a metro stop because you’ll probably be using that quite a bit. Which brings me to:
GETTING AROUND LA VILLE
There are trains and taxis available to take you into the city from Charles de Gaulle airport, however, we decided to hire a car service to make it easy. The driver met us at baggage claim, and the hour long drive into the city and to our front door was only $60. We made sure to book him to take us back to the airport when we left.
As far as getting around the city, we did a lot of walking. Like, a lot. Sixty miles over six days. But because the city is so fascinating and there’s something interesting around every corner, it was a wonderful way to get around. Plus it helped burn off the 10,000 cheese calories I consumed all day every day. When we weren’t walking, we made good use of the Paris Metro after buying six-day passes at the Paris Visitors Center. The center also has bus, railway, and transportation to Disneyland passes available, as well as $10 round-trip tickets for the RER interurban train to Versailles.
One night we took an Uber to dinner and back because we were dressed up and didn’t want to walk or take the metro. Fun fact: in Paris, it’s pronounced “Ooo-bearh”, at least by me, and the driver, at least the one we had, shows up in a spotless Mercedes E-Class wearing a fancy suit. So much better than a Hyundai driven by a guy in cargo shorts.
WHAT TO SEE: MUSEUMS AND CHAPELS
Before we left, I ordered the Paris Museum Pass that we then picked up at the visitors center. You can get the pass for two, four or six days, and it gives you unlimited access to 50+ museums and attractions without waiting in line. (I mean the ticket buying line. You will go through security lines and bag checks everywhere.) We paid $90 each for the six-day passes, and they covered all of the big places like Le Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and L’Orangerie. We easily breezed inside every one we visited. The pass is also great because you can visit attractions more than once, which we did when we returned to the Louvre because the Egyptian wing was closed the first time we visited. (The Egyptian wing is my favorite.)
A couple of notes: Many of the museums are closed at least one day a week, so I suggest planning out your schedule in advance. Also, we visited Paris in January, which isn’t peak tourism time because it’s cold and not as pretty with all of the bare trees. But on the plus side, we often had the museums all to ourselves, including the Louvre where we walked around for an hour without seeing another person besides docents. I wish I’d had some roller skates.
Notice the lack of crowds that allowed me to get such good photos.
Monet at L’Orangerie
No throngs of tourists this time!
If you’re short on time, the one museum that we found to be disappointing (and it wasn’t on the museum pass, either) was the Petit Palais. I definitely didn’t go all the way to Paris to see a huge Andres Serrano portrait of Donald Trump hanging on the wall (which is a temporary exhibit). I would also skip the Paris Pantheon that houses Marie Curie, Voltaire, Victor Hugo and other notable French citizens because you’re basically just looking at their crypts. It is quite beautiful at night, though.
We loved seeing Notre Dame, Sacre-Coeur, and the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle chapel where the story of the bible is illustrated on stunning stained glass windows. As my friend Liz said, “These places will make a believer out of you yet!” Also, please note that I took a photo inside Notre Dame only because it was mostly empty at the time, unlike another woman who was taking sexy selfies inside Sacre-Couer while a priest was leading Mass. I’m sure that’ll look great on her Match.com profile.
Inside Notre Dame — good job Catholics!
Saint Chapelle on a cloudy day. Would love to see with the sunlight.
To get to Sacre-Couer, located in the neighborhood of Montmartre, you have to do quite a bit of climbing. But once you get up there, it’s more than worth the effort because everything both inside and outside is gorgeous. There’s also a funicular you can take up and down, if you’d prefer to not climb the steps.
Climb up to Sacre-Coeur
View from Sacre-Coeur
The neighborhood of Montmartre is well known because of the notable artists that lived there, like Renoir, Modigliani and Picasso. Now the artists are mostly guys walking around asking tourists if they’d like to have a sketch of themselves (similar to theme parks, but somehow a bit more classy). There are also tons of cafes and souvenir shops here, but it’s still very charming, even in the winter.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS OF NOTE
One day we walked along the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard that’s dotted with as many high-end stores as it is tourists. We crossed the street to the Arc de Triomphe and thought it’d be fun to climb inside it to the little museum area up top. And it was fun until we realized there were 284 steps to the top. But at least this is the view we had when we got there:
The next day we went in the opposite direction, and walked underground to the Catacombs of Paris. This is a very popular attraction, which is a weird thing to call a place where the bones of millions of Parisians rest. Still, it’s unlike anything you’ll ever see anywhere else and quite fascinating. I highly recommend that you plan to arrive when it first opens, and that you also buy your tickets in advance because you may find yourself waiting in line for hours during peak times.
WHAT TO EAT: EVERYTHING
There are restaurants everywhere you look in Paris. People have been sitting at the small round tables of Parisian cafés and smoking and drinking wine since the 17th century. Now some of them are vaping and drinking Diet Coke, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
We don’t consider ourselves to be gourmets in any sense of the word, so instead of consulting the Michelin guide, we usually ate at whatever cafe looked decent. Most of the restaurants have their menu listings in English and French, so it’s pretty easy to find something you like. In no particular order, here are some of our favorite meals.
Eggs, ham and cheese at a neighborhood cafe. I think the bill was only $30 for both of us, with wine, and this is typical of other cafes we visited.
There are crepe stands throughout the city, and they’re both cheap and delicious. Here’s one in Montmartre:
My friend Jane Maynard, who has an excellent food blog, suggested we have dinner at Le Relais de l’Entrecote, a restaurant that only serves salad, fries and steak with a green sauce. It’s only $25 a person for as much food as you like, and we loved it. There are three outlets in Paris, plus two in NYC. Highly recommend.
We also enjoyed the famous La Coupole, recommended by my friend Kathy. It’s a beautiful art deco restaurant in the Montparnasse neighborhood where famous people like Josephine Baker had regular tables. She probably didn’t eat this, but I did.
On Chris’ birthday, I wanted to do something special so I booked a dinner at the Eiffel Tower restaurant. Touristy, I know, but it was actually very lovely. The setting is really pretty and we had a window table with a view of the Trocadero. Champagne, wine, an entree and dessert are all included in the price, and I think it was about $100 a person. I’m sure there are better options out there if you want a truly gourmet meal, but we were really happy with our choice. They also offer daytime picnic meals with a view, so take a look at their website.
OTHER THINGS TO NOT MISS
The wine and cheese tasting at O’Chateau. We had an English-speaking wine expert lead us through a tasting lunch. Super fun. They also offer wine cruises.
The Rodin museum, the Pompidou Center for modern art and the gorgeous Paris Opera house.
The historic Shakespeare and Co. bookstore
The fun and quirky shop Merci
And, of course, we stopped by as many pastry shops and bakeries we could during our stay, and we were never once disappointed. Everything is so fresh and flavorful, as you’d expect in a city that doesn’t have TGI Friday’s on every corner. (Although the Paris KFC restaurant was packed.) Our favorite dessert was Maison Laduree, famous for their incredible macarons.
We saw and did as much as we could during our week in Paris, and still came home refreshed and reinvigorated. It truly was a wonderful way to celebrate Chris and his big birthday. Au revoir for now, Paris. Until we meet again.