I know this isn’t a news flash, but Paris is amazing. The second you leave the airport, you just know you’re someplace special. The ornate buildings immediately evoke the feeling that you’ve gone back in time, and the iconic landmarks are truly mind-blowing. To stand in the church that inspired Victor Hugo’s novel, or pose with a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, is like nothing else – even if you aren’t particularly interested in history.
Getting Our Bearings
Our journey into the city and to our hotel from Charles de Gaulle was a bit challenging. I had read that the train was fairly easy and by far the most affordable way to go. Ten euros per person didn’t seem that affordable to me, but away we went. Unfortunately for us it was rush hour, so the trains were packed like sardines – sardines who weren’t that fond of all our luggage – and we had to switch trains several times to get to our destination.
Still, there were many friendly Parisians who went out of their way to help us with directions even when we didn’t ask. And although we were standing on a train platform in the cold, wee hours of the morning with five pieces of luggage between us, not too confident about how to get to our hotel, and having been up for over 20 hours straight, I could not help but gaze in awe at the suburban French surroundings. It was so beautiful and authentic I felt like I was on a movie set.
We eventually made it to our hotel in the 17th arrondissement and dropped off our bags, exhausted but excited. I was a little bit nervous because I had read that you really should try to speak French while in France – which is only sort of true. A lot of times people would speak a good amount of English, but they would always start with French, and once in awhile after switching to English they wouldn’t exactly understand every word. I tried to speak French if possible, but even though I’d studied it for a decade in elementary and high school, I was really, really bad at it and found it very overwhelming to try (especially now going on 24 hours without sleep).
Speaking of sleep, I was traveling with my husband and therefore had a middle seat on the plane so I could sit next to him, so there was no way I could sleep on the way over even though I took a melatonin. It was just too damn uncomfortable – my back and hip were screaming at me the whole flight – too loudly to get any shut-eye.
First things first we settled into a café called Au Bistro Cardinet just a few blocks from our hotel on Avenue de Clichy for some fuel. Typically I’d want to vet the places I eat when I travel more to make sure I’m getting the best and most authentic meals. I had no idea if the area we were in was the real Paris or fabricated for tourists, but I was too drained to mess around. Luckily our first meal (and every other one) was superb. The warm, indulgent croque monsieur and strong café au lait hit the spot, and the waiter gladly spoke English as best he could. Thank God!
I had read that even though many people in Paris could speak English, they were a little put off when expected to do so, hence my intense devouring of French language CDs and books on the plane. I didn’t want to offend anyone! Luckily I did not find this to be the case – everyone from waiters and waitresses to hotel staff to people who worked for the metro and at all of the tourist attractions were very friendly and spoke as much English as they could without an attitude. It was quite a relief, actually.
Day One – Moulin Rouge, Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur Basilica
From the café we walked to the famous cabaret, Moulin Rouge. The shows there are expensive, but I at least had to see the building that inspired Baz Luhrmann’s movie – and many other things throughout history. Next was up the hill through the Montmartre district to the imposing Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Besides being gorgeous, the grounds of the church offer up an amazing view of Paris. My husband grabbed a bench while I did my favorite thing to do while traveling – meander. Montmartre is great for meandering – the narrow, cozy streets are teeming with quaint cafes, souvenir shops and street artists. If you want your portrait drawn, this is the place to be. Me, I was in it for the photo opps, cheap magnets and hot, mulled wine set out right on the street for the holiday season.
By the way, the holiday season is a great time to visit Paris. Besides the cute Christmas markets that allow for the opportunity to get unique souvenirs and cultural treats, this season wiped out all the crowds. Admittedly I purchased tickets in advance online for a lot of the highlights – the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, but even still I was prepared for lines to get into these places. But there were none! Absolutely none! Even at the Eiffel Tower! We didn’t wait a single minute for a single thing – tourist attractions, restaurants, nothing! Yet most things were still open and we had them all to ourselves! It was brilliant and we felt like rock stars who owned the city. Kanye and Kim if you will – only more mentally stable than Kanye and not quite as hot as Kim.
Anyway…if you get a chance to go to Sacré-Cœur, which you should, do check out both the area in the back and front of the church. The back is where we found all of the cute streets and shops, and the front offers amazing views of the church itself.
I also noticed the crazy Gothic-looking Montmartre Cemetery on the way to Moulin Rouge, so I meandered my way over there next. It was by far the coolest looking cemetery I had ever been in, filled with huge mausoleums and giant tombs. Once again I felt like I was on a movie set – or even in a cartoon – this place was totally surreal and I was even met with a terrifying black cat that stared me down until I slowly backed away from it. Creepy!
A little chilly and now super tired (30+ hours awake), dinner was another dash to a place as close to the hotel as we could find. Blessedly we stumbled into an establishment simply called Paris Café that made the best confit de canard on earth!!! Definitely order this dish while you are in France, as well as the kir to drink. It’s so delicious!!!
Day Two – Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, L’Arc de Triomphe
We had tickets for the Eiffel Tower the next morning. We took the train to Trocadero, which I had read had the best views of the tower. Unfortunately the fog was thick as hell (an ongoing theme for much of our trip), so we could only see the base, no tip (sorry, it’s just a very natural analogy). That didn’t stop us from exuberantly taking pictures of that base before we walked over to the tower (we also went back to Trocadero later in the day when the fog had cleared to get pics of the whole dang thing). Walking over the Seine to the tower once again felt magical, it was just so pretty.
We got to the tower about 30 minutes before our scheduled time, but since there were absolutely no crowds we were let right in. We took the lift to the second floor, the view quickly disappearing into the fog, and then caught another lift to the top. (Again, I cannot stress to you how miraculous this is, considering I read online that the wait time for these elevators can run two hours sometimes.) My stomach dropped just a little as we climbed up the tower with all of the beams whizzing by our heads. I can only imagine how it would have been if we could see the ground too – but even in a thick white cloud it was an exhilarating ride.
Obviously the point of going to the top is really the view, and we had absolutely none. The fog was so thick I felt like I could feel it on my hand when I reached outside. Nonetheless, the fact that I was standing on the top of the Eiffel Tower was not lost on me. I REPEAT, I WAS STANDING AT THE TOP OF THE EIFFEL TOWER. I didn’t think I’d be so blown away by Paris, but I was totally swept up in the mystique of it all. Totally, completely lost in it.
There’s not much at the very top of the tower since it’s so small. There’s a champagne bar that was unfortunately not open yet since it was the a.m., but we did get to marvel at the tiny office built and once used by Gustave Eiffel to entertain guests. There is a reenactment in there now of Eiffel meeting with Thomas Edison. It felt so profound to be in the same spot where something like this actually happened!
Be sure to check out both the first and second floors of the Eiffel Tower when you visit. They have souvenir shops, food, and there was even a skating rink on there when we went. The views from these two floors are also great – especially for us since we couldn’t see anything from the top!
From the Eiffel Tower we hopped onto the Big Bus Paris for a hop-on, hop-off tour. I would definitely recommend doing this, because you get a panoramic view of all the top sites in Paris, complete with very interesting commentary and historical facts. I really enjoyed it. Some of the stops can take forever, though, so I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the hop-on, hop-off aspect to take a break from the slow bus ride.
We got off at Notre Dame for some great photos and to walk around the church. My husband and I are not particularly religious, but we couldn’t help but feel spiritual in this huge cathedral with its many red and white candles burning, nativity scenes, and quiet worshippers. Regarding the lines I guess I lied because there was a substantial line to climb to the top of the church – maybe about 50 people or so. I was ambivalent about climbing up anyway so we skipped it. My husband had climbed up it before and said it was a very narrow passageway, making for a slow and claustrophobic journey. Be warned if you decide to do this, but I hear the views of Paris are amazing from the top of this cathedral – especially if you want gargoyles in your pics!
No bother though because our next stop was L’Arc de Triomphe, where the elevator was out so we had to climb to the top. No wait here, and the views were well worth it! We got some amazing photos of the Eiffel Tower from here. Another cool thing about this arch is that you have to walk through an underground tunnel to get to it so you don’t get hit by the crazy traffic circling the monument. Watching this insane, every-man-for-himself traffic is also part of the experience!
We capped off our afternoon in the center of the city by grabbing a warm crepe on the street (chocolate and coconut – yassss!!!), strolling through a cute Christmas market near the Eiffel Tower (the second one of the day), and watching the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle at dusk – blissful!
We tried another random café by the hotel for dinner (read: too tired and cold to try harder), but it was once again an amazing success. At Café Le Libre Échange, I had the most delicious chicken curry of my life, and my husband got a steak that was elaborately presented with frites, salad, coarse salt and bone marrow – all in a casual café! (As for the bone marrow, it was my first time trying it, and I imagine it’s an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired!)
I’ll be honest, the reason I did not seek out any specific restaurants in Paris was that I kept reading online that they all required reservations and/or had long waits, and the whole thing just seemed a bit complicated and formal for my tastes. In the end I’m glad we didn’t bother making reservations because in Paris you can literally walk into any restaurant, café, or bakery and find the best meal of your life – at least in my experience! All of the restaurants we went to also felt very cozy and romantic – with a candle lit on every table, everywhere! I also loved that everything came with bread and salad. Yum! (I read that there’s some good international cuisine in Paris too – particularly African – but sadly we didn’t really have time to explore this option.)
Day Three – Louvre, Saint Germain
Our last day in Paris was all about the Louvre. Once again we strolled right in. (We had tickets, but even for people without tickets there wasn’t too much of a line.) I usually have a short attention span for museums, so I wasn’t sure how excited I’d be about the Louvre, but my husband who had been there before urged me to go. From the Mona Lisa to the Egyptian mummies I was in awe for all four plus hours we were there. The Louvre too is a work of art itself. Fun fact – it was once a castle, and there are parts inside where you can actually see the original foundation of the castle – there are no words for how cool this is!
A word of advice on the Louvre – go as early as possible (we got there when it opened at 9am) and head straight to the Mona Lisa first. It is obviously the most popular work in the museum, and if you want to get a picture of her without 100 other people in it, you best hustle!
Other than that, many parts of the museum were blissfully empty – even as it got later in the day. I found strolling through there with my husband, quietly marveling at these historic icons together, to be surprisingly romantic. We tried to continue the romance afterwards by walking a few blocks to see the Love Locks on Pont des Arts bridge. Unfortunately I didn’t get the memo that all the locks had been removed and safeguards had been put on the bridge to prevent further locking and save the bridge from collapse. So much for everlasting love!
Fortunately our stroll over the bridge led us to the authentic French neighborhood of Saint Germain. This was not your tourist’s Paris, this was the real deal. The sidewalk cafes lining the streets oozed authenticity, and my husband had the great idea to pull up a chair at one of them, called Café Mabillon. My joy reached its pinnacle as I sipped the thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever had, and nibbled on addictive frites and a comfortingly oozy croque madame (a croque monsieur topped with a fried egg – get it???). Meanwhile my husband ordered the cutest espresso and dessert plate of all time. This was the most perfect way to (almost) end our stay in Paris – though I truly never wanted it to end.
Though I kept almost forgetting about the holiday entirely, it was also Christmas Eve. I’m sure we could have found something open for dinner, but I hadn’t purchased a whole baguette from a bakery yet (an essential Paris activity), so we decided to stock up on wine, bread, cheese, salami and pastries and have the best picnic ever in our hotel room for dinner. Once again, we strolled into a random bakery on Avenue de Clichy for the baguette and pastry (called Sakhar Houcine), and a random grocery store (called Intermarché Express) for the meat, cheese, and wine and it was all mind-blowingly superb (and super cheap!). I wanted to praise the heavens for the pastry – which was kind of like a croissant but moister, filled with chocolate and almonds. Like seriously. PRAISE!
Back to Kim K., I thought she was freakin’ nuts when she flew to Paris while pregnant just for beignets. But now I get it. I would fly back to Paris in a heartbeat just to eat. I got some beignets at a bakery called ‘Paul’ at Charles de Gaulle before departing and they were a revelation. Even at the airport.
In conclusion (I promise I am almost done), I typically seek out the exotic versus predictable when it comes to travel. The further and less traditional the better. However, with Zika running rampant and my husband preferring a more laid-back vacation, I found this trip (via Gate 1) to Paris and Amsterdam. While I was definitely excited to go, my love for both of these cities was beyond anything I ever expected. I will post on Amsterdam soon, but if you ever have the chance to go to Paris, please do so. The mystique and romance of this city are so visceral it’s almost impossible to describe. (The trains are mad confusing, but you can pretty much take them everywhere, so don’t let that discourage you!)
P.S. – If you fly Air France, it isn’t bad. I found the seats to be ridiculously cramped (but that’s typical these days). However, the food was quite good (waaaay better than the food I had last year on an international flight via United), and they have free alcohol on board!
P.P.S. – You will likely be tempted to bring some delicious food back from Paris. Do so with caution. I had a lovely salami from one of the Christmas markets seized at the airport back in the U.S. I was thankfully allowed to keep the $30 worth of cheese I bought in Holland, though! What is seized and what you can keep seems a bit subjective, but in general fresh foods and animal products – even from developed nations – are frowned upon. Good luck!Tags: Christmas, Eiffel Tower, Europe, France, Louvre, Paris, Travel