I love Paris. It is such a charismatic city. My husband and I went for a three-night weekend break back in May. We were celebrating him having finished his History BA and also our 30th birthday’s (a trip to Paris was one of my 30 things). We left the kiddies with Nana and as our youngest is two, three nights was the absolute maximum we wanted to get away for. This meant two full days and an evening in Paris. The final morning left only enough time for breakfast and travelling to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar. After I booked our tickets and excitedly started to think about what we might do, I was struck by what a short time it was to explore a big city with lots of cultural sights to see. I’m interested in art mostly, my husband (yes you guessed it) loves history. I like to shop. We both like to read and eat. There was lots to fit in. Where to start?!
If you find yourself with the same wonderful opportunity to explore Paris (some tips may apply to other city breaks too) I hope my seven tips will help you make the best of your time…
Go on the open-top bus tour.
it’s fantastic because it will take you past all the major tourist sights in the centre of Paris. The bus company we chose (L’Open Tour) has three routes (the other option had only two) and you can hop on an off with an all-day ticket. Prices are: 33€ for one day, 37€ for two days, 41€ for three days (consecutive)and 17€ for one, two, or three day child ticket. You can combine a bus tour ticket with the Louvre, a boat tour or a night-bus tour to save some cash. The pass is valid for a year and you can book online in advance on their website.
Now that I’ve got the details out of the way, why go on the bus tour? Especially if you want to really experience Paris and not just queue for the predictable tourist sites all weekend.
Well, I’m quite happy with just seeing a lot of the sights from the outside, I don’t need to go up everything or look around every significant building. The tour enables you to see a lot in a short space of time. And give your legs a rest because a city break can involve a lot of walking.
But the beautiful thing about the tour is that when you sit up top, there is nothing between you and the sounds, streets and smells of Paris. Paris smells of fumes, flowers and food. It oozes romance and beauty. A constant flow of cars, buses and bikes.
It was heavenly driving along, higher than the street-level, looking at the French architecture and turning a corner to see the Eiffel Tower appear, or the Isle Saint-Louis, or Notre Dame. You don’t just see the main sights (from several different viewpoints) but travel down famous roads and cross well-known bridges, like Pont Neuf (which we were excited about because it’s the setting for a tense scene in the Bourne trilogy).
TOP TIP! Do try and make sure you understand the way the three routes work and get on the right bus! We made this error and ended up going in the opposite direction, nowhere near the sight we intended to go to. We had to hop on the metro to rectify this mistake, which cost us some time.
Plan your trip, even down to where you will eat.
We were very privileged as I know someone who lives in Paris and contacted her to get some recommendations based on our interests and the location of our hotel. But thanks to the interweb and a HUGE network of blogs, you can easily find some recommendations and reviews by spending some time doing your research. We bought the Time Out:Paris magazine and it was helpfully laid out, but also rather overwhelming with tons of info. I much prefer some personal recommendations.
When I say plan where you will eat, I don’t mean every single meal. Unless you want to. Our friend booked us a meal at Chez Janou in the Le Marais district. A gorgeous meal with a unique dessert experience where they bring out a large bowl of chocolate mousse and you help yourself! If we’d stumbled upon that we’d have never got a table. They are always booked up.
So a bit of research and planning will ensure you aren’t wandering around trying to find a decent place with a table to spare. Also, recommendations will give you that added bit of info or an insight into the menu that can make for an extra special eating experience. Our friend suggested we went to a specific creperie (Creperie Josselin in Montparnasse area) and said, “don’t forget to order a cider”, as was traditional. It was that extra touch that made it a unique meal we really enjoyed.
We wished we’d looked into the best patisseries near our hotel and in some of the areas we explored as we spent a while looking for a croissant one day – can you believe it? We ended up getting one after walking the streets for a while and it was very similar to what you’d get in Tesco! We had seen some lovely patisseries in the same area the day before when we weren’t hungry! But could we find them the next day when we were desperate for a pastry-saturated Parisian breakfast?
TOP TIP! If you see a patisserie or restaurant you like the look of at a time you don’t want to eat there, take a photo of the outside and note down the address. It’s easy to think you’ll remember where it is but you are taking in so many places and views it can be surprisingly easy to think you’re walking the same route and not recognise what you had seen the day before.
Get a taxi from the station to your hotel.
It was a good introduction to the city to be driven to our hotel, we saw a few of the sights and just got a feel for the city and its unique atmosphere. Just be aware if you arrive at rush hour you’ll be paying a bit more for a journey that will no doubt take longer.
Go to Le Marais.
This is a beautiful area with cobbled streets, Jewish food outlets, and unique shops. I bought a ring from an antiques shop there. This was a memorable experience as when we went out to look at the window display again the owner shut us out of the shop and locked the door! When we rang the bell she waved us away in a wonderfully French manner. Apparently we had entered a door that should have been locked as she saw to four customers already perusing her glass cabinets. She was polite and apologetic when she did let us in. Though it was hard to be forgiving since there had been a downpour when we were stuck outside…
Combine meticulous planning and space for spur of the moment adventures.
We arrived in Paris late afternoon on the Friday so we ventured out early evening and went to a café called La Rotunde on Boulevard du Montparnasse, where Hemmingway and Fitzgerald used to go for a tipple.
My friend had suggested this alongside the Creperie Josselin which was nearby. A lovely evening. As we had our drink outside and savoured the sights and sounds of a busy Paris street, we chatted about what we wanted to see and do the next day.
We planned to spend the whole day out and started with getting on the bus tour. We knew we were ending up at Chez Janou in Le Marais for our evening meal, so planned our day to see what we wanted to see in a logical order so as to end up there. We stopped at the places we wanted to visit (Palace des Invalides and The Louvre).
We then headed to Le Marais to browse some shops for the last part of the day. During our meal we decided last minute to head up the Montparnasse Tower to see the best view of Paris, at night.
The French say it’s the best view because to view the city from the tower means the tower is not actually visible! It was magic because we arrived just as the Eiffel Tower was glittering. Something that occurs for five minutes, on the hour every hour, after sunset until 2am (in the summer, 1am in the winter). We could have easily missed it and actually didn’t even realise how privileged we were until my friend told us the next day! One minute it was glittering, the next it was just lit up and still looking beautiful so we hadn’t really clocked that we’d seen something that was brief and infrequent. There’s something wonderful about an impromptu decision being a real success. They aren’t always. Sometimes they are a complete disappointment and regret. But it is worth the risk for when they do pay off. Hence why a combination of planning and spontaneity can make for an epic trip.
Instead of taking transport everywhere, choose to walk the entire journey at least once.
A lot of shops and restaurants/cafes shut on a Sunday in Paris. But it was nice to be forced to have a more relaxed day with less structure. We chose to walk a journey that took about 40 minutes. We walked around the Isle Saint-Louis and then walked some more as we went on an adventure to find the steps that Owen Wilson sits on in the film Midnight in Paris.
We ate lunch in a restaurant nearby that we just came across and it felt good to be tucked away in a less touristy spot.
Don’t feel like you can’t go back to the same place.
This may feel like an unusual piece of advice when I’m writing about how to experience Paris. Surely you should go to as many different places and areas as you can?
Well, I don’t think so. For one, it would be impossible to see all of Paris in two days so what’s the point in trying. Secondly, to really experience a city, for me, means to sit and have a coffee and people watch. It involves wandering the streets rather than always rushing from place to place. It’s seeing the metro as an experience rather than just a means of travel. It’s about enjoying and savouring the moments, just being there. So if you find that perfect patisserie, or that little coffee shop with the perfect view, it’s not a crime to revisit it.
For us, it was the coffee shop attached the one of the most famous bookshops in the world: Shakespeare & Company. It was very contemporary and had second-hand books on sale. The staff were all young and from different English-speaking countries. They had salads and bagels that were delicious and made on the premises. They also had cakes, pies and scones, again made on the premises that looked delightful. On your tray was a list of questions to make for interesting conversation starters. Most importantly, the coffee was gorgeous (if a little expensive – but the cafe does overlook the Notre Dame, so it’s to be expected).
8. Stay in an apartment rather than a hotel
We decided to book this trip only a month before we went. I just found a decent looking hotel and quickly booked that and the train tickets. It was after contacting my friend for ideas of what we could fill our time with that I found out her family own some holiday apartments in Paris, which were on offer at that time. Even when full price they were slightly cheaper than our hotel and would have saved us money in another way as we wouldn’t have had to buy every meal out and supermarket food is quite reasonable in Paris. None of the hotels that came up on booking.com had breakfast included in the price so we’d have had to pay even more for that making the cost gap even bigger.
The full force of my regret at having not known this before I booked was when we met up with my friend and she took us to see the view from one of the apartments. It was breathtaking. The living area had huge patio doors out to a balcony with a spectacular view of the city and I could imagine us starting our days with a walk down to the nearest patisserie and then coffee and croissants on the balcony looking out. As opposed to in a pokey hotel room (that didn’t even have tea and coffee in the room – what about us English and our tea needs?!) with a view of buildings and the street below.
I wholeheartedly recommend going for self-catered, if you can, and the apartment we saw was a lovely one-bed in Montparnasse. Just down the road from the Montparnasse Tower. A truly great location too. The details for this particular company are at the end of the post.
TOP TIP! Unlike most places in the summer holidays, Paris is a good option as a lot of Parisians leave the city due to the summer heat and so prices drop and you can find some great deals.
Well, I hope you do manage to visit Paris one day, if you haven’t already. Feel free to comment with any recommendations you may have or to let me know if you go and visit any of the same places we did.
To book a self-catered apartment, check out the company Paris Tradition, go to their website for more info or email Barthelemy Strady at: email@example.com