This is my city guide to Paris where I discuss, among other things, my top ten things to see in Paris. It is based on my own travel experiences and includes notes from my personal journal. I hope that it inspires you to travel to Paris, helps you plan your own trip or reminds you of your own experiences in this wonderful city.
I believe that it is far more romantic to arrive in Paris by train rather than landing at the airport. We entered by Paris North Station, Gare du Nord, the busiest railway station in Europe, nay the Western hemisphere.
As I stepped out onto the platform I realised that The Gare du Nord is a beautifully majestic train station with sky high ceilings and ornate architecture.
And so we stepped out into Paris’ 10th arrondissement.
One of the first things you should do is familiarise yourself with the layout of the city, which is divided into 20 districts or arrondissements.
I also recommend staying in an apartment so you can live amongst the locals surrounded by all of the Parisian charm.
Through large conspicuous wooden doors hides a warren of doorways leading to small apartments with windows that swing open over flower boxes to overlook courtyards lined with flowering vines … floorboards that clatter and squeak, fireplaces with marble mantels, furniture cloaked in rich dark red and the ubiquitous bottle of Bordeaux waiting to warmly embrace and welcome us to the city of Paris.
We stayed on Rue De Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement and we simply couldn’t have picked a more perfect location. An open air market was set up 2 days (Wed & Sun) a week right outside our front door selling meats, vegetables, fruits, flowers, cheeses and all manner of delicious things to feast on. It is a true neighbourhood market. Across the road was a fabulous bakery where we could buy our daily baguette, though this is easy to do anywhere in the city. A cosy café bar on the corner seemed to always be open, along with a few decent restaurants and other stores. The nearby Metro station made it easy to get about the city though it was an easy walk over to the 7th arrondissement where you can visit the Eiffel Tower, Musee d’Orsay, Hotel des Invalides, and the River Seine amongst others.
Actually Paris is an easy city to get around. First there is the Metro, which can take you all over the city and as far as I saw no matter where you were there was at least one metro station within 500m of where you were standing. However I recommend simply walking when you can. This way you will be able to truly soak in the atmosphere of Paris, do some window shopping, justify stopping at the patisserie for another delectable treat and be seen. Yes, be prepared to be seen in Paris. It is a city full of observation, the people are openly flirtatious, and everyone is fashion conscious. It is a city where you are to be seen and you are to see, often while sitting at a sidewalk table where all of the chairs face outwards for exactly this reason. So don’t wear your ‘tourist clothes’. Paris is not the place to wear your shorts and joggers. Do as the locals do and dress stylishly.
While in Paris, these are the highlights to try and include on your itinerary, my top 10 things to see in Paris.
In pictures it looks delicate and lacey outlined against a crisp blue sky, but in reality it is quite masculine and heavy with thick pylons and bolts grounding it to the earth.
The lines to ascend the tower are long, whether you decide to climb the stairs or take the lift is up to you. We had a toddler with us so opted for the lift and squeezed in with 30 others to be swooshed up to level 1. From there we took the stairs to level 2 where you line up again for the lift to the summit. It is here that the romanticism of Paris envelopes you as you gaze misty eyed out over the city that has enthralled you for so long. From here you get a bird’s eye view and the map of the city folds out before you. It was very windy at the top and though I left with a new hairdo I felt
…drenched in the spirit of Paris…
When we visited, a lift ticket to the summit was 14.50 Euro per adult (check their website for latest prices and info), you can stop at Level 2 if you are afraid of heights or simply don’t want to be at the summit. A lot of people ask how long to allow for a visit to the Eiffel Tower and it all depends on the time of year you go, the weather and what time of day – I have heard stories of people spending an entire day there but I think this is extreme and it seems that most people average around 3 hours. We were there in May, it was a beautiful clear day (I wouldn’t go up if you can’t see the view) and we spent about 2 hours seeing this site. We arrived first thing in the morning for a 9am opening time, we queued with the masses to buy a ticket (apparently you can now avoid this and pre-purchase them online) and then queued again before reaching security and the lift. We probably spent an hour lining up and an hour exploring the tower. We felt that this was enough time for us, you may like to linger longer at the summit or you may need more time if you are climbing the stairs instead of using the lift. Tours are also available if you are interested. We were slightly confused when we first arrived so I will point this out for you, there are 4 pillars to the tower and each is an entrance to the top, one is for the stairs, the other 3 have lifts. Choose the one with the shortest line, there are no other rules to which line you choose.
The Eiffel tower dominates the Paris skyline so you will see the tower during your stay in Paris from several vantage points. My favourites include the view from the grassed section in front, The Champ de Mars – it was fenced off but it seems no one pays any attention to this and there were plenty of people lazing about on the vibrant green grass (incidently this is one of the only patches of grass we found in Paris). We had a hamper of goodies we had put together from our neighbourhood market which we lazily devoured as we gazed skyward at the tower and watched the cat and mouse game that the police play with the men selling souvenirs.
I also like the view from across the Seine on Chaillot hill by the Trocadero as you can get a full view of the tower but are still up close. You can also get a full view of the tower looming over the cityscape by visiting Sacre Couer in Montmarte. Some people even believe that there is no need to go up the tower itself as you cannot actually see the tower when you are on it and that is what defines Paris for them. I disagree but each to their own. You may also wish to consider what time of day you would like to be up the tower, for sunset, at night, your choice, just remember to allow time for the line-up and ascension so that you can be at the summit for your special moment.
Cruise down the Seine
On our first day exploring Paris we opted for a relatively easy activity of sitting on a boat. Not only was it restful but it helped us get our bearings of the city we were about to explore.
We cruise down the Seine and marvel at the bridges, and glimpse the Lourve, Notre Dame and other monumental sights. We glimpse couples cuddling, friends chatting and families strolling …
This probably wouldn’t be on my must do list except that it was an option on our Paris Pass and we wanted a sedentary activity.
Les Car Rouge
Les Car Rouge is the big red hop on hop off tour bus, it is a bit cheesy but it can help you get your bearings if you are unfamiliar with the city. If you do use it I recommend sitting up the top for a perfect viewing platform to watch the people and the traffic over and above the crowds.
You also get an unobstructed view of the major sites making it the perfect moment for photos without trying to stretch up above the heads of the crowd in front of you. And to be honest there were a few sites we didn’t want to visit but it was nice to see them, even briefly.
Arc de Triomphe & Champs Elysee
It was Victory Day when we visited the Arc de Triomphe so there was a huge French flag suspended beneath the arc. It was a fitting day to visit. There are 250 internal stairs to climb to the top however we had a toddler in a stroller with us and were led directly to a lift to go straight up.
amazing views across the city and you see the main avenues radiating out from this central point. It is in the centre of a chaotic roundabout that I would not want to navigate … thankfully there is an underground pedestrian tunnel so we do not have to risk our lives crossing the road.
The Arc de Triomphe is part of the historical axis of Paris designed by urban planners which follows the same angle as the course of the sun rising in the East and setting in the West with a direct line of sight between the Lourve, Arc du Carrousel, Tuileries Gardens, the obelisk of Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Porte Maillot, Port de Neuilly, The Esplanade and Grande Arche of La Defense. The last monument is actually slightly out of line making any further extension of the axis curved away.
Don’t just visit the top – see the tomb of the unknown soldier underneath and the frescoes around the base of the arc are truly amazing with such detail, it is a creative marvel.
I include with the Arc de Triomphe, the famous Champs Elysee …
a beautiful street lined with beautiful trees, beautiful shops and beautiful people
… since you cannot really visit one without the other. The stores are high end and I wouldn’t recommend shopping here unless you are inclined to spend a small fortune. We did stop for a coffee and éclair simply so that we could sit and watch the passing parade. There are also plenty of buskers on Champs Elysee to entertain you if that’s your thing.
We enjoyed our time meandering through the cobblestone streets and hills of Montmartre, passing under apartment buildings with window boxes overflowing with brightly coloured flowerpots. We did see the famous Moulin Rouge, though it’s not as impressive as you imagine it to be after the hype of the movie, perhaps it is more extravagant inside, however a nude dancing girl show is not what I want to take my toddler to so we skipped this one, this time.
The highlight of Montmarte for me is the Sacre Couer. Basilica which perches on the highest point in Paris.
We are thankful for the small funicular that scoots up the hill so we avoid the steep staircase up to the top of Montmartre Hill where the Sacre Couer perches. A beautiful church with a large dome that dominates the Paris skyline from all other points.
It is from here that you can see Paris laid out before you with the Eiffel Tower pinning the city like a Google map. I find it slightly amusing that in Paris’s most rebellious neighbourhood is this dominating symbol of conservative moral order. After all of the hills we walked we definitely deserved a hot nutella crepe – I highly recommend you have this while in Paris.
Sitting on the steps of the Pantheon looking out towards the Eiffel Tower, we feel the weight of history looming behind us.
It was once a church, then unconsecrated, then consecrated again, and once again it is not. It now homes the burial remains of some of France’s most prestigious persons including authors, presidents and war lords.
In the centre is Foucault’s Pendulum – an amazing scientific breakthrough that proved that the world is round and tells the time if you know how to read it.
Cathedral of Notre Dame
As everyone must surely do we imagined Quasimodo swinging in the bell rafters of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The architecture of this building is awe inspiring. You can see the craftsmanship that goes into the domes and the intricate details in the stain glass windows is amazing. As we walked around we could hear the voices of prayer ringing out through the church, giving it an ethereal feeling. Outside, be sure to gaze up at the gargoyles.
Tourists seldom find themselves at the back of the Notre Dame but I highly recommend it. It gives an entirely different angle to the design and there is a rose garden that is enviable even to me with no green thumb. It is free to enter the cathedral and they hold regular services there. I would have liked to climb up the towers though 387 steps in a narrow staircase with a toddler was a bit much for this trip. If you want to do this the entrance is outside the cathedral and there is an entrance fee.
We had a Museum Pass so the line up wasn’t so bad to enter the Musee D’Orsay. Generally, if in Paris, expect to line up – no exceptions. It was here that we saw Matisse, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Cezanne and Van Gogh …
his self portrait is almost luminescent in the colours which does not come across in the reproductions.
I saw paintings that I have hung prints of on my walls since I was a teenager! Expect to see many recognisable art pieces here, by far one of my favourite museums in Paris.The building itself used to be a railway station with large clocks on the outside, making it easy to spot this building.
A benefit of traveling with small children is that you are awake and have started the day before most other people, this meant we were one of the first in line to enter the Louvre. We made a bee line to The Mona Lisa and for a moment we were the only ones in the room with her (if you ignore the guards and cleaning staff) …
the first to set eyes on her today, we exchanged smiles.
The painting is much smaller than you imagine and if you want a good shot of her buy a postcard as you will never get a clear photo with all of the security glass protecting her. We were mostly alone or only accompanied by a small handful of people our entire visit here, this is not what I expected after the crowds of d’Orsay. We never attempted to see everything, you never will as there are 4 floors, 3 wings and over 35,000 pieces to see. I recommend you do as we did and short list a few sections you would like to see and focus on those.
The glass pyramid in the courtyard above ground is referred to as the scar on the face of Paris, however to us it is almost as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, if not a little out of place in the centre of a beautiful honeycomb coloured historic building. The main pyramid, which is surrounded by 3 smaller ones, is the main entrance to the museum and I believe it was created to help manage the vast number of visitors seen every day by directing them through the subterranean network.
Be careful when planning your visit as it is closed on Tuesdays but opens at 9am every other day. It is also open late a couple of nights a week. There are four entrances to the museum as well, so study up on which one you’d like to enter through to make the most of your day.
Dogs seem to be allowed everywhere in this city and this morning we see them on their Metro trips across the city. We, and the dogs, are going to Chateau Versailles to wander the apartments of former great Kings and Queens.
The Palace of Versailles is on the Western edge of the city and it only takes around 20 minutes by train. There are 3 train stations in Versailles, be sure to go to Versailles Rive Gauche which is only a short walk to the site. I advise to go early in the day as even with a Museum Pass you will have to line up with the masses and if you are taking children it is nice to know in advance that you cannot take prams or strollers inside.
With everything guilded in gold and paved marble floors I feel like I should be draped in velvet and sashaying down these corridors. We are walking the floors that the greats have trodden – Marie Antoinette who had a huge impact on the castle design, Napoleon Boneapart, Louis XIV the Sun King … we are glancing through the history pages.
The ‘backyard’ is just ever so slightly extravagant with over 800 hectares of perfectly landscaped gardens, including sculptures, fountains, mazes, and grass! Yes, grass! We run like children and plonk ourselves down in the sunshine, we never imagined that we would miss it. Much of Paris is a chalky dust that leaves your shoes needing a good shine each night (remember to pack some so you can keep up your style). We took a picnic with us and sprawled outside on the grass but there are a few restaurants and snack bars at the Chateau if you prefer.
On leaving Paris I noted that …
a week will only allow enough time to scratch the surface of all there is to experience. It would be a city you could visit time and again and still find more to see and do …
A note on the Paris Pass – look at the list of places it includes and mark off things that you will use it for. If the individual ticket prices add up to be more than the pass then you can see that it is worth getting one. Ours more than paid for itself with our hop on/ off bus, museum entries, and metro tickets. And an added bonus is that you get to join the shorter queue when you have a pass. You buy this online choosing between a 2, 4 or 6 day pass and you can opt to have it posted to you or collect it in Paris on arrival.Love it. Follow me. . .