For years I had longed to visit Paris, that enigmatic and magical city that is legendary almost more for itself than for what it offers. Full of long-heard stories of its legend and lore, I was somewhat disappointed when I finally got there and discovered that Paris was… like any other European city. Except it really wasn’t.
I realized that Paris waits to show her true self to you, slowly unveiling her soul only when you can begin to appreciate all the quirky things that make Paris Paris. It is such eclectic, unusual elements to the city that lend her the charm and sophistication, even more so, the confidence, that has defined the city for centuries.
I was taken aback at first by the amount of dirt and the sameness of the buildings I saw. However, as the days of my visit wore on, I began to realize that the city’s dirt and sometimes unsavory scents made me that much more attune to the powerful scent of flowers or the buttery smell of fresh bread that greeted me at certain points. The dirty, lacklustre Seine during the day transformed magically at night under the stars, twinkling and brilliant beneath the happy boats that passed over the rippling waters.
The predominately sameness of Haussmann architecture caused me to take notice of and revel in the truly beautiful cathedrals and palatial buildings that rise from the midst of the ordinary.
The lack of color in the white city caused the flowers to stand out that much more boldly, and the trees that blocked the sky provided sunlight filters too enchanting for description.
When I visited Paris with a friend last year, I had great plans and a long list of things to do and see. This wasn’t my first trip to France, but it was my first to Paris, and I was wholly unprepared for the amount of work we had to do finding our way around and rewriting our itinerary when finding that a restaurant or store was closed. At various times and all through our visit we were surprised, we were disappointed, we were lost, we were enchanted. I made a list of suggestions one night while eating out alone (my friend was tired and stayed at the hotel) in Le Marais. I did it for mostly for my next trip, but I’m sharing it with you in the event that you might be visiting Paris for the first time. These are little things that may not make it into a guidebook, but are nonetheless worth sharing and knowing.
What to Know That The Guidebooks Won’t Tell You
Shoes are critical here. Cobblestones along the Seine make for unsure footing. Flip flops and sandals not advised if you plan on walking a lot (trust me on this. I ended up using my Soludos espadrilles for most of my visit).
Layers. Even during August. Paris can be cool in the mornings and evenings but warm during the day. I relied on my trusty, no-fail travel accessory: a scarf wound artfully around my neck during the day that transformed into a wrap when needed.
We stayed outside of the popular tourist areas, namely, on the fringe edge of the unsavory Pigalle (ironically, now undergoing a transformation into a trendy area. Check out this article from The Guardian if you plan on visiting/staying here). It was not nearly as bad as I expected (being there in August, when the area was dead, might have helped), but it was far from the Parisian attractions and so we spent a lot of time on the Metro. It was close to Montmartre, however, and since we visited the Sacre Couer on our last full day, we had not realized how much there was to see in the city overlooking Paris. When I return, I plan on spending a full day there wandering its steep and narrow streets. Oh, and the best Starbucks in Paris is near the Sacre Couer. Beautiful inside and out, excellent wifi, and friendly baristas (a novelty in Paris, to be sure).
Do get a good hotel. I’ve already written about the importance of this, and it’s because my experience in Paris taught me well. Our wifi was unreliable, the room was not very clean, and the staff was hard to work with. I understand that in Paris, one must forgo the usual standard of overbearing civility that Americans expect, but our hotel’s staff seemed to care little about meeting its guests’ needs. That said, I didn’t have too many bad experiences as an American. It’s possibly because I was often mistaken for being French. Or perhaps, I had low expectations to begin with, having heard stories. But honestly, most Parisians were still kind and helpful, if blunt at times.
Yes, Parisians don’t want you speaking French. But sometimes they don’t speak great Anglais. It’s helpful to know some basic phrases, just in case. My friend and I got lost one night and stopped at a creperie on a side street somewhere. Amazingly, the staff didn’t speak English and there was much smiling as we used a combination of halting French (on our part) and English (on their part) to communicate. Oh la la…
Eating is not quick. Nor is stopping into a cafe for a petite cafe au lait. Plan on spending at least 1.5 hours if you stop somewhere for a bite (unless you are getting it to-go, that is) or a beverage. Don’t be a typical, rushed American. Savor the chance to enjoy the slower paced life that defines much of Europe.
It’s hard to save money in Paris. On the other hand, the museums are worth every penny. Do splurge on the museums, and plan to spend all day at the Louvre. Also know that in no way will you get to see it all in one visit (if you are to actually stand and admire the art, that is). Handy Tip: be at the Louvre at 9 am on a Sunday. If seeing the Mona Lisa is your objective, you stand a better chance of beating the crowd rush. Obtain your tickets and map ahead of time and mark the must-see. As already stated, you won’t see it all in a day so don’t even try. Also know that this place is massive and easy to get lost in. Getting lost and wandering the halls in search of a specific exhibit will happen, so plan your time accordingly. See next week’s budget tips to learn how to see the Musee d’Orsay for free!
Versailles is overrated. Sorry, but it is. See it once if you must, but be prepared for crowds so thick you can’t see anything anyway.
My friend and I were constantly crushed along between the rooms, and one woman in the crowd physically pushed my friend out of her way. It was hot, airless, and the grandeur was enough to be too much. Out in the gardens, we enjoyed a picnic lunch (from the cafe) on a lawn near a fountain, relaxed, basked in the fresh breezes and watched the world go by. We then wandered aimlessly down paths that wound through the blooms, with some walkways seeming to disappear mysteriously into the surrounding foliage.
Next time I visit, I will opt for the gardens only and rent a bicycle in order to further explore the town proper of Versailles. Budget Tip: Don’t buy the express pass to get in. The wait for that was as long as waiting in line, so my friend and I opted for the cheaper route into the palace and stood in line. Luckily we were armed with reading material.
Paris is dirty. Yes, this beautiful, magical city is dirty. My friend and I were grateful for the anti-bac wipes and gels we had brought along. Public restrooms are scarce, so they are typically much-used, if you know what I mean. And usually out of toilet paper. I suggest carrying a package of kleenex with you at all times, as you will encounter this scarcity. We were also a little surprised at the lack of sanitation surrounding eating areas/kitchens. Clearly we weren’t in our sanitized US of A. Which was perfectly okay. Just don’t be surprised at the trash, smells, and lack of public facilities.
Come back next week for Paris budget tips! Until then, dear friends… xo