My love affair with Paris began 21 years ago. I took advantage of an Air France fare sale and went to Paris for the first time. It was over my birthday weekend in March 1996.
It was only my second time in Europe, and really the first as an adult traveling alone. My first trip “across the pond” was to England on a one-month exchange program in college. I didn’t have any decisions to make during that trip as it was heavily scheduled.
But when I was getting ready to visit Paris for the first time….
I didn’t know what to expect.
I didn’t plan anything. This was before smart phones, the easy availability of the Internet, and all of the content you can quickly find online.
I didn’t know how to find a hotel. Really! This was before Expedia, etc. (My lovely travel agent/aunt booked my hotel.)
I didn’t know how to get around the city. I vaguely remembered learning about the metro from my 7th grade French teacher.
I didn’t know that tipping was not expected. (It’s weird the things you remember, huh?)
I didn’t understand jet lag, or how to deal with it.
I was only in Paris for 4 days that first time. I remember walking lots on the first day; which is still something I always do when I arrive in Europe from the U.S. But then it was because I was too intimidated to try public transportation.
I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
I visited Mona Lisa.
I went to the catacombs. (I have only done this the one time. I found it too creepy, and damp.)
I tried a street crepe.
I went to Sainte-Chapelle (And forgot that I’ve been there, so I went again a few years ago.)
I ate lots of cheese and baguettes.
I wanted to climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday to see the view and the sunset. However, I missed that chance because of a poorly timed nap, and jet lag.
I am taking my niece to Paris for her first trip next month. So, I’ve been thinking….what do I wish I had known 21 years ago, or what is a good beginners guide to Paris?
I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” approach to travel advice. I think many travel writers recommend the same Paris attractions: Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Seine, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees.
I don’t love the Louvre. I like and appreciate art; but I don’t think standing in a long line to enter the museum and then fighting the crowds to see Mona Lisa should be at the top of anyone’s Paris plan. Especially if you are there for a limited amount of time. I would, however, consider a guided tour of the Louvre. I did that for the first time at the Hermitage and I really appreciated my guide’s expertise and her ability to quickly navigate the museum with a limited amount of time.
I think this is what a Paris newbie needs to think about: What are your interests? Art? Architecture? Eating? Shopping? Gardens? How do you want to spend your time in Paris?
I am biased because I love the city; but I do think there is something for everyone in Paris, and I know everyone will not like what I like. So, what should I show my niece?
I plan to show my niece how to get around the city. I love the metro and it can get me just about any place I need to go. That is one thing I wish I had done during my first visit. I hope I can help her feel comfortable navigating the city from underneath it.
I gave my niece a guide book, with lots of post-its marking what I think we should do. I’ve asked her to read through it and think about what she is interested in doing.
I am going to take her to the Louvre, but I plan to be smart about it to avoid as many of the crowds as possible. Disclaimer: I am going to the Louvre on this particular trip because of the special exhibition of Vermeer paintings. Otherwise, I might have skipped it. I haven’t been to the Louvre in at least 5 years and don’t feel like I have missed it.
Where else do I plan to take her? And why?
Seine River cruise – because I think it is a good overview of Paris
Orangerie Museum – because it is my favorite art museum
Berthillon – because we all love ice cream
Eiffel Tower – for the view
At least one street market – to see how different shopping can be from our American big-box store experience
Rodin Museum – because I haven’t been
Pere Lachaise – breakfast with Oscar (one of my Paris traditions)
After you identify what you want to see/do, the next step is to figure out when places will be open. Pretty much everything is open 7 days a week in the U.S. but that isn’t the case in Europe. That can be a tough lesson to learn; especially if you have limited time. And even though I am not a novice traveler, I still sometimes forget to make sure the places I want to go to will be open when I will be there. (Note to self: return to Florence and visit Uffizi.)
I look for places that have evening hours – some museums will stay open late one day per week. If you Google a place it will tell you when it is likely to be busy. That can be very helpful in planning the best time to be somewhere. I like to visit some museums, like the Louvre, in the evening. Typically fewer people, but certainly you will miss the large school groups.
I’ve also learned, the hard way, that even though I am tempted to squeeze in as much as possible; that typically results in fatigue rather than fun. Planning 2-3 things per day is a good start; but have a well prioritized back-up list also for days when you can conquer more.
I think having the right attitude is a big part of a successful trip. Things can, and will, go wrong. Thankfully I can usually just roll with it, regroup and/or move on.
One last beginners tip – it is always a good idea to learn a few key words and phrases in the language of the country you are visiting. I have never found the French to be rude, but I can speak enough French to be polite.
I am very excited to be playing tour guide for my niece in one of my favorite cities in the world! I can’t wait to see what she is interested in doing. I will even go back down to the catacombs if she really wants to see that, but I won’t volunteer it.