Paris: L’Essons L’Earned, or What We Learned NOT to Do from Four Days in the City of Light.
**Becauseitzthere is typically a hiking and outdoor adventure blog. But from time to time we will feature other sorts of travel and leisure on these pages. In other words…fu fu travel. And it don’t get no more fu than Paris.**
***Note that Becauzeitzthere makes NO claim to be a travel guide, trip planner, tourism agency or anything of the sort. The opinions and observations expressed here are based on our own personal experiences; your own mileage may vary accordingly. On the other hand, we don’t make any money from any recommendations that we DO make.
My advice to anyone is to thoroughly research any potential destination by relying on MULTIPLE, AUTHORITATIVE sources for information.***
The City of Paris is well worth visiting, but can be overwhelming. Imagine showing up in New York holding a pair of suitcases, speaking almost no English and expecting to visit most of what the Big Apple has to offer in just four days. Heck, you’d be lucky to get out alive.
We learned a LOT of lessons from our brief time in Paris. Generally, we learned more about what NOT to do than what TO do, which is typical of any initial expedition. Here’s some easy pitfalls we think one can avoid falling into when visiting the celebrated City of Light.
- The Paris Metro (subway) is vast, busy, confusing, and subject to breakdowns, stoppages and closures. Be prepared.
- If you are laden with luggage, consider carefully before taking the subway as an alternative to taxis and other ground transportation. Paris subways stations have long networks of connecting foot tunnels, often with numerous ups and downs along the way. Some are served by escalators and elevators; others are not, or the escalators are simply out of service. And even if you can find an elevator, it may not take you to a point on the surface from where you can easily reach your destination. Taking the subway can work…it can save you money. It worked for us going from CDG Airport to the Gare de Lyon station, but it worked MUCH less well going from from the station to the hotel. In fact, it was absolute hell trying to get out of the subway with a pair of suitcases. What I am saying is…be SURE you are willing and able to hump those bags up a few flights of stairs before you try it.
- Also note…most of the Paris Metro trains, unlike other subways we have seen, have very high step ups/downs more like traditional train cars.
- Musicians subjecting passengers to awful music (think ‘Hotel California’ on the clarinet) in exchange for tips infest French trains.
- Though we were not accosted nor robbed in Paris, friends of ours HAVE been robbed or accosted travelling in France. Before very careful about how you carry your belongings, purse, wallet, camera.
- Don’t spend all your time in Paris standing in endless lines at the major tourist traps. Invest some time to see some of the less visited attraction. For example…the Musee d’Orsay, though not exactly a ghost town, is FAR less crowded than the nearby Louvre (it receives less than half the visitation.) The Orsay’s collection includes pieces by some of the most famous 19th century painters such as Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh.
- Don’t neglect simply strolling around the city enjoying the architecture and the many cafes (but do so safely, in daylight. Despite its nickname, parts of the city tend to be rather dark.)
- If you must visit the popular attractions, get an early start. Many of the bigger tour groups don’t get going until later.
- Beware the large tour groups. Try to avoid them if possible.
- The cafes often feature menus geared toward America tastes. Le Pizza, Le Cheeseburger, etc…gosh, I wonder why this is? This is especially true during the summer tourist months. Seek the out-of-the-way places that serve actual French cuisine.
- Sylvia and I went in a grocery store in Paris and were very surprised…there was a lot of awesome food including super bread and pastries. We wished we had made more use of this to save money and time.
- Air conditioning is uncommon in France especially in cafes (you will see it advertised in the windows.) Air conditioning in French trains means an open window. And even in places that have it, what they call AC isn’t necessarily the same as what we do.
- Often what you think is an entrance ticket is actually a ticket to stand in line FOR entrance tickets.
- Lines in Paris can be measured in hours. Be prepared to sit in the hot sun or rain for a long time to get into the Louvre, Versailles, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame…
- If forced to stand in line, and umbrella can be a godsend. It can be useful if it rains, or as a sun shade if it doesn’t.
- Beware line cutters…the most common tactic we saw is simply to play dumb and merge into the line as if confused.
- Versailles is always closed on Mondays…The Louvre is always closed on Tuesdays.
- Spend some time in the ‘new’ Richelieu Wing of the Louvre…or in some of the basement and crypt areas, which are mostly devoid of crowds. There’s some interesting stuff there.
- Consider visiting museums in the evenings when they are open, you stand a good chance of dodging the tour groups.
- If we could recommend one thing it would be the towers tour of Notre Dame de Paris. It’s a climb, but all those steps turn most of the less enterprising tourists away. Hence the crowds are significantly reduced.
- Do NOT go to Paris in July or (especially) August if you can avoid it. It will be blazing hot, sordidly humid and fully crowded. August is also the French National holiday, and many visitors (including ourselves) note that the tourists outnumber the locals in the city, giving it a distinctly less than French character.
- Due to the short hiking season for the Tour du Mont Blanc we had no choice but to visit when we did (in early August.) If your primary goal is to visit Paris, plan for spring or fall.
- If you want the best deal, and you don’t much mind damp, cold, drizzly weather, consider going in winter. Snow is rare in Paris.
- Traffic in Paris is horrible and taxi cabs are expensive…avoid taxis at all costs if you can.
- A bus MIGHT be a better alternative if you have a bunch of luggage. Then again it might not; we saw some very crowded buses, and they have to deal with traffic too.
- Note that we actually did NOT visit Paris’ second biggest tourist attraction. Which as everyone knows is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur.) You knew that, right?
- Despite their infamous reputation, we did not find the Parisians to be all that unfriendly. (They weren’t super friendly, either, but if I had to compare them to the people of New York, Boston or Philadelphia…)
- It helps to speak some French, obviously. But even if you can’t, you will have no real difficulties finding an English speaker.
- We found the hordes of young people hired as helpers at the Paris train stations to assist bewildered tourists (us, in other words) to be very helpful and patient.
- Beware of transportation strikes. We were impacted by one but got lucky, it turned out to be not much of a stoppage. Others can be MUCH worse.
- De Gaulle airport is the better part of an hour from the city by train, bus or cab.
- Make a point to tour some of Paris’s very impressive but less visited Churches…some of these would easily be the biggest and most impressive house of worship in almost any American City. Saint Eustache in the Les Halles area, for example. You can actually stand inside a huge, ancient temple and be completely at peace…no such possibility exists in Notre Dame unless you manage to get in after hours or something.
- Brian officially names the Eiffel Tower to be One of the Coolest Man Made Things Ever. He does NOT give out this honor lightly…other items on this list include such exclusive bric-a-brac as the Saturn V Moon Rocket, Machu Picchu, the Mick Taylor period Rolling Stones and his Jetboil.
- A good piece of advice that we didn’t ourselves follow (Sylvia thought of this, Brian vetoed it) was to go up the Eiffel tower by the elevator but come down from the first observation deck by the stairs. This would buy you some really great photos and a few minutes of relative solitude. Not many people even consider using the stairs.
- The best time to visit the Eiffel Tower, scenically, is near sundown…but our advice is arrive AT LEAST two hours early to get a jump on the crowds.
- Anyone who rents a car and attempts to drive in Paris is insane. Renting a bicycle (or two) might be a sound plan at certain times of year, but when we visited it was far too hot and crowded. Walk and/or use the Metro.
- If you have not visited Paris for a number of years, be prepared for a very changed city.
- It is very common now to see heavily armed military patrols on Paris streets, subways, and attractions. Sylvia found the presence of troops carrying loaded assault rifles to be unnerving…Brian on the other hand felt re-assured by all that ordinance in the hands of friendlies whose job, after all, is to protect the people of Paris and its guests.
- We would VERY strongly suggest visiting to Paris outside peak season. The crowds do degrade considerably from the experience, and we found the tourists and not the Parisians themselves to be the rudest people encountered everywhere. The large tourist groups in particular we found to be absolutely insufferable.
- If you are coming from Raleigh, NC, there is a direct flight from RDU to Paris. Sylvia and I opted for this flight and paid only a little more than the one-stop option. It was well worth it…in fact, Brian rates the outbound flight to be one of the smoothest he ever had.
- By all means visit more of France than just Paris! We LOVED Chamonix and are very eager to back and visit the charming smaller city of Annecy, which we passed through by train. It’s a big country, not just one city!
Be safe and enjoy yourself in the City of Light!!!