My personal tour of France concluded, appropriately, in Paris. The city would be a convenient departure point to my next destination, and, as Audrey Hepburn famously said in the movie Sabrina, “Paris is always a good idea!”
This was my third visit to Paris, with the most recent trip less than a year before, so I knew I wanted to return to some of my favorite places and tour some sights I hadn’t had seen during the previous trip. I also decided to switch up my accommodation plans.
Hostels are fairly expensive in Paris, and I realized that I could rent a room in someone’s Paris apartment through Airbnb for the same price per night as the basic hostel where I had stayed on my last visit. While I enjoyed the hostel’s social atmosphere, I decided to experience Paris as a local might – staying in a tiny apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood just a train ride away from all of the city’s key destinations.
The apartment I chose was rented by two twenty-something Paris natives, one of whom was out of town and had made her bedroom available for the weekend. Caroline, my sweet hostess, was working when I arrived, so she arranged for me to meet three friends of hers who were in town from Dublin and could show me where to find the apartment (or “flat,” as they’re known in Paris).
The flat was located through set of narrow red doors that opened from the street and led to a narrow wooden staircase that twirled all the way up to the sixth floor. My new Irish friends and I trudged up the stairs with my bags until we finally reached the top floor flat. The four of us dropped the bags, sat down for a moment to regain our energy, then headed back out the door “for a pint.”
Just a couple of blocks away was a pub advertising happy hour drink specials. This was a surprise! I hadn’t yet seen any European bars offering happy hour, but happy hour food and drink specials are apparently common in Paris. These deals are great way to enjoy a refreshing drink on a budget, and with the unseasonable heat we were experiencing, we were happy to grab a few icy mojitos at a lower price!
I felt refreshed and right at home. This visit was beginning beautifully.
After drinks, I took the apartment key and waved goodbye to the group from Dublin. I found the red doors, hiked up the six flights of stairs, put the odd, modern version of a skeleton key in the lock and turned it. I heard the lock disengage, and then…nothing happened. I put my shoulder into it, turned the key again, took it out, tried again. Nothing.
I realized then that my phone was locked inside the apartment. If there was a special way to open the door, I could not figure it out, and I couldn’t call anyone for hints. It was about 3 p.m., and Caroline wasn’t due to be home until 10.
I don’t want to admit that I wasted most of my first afternoon in Paris struggling to open an ancient door, but… that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, by the grace of God, I got the door open. At around 9:30 p.m. By then, hungry and frustrated, all I could do was shower, eat a quick dinner and go to bed. Sheesh. Caroline didn’t make it back to the apartment until after 1 a.m., so I’m very glad the door opened when it did!
Thankfully, the rest of the weekend was much better.
Because this was my third visit to the city, I felt less pressure to see the typical tourist sights. Instead, I returned to some of my favorite places, went out with my new friends, and prioritized activities I hadn’t had time for on my previous visit, such as going on a walking tour and exploring Montmartre.
I had heard of Sandeman’s Walking Tours before visiting Paris, but this was my first time participating in one. Sandeman’s offers free walking tours in cities all over Europe. Each tour guide is an independent contractor and leads tours on a tip-only basis.
The drawback to Sandeman’s tours is that the group is well-known and well-publicized, so you’ll likely have to walk around with a large group of travelers on the tour. I often prefer to look for lesser-known (and smaller) free walking tours on TripAdvisor or by asking at the hostel front desk.
In this case, the Sandeman’s tour was large, but the tour guide handled the group well. A theater actress who leads tours on the side, our guide entertained and educated us on Paris history for a very pleasant two hours. We visited key sites including the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Jardin du Luxembourg and bridges along the River Seine. As with most cities, I highly recommend a walking tour in Paris as a great way to get oriented to the city and gain insight into its history.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Last time I was in Paris, I skipped touring Notre Dame because the line was so long. Just prior to this visit, I read that people just form a slow-moving line in front of the entrance unnecessarily. No one monitors the door, and it’s possible just to walk inside without waiting in line. So that’s what I did…I walked right past all the people and slipped through the open door. Several people were inside, but it wasn’t difficult to move around. Try it next time you’re in Paris…you’ll feel like a VIP!
I learned during the walking tour that much of Paris’s Gothic architecture was destroyed when the city was “modernized” in the 1800s. Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was published in 1831 in an effort to save Notre Dame Cathedral from eventual demolition. Because off Hugo’s efforts, we can still visit and worship in Notre Dame Cathedral today.
I have vague memories of visiting Montmartre during a rainy Paris weekend in January of my freshman year of college. My parents still have the chalk portrait that a street artist created of me…wearing a shoulder-length bob and puffy winter coat.
This time around was a different experience. The weather was hot, and it was much more fun to wander around the square watching innumerable artists creating a huge variety of art. One whole side of the square is filled with portrait artists, but I wasn’t tempted to sit for another portrait. Instead, I visited Sacre Coeur and enjoyed the expansive views of the city.
You’ll find lots of tourists in Montmartre, and it’s a good idea to be extra-vigilant about pick-pockets in this area, but it’s also a fun and vibrant part of the city. An artistic enclave for generations, master painters like Van Gogh and Picasso have ties to Montmartre. You’ll find galleries, restaurants and plenty of great photo ops.
Musee de l’Orangerie
The lovely Musee de l’Orangerie is situated in the corner of the Tuileries gardens. Having explored the Louvre and Musee de ‘Orsay on previous trips to Paris, I decided to visit this much smaller museum, which is known for its incredible display of Monet’s water lily paintings, known as “Nympheas,” which hang in two oval rooms. The rooms were designed with input from Monet, but the paintings were not installed there until after his death. The huge pieces are breathtaking.
The museum also houses a nicely curated collection of works by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Renior, among others. I was able to see and enjoy all of the pieces in about an hour and a half. The museum was enjoyable and refreshingly manageable in its scope.
Jardins des Tuileries
Gardens all over the world are modeled after those found in Paris, so don’t miss the chance to visit one when you’re in the city. The Jardins des Tuileries and Jardin du Luxembourg are my favorites. Locals and tourists alike mingle along the wide, tree-lined promenades and lounge in the gardens’ iconic green chairs beside majestic fountains. I spent an enjoyable hour or two in a shady spot with my journal and a pen. It’s a great place to people-watch and rest your feet after wandering around the city.
In my mind, Paris is as much about the treats as it is about the sights! Last time I visited the city, I fell in love with the decadent liquid chocolate (billed simply as “hot chocolate”) served at Angelina on Rue de Rivoli, just across from the Jardin des Tuileries. Of course I had to make a return trip for the chocolate and a raspberry macaron, which I consumed while sitting in the garden.
Laduree is another sweet Paris institution and one of my personal “must-dos” for any visit to Paris. Their macarons are simply amazing, and the fanciful store windows alone could make a visit worthwhile. During my last visit, I stayed for memorable afternoon tea in Laduree’s sumptuous front room.
A lover of great local coffee shops (and great coffee!) I couldn’t miss the opportunity to check out Holybelly, a cafe I had heard about through social media. I ordered this flat white and was not disappointed. The staff was friendly, the atmosphere was low-key and relaxed, and the coffee was just the right level of strong. One word of advice: go early if you want coffee only…during lunchtime hours only those ordering food have access to the tables.
Another kind of indulgence were the happy hour drinks I enjoyed at Cafe Le Petit Pont. The drink prices and outdoor atmosphere were so nice that I visited this outdoor cafe twice during my trip. Located on a busy street just across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral, the cafe offered free wifi and a comfortable place to rest and enjoy an afternoon refreshment.
I will say that one person who served me was friendly and another was rude, so excellent service isn’t necessarily standard here. I enjoyed other features of the cafe and didn’t order a meal, so the friendliness of the wait staff wasn’t particularly important to me.
Shakespeare & Company
I didn’t make it to the Shakespeare & Company bookstore on my last visit to Paris, so I made it a priority this time. Located in the 5th arrondissement near Cafe Le Petit Pont, this cozy English-language bookstore is stuffed with both new and second-hand books. I enjoyed wandering among the shelves and wished I had space in my backpack for a big stack of books!
This store was featured in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris.”
Along the Seine
Running through the city center, the Seine River is a significant attraction in itself. The magnificent bridges crossing its banks offer beautiful views of the river and surrounding architecture, including the Eiffel Tower. Vendors selling postcards, books, posters, art and more sell wares from what must have been the original “pop-up” shop – wooden shelves that swing open from a hinge at the top and can be padlocked closed at night. I found the best deals on postcards at one of these riverside stands.
Paris is, of course, a popular place for weddings and wedding photos. One day I passed by a young bride and groom posing for photos on the Pont Alexandre III bridge. The hairstylist was having a difficult time keeping the bride’s hair out of her eyes in the afternoon breeze!
A Night Out in Paris
This visit to Paris was the first that allowed a night out in the city. I met up with my Paris host and new Irish friends on the grassy hill in front of Sacre Coeur, where we shared a bottle of wine surrounded by few hundred others doing the same. The weather was comfortably warm as we sat and watched as the city was bathed in a golden light before the sun went down.
After sunset, we walked through the city’s “red light district” so I could see Moulin Rouge at night. The street looked a bit like a miniature Las Vegas, with neon signs drawing our attention to a wide variety of…err…unusual establishments. But the area looked clean, and the atmosphere felt safe and non-threatening. My Parisian host commented that the area had been “cleaned up” significantly due to the influence of tourism in the area.
By this time, it was after midnight and we were thirsty. Caroline led the group past the pricey bars that cater to tourists and steered us down a quiet cobblestone street with tiny local restaurants on either side, with doors and windows flung open in the night air. We stopped at one and the owner came out to pull tables together for us at the curb. When I asked Caroline what I should order, she recommended a Pastis.
Pastis is a licorice-flavored spirit originally created in the south of France. It was created in the early 20th Century after absinthe was outlawed. It is served with ice and a small pitcher of water so the alcohol can be diluted according to preference, and it turns from clear to milky when mixed.
The Pastis was delicious, and even in a tall glass, it didn’t last long. Try it next time you’re in Paris…but only if you’re over 21!
It was a treat to see Paris from a more local perspective and to feel a little less like a tourist. Consider skipping the hotels and staying with a local on your next visit. You might be surprised at how much richer (and less expensive!) a local experience can be.