How can you get the most out of a short visit to one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world? There’s only so much advice I can give, based on my own far-too-short recent visit, but I share with you a few things to do, and a few mistakes to avoid, before you jet across the Atlantic. Pick the highlights, and don’t wear yourself out. There’s nothing worse than taking a whirlwind tour of a city without getting a chance to relax and soak in the culture the traditional way – by eating. So my first piece of advice is: Do your homework. Unfortunately, I’ve found that French people don’t find the doe-eyed “I don’t know where I’m going” look so charming. And there’s nothing worse than having a carefully crafted plan dashed by those idiosyncratic European schedules. Did you know that the Louvre is closed every Tuesday? Neither did I In terms of where to eat and where to stay, in Paris, it’s all about the neighborhood. While it can be tempting to stay “just outside” of Paris, or a “quick train ride” away from the city, the saved bucks are probably not worth the extra travel time and lack of Paris charm you’re looking for in your weekend away. One of my favorite streets for eateries and hotels is on and around the Rue Cler, walk-able from the Eiffel Tower and straight from a movie set with bakeries, vegetable stands and pedestrian-only zones. Look for small-but-charming, as you’ll find with the Grand Hôtel Lévêque. As for the outside-of-Paris day trip: if you want to take one of your precious days outside of the city, and sometimes it’s worth it, I recommend one for the art lover. Your first thought may be Versailles. But I say, if you’ve seen one gilded throne room, you’ve seen them all. For the art aficionado, for the lifelong student, or for the couple seeking romantic winding streets and gorgeous gardens, check out Giverny, less than two hours outside the city. Paired with the in-person viewing of Claude Monet’s most famous works in Musée d’Orsay or Musée de l’Orangerie, a trip to his home in this rural town will take your breath away. Walk across the Japanese bridge – that’s right, THE Japanese bridge – and sit on a bench next to the famous lily pads. Take a tour of the house, then have a glass of wine and enjoy the fragrance of fresh lavender at the café of the Museum of Impressionism. There are several ways to go about this: bus, minibus, or train. Though the train route is slightly cheaper, the expense of booking a bus tour definitely covers the cost of the stress you will induce by sifting through train schedules, finding a taxi when you get there, and then having to wait in line for admittance to Monet’s house and gardens since your tickets won’t be included (www.giverny.org). For the reader or the history buff, one of the stops I highly recommend is Shakespeare and Company, one of the coolest bookstores of all time. You can work this tiny nook of a bookshop into a visit to see the stunning exterior of Notre-Dame, since it’s situated just next door in the Left Bank. Step into the temporary home of expatriates and legends Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others. This nucleus of intellect served as a meeting point (and often boarding house) of some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and nothing makes you feel closer to genius than peeking around the dark and dusty corners of this treasure trove of books. I usually recommend doing the anti-tourist thing when possible. If you have a week or two weeks to spend in a city like Paris, take your time to explore and sprinkle in the sites as you go. Sometimes, you may feel the need to cover a lot of basics in a short amount of time. To this end, I do not recommend a bus tour. The red bus (Les Cars Rouges) is extremely crowded during high season. You may have to wait through two or three cycles of buses just to fit on one. The yellow bus (L’Open Tour) is pretty pricey and the hours don’t run late as they do in other cities, so you can’t use the bus as your transportation for the entire day and evening. One of the highlights of my trip, however, was one of the most cheesy tourist attractions and modes of transportation. Take a boat down the Seine River. If you want to see some of the highlights of the city quickly with an explanation of historical significance, this majestic activity is time efficient and, quite frankly, really fun. There are several options for boat tours. If the gods of weather have smiled upon you, definitely consider going with the Bateaux Mouches company. Several brands offer comparable services, but Mouches is the boat tour with which none of your view is obstructed by overhead, “transparent” covers, so everyone gets a good view. This may be good, and somewhat quirky, advice in any city, but I find it especially true in Paris: know what you’re waiting for before you get in line. Always. When you visit a city like Paris in the height of tourist season, there will be lines, and lots of them. When you have no time to waste, be sure to find out exactly what you’re waiting for. A quick anecdote: with my travel companions, I stood in line to see the standing, permanent exhibit of the Petit Palais. There was a sign that said “Two hours from this point” right next to where we stood in the broiling – excuse me, “brulée-ing” – sun. We almost gave up and left altogether after about a half hour, when we asked a security guard to confirm we were in the right place. We had been waiting in line for a temporary exhibit that we didn’t even want to see. What we wanted to see was free and free of lines. Win, win. Be sure before you wait. I’ve given a few suggestions here, but the truth is: if you need to see Paris in just a few days, prioritize what you want before you get there, and figure out a way to make it happen. If you’re an art lover, give yourself a long, meandering stroll through the Louvre. If you’re an avid shopper, head to the Galeries Lafayette, a fashion institution since 1893, and give yourself an entire afternoon there. No matter who you are, take time to eat a crepe from a stand of unverifiable sanitary standards. Let yourself explore, wander, and discover. See where the roads take you, no guilt involved. You can’t see everything in one weekend, so take in everything that you can see, one breathtaking moment at a time.
Giverny 70 Euros for transportation by bus and a tour of Monet’s house and gardens; 93 Euros for transportation by minibus, a tour of Monet’s house and gardens, and entrance to the Museum of Impressionism. 214 Rue de Rivoli, Paris (close to the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens). En.parisvision.com
Bateaux Mouches boat tour 10 Euros for adults, 5 for children under 12, free for children under 4. To board: Port de la Conférence, Pont de l’Alma, Paris. Underground line 9 - Alma-Marceau. Underground line 1 - Franklin Roosevelt. www.bateaux-mouches.fr
Shakespeare and Company 37 Rue Bûcherie, Paris. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. www.shakespeareandcompany.com
Galeries Lafayette 40 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris. 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat. www.galerieslafayette.com.