Paris is a city that challenged my expectations.
I expected to find a city of beautiful, well dressed people chatting in pavement cafes, their tables littered with espresso cups and empty wine glasses, not noticing the passing of hours lost in good company and good conversation.
I expected Parisians to be aloof, unfriendly and scornful at my smattering of GCSE French.
Above all, I expected Paris to be an elegant, opulent city, dripping in art, fashion and wealth.
What I found is a much bigger, much grittier and much less romantic city than I had imagined.
It reminded me very much of London – a large city, full of history, with an extensive public transport infrastructure and separate districts (or arrondissements) with distinct personalities. The sound of Paris was blaring sirens. I found walls covered with graffiti and many elaborate cardboard abodes.
I found that whilst Parisians did not bowl me over with friendliness or exceptional service, they were far from the aloof Parisians of stereotype – everyone we met was nothing but perfectly friendly towards us, and more than happy to take over in English when my French failed me.
Paris is the most visited city on the planet, and although it did not capture my heart, it did intrigue me. My first visit was all about the beaten path – I wanted to see the sights that Paris is famous for. There is certainly no shortage of information available about visiting Paris, but most of it is written from the perspective of a third, fourth or fifth trip. For first timers like me who want to tread the beaten path, this is my guide to Paris:-
Wow. What a place. I am the total opposite of an art lover Jim is a huge fan of Da Vinci and I wanted to see the Madonna on the Rocks to pretend that I was in The Da Vinci Code. We arrived for opening time, and headed straight for the Mona Lisa. A crowd had already started to form around it, but we beat the tour groups and didn’t have to jostle for position too much to get a view.
As for the rest of the Lourve, it is staggeringly big. It is a former royal palace and the grandeur is breathtaking. I walked along the corridors just glancing at the artworks whilst picturing myself sweeping along in an opulent gown, heels clipping against the wooden floors with liveried footmen standing to attention by every door, tensed and ready to swing open the door to allow me to make a grand entrance without breaking stride.
It reminded me very much of the Vatican Museums, as I spent far more time starring upwards at the frescoed ceilings than looking inside glass cabinets or staring at the art on the walls.
For art lovers, I’m not sure there will be any better collection anywhere. Every room is filled with art, which is astonishing in a building of this size. It would be absolutely impossible to try to see everything, so my top tip is to know why you are going. Plan out what you want to see, and work out a route around the museum that allows you to do this whilst staying ahead of the crowds. It doesn’t mean that there is no place for aimless wandering, it just means that you won’t be suffering from museum fatigue by the time you get to whichever artwork(s) is/are most important to you.
If like us you have not pre-booked tickets for the Louvre, using the self service machines in the entrance will save loads of time – there was no queue at all there, so we went straight through.
Finally, go back in the evening to see the Pyramid to it’s best effect.
This is literally point zero in Paris, as distances in Paris are all calculated taking their starting point as Notre Dame. Unlike pretty much everything else in Paris, Notre Dame is free to visit. We arrived when it was cold and wet, and so we had a lovely time just sitting and resting our feet, admiring the gothic architecture.
Notre Dame is a very solemn and serious cathedral, but I much preferred this to the ostentatious St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The arches are lit up by soft candlelight, and the church is filled with enormous stained glass windows.
It is difficult to get a good picture of the whole of Notre Dame from the narrow streets around it, so for the best view head to the garden in front of St Julien Le Pauvre on the left bank. This garden also contains the oldest tree in Paris, which dates back to 1680.
I’m still debating whether we made a rookie mistake visiting the Eiffel Tower in not pre-booking our tickets. We arrived less than an hour after opening and the queue was already huge, and not moving particularly quickly. If we had pre-booked, we would have skipped that queue, but we almost certainly would have pre-booked tickets for our first morning in Paris, which was wet, miserable and cloudy and the top of the Eiffel Tower was shrouded in mist for most of the day.
For summer visitors, I would definitely recommend pre-booking as standing in an hour long queue is a huge waste of valuable time in Paris. For visiting in the winter, I think I did the right thing in not pre-booking. I think visiting on a clear day more than made up for the queue.
What struck me most about the Eiffel Tower is how beautiful the ironwork was up close. Parts of it are really intricate, and it gives a totally different impression than viewing it as a whole from a distance.
We took the lift all the way to the top, which cost €15. The views of Paris needless to say were stunning, although the lift was a little scary travelling up the outside of the structure.
To get to the second floor only is cheaper, and there is an option for fit people to save even more money by taking the stairs. The views from the top were not really any better than those from the second floor. I’m glad I went to the top for my first visit, but if I went again, I would stick with the second floor.
The Champs Elysees
Was disappointing for me. It strongly reminded me of Oxford Street in London (complete with Marks and Spencers), whereas I had expected it to be a really elegant boulevard lined with expensive, designer boutiques with rude staff looking down their noses at me as I clearly can’t afford to buy anything.
In reality, it is a busy street with some designer stores, some car stores and some upmarket high street stores, but for me, nothing exciting.
Arc de Triomphe
Do not try to cross the road here! Use the subway. The road is busy and apparently entirely free from the rules of the road. There are no lanes and the traffic just goes wherever it pleases.
This is supposed to be the creative heart of Paris, to which famous artists once flocked and lived, including Picasso and Van Gogh. Of everywhere that we visited in Paris, I found this to be the most touristy, and totally lacking any charm.
It was quiet when we visited, and the only other people on the streets were our fellow tourists. There were no Parisians in sight, save for those hawking their street art. I imagine that in the peak tourist months, Montmatre would actually be very unpleasant to visit, as the narrow cobbled streets become packed out with tourists.
That being said, Montmartre is Paris’ highest point and so the views across the city are lovely and it is worth a visit for that alone. For the best view, head to the steps of the famous Sacre-Coeur.
This was probably my favourite area of Paris and showed me a glimpse of the Paris that I had expected to find – mouthwatering Patisseires, tiny bookshops, high fashion boutiques, quirky individual shops and minuature art galleries. Despite this, it did not seem very touristy at all when compared to the Latin Quarter and Montmartre.
We had eaten lunch prior to coming to the Marais, which is something I regretted when we turned down Rue des Rosiers. There were huge queues coming out of the falafel shops, and the enormous sandwiches people were purchasing looked amazing. A falafel sandwich from Rue des Rosiers is top of my list for a return visit to Paris.
This is the area of Paris in which we stayed, sandwiched between the Gare du Lyon and the Bastille. It was a fluke that we ended up here – we had intended to stay in the Latin Quarter, but just missed out on the last room in the only hotel we could afford in that area. So we ended up in the 12th, which was much more affordable than staying in the central arrondissements, and I am so glad that this is where we stayed. It allowed us to see a much grittier side of Paris away from the tourist hot spots. Although there are a number of hotels in the area, I can’t recall coming across any other tourists during our stay.
The area around the Bastille is really buzzing – it has the most energy of anywhere that we went in Paris. It had a similar vibe to the area around Liverpool Street station and Spitalfields Market in London, with bars packed with people and restaurants serving every imaginable cuisine.
The Canal St Martin is also beautiful by night.
Although we only had four days in Paris, it was enough time to see the major tourist sights and to start to explore a bit further into the city. I suspect that Paris, like London, will be one of those cities that I will take away a different impression of every time. In the words of Hemingway:-
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”
– A Moveable Feast