Coming from Seattle, I planned to be underwhelmed at the sight of the Eiffel Tower.
Instead, as it peeked over trees and shimmied between buildings, I began to reassess. We were blocks away and the majesty of the monument became apparent. At 1063 feet tall it made my 605 foot home town icon look like a kid sister. It takes two elevators to get to the top, and one of them travels sideways, just like elevators in Harry Potter. Not magic, but more like a San Francisco cable car. Climbing the tower was the perfect thing to do our first afternoon. We saw Paris laid out below us. The Seine! The Arc de Triomphe! The Notre Dame! Once hazy descriptions from novels gone by, now in 3-D right before us. We were giddy with joy and jet lag. First timer tip – get your Eiffel Tower tickets ahead of time online and skip the long queue.
Paris was all everyone said it would be and more. Romantic. Historic. Artistic. And yes, welcoming, even to us who were among the 22 million visitors in 2016. We stayed in the Rue Cler neighborhood, recommended by Rick Steves for its lively food market yet calm neighborhood feel. Our lodgings in the quiet Hôtel Beaugency, were a short block away from cafes, bars and a lovely patisserie. My favorite morning treat was “pain au chocolat,” a chocolate filled croissant. First timer tip – Staying in the 7th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris will allow you to walk to all the sights mentioned in this post.
The Louvre was massive, overwhelming and chock full of ancient to nineteenth century art and sculpture. Not being able to read French, and having missed the English maps at the welcome table, we spent an hour trying to find the Mona Lisa. The journey was the destination, as they say, because as we roamed through hall after hall, we stumbled upon old friends from Art History class. Venus de Milo! Liberty Leading the People! Winged Victory! When we finally found her, we did what everyone else was doing and took a selfie to prove we had been there. First timer tip – The food in the cafe was overpriced and flavorless.
Two other museums were smaller and easier to navigate and we loved them both: Musee d’Orsay (you will recognize the Impressionist masterpieces) and Musee Rodin (sensuous sculpture). All three museums and many more are on the Paris Museum Pass, which lets you skip the lines and saves cash as well. Definitely worth buying if you’ll be in Paris and local surroundings a few days. First timer tip – the food at the cafe in the Musee Rodin was delicious, fresh, healthy and the cafe was set in the beautiful garden surrounding the museum.
Paris has great public transport: subway (Metro), bus and train (RER). We used the Metro system when we wanted to move beyond the 7th arrondisement. Choose “English” when getting tickets (carnets) from the ticket dispensing machine. It was fairly easy to navigate as the routes are identified by number, color and end of line names. Once you know what station you want to get off at, note the end of the line name, as you will use that to guide you once you put your ticket in the turnstile and walk along innumerable branching tunnels. The downside of the Metro stations is the stairs – OK when we were day-tripping, but harder when we were leaving Paris and I had to carry my rolling bag up and down many steps. Yet another good reason to pack light! First timer tip – Get the transport company’s own app, get a paper map from a Metro information booth (in the tunnels) or print one ahead of time.
Eating in Paris was easier than we thought it would be. We avoided the pricey (restaurants) and stuck to the cafes/brasseries/bistros which are less expensive but still delicious. Menus are often posted outside, so you can check prices and your pocket dictionary/Google translator before you go in. Most eateries have sidewalk dining and that is a lovely part of the experience, rain or shine. Our first cafe remained our favorite. We sat outside and ordered our first truly French cafe au laits. Being from the Pacific Northwest, we were undeterred by the slight drizzle when we thrilled to notice the awning overhead moving silently out to cover us, seemingly for our private enjoyment. Another peak experience in Paris! First timer tip – Smoking is not allowed in restaurants indoors but is allowed outdoors. Any strategies on avoiding the smoke?
Versailles is a day trip out of Paris, and a peak experience. It is easy to take public transport as the Metro and RER stations are in the same tunnels. You can check your bags at Versailles, if, like us, you are seeing the palace on the way out of town. You could spend days exploring the tremendous chateau, halls of government, fountains, mazes, paintings, sculptures, a lake and the queen’s grounds, but experiencing the opulence and expansiveness of the 977 acre property is worth even for a few hours. You can feel the force of history as you imagine the the shout of speeches given during the French Revolution. You can visualize the determination in the faces of those who participated in the Women’s March as they strode through unimaginable wealth to reach Louis XIV. First timer tip – Versailles and other day trips are part of the Paris Museum Pass.
Going to Paris for the first time is but an invitation to return, because, as Audrey Hepburn says in Sabrina, “Paris is always a good idea.” Bon voyage and bon chance!