Bety and I just got back from Paris, spending ~5 days there. Our feet are sore, our sleep schedule is jacked, but our photos are imported. Some advice for those who are thinking of going.
Location location location, but not the location that you think. Everything in Paris is done on foot, on bike, or on the Metro. To easily rent the bikes in the city supposedly you need a credit card with the little chip in it, and you’ll probably be doing most of your stuff by foot anyway. As a matter of fact we never used a taxi the whole time we were there, VERY cool!
To minimize the time you’re spending on foot getting from place to place, get a “tourist map” that includes the subway (metro) lines as well as the famous landmarks (Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, etc). Then figure out how to minimize the following things in this order:
- distance from your hotel to a metro station
- ability to get to a major metro junction-point
- number of transfers required to “get around”
- number of metro stops between points “A” and “B”
Basically if you can get a hotel within a block of a metro station and you can cross the entire city with that metro line (examples: Line 6 Nation/Etoile, Line 14 Madeline/Bibliotheque, and Train line “B” North-South) … it doesn’t matter too much how far away you are away from the city center. You get on the metro (which shows up in ~2 minutes), you ride 5 stops (which takes ~5 minutes), switch trains once (~2 more minutes) and get off at the next stop.
Contrast that with staying “too far” from a metro line, or staying near a “wrong” metro line… you’ll end up walking 5-10 minutes to get to a metro line, and then have an extra 1-2 transfers at the start and end of your day… it gets to be a beating.
We ended up splitting our hotel stays between two areas of the city, the 15th (Southeast) and the 5th (very central… just south of Notre Dame). The two areas had very different feels, especially after dark.
The first half of our trip we were on the southeast side of the city between Place d’Italie, Chevaleret and Campo Formio, which turned out to be a surprisingly decent location considering it was selected almost at random because our first hotel option had sold out.
The second hotel was right near Cluny La Sorbonne, which we selected to be closer to the action (after we’d figured out what really mattered w.r.t. location in the city) and more importantly to be super-convenient when heading to the airport on our return (no transfers, just schlep the bags two blocks and get on the train going north).
The nightlife near the second hotel was palpably different … much more activity after 9-10pm, lots of little shops, restaurants, bars, night-spots. It was in/near the latin quarter which actually is an interesting, vibrant place, especially contrasting with it being so close to the Notre Dame cathedral and right on the banks of the Seine. Be sure to take into consideration that Paris is a city just like any other, with the “fun” districts and the “damn, I have to wake up at 7am tomorrow” districts.
It was our first time in Europe and we ended up splitting time between the obvious touristy things and wandering around the city. The only thing we regretted doing was visiting the Pantheon… it had nice examples of architecture, paintings and a reproduction of Focaults Pendulum in the original location where Focault demonstrated it, but it basically felt like a government building… a little too clean, a little to modern, and majority of things to see were just concrete coffins. It did, however, give me a much greater appreciation for French contributions to what we take for granted.
France has kindof a nationalistic “Science, it works, bitches!” bent. We didn’t get a chance to go into the Charles Darwin Museum (it was closed on Monday or Tuesday, like many of Paris’s museums), but did see their dinosaur carousels and the gardens surrounding the museum. In the pantheon, there are a variety of signs pointing out the accomplishments of people buried there, Louis Braille, Carnot (of the Carnot cycle, I believe), Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas… lots of culturally and scientifically relevant people, not to mention all the history of art (Monet, Van Gogh, etc.) that have a connection to France. In that regard, I was glad to have visited the pantheon, but you’re better of reading up on French history and taking some pictures of the outside.
If you’re looking for some recommendations for books by french authors, I think all my favorite classics were written by French people. The Three Musketeers is a great action book, Les Miserables is fantastic story and musical (but get the abridged version, it cuts out all the boring politics), the Phantom of the Opera was a good story and very famous musical. All of them really deserve your attention if you haven’t read them, and based on this trip I think I’m going to pick up The Hunchback of Notre Dame to read - hopefully it’ll be as good as the other french authors I’ve read and it will have a lot more context after having seen the church with all its gargoyles and architecture.
Language. If you speak another language already (ie: Spanish, Italian) you won’t have too much problem getting around. Definitely do the Pimsleur French audio lessons, I got to lesson 4-5 and that combined with knowing cooking terms, paying attention, and having learned a language before (ie: using context clues to translate items from restaurant menus), it meant that I could fumble around and ask for directions and use the automated ticket machines.
If you don’t speak another language, definitely do the Pimsleur stuff and get some kind of laminated top 100 words for tourists card. A lot of people speak some level of english, but you just want to be really polite and not at all bossy. Younger people seem to be more likely to know some english than older people, but I was really surprised by the amount of tri- and quatro-lingual people we met. One guy in a chocolate shop spoke French, English, German, Spanish, and half the time the asian people were speaking French, the white people were speaking German and the French people were speaking Spanish. You just never know what languages people speak, and usually what other language they happen to speak too.
We would have liked to spend some more time in the surrounding areas / cities, our Versailles trip was quite a bit of fun (took probably half a day to do the palace and everything, got back to Paris around 8-9pm). Versailles itself was impressive again because of the history of France and the sheer magnitude of the palace and surrounding gardens.
Remember that Paris itself is pretty small (relatively speaking) but much more densly packed. The whole city-center is about the size of Carrollton actually, so on the map if something looks like it’s a few streets over, it’s literally within walking distance and the climate (even in the “hot” summer) is amenable to walking if you’re from Texas.
Speaking of summer, don’t forget about France’s national “vacation month” which was exactly when we showed up (mid-to-late August). The French get six weeks vacation and they all go skiing or motor scootering or something during August, at least the Parisians. So expect that you’ll find more tourists and less natives, combined with overall less availability of local shops and restaurants. We missed out on a few of the music shops near the Metro Gare St. Lazare on street Rue de Rome because of these holidays, but other than that it didn’t affect us too much. We were more interested in the touristy things than anything else, but if you want to experience Paris in full-swing, you might avoid the end of summer.
Last two things - Take a look at WikiTravel for a pretty good overview Paris guide, and also consider travel to Mexico City. Mexico’s capitol shares a lot with Paris in that it’s a major world city, is very urban, has lots of culture, a robust public transportation system, signs in foreign languages, a plethora of local shops, dirty streets, foreign currency… the list goes on, and the flight might be a lot shorter. I got the impression that Paris was safer overall, but staying in “the right areas” of Mexico City is pretty safe as well although crime of opportunity does seem to have more “opportunity” to occur in Mexico City. As always, be safe and don’t be a target wherever you go.
Visiting Paris has definitely got me looking forward to our next opportunity to travel somewhere new and exciting…