Often when we travel, my wife and I like to tag on an extra destination. Somewhere we’re traveling through we can just kind of add on and run around in before the big trip.
When I was planning our trip to the States last summer, I saw that it’d be cheaper to do a stopover in Paris, switch airlines, and then continue on to New Orleans. Naturally, when I asked my wife, “How do you feel about maybe doing a couple of nights in Paris?” her answer was, “Hell yes!”
Paris had long been on her bucket list, so this was an easy way to check it off. I last was there years ago, where I stayed a week and went broke because of the price of coffee. Ever after that, I’ve feared the place, but I figured that my wife’s got a good job, I’ve a reasonable one, and heck, it will just be for a couple of days, so why not give it a shot?
I’ve outlined my method of seeing a city or a country before over on my Morocco blog. Basically, you make a list, find a map, and see what you can reasonably fit. Use local transit where necessary, and Uber where one absolutely must.
Where to stay
We looked at a map and found what neighborhood we wanted to stay in. For Paris, there’s a couple of options. The city is split up in different hoods, or what they call “arrondisements”, and we found the 5th arrondisement worked best for us. It’s the most touristic and expat-filled one, but nevermind that, we were only there for a couple of nights and it’s really not enough time to get into a city any more than on a superficial level.
The Pantheon, in the 5th arrondisement
The first time I was in town I rented a private apartment right next to Gare du Nord. Some might say that it’s not the best of neighborhoods, because there are black people. So if that makes you uncomfortable, stick with the 5th. But everyone I ran into there was friendly, and the coffee was cheaper, so I had no problems with the area. Others I've heard say that the area around Montmartre is also an excellent spot, full of artistic spots and hole-in-the-wall bars. Not having stayed there, I can't say, myself. But I do know, that if you're someone who doesn't know the city, in all likelihood, your nightlife will end up taking you on the other side of the river.
From the Airport
Direct from the airport to Luxembourg station on the RER it’s about 45 minutes. It seems like forever, especially as the train goes underground and more and more people pack on. Luckily getting your own seat and place for your luggage is easy at the airport, it’s just getting back that’s a challenge. But let’s not worry about that.
the Luxembourg Gardens, near the metro stop
Getting out at Luxembourg it was starting to rain. Always a good sign. And I remember that when we we got in the taxi heading to the airport in Prague I was thinking, “Drat, I left my rain coat. Ah, what are the chances it will rain.” What are the chances indeed.
We stayed in the super cozy Hotel De Senlis. The staff was friendly, efficient, and with a twenty-four hour desk, but it was old school in that sense that they’ve got but one key so you have to leave it at the desk. For what we got and for being right in the most touristic part of town, it was nearly a steal though. The only weird thing about the room was that the window in the bathroom went right out to the courtyard. Not a big deal, but you could have a conversation with your neighbor while you poop and he smokes. Ah, Paris, the City of Romance.
One of my favorite sites when I visited last was the Pantheon, but I couldn’t sell it to my wife. The place is cheap to visit and right next to our hotel, but nope. She just wasn’t interested in a building full of dead people. Their time would come.
First on my wife’s list was the Louvre.
We walked up through the Odeon neighborhood to the Pont des Arts. The Odeon district is full of narrow streets, bars, restaurants, and art galleries. During the day though, it looks utterly abandoned, save for the random Frenchman who just stumbled out at 10 in the morning not realizing what time or day it is and needs his dose of café. I vaguely remembered it as a scenic and hopping place to be, but that must have been because I was there at night all those years ago.
At about 9 in the morning, we made it to the Louvre. I learned my lesson about going to the Louvre years ago. The trick is to book online. There are two easy ways to do this. Either book directly at the Louvre website, good if you’ve got access to a printer, or have GetYourGuide print them for you and pick them up across the street. It’s the same price. They’ve also got a tone of other deals for tours of the museum that you can check out:
I’ve already waxed expansively on the nightmare of a museum that is the Louvre, but if you must see the Mona Lisa and the Big Gay Jesus, then you really should read my blog on it. I personally just prefer to go it alone, mark down what I want to see, and run through the halls as quickly as possible.
A terrifying art maze
For the art lover though, it’s easy to burn a day or two in the Louvre. For the person limited in time, don’t do it.
Also, be aware that there are a ton of cheap fast food places in the mall underneath the Louvre. Don’t throw away 8 euros on a microwaved, fake crab sandwich like I did.
Personally, I had wanted to see the Musee D’Orsay, which still sits on my list. I would have seen it the first time I was in Paris, but at the time the workers were on strike. This is always a risk in visiting Paris.
The Rue de Rivoli
From the Louvre, we walked down the Rue de Rivoli and stumbled into an area full of small streets and cheap eats around Rue des Lombards, with kebab stands and pizza by the slice places. Of course, I mean "cheap eats" in the most French and ironic way. A slice of pizza cost five euros! So we opted against it and finally just stopped at a little brasserie. For that same five euros, we had a coffee and croissant. That’s really the way to go in France, especially if it’s summer time, when all the tables are out on the streets. While we were sipping on our coffee, we had a nice view of the Saint-Jacques Tower, which is the remains of a 16th century church that was ravaged during the French Revolution.
The Tower of Saint-Jacques
definitely a must-see sight
From there, we went over to the 13th century Notre Dame and probably the most famous landmark in Paris. There’s always a queue of about one hour that extends out of the door, and a mess of tours that are available online. Not sure which to get? Then why not go with this GetYourGuide audio tour.
just look at that beauty
We didn’t go inside that time, because for one, I didn’t know you could get skip-the-line tickets at the time, and for two, I didn’t feel it too necessary to spend so much time on another cathedral. We walked around the grounds, enjoying the views of all the flying buttresses, then walked along the river and back through the 5th until we ended up at the Pantheon.
can't find any hunchbacks though
baby's got back! just look at that buttress! It's fly.
“Hey babe, you know when you said that you didn’t want to see that place full of dead people?”
“Guess what? It’s right on the way. And it really is one of the best sights in Paris.”
approaching from the side
I wasn’t lying. Originally built as a church, this massive pantheon that looks like a Roman temple, was converted into a temple of sorts for science and the French state. After the atheist French revolutionary Jacobin took over the building, they didn’t want it to go the same way as Saint Jacques, so they converted it into a place to store the dead of famous Frenchmen. In the crypt underneath, you can see the final resting places of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Rousseau, and Marie Curie.
Voltaire's resting place
The real magnificent thing though, is the what’s in the main hall above the famous French dead folk. There hangs Foucault’s pendulum, which was first hung to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. Basically, the idea is that if you hang a pendulum, the earth will rotate underneath it as it swings. If it’s a big enough and long enough pendulum, then you can even measure this in a noticeable manner. And indeed, as the day ticks on, the pendulum does in fact seem to rotate (though it’s not, it’s the Earth that’s rotating).
the swinging pendulum
The other really cool attraction at the Pantheon, which I didn’t know was going on and we were there just as one tour was taken up, is the tour of the dome. You can buy tickets for it onsite for two euros, but you need to be there at the right time. Tours are at 11, 12, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30 and 4:30. This is probably the best view you’re going to get of Paris, as it looks straight to the Eiffel Tower, with the tower looming massively and indecorously over the rest of the city. In winter, go for the 4:30 so you can see the tower all lit up.
the hall is full of massive statues
it's an impressive and massive place
There’s never a line at the Pantheon or for the dome, so don’t worry about it. Everyone’s still waiting in line at Notre Dame!
From the Pantheon, the view of the Eiffel Tower was too enticing. We were going to see it the next day, but decided to go ahead and go that night. After a short nap at the hotel, we continued on, heading first through the Luxembourg Gardens.
the writer himself
the front of the Pantheon
the view from the Pantheon
The Luxembourg Gardens, along with the Palace, was built in the 1612 by the Queen Mother Marie de'Medici after the death of her husband King Henry IV. She wanted a palace to remind her of her home in Florence, so she had the building designed after the Pitti Palace and built a huge park like that of one in Florence.
The Luxembourg Palace which houses the French Senate
The royalty after Marie didn't care much for the Gardens, but after the French Revolution when the French government took over and housed there, it was expanded, renovated, and revived back to its former glory. It then served as Napoleon's chief residence, and after his demise, was converted to the home of the French Senate.
The gardens themselves are quite lively, full of people jogging, walking, painting, and begging. It's an easy spot to spend an hour just relaxing on a bench with a view of the Medici Fountain and the Senate hall.