Updated: Oct 11
I know it’s cliché to say that Paris is one of my favorite cities. But after more than a few visits, it has grown on me. The first time I was there, I was traveling across the continent with an accordion in tow, playing on the streets to make enough for food and hostels and filling in the gaps with the generous tranche I received after leaving Peace Corps. But now, married and with a kid, the past few times it’s had a completely different look. With professional jobs, and less looking for dives to drink and more for family activities, Paris has definitely moved up.
It is though, still problematic to see the “real Paris” since we keep taking different people there, meaning we’ve got re-see the sights every time. But I’ve learned a few things. And here I’ll make a run down to what’s been my ideal trip – which is really my last trip with my parents, wife, and kid – which was more than anything, focused on keeping the kid entertained and not breaking down with a dramatic tearfest in the metro/restaurant/café/fill-in-the-blank.
All good until the first café, when he didn’t want to sit on the romantic street front that is the whole reason to go to a restaurant in Paris and instead started having a complete meltdown in the swank brasserie we had chosen. Finally, at the growing sense of unease among the other clientele and a perhaps insincere comment from an elderly patron about "how cute" the tantruming child was, we acquiesced to my infant’s wishes, and we moved inside. Turns out, his tantrum was led by some sort of barometric pressure reading, since as soon as we sat down it start pouring les chats et les chiens, as they definitely don’t say anywhere in France outside an English lesson.
Anywho, this short Guide will probably be promoted into a Facetious Guide to France (after I write about Occitania, Alsace-Louraine, Loire, Champagne, Annecy, and Bretagne – sorry Bordeaux, unless some hotelier wants to invite us out there!). Unlike my previous guides though, which were rendered somewhat useless by the pandemic, instead of advising which place to eat a croissant or find the best accordion music, I’ll instead merely regale the reader with my pleasant sarcasm and wit and wish for the best.
And here I must plug my kind of useless (in a hasn't-been-updated-after-covid sense) Guide to Prague. Best review was a one star: "I wasn't expecting a guide!"
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS OF PARIS
With its nighttime armies of giant rats and daytime armies of buskers, touts, and pickpockets, it’s a hard city not to love. And get this, the current mayor dreams of making the river swimmable, which I think is a laudable plan, if not a McDo burger short of a Happy Meal. Gazing down at the sludge-brown waters of the Seine, you can imagine the layers of dead bodies that have been tossed in over the two millennia history of the town. But I do dream of swimming one day with our dead Gallic ancestors, just mind whatever seems to be grabbing at your ankles.
I really do love the city more and more with each visit. Don’t let my facetiousness fool you. I’ve found that it has mysteriously good parking (if not absurdly expensive, which might be why there's a lot of "good" parking), so it’s definitely an option to drive a car there to escort your touristic friends. For now, as I hear that the mayor also yearns to throw all those parking spaces into the Seine. Good thing it will be swimmable.
Toilets are everywhere. 24 hours and free. With a clever “bum guard” feature – a chemical bath after every use, or after 30 minutes of occupation. There are also pissoirs around – a place for men to pee that may or may not cover the view of the wang. We’re all adults here though, why do you need to stare at a man peeing in a pissoir? These are gender neutral pissoirs as well, despite the masculine grammar behind the word. If you can use it, go for it, nobody’s going to check like you’re in Virginia.
GETTING TO PARIS
You could, as most Americans and people of nations further than Germany, fly into Charles de Gaulle airport. This sprawling and modular airport is well-connected to the city and you’d have to be some kind of nutter to not find an easy way to the center. Just hop on the RER and off you go. The RER is basically the metro, except faster at some points above ground, so not a “metro”. Maybe a “much buried commuter rail” would be most accurate. It’s also the most comfortable seating, most express, and tends to have seats large enough to stash your luggage. This is also my suggestion to take from Paris du Nord.
If you’re like my parents, you could be cursed with family in Brussels. They came to us first to begin this escapade, which meant going from Brussels Midi Station to Paris du Nord, then hopping on the RER to our hotel in Montparnasse.
Brussels Midi gets a bad rap. Yes, for sure the area around it has a precariously high crime rate. But you have to realize, that the crime is relative. It’s high for Europe. For the United States, it’s laughable. It’s akin to some small town in the Midwest. You might get pickpocketed, and that’s about it (okay, let's be honest, in a small American town you're more likely to get murdered and bonked on the head in a TikTok video than pickpocketed). People aren’t going to mug you, rough you up, or murder you or anything. So don’t worry about that. Just don’t leave your phone out while scarfing donuts at Dunkin’. The neighborhood is a bit rough around the edges and you might see a car on fire after the occasional football match, but what city doesn’t feature that? The station itself though is modern and clean and really quite meh.
As for Paris du Nord, the same. A bit more historic-looking and feeling, but you get off the train and literally go straight to the metro/RER so who really cares. You’re at the station for all of 5 minutes.
Your main choices to get to Paris from Brussels by train are two highspeed options, Eurostar and TGV. They’re nominally the same, except TGV includes a stop at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris. They are insanely fast, it takes a little over an hour to get from Brussels to Paris, which means you just settle down in your seat, fart, crack open your book, and voilà! You’re there.
STAYING IN PARIS
The first time I stayed in Paris I was near Gare du Nord. Don’t judge, it was the only overpriced, short-term flat I could afford. When I was there, it was a cheaper neighborhood, but low prices have pushed out to St. Denis. I never had any problems there myself, but it was a bit sketch neighborhood (as is any hood near a train station and a McDo). Nowadays, gentrification has hit a bit and now it’s actually a decently well-connected hood. And McDo is no longer just for poor people, but is now a legit fashionable place.
Montmarte is a pretty neighborhood to stay in that’s on the cheaper end. The disadvantage there is there’s a lot of hill-walking and it’s not so well connected to the metro, depending on where you’re at. Lots of young people hang there and stay there because they’re not keen on going outside of the hills and thus forced to walk back up the hills.
Sure, you could stay in the 5th, but you’re paying for that stay, mes amis. You can get decent food for decent prices there, and it’s probably where you’ll end up most of your visit, but the hotels are steep. That said, we stayed there once for like 120 in a cute little hotel near the Pantheon called Hotel de Senlis, which is apparently closed for renovation until 2022 (and so it goes in Paris). It was an odd place for a newlywed couple, since our room went out directly to the courtyard. But at least you’re right next door to Emily in Paris, eh (that’s what Google Maps tells me)?
Montparnasse is my new favorite part of town though. It’s the most well-connected hood in the city. Literally there are metro lines going to every single other part of the city. It’s got a lot of shopping options, affordable dining, and it’s right smack next to Luxemburg Park – if you’re traveling with kids, that means it’s great. Just don’t stay where we did at the Hotel Danemark, featuring its permanent sign of “The lift is not working today”, which was true every day we were there.
But really, anything inside the ring is fine, as long as you’re used to disappointment.
EATING IN PARIS
Paris is a city of food, but it’s all really expensive so you might have to make do with buying a sandwich at the grocery store and sitting down on the embankment with a nice view of the construction site once known as Notre Dame.
Actually, that’s not true.
I mentioned those nice little tables that adorn the pavements everywhere in Paris. If you want to eat or hang out at the nicer looking tables and you’re on a budget, that’s generally perfectly fine. Get a coffee and a croissant – which costs about the same everywhere you go in the city. They won’t judge you unless there’s a rush during mealtimes. If you’ve got un petit faim though, look for the appropriate eatery and not a brasserie, mes amis.
Hungry for a sandwich? Find a sandwicherie.
Hungry for a breaded item? Head to the boulangerie.
Want some sweets? A patisserie or sucrerie.
Want some brass? A brasserie.
They got a separate classification of business for everything, and different times they’ll be open. The American Diner 24/7 kitchen model is most definitely not a thing in France. It makes dealing with groups incredibly difficult, since they have all got to agree in advance on what the hell they want when they want, because God-forbid you go to a sandwicherie and have a hankering for a pasta. Also keep in mind “kitchen always open” just means it’s open between mealtimes (which is rare) and not necessarily through the night.
That said, what’s neat is that you can go to a decent enough looking brasserie, with wood floors and turn of the century art nouveau décor – you know, something really cultural – and pull out your laptop and get to work, and nobody’s going to give a damn. You have got to be really annoying to get a Frenchie to give a damn. They will, but only secretly because it would then show they’re not as cool as they’d like to appear, and they will do it in some ultra condescending way that’s super easy for an American to ignore and “mistake” for friendliness, if you’ve got the skill for that.
THINGS TO DO TO KEEP YOUR TRIP SHORT
That is for the next few blogs, so I’ll see you back for those. But to tell you the truth, you can’t really do Paris in a few days. It’s a massive city with lots of little charming spots squeezed in all over. You can do the tourist spots in a day or two, and I’ll tell you how and what, but Paris is most definitely more than views of the Eiffel Tower – it is everything BUT the tourist spots – no matter what Parisien city designers have told you.
If you’ve been to Paris, please share your favorite places in the comments and/or stay tuned!