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A first timers guide to Paris

So I told a bit of a lie in this post title. Technically this wasn’t my first time in the City of Light.

Let me tell you about my prior experience of Paris before we begin. Back in 2010, I took between 40-50 teenage girls to Paris on a school day trip. Yes, just picture that for a second. I wasn’t a teacher, but I used to manage volunteering and community for a large law firm and one of our community projects was to take local teenagers on a day trip to improve their French. It was a long, difficult and tiring day and it gave me so much horror that I never revisited the idea of travelling to Paris again.

Over the years I’d heard divisive opinions about the French capital which only added to my reluctance to travel, but given its proximity to the UK and my plan to fit in as many European city breaks as possible this year, I cast my fears aside, bit the bullet and booked a trip.

The question is, would my reluctance be well-founded?

Getting Around

Much like my trip to Brussels, the easiest way to get to Paris from the south of England is my beloved Eurostar, and with no hassle at all we sped off to our destination. The Eurostar is not necessarily the cheapest way to get there, but it’s a good way because you don’t have to faff with baggage, you don’t have to arrive ridiculously early as you do with flights and the Eurostar takes you into the heart of the city straight away.

There are of course flights with a range of both budget and higher end airlines if that is more convenient and more your bag. I just love a train ride!

On that note, Paris is extremely easy to get around, both by foot and by the metro. Metro tickets were surprisingly cheap (especially if you are used to London prices), and when our feet became weary, it was a godsend just to hop on a train to our next destination. You can buy a single ticket, or you can buy a batch of 10 tickets which saves you some cash if you know you are going to travel by metro a lot.

Where To Stay

I booked a fabulous deal to Paris with Holiday Pirates which included Eurostar travel, a boat cruise and a 4* hotel for two nights. We were based in the more bohemian Monmartre area, close to the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur and whilst Monmartre as a place wasn’t quite for us (more on that later!), we weren’t right near some of the famous Paris attractions which definitely made it less touristy.

Paris is split into “arrondisements”, and if you are looking for hotel or Airbnb options you may find their locations described as such. Grab a Paris map and decide which arrondisement you’d like to be based in, and start your accommodation search there.

We stayed in the utterly charming Hotel Josephine. Inspired by cabaret star Josephine Baker, and part of the Happy Culture chain of hotels it had a shabby chic sort of feel, with lots of cabaret and burlesque influences dotted about. Although it felt a little “worn” to be considered a real 4-star hotel, it was a fantastic base for our weekend adventure.

The other amazing thing about Happy Culture hotels is their concept of “happy time”, which is essentially a happy hour during the evening at each hotel. In Hotel Josephine it was absinthe cocktails (a bit much for us), but you can pop in to any Happy Culture hotel to join in their happy hour (ranging from wine, beer, champagne and cocktails) by showing your room key. They even have an app you can download to find those closet to you and find out when their happy hour runs. Given Paris can be quite expensive food + drink wise, this was a lovely way to get the evening started!

Top Attractions

You’re never going to fit in all that Paris has to offer in just two nights. It’s just that simple. Much like any very large City, the options are expansive and places like The Louvre can take days to fully explore. So we put on our walking shoes and headed for the big ticket Paris attractions, with a couple of left-field sights thrown in for good measure.

Once again, if you want a great free walking tour, Sandemann’s offers one which takes you from the Notre Dame to the Tuileries Garden and gives you some interesting insights into the culture and history of Paris. If you don’t take a walking tour I would very much recommend a walk along The Seine because it is very pretty AND you get to see some of the best bridges, architecturally speaking, in Europe.

Bateaux Mouches Boat Cruise

I would consider the Bateaux Mouches to be an absolute must do on a first trip to Paris. Starting right by the Eiffel Tower and taking you all the way to just past the Notre Dame and back again, this is a great way to see Paris from a different angle, rest your feet and hopefully enjoy a little sunshine. It takes just about an hour, and gives you a real sense of where all the attractions are located. Plus, you can take your own food and drink on board!

We did this during the day, but it runs through the evening – and I can imagine a boat cruise with Paris all lit up would be something very romantic!

Cost: 13.50 euros per adult.

Notre Dame De Paris

Widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and one of the largest and most famous church buildings in the world, if you like churches and gothic architecture you’ll probably like this. It’s beautiful both inside and out, but I’d advise visiting early if you want to avoid all the crowds.

It has an interesting history too (particularly with regards to the French Revolution and the Pope’s visit during the Napoleon years, and the Sandeman’s tour will give you some interesting insight. We didn’t climb the tower, but you can climb the 422 steps for a great view of Paris if you feel fit enough!

Cost: Free, or 10 euros per adult to climb the tower.

Arc de Triomphe

Built by Napoleon (though sadly not finished in his lifetime), this “triumphal arch” is an absolutely incredible sight and pictures just don’t do it justice. Located right at the top of the Champs Elysee, it looks out across all of Paris, and if you climb it (as we did), you’ll get insane views over Paris (including the Eiffel Tower) and be able to see the craziness of the 12 road Champs Elysee roundabout.

You can also see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was added in 1921. The ‘eternal flame’ is re-lit every evening at 6:30 pm.

Climbing the Arc de Triomphe is not for the feint hearted, it is hard work. But the pay off at the top is worth the effort.

Cost: 12 euros per person.

Eiffel Tower

Some people consider this beautiful. I was not one of them and it was possibly my most disappointing visit to a famous European attraction yet (more disappointing than the Mannekin Pis in Brussels!). But when in Paris it was worth seeing it, and although we opted not to climb the tower (we saved our climb for the Arc de Triomphe so the Eiffel Tower was in our view) we did catch sight of it at many different locations.

I definitely think the Eiffel Tower is more beautiful at night, so if you have an opportunity to visit then I would time it that way!

Cost: 17 euros to get right to the top, cheaper if you only want to go 2nd floor or don’t want lift access.

The Louvre

I really really wanted to head inside The Louvre, not least to see the Mona Lisa but Mr S is just not in to art, so we settled for a wander round the outside (to see the glass pyramid, obviously). The building itself it absolutely huge, probably the largest museum/gallery I’ve come across and it is worth going just to take a look at that.

Just note – it isn’t open on Tuesday’s so plan your visit accordingly!

Cost: 15 euros (including entrance to the Musée Eugène-Delacroix)

The Pantheon

Based in the Latin Quarter, we stumbled across The Pantheon by accident. It really is a beautiful building, slightly off the beaten track and with no crowds we were able to appreciate it fully. We also got an amazing view of the sunset with the Eiffel Tower in the distance, so if you are hunting for good Eiffel views, I’d recommend.

It’s inspired by both The Pantheon in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral in London so it will seem oddly familiar. It now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens.

Cost: 9 euros per adult.

Fontaine Saint-Michel

Located just a skip away from the Notre Dame, it is worth popping across the road to look at this spectacular piece of French architecture. It was actually built to hide an “end wall” in a road (a common thing in Paris) and was the last of these to be built. It’ll take just 5 minutes to visit, but it’s worth it.

Cost: Free

Place de la Concorde

One of the major public squares in Paris, it sits between the main Arc du Triomphe l’Etoile and the Tuileries Garden/Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. It is the largest square in the French capital and has an interesting history. During the French Revolution, it was renamed Place de la Révolution and a guillotine was placed here where King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793 and Marie Antoinette a little later.

The square was renamed Place de la Concorde as a gesture of reconciliation post revolution, but there is still a plaque to mark it’s bloody history. Bizarrely, the center of the Place is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk given by the Egyptian government in the 19th Century. Huh.

Cost: Free

Tuileries Garden

This is a garden of many gardens, created by Catherine Medici. It is beautiful (and really big), encompassing any styles and designs. It was a bit chilly when we visited to sit and chill out, but in the summer I can imagine this to be a lovely strolling/picnic destination.

Cost: Free

Paris Catacombs

And now for something COMPLETELY different. An underground ossury, visiting and walking round was a truly freaky and strange experience. A former disused quarry, remains from The Cemetery of the Innocents were placed here from 1786 after the cemetery was causing infections in local people nearby. But they weren’t just dumped – they were artistically arranged, following a ceremony of priests at nightfall right through to 1814.

As only 200 people are allowed in at one time, the queues can be quite large, and we queued for around an hour to visit. It’s worth it though. It’s hard to describe the scene down below, but it will be like nothing else you see in Paris.

Cost: 12 euros per adult

Sacre Couer

Located on top of the hill of Monmartre, this beautiful church is worth the climb up (although you can also take the furnacular up to save your legs!). It wonderful white stone provides a beautiful contrast to the blue sky (if you are lucky enough to get some, and inside it is just as impressive.

I was lucky enough to pop inside whilst a service was going on, and hearing the choir sing in that beautiful surrounding, the acoustics raising the voices up, honestly made me teary.

Cost: Free (and you can download a free audio guide too)

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

I’m planning to write a full guide to eating and drinking in Paris in the next couple of weeks, so for now, here is a list of the fantastic places we found. The food and drink in Paris is incredible, and I’m keen to return just to hop from bar to bistro to bar again.

Gorgeous steak at Le Relais
  • Le Relais de l’Entrecôte – amazing steak frites. The best meal we ate in Paris by some margin.
  • Bistro Melrose – based in Place du Clichy, we had an incredible traditional French meal for a bargain 39 euros including wine and an aperitif.
  • Kraft Hot Dog – This wouldn’t be out of place in Shoreditch. A trendy hole in the wall style eatery serving inventive hot dogs right in The Marais.
  • Mamie Burger – great burgers close to the Gare du Nord on the slightly edgy but definitely up and coming Rue de Fourberg.
  • Angelina – located on the Rue de Rivoli next to Tuileries Garden, this is a tea house but is famous for it’s hot chocolate. Believe me when I say you absolutely will not taste better!
  • Laduree – we visited the one on the Camps Elysee for mid morning macarons and cafe creme. For me, a trip to Paris is not complete without a taste of Laduree macarons!
  • Shakespeare + Co – a cafe and an English bookshop with amazing views of the Notre Dame. They also do fantastic vegan food and juices if you are that way inclined!
Apple tart at Bistro Melrose

In Conlusion

You’d think that by everything I packed in, I would have really loved Paris. But I didn’t. In fact, for the first day I really really hated Paris. Areas of Monmartre and Pigalle are horribly dirty and do have the smell of wee about them, and the big ticket items really left me cold. Many close friends told me how much I’d love Paris and I felt under so much pressure to feel the same way, but overall Paris did not capture my heart.

In many ways, I’d compare it to London. London is crowded, some of its famous landmarks disappointing and it can be dirty, smelly and grotty. But I live in London, so over time I’ve come to love its edges and I also know where to go to find the bits I love.

But that’s the point. Any very big city will have its drawbacks, and I believe Paris needs time and care to truly find its heart. The food was amazing, and I think I’d go back and just hang out soaking up Parisian life instead of seeing all the things people expect you to see as a tourist.

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the smaller cities such as Lisbon and Prague. Perhaps I needed to approach Paris differently. I’d love to hear your favourite parts of this huge and varied city so I can try again in the future!

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