Stepping off the Eurostar and onto the platform at the cavernous terminal of the Gard du Nord in Paris is exhilarating. Somehow, the human body knows it is Paris, one of the most exciting, cultured and romantic cities in the world. The veins tingle as adrenaline flows freely, preparing you for an extended weekend of sightseeing in a city where the sights are simply never ending.
We – my boyfriend and I – opted to stay in a studio apartment in the southern section of the city during our extended weekend away. The building was located between the 6th and 7th arrondissements (districts), of which there are twenty in total, arranged in a clockwise spiral that begins in the heart of the metropolis. Staying in a hotel in Paris can be very pricey and nigh impossible for many. Hence the reason we opted for a studio flat rented directly from the owner via homeaway.co.uk – at just €60 a night it was somewhat of a bargain. The apartment was situated in an historic building – very quiet, and typically Parisian. It was also a stone’s throw from a metro stop, and thus caused us to feel that we were experiencing ‘true’ Paris. I struggle to see how a hotel could offer the same experience.
But Paris, like so many other sprawling metropolises (that plural doesn’t sound right – metropolii?) around the world is also rather intimidating; where does the intrepid explorer begin? And while accepting that it’s not possible to see everything over an extended weekend, how do you make sure that you see enough?
Before I delve into my list of must sees and must dos, I’d like to stress that to really enjoy Paris, you need to be willing to just spend some time taking it all in. Wander the quiet side streets, eat from boulangeries every day, and drink more coffee than you have ever done before. Attempt to communicate with the locals in French (it really is appreciated), and don’t step foot in a Starbucks, McDonalds, or any other hideous chain establishment. Just eat, live and breathe Paris, because it’s atmosphere and way of life can’t really be accurately translated into words; it needs to be experienced.
Oh, and steer clear of the Champs-Elysees – it’s tacky, over crowded, and simply not worth a visit.
1. Visit the Eiffel Tower at Night
Standing proud and aloof in the midst of a dense urban sprawl, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most memorable and well-known buildings in the world. Having seen it so frequently in popular culture, you may think that seeing it in the flesh (or rather, iron) won’t thrill you. However, this is simply not the case. Seen from any angle, the tower never fails to be beautiful. And it always pops up when you least expect it – peering over rooftops, or peeking out from the side of buildings. It’s always there, and yet weaving through the nearby streets, it can seem impossible to actually locate.
Visiting the tower at night is highly recommended because where else in the world can you witness a 324 metre structure that looks like shimmering jewels?
2. Walk along the St. Martin Canal
This was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m so glad they did because if I visited Paris again, I would certainly revisit the St.Martin canal (we were rained off half way along). Green, leafy, and quiet, the canal is less frequented by tourists and instead oozes authenticity. The water is lined by cafes, boulangeries and boutiques, such as the beautiful Antoine et Lili, where we couldn’t help but spend some of our heard earned euros.
Alight at metro stop Republique, and walk south along the canal.
3. Sit on the steps of the Sacre Coeur
Grab yourself a baguette, a bottle of red wine, and some plastic cups, and head to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. From the steps outside the basilica you can watch over the city and marvel at its immenseness, with the white, meringue-like peaks of the church jutting up to the sky behind you.
While you’re in this part of the city, be sure to go inside the Sacre Coeur – an eerie silence descends as you enter – and wander through the surrounding streets of Montmartre, stopping off at all of the bijou shops and cafes.
4. Visit the Musee D’Orsay
The Musee D’Orsay is a must if you’re a fan of the impressionists – you’ll find a superb collection of Monets, Manets, Renoirs and Degas, as well as Rodin sculptures, and a Van Gogh room, amongst other things. The building itself, previously a train station, is worth visiting alone, if only to marvel at its airy, vault-like rooms, and clean, contemporary design.
Do make sure you arrive early, as the queues build up very quickly. If you’re under 25 and an EU resident, you can get in for free with a valid form of ID.
5. Stop for coffee and pastries every day
If, by the end of your stay in Paris, you are not accustomed to saying the phrase ‘deux cafe au lait, sil vous plait’, then you simply have not immersed yourself into the Parisian way (unless you hate coffee, of course, in which case a ‘thé’ is fine). And don’t forget to eat your weight in pastries too. Whether it be breakfast, brunch, elevenses, lunch, or a mid-afternoon snack, croissants are always appropriate – why not try a different boulangerie each day?
6. Use the Metro to get around
At approximately €1.70 per journey, the metro is great value, and much cheaper than the tube in London. Don’t get me wrong – the best way to see a city is on foot, but if you try to walk everywhere your feet, like ours were, will be shredded by the end of the first day and you’ll be hobbling around for the remainder of your trip.
Our apartment was situated five minutes walk from a metro stop which we used to get in and out of the city. For those of you used to the crowded and claustrophobic nature of the tube in London, the metro is a breath of fresh air (or rather warm, underground air) as it is more spacious, less crowded, and waits for no one – sometimes the doors even open before the trains have ground to a halt!
7. Hire bikes and ride along the Seine
I must admit that I was initially nervous of hiring a bike in Paris. In London I’ve seen many a cyclist peddling for their life amongst the traffic rush, and have vowed never to take to the streets myself for fear of my life. In Paris, the thought of riding on the road, helmet-less (a sin, I know) was certainly intimidating. However, after spending a day or two watching Parisians gracefully riding through the streets on their way to work, dropping off their bikes at one of the many stations, and then casually walking into the office, I gave in to my boyfriend’s wishes, and decided to give it a go. I’m so glad that I did.
Paris is so different to London in many ways, and traffic is one of them. Cycle lanes are often in bus lanes, which are separated from the main carriageway, offering extra protection from the traffic. A further added bonus is that cycle lanes are generally continuous and often go onto pavements, or down by the river. Cycling along the Seine is peaceful and car free, and once you get away from the city a centre a little, the side roads are delightfully quiet. Don’t be put off by the credit card deposit system either – that’s just an insurance thing in case you make off with one of the bikes.