If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. — Ernest Hemingway
I’ve waited 42 years to finally see the City of Lights. And I fell in love, with its buildings, its bridges and its cafés.
Being in Paris in unlike traveling in other cities. It’s not just the history – the United Kingdom has that in droves, as does Greece, Italy and other parts of the world. It’s the feeling you get as you walk down the street. It’s imagining the history that happened right where you’re standing. It’s the respect the city has for its architecture and history. (I live in Toronto, where the oldest structure is less than 200 years old.) It’s hard to explain, really. All I know is when I mention Paris to those who have been there, a certain look comes over their face: the eyes light up, their heads nod slowly, a sigh escapes their mouths.
One thing about Paris is that you will want to see everything in the time you are there. Unless you plan on staying there for six months, you will not see everything. You won’t even get to see the places and things on your list. And if you do, you won’t be able to spend much time seeing them. Because if you dawdle at one place too long, you won’t be able to see THIS or THAT, and oh! I never knew THAT was there, and why is there a line-up at THIS place? and those people at the next table are raving about THAT, so I’ll just have to go THERE…
Okay, take a deep breath. Relax. Accept the fact that you won’t see all of Paris. Instead, experience Paris — walk her streets, take in her beauty and prepare to be overwhelmed.
If you’re planning to visit Paris for the first time, read these tips. You’ll thank me later.
1. Buy a good guide book (with lots of photos) and read it all. It will give you a sense of each neighbourhood, or arrondissement, in Paris, which is important to know when booking a hotel or apartment. Heavily into art and culture? The Marais is a good district for that, with its galleries and artisans. Want to be in the middle of everything? Les Invalides is a ritzy and central neighbourhood. Shopping? Try the Opera district. Also do your research. There is no excuse for not knowing how to ask for your bill, or what to tip your server (nothing — the tip is built into cost, but leaving a Euro or two won’t hurt if the service is good).
2. Download the Time Out Paris app. It’s free and works even if you have your data roaming off. Leave the guide book in the hotel room – you won’t want to lug it around with you. The app has great maps and a GPS system, which lets you know not only where you are at the moment, but also how far you are from your destination. Besides, do you want to look like a lost tourist pouring through your maps and books? Or would you rather look like some local who is simply checking their emails, while you’re really figuring out where the closest Metro stop is.
3. Wear comfortable shoes. I cannot stress this enough. You will be walking a lot because you will want to walk a lot. No matter where you want to go to, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination. Paris is like a gigantic museum; you turn a corner and BAM! there’s some beautiful statue/building/bridge that takes your breath away. And you can still look chic while rocking some clean, cool sneakers and nice jeans.
4. Navigate the Metro. Paris’ transit system is great, once you get the hang of it. A word of warning: as my friend Andrew put it, you can’t get there from here. There will be times when you have to make a connection that seems to take you in the direction you just came from. There will also be times when it’ll be faster to walk. Play it by ear. It may save you time and sore feet.
5. Buy a museum pass. Paris has many great museums. Most of them are included in the price of a pass. You can buy a one-, three– or six-day pass. Do it. Not only does it cost less than paying admission to each museum, it sometimes lets you skip any long line-ups. You can buy a pass at any museum. (Tip: If you are pressed for time, skip the Louvre and go to the Musée d’Orsay. It’s not as large and easier to navigate.)
6. Skip the McDonald’s and Starbucks and frequent the gazillion cafes and brasseries that seem to be on every corner. Some patisseries offer coffee to go, if you don’t want to stop your sightseeing. You’re in France, stupid – enjoy the incredible cuisine. Don’t eat anything you could get at home.
7. Eat a croissant. Eat a lot of croissants. I defer to Andrew again in describing how goddamn good they are: “It’s like they found a magical way to cram as much butter into a croissant and have it still feel light and airy.” Seriously – go nuts.
8. Drink lots of wine. Even the house wines at restaurants taste infinitely better than anything you get at your local liquor store. Have it for lunch and dinner, or grab a small bottle and head to a local park.
9. LIVE. Don’t count calories, don’t wonder how much fat is in a croissant (a LOT, if you really want to know). Don’t think – just eat. And enjoy yourself. I maybe had one salad in all the time I was there. I lived off carbs and meat, wine and caffeine. And I didn’t gain a pound because I walked a lot. If you pack your exercise gear or deny yourself a macaron, you have no business being in Paris. Or on a vacation, for that matter. (Tip: Avoid the long line-ups for the elevator at the Eiffel Tower and take the stairs. It’s a workout with great views.)
10. Avoid the cheap, tacky souvenirs. If you really love your friends, bring them back chocolate or little jars of jam or mustard from Vauchon or Hediard. Or print and frame your photos as gifts. You will take a lot of photos and they will all be lovely (see mine below). (Tip: The second level of the Eiffel Tower, the top of the Arc de Triomphe and the ninth floor of Printemps provide breathtaking views of Paris. It’s also worth the wait to go up the towers of Notre-Dame if you want some gargoyles-looking-down-at-Paris shots.)
You won’t get to see everything. But don’t worry – you’ll be back. Paris is a city that you will return to. Because you will want to go back. You’ll be planning your next trip to Paris on the plane ride home. Paris lives with you, in your heart and in your head. Hemingway was absolutely right — it is a moveable feast.