In May this year I had the opportunity to go to Paris for a few days, and as you can probably gather from the title of the post, I grabbed it with both hands.
The opportunity arose because I was going to Toulouse for a marketing conference. Since I had to fly via Paris it seemed rude not to explore the very popular city. When I mentioned this to a good friend she proceeded to invite herself along, and before we knew it we were planning our holiday. This is how we went about it:
We didn’t shop around for tickets since my flights were booked by my company, so my friend just booked the seat next to me. Since we landed at around 6am and we had a full day planned, I decided to pop a sleeping pill for the first time in my life – best. decision. ever.
We each had a couple of non-negotiable sights we wanted to see, but we were in agreement that we didn’t want to rush from one tourist trap to the next. After some negotiation we decided to pre-book tickets and tours for the Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge and Arc de Triomphe (we ended up skipping Arc de Triomphe because we were having too much fun elsewhere).
That means we had one set appointment on most days, leaving us with plenty of flexibility to find the other things we wanted to see and do – on our list was exploring neighbourhoods like Montmarte and Les Marais, checking out Champs Elysees, browsing Sephora and French pharmacies (obviously), wining in dining in multiple sidewalk cafes, eating crepes on street and just generally immersing ourselves in the Parisian life.
I would definitely recommend booking your tours beforehand, and being clever about it. We were not willing to stand in queues for hours since we had limited time, so we booked skip the line tickets + small group tours for Louvre, Eiffel Tower at night, Notre Dame and Arc de Triomphe. The guided tours made the experiences so much more valuable – especially for the Louvre. Be careful of large tours though – we saw some of the large groups and they were rushed through and it looked generally unpleasant. We used Viator to book all our tours and I would happily use them again – we had no hassles.
We initially looked into the Paris Pass, but when we did the math it wasn’t the most economical option for our specific itinerary.
We booked hop-on hop-off bus tickets for each of the four days, and it’s a great way to get around while familiarising yourself with the city – we used this one. The Metro is a cheaper and faster option, but but we were keen on seeing the city since it was both our first time there. We took a couple of ubers and uber pool rides (where you share with others) at night and while they’re not cheap, they’re doable. Just don’t expect any advice or conversation from your drivers – very few of them could speak even basic English. Out of the two Uber Pool rides we took, one went really well and the other was spent looking for our third passenger for 10 minutes.
From the airport to the hotel we took a private taxi – they charge a flat rate of 50 Euro. For our trip back to the airport we arranged a shuttle through our hotel for about half the price.
We knew from the start we weren’t going to spend a lot of time at our hotel, so we decided not to spend a lot of money on it. We chose the 18th Arrondissement, and we were very happy to have a view of the Moulin Rouge from our window (about 300m away) and a Monoprix supermarket right across the road.
There was absolutely nothing fancy about the Moulin Plaza Hotel, but it was clean, air conditioned, easy to find, and the front desk is open 24 hours. The staff was 50/50 – some were really helpful, others were downright rude.
The location was ideal for us as our bus stop (as well as the Metro) was 200m away, and we could find a variety of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops for drinks or dinner within walking distance after a long day of exploring. We ended up sleeping an average of four hours a night, so we were very happy to fall into clean, comfortable beds but definitely would have regretted spending more money on more luxurious accommodation.
For the most part I found French food a little underwhelming. Food I did enjoy were snails, foie gras (I obviously had to try it), a great burger (surprisingly) and bread, cheese, meats, pizza, quiche and pastries. So many pastries.
I had the most disappointing steak and frites of my life on the Champs Elysees and didn’t enjoy salad anywhere (I suspect we’re spoilt with Woolies quality produce). We both agreed that we enjoyed the tapas/deli style food more than actual meals.
It’s also a bit of a mission to find chilled water and drinks, and don’t even get me started on ice – we were constantly asking everyone for ice. I generally enjoy drinks cold, and the fact that we were there slap bang in the middle of a heatwave (we’re talking 37 – 38 degrees) didn’t help.
Out and about
Exploring the city is an amazing experience. There are so many beautiful things to see that I kept catching myself gawking at buildings in true tourist-style. We did quite a bit of reading up beforehand, so we knew to be vigilant with our bags and money – but I can’t say that I ever felt the need to look over my shoulder.
When looking for restaurants, don’t be lazy. The busy, touristy streets have very elevated prices, but you often only have to walk 500m to find the same offerings at nearly half the price – with better service to boot.
We walked kilometres every day without realising it, so make sure you have a second pair of shoes on you in case you need to swop – I did this around lunch time every day.
Public toilets are few and far between and you pay to use them, so make sure to use the facilities when you’re in a restaurant or bar. Unfortunately even those are filthy – they make a dodgy petrol station bathroom look good.
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to write about Parisian people or not, since I can’t possibly sum up an entire nation from the limited number of people I interacted with.
On the bad side, I encountered a lot of exceptionally rude men. This ranged from bumping/stepping on toes/nearly knocking my wind out without even acknowledging with a wave or nod in apology, to being on the receiving end of multiple sexually inappropriate gestures and comments.
I also realised that we (South Africans) are very polite. The French don’t say please and thank you nearly as much as we do, and nobody apologises every single time they accidentally nudge/bump/knock someone else. They just move on. And don’t assume the person in front of you is going to hold the door open for you, even if you’re half a second away.
On the good side, we met a lot of fun and friendly people. A photographer snapped us and wanted nothing in return for hard copies of his pictures, except for permission to use them. Olga, our badass waitress at Rouge Bis (right opposite Moulin Rouge) chased away anyone who looked as if they were going to bother us, and ended up ignoring our actual orders and bringing us one speciality drink after another and was very concerned when she (mistakenly) thought I was crying. Two strangers asked if they could join us and proceeded to drunkenly tell us the history of the Moulin Rouge in broken English. Josephine, our Louvre tour guide, was phenomenally knowledgeable and friendly.
Tips & Observations
Sephora on Champs Elysees is totally overwhelming in the best possible way. We systematically worked our way through the store, each left with a bag and then went back a second time.
I was so impressed by Moulin Rouge. We booked the late show to save money, and sipped champagne while being entertained. Queue up early though – we were some of the last people to be ushered in and we didn’t get great seats.
The Louvre is thoroughly mind blowing. We worked our way through three centuries in two hours, and we were really happy that we skipped the queue and had a guide. Go early, it gets super busy.
Galleries Lafayette is absolutely worth a browse for fragrance and beauty lovers.
The only attraction I didn’t enjoy was Notre Dame. I chalk this down to a combination of a sucky experience I had half an hour before our tour started, a tour guide that didn’t quite read her audience, and it not being as beautiful as I had imagined. Saint Chapelle might have been a better option.
I have a moderate fear of heights and I went up the Eiffel Tower. I think the fact that it was dark helped. And also the chill pill and giant G&T my friend gave me beforehand.
Be very, very sure of your travel partner. We only realised afterwards how in sync we were, and how different our trip could have turned out if we weren’t on the same wavelength.
To be very honest, I went to Paris because it felt wrong to start exploring France anywhere else – a bit of a ‘get it over with’ attitude. I ended up enjoying my time there more than I could possibly imagine, and I’m already torn re whether I should go back there when the opportunity arises again or whether I should explore a different part of Europe (because Spain is UP THERE on the list).
If you’re planning a trip or have specific questions about mine, you’re welcome to ask in the comments and I’ll try answer as best I can.
Also: Would you like to see what I bought in Paris?