My highlights from being a first time tourist in Paris followed 3 themes: food, art and architecture. As cliché as it is, the food culture in Paris really is as impressive as you’d hope. The combination of quality products, professional service, and simply incredible cooking showed a pride in the food industry that you don’t see in any average restaurant. Coming from a few months spent in England, I realized how much I missed the traditional restaurant service that I was once accustomed to back home in Canada. Pub culture is great for a lot of reasons, but the unimposing attentiveness of a seasoned Parisian server made a great meal incredible.
My top tips for eating in Paris
1. Save up a food budget for your trip.
I was surprised at how big of an impact food had on our trip. We didn’t spend any money on souvenirs, shopping or many tourist attractions. I wouldn’t have traded a single meal we ate for a silk scarf! It will put you at ease knowing you have a little extra to order a bottle of wine or an entrée with your meals. Though, we were often pleasantly surprised at the reasonable price point of many of the meals we had, both coffee and alcohol were expensive in comparison, and can add up quickly.
2. Brush up on your basic French.
Remember those horror stories I mentioned about mean waiters? Well, I think after a bit of eavesdropping, I began to realize just how much servers appreciate respectful tourists. You don’t need to speak perfect French, but when people don’t try at all, don’t say polite greetings or please and thank you, it really rubs them the wrong way. And why shouldn’t it? Being in such a popular city they come across hundreds of tourists a day, therefore almost every server we had the pleasure of waiting on us spoke great English. The least we can do is say “bonjour”, “bonsoir”, “s’il vous plait”, “merci” and “au revoir.” We felt incredibly welcomed and taken care of by Parisians, with their warm hospitality and their willingness to help us when we stumbled upon language barriers. We spoke as much French as we knew and were often thanked for that, along with a few jokes asking why we couldn’t speak it fluently being Canadians.
3. Eat the classics, but don’t be afraid to go unconventional.
Yes, the boeuf bourguignon, crêpes and croque madame are essential. Eat all the cheeses, foie gras, breads and pastries. Tuck in to a rich and comforting coq au vin and warm your tummy with a cheesy bowl of French onion soup. Savour every bite of something extravagant that’s topped with truffles and wash it all down with a bottle of Champagne. That said, don’t avoid a small plates restaurant, a sushi bar or an Italian café. Paris knows how to do foods of the world and it would be a mistake to limit yourself to French classics. I ate amazing seafood, risotto, a wood fired pizza and even a pastel de nata that rivaled those of Lisbon.
My top tips for visiting the Louvre
1. Arrive for the first time at dusk.
We arrived to Paris on Friday afternoon and by that evening I was itching to get to the Louvre as an art lover. We walked from our hotel in the north side of the 2nd arrondissement. A long and leisurely stroll through the streets of Paris is a simple pleasure in life like no other. We realized we had made it to the Palais when we walked through the garden trees trimmed into perfect rectangles. As we stepped around one last corner I was stopped in my tracks by the awe-inspiring beauty. The glass pyramid, glowing in the centre of the square, looked otherworldly. The Palais structures surrounding the Louvre are exquisitely intricate but next to her, they are clearly supporting roles. In the far distance, Tour Eiffel twinkled flirtatiously. A lump formed in my throat but a few deep breaths of crisp Parisian winter air helped to soothe it. I knew then that our romantic first meeting was well worth the wait.
Two other advantages to visiting the Louvre in the evening are that after 6pm on a Wednesday or Friday, entrance is reduced to just €6 and entrance is free for under 26's on Friday evenings. We also found that the number of people we slim compared to any other tourist attraction we visited during our entire trip. Typically you’d stand in a line over hundreds to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, but on a quiet evening in December we stood a mere 10ft away from the masterpiece along with about a dozen fellow admirers.
2. Don’t feel pressured to view it in one go.
When we visited the Louvre on a Friday evening we took in about 3-4 big exhibits and took our sweet time, enjoying every minute. It’s a terrible feeling to be rushed when you know you should be savouring something incredible. The detail in the renaissance paintings can’t be appreciated in a 30 second glance and you’ll surely want to take a few minutes to gaze at the sheer enormity of The Winged Victory of Samothrace. The Louvre contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in 8 curatorial departments. As you can imagine, you may want to visit twice to take it all in stride and appreciate a few exhibits.
3. Spend an afternoon appreciating the Louvre from the outside.
There is no denying that the architecture itself is a work of art. On a sunny afternoon, go strolling to a nearby boulangerie, buy yourself a croissant and espresso and go sit on the stairs by the Louvre and watch the light glint through her glowing frame. If you’re lucky, there may be a street performer elegantly playing classical music on a violin in the tunnel, filling the courtyard with its sweet sound. There is so much beauty and history that surrounds the heart of the 1st arrondissement, best taken in on a sunny afternoon by foot.
My top tips for tourist attractions
1. Think about skipping some of the major attractions, especially if your time in Paris is short.
My biggest regret during our trip was visiting The Palace of Versailles. It took up an entire day and was pretty much beginning to end a nightmare. I hate crowds and I hate the feeling of a historic and prestigious landmark losing its magic. That was exactly what Versailles had in store, unfortunately. The initial line-up upon walking into the front gates astounded me; about 5 lines winded within the courtyard of about 80metres in length each and one final 100metre line up to the doors. This theme pretty much followed throughout the entirety of The Palace, with cramped crowds and lines of people that ran through each room, sometimes to the point that people began to get quite physical, pushing and elbowing their way through. The one upside was that entry was free due to the fact that we live in the EU and are under 26. The highlight of Versailles was the art. There were larger than life paintings of most major French battles that were organized by timeline and storyline via free headsets. That is where Jason and I spent the majority of our time, and since the rooms are so massive, the crowds seemed less overwhelming. The hall of mirrors was surreal and breath taking, however that’s only if you can see past the hundreds heads and backpacks. Versailles is undeniably beautiful, and maybe if you visited in the spring or summer the gardens alone would be worth experiencing (which is free and without lines as far as I know). However, if you hate crowds I would consider skipping this tourist attraction for a different experience within Paris city limits.
2. One place you surely cannot view the Eiffel Tower, is from inside the Eiffel Tower.
Do not skip seeing the Eiffel Tower when you are in Paris, I repeat, DO NOT SKIP. However, we felt it could’ve be a waste of time and money to go wait in another massive line to stand with hundreds of others inside the Tower. After all, you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from inside the Eiffel Tower, it’s main advantage is a view of Paris and you can get that in many other parts of the city for free and without waiting in line. We woke up in the morning and saw her for the first time at dawn, enjoying her beauty at sunrise. There were a few dozen people within about a mile of the Tower and it was a blissful serenity that we were yearning for. We were allowed this time to be completely in awe of such iconic architecture while the birds sang and nearby cafés prepared for opening. We visited once more at night to watch her twinkle in all her glorious light on the Pont de Bir Hakeim. From the bridges that pass over the Seine, you’ll have a perfect (and free!) view of Tour Eiffel. A quick Pinterest search will reveal many more “secret” spots that have a gorgeous view!
3. Consider your surroundings and be a respectful tourist.
We were so thrilled that viewing Notre Dame was completely free of charge and we only spent about 10 minutes in line, which was mostly a quick security check. However, once we were inside, we were amazed to see the hoards of people who were disrespecting almost every simple sign of respect that is expected when visiting holy monuments. Hats were on heads, flashes going off, loud talking and laughing and opening gates and walking into “prayer only” areas to get photos. One of my favourite parts of travelling is visiting cathedrals because of their incredible architecture, their rich history and most importantly, the overwhelming feeling that takes over when you sit in the pews, the sunlight streams through the stained glass and you can have a moment of silent reflection. Your mind can wander and imagine what tales the walls would tell if they could speak. Notre Dame was not very peaceful at all and I felt terrible for the people trying to pray. Be a respectful tourist and just be aware of your surroundings. It makes all the difference for the locals that are living in a popular city and also to your fellow tourists, I promise it will also make your own trip better.
Finally, and most importantly, simply go where your heart takes you. Don’t plan to the point of missing out on spontaneity. The beauty of a city is that it is alive! Everyday is a new and gorgeous creation just waiting to be found, so go on the adventure, and leave your schedule at the hotel.