If you take the Eurostar to Paris from another city in Europe (we came from London) you’ll step outside the Gare du Nord and immediately become enchanted with all the sights and sounds around you. Although this was my second time in my Paris I was no less mesmerized than my husband, who was laying eyes on the city for the very first time. We briefly took in the view then headed over to the long line for cabs. I suggest waiting in the long line (it goes fast!) and not taking any of the sketchy offers for expedited service; there are scams all over the outside of that train station, including women yelling, “Does anybody speak English!?”. These women are trying to take your money; I had to shoo one of them away from my husband after he instinctually answered “Yes, we speak English!”. And so began our journey in the City of Lights.
The hotel we chose- Hotel Marais Home, is located in the 11th arrondissement, just a stroll away from the Place de Republique, an ideal spot for diverse people watching. Although the rooms are quite small and the wireless was shoddy at best, the staff was absolutely lovely and the location cannot be beat. You literally cross the street and you are in the Marais amongst all these cool shops and about a million amazing restaurants–we ate some of the best food we’d ever had in our lives in this neighborhood. BONUS: Since the hotel is not technically in the Marais, but across the street in the 11th, you can expect to pay a far more reasonable rate. There’s also a great deal to explore a bit north in the nearby neighborhood of Oberkampf; we found some great restaurants and the nightlife is supposed to be some of the best in the city (we wouldn’t know–our lifestyle resembles that of grandparents more than bar-hopping hipsters 🙂 ).
Sometimes I like to make plans on the first day we arrive in a city; other times I think it’s best to just wander freely and rest up for the next full day. Since we arrived in Paris quite early, we were able to schedule a tour for later on in the afternoon. This allowed us to check into our hotel, get something to eat, and walk about leisurely to sort of get our bearings. The tour we scheduled–the Time Travel to Montmartre, is a tour of the unique hill-top community in Paris. We booked the tour through an amazing company we were lucky enough to find while planning– Sight Seeker’s Delight. One of the best and I think most unique things about this company is that if you plan well enough in advance, you can schedule tours for whatever time is most convenient for you. The groups are small and we were lucky to meet a family of travelers on our tour that were an absolute blast.
Scheduling the tour of Montmartre on the first day was one of the best things we could have done. We got to walk through and see so much of the city just to get to our meeting spot; moving through each neighborhood really gave us a start in establishing a sense of direction. Once in Montmartre, I think it’s imperative to go through with a guide–at least on your first try. The route the guide takes you on is invaluable in itself; if on our own, we would have probably tried to walk straight up the hill and been exhausted at some point and given up. Instead, we were guided around bends and up smaller hills with much more ease. Plus, if on our own, we would have passed by so many spots without learning their significance. For example the garden you see through the gates below was where a roundup of Jewish children took place during the war. You’ll have to take a tour with Sight Seeker’s to find out about the other shots; trust me, there was a story around every corner.
The big payoff when you finally get to the top of the hill is the Sacre Coeur Basilica–which we preferred over the gothic architecture of the Notre Dame which we saw later. We were both blown away by the beauty of the structure inside and out, and the view from the top of the hill is one you will never forget.
We had only one regret from our time spent in Montmartre and it’s a surprising one–we wished we would have sat and had our portrait drawn by one of the artists in the Place du Tertre. Sure it’s super cheesy, but sometimes those run of the mill touristy things are worth it, and this is one we feel like we missed out on. The area is super crowded and is known for pickpockets so we hurried out to a quieter scene. Instead we should have kept an eye on our bags and taken a seat to get drawn in such an artistically historical spot–it would have made a great memory and been a great souvenir!
Our next day began with a free city tour from SANDEMANs, a company I’ve talked about pretty extensively, here. We took the “free” (you tip!) tour in every city we visited and I have to say hands down–Paris was the best. This was largely in part due to our unbelievable guide, Jake. While writing this I had to ask my husband if he remembered that tour guide’s name from Paris and his response was, “Jake–How could you forget, he was your FAVORITE!”. I guess my praise for him went on and on during our trip, but it was well deserved. His tour was everything an introduction to a city should be, and more. The route he led us on through the city somehow seemed to correspond chronologically with the historical events he described along the way. We’d stop at a site and he’d often recap and say, “Remember when I told you…”, and then the story would grow. We were able to contextualize each moment in history he shared with us; we felt transported.
If you take this tour, make sure to listen for the sentence, “Is Paris burning?”. We were especially fascinated by this story about Hitler’s plan to destroy everything visually and culturally significant in the most beautiful city in the world.
The last great thing I’ll say about Jake is that he left us with some invaluable tips for the rest of our trip. We were planning on waking up early the next morning to get in line to visit the Louvre. Instead, we took his suggestion and skipped the main entrance with the pyramids and walked right through one of the “secret” entrances he showed us. It was great because since we are not big art people, we didn’t have to make our visit to the famous museum the central part of our day. After our tour we slipped in, saw the Mona Lisa and a few other significant paintings, and we were on our way.
After the Louvre we were met with quite a drizzly part of the day; we decided it was the perfect time to go check out the Notre Dame. We actually got one rainy day everywhere we went in Europe. Each time we grabbed our plastic ponchos and took advantage of the shorter lines at popular spots. The line at the Notre Dame still seemed lengthy but it went by quite quickly, so don’t let that deter you.
Like I mentioned before, my husband and I were both more taken with the beauty of Sacre-Coeur, but I think the Notre Dame offers it’s own experience as well. I found it fascinating to watch how some tourists acted in the church; it was almost as if it was an amusement park. I wondered if what I was witnessing was a reflection of the world becoming more secular or just of the selfie emerging as the main goal of a tourist’s visit to a site. I am not a religious person but more of a spiritual one. This is to say that I do not believe that God is present in the Notre Dame any more than he is present in a supermarket. Still, standing in the church I was swept with an obligation of catholic school-like silence; the meticulous detail of the construction left me in respectful awe of it’s creators. I sat in a pew and found the diverse reactions to the church as captivating as the space itself.
Since we traveled around Europe for about 3 weeks, we had to pause for some practical things, like laundry. These tasks make for the best memories; there’s always a little adventure when trying to “do as the locals do”, and this was no different. I’ll leave you with a few snaps from that afternoon. While our clothes were in the wash, we sat on a bench outside the laundromat and ate unbelievable soup and french bread from a nearby cafe. C’est la vie.
Stay tuned for the second half of our trip. Still to come…walking along the Seine, Pere Lachaise, and a day trip to Versailles!
PS–Our first stop on our adventure was London– read all about our time there, here!