You’ve got a week in Paris (or better, a weekend), and you want to see it all, do it all, buy it all and eat it all and still have time to make the trek out to Versailles for the day. Well, world travelers, if you’ve been to Paris before, you may have already a good idea of what needs to be seen and what needs to be avoided. For the rest of you, please please PLEASE take a moment to read the following friendly advice before you set off into the Parisian maze armed with your map, guide book, and camera.
Suggestion #1 Get Thee to Bed If you’re flying in from the Americas, chances are you’ll arrive early in the morning. If you’re not already half braindead from the jetlag, wait until you have to use your noggin for anything more strenuous than the act of eating or sleeping. Our brains don’t operate on full capacity when groggy, we all know that. Now imagine trying to perform the following tasks when half awake: figuring out the currency, paying the correct amount and knowing whether or not you’ve got the correct change; being dropped in the center of Paris on one of the airport busses and trying to navigate yourself through the metro, bus or street system to the hotel with your microscopic map and three large bags; explain to the waiter that you have a food allergy and/or vegetarian and/or need a franc for the toilets because all you have are large bills. Funny little things like this take on a surreal aspect if you’ve just arrived. Relax. Take a nap (but don’t sleep through the evening), then go out and have a nice dinner and a stroll. Don’t plan on doing anything more strenuous on your first day other than enjoy the fact that you’ve arrived (hopefully with your luggage). Besides, we all know the best views of Paris are to be had from café terraces and from benches along the Seine.
Suggestion #2 Avoid the Art Overdose Which one of these statements does not belong?: a) There are a few great museum passes for tourists that will allow you to see every museum in three days. b) The first Sunday of the month is free at all National museums. c) The Louvre is half priced for the last three hours of the day. If you chose answer ‘c’, you’re right! All of these statements are true, but the third is the only one you should pay attention to. Why? a) Unless you are an Art Historian, you may well go blind, crazy, or both if you spend more than a few hours a week in any museum doing the Artsy Shuffle alongside crowds of camera-toting coach groups and cranky children. b) Everyone and their poodle will be in line at every free museum an hour before opening time. (n.b. many of these lines extend to the great outdoors, which in Paris, is generally not great except on the third Friday of June every other leap year). c) This is the correct answer because you will pay for three hours of Louvre-wandering for 20ff instead of 40ff, of which at least one hour is spent happily gawking at the beautiful objets d’art. You will still spend the other two hours searching for the toilets, the Mona Lisa (hint: called La Jaconde in French) the snack bar, and/or the exit. The Louvre is BIG. Stand near the Carrousel du Louvre (the mini Arch of Triomphe across from the Pyramid, not a horsy carousel) and get a good gander at the way the Louvre’s wings span a few city blocks. Even with a good pair of inline skates and no crowds, you won’t want to try to see it all, so pick your favorite type of art, and leave when your eyes cross. There’s no shame in it. Really. I love the museums, especially the Rodin (great garden), the Orsay (great café), and the Jaquémart-André (best audio tour and never crowded). But the real suggestion I have is to pick one that really strikes your fancy, and see only that one. The Louvre will still be there when you’re 90 (if you’re 90 now, go ahead and take the grand tour, but you could just as easily see it all in books, videos, and on the web).
Suggestion #3 Ditch the Checklist Museums get better over time. The rest of Paris…well, better get it while it’s hot. Everyone arrives in Paris with a long and impressive list of every monument, museum, conservatory, theatre, and statue commemorating the glorious history of Paris and its people. Remember, however, that you may have spent a year studying French history back in high school. And even then you got a C+. Do you really think you can take it all in during your short stay? Forget the guidebook ‘must-see’s’ and Aunt Helen’s request for a candle from every church in town. What is Paris to you? Art? History? Flea markets? Music? Literature? Fashion? Pick your poison and do it well, so that you’ll come away with one clear impression instead of thirty hazy ones. Café culture changes constantly, as does fashion, music, old market streets, the houseboats on the Seine, and the crowds milling about in the Jardin Luxembourg. Catch these things in the moment, before they are gone. And as much as we all love French history, it’s sadly packaged and cheaply sold to nostalgic tourists (think Moulin Rouge and Hemmingway tours). Make an effort to discover the dynamic Paris of TODAY, and let that be your memory of this town.
Mr. Hall and I have a few friends coming into town in the coming months. Old colleagues, childhood friends, a couple we met on our honeymoon, and maybe a few college friends will be passing through here with minimal time on their hands, and perhaps even jetlag and budget restrictions to boot. I’ve given this advice out dozens of times, and I find that at least 75% of the time it’s gone over well. Over the next few months, our friends will serve as the Secrets of Paris Guinea Pigs, just to make sure that my advice is sound. Will the Kiwis try to see four museums in one day? Will first-time Europeaners Amy & Co. attempt the French markets on rue Rambuteau—sans français? Do our California visitors fight the jetlag and refuse to take even a teensy-tiny nap? Stay tuned for updates.
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.