bon voyage: paris

some precursory knowledge if you are reading this and do not know me: I LOVE PARIS.

i loved it before i ever visited, and i have only grown to love it more with each visit.  i love it so much that i convinced my husband, our immediate families, and some of our dearest friends that it would only make sense for our wedding to be in paris.  so it was.  if that isn’t commitment, i don’t know what is.

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photos by mary caroline russell

i could easily write a series of posts about my different experiences in la ville lumière, and, quite frankly, i probably will do that over time.  for today, though, i am writing for those of you who only have a few days in paris and want to make the most of them.  by no means am i an expert on paris, but i have spent enough time there to have established solid opinions on some of the city’s more popular sights and attractions.  i am already making a list of things to see and do when i visit in april, most of it composed of places that will be new to me.  i will be happy to review those after my trip, but i will stick with the familiar this time.

allow me to set the tone before i get started.  as long as i could remember, i was fascinated by paris.  i dreamed of one day visiting since i was a young girl, i studied french in high school and retained it quite well (perhaps this is a sign that i was meant to be french, oui?), and i further fanned the french-loving flame during my time in pastry school.  my dream of paris had become so idyllic that i worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectation when, at the age of twenty-two, i visited during my two-month solo excursion around europe.

i took a train from brussels, belgium, to paris, switched from the european rail line to the paris metro line, and rode in anticipation to the stop nearest the flat i would be renting for the next two weeks.  at the first stop, an elderly man boarded the train, sat down, and started playing simon & garfunkel’s “the sound of silence” on an accordion.  this quintessentially parisian occurrence set my mind at ease, and it was only the first of many of these moments to come.

alors, if you are planning a shorter trip to paris, these are a few of the things i would most encourage you to do, especially if you are limited on time and it is your first visit:

  1. skip the louvre and visit d’orsay instead.  to me, this is a no-brainer.  even though i was in paris for three weeks during my first visit, i never went to the louvre.  when my friends and i went on my next trip, it only validated my feelings.  the louvre is beautiful, yes.  it is also HUGE, overwhelming, entirely too time-consuming, and, truth be told, probably only contains a few pieces you want to see.  let me save you some trouble.  walk the grounds of the louvre, take a photo of the pyramid, meander the jardin des tuileries.  these are wonderful, easy activities that won’t consume most of your day and leave you angry because you weren’t able to get close to the mona lisa (which, in case you didn’t know, is tiny) due to the other tourists and the fact that she’s roped off at a distance of about ten feet on all sides.  the sheer size of the louvre’s collection makes it nearly impossible to see and study in one day, and we got lost for a couple hours in the ancient egyptian artifacts wing during my visit.  i nearly lost my mind.  on the left bank of the seine sits the musée d’orsay, just across the river from the louvre, beckoning you to come hither to its siren call.  follow it, friends.  d’orsay is a brilliantly curated home to pieces by every great artist you could name.  not only is it easier to navigate, but it earns major cool points for being a former train station and offering one of my favorite views of paris.  head to the café to overlook the city through a giant glass clock, and you won’t be disappointed.  the tea room is also worth checking out if you are feeling fancy (or if you’re just fancying a cup of tea).IMG_4699

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2.  eat ice cream at le berthillon, and try the african hot chocolate at angelina.  the ice cream is worth every stomachache i will inevitably get from it.  i’ve never had better.  my personal favorites are the chocolat noir and noisette, but i’ve yet to try a bad flavor.  the hot chocolate is essentially little more than a melted dark chocolate bar served with a side of heavy cream.  again, ignore whatever side effect may come and just indulge.  the original angelina is a beautiful tea room on the rue de rivoli known for attracting the likes of coco chanel and other famous parisiennes over the years, but it can feel stuffy and touristy if you go during peak hours, sometimes with lines of patient chocoholics running out the door and down the sidewalk.  if you don’t feel like waiting or dining in for the experience, the chocolate is sold ready-made (i.e. chocolate and cream already mixed together in perfect harmony) in the pastry shop.  grab a cup to-go and enjoy it across the street in the tuileries or as you walk and window shop throughout the 1st and 2nd arrondissements.  i love the hot chocolate so much that my husband and i had a breakfast date there before our wedding ceremony.

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photos by mary caroline russell

3.  eat with the locals.  i feel like this is obvious but worth reiterating: if you approach a restaurant and everything is listed in english, keep moving.  eat where the menu is in french, the patrons are french, and the food is french.  sure, you can explore the ethnically diverse neighborhoods in paris, but, if you live in a city, you can probably find good asian, indian, halal, etc. food back home.  the best french food and french wines are found in france, so eat it and drink it with the natives.  and please, let your meal be your entertainment of the evening.  let it linger, enjoy multiple courses, and savor the tastes and the company surrounding you.  if you are traveling on a tight budget, visit a neighborhood market or boulangerie for snacks or sandwiches, then have a picnic at one of the many parks around the city.  the parc des buttes-chaumont is a picturesque picnic spot popular with locals.

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photos by mary caroline russell

4.  walk as much as you’re able.  part of what makes paris so charming is that you can find hidden worlds down alleys, on tiny streets, and through vine-covered gates.  the paris metro system and uber are great options for getting to and from different places more quickly, but you miss the opportunity to get wonderfully lost when you aren’t on foot.  i start most days in paris by setting out with an idea of what i’d like to see.  if i get there, wonderful; if i don’t, it’s because i’ve been distracted by something along the way.  my favorite day leading up to our wedding was a day spent with our friends walking all over the right bank.  our conversation overflowed, our spirits were filled, and i ended up with shin splints.  it was perfect. IMG_5018

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5.  if you don’t have time for versailles, visit the palais garnier.  while versailles is a sight to behold, it can easily consume an entire day of your vacation.  if you don’t have that margin in your schedule, tour the palais garnier to witness similar architectural and design triumphs as you are guided through a thorough tour of the opera and its history.  it is easily accessible by metro or foot, nestled in the 9th arrondissement, and you might be lucky enough to see street performers playing on its steps at some point during your visit.  if you’re even luckier (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it), you might even meet the mysterious phantom of the opèra, since his legend originated at the palais garnier.

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6.  try to find a local event to attend.  whether it’s a sporting event, concert, rally, or festival, nothing will make you feel more a part of the culture than witnessing a french art show, football game, protest, or parade.  my brother said the silver lining when he missed his flight home from our wedding was that he was able to go back into the city to witness a genuine parisian protest.  one of my highlights from my first trip was making friends with a local who, in turn, took me to a festival and parade called la fête à l’éléphant, which celebrated the hindu god ganesh.  i still remember the smell of coconuts being smashed on the street and the baskets of fire people carried on their heads as they marched along.DSC_0023.JPG 7.  wander the hilly streets of montmartre, and don’t bother going to see the moulin rouge.  this neighborhood has more charm to offer than you can imagine, so start at the sacré-coeur and work your way down.  it is more touristy than some areas, but the view from the basilica is stunning.  watch amelie before you go for inspiration.  the moulin rouge, on the other hand, is gaudy, gross, and ewan mcgregor-free.  it is situated in pigalle, the closest thing paris has to a red light district, and i promise it isn’t worth your time.

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lastly,

8. be kind and courteous, and you will be surprised to see how quickly the parisian stereotype melts away.  i have only encountered one rude frenchman.  he was drunk, and i was with a group of thirty (loud american) people.  even then, he was the only rude french person in the restaurant.  everyone else celebrated along with us that we were getting married the next day.  aside from that time, i have had countless encounters with kind, generous parisians who have helped me find my way, offered recommendations on their favorite places in the city, and anything in between.  i’ve met far more rude americans than i have parisians.  the culture is quiet and more reserved, so respect it.  if you learn a few phrases and at least attempt them, you will probably be astounded by the patience and grace extended to you.

i’ve barely skimmed the surface of this beautiful city, but, like i said, there will be more posts in the future that offer more detailed recommendations based on interests and inspirations for your visit.  i hope you fall in love with this city as much as i have.  it is truly a magical place.

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