Mary was slightly overwhelmed, in a good way.
My lovely Francophile friend was less than a month out from her first trip to Paris, and she was over-the-moon excited, as you might expect.
“But I’m only going to be there for two days…” she lamented, her voice trailing off and her big, doe-like brown eyes widening as she stared into mine, silently beseeching me for help. I can’t deny this woman anything… particularly when she looks at me like that.
“Not a problem,” I reassured her. She knew, of course, that I once raced around Paris for 12 hours on a gorgeous May day in a frantic attempt to photograph all the major sites both in sparkling daylight and romantic darkness. Spreading that out over two days would be très facile indeed.
I mapped out an oval, west-to-east-then-back-again tour of the City of Light for Mary. That would be Day 1’s itinerary. The next day would be a little different, and at a more leisurely pace.
Want to follow the route I shared with Mary? Eh bien, allons-y!
- Start your day early, if at all possible. First stop? Your nearest Métro station (Paris’ subway is called the Métropolitan, or Métro for short) to purchase a carnet at the convenient touch-screen kiosks (some tabacs – those little newsstands on the sidewalk — sell them, too, though not all). A carnet is 10 Metro tickets for 12 euros. One ticket gives you unlimited stops and line changes on a single ride. Ten tickets (one carnet) should be plenty for your two days.
- Head next to Trocadero (there’s a Métro stop for it). This is your first, true unobstructed view of “La Tour Eiffel” and the Champ de Mars (the grassy park that stretches below and beyond it). Admire the magnificent view and just… linger for a bit. Take in the spectacle of people there.
- Hop back on the Métro and take the short ride to the Charles de Gaulle Étoile stop. You’re now at the “Arc de Triomphe!” You can actually go right underneath the arch, or even up to the top for a spectacular view of the Champs-Élysées (pictured). When you’re ready to leave, take the underground pedestrian walkway that brings you to either side of the C-E.
- Take a leisurely stroll down Europe’s (the world’s?) most famous grand boulevard. So many shops, so many cafes, so many people… it is absolutely fantastic!
- If you get tired of hoofing it, jump back on the Métro and head for Concorde. This is Place de la Concorde, and virtually the direct center of Paris. You’ll see the giant Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square. From there, enter the Jardin des Tuileries. Just take a nice walk in here and watch Parisians watching the world go by. This will lead you to…
- The Louvre, where you’ll have lunch outdoors, but under the canopy of the Richelieu Wing, on the terrace of Le Café Marly. I highly recommend a cup of soup and a Croque-Monsieur, plus those delicious macarons for dessert. Take note… service at French eateries is intentionally slow. They want you to stay as long as you want and savor your meal. Don’t take this as bad service. It’s just how they do things (and whatever you do, do NOT call the waiter “garcon”… it’ s really degrading.)
- Now that you’re rested and fueled up, and if you were smart enough to buy a two-day museum pass ahead of time, you can bypass the serpentine lines to get into the Louvre. Just go right to the front of the line, flash your museum pass, and walk right in. Since time is of the essence, head directly for the Denon Wing, where the best of the Louvre’s best are located, including the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Cupid and Psyche, and countless Italian master paintings. Spend two hours in this section, if you can.
- After lunch and/or a visit inside the Louvre, take a walk over one of the many great Parisian bridges nearby, en route to Notre Dame – Pont des Arts or Pont Neuf – or Métro it to Cite to get there quicker. Thus far, you’ve been entirely on the Right Bank (Rive Droite) of the Seine. You’re now on the Île de la Cité, where Paris the city was born. (Warning: Notre Dame’s interior is very tourist-kitchy. Still awe-inspiring, but not quite as sacrosanct as I’d hoped.)
- Head next for the Left Bank (Rive Gauche), where Ernest Hemingway once called home. The Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain des Pres are the neighborhoods. Maybe take a break in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Métro to École Militaire and walk a short way to Rue Cler. This is a great spot to experience local French life in Paris. It’s a pedestrian shopping/dining street with markets of fresh produce, cheese shops (fromagerie), bakeries (boulangerie), and restaurants/cafes. It’s busy, but surprisingly quiet, and it’s just a short walk from…
- Champ de Mars. Remember, the sun sets very late in Paris (around 10, 10:30), so, if you have the energy by this point, grab a picnic snack from Rue Cler, go lounge on the grass, and stay up to watch the sunset at the Eiffel Tower. If you must, go back to your lodgings and grab a quick nap, but definitely go back out at nightfall. The light show at the Tower at midnight is a must! You’ve now seen the highlights of the city in one day.
- On Day 2, I’d recommend “the other Paris”… Montmarte. This is the artsy quarter of town, and also its highest point, where you get the most sweeping views of Paris. Go up into the dome of Sacré Coeur for the best view (I took the picture above from this very spot). Honestly, just walk around this neighborhood for a bit. It’s quiet and quirky, and was once where Vincent van Gogh lived with his brother Theo. The apartment building where they resided is still there and clearly marked.
- On the way back from Montmartre, pay a visit to Palais Garnier, the opera house made famous by Gaston Leroux’s “Phantom of the Opera.” There actually is a subterranean lake beneath the building, which you’ll learn about when you take the tour.
As I also told Mary, PLEASE get yourself a pocket Paris guidebook so you’ll have a Métro /city map and more info. And of course, don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Some of the best moments in Paris are the ones for which you never plan and aren’t expecting.