By Cindy Murphy-Tofig
Everyone returns home from Paris with a great story, and it often revolves around the fantastic cheeses, the amazing wines or the stunning sights. I skipped over the first two and skated through part of the third during my most recent trip to Paris. But, to my surprise, I had a much better time than I thought I would.
During our first trip, my husband and I ran around nonstop for five days and still felt like we missed so much. When it was time to plan for our second visit, we decided to stay for ten days and do absolutely everything. But I got pregnant several weeks before we left, and the midwife said to avoid soft cheeses, skip the alcohol, and above all, take it slow.
Take it slow? Who goes to Paris to do one thing for an entire day? Or do nothing? Turns out, that’s the best way to see Paris.
It helped that we had booked a hotel in the Latin Quarter, right near the Sorbonne. We could easily get around on foot or head to the St. Michel-Odéon Metro stop a few blocks away.
We first headed to Île de la Cité, an island in the Seine. The North and South towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame dominate the skyline (and you can even climb the 387 stairs that take you to the top of the South Tower). But don’t forget to also go inside Sainte-Chapelle, which is inside the Palais de Justice complex. Although the younger of the two churches (ground was first broken for it in 1246, and Notre Dameʼs first stone was laid in 1163), Sainte-Chapelle is also an amazing example of Gothic architecture. The church was originally built as a reliquary to house the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross that was purchased by Louis IX from the Byzantine emperor Baldwin II in 1239. Also, the panes of Sainte-Chapelleʼs stained glass windows are some of the finest examples of their era and translate biblical stories into richly colored works of art.
After exploring both churches, we wandered over to Île Saint-Louis, the other natural island in the middle of the Seine, and got lost among the narrow streets and busy shops before settling on a snack and people watching. We walked around some more, popped into different shops, and later settled on Auberge des Deux Ponts for dinner. The best part of the night wasn’t even the meal (which was great), it was chatting with the restaurant manager and other patrons – something we never would have done if we had more to see that day.
Later that week we spent hours in the Picasso museum, which is housed in a seventeenth century building in Parisʼ Marais district. After viewing the hundreds of works on display, we sauntered the district until we felt like sitting at a café. The Marais district is so rich, from the historic courtyards and squares to the Jewish bookshops and restaurants, itʼs hard to leave.
Paris turned out to be the perfect place to do little or nothing, but still experience plenty. The neighborhoods and sights embrace you, practically begging you to stay. Who wants to run through the Louvre just to see the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa, then rush off to the next thing? Plenty of people do just that, missing the remains of a northern Iraq palace from 706 B.C. Or Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Or countless other priceless paintings, sculptures and priceless art treasures.
We sat and pondered everything we saw at the Louvre at Le Café Marly next door, but for even better people watching, head over to the Tuileries Gardens. This is Parisʼ oldest public park, which officially became part of the Louvre in 2005. The park is beautiful regardless of the season. Even during our mid-November visit, the grounds were still busy, mostly with children and their parents watching or sailing boats in the fountains.
On another day, you can follow the gardens out toward the Champs-Élysées, window-shopping or dreaming of being a yellow-jerseyed bicyclist on your way to LʼArc de Triomphe. Or you can take a footbridge from the gardens across the Seine, and head to the Musée dʼOrsay.
The former railway station is the perfect place to get lost among the Renoirs, Cézannes, Rodins and countless other works. Need a minute to take a break? You can try the museum’s restaurant, or better still, find a seat among the masterpieces.
Toward the end of our stay we took the train out to see the Palace of Versailles. Stay as long as you can in the palace — particularly in the striking Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. You can see the expansive gardens – designed by André Le Notre (who also transformed the Tuileries at King Louis XIVʼs request) – from the central window, and we stayed there until close to closing time.
Back in the city, you almost can’t avoid going to Les Deux Magots. The cafe can be touristy (it had been a hangout for philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writers Ernest Hemingway and Jean Giraudoux, and many others from the literary scene). But the outside tables are wonderful for getting a bite, reading a book, or just being. The servers are busy, but there’s no pressure for you to finish up and move along. We found that attitude pretty much everywhere we stopped. Unless it was a place that focused on to-go orders, meals were leisurely. The next course didn’t come out until well after the previous course was finished and the plates cleared – which takes a bit of getting used to, when you’re accustomed to American restaurants where the entree comes out before you’ve finished your salad. Dining wasn’t about just sitting and eating. It was an event – you talked, drank wine (or lots of Vittel, as I did) and enjoyed being where you were.
Most restaurants we visited were places we happened to find while wandering about, giving us a chance to chat with people and soak up more of genuine Paris. But one of our best meals was at a place friends recommended — Le Coupe-Chou. On the walk from the hotel to the restaurant, we could feel old Paris. The restaurant’s entrance – restored to its seventeenth century appearance – and stone hearths exude the warmth and intimacy you’d expect in old world cities throughout Europe.
There’s plenty we didn’t get to during our stay. We never climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower or L’Arc de Triomphe. We missed the Rodin museum, Sacré-Coeur and too many other places to name. But our slowed down pace allowed us to see more than Parisʼ attractions. It allowed us to see, feel and savor Paris.
If You Go
The Paris Métro
Running from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. everyday (and longer on Fridays and holidays) Paris’ public system has 16 lines and 300 stations. For a good overview and explanation of what to expect and how to use the system, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_M%C3%A9tro
Official english website: www.ratp.info/informer/anglais/
Hotel Central Saint-Germain
3 Rue Champollion
Tel: 33+01 46 34 14 20
A small hotel in the Latin Quarter offers 35 air-conditioned rooms with private baths, continental breakfast, and Wi-Fi (extra charge). Rates start at €99.
Le Café Marly
93 Rue de Rivoli
(near the Louvre)
Tel: 33+01 49 26 06 60
Open every day 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Les Deux Magots
6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres
Tel: 33+01 45 48 55 25
9 & 11 Rue de Lanneau
Tel: 33+01 46 33 68 69
Auberge des Deux Ponts
7 Rue des Deux Ponts
75004 Paris (Île Saint-Louis)
Tel: 33+01 46 34 29 33
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
6 Parvis Notre Dame
Place Jean-Paul II
Open every day 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. (until 7:15 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). Access to the cathedral is free.
Musée du Louvre
Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays).
Note: Admission is free the first Sunday of the month.
1 Rue de la Legion dʼHonneur
Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 9:45 p.m. on Thursdays). Last tickets sold at 5 p.m. (9 p.m. on Thursdays). Closed Mondays.
Musée National Picasso
5 Rue de Thorigny
April 1-Sept. 30 – 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Oct. 1-March 31 – 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Closed on Tuesdays.
4 Boulevard du Palais
Open every day 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is €5.50
Tuileries Gardens &
The Palace of Versailles
79 Rue Paroisse
April 1-Oct. 31: The castle is open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (last admission is at 6 p.m.) Marie Antoinette’s Estate and the Castles of Trianon are open noon to 6:30 p.m. (tickets sold until 5:50 p.m.) The gardens are open every day 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for vehicles, and until 8:30 p.m. for pedestrians. Note that the main castle, Marie Antoinette’s Estate and the Castles of Trianon are closed on Mondays.
Nov. 1-March 31: The castle is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (last admission is at 5 p.m.) Marie Antoinette’s Estate and the Castles of Trianon are open noon to 5:30 p.m. (tickets sold until 4:50 p.m.) Gardens are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Mondays.
Photos: Sainte-Chapelle interior courtesy of B. Didier. Official License
All other photos courtesy of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Cindy Murphy-Tofig, an Atlanta-based editor and writer, plans to have no stowaways on her next trip across the Atlantic.