After a lifetime of dreaming, it almost seemed unfair that I would have only two full days in Paris. There was no way we would be able to see everything and still make it to the airport on time. To make matters worse, our visit fell in mid-August, when the city was already crowded with summer tourists (most of the residents take the summer off and retreat elsewhere to escape the sweltering busy season). To be honest, I’m still amazed at how much we did manage to accomplish in such a short time. It was totally worth the aching feet. Of course, squeezing the most out of our trip required some serious sacrifice and planning. Several months before we even set foot on the plane, Dad asked each of us to list the three sites we would most like to see. Based on our combined lists, he created a loose itinerary that would pack as much as possible into our short stay. Fan favorites like Versailles were quickly eliminated, as that would take up at least half a day. While on the go, long lines and hefty admission prices meant we had to carefully decide what was most important to each of us, and skip the ones nobody agreed upon. To make the most of our time and individual preferences, we set off in two groups. The three youngest kids, who were likely to tire more easily, and my mother, who isn’t all that impressed with the City of Light, took it easy on the first day, taking scenic strolls to the nearby attractions. The following day, they would take the Batobus along the Seine. The hop on hop off riverboat stops at eight of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, and would be the perfect way for them to explore the city at a more leisurely pace. The next time I am in Paris, I plan on trying this for myself. Of course, Paris is also a very walkable city, and public transportation is excellent, so after breakfast at the Hotel H’Orset Opera, I set off with my dad and adult siblings for a whirlwind tour of the city’s top attractions. First on our list? The Catacombs of Paris. The site didn’t officially open until ten am, but we hopped the metro and arrived an hour early in an effort to beat the crowds. We joined a massive line curving around the block, cheering each time the line shuffled forward.
Due to the cramped and ancient nature of the tunnels, only 200 people are allowed in at a time, a number that is closely monitored by turnstiles at the beginning and end of the attraction. Despite our early arrival, we waited almost three hours to actually enter the catacombs. The good news? This was our longest wait time, and getting it done early in the morning meant we could spend the rest of our day on places with minimal queues. The catacombs were well worth the wait. Check back soon for a post focused solely on our time in the dark, cool tunnels beneath the streets of Paris.
We emerged from the tunnels, our jeans and shoes wet with damp sand, and set off in search of a lunch spot. It was well past noon at this point, and many shops and restaurants were closed for the standard two hour employee lunch break. With damp shoes and grumbling bellies, we trudged along the streets in search of food, almost giving in to the sugary sweet scent wafting from a nearby patisserie, its doors flung open to lure passing tourists. Many places in Paris offer a prix-fixe style lunch menu, and with enough effort, a good bargain can be found for any wallet. We ate at La Belle Ronde, a quiet, modern creperie tucked into the side street of a bustling market scene. The spot was so far removed from the main street, in fact, that I had to chase after my family and bring them back to check it out for themselves. The prices were budget-friendly, and at around 10 euros a head, we each selected one savory crepe, one beverage, and one dessert crepe from the prix fixe menu. The food was good, certainly nothing to rave about, but good nonetheless. What impressed me most was the outdoor seating area and generally peaceful ambience. It was a welcome break from the hot sun and often-frenzied tourist scene.
Feeling significantly better now that our bellies were full, we strolled to the Montparnasse cemetery. A cemetery? I thought, but it was high on my dad’s to-do list, so we obliged without complaint. But this was no ordinary cemetery – in fact, I probably took more pictures here than I did in the dark, creepy catacombs. It was laid out like a public park, and was so spread out that it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves. I felt a little uncomfortable photographing the gorgeous headstones and crypts, thinking that I might be seen as disrespectful. After all, this was a place brimming with death…right? I made my slowly around the grounds, taking in the gorgeous architecture and the flowers blooming in the afternoon sunlight, and it dawned on me that this was a place of real beauty, of celebration rather than pure sadness. Its visitors were basking in the sunlight, not mourning in the shadows, and I even saw one couple sharing a picnic with wine on a nearby bench.
It was fascinating to read the inscriptions on the headstones of artists, countesses and entire families, many of whom lived in the early 1800s. Several famous figures are also buried here, something which I was not aware of at the time. Charles Baudelaire, Simone de Beauvoir and Guy de Maupassant are just a few of the prominent names from times gone by who now rest in Montparnasse. Paris has many famous cemeteries, and after visiting this one, I can absolutely recommend it to anyone.
After bidding farewell to the cemetery, we headed over to the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most iconic sights in all of Paris. The arch, which stands at one end of the Champs-Élysées, was commissioned by Napoleon himself in the early 1800s as an homage to the French Army. The first stone was laid on Napoleon’s birthday in August 1806, though the project would not be completed for another thirty years.
Because the Arc de Triomphe is located in the center of an extremely busy traffic circle, an underground passageway was constructed to safely deliver pedestrians to the arch itself. We did not have the time to enter the arch itself, but the view from the top is supposed to be one of the greatest in the entire city. We spent twenty to thirty minutes marveling at the names of great war generals carved in stone, and gawking at the impressive sculptures that decorate the grand monument, then it was off to the next stop. We hopped on our first bus ride of the trip, past the famous Moulin Rouge and Pigalle area, and got off in Montmartre to climb the steps of Sacré-Cœur. I was eager to see a basilica that did not resemble the cathedrals seen on our recent day trips. The exterior structure is very beautiful and quite distinctive, its white domes visible throughout Paris thanks to its location on the prominent hill of Montmartre.
The outside of the building is gorgeous, easily one of the most beautiful sights in the city, and the interior is breathtaking. Because Sacré-Cœur is a sacred site, and still used for daily prayer and other rituals, interior photography is strictly forbidden. Perhaps this is a good thing in my case, since it forced me to appreciate its beauty with my own eyes, rather than through the lens of my camera. Google brings up a number of images, but none compare to the reality of those glittering mosaics and gilded sculptures.
Since I was unable to take any pictures inside, I compensated with plenty of shots of the exterior areas. The view from the top of the hill is absolutely gorgeous. It was the first time this trip that I had gazed down at Paris from above, and the view was almost limitless.
Visitors also have the opportunity to ascend the basilica’s dome, which we decided against due to time constraints. It seems like every big attraction in Paris offers a view from above (for an extra fee, of course), so I would recommend choosing just one or two for those short on time or funds. After Sacre Coeur, we decided to save our metro tickets for the next day, and walk a mile or two back to our hotel. I’m not sure what street we wound up on, but it gave me my first shocking glimpse of the Paris not found in the postcards. We hurried along streets covered – I mean covered – in trash. Shriveled, half-eaten ears of corn clustered along the edges of the street, and people everywhere eyed us, the clueless tourists who strayed too far. A few people passed us on their Vélib’ rental bikes as we scurried along, and I suddenly was desperate for a bike of my own. I’m generally an independent person, but I was all too happy to let Dad lead the way here. All I had to do was keep up with his long legs, and we were out of there in no time! We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we finally turned into the increasingly-familiar streets of our Opera-area hotel. With aching feet, we finally retreated to our hotel rooms for a quick rest. We were delighted to meet up with the rest of the family and hear about their day. In the morning alone, they managed a trip on foot to the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Champs-Élysées, Sainte Chapelle, the Palais de Justice, and Notre Dame. My youngest brother Matthew hurt his ankle earlier in the day, so they squeezed in a quick rest at the hotel before visiting the Opera and the Galleries Lafayette. Paris may have plenty to see, but it is doable with proper planning. My mom and the three youngest kids visited plenty of sights, but they didn’t have time to enter many of them…which is perfectly okay with them! Myself, I might actually have cried if I went home without ascending Notre Dame, but travel is different for everyone!
Make the most of a short Paris trip:
- Identify your top must-see attractions before arriving at the airport. Identifying priorities in advance makes it much easier to stick your itinerary and your budget – and leaves a little wiggle room for aimless strolls down the many beautiful streets of Paris.
- Rise early. This may be a given, but it’s all too easy to slip into vacation mode and snooze when that early alarm goes off each day. Early risers are often rewarded with much shorter wait times for popular attractions, and have the opportunity to take photos and make memories without the sea of sweaty tourists. Plus, you can always take a nap in the afternoon, when many shops and restaurants close for a lengthy lunch break. I myself am a night owl, but waking up early on both days of our Paris trip really made a difference in our overall satisfaction. We got a ton of stuff done! Make the most of your limited vacation time and rise with the early alarm! You won’t regret it.
- Dress for the weather. My carry on was full of dresses and cardigans, and only contained one pair of jeans. The mornings in Paris were actually quite chilly, considering that we visited in August. Dressing in layers is always a fantastic idea! I wore a cardigan in the early morning, and stripped down to a shirt and jeans when the afternoon sun finally crept out.
- Wear sensible shoes, and perhaps more importantly, wear rain-appropriate shoes. No one wants to spend the rest of the day squelching around in soggy socks and smelly feet, least of all in one of the fashion capitals of the world. Use padded insoles, or invest in a comfortable yet stylish pair of shoes.
- Keep an eye out for pickpockets, and keep your belongings close. I bought a new purse specifically for this trip, one with a sturdy chain shoulder strap. Some pickpockets actually slice the strap or handle right off of handbags – by picking one with a chain, I made their job a little more difficult. Another wise option is to invest in a travel wallet. These lightweight wallets wrap around the waist, very much like a fanny pack, but without the bulk and general unsightliness. They are generally thin enough to be worn under clothing, offering convenience and peace of mind while keeping your most precious travel items out of sight. If you must wear a backpack (which I do not recommend), consider buying a light lock to keep zippers securely in place. It’s always wise to err on the side of caution.
- Do your homework! Paris has an excellent public transportation system, but it can be a little overwhelming at first. Thirty minutes of studying the metro system now can save you a considerable amount of time (and stress!) further down the line. One more tip: keep your ticket after boarding!!! Many stations require a valid ticket in order to pass through the exit gates.