Paris is always a good idea. Or so I’m told by Audrey Hepburn. Paris was my first taste of the European continent when I was 16 years old. My art class at the school I was attending in Ireland had an optional excursion for 5 days and it was just about the most exciting thing to me at the time. I remember staying what felt like a long way outside of the city, eating in a strange buffet restaurant call ‘flunch’, going to Paris Disneyland in the rain and going bowling and hearing a song in English with the lyrics calling out ‘Sex Sex Sex Sex’ to a bunch of giggly teenage girls. In fact the only memory I have from that trip that is actually to do with the great city of art and culture was my visit to Versailles. You don’t forget your first visit to Versailles.
My next visit was at 18, again on a school trip. This time I actually remember our hostel being in the heart of the city, climbing the Eiffel Tower, visiting the Louvre and hearing hymns sung in Sacre Coeur. On that trip we seem to have fitted in a whole lot more in less time than we did on the first one….
2013 was my next time in the city and with Topdeck I got a really well rounded view of the city of love. The many many driving tours I have been on in the city have given me a good handle of the geographical layout and the history told and re-told in the tours has helped me place Paris in the timeline of Europe.
Still it wasn’t until I spent a week with Mum in Paris this past December that I really felt like I got a handle on the city and where it’s delights lie. I’d love to give you a few tips so that you don’t have to take 4 goes getting ‘the Paris experience’ right.
1. Where to stay? The start of any trip planning is finding the right accommodation. This can make or break a city. In any city, the closer to the center the better. Yes you can deal with staying a bit out of town as I often have and still do, but I know very well how good it is to be able to walk straight out the door and in to the hub bub of the metropolis. Mum found our accommodation on this website http://www.apartofparis.com/ and it was perfect! Right at the top of a 7 story house It had views skimming across the top of the surrounding buildings and inside was all charmingly decorated and well equipped with things like cooking implements and extra linen. We could walk to the Louvre and were right on a metro line.
AirBnB is a great website to look on to find surprisingly cheap and cool houses and rooms to stay in. These are best if you are traveling with others otherwise you will find yourself very much alone!
2. Plan your trip before you go! This is not something that I normally do but for my trip with Mum I did my research because I thought that as we were there for the Christmas week there might be funny opening times for attractions. I was mostly wrong on that matter but I still improved our trip immensely by looking up and writing down the opening times for museums and galleries. Of course you can still be flexible and decide on the day what you feel like doing but by having done some prior planning we felt happy that we managed to fit in all that we wanted to see.
3. Getting around. Although it was great that we were in the center of the city we still found it best to catch the Metro almost everywhere we went. On our very first night we walked to all the major sights and at the end of it calculated that we had done about 13kms! Paris is not a small city. Mum and I bought a metro card that let us pay €21.25 for unlimited trips for the week. Which was the cost of about 12 single rides. It also saves you the bother of having to line up for a ticket each time. Just swipe and go!
4. Tours! Because the city is so big I recommend taking a guided tour at the start of your stay so you can see all the major attractions and how they are laid out. There are many different bus tours you can take that are bookable online before you arrive. They are generally about €25 – €40, are all day tickets and some can be packaged with tickets to places like the Louvre. My personal favorite way to see the city is at night once the lights come on. We take our passengers on a Paris lights driving tour each trip and it is honestly one of my favorite parts of a trip. The Oohhs and Ahhs of passengers seeing their first great European city after a hectic first day makes it all worth it.
If you do prefer to orientate yourself by walking, there are several Apps available that will guide you through areas that are a manageable walking distance. ‘Revolution’ is one I downloaded for the area around the Louvre to the Conciergerie, you are directed by a murderess, Charlotte, through the time of the French Revolution. Pretty cool huh?
5. Eating. In the past, if I have to start really budgeting on a holiday it is my diet that takes the biggest hit. I have been known to live off Pesto for several days. On bread for lunch and on pasta for dinner, it can go a long way. But in the last two years I realised how much of a country I was missing out on if I didn’t eat their food! Let’s be real, if you haven’t had a pain au chocolate for breakfast, have you even really been to Paris?
So how can you eat like a Parisian whilst budgeting like a backpacker? Shop where they do, at the supermarket!
If you ask my mum what her favorite experience of the trip was I can guarantee you that visiting the local Monoprix and the fresh produce market will be in the top 3. We shopped there every day, getting warm pastries for breakfast, crusty baguettes, Camembert cheese and jamon for lunch and perfect little ravioli for dinner. We bought local wines and even snails and on each trip she discovered something new and tempting. Even if you aren’t staying somewhere with a kitchen you can still make baguettes for lunch!
You can and should still eat out if you want to of course! Restaurants and cafes that are in sight of big attractions like Notre Dame will cost a HEAP more to eat at so steer clear of them. But if you burrow back a few streets there are generally many more cheaper places to take a seat. Les Halles is a good area to find lots of varied and cheaper places to eat.
Another good rule of thumb for Paris is to chose where in a cafe you sit carefully. Those nice seats out on the footpath that face the traffic and make you feel like Angelina Jolie in ‘The Tourist?’ They are going to cost more than sitting inside, which will cost more than eating at the bar. Just be aware.
6. Attractions. One reason that I think it is a great idea to travel as a student is all the discounts that they get at attractions around the world! If you have left the educational institution you may still be in luck though. Galleries and museums around Paris have a variety of discounted rates that you should be checking out whilst you are standing in line. During our week I managed to take advantage of discounts for the under 24, the under 26, for those working in Europe and for those carrying a visa for any European country. Some of the discounts made the tickets half price and some made them free! Be sure to check out if any can apply to you. Unfortunately Mum didn’t qualify for any of them, but she has a real paying job so she can handle it.
A quick reminder though, take in to account the value of what you are purchasing. For instance; we went to the catacombs and found a line that snaked around and around, almost looping the block. We shuffled in to line like the good tourists we are but it was only a few minutes later that a man came along with a board advertising entry in 15 minutes for double the normal price. We had a very quick chat and decided that the extra €20 was worth not waiting in a cold line for 2-3 hour and we still agreed that it had been a great decision later in the day when had managed to fit in more than we had expected due to not having to wait in line. Priorities people!
So what do you think? Are you going or have you already been? What would be your tips and tricks for Paris?