Grab your baguettes and berets, dear reader! I have exciting news!!! This summer, I get to return to my favorite country, my beloved France—and I get to bring my son! Just a teenager and his mom, traipsing around France without a care in the world… (or at least, that’s how I imagine it in my idealized daydreams). We will be in Paris for a few days before taking the TGV (France’s high speed train) down to Avignon and the breathtaking little villages in the south of France. And of course, I will be documenting all of it right here so you can travel with us!
Because we will only be in Paris for a few days, I want to get the most out of every moment. At the same time, I am not one of those people who wants to see every tourist attraction and pack my day full of activity from sunrise to sunset. Since I’ve been to Paris several times, I know what I want my son to experience while we’re there. And I’m going to let you in on my personal Paris Top 10. These are the Paris experiences that, for me, are essential. They are the experiences that remind me that yes, I really am in Paris. Ready? Allons-y!
This beautiful garden is the place to spend a sunny afternoon in Paris. Grab a baguette and some stinky cheese and have a picnic while you people-watch Paris. This is not just a tourist attraction; real Parisians hang out here, and so should you. Grab one of the many green chairs available in the park and watch little Parisian children play with the vintage wooden boats in the pond. Or, wander through the orchards and admire the Palais du Luxembourg, built for Queen Marie de Medici in 1612. Above all, relax, take in the air and remind yourself, “I’m in Paris!!”
If you, like me, have a raging Target addiction, you will love Monoprix. It’s basically the French version of Target, with lots of really cute and irresistibly inexpensive stuff you probably don’t need. But you want it. You know you do. They also have groceries, so if you’re on a budget, it’s a great place to pick up something for a simple lunch, or that picnic at the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Forget renting a car. You do NOT want to drive in Paris. Have you seen that insane traffic circle around the Arc du Triomphe?!? Just say “non”. And yes, there are plenty of other ways to get around Paris, but I love taking the Metro. It’s very simple to navigate, and there are stops all over the city. No matter where you are, you are likely not more than a block from a Metro station. In my experience, the Paris Metro is pretty clean and safe, but always be on guard for pickpockets. They are rampant in Paris. But otherwise, the Metro is an easy, fast, and cheap way to get around the city. You can buy a packet of 10 tickets for €14,50; you’d be hard pressed to find a cheaper way to get around. Plus, there are often musicians in the Metro stations that will give a soundtrack to your journey and make you feel like you’re the star of your own movie.
In the heart of Paris, along the banks of the Seine, you will find the bouquinistes [boo-kee-neest]. A Paris fixture since the 1500s and a favorite of Hemingway, the bouquinistes sell beautiful prints and vintage and antique books out of their little green bookstalls. The sellers are friendly and prices are a bargain. Of course, you will also find touristy trinkets, but skip those and browse the books and prints. You can score one-of-a-kind vintage books in French, or pick up a few copies of the beloved Tin Tin series. The prints are frame-worthy and immensely packable—pick up a few for yourself and as gifts to take home to friends.
The Louvre is, well, The Louvre. It’s amazing, it huge, it’s full of art and antiquity from around the world. If you really need to see the Mona Lisa or the Nike sculpture, by all means, visit the Louvre. But if you don’t, skip it for the Orsay. Housed in a gorgeous old glass train station, the Orsay is home to the French impressionists. Here you’ll find Monet’s haystacks and water lilies, Degas’ dancers, and Van Gogh’s self portrait. The museum itself is a work of art, and it’s not too overwhelmingly huge. You can take in the best parts in an afternoon without leaving with what I call “museum head”—that point you reach after seeing so many masterpieces where your brain just can’t take in any more, and they all start to look…ordinary. Set aside a couple hours for the Orsay. It does not disappoint.
- The Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cite
Be prepared: Paris can feel hectic. It’s a big city and there will be moments when you feel like this place doesn’t care about or have time for you. And that feeling is valid. As much as Paris relies on tourism, Parisians are definitely ambivalent about the annual tourist invasion. However, there is respite on these little islands in the middle of the Seine in the heart of Paris (not far from the Louvre). Ile de la Cite is home to what is arguably the most famous church in the world: Notre Dame. But that’s not why I love these little islands in the Seine. While Notre Dame is amazing, and if not too crowded, worth a visit, what is truly charming about the island it sits on is the narrow little streets lined with boutiques and food shops. Stroll down one of these little streets and just let yourself be transported. Here, time seems to stand still and the 21st century is a fiction. Slow down and admire the beautiful window displays. Shopkeepers tempt passersby with displays of their cheeses and tarts, and really, why resist? Pop into one of the stores and pick up a snack. A beautiful little tart is an affordable indulgence that you shouldn’t deny yourself. And this brings me to…
- Bread and cheese
OK, technically these are not things to do in Paris. They’re more like overall ways to live in Paris. I really can live on bread and cheese when I’m there, and that’s pretty much what I do. There is nothing like real French bread and French cheese in Paris. Bread and cheese are my two favorite foods anyway, but then when you add French and Paris, well, I’m in heaven. Many cafes will have a sandwich camembert on the menu, and my last time in Paris, that’s pretty much all I thought about on the flight over. But it’s also fun to go into a cheese shop and buy a selection of cheeses, the stinkier the better. The French say that the aroma of a nicely stinky cheese is the smell of the feet of God. If eating something that smells like feet—even God’s feet—is just not something you can stomach, a good brie or camembert is generally less aromatic but still mind blowingly delicious. And of course with your cheese you need bread. And for bread you need…
Poilane is the French bakery. You may have read my post about my visit to Poilane and the dungeon oven. It really is pretty magical. I almost expected to see a dragon down there. But I digress… They make bread the old fashioned way, with simple ingredients, every day. A good loaf of bread is another affordable indulgence that you shouldn’t deny yourself when you’re in Paris. After all, you need something to put that cheese on, right? (Just don’t slather it in butter. The Parisians frown on that for some reason I don’t understand.)
After bread and cheese, you need something sweet. Feed that sweet tooth with a trip to La Duree. There are several around Paris, but the one on the Champs Elysees is the one I’ve frequented. Their specialty is the French macaron. Not to be confused with American macaroons, the French macaron (one “o”, rather than two) has no coconut; it is a sandwich style cookie that comes in a multitude of flavors. My favorites are pistachio and caramel, but they’re all delish. You can’t go wrong. The only thing you might not love is the price. 6 macarons will run you just over 17 euros! Yes, for 6 cookies. But hear me out—these are the most expensive cookies you will probably ever buy, but you’re still not going to break the bank on them. Order your 6, take a seat in the beautiful, beautiful café, and just relax. Take it all in. Savor each little cookie. One great thing about the French is they won’t rush you. You can sit and enjoy your macarons for as long as your heart desires. And leisurely sitting in a café brings me to my #1 thing to do in Paris…
- Sit in a café and people watch
Just let the world go by. You’re in Paris. Take a load off and let Paris entertain you. Find a café that has outdoor seating (most do), and take a table. Usually, you don’t need to check in with a host; just grab a table and the server will see you and take your order. Ask for a pichet [pee-shay] d’eau [dough], that’s a pitcher of water and un café, s’il vous plait. A coffee, please. The server will bring you a little pitcher of water and a glass, and an espresso, usually with a sugar cube. No cream. If you want cream, ask for a café crème. Now, just sit and sip your coffee as you partake in one of Paris’ best past times. Parisians love to people watch, that’s why all the chairs in the cafes face the sidewalk instead of each other. Take in the French fashion, the people walking their dogs, the families on vacation…just take it all in. The server will not bother you and will not check on you. That’s not their way. (That’s also partly why French servers are seen as rude by Americans. But this is a classic example of culture clash. To them, it’s rude to interrupt people who are eating or drinking at a café, even if you are their server.) They will leave you alone until you signal them and ask for le billet [le bee-ay]. That’s the check. (Signal them with a wave, but please please please don’t snap or call them garcon. That is incredibly rude. Just don’t.) Tips are always included, so you don’t need to add anything. You can throw a couple Euros down if you want to, but it’s not required.
And there you have it, my Paris Top 10. These are the must-dos when I visit Paris, and they are the things I will be sure my son gets to experience while we are there. Everything else is gravy. Vive la France, et vive Paris!