Your very first stop in Europe should be in Paris. No book or travel video can do the city justice...it is more beautiful, more alive and more romantic than words or pictures can capture and you will only understand why it is so after you have wandered its streets and dined in its restaurants.
Most Americans arrive at Charles De Gaulle Airport located north of the city. For those who have mastered the art of packing and carry no more than a light backpack, you can get into the center of Paris using the rail system which will take you from De Gaulle to the Gare du Nord station.
But if you are carrying many bags or if you are travelling in a group of three or four, it makes more sense to travel to the city by taxi or shuttle. Unless you are alone, you don't save much by using public transportation for this trip and you will find yourself walking blocks with your bags. The shuttle will take you directly to your hotel and allow you to drop off you bags before you take your first stroll through Paris.
I'd encourage you to book a limousine in advance. Most companies will have a driver waiting for you at the customs exit after your plane arrives.
I'd also discourage anyone who hasn't driven in a foreign country from picking up their rental car at the airport unless their stay in Paris is going to be brief. After the long transatlantic flight, it is better to wait to deal with Parisian traffic, one-way streets and parking issues until you have had a chance to unwind and acclimate. If you do rent a car at the airport, be sure to plan your route as well as possible before you leave the airport. The congestion and layout of downtown Paris can confuse the most experienced drivers.
Paris Travel Guide - Online travel guide for Paris
You can Affordable rooms are easiest to find in the Latin Quarter (Arrondisement 5) which is just south of the great cathedral and filled with small eateries and shops. Be cautious when booking in the area near Sacre Couer (Arrondisement 11), for this area borders the night club district, with its sex shop and adult entertainment and may seem a bit seedy after dark.
Sites to See
- Notre Dame Cathedral
This magnificent example of gothic architecture is in the center of the city and adjacent to many of Paris's other historic buildings. It is the place to start your tour of Paris. As you gaze at the ornate exterior of the cathedral, notice the many statues which have been damaged. It helps you understand the history of this country, which recognized the political problems that could arise when political and religious leaders unite to serve their own purposes rather than the public good. Victims of the French revolutionaries who wanted to destroy all the churches in France to end the tyranny the church had assisted, the beheaded statues now remind tourists of a suspicion of politicians and clerics that lingers in the heart of many French citizens today.
Inside, you will be dazzled by the towering pillars that support the structure and the beautiful stained glass windows that adorn its walls. Quietly walk through the building where French kings were crowned and married and let the history soak in. Remember that the church was built almost 900 years ago and is a tribute not only to God but to the engineering and construction skills of men who had nothing more than simple rulers and tools to erect this monument to faith. You can obtain information about the cathedral near the entrance to the church. This information will explain the significance of the artwork throughout the church and give you a fuller appreciation of the importance of the structure.
Climb to the top of Notre Dame. See where the Hunchback protected Esmerelda and then enjoy the beauty of the city below. You reach the top via more than 200 ancient steps, climbing in the footsteps of many priests and tourists who visited the top before you. At the top, you stand near the awesome gargoyles that protect the building. Beneath you flows the Seine; along its banks stroll lovers and friends, on its water passes barges and the famous "bateau" that carry tourists on sightseeing cruises of the city. In the distance you can see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre; closer you see the Conciergerie and the Left Bank with its famous cafes. If the air is clear, you will also see Sacre Couer to the north and the modern black Montparnesse Tower to the southwest. Again, let history fill your pores, imagining what the city looked like as angry crowds brought down their government in 1789 and as proud citizens welcomed the news of Allied victory 156 years later. Think of kings arriving in the courtyard in gilded carriages to attend mass and modern leaders coming in limousines to do the same. Use this vantage point to get your bearings and recognize how the old parts of Paris are laid out. Take the time to enjoy the fact that you have made it...you are in Paris, standing next to the gargoyles of the Notre Dame cathedral and watching the city below. Pinch yourself and if you aren't dreaming, celebrate the moment.
- Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie
Near the Notre Dame, you will find the Palais de Justice, once the home or kings and now where France conducts its legal business. The Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was held awaiting her trial and ultimate execution adjoins the Palace. The original palace was built in the 10th Century and has been modified and reconstructed many times. While it appears to be just a courthouse, though a very interesting one as you watch robe-clad jurists scurry through the hallways, there are still parts of the building that show its ancient past. If the courts are open, wander through if you are appropriately dressed. This is the home of the French Supreme Court and they are much more formal than we are in America. Within the walls of the Palais de Justice is St. Chappelle, where the French monarchs worshipped. Famed for its spectacular stained glass and ornate walls, the family chapel for the royal family is a tribute to both God and the skills of French craftsman. It also explains how the lavish lifestyle of the throne bankrupted the nation.
Stroll across the river to the wonderful buildings that house the floral market for Paris. And if you want another rooftop view of the city, take the elevator to the top of the Semaritaine Department Store.
- The Louvre
It's a long walk but a quick Metro ride to the Louvre. If you've got lots of time in Paris, you could spend endless days wandering the amazing collection of art held in the glorious palace. If you are more limited, you may want to stroll the grounds, evaluate the appropriateness of I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard and then head on to other sights. Like all art museums, it helps if you go into the Louvre with some sense of what you'd like to see. For most people, it is DaVinci's Mona Lisa, which is famous but its impressiveness is a matter of personal taste. Our earlier trip to Rome and the Vatican gave me a strong appreciation for the works of Raphael so as I wondered the area housing Renaissance paintings, I kept an eye out for the Raphaels. They were all that I expected them to be and more.
- Place de Concorde and Champs Elysee
Head toward the west from the Louvre and you will be in the spectacular intersection known as the Place de Concorde. It is here where the French monarchs were placed upon the guillotine, but much has changed over the last 200 years and now it is a place where Paris traffic races past a huge ferris wheel. Continue on through the park and up the Champs Elysee where so many famous shops can be found.
- Arc de Triomphe
The great shopping comes to an end at another famous attraction: the Arc de Triomphe. Built to honor Napolean, it is now the resting place of France's unknown soldiers. Elevators or stairs will take you to the top of the arch where you can enjoy another rooftop view of the city. Look down the Champs Elysee toward the Louvre and you will see Les Invalides in the distance. Look toward the south and you will see the Eiffel Tower and Montparnesse Tower in the distance. Look westward and see the Arc de Defence, the dramatic modern arch that dwarfs its 19th Century inspiration.
- Les Invalides
If you are interested in Napoleon or medieval armaments, stroll to Les Invalides. Once a home for wounded veterans, and hence its name, it is now a museum of military history and the resting place of the French leader.
- Musee d'Orsay
As you head back toward the river and Notre Dame, you come to the d"Orsay museum which houses one of the best collections of French impressionists. If you love impressionist art, skip the Louvre and come here. But if you have only a limited knowledge of art, you may see more paintings and masterpieces you know as you wander through the Louvre.
A breakneck tour of Paris can get you to but not through all of these sites in a day. Our son visited every major attraction near the Seine on his only day in Paris. But Paris is not a race...it's an experience. Slow down. Stop at cafes, wander through the back alleys. Pop into small churches. Have a picnic in any of the many parks dotting Paris after picking up the goodies in a department store or street market.