This is part of my ongoing “Ask a travel expert” series.
What to do in Paris?
Question: I am writing because I recently won two tickets on Air France to Paris and was wondering if you have any recommendations for what to do with a week in Paris! Eat, see, tour, where to stay on a budget etc. I figured if anyone could give the scoop, it would be you. My husband and I are thinking of going in April or September. I am definitely a foodie/wino/champagne-o and we’d love to visit museums, see beautiful architecture, etc. Any recommendations that you can send my way would be most appreciated! – M
Answer: First, congrats! Paris is a dream destination for most people, and it’s even better when you get to experience it as a romantic holiday! (exhibit A: Photographic proof of love in Paris from my last trip).
I’ve been to the city five times, most recently in 2010. That’s enough times where I don’t get too lost (although my French is non-existent), but still find plenty of new things to do.
I’m not sure how much time you’ll be spending in the city, but keep in mind that Paris is a city that takes a lifetime to explore. While you’ll be tempted to pack in the major sites, make sure that you take some time to sit in a cafe, stroll around Montmartre or on the banks of the Seine, or linger over a lengthy meal (as you make your plans to come back!)
Paris weather can be finicky. On my last trip, in mid-March, the wind felt chilly and almost everyone was wearing scarves (with typical Parisian style). And in the late spring and summer, it can get hot and muggy; I remember sweating profusely during the French Open in May 2005. Most hotels don’t have air conditioning.
So April and September are both good choices. Keep in mind that everyone wants to experience Paris in April and it will be peak season for hotels (although airfares may be less). Fall in particular seems a bit more active because Parisians have come home from their summer holidays (almost all residents leave in August). By late October, it gets rainy.
Hotels in Paris
If it’s your first trip, you’re going to want to stay somewhere that’s centrally located, although keep in mind that the Paris Metro is easy to use. The city is also highly walkable (and oh so visual) so skipping cabs will not only be easy on your wallet, you’ll have things to see. The Latin Quarter can be cheaper, but also noisier.
If you want to save money on lodging so you can spend it on other things, consider an apartment rental. Paris apartments are generally small and most won’t have elevators, but hey, at least you’re living like a true Parisian, right? A peer-to-peer rental service such as Airbnb or 9flats might reveal up some great properties. While it can be scary to rent an apartment from a stranger, you can restrict your search to properties that have good reviews.
I don’t have a “go-to” hotel to recommend, unfortunately, as my hotels have run the gamut (including a night where I slept at the Shakespeare & Co. Book Store).. If you decide against an apartment, my general advice would be to seek out a small hotel with good TripAdvisor rating that offers breakfast. I took a chance on a hotel like that when I visited with friends in 2005, and while our accommodations wouldn’t make T + L, they were very serviceable and budget friendly. On my last visit, I stayed at the Hotel Regina, which has a great location but seemed a little tired (although the outside is gorgeous).
If you’re splurging? Well, then, the sky is the limit. I’m dying to stay at Le Meurice (I ate at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant on my last visit) and who wouldn’t want to base themselves at the Ritz. Other places I’d love to experience: The Hotel le Crillon and Hotel Plaza Athenee, both five-star properties.
Restaurants in Paris
Eating and drinking in Paris seems more stressful than it should be, because you don’t want to waste a meal. Luckily, you’re in a country where people take what they eat seriously. If you stay away from obvious tourist traps, you’re bound to eat well, even if you’re picking up baguettes and cheese from a storefront grocery.
If you’re a foodie, you will want to make a reservation for at least one Michelin-starred powerhouse. I had one of the best meals of my life at Guy Savoy Paris, but the $700 price tag makes it out of scope for most people. But you can make lunch reservations at the restaurant – and still get the outstanding artichoke and truffle soup – for much less.
And some food experiences are worth stepping into the tourist zone. I remember vividly the ice cream, made from natural ingredients, that my friend John and I ordered at the famous Berthillon, on Ile Saint-Louis, just steps from Notre Dame. Was it pricey? Sure. But the atmosphere and memories made the splurge worthwhile.
Things to do in Paris
There are so many things to do in Paris that it’s impossible to know where to start. If it’s your first visit, you’re going to want to visit the standards: the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, and the Louvre. Don’t be embarrassed. They are all worthy stops.
The following are some of my favorites. The most important thing is to plan your day by neighborhood, so you aren’t running all over town. Pick a few arrondissements each day and concentrate your sightseeing in those areas. Be sure to leave plenty of cafe and strolling time.
If you’re an art fan, you must visit the Musee d’Orsay. While the Louvre gets all the attention (and yes, you’ll want to go, although it can be an overwhelming experience), the d’Orsay has one of the world’s best collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist work. Even if you think you can’t stand another museum, go.
If modern art is more your thing, then make time for Centre Pompidou, which has works from Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Dalí, Miró, Calder, Magritte, Rothko and Pollock. Have a drink or eat at Georges on the top level. Check out Stravinsky Fountain out front before you leave the neighborhood.
Musee Cluny has the famous The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries from the Middle Ages, and the basement is a Roman bath. A beautiful and quiet stop.
Sainte-Chapelle took my breath away when I first entered. The stained glass windows, which date back to the 13th century, are just one outstanding feature of the Gothic building. La Conciergerie nearby served as a prison during the French Revolution, housing Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre.
I’ll never forget the macabre tour of the Paris catacombs that I took on my first trip to Europe. The underground ossuary contains the bones of 6 million Parisians from the late 18th century.You can also pretend you’re Jean Valjean of Les Miserables and tour the Paris sewers (it’s much cooler than it sounds).
Speaking of tours, Paris has some companies that run stellar walking tours. In 2005, I took several Paris Walks, including the Da Vinci Code tour (hey, the book was popular then) and one that focused on the city during World War II. Both were excellent, and well worth the 12 Euro price tag. Context Tours are more expensive, but their guides are highly specialized and offer a more intellectual experience.
I could go on and on. But part of the beauty of Paris is finding your own favorite sights and stops. Report back and tell me what you loved most. And if anyone out there has other tips for things to do in Paris, please leave them in the comments below.
Got a burning question for a travel expert? Email me any time.