Beginner's Travel Guide to Paris
Not as bad as London, but Paris is expensive these days. There are a lot of easy reasons to put off a trip, but there’s very little practical way to avoid it: sooner or later you’re probably going to Paris. The business world often has a trail leading through Paris and it's a world-praised place for a vacation visit. Since the Euro took off in value reltive to the dollar it's been increasingly difficult to make Paris a cost-conscious destination. Still, there is something that aches in your sense of romance when you wander among the baroque Parisian architecture with the language lilting in the air around you. Those grand city scenes, the monuments and statues reaching triumphantly to the heavens.
To visit Paris your very first time you need to study a little and know what you're doing. It's true that Paris is easy to hate during a short visit if you have a charmless room near one of the train stations and only eat in a smoky brasseries. But there's no reason to fall for that. Once you find the sweet spot, you'll revel in a discovery shared by millions of travelers that Paris is the darling of all the European capitals.
This essay isn’t intended to convince you to visit Paris, or to advise you which key sights or museums you should take in when you get there. There isn’t any way to write a comprehensive Paris guide in 1,500 words (here's Fodors excellent comprehensive guide). Instead, this essay provides the basic fundamentals. If you have no idea how to approach a trip to Paris this essay will supply you with a dawning notion of how you would go about getting to Paris, how you might then travel into the middle of Paris, where you might consider staying, and maybe I can also fit in some a filler get you something to eat or find you a pharmacy. My point of view is that I rarely visit Paris on an expense account so I am reasonably cost conscious. I like hotels that make me comfortable, and even pampered if the cost isn't silly, and I try to eat and drink what sensible local people eat and drink at restaurants they would likely visit on special occasions (becauase my trip to Paris is always a special occasion).
The first step is getting there, which is pretty easy. You can easily find a direct flight to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) north of Paris from any of several major US departure cities. Fares during the summer have been in the $800 range the last couple of years. Shoulder season (May-June and September-October) is showing the usual discounts, maybe 30% less than high season.. Shop around a little for air fares on Travelocity or Expedia and see what you come up with. If you really want to get aggressive you can install a “farescraper” on your computer like the one offered for free on SideStep.com (be warned that once installed the little terrier SideStep jumps out at you to offer its own fare search whenever you do a flight query on any another Internet travel site).
When should you plan to go? Paris has four-season charm, so unless you just hate a particular season there isn't a wrong time to go to Paris. I consider Paris a year-round destination, except for maybe August. French national law requires employers to give most French workers the month of August off. Paris empties of many of the locals that give Paris character. Roads all over the country clog up. So I would say don't visit Paris from late July to the end of August if you can help it. Readers have responded: "What's wrong with Paris in August!" Okay, go ahead and visit in August.
CDG is a sensible, spacious airport that has direct rail link to the middle of the City (which is the RER train that intersects with many of the main subway stops of Paris). Before you leave the airport on your way in to Paris make a note of which numbered Terminal your airline departs out of because CDG doesn't give you a lot of extra help finding the right place. In a pinch you can walk from one end of the airport to the other in about 30 minutes.
You can take a cab or bus from the airport if you like, but Parisian cab drivers will not sweeten your arrival with their mysterious, lengthened driving routes, baggage charges, etc. And waiting on the bus is no delight for a cranky, sleep-deprived person. The street-level scenery of north Paris on a drizzly moringing is not particularly worth the extra cost and the headaches that can come with heavy traffic. The RER-B train is simple to find under Terminal 2 of CDG. Trains leave every 15 minutes and cover the 16 miles into town in about 30 minutes. The train costs about nine bucks each way, compared with $40-60 bucks for the taxi. In an emotional and inconsistent city like Paris, the train has a certain quality of reliability that appeals to many jet lagged persons. It posts what time it’s leaving and mostly keeps the schedule. Anyway, I always take the RER.
If you take the RER train then by the time you get into the center of Paris you have probably been staring at the Metro map inside of your train car for long enough that you may be willing to take a stab at riding the subway for the home stretch of your in-bound journey. Alternately, since the train has now covered most of the ground to your hotel from CDG, you can now economically climb to the surface at one of the RER stops (like Gare du Nord train station) and flag a cab for the last leg of the trip to your hotel. This little luxury will spare you locating the exact street address of your hotel while in a jetlagged state. The RER/cab hybrid method will save 70% or more on the usual taxi fare all the way in from CDG.
The Paris Metro is tidy and quiet. The stations are hushed like libraries compared with the New York City subway. The little train cars ride on rubber tires and have manually operated doors. Buy the ten pack of train tickets (a "carnet") if you plan on doing any subway travel while in Paris. To accomplish this simply proffer twenty Euros at a Metro ticket booth and say “ten tickets please,” which sounds phonetically like, “dees bee-yay, see voo play”. "Carnet, please" sounds like "car-nay, see voo play." You insert your ticket into the turnstile to be admitted into the subway and then hold on to the ticket, which you may need to insert into the turnstile to get out.
Paris is set out in a snail-shell spiral of sections called “Arrondissements.” These section spin out from the center of town along both sides of the famous river Seine. (What a typically Parisian way to map out a city!) The lower the number of the Arrondissement the closer you are to the Louvre and the most central city landmarks. So, a hotel in the 1st Arrondissement is right in the middle. Beyond that the neighborhoods spiral out clockwise so that by the time you get past the 8th Arrondissement you are probably out a little too far for convenience.
The location and character of your hotel makes a lot of difference (here's Travel Advisor's workhorse listing of top Paris hotels). A nice, friendly, residential neighborhood near the center puts you way ahead. The 1st Arrondissements is right in the middle and offers grand government buildings, the Louvre and all around some pretty swank surroundings. (The photo shown here is the pyramid at the Louvre with a ferris wheel curiously visible at Place de la Concorde where they beheaded all those folks during the French Revolution.) For hotel shopping try something in the Marais for fairly sure bet (generally, that means the 4th Arrondissment). The Latin Quarter around the Sorbonne (6th Arrondissment) has its student charm, but you can stumble into a really cheeky tourist factor, which the Marais avoids a little more consistently. The 7th Arrondissment around the Eiffel Tower is a fairly comfortable, fairly central neighborhood that offers some good hotel and restaurant deals, but it’s a little more work-a-day and less romantic than the Marais.
Here are a few hotel recommendations, followed by a top-secret Paris hotel trick. Like New York, Paris has some awful hotels at the fringes. You really need to pay attention to where your hotel is and what it looks like, inside and out. I'm pleased to applaud people like Ernie the Attorney who visit Paris and find a comfortable, centrally located hotel like the Hotel du Louvre. Napoleon III innaugurated Hotel du Louvre in 1855 as a, "palace of the people rising adjacent to the palace of kings." Indeed, it vies with the nearby Hotel Regina as the 1st Arrondissment's top dog (here is Trip Advisor's review of Hotel du Lourve). Also in or near this general price category are some other truly great Paris hotels, including the Paris Ritz (of Princess Di fame) and the vaunted Four Seasons George V.
Let me scale back to some American-friendly, failsafe recommendations in the $150/night and under price category. The Hotel Le Tourville is a couple of hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower, just near a Metro stop called Ecole Militaire (16 avenue de Tourville – 01-47-05-62-62 or in the US 800-528-3549). This is a comfortable, mid-priced hotel that has become excellent at welcoming and dealing with American visitors. There are 27 rooms and you can usually get a booking. Everything you need is in the hotel. There is a small food shop and a pharmacy three doors down. You could subsist on food from the brasseries by the Metro, but there are great, reasonable neighborhood restaurants that offer superb traditional French dining (ask reception to book you tables and provide local directions for: Au Bon Accueill at 14 rue de Montessuy – 01-47-05-46-11 and the family run Thoumieux at 79 rue St-Dominique – 01-47-05-49-75).
Le Tourville is medium priced, depending on the room and the season. For something just as accommodating but less expensive try Caron de Beaumarchais in the middle of the Marais (12 rue Vieille-du-Temple – 01-42-72-34-12). The theme here is “The Marriage of Figaro” and each of the 19 rooms is dressed up one way or the other. You have to book ahead because Americans have discovered this jewel of a value hotel and they love it. Although it’s a little more eccentric in its décor than Le Tourville, the staff is equally accommodating. The neighborhood can’t be beat and is better for wandering around and finding restaurants than that around Le Tourville.
Now here’s my top-secret Paris accommodation advice. You may know that the famous cathedral Notre Dame is situated on an island in the center of Paris, and in the center of the river Seine. This spiritual and historical cradel of the city of Paris is called Ile de la Cite. Right next to Ile de la Cite, and joined to it by a little pedestrian bridge, is Ile St. Louis. Ile St. Louis is like a quiet French village within the center of Paris. It has cobbled streets, very little through traffic and loads of historical resonance. There is a main street with several nice hotels, traditional restaurants, shops. You can stroll around free and unworried like you are in Provence. For a sanctuary inside the heart of Paris, Ile St. Louis can’t be beat.
One catch for staying on Ile St. Louis is that you’ll probably need a taxi to get to the hotel door if you have any serious luggage because the subway doesn’t stop on the island. Two good hotels on Ile St. Louis are the medium-to-upscale Hotel du Jeu du Paume (54 rue St-Louis-en-Ile – 01-43-26-14-18) and the comfortable, medium-priced Deux-Iles (59 rue St-Louis-en-Ile – 01-43-26-13-35). There is a cluster of reasonable restaurants around the neighboring Notre Dame (try Le Vieux Bistro at 14 rue du Cloitre-Notre Dame). There are more good restaurants right across the bridge in the Marais.
Restaurant dining in Paris is a strange and wonderful subject that I’m not willing to delve into in a comprehensive way within the limits of this essay. The curious fact is that many American restaurant guides (like Zagat) ruthlessly pan good French restaurants. If you compare Zagat’s quantitative ratings for the top Paris restaurants with the top New York restaurants you will plainly see what I mean. Most striking is the fact that the top New York restaurants that serve French food consistently get 20 or 30% higher numeric scores than the best restaurants in Paris. A fair conclusion is that Americans (who provide the ratings in Zagat) don’t like French food, or if they like French food, they like the American versions of French food much better. It’s no use swimming against the tide: my restaurant recommendations in this essay are truly French restaurants, so it’s fair to say most Americans probably won’t like them. But if the charm of Paris overtakes you, at least give it a try. Sit down with a carafe of house wine, bite into a plank of crispy French bread and order a traditional cassoulet or a pot-au-feu. You've traveled this far - why not see where it takes you.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:46 PM.