Top Ten Things to do in Paris

“Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild in Sabrina.

And I couldn’t agree more! And so, without further ado, my list of top ten things to do in Paris. Just in case you needed inspiration to go.

1. On Top of the Eiffel Tower: The Eiffel Tower is THE symbol of Paris. And for good reason – in the evenings, when it’s bedecked in twinkling lights, it’s pure magic. And the views from the top are literally breathtaking. So book online in advance, go up to watch the sunset and wait till the lights come on across the city, and it will be an experience you aren’t going to forget.

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2. The Louvre: You needn’t be a museum buff to enjoy the Louvre and the amazing works on display here. The sheer variety of the display alone ensures that you find something or the other to interest you – be it history, art, lifestyle, or aesthetics. And its the best place to tick off your list of world famous art works.

3. Guided Walks: The guided walks were one of the highlights of our trip. They are like an insiders guide to pockets of Paris – and it’s much more enjoyable than just walking around the neighbourhood, pretty though the neighbourhood may be. Just pick a neighbourhood/theme that interests you and put on your walking shoes! We used Discover Walks – they are free, though tipping in encouraged, the guides are enthusiastic and interesting, and they have a whole range of walks to choose from.

4. Picnic at the Jardin du Luxembourg: Pack a picnic lunch and head to the Jardin du Luxembourg. These beautiful gardens, right in the heart of Paris, are the perfect way to enjoy a warm, sunny afternoon in the outdoors. In autumn, the leaves turn into various shades of red, orange, yellow, and give the gardens an enchanting look. Spring, summer or autumn, this is the perfect place for a quiet break from the big city.

5. Ice-cream by the River Seine: There is nothing quite as lovely as strolling around the banks of the River Seine, with an ice-cream from the legendary Berthillion in hand. Watch the artists at work, cross all the bridges and just soak in the views of the beautiful old buildings lining the river bank on either side.

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6. Cycling along the Champs-Élysées: Riding the Velib along the Champs-Élysées is a fantastic way of combining two iconic Parisian experiences. Imagine cycling along one of the worlds most famous boulevards – if you’re looking at unusual ways to experience a new city, this is it!

7. Chateau de Versailles: This fairytale like castle, bedecked in gilt and gold, is a must visit. The beautifully landscaped gardens are a stark (and much needed) contrast to the over-the-top grandeur of the palace interiors. Visit early to escape the lines, visit the palace using the audio guide, and then head out to the garden for a stroll and a picnic.

8. The food: Oh my god, the food! I would have put the food on top of this list, but I didn’t want readers to think I’m a glutton. But the incredible array of breads, the irresistible desserts, the fantastic range of wines – this is a city that worships food and drink, and with good reason!

9. Wander around the Latin Quarter and St.Michel: The Latin Quarter is where all the hip student hang outs are – jazz bars, art movie houses, live music lounges, stand up shows et al. Unfortunately, you need to know a local (or do a lot of research) to know which ones are authentic and which are for the tourists. It doesn’t matter even otherwise – St.Michel close by has some fantastic food and drink options. Don’t forget to end the night on a sweet note with crepes from a street vendor!

10. Cathedral du Notre Dame: This gorgeous piece of gothic architecture cannot fail to impress. It also has some of the most intricate stained glass window work you can find – enough to keep your head titled at weird angles for hours and end up with a right royal ache in the neck (true story!).

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So what are you waiting for? Paris is calling!

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Days Four and Five: Come Rain or Shine

Nike decided to get up early for sunrise shots of the Eiffel Tower. It turned out to be a grey, rainy day but he got some great pictures nevertheless. I blissfully slept in, not caring for sunrises (or indeed for anything that disturbed my precious sleep).

It continued to rain throughout the morning so we stayed in and left the apartment only at lunch time. The rest of the day was spent running around travel agencies and railway stations, trying to buy train tickets from Bucharest, Romania to Sofi, Bulgaria – we needed to show tickets out of Romania to even be allowed into Romania!

I’d planned to visit the Musee d’Orsay that day (perfect for a rainy day, no?) but the stupid tickets took up the whole day, and by the time we reached the museum, it was closed. Sigh! We wandered across to the Jardin de Tulieries and eventually made our way to the Louvre pyramid. The rain, combined with the fact that the museum was closed, meant that we had the area pretty much to ourselves, so Nike got some rare pictures of the Louvre without its usual throngs.

Our friend Chan was hosting a dinner that night, since it was his birthday the next day. Nike was however running a fever, so he decided to skip the dinner and go home, and I went by myself. Chan had invited a wonderful bunch of people so the evening passed away quickly with great food and wonderful company. After dinner, the group decided to go pub hopping but I had a sick husband waiting for me, so I had to regretfully turn down the offer to go along with them (thus also letting down my bad wife image) and headed home to do the laundry instead (yes, exciting times, indeed!).

The weather gods decided to favour us on our last day in Paris: the day dawned bright, warm and sunny. The weather was perfect for the Jardin du Luxembourg! The gardens were absolutely gorgeous, with the trees shining orange, yellow, and red against the brilliant sunshine. Parisians turned out in full force to enjoy the weather: joggers were running to their own beat, an adorable group of girl scouts were having a meeting, a bunch of young people were playing basketball, parents played football with their kids. At the Orangerie, kids were renting miniature sailboats and putting them out to sail in the fountain, while their parents stretched out on the chairs and soaked in the sun.

We had a picnic lunch in the gardens (I’m a huge fan of picnic lunches – I’m always going “let’s we have a picnic lunch” if we so much as step outdoors at lunch time – and this was the perfect location and weather for a picnic lunch) and then stretched out on the seats and dozed off for a bit. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon! I am inspired to make a picnic lunch a monthly ritual once I am back home – though I should probably forget about this particular day if I want to keep my expectations realistic!

Our next stop was St. Chapelle. Nike wisely decided to sit this out – the lines to get in were really long; I spent more time standing in line than in visiting the chapel. The stained glass windows, which guidebooks were raving about, weren’t very impressive, in my opinion. And at a steep €8.50, the visit was simply not worth it!

We made our way to Berthillon for one last out-of-this-world ice-cream. I was quite disappointed to see that they had run out of mocha, but their other flavours are also incredible. We stood in line for almost half an hour for this (its the longest we had waited in line anywhere in Paris so far!) and I’d have happily waited for much longer for that ice-cream!

The last stop for the day was the Eiffel Tower. We just had a quick look from afar, as if to store the memory in our heads, and went home. We had spent a wonderful week in Paris – and we knew we would come back to this incredible, magical city again. So we’d said our goodbyes for now, but we will be back again. Au revoir!

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Day Four: Montmartre, Champs-Elysees and the Velib

Our day started with a walking tour of Montmartre, the bohemian heart of Paris. We started off in front of the infamous Moulin Rouge and then walked up the winding streets, littered with charming cafes and interesting shops. We even got a glimpse of the cafe where Amelie works (in the movie, of course!).

Montmartre was once a village on the outskirts of Paris, and the genteel Parisians came to the boisterous taverns of the village to drink cheap liquor and let their hair down anonymously. Over time, struggling artists made the area their home because it was much cheaper than living in Paris – Van Gogh, Picasso and Edith Piaf all lived here at one time. Now Montmartre is very much a part of Paris, and is home more to the bourgeois than the bohemian, but it still has a very artistic vibe. It’s one of the few places in Paris where you can find houses, rather than just apartments – and such lovely houses too they are, with large glass windows, sloping tiled roofs and ivy creeping over the walls.

Our tour ended at the Basilique du Sacre-Couer. The basilica, which is a strange amalgam of many architectural styles, was built to mark the state suppression of a revolt by some local citizens – and thus, is a church that not many locals care for. Still, its an impressive structure, and more impressive is the view from the church – for all of Paris lies at its feet.

We wandered around the Place du Tertre, the artists square, where artists where drawing portraits, miniatures, sketches and cartoons for their customers. We then headed to la Grenier a Pain for lunch – this place won the Best Baguette in Paris award for 2010 (yes, they really have such an award. Though it’s the French we are talking about so I dont know why you should be surprised). However, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why this particular baguette was superior to its fellows (apparently, an epicure I’m not).

We spent the second half the of the day cycling around the city on Velibs (the public bicycles). Nike had registered us for the day and was determined to use the damn bicycles so we took the metro to Saint Michel and then rode the Velibs in the lovely area around the Seines riverbanks – I would have enjoyed the ride much more if I wasn’t so focused on making sure I was on the right lane, and on not crashing into any of the billions of tourists milling around, all while looking out for the closest Velib stand AND keeping an eye on the watch (the first 30 minutes are free, then you get charged).

As if this weren’t excitement enough, we then took the metro to Republique, with the intention of riding the Velib around the Canal St.Martin area. First, it took us about half an hour to find the damned canal. On top of it, we had to walk all the way to the canal because all the Velibs in the stands in that area were out of order! Our guidebook had called the area “picturesque”, describing that it had undergone an “urban renaissance”. What actually happened was that we walked, lost, through many dirty streets, before finally arriving at a forlorn looking canal in the middle of a busy road. Not our idea of “picturesque”, no. And I can’t imagine how it would have looked before it underwent the supposed renaissance.

We hurriedly got out of the area and, as if to make up for it, headed to the Champs-Élysées. We started at the Place de la Concorde, which had so many grand buildings and lovely little parks, that we spent a few hours there to stare and take pictures.

We spent a frustrating hour searching for a Velib stand – our strategy was to look out for people riding Velibs and then to chase them, in the confidence that they would lead us to a close by stand. The strategy failed spectacularly for none of the cyclists headed to the stand, and we ended up wandering around in circles! We finally decided to give up and started walking along the Champs-Élysées, and of course we chance upon a Velib stand within a few minutes. Gah!

We then cycled along the Champs-Élysées, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. This was the highlight of the day for me – imagine cycling down one of the worlds most famous avenues!

By the time we reached the Arc de Triomphe, a light drizzle had started, and since neither of us were interested in climbing up to the top (I had done it before on my previous visit to Paris, and it was at the end of a long and tiring day, and I literally had to crawl up the last few flights of stairs, and had absolutely no intention of repeating that scenario) we quickly (!) found a stand to deposit our Velib cycles, took the metro to Saint Michel for dinner and gelato before going back home*.

*Nike argued that the Velib was much more efficient than the metro, and we had a competition for a short leg of the journey, where we started from the same point and he took the Velib and I took the metro to reach an appointed destination. Of course, I reached faster. But the man still remains convinced that the Velib is Gods gift to mankind! Huh.

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Day Three: TWIW There Were No Lines

We woke up to ominous looking rain clouds, but undaunted, we made our way to the Chateau de Versailles. Unfortunately (or stupidly, if you please) we ended up on the wrong train, realised it about half way into the journey, and had to backtrack quite a bit, before eventually ending up in Versailles (in our defence, this was the only time we got lost in one week of using public transport).

The Chateau de Versailles is infamous for its extremely long queues, so we bought tickets at an agency right opposite the railway station. The Passport (at €18) allows entry into the Palace, the Trianon Palaces, Marie-Antoinette’s estates, and all the gardens and is worth buying if you have the whole day for Versailles. But since we reached only at lunch time, we bought the ticket that allows entry only into the palace and gardens (at €15). I happily paid an extra €1.50 to the agency to escape the lines at the chateau and felt quite pleased with my own cleverness – of course, when we reached the chateau, there were absolutely no lines, and guess who wasn’t so pleased with herself then?

Anyway. Despite the threatening clouds of the morning, it was a really pleasant day, and the town was bedecked in fall colours, so we bought some baguettes and made a picnic lunch of it in one of the parks near the palace before heading inside.

The palace is absolutely incredible! It’s so massive and ornate that it takes some time for all that grandeur to sink in. The decor isn’t exactly to my taste – gold leaf, gilt, glass, mirrors, satin, velvet – but it doesn’t fail to impress. The high ceilings, enormous paintings, large chandeliers and various sculptures all add to the over the top grandeur of the place. It’s no surprise that the revolution happened – imagine the royalty living in this insane luxury while the population starved!

The ticket comes with a free audio guide. It wasn’t really a great audio guide – the description focused on the paintings and the sculptures – but I would really have liked to learn more about life in the palace, of which little mention was made in the audio guide.

There wasn’t as much crowd as I feared but there were an incredible number of Japanese tour groups. Consequently, I spent all my time inside the palace focused on ensuring that I either stayed ahead of the tour groups and hung back behind them. Considering the sheer number of tour groups there, that was pretty much an impossible task, so I must admit I was happy when the tour of the palace ended and we could finally head out into the gardens.

The gardens are supposed to be the highlight of the Chateau de Versailles – and they’re really vast so you can rent a bicycle or a golf cart to tour them or take the tram. Nike and I were discussing whether we could afford to rent the bicycles, when it suddenly started raining, making our discussion redundant. We waited for almost an hour but the rain showed no sign of letting up. We eventually gave up on the idea of touring the gardens, and decided to make a dash for the train station (it was going to be a long dash!). Just as we were running out of the palace gates, we found umbrellas being sold on the street, and gratefully bought one and rushed off to the station.

On the train back to Paris, we decided to get down at the Champ de Mars station to get some pictures of the Eiffel Tower before heading home. It was pouring by the time we got down so we dashed into a little cafe and waited out the rain with hot chocolate and lemon cheesecake. There’s nothing I love more than being ensconced in a warm place with a hot chocolate when it’s raining madly outside – and if this is in Paris, all the better!

We eventually sauntered over to the Eiffel Tower once the rain let up – and to our utter amazement, there was nobody there. Yes, we just walked straight up to the counter to buy our tickets and go up the lift. Not a SINGLE PERSON was ahead of us. If you’ve been to Paris, if you’ve seen the lines snaking many kilometres, you will understand why this is so incredible.

We spent well over an hour at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s incredibly stunning – Paris in all it’s lit up splendour, spread around the feet of the tower – it’s a sight that makes my heart catch in my throat. Its just magical up there. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt so I leave you with this picture.

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Day Two: The Louvre

Our second day in Paris was reserved for the Louvre. We had many friends telling us of how the long lines at the entrance meant that they never ended up going to the museum. I think that’s rather a pity, going all the way to Paris, and then not visiting the Louvre. So here’s a hot tip if you plan to visit the Louvre: enter through the Carrousel du Louvre or through the Porte de Lions rather than the main pyramid entrance, to escape the crowds. Here is a great article on how to enter the Louvre. The long and short of it (pun intended) was that we used the Carrousel du Louvre entrance and the whole standing in line – security check – buying tickets – storing luggage process took us less than 30 minutes!

There are two ways of ‘doing’ the massive Louvre – if you don’t have any specific interests, then just wander around to whichever sections catch your fancy. If you are interested in specific exhibits, get hold of a museum map and plan an itinerary. I’d been to the Louvre before and spent a whole day wandering around as I pleased. But this time, I did some research beforehand and had a planned itinerary for our museum visit.

We started with the famed Winged Victory sculpture. Then we headed to the Italian Paintings section for the star of the museum: La Joconde (Mona Lisa). Like before, I was underwhelmed by the painting – I simply don’t get what all the fuss is about! But I did enjoy the other paintings in this section quite a bit. I especially love the works of Paolo Veronese and Paris Bourdon. Look at the gorgeousness of Veronese’s Marriage at Cana below! I find Bourdon’s paintings very striking, and I think he’s a sadly underappreciated artist.

I managed to drag myself away from the paintings for our next visit: the Napoléon Apartments. I was very taken by the opulence and grandeur of the apartments, and will strongly recommend visiting this section, especially if you’re not going to Versailles. We then visited the Dutch and Flemish paintings section – which is a surprisingly under visited section of the museum – though it has Vermeer and Rembrandt, among others! Our last stop was the French Sculptures gallery, which we ended up in by accident, before finally exiting the museum, and giving our legs a much needed rest by sitting down for a meal at the Carrousel du Louvre.

We were too drained out after our Louvre visit for anymore sightseeing so we spent the evening with our friend Chan instead. Chan went to business school with me, and is now studying economics and policy at the Sciences Po, Paris. Very cool, no? A couple of months ago, when he’d posted some pictures of his travels around France, I threatened to land up in Paris – little did either of us know that I’d make good this threat, and so soon, at that!

We met up at the lovely Egalise St-Germaine-des-Près, walked around the trendy St-Germaine-des-Près area, visited the buzzing Sciences Po building, and bought macaroons at the 150 year old Ladurée, before making our way to the Left Bank of the Seine. After an amazing sunset over the river, the lights came on all the grand old buildings, and it was just so.incredibly.beautiful.

We walked along the river before ending up at the lively Saint-Michel area, where we had pita and kebab for dinner, and then crepes with nutella and banana for dessert. It’s one of my all-time favourite sweet endings for a meal, and for the day.

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An Ode to the Pain au Chocolat

My first introduction to ‘pain au chocolat’ was when I was an exchange student in Brussels in 2005. Pain au chocolat translates literally into ‘bread with chocolate’ – it’s a rectangular croissant with chocolate filling – but that’s a very prosaic way of describing something that tastes like a slice of heaven. So there was this little bakery right opposite our apartment in Brussels, and I’d go there every morning and order a pain au chocolat and a hot chocolate, and walk to class, and that was the nicest way to start my day.

Since then, I have always longed for the pain au chocolat. I came across them again at my hotel in Cambodia (remember, they were a French colony) and on an Italian cruise ship – but nobody makes it quite like the French do.

So one of the things at the top of my list for Paris was to have pain au chocolat for breakfast. And I did, every single day. Not  but two. Yeah, TWO, EVERY SINGLE DAY. No wonder my mornings in Paris always started off on such a happy note. 

P.S: And I thought I would lose weight during this trip. Huh!

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Day One: A Perfect Day in Paris

I first visited Paris as an exchange student in Europe in 2005, and fell under it’s spell. I was going to come back. And come back I did, even though it took me seven long years. And the city was as gorgeous as ever.

To me, Paris is a city of magic, and I am happy to be under it’s spell. The Seine cutting across the city, stunning Haussmann architecture, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel, and world class museums, cafes and parks – this is a city that one can never get enough of. This time, we were going to stay for a whole week, in the hope that we could get a taste of Paris.

We started our first day in Paris with a visit to Notre Dame de Paris. This masterpiece of French Gothic architecture is very impressive, and has some of the most intricate stained glass windows I have seen.

After a quick lunch near the cathedral, we set off on a walking tour of the Latin Quarter, on the left bank of the Seine. We chose Discovery Walks – they offer free guided tours in Paris (and other cities) but tips are expected. I like this model because you pay what you think the tour is worth; but it’s nice if you are generous and fair when tipping.

The Latin Quarter is a historic part of the city with old buildings, original cobblestone alleys; and was home to Dante, Hemingway and other artists. Our guide Tomas was energetic, enthusiastic and lots of fun. He was a student at the Sorbonne (which is the heart of the Latin Quarter) so he interspersed historical facts with interesting personal anecdotes. The 90 minute tour ended at the Place de la Sorbonne, and we just sat there and took in the young, fun vibe of the place.

We then walked along the river bank, crossed one of the picturesque bridges, and wandered around the leafy island of Ile St. Louis (there are two islands in the middle of the Seine: the grand Ile de la Cite houses the cathedrals and palaces while the charming Ile St. Louis is more residential).

I bought a mocha ice-cream at the legendary Berthillon, and OHMYGOD, it was the most fabulous ice-cream ever (and yes, I’ve had gelato in Italy). The flavours simply explode in your mouth. DO NOT miss this when you’re in Paris.

We eventually found ourselves at the stunning Hotel de Ville. There was a (free!) exhibition titled “Paris in Hollywood” so we checked it out, and then just sat at the square in front of the building and absorbed the gorgeous views.

Our last stop for the day was the Eiffel Tower. It was a long day so decided to go up the tower another day; but this time we just sat on the lawns and stared up at the tower, and then crossed over and walked along the river bank – the view of the Eiffel Tower across the river was incredible; and just as we were going to leave, the twinkling lights came on, and it was a perfect end to a perfect first day in Paris.

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