Paris, the city of romance

The Musee d’Orsay by the banks of the Seine River at sunset.

In the summertime, Paris imbues a sense of fleeting seductiveness, aptly fitting its age old moniker of the city of romance. When walking through the Tuileries garden or strolling along the Seine River after dark, it is easy to see how the city has received this enviable status. The beautiful surrounds provide a serene backdrop for happy couples. Of course this is all dependant on visiting the right areas of this city. The Premier Arrondissement of Paris unfortunately is just too noisy and too full of tourists to capture Paris’s certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. The outer suburbs on the other hand are an eclectic mix of migrant workers from South Asia and Africa where daily life is underscored by a chaotic energy that dampens all notions of romance and courtship. There are of course countless alleyways and spots along the river bank to loose yourself in Paris’s romance. Twilight is when the city really shines and makes you fall in love with it, one evening at a time.

The iconic Parisian skyline at sunset from the Tuileries garden.

Before my visit to Paris, I envisaged a city full of elegance, history and croissants – fantastic croissants. It is all here of course, you just need to have a little patience to find it. The beauty of Paris is really in its understated sophistication and all of that 18th century architecture. Napoleon has left his indelible mark on the city with grand buildings, wide open boulevards and seized art work for tourists to explore.

Some of the beautiful architecture of Paris.

There are a few home truths about Paris, one of them is that the locals are rude. All you can do, is embrace this and just go with the flow. The second truth is one that takes a bit more digging to unearth. Paris is a juxtaposition of the rich and the poor; the French locals and the immigrant workers. The wealth divide is not as stark as other countries however there is an underlying current of racial tension that pervades as you step into the outer arrondissements. Visiting these areas gives you a stronger understanding of the current climate and tensions within the city and the country.

Getting around Paris:

We arrived by train at the Paris Gare de Lyon train station. This is a much more industrial area of the city and truth to tell isn’t the greatest introduction to this beautiful city. The Paris Gare de Lyon is also quite far away from the 1st arrondissement (which is where our hotel was located), and necessitates a long journey via public transport or taxi/uber.  

A map of the Paris underground.

On the whole, getting around Paris was difficult. During our trip in the European summer time, we found that many of the train lines were closed for maintenance. Navigating the different train lines was also a challenge due to the language barrier. In the end it was just easier to walk to our destination or fork out for an Uber. In France, Uber’s had the secondary advantage of not needing to converse with the driver – a definite bonus if French is not your forte!

The 1st arrondissement.

Accomodation: 

We chose to stay in the 1st arrondissement as this is the central tourist district of the city making it easier to get around the city. This was true for the majority of places we wanted to visit however places like the Champs Elysée and the Catacombs required a cab ride.

The view from our hotel balcony.

We decided to splurge on our accomodation in Paris and booked a boutique a room in the Hotel Lumen. The entrance into the hotel was discreet, opening up into a luxe foyer with plush velvet furnishings and a hanging chandelier. Although, the rooms in the hotel were a little on the smaller side.

Culture: 

The city’s inhabitants personify understated elegance and are always impeccably dress. Visiting Paris is similar to visiting cities like New York and Tokyo. It pays to have some well tailored pieces in your suitcase that can take you from sightseeing to drinks and dinner. Tourists in creased shorts and grubby sneakers really won’t do here!

A quintessential Parisian street scene.

Parisians also adhere to strict rules of French civility; shop keepers will always yell out ‘bonjour’ to customers. They expect that customers return the greeting. Most shopkeepers/waiters in Paris will assist you if you approach them in English with no qualms. Think again though if you make this mistake with a Parisian local enjoying a lazy summers afternoon by the Seine. Rudeness is more likely the order. It helps to approach the locals in French first before asking them for directions in English.

Things to do: 

Aside from the tourist areas in the 1st arrondissement there are also the more quirky areas that are worth a visit. The Marais, Montemarte, 6th arrondissement and the Latin quarter all have something to recommend them. Its just a matter of figuring out what you want to see!

Museums

Paris is a city of culture and art, which is often not highlighted enough given all of Paris’s other attributes. The city is a treasure trove of art galleries and museums with something here for everyone! We only had five nights in Paris so chose the galleries we wanted to visit very carefully. 

The bustling Louvre courtyard.

Louvre

Despite the fact that everyone says the Louvre is over rated we decided we still wanted to explore the famous gallery, and we are so glad we did! The Louvre is full of famous and rare international artworks. Many of which were brought to France as trophies of war during the Napoleonic era. The historical significance and rarity of the objects in the gallery is mind boggling. To think that you are standing in the same room as the Venus de Milo whilst in the next corridor sits the Mona Lisa is a very surreal experience.

A hard won photo of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the sheer number of tourist vying for photo space in front of this painting is staggering.
The glass pyramid marks the entrance into the museum, you take escalators that lead you into the bustling basement complex of the museum.

The entrance into the museum is also worth admiring, it is very avant-garde. Escalators into the museum are located under a giant glass pyramid sunken into the ground. The journey through the museum commences in the basement level and slowly winds it way up into the top levels of the gallery. We had allocated 3-4 hours for our Louvre visit. In hindsight we could have spent a whole day here. We decided to browse through the map to figure out the key things we wanted to see and had to sprint through the museum to get to them all. We managed to see all our top priorities in the end! The most surprising and unforgettable exhibit was the ancient Egypt display. Here we were able to come up close and personal with mummy remains and sarcophaguses!

The remains of a mummy in the Ancient Egyptian exhibit.

Musee d’Orsay 

The stunning Musee D’Orsay Building.

This was the other museum I really wanted to visit. The Musee d’Orsay is dedicated to impressionism, with artists the likes of Degas, Cezanne, Renoir being exhibited here. Van Gogh’s famous painting: Starry Night is also on display. Seeing such an iconic painting, quietly hanging on the wall was a breath taking moment. It left me with a sense of wonder and awe, not only at the ability of the artist but also the incredible history and artwork to be found in Paris. 

One of my favourite pieces of art during my visit to Paris, Starry Night by Van Gogh

Champs Élysées

The busy Champs élysées.

We visited the Champs Élysées for a stroll one evening and found it to be a very touristy area. We walked down to the Arc de Triomphe, although found it hard to get close enough to the impressive structure as pedestrian. We were precariously perched on the median strip taking in the view and trying to capture our photo! Seeing the Arc de Triomphe was an incredible experience though, it gave me goosebumps just thinking about all the history that has marched through the hallowed gates.

The monumental Arc de Triomphe.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower.

Every time Paris is mentioned thoughts of this iconic tower are not too far away. The tower really does make the Parisian skyline and exudes the romanticism that Paris is famous for. Of course, almost any review you read will tell you to avoid climbing the tower at all costs. This is just too cliche a tourist activity. To buck the tourist trend you can dine at restaurants with fantastic views of the tower. However in our case we sat by a nearby garden waiting for the sun to set. I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful glow of the Eiffel Towel, lit up at night that we were able to enjoy.

The Eiffel Tower by night.

Catacombs 

The entrance down into the Parisian Catacombs.

The catacombs are underground ossuary where the bodies of the Parisian dead were buried from 1774. The catacombs originally were a series of old underground tunnels created by quarry miners. Paris sits atop a network of these tunnels which are estimated to run 320km in length. A large portion of these tunnels, still remain uncharted to this day. The tunnels have been used in various ways including by the French Resistance in World War Two and even now as secret (read: illegal) party venues!

The walls are lined by the bones of the dead.

The ossuary, initially was a disorganised repository of bones. Work began in 1810 to transform the ossuary into a visitable mausoleum. The bones of the dead are now stacked in beautiful and systematic patterns turning them into macabre works of art. When visiting the catacombs there are a few things to note: there is only staircase access down into the tunnels; and it is dark and cold down there so be sure to pack a jumper.

Some of the artistic displays in the Catacombs.

Shopping: 

I hadn’t quite appreciated how amazing a city Paris would be to shop in. The Rue de Saint Honore alone is an incredible pedestrian shopping mall with a mix of mainstream, boutique and luxury labels vying for space and custom on this street. The disorientating thing about exploring this iconic street was the ability to casually stroll past niche runway labels like Comme de Garçon and APC. The highend fashion houses like Chanel, Dior and Hermes are all located on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, whilst many famous luxury ateliers are located off the side streets in and around the 1st arrondissement. I almost lost my marbles when I walked past the Louboutin atelier! Viewing the shopfronts behind these iconic brands was a surreal experience!

The Christian Louboutin shopfront, Paris.

During my self guided walking tour of the city, I ended up in the Boulevard Haussmann with very little idea of how I got there. As I was walking down this wide and busy street I happened upon the Art Deco buildings of Galaries Lafayette and Printemps. I only decided to walk into these buildings as I was curious to see what was inside. As department stores go – they were both stock standard selling high end and designer pieces of jewellery, clothing and perfumes. Being able to shop with modern convenience in an old world building was the drawcard here. The food hall in the Galaries Lafayette was pretty amazing as well, they had vendors from some of the iconic patisseries in Paris!

The Printemps building in the Boulevard Haussman.

Paris is also famous for its flea markets. I walked through the Marais district one morning and came across various vendors displaying an enticing mix of bohemian clothes and jeweller, old records and leather suitcases! And this was only a small part of what I strolled past. The other surprising thing in this district were the cooking stores I happened to walk across. I actually did go into one looking to purchase a French oven, however the cookware on display was a little overwhelming so I left empty handed…

We happened to walk past this iconic building in the 18th Arrondisment, I couldn’t help myself and had to take a photo!

Paris is one of those iconic cities of the world where there is something to see and do for nearly everyone. To make the most of it plan out your activities and be prepared to take a slower approach to life. Things may not go according to plan especially in the summer months when the whole city feels like its on holidays! However even the most disrupted plans allow the discovery of something new in this incredible city!

Top Tips:

  1. Public transport is tricky to navigate around Paris, you may need to use Uber or a taxi
  2. The trick to getting into see the catacombs quickly is to buy tickets online, this way you don’t have to wait for the invariably long line to go below.  
  3. Definitely get yourself to the Louvre, it is definitely worth all the hype
  4. Always approach the locals in French before switching to English, this will make for a much more pleasant experience with the locals
  5. Paris has lots of large open garden spaces where you can relax and just take in the view of people and the city

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