Paris is my favorite city, and during this trip I was able explore beyond the most famous landmarks and spend some time savoring those sites which do not necessarily come to mind when one first thinks of Paris. One can’t visit Paris and miss the iconic, but there’s plenty to see off the beaten path too!
Over four days, I went from Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, with a thousand other visitors, to the quiet solitude of the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. We visited several spots that were closed on our first trip, due to the terrorist bombings, and explored new ground.
Arrival and Accomodations
Upon arrival to Charles de Gaulle Airport, we took the RER Line B directly to the Chatelet station, and transferred lines to Odeon. From there, it was just a couple minutes’ walk to our VRBO rental. We had stayed at the same location in 2015, coming from Beauvais Airport. Flying to de Gaulle was so much better, I can’t emphasize it enough. From departing the airport to arriving at Odeon, it was less than an hour. Beauvais is serviced by mostly budget airlines, and requires a bus ride and multiple Metro transfers, depending where you’re headed in Paris. We were able to get just as good a price going into de Gaulle, but had the pleasure of flying AirFrance instead of RyanAir.
We stayed in the St. Germain neighborhood, an ideal location. Easy walking distance to Notre Dame, Luxembourg Gardens and metro stations, it’s full of excellent restaurants and shops, as well as conveniences such as groceries and bakeries. Each morning, we walked a few steps to the local bakery for fresh croissants, which have ruined all other croissants for me!
If you do stay in the area, take your pick of restaurants! But, there are a couple eateries I can recommend.
Paul- 21 Rue de Buci- With a walk up counter, or sit down service, Paul offers quality food at reasonable prices. Yes, it’s a chain, but the service was great.
La Citrouille- 10 Rue Grégoire de Tours- A local restaurant, La Citrouille features many local French dishes, as well as sandwiches and burgers. It’s very cute, with stone walls and rustic decor. Also reasonably priced, they will post specials on the chalk boards out front. We ate here on both visits to Paris and were not disappointed.
The first day we spent a lazy afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens. Stroll the paths, admire the sculptures, or grab an ice cream at one of several kiosks. We sat beside the pond, in front of Luxembourg Palace, enjoying the sun. Remote controlled sail boats are available for rent, providing entertainment as they startled the ducks floating along lazily.
Luxembourg Palace, meeting place of the French Senate, provides the garden backdrop. For a fee, you can visit the palace. The Luxembourg Gardens are free, although you may find a con artist or two at the entrance gate, asking for money, implying an entrance fee. Security ran them off, but just keep that in mind if anyone attempts to charge an ‘admission fee’ to the gardens. Free guided gardens tours are offered the first Wednesday of the month, April-October, at 9:30am. To me, however, the charm of the gardens was the peaceful quiet.
We took a morning tour the next day at the Opera Garnier. The more iconic of Paris’ two opera houses, Garnier was made famous, in part, by The Phantom of the Opera. Gaston Leroux published his book in 1910, allegedly basing the story on true events, and paving the way for the Broadway hit decades later. The story is set at the Opera Garnier, and while the Phantom may or may not have been real, the great chandelier did in fact fall during a performance, there is an underground network and lake beneath the building, and Box 5 is permanently reserved for the Phantom.
Phantom fan or not, you’ll be impressed by the opera décor and architecture. English tours are available every day at 11am and 2:30pm, or, you can buy a simple admittance ticket, with an audio tour. Tickets can be purchased online or in person, but check the schedule for closings due to performances. We took the guided tour, thanks to Phantom of the Opera obsession, to learn as much as possible. Groups can be quite large, but each person is given a headset to hear the guide.
The Opera has a giftshop and restaurant, but after our tour we went across the street to the Galeries Lafayette for lunch. I’ve never seen a ‘mall’ quite like this one, and quite frankly the term doesn’t do the Galleries any credit.
There are a number of restaurants, ranging from fast food to fine dining. Head to the rooftop terrace though, for some of best views in Paris. The Eiffel Tower makes a lovely backdrop to your cocktail or meal.
Afterwards, we spent a bit of time in the gallery. And of course, we needed to find a restroom! We searched all over, and finally asked an employee, who pointed us to one corner. Well, in true Parisian style, it was no ordinary bathroom. No, it cost 3 Euros, and each stall was its own themed room. We later came to discover there are free, ordinary bathrooms downstairs. Oh well, it was an experience!
The Paris Catacombs were opened in the 1700s, and multiple cemeteries were emptied, their inhabitants moved to the catacombs. Many of the tunnels were pre-existing, and provided a resolution to the overcrowded, and unfortunately stinky, graveyards. These are certainly not the oldest of catacombs but are unique in that all of the bones are on display. Many other catacombs, such as most in Rome, have removed the human remains.
The Denfert-Rochereau metro stop is across the street from the Catacombs, making it easily accessible. Expect to wait for entry, as only 200 visitors may be in the catacombs at one time. We lucked out and only had to wait a couple minutes, even though the line went to the street corner. Bring a jacket, as even on warm days the catacombs are so far below ground they’re still cold.
It’s a morbid, almost unreal seeming, visit, but I’m glad we didn’t miss it! For about an hour, follow the winding path, past a carved stone stating “Stop! Here is the empire of the dead”, through bones stacked six feet high. At the end, you’ll exit into a giftshop selling bone shaped soap and other oddities.
Seine River Cruise & Pont Neuf
To conclude a full day of the Opera, Galeries Lafayette and the Catacombs, we took an evening river cruise with Vedettes du Pont Neuf. The departure point is right under Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. This bridge, like many others in Paris, has hundreds of ‘love locks’ attached to it. Write yours’ and your lover’s names on it, lock it to the bridge, and your love is locked for life. Don’t mind the fact the locks are removed every so often, lest the bridge sides collapse under the extra weight (as they did in 2015). If you forget a lock, you’ll likely run into someone peddling them near the bridge.
The river cruise was highly enjoyable, taking you past Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and numerous other sites. We were fortunate enough to have a full moon during our evening cruise.
Visiting one of, if not the most, famous palaces in Europe is just a short train ride from Paris. In an hour or so, reach the town of Versailles, home to the palace of Versailles. Although it’s a short journey, plan to spend the entire day here. The Palace alone will take two hours or more, plus additional hours if you’re visiting the Gardens (no charge), the Royal Stables or the estate of Trianon (a separate ticket).
The Palace of Versailles is closed on Mondays, and can be extremely busy during the summer months. I advise booking your ticket as early as you can, and plan to arrive early to beat the crowds (as much as possible). Pick pocketing must be a huge problem, although I didn’t experience any issues, as they continually play audio warnings to beware of thieves in half a dozen languages, as you enter.
Follow the audio guide through the palace, and take in the splendor and decadence. Opulent to a fault, it is nonetheless amazing. Visit the famous Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera House, the King’s Apartments and more. My favorite portion was the Gallery of Great Battles. Created by King Louis-Philippe in 1833, the gallery contains huge paintings, depicting French battles through the centuries. Loving history, I was captivated by the battle scenes, everything from from the Merovingians to French participation in the American Revolution.
There are multiple eateries within Versailles, some quite expensive. We ate at Angelina’s, though, for a reasonable price. It’s not nearly as fancy as the Angelina’s on Rue Rivoli, but still served excellent sandwiches. If you’re ambitious, or on a budget, you can picnic in the gardens, but don’t plan to bring food into the palace.
While there is plenty to see at the palace and grounds, the town of Versailles is often overlooked. A quaint and cute village, it has a great indoor/outdoor market, selling fresh food, produce and flowers.
Eiffel Tower & the Latin Quarter- our last day in Paris
These two spots are actually a decent metro ride apart, but we began our final day at the Eiffel Tower. Purchase a timed entry ticket for the elevators, or a cheaper ticket to just climb the stairs. We did the latter, and let me say, it is not for those afraid of heights!
The Eiffel Tower has several restaurants, including a champagne bar at the very top. The restaurant prices were surprisingly reasonable, considering they are within the most iconic European destination!
My tip is to visit the gardens on the side of the tower. Easily missed, they are small but make for nice photos, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
As part of the slower pace for this trip, we enjoyed some laid back time in the Latin Quarter. Just across the Pont au Double from Notre Dame sits the Square René Viviani. A quiet garden, it’s wholly removed from the hustle and bustle. Full of beautiful roses and other flowers, it’s a wonderful spot for peaceful thought, a picnic, or perhaps a romantic rendezvous. It is also home to the oldest tree in Paris, dating from 1602!
Right next to the park sits the Church of Saint Julien le Pauvre. It was built about the same time as Notre Dame, but has roots back to the 6th century. Most notably, concerts are often held at the church. During our visit, they held a Chopin concert.
Just around the corner sits another impressive church, this one of St. Severin. Following a sudden rainstorm, we dashed into the church looking for cover. It has some beautiful architecture, and is one of the oldest churches in Paris. One of it’s more unique features is its’ stained glass. While it does have some 14th century pieces, the majority are from the 19th and 20th centuries, replaced after the originals were destroyed.
Leaving the church, wander through the lanes of the Latin Quarter. There are so many cute, fun, delicious looking restaurants that we joked we would have a 5 course dinner, with each course at a different restaurant.
I could easily spend weeks more exploring Paris, but that concluded my second trip to the city. It’s the only large city I can say I love, and I look forward to future visits!