I had built up Paris in my mind. Visions of a visit to this city of love included portrait-painting, greying gentleman sitting alongside the Seine, picnics with freshly baked baguettes and smelly French cheeses and the notes of an accordion ringing out magically across the air.
My introduction to the city was somewhat less than that.
The city was grey and rainy. It was winter and many of the locals and tourists alike seemed to have vanished in search of warmer places. This was not the Paris I had been imagining, but what I did discover was something even better…
A city with fewer people, a Paris I could enjoy at my own pace, and an icon of history with a new story around every corner.
Getting to Paris is relatively easy. SAA operates code share agreements with Lufthansa, allowing South Africans to fly from Cape Town or Johannesburg to France’s capital city and the main Charles de Gaulle airport via the cities of Frankfurt or Munich.
A visit here is also easily combined with stays in many of Europe’s major cities which are easily accessible via short internal flights or high-speed train journeys. We combined our visit to Paris with a whirlwind trip visiting Amsterdam, London and Porto.
When to go
While the weather may have painted Paris in 50 shades of grey during our visit, what we quickly realised was that wintery hues meant fewer tourists. Paris may be prettiest in the summer months when the flowers are out and wine-fuelled picnics in the parks are a possibility, but if you want to beat the crowds then the cold and damp is just a small price to pay.
The winter months between December and February are the coldest with the shortest days and if you visit during this time you may even see the city lined with white as the snow falls in Paris. What that means is that the shoulder season months between September and November and March and May are great times to visit if you want to avoid the crowds but still want somewhat-decent weather. There will no doubt still be some waiting to be done to access major attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, but by visiting during the time we didn’t have to fight for space once inside and even managed to get up close and personal with the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Just be sure to avoid any UK school or public holidays!
If you want to get a real taste of French culture, then visit Paris over Bastille Day on the 14th of July. This French national holiday is held over two days and offers a wealth of free entertainment from parades and dances to concerts and fireworks displays.
A variety of musical festivals, concerts and events are also held in Paris in the summer months from June through to August while the streets are lined with Christmas markets and twinkling lights in December.
The French Open is held every year at the end of May/beginning of June and attracts tennis fans the world-over while the Tour de France concludes this epic event with the finish line on the Champs-Élysées at the end of July.
The main language spoken in Paris is French. It is a good idea to learn a few words in French; one particular irate woman was berating us in French for standing in her way before we were able to gently placate her with a few words in her own language.
Currency & Costs
As part of the European Union, the whole of France, Paris included, operates using the Euro. Paris is slightly more expensive than the rural reaches of France but is still slightly cheaper than the likes of London. The budget-savy traveller can find a variety of meal deals and happy hour offerings that are kinder on the pocket, but its cheaper to buy fresh bread and delicious meals to prepare at home, than eating out in the city. Most major Paris attractions are priced between €15 and €20 per person and you can budget to see at least two of these attractions each day.
Paris is a relatively safe and controlled city, although it’s always advisable to have your wits about you when travelling in any big city. As with most major cities in Europe, pick-pockets are a problem, especially in busy tourist centres and on the underground system. Pushing through the turnstiles at our first metro stop, locals hopped and jumped over the barriers and beggars were a plenty, a woman on the train was talking over and over to herself, while a man was singing in a drunken off-key. And while our savvy South African nature kicked into gear with hands on our bags and eyes on our pockets, it was a ride and a show all rolled into one, and a far better idea than battling the busy Paris traffic by car!
Just be sure to keep your wallets, cellphones and valuables in zipped pockets or bags and try not to look too much like a tourist – put away those massive cameras and maps! Scam artists are also prevalent in Paris – only book attraction and theatre tickets through official desks and tourism offices as guys on the street can take you for a ride. Also be sure to keep abreast of the political situation in Paris before travelling as volatile protests and strikes have been known to occur in France’s capital city.
Arriving in the city late at night, my first introduction to France’s capital city was a dimly-lit metro ride. I had done my research before hand and knew that a one way ticket on the train would cost just 1.90€ – a relief to the wallet having just spent a week riding the expensive London underground. This price could be brought down even further by purchasing a pack of ten tickets. However, knowing we were not located within walking distance of most of the city’s main attractions, and would have to take the train, we opted instead for a weekly Navigo pass which gives you unlimited access to the metro system from Monday to Sunday, even going as far as Versailles or Disneyland, depending on which zones you opt for.
Metro tickets and the Navigo pass are easy to purchase, available at vending machines or tellers at the metro stations. And while the metro can look confusing, a simple app like Citymapper will give you clear step by step attractions to get you to your desired destination. For those who don’t have access to data, there are also wall maps inside each station and the major tourist attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, are marked on the boards of their appropriate stations.
As Paris’ major airports are situated a good 20-30 minutes outside the city, it is necessary to take a train in to find your hotel. If you don’t want to lug around your luggage on public transport (although everybody does), then taxis and ubers are readily available. They cost significantly more than taking the train and aren’t necessarily quicker – perhaps just more convenient. Aside from using taxis to get to and from the airport, a car is not needed in Paris and in fact would be a hindrance due to the terrible traffic, lack of parking and considerable fees.
As navigating your way around Paris can be a bit tricky, it’s well worth purchasing a local SIM card so you can have good ‘ol Google in the palm of your hand.
This is not only useful for using maps, but also for reading signs, menus and information boards, many of which are only in French, even at major museums and tourist attractions.
You can buy SIM cards that are preloaded with a limited number of calls, SMSes and data at most supermarkets and tobacco shops, with a variety of providers to choose from. Once you have a local SIM card, it will also work anywhere else in the European Union so it’s a great asset to have if you plan to be travelling around! Data only SIM cards, such as those offered by Travel Wifi, are normally only available at the airport or tourism information centres, or you need to pre-purchase them online.
What to eat
If you’re a cheese lover like me, you’re going to be in heaven in Paris. You will find a range of delicious cheeses at speciality shops, market stores and even in the supermarket. And with most of these made locally in France, they are delightfully friendly on the budget. Local butcheries also serve a fantastic variety of cold meats, with pork delicacies being a speciality, from pancetta through to salami. Typical French specialities, such as duck and snails, can be seen on any good menu and local chocolate shops and patisseries have gorgeous macaroons and croissants on offer. Being such a cosmopolitan city, you can also find a range of authentic Italian, Greek or Portugese restaurants, making the choices on what to eat truly endless.
Where to eat
Paris is best enjoyed through picnics, grab freshly baked bread, some of those magnificent cheeses and meats, and head down the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower or the steps of the Sacré-Cœur basilica for a meal with some of the best views in the city. When looking for accommodation, it’s also a good idea to try and find somewhere with some sort of kitchenette so you can whip up a storm using all of the delicious goodies available at the markets and speciality stores.
Those looking for a good deal on a two-or three course meal should head to Rue de la Huchette, located just over the river from Notre Dame. Here you will find a great alleyway of restaurants offering delicious deals where you can choose one starter, main and dessert for a single price tag of between 10 and 20€. Great for a lazy lunch or early dinner, you can dine on filling pastas or Turkish kebabs before hitting the street again for some more sightseeing.
Those looking for something truly special, should book a dinner cruise with Bateaux Mouches. There is no better way to see all these sides to the city than by boat ride along the Seine, accompanied by amazing French cuisine. Gliding along the river, with starry light dancing on the ceiling and sipping on proper French Champagne I finally felt like I had found what it meant to be in the city of love. My first taste of snails was accompanied by a light show as the Eiffel Tower dazzled with twinkling lights for the evening and the tune of a violin and laughter finally filled the air. It was an experience worth paying a few extra Euros for and one that truly gave me the impression of Paris I had always dreamed of.
Where to shop
Once you’ve seen one Paris gift shop, you’ve seen them all. They all stock a similar array of tourist trinkets, including bags, scarves and t-shirts all emblazoned with images of the Eiffel Tower. For authentic Parisian memorabilia head once again to the markets and if its art you’re after be sure to only buy from genuine painters and not cheap replicas that have been sold time and time again to the multitude of tourists that came before you.
If you want a glimpse into the glitz and glam that Paris is famous for, then the city’s Galerie Lafayette is an upmarket department store than will introduce to the world of Parisian fashion. If you’re significant other isn’t game for traipsing up and down the isles, you will find an amazing rooftop bar here that affords one with magnificent views over the city.
Where to stay
Arriving at The Grand Hotel Français in Place de la Nation, I knew we had picked the perfect place. We weren’t smack-bam in tourist land, rather in the heart of a trendy suburb with traditional butcheries, bakeries and flower-sellers lining a street. Our small room boasted a crimson clad bed and a wrought-iron balcony with big shutters looking out onto the street below. It was picture perfect Parisian style, within walking distance of one of the major metro stations, without being super busy or noisy.
Those looking for a good AirBnB at an affordable price should look at the Montmarte district. This traditional artist’s quarter is set on the outer reaches of the city, near the imposing Sacré-Cœur. It offers bigger apartments at a more affordable price tag with a variety of trendy local pubs and restaurants around. As Paris’ is easily traversed thanks to the metro system, getting from here to any of the major attractions is relatively easy.
Paris’ Latin Quarter which sits between Notre-Dame and the Pantheon is also a trendy area; jam packed with restaurants, bars and cafes. With a number of major universities close by this is a lively, fun area so won’t suit those looking for the ultimate in peace and quiet but is within easy walking distance of a number of top attractions.
Where to go
Our few days in Paris where a jam-packed trail of your typical tourist spots. We marvelled at the sculptural beauty of the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre – a place that needs a good few hours of your time to explore, if not the whole day. The Egyptian Antiquities, Islamic Art and African, Asian and Oceanic Art sections all hold a variety of wonders well-worth seeing.
We climbed to the top of Notre Dame’s towers to see the famous bell tower and marvel at the gargoyles up close and we stopped for a moment of silence at the grave of the unknown soldier at the bottom of the Arc de Triomphe. Both of these attractions offer you magnificent vistas over the city and onwards to the Eiffel Tower but scaling both will require an additional fee (you can stand at the base of the Arc de Triomphe and go inside Notre Dame’s nave for free).
And, of course, any visit to Paris wouldn’t be complete without ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Opting for the route less travelled, we took the stairs for part of the way up, stopping to drink in the dizzying views of the city and get a closer look at this iconic structure that was never really built to stand such a test of time. Taking this way up does require some level of fitness but is a cheaper way to see the tower and allows you more time to appreciate the views and the structure.
We also contemplated the meaning of great art in one of Paris’ lesser-known but just as mind-blowing galleries – the Picasso Museum, and we paid our respects to great writers in the crypt of the Pantheon. And on one glorious day, we watched in wonder as the sunlight crept through the stain class of the tiny Sainte Chapelle and painted the world in a slew of colours. This small church is one of Paris’ lesser known attractions but its floor to ceiling stained glass windows are simply magnificent and warrant a placing on the list of must-do things in Paris.
Another iconic Paris highlight was at the famous Moulin Rouge. Expecting scantily clad ladies and a good time, I was blown away but the exuberance, grandeur and extravagant nature of it all. Glitter, sparkles and a whole lot of skin accompanied just as lavish cuisine in an atmosphere that harked back to the days of yesteryear.
All in all, in Paris we discovered that it’s the history, opulence and grimy-side of the city that all combine to create something that goes way beyond the cliché imaginings of my mind.
By Janine Avery