Paris, France, from the tower of Notre Dame.
For five months, my cell phone background has been Paris from the top of Notre Dame. FIVE MONTHS. I’ve been to South Padre, College Station, Chicago and Bee Cave/Dripping Springs since then. And yet I have not put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard about my trip. For that, I’m truly sorry.
Paris was the third stop on my European tour, after Madrid and Barcelona and before Rome. I got a lot of advice about Paris before I went. I also got a lot of Trump-worthy “it’s overrated” comments. Let me be the most clear about this one thing: It’s NOT at all even a little bit overrated. It’s beautiful. Like a foreign version of New York, but extra beautiful and nice.
I didn’t go on some romantic trip to Paris, but romantic it was nonetheless. I fell in love with Paris. I’m so down to learn French and book my next flight. Seriously. The love is real. Over the course of three days, I walked 61,322 steps (according to my fitbit), which came out to be more than 27 miles. I literally walked more than a marathon across the city and Versailles. Aching feet, still I loved it all.
Here’s how you could fall in love with Paris in just two days like me (oh, and get all the steps in):
Morning in Versailles
Versailles was one of the first things we booked (after flights and lodging).We booked our tour online through a third party. They give you an audio thing, which is cool, but it was BYO headphones. Which I didn’t know. I ran around with the plastic player’s speaker smashed in my ear. But, not having to follow a guide was pretty sweet.
We decided to do Versailles on our first morning in Paris. After a croque madam and an espresso in a cafe, we found our way to Paris-Gare de Lyon Station.
The internet’s advice is pretty clear: Book a tour/entry time, or don’t even bother. You can cab it to Versailles from Paris, or book a van. Or, you can take a train. That’s all swell, but here’s what the internet DOESN’T TELL YOU.
- Getting to Versailles via train is a literal nightmare. There are, like, 5 (I think) types of trains that all go out of Lyon station. You’ve got the metro/subway. Then the others are…. look, I don’t know. One goes really far distances. Another goes to the countryside. Another goes country but not as country. Oh yeah, and everything helpful is in French. A language I do not know. (YET!)
- There are MANY ways to buy train tickets. There are automated machines, but there are different ones per type of train and you will not be directed to the right one (probably). There are also booths with real people, who are not any more helpful. At these human-manned booths, there are three types of booths depending on when you need your ticket. The “later date” booth, the “day of” booth and the “RIGHT NOW!!!!” booth. We headed there.
- Lyon Station is, like, three levels with trains boarding on each level on all four sides of the station.
- Get to the station an hour early. The train to Versailles isn’t even a full hour away, but we missed no less than three trains before FINALLY boarding. How we made it to our tour time, I’ll never know. Oh yeah, that’s right, we straight up RAN from the train station to our tour guide.
- Bonus: When we got to Versailles, we had to swipe our ticket to get through some turnstiles. For whatever reason (jk the reason was that our trip was CURSED), literally none of the tickets I had in my pockets made the turnstile open. I tried each one multiple ways. My friend Catherine struggled too. I FINALLY got through (by magic, pretty sure), and I thought we were going to have a “Leave! GO! Save yourself” moment, but magic let her in eventually too.
- Some days, the gardens are free. Some days they are not and have live music in the gardens. It’s 100% worth it to spring for the gardens tickets. We spend half our time out there.
Once on the Versailles grounds, all the annoying/cursed things stopped. What followed was an amazing cultural experience with one of my best friends that I will never forget. Here are some highlights of the things I learned:
- Beds were super small back then.
- Anyone could come into any of your 5ish rooms (except your tiny study) at any time if you were the King/Queen/Princess.
- The Hall of Mirrors is where you face your fear of how you look when you are level 20 annoyed with obnoxious tourists.
- The French freaking loved gardens and fountains. Especially if gold is involved.
- I completely understand the French Revolution now.
Design your own walking tour
The train back to Paris is a zillion times better. First of all, this time around, there’s only one floor of trains and it’s pretty obvious which one you need to take. After fighting with the turnstile again, we boarded and were back in a quick 30-40 minutes.
As if you haven’t walked enough, I still highly recommend you create your own walking tour around Paris. I did this solo, and it was nice because I got to see landmarks I wanted to see at the pace I wanted to go at. I would stop and get food or an aperol spritz whenever I wanted/needed.
I do wish I had a tour guide or an audio tour for some of these. A lot of the history was lost on me because I was riding solo.
Here’s the path I took: (PS, you can navigate shortcuts below ground in the Subway. I stayed above ground at all times to take in every sight and every step)
- Eiffel Tower: I metroed here, then I grabbed a crepe and a picture before heading off
- Arc de Triomphe: I took it all in from across the street before heading underground to visit it up close. You CANNOT cross the street, unless you want to either die or piss a bunch of French drivers off THEN die.
- Grand and Petit Palais: Exhausted by this point, I didn’t dawdle. I kind of wished I had, but I saw them from afar.
- Palais Royal: I ended up here near the Louvre. I found a bench and leaned back and, well, rested while watching French children playing with their au pair and golden retriever. Just. Obsessed. With. France.
- Bar Bistro L’Entracte: Reunited with Catherine, I had an Aperol Spritz that I super earned.
- Bonus: I didn’t have these on my route, but I saw them at another time.
- Pantheon: It’s one of those things that’s just kind of there. You go, take a pic. Boom. Done.
- Le Jardin de Luxemburg and happy hour at Fuxia
See the whole city from Montmartre at Sacre-Coeur Basilica
The theme of the day is walk the entirety of Paris in one day, right? Take the subway to the 18th Arrondissement and trek it up to Montmartre and the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. We made a huge, two-part mistake.
- When we got off the subway, there was a long line for the elevator. We assumed these people were lazy and headed for the winding stair case. No less than 10 minutes and 1000 steps later, we saw the light of day. Oye. My legs.
- We took a Google-map directed route with a hefty average incline and three sets of narrow, steep steps. Oye. My legs, pt. 2. And. Then. We saw a 2 euro cable car that takes you right to the top.
ALL THIS TO SAY: Take the freaking elevator and the cable car. Save the Shins.
It was still very worth it. The view of the city surrounded by a pink, sun-setting sky was just. Ugh. Unforgettable.
We wandered around these little shops after and found some candy at a candy store. We actually did Montmartre and Moulin Rouge on different days, but they are really close to each other, but you can totally do both at the same time.
Late show at Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge was probably the second thing we booked after Versailles. It was cheapest to go to the late show, and then we YOLO added a bottle of champagne to our table. Would recommend.
We got to the Moulin Rouge area early for our showing, so we stopped in a nearby cafe for wine, cheese and cheese fries, obviously. I was super impressed with the quick service, actually, and we were queueing up outside for the show less than 45 minutes after sitting down for food.
I do not and will never understand the lines for Moulin Rouge. First, we lined up outside, which seemed promising to us because it was short and moving. We walked past one building into another. They looked at our tickets, but didn’t scan. Then we filed up stairs into what looked like an old middle school gym (sans basketball court) with a dilapidated stage and dusty curtain.
After 15 or so minutes, we started moving again and went out to this hallway and back outside. Turned around and lost now, we walked into the building we had previously passed outside. In this building, we walked up some stairs, kept in line by some velvet ropes. Finally, we saw the entrance to the theater. We’d made it.
We showed our tickets, they were scanned and we were directed to an open table. We got our champagne shortly after that and then the show started.
Moulin Rouge is a sort of variety show with most songs being the dancing (and, more likely than not, topless) women. The songs were in French, so I couldn’t understand them (YET!), but they were peppy and fun! There were pirates, French revolutionaries, and, unfortunately, clowns/circus people.
The talent portions tho. They stole the show. Here’s what we saw:
- A male and female dancers in roller skates on a circular platform no bigger than 8 feet in diameter. They skated in a circle building up momentum and doing ridiculous things like the man holding the women by one arm and, one by one, kicking up her feet until she was literally just flying and spinning like a top. This was so high stress I barely breathed.
- A woman swimming with a python. Again. No breathing.
- A ventriloquist. Thank God, this one was in English with some random Spanish and French thrown in.
- There was this juggler who had great comedic timing. Actually this guy and the ventriloquist are tied for funniest.
Morning at Notre Dame
I had a few things I didn’t get to do due to timing/expenses/etc., but I was damned determined to go to Notre Dame. It was our last morning in Paris, and we had an early afternoon flight to Rome. But, like I said, determined. I figured I’d be the first one up the tower and be back by 11 a.m. Again, riding solo, I booked it a full mile from our hotel to the cathedral. I grabbed a tiny espresso to go and pocketed a croissant from a bakery on the way. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just knew where to go and that I should probably be there on time/early. But oh the lessons I learned. Here’s what you should know before you go:
- I repeat, go early. The cathedral is open earlier than 8 a.m., but the tower tours start at 10 a.m. I would recommend going at nine, touring inside, then heading outside no later than 9:40 a.m. to get in line for the tour. I went at around 9:20/9:30, and went inside, where I thought the tower lines would be. There weren’t any lines, so I walked around and took pictures of the cathedral. I got a sinking feeling that I was in the wrong place, and, low and behold, I was. When I finally asked and found the line at 9:50 or so, there were about thirty people in it. Fail.
- When I was inside, I took a lot of pictures and bought a 1 Euro guidebook. I read the book and looked at my pictures, appreciating the history of the cathedral. I was, at least, lucky enough to have a ledge to sit on for the most of my wait.
- The tower tour takes 15 or so people up at a time every 15 minutes. There are three stops on the tour:
- You first go in and up 1-2 flights of stairs into a gift shop and ticket booth. There, you can get your tickets (7 euros with a student ID, yass!) We waited around for what seemed like no reason, but later I realized that there are three stopping points and three groups of 15 people at each point at the same time — and only one set of stairs. So, we were waiting at each point until we got the clear to use the stairs. What a well-oiled machine this tower was!
- The next stop was after hundreds of circular, dizzying steps. I had some dark thoughts here, including: “What if someone above me tumbles down and we all fall down these stairs…” and “What if this is a virtual reality and these stairs and rails all look the same because THEY ARE” and “OMG I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW”. When I finally got to the top, I thought it was the top, and was very excited. It wasn’t actually the top, but the view was great! You follow a one-way path around the tower. The path is skinny, and there are nets closing you in.
- I started getting anxious about the time now. It was almost 11, and we had to head to the airport at noon. Aaaand I was a mile away. I made sure I was the first person in line to go up to the last viewpoint, which was incredible. You can see the Eiffel and the Seine river. You could go up to the bell towers here, and see the entire city. Also met some friendly gargoyles a la Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- After the third stop, you go allllll the way down. Just like you’d think, it was much easier going down, but still dizzying. I was the first down, and I hit the ground
runningspeed walking back to the hotel. We made our flight, btw, with time to spare.
- Travel lightly. I had my crossbody purse, a jacket, my big camera, and a water bottle. Too much. It’s close quarters in the staircases, not to mention it was kind of heavy.
- Wear better shoes than I did! I had some cute flats because it was a warm day and I had blisters from my tennis shoes, but boy do I regret that. I vowed to throw these shoes off the top of Notre Dame next time I visit.
There’s not much I can say about the Louvre that probably hasn’t already been said. It’s incredible and a maze of amazing works. I got lost in the Louvre no less than 5 times and, maybe because I went solo and had to deal with annoying tourists, almost cried on each time. Here’s what to know before you go:
- Book a time, much like Versailles. You can get in super quickly this way. I got there 30 minutes early, because I thought that even with the booked time there’d be a line. There was, actually. There were tons of lines everywhere: Lines for tickets, lines for students, lines for tour groups, etc. I found the line (somehow) for pre-purchased tickets and hopped in. I was inside going through security less than ten minutes later. Pretty nifty.
- I had skipped breakfast because I was nervous about navigating my way to the Louvre and all the lines, but I found an only slightly overpriced cafe and got some food. It was pretty nice! The lunch food looked better than the breakfast, so grab a bite before you start walking.
- I had a print out of a tour guidebook that gave you a walking tour of the top works in the Louvre and a paragraph or so of info about the piece. It was handicap friendly, so it directed you to elevators. One of the first ones was out of order, and I spent more than 30 minutes trying to find my way around that detor. I never really did, and eventually picked up the path after going through Egypt twice. Let’s just say, I was annoyed. Pro tip: pony up for the audioguide or a real guide. It’s worth it.
- You will be walking a lot. Again, wear comfy shoes.
- The Mona Lisa is actually worth it, ok. Yes, she is small, but come on. Do it for Nicolas Cage.
I spent maybe 2-2.5 hours there. Definitely could have done more, but I enjoyed it all!
Picnic at Eiffel
I highly recommend seeing the Eiffel Tower both at night and during the day. I don’t think it’s necessary to go up. I wanted my view from above to INCLUDE the Eiffel, so I 100% recommend going up at Notre Dame and Montmartre.
Go for a dinner picnic. Bring a blanket and a couple bottles of wine, which you can get at a corner store for 3-5 euros, and sandwiches or cheese and crackers. I thought there’d be food vendors there, but not really, just overpriced restaurants. There are some (annoying) people who sell overpriced wine in case you forgot to grab a bottle. Note: You go through security to walk under the tower, but worth it.
The tower lights up and twinkles every hour on the hour for five minutes. It’s pretty perfectly beautiful. The whole Champ de Mars (the green lawn where people post up and picnic) kind of stops to watch the twinkling.
It’s a pretty fantastic last view of Paris.