Tips for planning your first trip to Paris

Most people won’t get to take more than one trip to Paris in their lifetime, so you want to make it good, right? Dan and I had the amazing opportunity to take a 2 week trip to Europe this past summer. Because we have family there, we started in The Netherlands, and then travelled on to Belgium, the UK, and finally to Paris. The trip was amazing, and it went so well because we took the time to plan out some of the important things beforehand. Below are some of the tips I have for planning your trip to Paris. Enjoy!

 

  1. Do your research 

This sounds really nerdy, but we spent months before our trip learning about Paris and the activities we wanted to do there. Read blogs, scour Pinterest, google up a storm, and buy a travel book or two before you go. Take the time to figure out what will be really enjoyable for you to do in the city. There is nothing worse than spending the money on a great trip to get there and have no idea how to take advantage of the opportunities surrounding you.  The Lonely Planet book on Paris was what we decided to buy, and we used it ALL of the time; both before and during our trip to Paris. The tips from it were really incredible. It gave us an idea of where to spend our time, but it also contained removable maps of the city, common phrases to use, walking tours by neighborhood, and explanations of the customs of the city.

Not only did we take time to figure out what would make our trip enjoyable, but we figured out what we didn’t want to do as well. Waiting in line for everything (like the thousands of other tourists around us) was one of the things that would make the trip stressful for us. We despise waiting in lines…. like really really hate it. In my opinion, there isn’t much in life that is truly worth a 3 – 4 hour wait. So, we figured out how to minimize our wait times. Just because I love you, here are the things I learned to keep the wait time at minimum:

  • Buy your tickets to the Eiffel Tower in advance: Everything I read before my trip told me to get in line to take the steps up to the first level of the Eiffel Tower to shorten my wait time, but at mid day when all of the tourists are around, you will still wait in line for at least an hour, and then have to climb A LOT of stairs. Just buy your tickets in advance to save yourself the wait. Unfortunately, we went to purchase our tickets in advance, but were too late (they sell out months in advance). This might be a tip, or we might have gotten lucky, but we decided to go up the Eiffel Tower at night instead, and there were only 10 people in line before us to do so. It was breathtaking to see the city at night. That might be something to check into if you missed out on the advance tickets like us.
  • Visit the Sacre Coeur for the best view of the city without a wait:  Everyone that comes to Paris wants to go up the Eiffel Tower, and you should at least once in life, but my favorite view of the city was at the Sacre Coeur. This beautiful church towers over Paris on a hilltop, giving you views for miles. Also, ask yourself this: what’s missing from a daytime view of Paris at the Eiffel Tower? The Eiffel Tower! As tourists, we LOVE looking at it, so when you are up in the Sacre Coeur, you not only get a beautiful city view, but unobstructed views of the structure we all know and love so much. When we got to the church, we realized that most people don’t know that you can actually go up into the tower of the church. Hundreds of people climb the hill to get to the church and linger on the steps outside it, but when you go around the right side of the building, and down some stairs, you can get in line to climb its tower. There was NO wait, and it was only 6 Euros a person (that’s a great price compared to everything else).
  • Buy your tickets to Notre Dame in advance. Churches are popular places to visit all over Europe. If you want to go to the most famous ones, either attend mass on a Sunday when they are free, or get your tickets in advance.
  • Get to the Musee D’Orsay in the morning: You won’t wait in line to buy your ticket at the door if you get there early enough. We arrived around 9 in the morning and spent about 15 minutes in line.
  • Buy a travel book to learn my FAVORITE no wait tip for The Louvre: You can sometimes have up to a 3 hour wait at the main doors of the Louvre. Read your travel book to learn how to skip the lines (Again… we bought the Lonely Planet one). It’s not a trick. It really works. I’m not willing to share the exact tip online, because I want you to do the work the reap the benefit of this tip (and if everyone finds out about it so easily, the wait time will no longer be short), but let me say that there was LITERALLY NOBODY in line where we got into The Louvre. It was so bizarre to me that nobody knew about the entrance, that I thought we had to be at the wrong place. Well we weren’t, and got in instantly! Score! This saved us a 3 hour wait, and we weren’t crabby by the time we got in The Louvre because we did our research.

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2. Slow down

Paris was our last stop on a two week trip around Europe, and needless to say, we wanted to see and experience as much as possible. I think that we are the worlds fastest travelers. Our vacation standard is that we start out exploring every morning at 8am and don’t get back to the room until around 10pm. The truth is, I usually end up breaking down to cry at least once on each trip because of our fast pace haha. I may cry because of how exhausted I am, but there’s no way I am wasting time in our room when I could be out exploring! I’ve just got to get the tears out of my system, pick my head back up, and keep on going. Anyways, Paris was initially a struggle for me because of this. When you get there, even though it’s a big city and you expect it to be bustling, the Parisians live life at a slower pace. They eat in parks, stroll along the sidewalks while window shopping, and spend up to two hours when they stop for coffee in a shop. Parisians SLOW DOWN, and therefore enjoy their lives. Do life at their pace, and you will get the most out of your trip to Paris. My favorite part of our trip wasn’t the amazing sights we saw (although they were amazing), but it was watching the Parisians and choosing to do life like them. We stayed in an AirBnB apartment in Le Marais, and toward the end of our visit we snagged a blanket out of the closet, grabbed some beverages and snacks, and layed on a blanket in a park called Place Des Vosges. We ate, drank, and enjoying the buzz of the people surrounding us. It was a wonderful experience. We were just one couple out of at least 30 others who were doing the exact same thing.

 

3. Find a balance between museums and experiencing the city for yourself

I like museums, don’t get me wrong, but if you spend too much time just learning about Paris through museums, you will miss out on the real heart and soul of it. So promise me that you will get out and experience Paris, but find a great balance between the two options. One museum I highly recommend (especially if you are into impressionist art like I am) is The Musee D’Orsay. You might be surprised, but I liked it more than The Lourvre (Gasp!). The building in and of itself is a piece of art, and they had some pieces that I had been dreaming about seeing for years. P.S. if you are into design, they have an entire section of the museum devoted to Art Nouveau ❤ ❤ <3!

4. Don’t just spend time near the tourist attractions

It can be a little scary deviating from the standard path taken in Paris, but get out of your comfort zone and get a little lost in the city. There are shops, restaurants, and businesses on every corner just waiting to be discovered.

 

5. Eat crepes at the Jardin Du Luxembourg

The Jardin Du Luxembourg is in the 6th district of Paris, and was created by the widow of one of the kings in the 1600’s. Today it serves as a park that’s owned by the French senate where the community can gather. It boasts immaculate gardens, fountains, statues, walking paths, and ponds. Imagine kids pushing their colorful sail boats out in a pond with wooden sticks with the backdrop of the Luxembourg Palace. Sunbathing locals line the concrete walking paths in the loungers surrounding the pond with the scent of crepes lingering in the air. You could be there, and you will want to eat the crepes. Trust me.

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6. Eat cheese at Les Deux Magots

Also in the 6th district of Paris is the famous restaurant named Les Deux Magots. It gained popularity because Earnest Hemingway, and other local intellects like James Joyce, and even Pablo Picasso frequented it. They were all brilliant and drank there, so there must be something in the water there, right ;)? I’m guessing they weren’t drinking water when they stopped here though. Anyway, the restaurant is exactly what you expect a Parisian restaurant to be like. The green awnings stretch out over the tables and chairs that spill out onto the sidewalks, and the waiters are wearing tuxedos. This is a perfect place to try that European cheese you have been hearing about. Order their cheese tray (it’s giant by the way) and enjoy it as the people of Paris saunter by.

7. Take the metro

The easiest way to get around Paris is on the metro. It’s the largest and most dense system in the world, but surprisingly easy to use (although I do think The Tube in London is set up better). We came into Paris on a Eurostar train and bought a Paris Visite Pass right at the station, which allowed us up to 5 days of unlimited use of the metro. You purchase it in either 1,3, or 5 day increments, and you can choose the pass that allows you to visit districts 1 – 3 which are popular, or the other that reaches out to more districts. If you read anything in my blog though, I highly recommend the latter option. Not only does it allow you to explore more, but you can take the metro to the airport when you are ready to go home. With that being said, if you flew in, you now know that you can purchase metro passes in the airport when you get there, take the train right into the city, and back out again when you are ready to fly home. Easy peasy. No setting up a shuttle, and in the long run it will save you money (If you use my first tip about doing your research, you will already have a metro map when you arrive because you bought a travel book. See how handy that is? We saved you so much time!)

Lastly, I wanted to let you know that the last train runs at roughly 12:40am in Paris during the weekdays, and until 1:40am on weekends. We just barely made it onto the last train to leave the station after lingering at the Eiffel Tower one night for a little too long. We don’t want you missing the latest train, and then spending a fortune on a cab to get back across town.

8. Visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery

This unique cemetery is unlike any you will ever see, and was a must do on my list of activities in Paris. The graves are more like mini mausoleums, and are incredibly ornate. Usually a cemetery isn’t a place that tourists flock to, but you will be surprised about how many people choose to spend time here. As you get closer to the cemetery, you will see flower shops pop up along the way, as it’s popular for the tourists to leave roses at the graves of the famous that are buried there. As someone with a B.S. in music, the most exciting thing that I could ever hear was that visiting this cemetery meant I could see Chopin’s grave. CHOPIN! In my opinion, his compositions are some of the most inspired in the history of our world. Other famous people buried in the cemetery are the author Oscar Wilde, and the Doors frontman Jim Morrison.

9. Use a combination of credit, debit, and cash for spending

Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Europe, and so use that for most of your spending. Before our trip we opened a Capital One Venture card because it was free to sign up for, has a 0% interest rate for the first year, has no foreign transaction fees, has a points system, and uses chip technology (which is absolutely vital for using a credit card in Europe). Most credit cards issued in America now have the chip technology, but in Europe they also have a pin number attached to their cards. We called and had pin numbers added to our credit cards before the trip, but once we got to Europe, we realized that’s not what they mean by pin. American credit cards are just different than European ones. With that being said, without that technology, sometimes your credit card gets rejected and you will want to have a back up just in case that happens. In addition to the credit card, we also opened up a new checking account with TCF Bank before our trip because their debit cards are part of the PLUS ATM network. Having a debit card that works within a European ATM network means lower foreign transition fees when you are withdrawing money. Cirrus and Plus are popular ATM networks throughout Europe, and it was easy to find them and take out the backup cash that we needed without being charged incredible oversea withdrawal rates. We used our credit cards throughout most of Europe, but then had our debit cards to take cash out of the ATM as necessary. We typically withdrew about 100 euros in each city we visited, which covered everything nicely for us.  Happy spending.

10. Have fun & don’t hold back

When it comes to traveling, we all have a budget of what we can spend, but I encourage you to not hold back on the trip. We spend our lives locked into budgets, and I view vacations as a time to let loose. Look at everything as an opportunity, and if you think you will look back at the trip someday and regret not doing something, then just go for it. I’m not condoning being financially irresponsible, but when in Paris, do as the Parisians do, right?

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