We had hardly got settled with our glasses of wine and hors d’oeuvres when my friend leaned forward and said in an anxious voice, “So tell me—do you think my husband and I should go up the Eiffel Tower on our first trip?”
It wasn’t quite the question I was expecting when I agreed to meet for drinks to talk about their forthcoming trip to Paris. And yet it summed up a lot about how people feel about the first visit. The anticipation. The choices. The pressure to Do It All.
So before we get into the tips for having a good time, let’s look at three ways to ensure a perfectly miserable visit to Paris.
Doing too much.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most first-time visitors try to pack it all in: the sights marked with three stars in the green Michelin guide, a few name-brand restaurants and several of the most famous shops. Although it might be theoretically possible to fit everything into a five-day visit, most people would be stressed out during the experience, and exhausted afterward.
Pretending to like things you do not ordinarily like.
Think of it this way: if you used to fall asleep during art history class, why would you choose to spend your precious holiday time in an art gallery? And if you hate heights, why go up the Eiffel Tower? OK, the Michelin guide says they are amazing, but if your interests lie elsewhere, then follow those interests to more congenial settings—an afternoon of wine tasting, perhaps, or a guided tour of the city’s sexier side. Peruse some of our favorites in our Travel Club.
Keeping to a rigid schedule.
Some people decide in advance that on such-and-such day, they will, say, explore Montmartre. And they do, even if it rains buckets. Others will follow through on a plan to visit the Catacombs even when the sky is a cloudless blue and the weather is perfect for a leisurely lunch at an outdoor café. Be flexible. You will encounter rain, strikes, buildings closed for renovation or religious holidays, protest marches that shut down large streets for hours at a time and the mysterious “perturbations sur la ligne” (disruptions on the metro). Roll with the punches.
If you avoid these common mistakes, it is possible to have a delightful visit, whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth. Therefore:
Coco Chanel used to say, “Before you leave the house, remove one piece of jewelry.” In other words, less is more. So before you leave your hotel, cross at least one activity off your list. That will give you more time to enjoy the others. And remember: you can (and will) walk miles in Paris, but you can also see an amazing amount in a very small space if you stay still and pay attention.
Follow your passions
French culture is not confined to high art. If you are a foodie, check out the street markets or the E.Dehillerin kitchenware shop, or take a course at the Cordon Bleu cooking school (you can register online). If you are a fashionista, put on your Jimmy Choos and head for Dior, Chanel or one of Paris’s two fashion museums: the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and Palais Galliera. If you are a film buff, go in search of the settings of your favorite films (yes, the café featured in the movie Amélie really exists). If you love to garden, stroll through some of the more unusual parks, such as Buttes Chaumont or Bercy.
If you dig jazz, get a recommendation for the hottest club in town. If you’re part of a church at home, visit one of the several English-language churches (such as the American Church, the American Cathedral, Saint Michael’s and St. George’s) for a service, concert or social event. And, of course, if art history really was your favorite subject at school, you will have more options than you can imagine.
Leave opportunities for conversations, creativity and chance encounters
A wise man once said, “Planning is what you resort to when chance breaks down.” In Paris, chance usually works pretty well. From the first time you step out into the streets, you will become aware of dozens of things that weren’t in the guidebooks. You will see advertisements for free concerts of all kinds, notices for readings in Paris’s various English-language bookstores, posters in the metro for fascinating shows in venues you have never heard of. Following up on some of these ideas will take you off the beaten path, and that’s when things get interesting.
After all, what are you going to Paris for? If it’s just to check off a list of approved “sights,” then take a packaged tour. But if you are the sort of person who goes to the trouble of seeking out a comfortable little hotel, getting recommendations for interesting places to eat and reading up on what the city has to offer, maybe you are closer to taking the véritable voyage that Proust wrote about, which is to see the world with new eyes. In other words, you are going to find out who you are when you are in Paris. That—more than anything else—is what you bring home with you.
So what did I say in response to my friend’s question? The Eiffel Tower is just as satisfying to look at as to look down from, and you can do it from anywhere, without the crowds or the admission fee (as you can see from the photographs). It makes a wonderful backdrop to any visit.
Philippa Campsie writes for the blog Parisian Fields, which has lots more suggestions for first-time visitors.
Editor’s note: Booking your trip to Paris? Consult our Travel Club.