As promised, I’m introducing a mini Paris Guide Series to highlight cultural advice and any tips I picked up on while living there for a year (and after living in France for two years). For any fellow TAPIF-ers, or simply for tourists stopping by, I hope you truly experience Paris and all its quirks; it’s a city of illusions, of beauty and sophistication, of grit and gentrification, complexity, history, and a fascinating culture to seek beyond the guidebook.
Alors, voilà: my assessment of the typical tourist attractions:
The Eiffel Tower
La tour Eiffel glitters on plastered walls and bedside tables all over the world. Its elegant frame has become a symbol of romance and sophisticated glamour for Paris. It lights up our minds as much as it lights up la Ville Lumière, and to visit Paris without visiting the tower (a German structure once considered and eyesore) would be a shame. Although I prefer cultural experiences to touristy ones, I wouldn’t be a proper lover of Paris if I didn’t recommend at least one visit to the Eiffel Tower. However, unless you have an absurd amount of patience, I wouldn’t suggest going to the top. Instead, you should visit Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. While also touristy, the view of the city is completely free, just as stunning, and gives you an excuse to explore the artistic neighborhood made historic by Toulouse and other such starving artists.
It’s also worth noting that I have yet to meet a Parisian who has ventured to the top of their tower. So pass through the 7th arrondissement, gaze at the tower, sip your wine – and keep walking.
When I was living in an incredibly high-stress environment, I left Bordeaux to stay with family friends in Paris. Visiting Paris was an act of salvation, and an attempt to move on from a horrific experience. Following millions before me, I passed the street artists along the Seine, debated purchasing a cheap, flimsy painting, and ventured into the Louvre.
And amidst the crowd, I stared at Mona Lisa’s scrupulous expression. In that one moment, I remember nearly sitting on the floor, too tired to cry, to stand, to say anything. I had been through hell living in Bordeaux, and suddenly found myself staring at a piece of history with no one to share the moment with. No one but the oblivious fellow tourists, knocking elbows and pardoning their screaming children. But then, I glanced beside me, and I realized I stood next to a fellow camp counselor from my home in Wisconsin. We didn’t know each other well, but she represented home. When I needed a reminder of comfort and home more than any other time in my life, she simply showed up, right in front of the Mona Lisa.
And so you see, I can’t completely write off the Louvre. There’s something undeniably breathtaking about the sheer volume of history and beauty stored in this ancient building. And perhaps the Mona Lisa is splendidly famous for a reason.
However, the Louvre is noisy. Overwhelming. Vast. The city of Paris feels like a museum itself sometimes, with each building a new sculpture or painting to scrutinize or admire. You’re better off exploring the city than hiding away in the Louvre. Many tourists visit Paris for only a few days at a time, and in order to have a truly immersive, cultural experience, I’d suggest skipping the Louvre in favor of smaller, focused museums (which I will highlight soon). If, however, you have a full day to devote to the Louvre, by all means visit. It’s a museum that deserves justice, though, and skipping through to take your Mona Lisa selfie before dashing out to your next activity will be far less rewarding – and certainly not very French – than, for instance, taking your time to explore the Musée Rodin, or sipping an espresso at a nearby café.
In terms of capturing the perfect picture of Paris, I’d recommend Sacré Coeur over the Eiffel Tower. The view is splendid, free, and the 18th arrondissement will give you a different flavor of Paris. Once the location for many starving artists, the 18th has developed nicely since its impoverished days. However, keep in mind that the Moulin Rouge attracts a salacious crowd; sex shops greet you at every corner, and certain areas of the neighborhood have a high crime reputation. Keep an eye out, though, and you’ll be fine. If you can, try to check out the wine and cheese festival in October!
If you’re searching for the authentic “French” atmosphere, you will not find it here. Even if you’re searching for the best shopping in the city, you’re better off exploring other areas of the 8th arrondissement, or perhaps Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 6th. The Champs-Elysées is simply obnoxious. Désolée.
Cathedrals, to me, capture an ancient sense of the world – magnitude and silence amidst the noise. Notre Dame is, of course, beautiful, but I found myself wandering through, frustrated by people ushering me along. What if, I thought, I could simply stand here, alone in these lofty, echoing halls – what a profound experience that may be. But, unfortunately, these imaginings won’t actually lead you to an empty Notre Dame. Instead of waiting in line for a noisy, touristy experience (are you noticing a pattern?), I’d actually suggest visiting Sainte-Chapelle, where I met French tourists passing through. This royal, medieval, Gothic chapel situated on Île de la Cité was consecrated on April 26, 1248. And when sunlight filters through the high walls of stained glass, circles of reflected color appear on your skin, hair, floors, and shoes. Unlike the somewhat oppressive Notre Dame, color and light fill the hall in Sainte-Chapelle, and it’s simply breathtaking.
I can’t promise a positive experience in Paris. Some people honestly hate the city. But I can promise that it’s brimming with culture and life, and that choosing where you want to go, as opposed to simply following the tourists before you, will allow for a more authentic, interesting, Parisian adventure. Visit all of the above places if you wish, just don’t be afraid to venture beyond the typical attractions. The city may surprise you!