A short summary
I went to Paris for the first time in 1994 and it was my first visit to a major European city. I was completely blown away but the monuments, buildings, bridges, the history etc. In 1999 my wife Nikki and I went there together as our first get away after she moved to Norway and this time we spent more time in the city and we had a chance to see a lot. So based on this it goes without saying that Paris has a special place in my heart.
I’m a bit “nervous” when it comes to making this trip report. Other than Rome and London, I guess Paris is one of the classical destinations that many people end up visiting at one point in their lives. Over the years the gardkarlsen.com homepage has attracted more and more readers and now there are close to 3000 visitors every day. So I guess (and hope) that a lot of people will read this trip report. I hope that people will find this trip report both helpful and entertaining.
Planning the trip
The trip begins
Arriving in Paris
How to get
around Paris – the ABC of taking the metro
You can buy single tickets for about 1.40 €. You can also buy a so called carnet - 10 single tickets that cost about 10.7 €. There are different zones than trains travel in but most of the main attractions of Paris are located within zones 1 and 2. Once you enter the metro you can ride it and change trains as many times as you want. But once you exit you have to get a new ticket. If you are staying for a longer period of time you might want to consider a metro pass. We bought the Carte Orange which is a weekly pass that lasts from Monday to Sunday and it costs about 16 € for zones 1 and 2. Get a guidebook that contains a good metro map so that you can find out where the stations are located and so that you can plan the easiest way to get from A to B. You can also find metro maps outside and inside the metro stations so that you can plan your trip. Here is a metro map taken from the RATP homepage.
When you enter a metro station you have to find out which line you want to take (if there are more than one at the station). Once you have decided on that and follow the signs you will also have to decided which direction you want to go in. Normally the directions are indicated by the name of the end stations of the line. But in many cases there are also posters showing which stations you will pass through if you go in that direction. Some of the metro stations are huge and can be a bit confusing. We came to the big metro and RER station Châtelet-Les Halles one day and we walked to find the exit. After a while we came back to the point of origin and we had a good laugh when we found out that we had been walking in a big circle. But if you just follow the “Sortie” signs you should be able to find your way out.
Don’t be surprised if you get some entertainment on and in and around the metro. We experienced everything from really bad singing on board the metro to a big band playing classical music at a metro station. Nothing beats the early morning shock we got when a Latino band behind us went from strumming a few guitar strings to a full party modus when the rest of the members joined in!
Paris – where to start
The symbol of Paris – the
In the footsteps of Robert
Langdon – The Da Vinci Code Walking Tour
At 10 am one morning we made our way to Place Vendôme to the meeting point in front of the Ritz hotel. This is where Robert Langdon (the main character in the book) stays and where the action starts. We paid 20 € each to our guide and off we went together with about 15 others. We walked from the starting point to Jardin des Tuileries (the garden outside Louvre) and from there on we walked into the inverted pyramid inside the Louvre. Our guide was not just telling us about Paris, the book etc. She also tried to involve us by asking questions and trying to get people to get to know each other a little bit. After the chance of buying a drink and going to the bathroom at the Louvre we continued our walk. We crossed the Seine and walked to the churches of St-Germain-des-Pres and St. Sulpice.
Taking a tour like this was fun especially since we had read the book and were looking forward to the movie. But there are lots of different walks to go for. Check out the Classic walks homepage for more info.
The mother of all museums –
With such a huge museum it is very hard to know where to start. We decided to get an audio guide to help us along the way. Nikki took care of it by leaving her drivers license and paying 5 €. The audio guide covers about 1000 of the 35.000 works of art spread out over an area of 60.000 square meters! It goes without saying that you can’t cover it all so it is best to plan a bit ahead for what you want to see. We were not allowed to take pictures in many areas of the Louvre and flash photography is not allowed at all. At first I was a bit annoyed by this but this means that you can just use the time and energy to look at the works :-) And besides…you can find all the paintings online on the Louvre homepage. We continued in the Da Vinci code track and continued to walk in the footsteps of Mr. Langdon. By the way…I tried out the toilet that is mentioned in the book and there is no way they could have thrown the soap out of a window :-)
The most famous painting of them all is the Mona Lisa by Leonard da Vinci. But there are so many other amazing paintings to look at and some are so big that you can look at them for quite some time and find something new all the time. There are a few benches and sofas that you can sit down in if you get tired or want more time to study a painting. If you move around there are paintings, sculptures, Greek art, Egyptian artifacts etc. Take a look at the Louvre homepage before you go there to plan your visit. And if you want to take a look at all the works check out the Atlas database.
We got hungry eventually from the walking around in the museum and we grabbed a snack at the museum food court before leaving using the metro station that is connected to the museum.
Train station gone
cultural – Musée d’Orsay
de Triomphe & Champs-Elysées
We decided to walk down the avenue of Champs-Elysées as we left the arch. There are lots to see as you walk down the street by the way. Major car brands like Peugeot, Renault, Mercedes etc have their show case stores here where they display current models, Formula1 cars, future cars etc. But there are also brand name clothing stores and lots of restaurants and cinemas.
Home of Quasimodo? – Notre Dame
The church is located on the island of Ile de la Cité which is believed to be the very cradle of Paris. Built on a Roman temple the first stone for the church was laid down in 1163 AD and it must have been an impressive sight when it was finished. With its 69 meter high towers it is still impressive today. We took a walk inside the church itself and it was pretty packed with other tourists. Around the church there are paintings, sculptures etc but I guess the most impressive are the huge rose windows. It is an impressive church but after visiting Rome’s amazing St. Peter’s basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) I think that Notre Dame has to settle for a second place.
It is nice taking a walk around the outside of the church itself too. The square in front of the church is packed with tourists trying to capture the entire Notre Dame façade in one frame. There was one woman, we assume she was begging, that kept on asking Nikki “Do you speak English” and trying to push a printed note in her face…and she kept on asking over and over again. We walked around to take a look at the church and its flying buttresses construction from square du Jean XXIII. It seems like the Vikings are planning to launch a new attack on the city by the way…on the Seine we saw a small Viking ship and I think I even saw a small Norwegian flag :-)
We walked from Notre Dame towards the church of Sainte-Chapelle. But once again we were discouraged by the long line to get in so we decided to come back another day but unfortunately we never made it back. I understand this is one of the churches that should not be missed…so I guess I still have something to see the next time I get to Paris :-). Instead we walked across the river to the right bank and passed Hôtel de Ville on our way towards Pompidou Center. Hôtel de Ville is the home of the mayor and city council and it is a reconstruction of a town hall situated here. The building itself is beautiful but the square in front of the building was once the main site for all sorts of executions. The guidebook describes an execution where a man was tied to 4 strong horses and ripped to pieces. It seems like mans creativity has no ends when it comes to horrifying stuff like this.
Pompidou and Marais
Les Halles has shops, restaurants, cinema, book shops…there is even a big swimming pool in there. We went to the movies one night and when we came out at 8-9 pm the shops were closed and so were many of the exits. We had to use a bit of time to find our way out of the maze :-)
Back to our walk…we continued to walk from the Les Halles area towards Place de la bastille and this part of the city is called Marais. The streets are narrow and it seems very quiet at least if you are coming from the Les Halles area. I think this is Paris’ jewish quarter - some good falafel shops too. On the way we passed by Musée Picasso, maison de Victor Hugo but we only stopped at place des Vosges which was Paris very first square built in 1609. This used to be the home for the aristocracy but today it is just a nice symmetrical square where people enjoyed the spring sun, relaxed on benches while the kids where playing in the sand box or playing football. It was only another few minutes to Place de la bastille but this does not really contain that much interesting today. Once home of the infamous prison that sparked the revolution in 1789…today there is nothing left of the prison. There is just a column in the middle of the intersection know as “Colonne de Juillet”.
The white church on the
hill - Sacré-Coeur
Back to the church…it is a short walk up to the church itself from Anvers metro station but it is uphill so there is even a short “train service” there. We are still young and fit…well, at least a bit fit…so we walked up the stairs. At the beginning of the steps we were met by some people that wanted to give us some bracelets for "free". There are not that much that comes for free these days so we said no in a polite manner and continued up the stairs. The white church is beautiful against the blue sky and it is nice to sit down in the stairs and relax and look at the view of Paris. We wanted to get a bit higher so we decided to climb up to the dome itself. There is an umanned entrance in the front, down to the left - tickets are 5 € from the automated machine. There are quite a lot of stairs to climb to get to the top but once again the view is worth it. Even if it was a bit hazy we could still look down on the Pompidou Center, the Opera etc. Once back on the ground we also took a walk around the church inside but there was a service in progress so we didn’t stay long.
We also walked the short distance to the Montmartre area. We didn’t get very far from the church before we were “attacked” by artists that wanted to draw our portrait. We managed to say politely “no” to some and tried to navigate around others. But the streets in the area are quite nice…narrow and laid with cobblestone.
Home of kings - Château de Versailles
We took the short 5-10 minute walk from the train station at Versailles to the court yard of the palace. There are buses with, Versailles Palace signs, waiting right outside the station - which gives the wrong impression of a long ride to get there. Unfortunately for us, there was a bit of construction work going on so parts of the court yard were being dug up. We had planned our trip in advance on the net and we had decided to go for a guided tour. So instead of lining up on the right (entrance A), we went to the ticket office at entrance C and bought a tour for 15 € each. This gave us a standard access to the palace and a tour of the Louis XV/XVI private apartments and the opera house. But one of the best things about this ticket was the fact that we could use another entrance (entrance B) instead of lining up with the rest :-) So we went in, check in our backpack so that we didn’t have to drag that around and started walking around the palace. Some of the rooms have been refurbished but there is still work in progress also inside the building. Half of the hall of mirrors is for instance covered up due to maintenance work and it will open again in 2007 - we hope. But there is lots of stuff to admire here from the entrance where you get a view to Chapelle Royale (the royal chapel) and rooms like the king and queens bedchamber etc. The rooms were crowded (just like the last time we visited) and there are lots of tour groups. I guess we spent a couple of hours there before we had to run for our guided tour appointment. One thing that I found a bit strange is that we were led out in the garden after the walk through the palace came to and end. The only problem was that it was freezing outside and we had left the jackets in the backpack at the entrance. So we had to make a run for it to get back into proper clothes :-)
The guided tour took us into the private apartments of Louis XV and XVI and the woman who took us around explained the life for a king in the palace, about the palace’s fate after the revolution and how they now are trying to buy stuff back for the palace etc. There seems to be some priceless items there like an old clock that can indicate moon phase, year, day etc. We were equipped with an ear piece so it was not a problem to hear what the guide was saying but her English could’ve been a bit better for a guide. There were a couple of families on the tour and one kid got a mild repremand when he leaned against the one of the unprotected walls. The poor kid was made aware of his actions in front of the whole tour group and blushed accordingly :-) We also got a quick look into the opera house that was built during the reign of Louis XV. The opera has about 700 seats and at the time they needed 10.000 candles every night to light it. I think it is a miracle that it never went up in flames.
We also visited the garden but it was still early spring when we went there so the flowers were not in bloom and the fountains were not running. They call it a garden but it is slightly bigger than what I normally associate with a garden :-). It is about 3.5 km (over 2 miles) from the palace to the end of the little pond (called Grand Canal). So if you are planning to take a stroll around the garden make sure that you have enough time. If you are short on time it is possible to take a train shuttle around in the garden. The garden is filled with hedges cut to precision, trees cut in funky shapes, sculptures (I even spotted a copy of Laocöon, one of my favorite pieces at the Vatican museum) etc.
On the way back we used the opportunity to take a closer look at the marble courtyard in the front of the palace. We also stopped at the small restaurant to get something to eat before the guided tour. It is fairly small so it was pretty crowded and we were just lucky to get a seat. They served small stuff like cheese/ham toast, pizza and they also had some pretty good waffles that Nikki enjoyed :-). There are not many toilets around so be prepared to queue and keep your 0.5 € ready.
Versailles is absolutely worth a visit. The guided tour was also a bonus for us having only referred to our guidebook when checking out the rest of Versailles. Think back and imagine how amazing this must have been towards the end of the 1600s when the Sun king was in power here. The palace and gardens which is impressive today must have been out of this world in those times. Other historic events have also taken place here. Germany signed the surrender in the hall of mirrors after World War I if I’m not mistaken. Check out the palace homepage to plan your visit and read more about the palace, kings etc.
empire of the dead – the Catacombs
It was easy to find the entrance of the catacombs. When we came out of the metro station at Denfert Rochereau we saw a line waiting in front of the entrance. There was a sign saying that there was a limit of about 100 people at the time. We waited about 10 minutes, paid 5 € for the ticket and then we were on our way under ground. We started that day at Sacré-Coeur so I guess you can say that we went from top to bottom in one day. After a few downward spiralling stairs I guess we were about 20 meters underground and in the first rooms there was information about how the place was originally a quarry, how it was built etc. After walking for quite a while in dimly lit corridors we reached the entrance of the catacombs itself. A sign over the door says “Arrete! C'est ici L'Empire de la Morte” which translates into something like “Stop! This is the empire of the dead”. Once we got in we were stunned by the number of bones and skulls that lined the walls. I guess I was expecting to see a few bones but it just goes on and on. In some places the skulls are intact, others were fractured and in some places the skulls formed a pattern in between the many bones. The walk from the starting point to the finish is about 1.7 km (about 1 mile) long. So be prepared to walk for 20-30 minutes surrounded by skulls and bones - and there are no lavatories.
Tip! The catacombs have limited opening hours (I think it is only from 2 pm and 4 pm on Tuesdays to Fridays) and a bit more in the weekend. Also be aware that the exit is far from the entrance. I’m not sure where we came out…we just found the nearest main street and found a metro station.
A walk around the Thinker
– Musée Rodin
We took the metro to La Tour Maubourg and we came up right at the Hôtel des Invalides. There is a little park in front of the building and you get a pretty good view of the fabulous bridge of Pont Alexandre III, the Eiffel tower and the golden dome of the Dôme church where you can find Napoleon’s tomb. We walked to the Musée Rodin and paid about 6 € to get in. Once inside you are actually outside…in the garden of Hôtel Biron the mansion that was Rodin’s home and place of work for many years. The Thinker is on display right after you come in and people were taking pictures, some were trying to capture the moment by sketching etc. We were there on a nice day and it was great to walk around in the quiet garden and enjoy the first signs of spring. Other famous works are The Gates of Hell, Ugolino, The Monument to Balzac, The Monument to the Burghers of Calais etc. There are also works on display inside the mansion. Check out the homepage of the museum for more information about the museum and Rodin’s work.
From Madeleine it is just a few minutes to Place de la Concorde. This huge open place is today the home of a couple of fountains, statues personifying French cities and in the middle a 230 ton, 3200 year old Egyptian obelisk. But this was also the courtyard where the guillotine was in use after the French revolution and people like Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and several thousands of others lost their head. When you on the square today you get a good view towards the Arc de Triomphe in one direction (as this square is the beginning of Champs Elysées) and a view to Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre in the other direction.
I continued my walk along the river Seine towards the beautiful bridge of Pont Alexandre III. There are two granite pillars on each side of the bridge with golden statues on top. Again it is possible to get good views. On the bridge itself you can look towards the obelisk on Place de la Concorde, look towards the golden dome of the Dôme church and Hôtel des Invalides and you also get a good view to Grand Palais. I walked across the bridge, looked at the other tourists and helped some couples taking pictures with a nice Paris view in the background and took some pictures myself of course. In the end I had to rush back to meet Nikki but there is always a metro station near by the can be used.
We also visited the neighboring department store Printemps but I found that very boring. I tried to make my way to the top floor to check out the roof top terrace but it was closed due to construction work. But from one of the bridges that takes you from one building to the other I spotted a sports store that I could visit.
We also went to Les Halles and this seems to be the place where the younger people hang out. The place is a bit of a maze but you can find shops like Mango, Zara, KOOKAÏ etc. There are even two cinemas in the centre. The last time we went to Paris we ended up on the roof top terrace of the “La Samaritaine” by accident. But when we walked past it this time it seemed like it was closed down. But it looks like their homepage is still operational.
Time to go home
So was it magical being Paris again? I could have wished for better weather but apart from that I have to say that Paris still has a special place in my heart. Yes, there is an excessive amount of dog poop on the pavements all over the city; you might get hassled by overzealous beggars around the main attractions; you might have to pay a bit more than you’d like to to get into different main attractions; and you might have to queue up for a while to get into the most famous places. But I still think that Paris is an amazing city that can offer a lot when it comes to sights, well stocked museums, monuments, beautiful bridges. When we went to Rome last year I compared the two cities and I guess I came to the conclusion that Rome is my favorite European city. I think I will stick by the conclusion as Rome has better food, as it is smaller so it is easier to cover the place on foot and because I like the warm Rome weather better :-) But both cities are amazing and should not be missed if you have the chance of visiting.
On our last night in Paris, as we were walking back to the hotel, we walked past Parc du Champs de Mars with an amazing view to the flashing Eiffel tower. And when we saw a man get down on his knee to propose to his girlfriend - the night was complete, for Nikki at least. I guess Paris is the city of love.
I hope that you found this trip report useful please give me feedback if you have comments or questions or I have made factual mistakes or if. I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. Please move to the next page and read about eating and drinking in Paris. Below are some useful tips.
Some “useful” tips
Paris is divided into 20 different neighbourhoods called arrondissements. Here is a map with the different arrondissements.