It’s almost a law to romanticise Paris – to talk about its intellectual atmosphere, the art, the music, and the little corner cafes that are meant to trigger the writer, the novelist, the artist in you. The truth is that Paris is (or was) all of those things. Every other mid-century book has a compelling description of the city and it feels that the Paris of the past was perhaps that dreamy and moving.
However, over the art and literature that Paris is baked with, there is now a thick dark frosting made of traffic jams, pricey accommodations, touristy streets, claustrophobic cafes, and super expensive cabs. Topping this up is Instagram, the guru of travel fantasy, filled with rehearsed proposals, perfect kisses, travel fashion, and ‘Eiffel peeking in the background’ shots making the city appear a cakewalk for travellers. Paris can get very expensive and troublesome to explore and unfortunately, none of the staged images or sponsored posts ever reveal that. Besides, there’s a trend to adore Paris for its ‘classy intellectual vibe’ irrespective of the fact that majority of the people adoring it have no clue what that vibe is and where it comes from.
In spite of planning our trip really well, it pretty much bombed during our first few days there. We realized that Paris has dramatically changed and most writings haven’t caught up to these changes. It’s absurd to keep exploring the city for the same old ‘Top things to do in Paris’ and miss the real jewels hidden deep under the pile. If I were to go to Paris again, I’d do so many things differently and give the city a fair and real chance to make a second first impression. Here’s what I would recommend a close friend if they ask about our experience and learnings from Paris.
Pick A Theme And Let Go Of The FOMO
With so much to do in Paris and most of it being expensive, the city feels cumbersome and hard to explore. I strongly suggest picking a theme to explore in Paris. This, I believe, would make Paris more doable, and definitely economically affordable. If you are a history buff, there are châteaux and palaces in plenty, several museums and art galleries for the artistically inclined, global cuisines for the foodies, and plenty of relaxation spots for those just looking to relax. Whatever theme(s) you focus on, you will end up learning so much through it and the city will open up in unique ways. The usual ‘top five’ lists that you read about are curated by real people who have personal interests and favourites. Instead, create your own list and live by it.
We were in Paris twice, at the beginning of our summer trip and at the end. Based on our failed experiences in the first part of the trip during the second half, we chose to stay in a specific neighbourhood the whole time and to explore its history. Latter is when Paris really started communicating and I truly began to understand its story.
If You Don’t Understand Art, Skip The Louvre
The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world which logically makes it the most crowded too. I am sure that there are days and timings when the crowd is lesser but on an average day, it is suffocating. Since our parents were with us, we were left with little to choice but to visit Louvre as it was a bucket-list item for them. If I were an art enthusiast, I’d have been absolutely fine with the crowds and the backbreaking experience inside the museum. Petra, for example, blew me away even though it’s touristy and stuffed – we were too busy exploring the ancient history. For someone who doesn’t really understand classic art, Louvre has a pretty shabby audio guide and the space is so large that a few hours are not enough to make sense of anything.
With 35,000 artworks being on display, super crowded halls, a below average audio guide, and hundreds of selfie clicking tourists, the Louvre is a hit or a miss. Think twice if you really want to spend your money and time on it just because it is famous.
Give Belleville A Real Shot Over Other Neighbourhoods
Paris is by far the most multicultural city that I’ve ever visited. We tasted North African desserts, Thai duck, softest Italian pizzas, Indian curries (our parents were madly homesick), and of course a few affordable French dishes too. All of this and more at Belleville, the underrated Parisian neighbourhood that I found the least touristy of all. Undoubtedly, the Montmartre and Le Marais have a unique buzz and charm, but they come with tourist hordes and rip-off prices.
Belleville crowds, on the other hand, are mainly composed of locals and a few tourists than the other way round. Similarly, Canal St. Martin at Belleville is slightly calmer than the picnic spots on the banks of River Seine near Eiffel. Belleville is a cultural soup and has a lot to eat, drink, and experience. Besides, the group-tourists normally don’t make their way to this area. If you enjoy multicultural, slightly offbeat experiences, spend a good part of your time in this neighbourhood.
Book Unique Experiences To Dig Deeper Into Paris
In every other city that we’ve ever visited, we’ve taken free walking tours. They are generally hosted by students and local guides who are passionate about their localities and these informal tours are a great way to quickly warm up to a new place. Paris is different. It has quite a few unique paid experiences that I’ve never come across in other cities. While planning for Paris, we came across ‘Street Art and Feminism’ tour hosted by two lovely ladies, Cecile and Julie, and I am so glad we booked it straight away. This was a small group tour focussed on the feminist street artwork in a locality, using which our guide introduced us to feminism and its contemporary history in France.
An offbeat tour such as this helped us get off the mass tourism bandwagon and two, catered to our interests. To make the best use of the unending choices available in Paris, do your research and pick a unique experience that may not be popular but seems perfect for someone with your interests.
Plan A Longer Stay
Unlike many other European cities, one can’t fully appreciate Paris in a couple of days. Understanding its metro systems, routes, cabs, and safety rules take most of the first day. Most recommended restaurants require reservations and the budget cafes are mostly full in the evenings. Besides, on the weekends, many bakeries and stores are shut. We even struggled to find a working medical store on a Friday evening.
We found that Paris is best explored on foot: pick a neighbourhood and walk through it, observe the locals do their local stuff, pick snacks at bakeries that seem to have many locals in it, pause at interesting spots, and use your instincts instead of a guidebook. This takes a long time and day by day, Paris begins to get easier and lovelier. Day four in Paris is better than day three and day three is better than day two. We recommend a minimum stay of five nights in Paris for a smooth experience.
Make Good Decisions About Accommodations And Food
Finding accommodation that is truly affordable is almost impossible in Paris. You may not even find a clean dorm at 30-40$ a night, the kind of price we are used to paying for elegant B&Bs elsewhere. Apartments listed on AirBnB are good choices if you’re going in a relatively large group (of 4 or more), but are exorbitantly expensive for a couple (upwards of 150$, 10,000 INR a night). Needless to say, the apartments with a peek at the Eiffel surfacing on Instagram are ridiculously expensive.
The two best options are budget chains like B&B Hotels or Ibis Budget that have very basic but clean and modern rooms for as low as INR 5000 (70 USD) a night. If hostels work for you, then Generator Paris or Loft Boutique where you can share a 6-person mixed dorm or a twin room for even cheaper prices.
Budget Tips and Quick Facts
- Plan a DIY drink and dine experiences at the banks of Canal St. Martin and join the several locals indulging in the same. Pick up beers and sandwiches from a nearby supermarket.
- Eiffel is equally beautiful when seen from a distance. Avoid entering it or paying for viewpoints that charge.
- One cannot buy many common medicines like antibiotics without prescription in France. Alternatively, you can carry your own medicines or use a prescription from a doctor in your home country to buy these medicines.
- Knowledge of a few important phrases in French helps a lot during transactions, ordering, and speaking with locals.
- Paris is notoriously popular for scams targeted at tourists. Avoid carrying a lot in the wallets and stay away from the street vendors near the big monuments.
- An Uber ride in Paris is an expensive affair. Expect to pay close to 700 INR (10$), even for rides less than 3 km. The metro, albeit old, is efficient and connects the city well. You’ll save tons.
- If possible, plan to arrive on flights that arrive during the day (7 AM – 9 PM). Cab rides from the airport (both CDG and Orly) cost about 3500 INR (50$). Hence, coming at a time when the shuttle train runs is cost-effective.
- Credit cards that have embossed print of your name on it may not work in the city. Use cards with printed number/name as opposed to embossed.
Paris definitely deserves another chance and time to make a better impression. It wasn’t the Paris of dreams yet. Maybe next time.
How was your first time in Paris? If you have an interesting recommendation that we could use the next time we are in Paris, we would love to know.
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