I recently returned from a visit to “The Big Three” of European travel: Paris, London, and Rome. This trio of great European capitals is better (and more crowded) than ever. It had been 10 years since my last visit to Paris, and I was struck by how it feels timeless — yet subtly better in so many respects. Here are some of my fresh-from-the-rucksack observations from the City of Light.
Reports of Notre-Dame’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The fire that engulfed the cathedral’s roof back in April was a grotesque and shocking thing to watch on TV, and priceless works of art have been lost forever. But — visiting soon after the fire — I was heartened to lay eyes on France’s most important church and see that its graceful stone structure is still intact. In fact, from most angles, little fire damage is evident. I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy; France faces a long, expensive, and exhausting rebuilding process to resurrect its Gothic masterpiece. But seeing Notre-Dame’s gargoyles still peering out from its prickly roofline made my heart glad.
That said, the harrowing sight of Notre-Dame in flames reminded me of the fragility of Europe’s cultural treasures. On this visit, I found myself making a point to slow down and savor Paris’ great sights. Just a short walk from Notre-Dame is Paris’ other great church, Sainte-Chapelle, with the most spectacular stained glass anywhere. I visited in a pensive mood — putting myself in the shoes of a medieval pilgrim, wowed by the swirling play of colored light in this majestic space. If you were saddened by the Notre-Dame fire, take it as a challenge to “be present” in the presence of Europe’s great art and architecture. Ignore the crowds and just take it all in. Because you never know when you’ll be back…or if, when you are, that wonderful sight might not be there anymore.
Once a thoroughfare for busy traffic, the Seine riverbanks have been reclaimed by Parisians. The city is converting more and more of its embankments to people-friendly promenades. In this otherwise congested city, I found walking along the Seine a relaxing way to connect my sightseeing. On a nice day, the riverbanks are filled with rollerbladers, skateboarders, cyclists, and people out strolling. A few pop-up bars and cafés have opened along the river, though to be honest, I was hoping for even more — this zone would be made-to-order for a food truck circus. (A Parisian explained to me that the city is heavily regulated and slow to adopt new ideas. I think maybe I’ve been spoiled by London’s food-truck explosion.) A local tipped me off that the stretch between the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame is, not surprisingly, quite touristy — but if you carry on farther east, the embankments become almost entirely local (check out the area around the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand).
Bonus tip: If you enjoy traffic-free Paris, be in town for the first Sunday of any month — when the “Paris Breathes” initiative forbids car traffic entirely in huge swathes of the city center, and along the Champs-Elysées.
Part of my assignment for this trip was road-testing the Rick Steves’ Europe Audio Tours for Paris. I used these tours to visit the Orsay, the Rue Cler shopping street, the Château of Versailles, and more — and they significantly enriched my visit. Download the (free) Rick Steves Audio Europe app, then download the (free) audio tours for the destinations you’re visiting. When you arrive, stick your buds in your ears and simply enjoy a thoughtfully curated, fully guided tour of Europe’s top sights. (This may sound like a gratuitous plug, but since we make absolutely no money doing these audio tours, I consider it more of a public service. Seriously…I just love these things.)
Paris is c-r-o-w-d-e-d. Smart line-beating strategies can make things easier. But even so, the major sights can be time-consuming and borderline-unpleasant to visit. So consider going light on the sightseeing, and instead, focus on enjoying Paris as a temporary Parisian. Sit on a bench in a park away from the crowds. For example, tucked just across the street from the Louvre (and a short stroll from the mega-touristy Tuileries Garden) are the free-to-enter courtyards of the Palais Royal. This pristine, manicured park — with gurgling fountains, geometric hedgerows, and stately sculptures — is where Parisian parents bring their kids to escape the urban intensity of the city, and where office workers come to unwind at the end of a busy day. And there’s barely a tourist in sight.
Paris is the birthplace of department stores. And these days, some of its stately old shopping halls are becoming virtual theme parks. At the Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann — perhaps Paris’ grandest grand magasin — they’ve built a “Glasswalk” observation platform that extends out into the sumptuous atrium, under the glittering Art Deco dome. At busy times, people wait in line just to step out and snap a photo (free; you’ll find it on the third floor, near the Starbucks). And down below, they recently suspended a bouncy trampoline floor for kids — hanging in the middle of the atrium, high above the perfume counters (this is now closed, but they’re likely to feature similar attractions in the future). Purist Parisian shoppers are put off by the very touristy turn their venerable old stores are taking…but visitors enjoy seeing the department store reach its ultimate expression.
Paris has an excellent public transit network — but it’s important to confirm your transit plans before heading out for the day. I noticed more interruptions on this visit than I ever had before. For example, the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) economic justice movement has been very active this summer — especially on Saturdays. Their M.O. is to disrupt local transit, occasionally closing down key Métro lines and bus routes. (When I was in Paris on May 1 — the “Labor Day” holiday — virtually all city transit came to a standstill.) While a few of these protests have turned violent, they are easy enough to avoid. (They are targeting institutions, not tourists.) But they can create headaches if you’re trying to move around the city.
Beyond the protests are routine transit interruptions, closures, and changes. For example, Paris recently renumbered several of its bus lines, so a year-old map is no longer accurate. And, as with any big-city transit system, key stops can be closed for construction — for example, the Pont de l’Alma RER stop, handy to the popular Rue Cler neighborhood (and my hotel), was closed when I was in town. Public transport is still the cheapest and most efficient way to get around Paris, but keep an eye on the city transit site for changes and updates: www.ratp.fr/en. And, as always, hoteliers are a great source of up-to-the-minute information about transit closures, whether planned or otherwise. (Bonus tip: When in Paris — or any other city — I use the Google Maps app extensively for both realtime transit routes and walking directions. It rarely steers me wrong.)
I had many memorable meals in Paris, but some of my favorites were simply at neighborhood cafés, with classic menus of steak-frites and croque-monsieur. While I’m a bit of a snob about seeking out top-quality meals, here in Paris, even a fill-the-tank meal at a local dive would qualify as “high cuisine” in most countries. And the people-watching from al fresco tables is fantastique. I found myself choosing the sidewalk perch I liked best, without regard for the menu. And I always ate well enough.
Even as things change, Paris remains one of Europe’s top destinations. Doing a little homework to know what’s new can help you have a more savvy, more effortlessly enjoyable trip. Bon voyage!
When I’m in Paris, in addition to those audio tours, my indispensable tool is the Rick Steves Paris guidebook. Rick, along with co-authors Steve Smith and Gene Openshaw, have done a formidable job of making one of Europe’s best and biggest cities engaging, fun, and easy to navigate.