Paris Trip Report, Part 6: Tips for Vacationing in Paris II


In the last segment, I covered the logistics of a family vacation in Paris, but didn’t get a chance to discuss the actual experience. That’s the topic of this final segment.

There are as many different tourist guides for Paris as there are tourists who have visited the city. Everyone will have their list of things that they enjoyed and that they think that everyone else will, too. If I were to write one, it would not too different in that regard. That said, this not really one of those. Instead, it’s a bit more of a vacation journal with some perspectives thrown in so that you can get a flavor for what the various sights were like.

We arrived in Paris on the late afternoon of Saturday, April 7 and checked into our hotel on the outskirts of town. Our plan started early the next morning, so we spent the rest of that day checking out the local area (including the Arcades Centre Commercial which has shops aplenty—including a Carrefour that functioned as our grocery). After a bite of dinner at Le Menh’ir in Arcades, we picked up a few things at Carrefour and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we headed downstairs for a pretty good breakfast buffet and set out for Easter Sunday Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. I have to say, this was one of my favorite things about our entire trip. It was crowded, but not more than would be expected for a Sunday Mass at Notre Dame (especially Easter Sunday). I’m not Catholic, but it was a beautiful and moving service.

After a great experience at Notre Dame, we gave the nearby Pont des Arts a walkover en route to the Latin Quarter. The Pont des Arts is sort of infamous for a particular type of vandalism popular in Paris (or at least popularized by tourists if nothing else). Couples affix a “love lock” (typically a padlock, but we even saw a couple of bike locks) to the bridge with their initials carved/written on it and pitch the key into the Seine. Parisian officials undertook a midnight culling of the locks in 2010, but I assure you, there was almost no room for more when we strolled across.

We walked around for a while (Paris is truly a walker’s city) then headed to dinner and back to the hotel to drop off our kids and my mother. My wife and I headed back out for a stroll around the outside of the Louvre and picked up food-to-go in the form of some great wraps that we ate back at the hotel.

The plan for the next day was, basically, the Louvre. My wife is quite an art buff—especially the periods leading up to the mid-19th century, which is what the Louvre focuses on (the Orsay picks up after that and carries on to 1915, which is arguably where Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Centre Georges Pompidou picks up). We arrived what we thought was pretty early and the line was enormous. It encircled the entire courtyard and actually went out through one of the gates onto the street. My family got in line while I went to the “lesser known” entrance in the Carrousel du Louvre to see what that was like. It turns out that “lesser known” is not so much better as the line there was pretty long as well (though I will admit, it was shorter). Nearby that line was also a line for the Paris Museum Pass. The beauty of this pass is that it covers almost all of the major attractions and saves you from standing in a line to buy tickets for those attractions. In addition, it theoretically acts as a “fast pass” to allow you to skip the main lines of some museums (including the Louvre).

  • Incidentally, the Museum Pass is only a good value if you plan on visiting more than one site in a day. Otherwise, per-day value of the Pass is higher than most of the individual ticket fees. Don’t buy it for the fast-pass like behavior. It’s not as useful as it sounds because most places don’t support that behavior.

I opted to stand in the line for the Museum Pass and buy those, then skip the giant line outside. I waited in this line for about 40 minutes (during which time we passed a neat model of the Louvre and the Carrousel. When I got to the front (well about 5 people from the front), I learned that they only accept cash for the Museum Pass (this, BTW, was the only place that I could not use my Chase Sapphire Visa). The lady at the desk assured me that I could come back and skip the line once I got cash, so I headed to the nearby ATM. That ATM, as it so happened, was broken. And so began a search for a functional ATM. When I finally found one, street side, the lady in front of me was struggling with its use. She was a Spanish-speaker (unlike me) that had no English or French, so I couldn’t help her very much. Eventually, while she was trying to figure something out, the machine just ate her card and she had to move along—with a much-degraded mood. I got the required cash and headed back to purchase my Museum Pass. By the time I went through all of those hoops and made it back upstairs, my family was at the front of the line just letting people go by. So it was basically all for naught. Contrary to all of the “the Louvre is a waste of time” reviews that you’ll see, I actually had a great time there and would totally recommend it.

The next day was Versailles. We again arrived what we thought was pretty early, but Versailles was slam packed. The line was (literally) about 600 meters long winding back and forth across the full length of the courtyard (and, BTW, the Museum Pass does not function as a fast-pass here—or pretty much anywhere else that we went with a line). This palace was actually very impressive in its opulence and you could see some of the reasons that the populace rouse up for the revolution. However, it was so incredibly crowded that it was completely not worth it. I’m pretty used to crowds, but this place was insane. It was filled with people to the point that it reminded me of a rock concert. There were, quite literally, people putting their hands on you and pushing you aside in every room. The only bearable room was the Hall of Mirrors because it was so large. I’ve posted a picture of that one for you to get an idea. Keep in mind, this was the least crowded room!

We got separated at one point and lost my mom. We decided that, since it was a one-way tour, we’d just meet her at the exit. However, she thought we were ahead of her, so when she hit the exit, she started back through. When we hit the exit, we figured that may have happened, so I started back through, too. After several minutes of fighting the crowds, I asked an official and got a short-cut out of there and she was waiting with the rest of my family at the end. I was never really worried about her, but it serves to illustrate the sheer insanity of the crowds. This place was like Disneyland without any understanding of crowd control. I would skip it and head to a different palace/castle. There are plenty in this part of the world, and they’re all pretty opulent compared to my house!

After the experience at Versailles, we took the train to the Eiffel Tower with the idea of catching watching it twinkle (which it does on the hour after dusk). We didn’t realize that it was “on the hour” and thought it was only at 9pm, so we actually missed it on this day. I did get a chance for a couple of nice pictures, though.

The following day, we headed to Saint Chapelle and the Orsay. Saint Chapelle is just as beautiful as everyone will tell you. There was, again, a line outside that took us about 40 minutes to get through, but once we were inside, it was okay from a crowd standpoint. The upstairs chapel is quite probably the most beautiful room that I’ve ever been in. Do not miss Saint Chapelle and go on a clear, sunny day for maximum effect since it’s all about the stained-glass windows.

As for the Orsay, it was at least as fun as the Louvre for me. A completely neat structure with the stairs on the outside so as not to mess with the interior. The courtyard outside is a hodgepodge of street performers, artists and tourists having lunch. I didn’t get any good photos of this museum, but trust me, it’s worth your time. Oh, and the line was well-handled and the crowds were no more than in any local museum. Well done, Orsay!

The next day’s agenda was to spend the morning at the Rodin museum, head over to the Arc de Triomphe, grab some food along the Champs-Élysées and close out the day with a return trip to the Eiffel Tower to watch it twinkle.

We started at the Rodin museum (basically no line!), which is currently a sculpture garden while some renovations are being completed on the museum proper. This actually works out far better in my opinion. Most of the works on display were bronze, so outside is just fine. Plus, it’s beautiful in outdoor light.

My kids caught a break in some well-placed chairs and we headed to what is, to me, the most impressive sculpture on display, The Gates of Hell. In what would turn out to be one of the neatest things, if ironic, Kneeling down around The Gates of Hell was a group of first-grade children. I got a little chuckle out of that, but it turns out that they were on a school field trip and doing sketches of the sculptures. That got me wondering what it must be like to go to a school where you can come on a field trip like that one. Talk about a (likely underappreciated) privilege!

After the Rodin museum, we picked up my mom (who had elected to sleep in a bit and skip the Rodin) and caught the train to the Arc de Triomphe. The line here was bearable and view from the top was awesome!

We had lunch at L’Atelier Renault which is a cool restaurant overlooking the Renault showroom floor on the Champs-Elysées. The food was great, the décor hip and the kids got to check out the cool concept cars.

We did a little shopping (the French take their dogs everywhere!) and headed over to the Eiffel Tower to watch the twinkling lights. All told, this was probably my favorite day in Paris.

The next day was spent waiting in a very long line for heading to the top of the Eiffel Tower, then another lap around the Latin Quarter and dinner.

One of the elevators was out of service at the Eiffel Tower which affected us even though we were doing the stairs… more people were choosing the stairs due to longer elevator lines. My biggest tip here is don’t be afraid of the stairs. They’re not that bad and there’s a break between climbs. The view from the second platform is actually better than the view from the top because you can make out more detail, but the experience of being on the top is completely worth it.

We made our way back to the Latin Quarter to see the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore and end our day. This bookstore is another must-see (though you should plan to do it while in the Latin Quarter—it’s not a trip on its own since it’s not a long event). The Wikipedia entry above does the store justice and anything I wrote here would be redundant.

On our last day there, we took a tour of the towers at Notre Dame (another pretty long line, but this one was okay because the line resulted in crowd control as it throttled the traffic inside). While inside the Notre Dame, we got to take a look at Emmanuel (the great bourdon bell) that we had heard ringing on Easter. The entrance to this chamber was a cute little door that we couldn’t help but snap a picture in. Later, my wife and I headed down to Montmartre and Place Pigalle to end our vacation. The first row of pictures here are my favorites of the trip.

We woke up the next morning, got breakfast and started our journey home.

So far we have 2 “mini-vacations” planned this month: A zip-line tour in western North Carolina and a beach trip. I have a trip to Orlando next month for work, and we’re also actively trying to plan our next family vacation and a just-me-and-the-Mrs. vacation, so stay tuned!

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