This is the diary of Sidra Haque’s first visit to Paris. The travel enthusiast lists the things she sees, does and eats in her exciting week there. Let it serve as a useful guide with pro-tips, expense details, and insider views on what you need to know about Paris’ must-see sights for your summer trip there.
The first thing that hits you on your first evening in the City of Love is how the mismatched cobblestones of the streets glimmer under the dull, orange streetlamps. The next thing you realize is how utterly in love everyone around you looks. These were the thoughts tumbling through my head as I strolled through the Le Marais district, at what would be considered a socially unacceptable hour back home.
Having taken a taxi from Charles de Gaulle all the way to my quaint little Airbnb flat in the heart of the artsy Le Marais district, I had deposited my luggage in the pocket-sized room, figured out the WiFi password and proceeded to sob to my husband over a voice call, claiming that I might have made a big mistake. You see, I was travelling solo from Islamabad, and the husband – who had official work in Paris – would be joining me later. Well that had seemed dandy when I was mapping travel plans back home, until now.
Ten minutes later, I grabbed my jacket and pulled out my trusty Google Maps app, and thought to myself, it’s now or never. I was in Paris, and this city demanded all the adoration and awe one could muster.
By the end of my trip, I looked so at home, I would be stopped in the streets twice by locals asking for directions.
The first morning, armed with an itinerary I had drafted back home, I woke fresh and ready to take on Paris. I went downstairs from my third-storey flat to meet the owner, Nicolas, whom I hit it off with immediately and who offered to take me to the nearest metro station and help me manoeuvre my way around it.
Stay at the Blue Marble Travel, 2 Rue Dussoubs, $70 a night through AirBnB; rates may vary depending on the season
The Paris metro is convenient, cheap and the best way to get around the city, else be ready for high taxi fares and annoying traffic jams. You can purchase a carnet, 10 tickets, for €14.5, and each ticket means you can travel anywhere up the metro line, or even use on buses and tramways. You might have to switch stations to reach your final destination, but that’s when your ticket stub comes handy: one ticket can be reused again for immediately switching stations.
Travel through the Paris Metro:
10 tickets (a carnet): €14.5
My first day, and I had aligned myself in the direction of the River Seine: the famous river that divides Paris into two, and runs like a main artery of the city. You never quite forget your firsts, and the first sight of the River Seine is something that stays with you. With historical bridges dotted along the Seine, there are cobblestoned walkways alongside the water, and you can just imagine the locals thronging about for picnics and sun tans in spring.
My first stop for the day was Sainte-Chapelle, which is considered to be the finest royal chapel built in all of France. It once housed a collection of prized relics, including the Crown of Thorns, but nowadays tourists flock here for the concert of visuals that is the collection of stained glass windows. Grab a pamphlet on your way in and cruise through the lower chapel, but the real magic lies upstairs. The enormous windows depict entire scenes spanning the Bible, and you will easily spend up to an hour taking in the richness of the interior.
Open every day, 9:00 to 19:00,
Entry fee: €10, Estimated visit: 1 hour
A short walk away, I had found myself at Rue de la Huchette which houses a number of restaurants that serve cheap, on-the-go food. This is one of the oldest streets of the Latin Quarter, and a doner kebab later, I made my way to something on my bucket list: the famous Shakespeare and Company.
The bookstore contains new and old books, and has a free reading library where you can while away your time. I perused the Paris section in true tourist spirit, and after picking up a few books, made my way to the counter manned by a witty Brit, who was probably working at the bookstore in exchange for free boarding, which is till today the tradition of Shakespeare and Company.
Continuing my way through the Latin Quarter, and there’s plenty of distance spirit will take you, I wandered to the gates of the Notre Dame, which is a masterpiece of architecture, and the very heart of Paris. This is one building that is more beautiful outside than in. You can spend hours strolling around the periphery, admiring the ornate carvings and art scrapped out of stone. The inside of the cathedral is a memorable experience: I was lucky enough to catch Mass, while traipsing alongside the art pieces, religious sculptures, organs and bells – all washed in centuries of history and context.
Notre Dame Cathedral:
Open every day, 7:45 to 18:45,
Entry fee: No, Observation deck: fee €12,
Estimated visit: 1 – 2 hours
I strolled onwards to the Pont Saint-Louis, which connects two islands on the Left Bank, and is a hotspot for local performers. I was lucky enough to be serenaded by an accordion player and get a few fabulous shots of River Seine. I made it back to my flat before sunset, zig-zagging through Le Marais, thankful that my tights and Toms were the perfect gear for the day’s wear and tear. I would only venture out again later that night – now confident to find my way around – to the local pizza joint that would become a favourite in days to come.
The next day started with a brisk walk to the legendary L’éclair de Genie to order their bestsellers. Some salted caramel éclairs later, I boarded the metro to the day’s first stop: Musee d’Orsay. The beautiful museum was once a railway station, and the large clock towering above the building is a reminder. It now houses a staggering collection of Impressionist art, and being able to finally see a Van Gogh in person or your first Rodin sculpture is the sort of special moment you can barely describe. The Musee d’Orsay is a reasonable size, but would require half a day for hardcore enthusiasts. There’s a quaint little café in the museum where you can have a cookie, a cappuccino and study the thronging crowds.
Closed on Mondays, 9:30 to 18:00,
Entry fee: €12, Estimated visit: 3 hours
Making my way out d’Orsay, I headed towards the next destination I was going to for one reason alone: Musee de l’Orangerie for Monet. Crossing over the Seine, I politely declined the signing of a petition – and be wary since scammers demand money afterwards – heading towards tree-lined Jardin des Tuileries. What I immediately loved about this city was just how pedestrian-friendly it was, and how the only way to really see it was by walking.
Musee de l’Orangerie was a sweet and simple trip. There were large halls curved to display Claude Monet’s Nympheas (Water Lilies) in its full glory, and I could have sworn the colours of the painting were changing before my eyes. I was in for another surprise: the iconic American Gothic was temporarily exhibiting in the museum as well, and I got to see it up close!
Musee de l’Orangerie:
Closed on Tuesdays, 9:00 to 18:00,
Entry fee: €9, Estimated visit: <1 hour
After gathering mementos to take home from the souvenir shop, I strolled leisurely through Tuileries amongst the sprinters.
The husband was landing in a few hours, and after a quick rest I was off through the streets of Le Marais, taking in the old school charm of the lanes. At Le BHV Marais, one of the largest and oldest shopping malls, I came out with a quintessential Longchamp Le Pliage in tow, and dropped by the legendary L’As du Fallafel with a welcome token for the husband. The walk back to the flat had me done for the day.
I was dropped off by the husband at the first destination of the day: Musee de Louvre. This is considered the world’s greatest art museum and is home to an unparalleled range of art. Making my way inside the glass pyramids, I had to catch my breath: the Louvre is humungous, to put it lightly. The light filtered in softly for me to find my way to the nearest museum map and off I went. I was able to cover the Islamic Art Exhibit, Greek Antiquities and Italian and Spanish Paintings. While Mona Lisa was super underwhelming, I was fascinated by Veronese’s Les Noches da Cana on the opposite wall. I spent hours peering at the paintings and stopping at favourites, taking in the monumental detail and history captured in the works. This place is truly out of this world and makes you want to linger just a bit longer. With a rumbling stomach, I headed to Paul’s downstairs, grabbed a pizza baguette, before making my way out to gaze at the equally rich exterior.
Musee de Louvre:
Closed on Tuesdays, 9:00 to 18:00,
Entry fee: €15, Estimated visit: 3-6 hours
The Louvre leads to a particularly beautiful entrance of the Jardin de Tuileries. In the prime of fall, the Jardin looks a canvas out of a French Renaissance painting, with its ochre, burnt orange and red hues. The tree-lined paths lead to quiet spots where you can sit on a bench and ponder upon a pond. If you line up by the main pond and look in the direction of Champs Elysees, there’s a beautiful view of the ferris wheel that just makes you want to trudge onwards.
The Place de la Concorde, the city’s biggest public square, has a bit of history sprawled all over. Once the execution site of Louis XVI, it is now famous for an obelisk gifted by Egypt. Strolling my way to Champs Elysees, the famous avenue is an hour’s walk from one end to another, with plenty of time for you to get distracted at cafés, restaurants and shops in between. Later that night, I would walk into my first French pharmacy (look for the green plus sign) and stock up on skincare products, a must-do when you’re in town.
The day started with Musee Rodin: a quaint little museum nestled in an 18th century hotel. It has an impressive collection of the French sculptor’s work – but the climax of your visit will be the lounging gardens that feature Rodin’s sculptures, including his magnum opus, The Gates of Hell.
Closed on Mondays, 10:00 to 17:45,
Entry fee: €10, Estimated visit: 1.5 hours
Exiting the gardens of the museum, I peered up at Dome Les Invalides, Napoleon’s final resting spot, but resisted the urge. I made my way to Pont Alexandre III, one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring bridges in Paris. The beauty of this bridge was more than I had bargained for and was well worth the day’s quota of walking.
A metro ride later, I had arrived outside Palais Garnier. This is the largest opera hall in the city, and, I want to be conservative when I say this, but the inside of Palais Garnier was one of the most beautiful things my eyes have feasted on: from the gold-gilded grand foyer, to the antiquated archways, to the rich maroon and gold of the actual opera hall. This is where royalty came to be entertained and boy, was it royal. I loved my visit so much, I would return again with the husband just to show it off.
Next stop was Galeries Lafayette, to satisfy my consumerist soul. This is a place you can spend hours at, so be careful. The food court on the top floor serves top-notch cuisines, and is a must-visit for the food alone. My interest lay in the designer shoe section on the lowest floor, but selection is sparse, and don’t forget to pick up your VAT refund certificate on purchases above €175 on your way out. Another must-do before you exit, a quick stop at the Pierre Hermes counter where the friendly staff will help you select macaroons. From flavours like liver pate to raspberry sorbet, they have it all.
Later that night the mister and I headed out to the must-do in Paris I had left pending: a quick jaunt around the Arc de Triomphe, Trocadero and eventually the Eiffel Tower, for hot crepes and coffee. We didn’t go up the tower since we wanted to save something to come back for. That, and the aching cold.
The husband had a day off, so we headed up to Montmartre to savour the other side of Paris. Our first destination was the Sacre Coeur, which is a 19th century basilica that sits on top of the arrondissement. We forsook the funicular for the stairs and our encounter with the String Men left a nasty taste in our mouths. These are groups of scammers who will grab your hand, forcefully tie a string, and demand payment. However, the views from the top quickly compensated. We entered the chapel and experienced Mass as we studied the holy art and paintings around us.
Open all day, 6:00 to 22:30,
Entry fee: no, Estimated time: 1 – 2 hours
After the chapel, we left for the nearby artists’ square, the Place du Terte, to collect a few watercolour paintings and postcards for home. We then proceeded towards the graffiti-ed streets and turns to the Amélie trail: a short trail of all the major locations featured in the dearly beloved Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, Amélie, from the grocery store owned by Mr Collignon, to Amélie’s flat and Café des Deux Moulins, ending at the Moulin Rouge. We had time to stop at the Le Mur des Je t’aime – the wall of love – which has the words ‘I love you’ scribbled in all languages. The husband wasn’t convinced until he spotted it in his native Pashto and demanded a picture!
Our next stops for the day included another lunch at Galeries Lafayette, and giving the husband a tour of Palais Garnier, the Louvre and the Jardin de Tuileries. Later that night, we would head to Rue Montorgueil as per usual, as we sampled our way through the amazing restaurants on the crowded street.
On my last day of the trip, I headed to the Pantheon with mixed feelings. The days had passed by in a flurry, and I still had so much to see. The grand Pantheon welcomes you inside with masterpieces of art, but underneath lies its crypt: the final resting spot of some of the most brilliant minds of France; from Voltaire and Rousseau to Marie Curie. There is an eerie silence which is encouraged by the crypt keepers that makes you feel short of breath as you manoeuvre through the maze of tombs.
Open Daily, 10:00 to 18:00,
Entry fee: €7, Estimated time: 2 hours
Thankful to be let out, I headed to the nearby Le Jardin du Luxembourg, to lounge away the tiredness of the days, and see the striking Senate building. Chairs were strewn about, but quickly occupied by locals out on their lunch break. My last stop on the itinerary was a quick visit to Café de Flore for a cup of coffee, and a walk around the Saint Germaine shopping streets.
The next morning we packed our things in the matchbox flat, and thanked our wonderful host. With heavier hearts, we strolled our last hour in the beautiful city we knew we’d be coming back to again.