101 things to do in Paris
According to a recent study, “traveling will help you lose weight, feel younger, and have more sex.” Now, the word ‘study’ here has to be taken with a large grain of salt — the survey in question was carried out by Expedia, which has a pretty direct interest in getting people to travel more. Given how much delicious food we ate in Paris, we’re not sure that the first claim stands up to scrutiny, but our recent trip did make us feel younger — not so much because we were traveling, but more so because we were traveling without our son.
In fact, D was adamant that we take full advantage of this bit of fortune. It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to completely shed parental responsibilities and escape to one of the world’s most incredible cities for two weeks. D proposed a pact that we commit to going out every night, and with the exception of one lazy Sunday, when we returned home at the relatively early hour of 10pm, we wound up staying out past midnight every evening. It’s amazing how much more energy we found we had when our darling son was taken out of the equation.
Prior to our departure, D had asked his Parisian French instructor for some recommendations, and he did not disappoint. The list included a few off-the-beaten-path museums, his favorite absinthe boutique, and Paris’s best falafel restaurant, whose wares easily rival anything we’ve had in the Middle East. We only got to about half of the places he had recommended, incorporating other suggestions from our hosts and classmates, and revisiting some of the places we had seen on previous trips to the French capital.
Paris is too immense and culturally diverse to be boiled down to a listicle, so what follows is a small sampling of the experiences and places we found to be most memorable, with a bit of practical advice thrown in for good measure.
We arrived on Sunday, and after taking a nap, headed out for a walk with our hosts, who lived just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The first Sunday of every month, the entrance to all Paris museums is free, and we visited two — the excellent Quai Branly, which features a remarkable collection of indigenous artwork from all over the world, and the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, a novel museum that exhibits replicas of France’s most famous monument facades.
We wound up visiting half a dozen other museums over the course of our two-week stay, not only failing to get to everything on our list, but also spurning some of the great museums we had visited on previous trips. We were on an impressionist kick, so we made time for the D’Orsay and L’Orangerie, for example, but steered clear of the Louvre. We also skipped the Rodin museum — even though it was D’s favorite during his previous visit — on account of the weather. Most museums are closed either Monday or Tuesday, but they make up for it by staying open late one evening each week, typically Wednesday.
The museums we listed above are all world famous, but there are also plenty of less recognizable places that are worth a visit. One of the most memorable piece of art we saw on this trip, for instance, was Miquel Barceló’s mural in the new national library, which is definitely worth a visit. We did not have time to take a peak into the sewer museum, which was widely recommended by multiple Parisians, but we did descend into the catacombs, which are quite memorable in their own right. D struck up a conversation with one of the guards, who recounted the chronic challenge of protecting the catacombs from vandalism — just that week, a couple had been apprehended with a stolen cranium, and this was far from being an isolated case.
The smartest thing we did was to purchase NaviGo cards, which can be done right at the airport; all you need is a passport-size photo. For anyone staying more than a handful of days, this is by far the best way to get around. The buses, metro, and even longer-distance RER trains are all integrated into one transportation network. The 21-euro weekly fare allows limitless travel on the entire network, which would be worth it just for the metro and city buses alone, but is even more economical considering that the RER train ride from the airport to the city costs 10 euros one-way. We also used our NaviGo cards to visit Versailles and to return from a trip out to the countryside to see our friends. Be careful, though — the weekly fare is based on a calendar week, so it might make more sense to pay as you go if you arrive on the weekend.
Notre Dame and Sacré-Cœur are Paris’s most famous religious buildings, but not, in our opinion, the most interesting. Sainte-Chapelle, located on the same little island as Notre Dame de Paris, is easily the most beautiful. The royal chapel was actually the king’s residence until the 14th century, and its gaunt Gothic frame is covered with floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. We also had lunch in a pop-up restaurant in the crypt of the 12th-century Eglise de La Madeleine. The food is prepared by volunteers and the money goes to charity. It’s not gourmet dining, but it is quite a unique experience.
Our first full day in Paris, we made an impromptu decision to join a friend of D’s for a ballet performance at the Garnier Palace, built for the national opera in the 19th century and featuring a magnificent ceiling mural by Chagall. The show was sold out, but there are sometimes last-minute tickets available — patrons who can’t make the show return their tickets to the opera house, which resells them right before the show on a first-come, first-served basis. We were fortunate — there was one couple in line before us when we arrived at 5:30 (for a 7pm performance) and two pairs of tickets available for resale. The four of us talked it over and, as a result, we wound up with very reasonably-priced lower-level seats.
We also went to a couple of concerts and saw a movie at the Luxuor, Paris’s oldest movie theater. It was part of a film festival and was followed by a Q&A with the director. Our fondest memories, however, are of the plays we saw. The first was a production of Labiche’s Les Deux Timides, held in a tiny theater in one of Paris’s outlying quarters. Not only was it hilarious, but it was also very easy to understand, and gave us quite a big morale boost. We then tried our hand at Moliere — France’s Shakespeare. It was a challenge, to put it mildly. S might have nodded off briefly, and even D, whose idea it was to see Le Tartuffe, struggled to follow the rapid-fire, olde French dialogue. We saw another play our last night in Paris — the contemporary Le Mensonge, which was also quite amusing and seemed like an appropriate ending for our Paris immersion.