I believe there are three ways to travel: have, do or be. Each wonderful in it’s own way, yet with a different perspective on exploring a new city.
HAVE: Your greatest joy comes from having a magnificent meal, top cocktails in town, going shopping for some unique memorable pieces. You want recommendations from trusted friends before you land.
DO: You’re most lit up when you can check off visits to museums, historical sites, complete a hiking trail, or go zip lining. Googling “must see” or “best things to do” prior to departing is key.
BE: You’re happiest simply soaking up the energy and inspiration of a place whether sitting in a sidewalk cafe, lying on the beach, or walking and wandering for hours. You’ll often figure it out once you arrive.
Personally I’m not much of a Have person. We’re not particularly foodies. Maybe I’ll take a restaurant recommendation here or there, but most of the time I forget to look at them.
I do enjoy shopping when I travel, but not because I’m savvy about the best shops. It’s just something I enjoy but rarely do at home for lack of time. Often I’m shopping at the same stores we have back home, but I still enjoy the memory that I got it in Milan.
And if I go to flea markets (which I still do) I mostly end up seeing homeware pieces I wish I could buy but have no idea how to get home!
For certain cities we are more Do people. In Brazil we knew we wanted to hike, in the South of France I wanted to paddle board.
I love the National Portrait Gallery in London and have seen far more shows on the West End than I have on Broadway.
Yet my primary mode of travel is to Be. This is especially applicable in Paris.
Therefore my advice below is from this perspective, the way I personally have explored and fallen in love with the city over the years.
I’m not the girl to give you a list of must have restaurants, I don’t know the coolest shopping spots, and while I truly adore the museums here, you can Google a list of those.
Instead, the way I explore the city is to pick one destination a day, walk in that direction, and see what else you find on the way there or back.
Thus here are a few of my favorite strolling day itineraries:
Walk up to the vintage market, Marche Vernaison. Wandering that way on my first trip to Paris since a quick visit in college, we were hungry. (I’d of course picked up a croissant and coffee when we first began, but we’d wandered for a while.)
We then got to the market, a fascinating labyrinth. If you put “vintage market” into your map, you’ll see a handful pop up all within a few blocks. We wandered through cheap street sellers, to charming stalls with vintage finds, more high-end shops with antiques, and then onto blankets selling things like Crest toothpaste and canned green beans. It’s a poorer neighborhood and I found the juxtaposition we walked in just a few blocks fascinating.
On your way back down south, you’ll reach Sacre Coeur. The basilica is beautiful to step inside for some quiet reflection, while the steps provide an incredible view of the city. Buy beer from local sellers or bring your own bottle of wine and relax, usually with musicians performing and group singalongs.
From there, you’re in Montmarte (home to many Impressionist painters like Monet, Renoir, and the location of Amelie, Moulin Rouge) and can find a spot for dinner. We pick a place by checking the rating on our maps app, going with 4 stars and above.
Food Tip: Notice places where people are actually eating, not just drinking. I’m told French salaries are rather low and since alcohol is so cheap, the French will often meet out for a drink, then head home to cook dinner. So many cafes look bustling, but everyone is actually just drinking, which doesn’t attest to whether it’s a popular spot for food.
Our current trip was my first journey in this direction. We rented bikes for the day and rode along the River Seine to the Bois de Vincennes Park.
Bring a cloth bag to stop at a grocery store and pick up items for lunch. Our go to is: baguette, cheese, salami, olives, baby carrots, some fresh fruit, sparkling water and a bottle of rose. Also be sure to pack a wine opener and a thin blanket.
Paris does parks smashingly well! They have to be some of the best in the world. This charming park has two little islands in the midst of the lake. We biked to a secluded spot and ate, read, napped, made out (no one cares if you’re making out in Paris.)
You can rent small row boats. There are ducks, swans and peacocks. Yes, peacocks! Lots of them! Just walking around! They are my favorite animal and I was losing my mind with joy.
The park is massive. There’s a carnival area and zoo both of which we’ve yet to explore, botanical garden (not a must see in our opinion), and so many lush trails we felt like we were far out in the countryside.
On your way to or from is Le Comptoir General. I’ve been here for brunch, dinner and late night dancing. The decor is beyond and its hidden entrance down an alleyway makes you feel you’ve found something truly local.
Biking Tip: Beau bikes New York City daily, so navigating Paris streets by just following him is easy, but would be much more stressful if trying to look at my maps app and do it on my own. However biking along the river (more on that below) or in the park is gorgeous. There are also bike tours you can do through AirBnB. This particular excursion, the ride home was a bit steep, so I might advocate biking there along the river in a city bike you can then park and Uber/walk home. City bikes are hit or miss here, so do some research. One trip we had great luck with them. This time we were met with broken kiosks and discovering we should have registered ahead of time so we had paid and had the pass to just swipe and take a bike.
Another weekend, another vintage market! This one is Puces de Vanves. This applies for the one to the north as well, but they wrap up rather early, so go ahead and get here maybe around 11am at the latest. It says it’s open till 2, but they’ll start packing up whenever they feel like it especially if it’s a slow or drizzling day.
I’d take an Uber here to start the day. After wandering your way down the sellers along the streets, head towards Jardin du Luxembourg. On your way you’ll pass Les Catacombes. These are… well, they’re flat out an underground grave with six million skulls that you take an audio tour through. A great compromise to go with your gent after he wandered around yet another vintage market with you (wink) and a cool albeit creepy experience.
Jardin du Luxembourg is stunning. Pick up supplies for another picnic, get a gelato, people watch. One of our favorite things to do when we travel is different lists/books of questions. For example: 36 Questions for Love, 101 Quizzes for Couples, The Hard Questions, or Goals Guide for Couples. You can riff on other versions if you’re with a platonic friend/family, but they’re an easy way to have intentional conversation in a relaxed way wherever you’re sitting or walking. Or when traveling solo, I love listening to audiobooks to keep me company as I walk, or allow me to sit without having my head down in a book missing the view.
The Musee d’Orsay is on this side of the river, home to the magical Impressionism wing, and the first museum that made me fall in love with museums in college when I saw Degas Blue Dancers for the first time. You’ll also find the Musee Rodin the mansion and sculpture garden which I love.
Next head on to Notre Dame. See what time services are, as to stumble upon the singing in there is my absolute favorite. Then take a short walk to Shakespeare & Co Book Shop. One, it’s a cool place with multiple floors and a few cats hiding away. Two, if you’ve already finished your book and are looking for a new one, they’re all in English. I personally love reading French writers/books set in France while traveling here, so I’ve picked up many a Fitzgerald to take home with me. Three, it’s where my former Dean St neighbor Ethan Hawke’s character meets Julie Delpy again in Before Sunrise, one of my absolute favorite movie trilogies.
If the first bike suggestion left you intimidated (no worries just take a car or walk there), today is your day to bike! The path along the River Seine is gorgeous and easy. At times you can bike right along the water where there are very wide banks and no cars, other times there are dedicated bike paths on the street level where you’re riding along the water or on a tree-lined trail.
Along the north side of the river you’ll find Jardin du Palais Royal, Jardin des Tulleries and Jardin des Champs-Elyesse, a trio of my favorites. In some areas you’re not meant to bike, but can walk your bike along or park it for a bit while you wander. At one end the Jardin des Tulleries is Musee du Louvre if you want to spend a few hours seeing the Mona Lisa and one of my personal favorites Winged Victory.
Spend your whole day meandering down towards the Champs Elyesee and the Arc de Triomphe. (The arch is a famous site to see, but heads up the Champs Elysse is just a wide street where you’ll find Gap and Sephora.)
The ideal is to make your way to the Eiffel Tower around dusk. Depending on the time of year when sunset is, you can see the lights twinkle for 5 minutes on the hour until midnight and it is one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen!!! You can see it anywhere along the north side of river, or at the Court of Human Rights which is THE spot to take a photo. (If you truly want a good one, such as for a photo shoot, arrive by 6:30am. Truly. Otherwise expect a tourist madhouse.)
When you’re ready, bike back along the south side of the river. I feel perfectly safe doing this at night as it’s well lit. Along the way you’ll find various bars popped up along the river. Stop, drink and hang amongst the locals. If you visit in the summer when it stays light until 10pm, this is the latest night of the four, but waiting out the dusk to see the Eiffel Tower twinkle is absolutely worth it.
Head Out of Town:
If you have one more day, I so highly recommend navigating the trains to get yourself to The Palace of Versailles. Arrive by late morning as there is so much to see.
The palace itself is breathtaking. Then bring your picnic lunch or purchase it there at a restaurant. Bring a thin blanket and sit out on the marvelous grounds. Wander all the magical trails. Rent a rowboat. Visit Marie Antoinette’s house.
This is also a second chance to see the Eiffel Tower if you haven’t yet as the train will come back through that direction. An utterly brilliant day.
One other note to get your overall bearings: Paris is divided into numbered neighborhoods, called arrondissements, which go in a spiral out from the center of the city.
If you’re familiar with London, the layout is similar where the heart of the city is indeed pretty much in the center, and from there are circles going out: Zone 1, 2, 3… The further you are from the heart of the city, traditionally the less expensive the hotels/AirBnBs, the further from the main attractions, and perhaps the less lovely the neighborhoods.
I have always chosen to stay on the Right Bank (aka north of the river) in any of those first or second “circles”, and would recommend any of those areas (arr 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11). Though I’m sure there are lovely parts on the Left Bank, this is just where I’ve stayed to date.
Et voila! You have un magnifique plan for getting lost with intention and being relaxed with a destination in mind. Paris is such a magical city for me and hope this helps your own stories and memories unfold!