What Should I Do When I’m in Paris? (An Anti-Tourist Guide)

August 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm 1 comment

Sandwich Jambon, Vin Ordinaire

Be sure to take some time to just sit in a café, relax, and watch the world go by.         Photo by Janet Hulstrand

Because I am lucky enough to spend a month in Paris every year, people often ask me what they should be sure to see or do while they are there.

Of course the answer to this question depends a lot on who you are, what interests you, and how long you will be there.

But there are a few things I tend to recommend to most people who ask.

1) If you only have a short time in Paris, consider going to the Musée Rodin instead of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay. Why? Because the Musée Rodin, despite being one of the most wonderful and most famous museums in the world (it is hands-down my favorite) offers what many of the world’s great art museums do not: pleasant, relaxed surroundings and uncrowded conditions in which it is easy to actually do what you are (at least theoretically) there for: to enjoy the artwork.

In addition to the pleasure of strolling through the very rooms where Rodin and a stellar list of other turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists lived and worked–Isadora Duncan, Rilke, Matisse, Cocteau among them–the beautiful grounds offer the chance to study Rodin’s sculptures from multiple distances and perspectives. Inside, don’t forget to notice, in addition to the sculptures, beautiful drawings and paintings by Rodin, and the friends and fellow artists he admired–Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Edvard Munch, to name a few. And be sure to spend some time looking at the magnificent work of Rodin’s student, lover, and sometimes protégée, Camille Claudel.

If you are determined to go to the Louvre no matter what, be ready for the crowds. And consider looking at the Mona Lisa from a distance, instead of up close with a bunch of other tourists toward whom you may find yourself having irrationally murderous thoughts. And take the opportunity to view some of the literally thousands of other beautiful artworks there, the ones that are not drawing crowds.

2) Consider skipping the ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. This experience is expensive, time-consuming, and very crowded, and the view from up there is in my opinion not that exciting for anyone who has ever been in an airplane. Instead, consider walking up to the first level. (You still have to buy a ticket, but it costs less, and the line for walking up is usually quite short.) Or just sit on the Champ de Mars and enjoy the view of the tower and the relaxed yet lively scene around you. There are other, less crowded places you can get panoramic views of Paris if that is important to you, for example from the top of Sacré Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe, or the Tour Montparnasse. There’s some good advice about a few alternative spots for viewing Paris here.

3) Read David Downie’s wonderful collection of essays, “Paris, Paris: A Journey Into the City of Light” before going. You may well develop some ideas for things you’d like to see and do while you’re there by reading this book. You will also learn fascinating things about the history of Paris, its architecture, and many interesting, “off-the-beaten-track” spots and idiosyncratic subjects, with Downie, your travel companion, offering his own unique, witty, intelligent slant on things. (If you like this book as much as I do, you’ll probably want to also bring it with you to Paris.)

4) Have a wonderful French meal somewhere. For reasons ranging from a limited budget to a lack of sufficient interest in cuisine, I am not the person to try to advise you on where to eat. My usual recommendation is Le Train Bleu, which offers, in addition to very good food, visual opulence and historical interest. However, there are many people who can do so, including my friend Gary Lee Kraut–journalist, editor and publisher of France Revisited, professional tour guide, and a gourmet who has spent many years learning about, and writing about, French cuisine. His “list beyond the list” of restaurants in Paris is a good place to start.

5) Whatever else you do, make sure to leave some time to do nothing but stroll, and spend some unhurried time in a Parisian café, and/or in the beautiful parks and gardens of Paris, watching the world go by. The French even have a word for spending time this way: flâner, which is translated in various ways. But it means, mainly, to enjoy relaxing: an activity that has a much more positive connotation in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries and cultures. So, ditch that  mentality that has you furiously checking off sights on your list and fretting about how much you are “accomplishing.” Kick back and relax. (Go ahead–you can do it! And to experience life this way, even for a short time, can be transformative.)

Finally, in order to make your time in Paris as pleasant and as safe as possible, two more bits of advice: hang onto your bag, especially when you’re in crowded, touristy areas (and on the Metro). While Paris is generally speaking at least as safe as most American cities, pickpockets do work the crowds, and apparently one of the latest things is plucking cellphones off of café tables. So, be aware!

And take a look at this post, which will give you some very important, very basic advice about how to get off on the right foot with the natives. 🙂

Alors, bon voyage, et bon séjour en France!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure”  for Queens College, CUNY; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. 

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