It took me 19 years to get out of the United States. Quite frankly, after everything that has been happening over here, I couldn’t leave soon enough. Finally, after a busy holiday season, my family and I departed for Bradley International Airport at 3:45 in the afternoon, to catch our flight to Paris, by way of Dublin. Seven days later, we returned to the states exhausted, a little sick and thin-walleted, but with heads full of history, hearts full of culture and stomachs full of food. This is my page that is fully dedicated to everything that happened in between. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a quick look at my list of must-do’s and hints for not being a stupid tourist, along with a slideshow of all the pictures that didn’t come out blurry.
Day 1: Landing in Paris and Fighting Sleep.
We knew, as soon as we landed at Charles de Gaulle at around 9:00 AM local time, that we would need to stay awake for at least a little while, if we wanted any shot at adjusting to the different time zone. We stayed on Ile St-Louis, one of two islands on the Seine River just east of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. Once we arrived to the sixth-floor walkup, and ooh’d and aah’d at our beautiful view of the river and everything across it, we groggily got down to our first order of business: real food. We began meandering the streets of Ile St-Louis, most of the inhabitants still asleep or just barely waking up, and we found one of many sandwich shops. Two Croque Monsieurs, (the French version of the ham and cheese), two smoked salmon baguettes, a handful of merci’s and we dragged our feet back to the apartment to eat, which was followed by the nap of a lifetime.
Naps until 3, then showers and “more food”-a term that we found was quite popular amongst our mish-mash of poorly annunciated French phrases. We found the Cafe St. Regis-the only restaurant we would visit twice during our stay. It was one of three beautiful cafes located right down the street from the apartment, creating this perfect triangle of delicious smells, Christmas lights, and high-energy waiters. The evening ended with a walk across the river to the courtyard in front of the Notre Dame cathedral…this was one of the most breathtaking experiences of the whole trip. Go to the courtyard at night. Please. It will be one of the defining moments of any time spent in Europe.
Day 2: Running on Three Hours of Sleep.
After potentially the worst sleep of my life, which was broken by a 3 A.M rummaging through the fridge and eating of cold leftovers, we woke up ready to explore. It was a beautiful clear morning, and after “more food” for breakfast at La Chaumiere en l’Isle, we went out to the Louvre courtyard. Once again, this was a sight that would easily be overshadowed by the prospect of the Louvre itself, but it is not to be missed. The pyramid was quite crowded, and we nosed and elbowed through the crowds to get towards the Champs-Elysees, the Paris version of 5th Avenue, Rodeo Drive or Newbury Street. We waltzed through the crowded Christmas markets, sipped champagne, took a trip to the Paris Nike store to buy running shoes (since apparently I’m too stupid to pack them), and then a long and leisurely lunch-hey, look at that, “more food”-at the Maison de l’Alsace in a heated outdoor tent concluded our afternoon. We had a Seine River dinner cruise ahead of us that evening, and our chances of napping were becoming quite slim.
The dinner cruise consisted of “more food” and potentially the most breathtaking way to see the city. The Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkled as we approached it, couples were spotted sitting on the riverbank watching the boats go by, and the Notre Dame loomed eerily over us as the evening came to an end. It was time for some real sleep. We had an early and emotional day ahead of us.
Day 3: Storming the Beaches
We took the 7:35 AM train to from St. Lazare to Caen, the train station closest to the remote farming town of Normandy. The journey itself was one of the more beautiful experiences of the trip: we watched the sun creep up over the vast fields and plaster farmhouses. Once we arrived, our tour guide for the day, a British veteran named Dale Booth, greeted us and herded us into his Ford van. First, a stop for some breakfast, followed by a full day of recapping the Allied invasions of the north French coast.
If I were to go into detail about the day’s events, it would take a lot of writing on my part, and a lot of reading on yours. To keep it simple, we visited Utah Beach, Pont du Hoc and Omaha Beach, along with a handful of other important village sites, and the Normandy American Cemetery at the conclusion of the day. The locations were breathtaking and impactful, and the stories gutwrenching. Other adventures included entering German bunkers, walking amongst bomb craters averaging 20-40 feet in diameter, and strolling on the beaches in the exact location of Saving Private Ryan’s filming. The cemetery, styled similarly to Arlington, brought me to tears. This was an experience so far removed from the others of the trip, one that should absolutely not be denied when planning to visit France.
Day 4: Recovery, Running, and Retail Therapy
After rising at 5:45 the previous morning and meandering through the windy beaches of northern France, we decided we needed a day of laziness, a little extra sleep, and some shopping. We ate late breakfast at the Cafe St. Regis and then slowly made our way back to the apartment the long way-via the longer avenue of boutiques and art galleries.
One spectacular thing about Paris is that every store, restaurant and boutique that you enter is unique from the last one. Chain stores are hard to find, and often there will only be one or two of any name brand designer in the whole city. Smaller boutiques are often on the less expensive side, and offer beautiful, unique products that no American counterpart will be able to boast. The only brand that I shopped while I was there that I had ever shopped before was Nike…and let us not forget, that was out of necessity for running shoes that I had neglected to pack.
The shop owners are all very personable and friendly. One woman had a comment or enthusiasm about every single handbag that I took off of the shelf. While this might seem a little annoying or invasive, it actually helped me make a decision, and I started to wonder why it was that all American retail workers couldn’t be this enthusiastic. Then I remembered my days of working retail, and I instantly had the answer: American shoppers weren’t as enthusiastic either.
Parisians shop with reckless abandon. Everything must be tried on and pranced about the store in before decisions can be made. Sales associates begged shoppers to come out in whatever they were trying on and show everyone in the store-all stores are tiny, by the way-so that every opinion could be voiced and considered before handing over the Visa. It was like communal shopping, with every article of clothing acting as a catalyst for conversation.
Sometime during the day, dad and I made time for a beautiful 4-mile through the Tuileries Gardens, past the Louvre courtyard and right on to the necessary grocery shopping trip. Some exercise was needed to burn off my newly adopted diet of “breadcheesewine” morning noon and night. Paris is definitely a running-friendly city; the sidewalks are wider and generally less crowded than other cities, making them easy to navigate at a faster pace. This was a fun and healthy way to see the city on a really nice day.
The nightly trip was in to the trendy streets of Le Marais, a less-touristy area with boutiques and restaurants off the beaten path. I would have spent more time during daylight in Le Marais…there was a lot to be seen that we didn’t get the chance to explore. We ended the night with a trip to the American tourist trap, the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. This is a must-see for anyone who likes shelves upon shelves of books, creaky staircases leading to elusive reading rooms, or friendly shop-cats that lurk between the stacks (and scare the crap out of those who DON’T like friendly shop-cats…upon first encounter, at least).
Day 5: What’s Open on New Year’s Eve Around Here…?
You’ll note that not a single museum has been mentioned thus far, minus the courtyard of the Louvre. Before you cast my family and I off as uncultured, hungry, materialistic swine, please note that we spent a combined five hours in museums on this day.
We decided to skip the Louvre, since the lines and never-ending rooms weren’t quite worth seeing the reportedly tiny Mona Lisa. We bee-lined for the Musee d’Orsay, where impressionism, a longtime family favorite, awaited us.
The works of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas and Pissarro are breathtaking in person. I had never been so stunned in my whole life. I have no words to do the d’Orsay justice. Please go.
We also visited the Musee l’Orangerie, where Monet’s Water Lilies resides. We were also in town during the American Gothic exhibit, and got the chance to see the depressed farmer and his concerned wife for real. This was their first time outside of the United States too. The l’Orangerie was small and a great addition to our other studies of Monet from earlier in the day. Seeing this in conjunction with the d’Orsay was perfect.
As previously mentioned, it was New Year’s Eve. We booked late night reservations at a rustic, rennaissance-style restaurant on the island, and then went home to cozy up with macarons and champagne to watch the countdown. From our sixth-story walkup, we were able to see the fireworks not only from the Arc d’Triomphe, but from Montmartre’s Sacre-Coeur and from Le Marais as well. This was easily the coolest way I’d ever rung in a new year.
Day 6: Crap, What Did We Miss?
We decided that seeing the Eiffel Tower would probably be smart, since people were most likely going to ask what it looked like in person. We made our way over to the crowded area, and decided the New Year’s Day line to witness it from within the gates was too much to tackle. We made our way to the Arc d’Triomphe, took touristy pictures, and then waltzed down the upper half of the Champs-Elysees, passing through multiple security checkpoints and aggressive pat-downs that made us feel QUITE safe. These essential parts of any Paris trip are essential for a reason: they’re really fun. The Arc and the Tower are both spectacular feats of architecture, and the Champs-Elysees is vibrant. This was a great way to say thank you and goodbye to the beautiful city that had housed us and wowed us for the past six days.
Our last supper was to be the climactic food event of the week. We chose the trendy Lilot-Vache, a restaurant that had been taunting and teasing us, ridden with unavailability and a menu posted outside that we would drool over with every passing-by. Their raspberry grilled duck tenderloin was one of the best meals I had eaten all week. We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and went back home to pack for the long day of travel that faced us the next morning.
- The Champs-Elysees
- The Louvre Courtyard
- The Tower and the Arc
- Normandy-take the early train and watch the sun rise over the French countryside!
- Shakespeare and Co.
- Le Marais
- Musee d’Orsay and l’Orangerie
- The Tuileries Gardens
Tips for the trip:
- Any restaurant you walk past is going to be delicious.
- Avoid tourist traps, especially during the holidays: you’ll probably be overpaying for whatever it is you are doing, so use that money to do something that isn’t as tourist-y.
- When in doubt, walk. When in heels, call an Uber.
- River cruises are way more fun than they look.
- Try to speak French first. It’s respectful, and while getting your words a little messed up is amusing for your French counterparts, it also makes you look endearing, and not ignorant.
- Shop in stores that don’t exist in your home country.
- Always dress for the occasion. Don’t leave the house in sweatpants.
- Always prepare for the occasion. Don’t leave the house without a camera or a wall-outlet adapter.
- Don’t be afraid to get a little lost!