I’m a little behind on sharing, but I went to Europe for the first time! My husband and I spent about 9 days in total, traveling through Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam. I’m so excited to share all of our European adventures with you! I’m a little upset because my camera started having issues the first day (of course), so the pictures aren’t as clear as I hoped. But they still showcase our travels and that’s what matters! Be prepared for some lengthy posts…
I hesitate to even call this a guide to Paris, because the city is just so big and there are so many things to do! But I think we definitely learned a few things worth sharing and had some really memorable experiences. I guess we’ll just have to go back to check everything else off the list! We chose March to travel because it is the shoulder season, meaning less crowds and significantly cheaper flights. We got rained on a bit, but we also had some sunshine. Typical spring.
Our biggest requirement for our hotel was location. We planned on walking most places and hitting all the major tourist attractions, so we wanted somewhere that would be centrally located. With that in mind we decided on the Latin Quarter, which is south of the Seine (fun fact: it is called the Latin Quarter because it is near the university, and originally the only language all these students could communicate with each other in was Latin!). We stayed at Hotel Europe St Severin and it was perfect for us! It had big windows that opened out onto the street with a café below that was the quintessential Parisian feel we wanted. In the future I think we would either stay in the Montmartre or St Germain des Pres neighborhoods.
What to Do
Our favorite thing about every city is just wandering around aimlessly, stopping whenever something looked interesting or a side street looked especially pretty. Or in my case if I saw a balcony with pretty plants or found a cat… (no big deal but I made friends with a cat in each country). There are two islands in the River Seine, the largest of which has Notre Dame, but the smaller Ile Saint-Louis is more residential and incredibly cute. We also walked all through the Latin Quarter, from the Louvre down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, and from the Eiffel Tower back through St Germain des Pres to our hotel. Our feet were tired, but walking really lets you see the city! We walked almost 30 miles in Paris alone! We did take the metro system a few times however, and it was pretty easy to get the hang of.
This was probably what we were both the most excited for in Paris: Matt to see the Mona Lisa and I just wanted to see the building. It is incredible! It used to be a royal palace and its history goes as far back as the founding of Paris itself. I was prepared for a lot of Renaissance art, but I was not prepared for how massive the art is! The paintings are huge! And they line hall after hall after hall. Along with all the paintings there are sections with Roman statues, Egyptian artifacts and the foundations of the original castle below in the basement. They even have a real mummy! This was the only thing in Paris we bought a ticket for beforehand with a set time.
We went when it opened at 9:00 and went straight to the Mona Lisa. We poked our heads in her room later on and it was much more crowded. Did you know she was stolen in 1911? Right out of the Louvre! We had both recently read a book about the theft and that made seeing her in person even more exciting. This is also why she has such heavy protection.
Something else we thought was really cool: artists can come into the Louvre and paint. It was so amazing watching these painters in front of these famous works of art and realizing…these guys are really good. It was also interesting to see how they would change the colors or add their own twist to the painting. It was fun to watch! (And FYI, the museum is closed on Tuesdays).
We were really lucky and found out the first Sunday of the month, all museums are free in Paris! It was raining pretty hard the morning we landed, so we figured we could go wait out the storm inside. The d’Orsay is an impressionist museum and is inside one of the old train stations. The building alone is worth going! I first saw this picture on Instagram and have been obsessed with the building since (and finding the clocks). Since we didn’t pay for our tickets we didn’t feel like we had to “get our money’s worth” and see every exhibit, and it was nice to just wander and not feel rushed. I had no idea what to expect but it turns out I actually really enjoy impressionist paintings! If you have time for more than one museum, I would definitely recommend this one.
Our hotel was a block away from Notre Dame so we frequented it quite often. In the mornings we would get our coffees and pastries and just sit on a bench next to Notre Dame, asking each other “is this real life?” over and over again. The cathedral is so impressive, I think that goes without saying. I was surprised to learn they still hold Mass there, even throughout the day with tourists wandering in and out. We didn’t go up in the towers, but next time I would like to! You get a really close look at the gargoyles I’ve heard. St. Chapelle is another chapel on the same island as Notre Dame, but somehow we could never find the entrance?? Next time.
Eiffel Tower (and Trocadero)
I had two different people tell me to see the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, and I am so happy I got that advice! The Trocadero is a wide esplanade on the opposite side of the River Seine from the tower, giving you a great view point.
We were a bit unsure if we wanted to spend both the money and time to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but when I remembered my husband is not a fan of heights…it made our decision easier. The tower is TALL. Our compromise was to take the stairs to the first level of the tower. The stairs are A) cheaper B) have a shorter line and C) give you a view at the inside workings of the tower…I would highly recommend this option if you don’t have the time to wait in line for the elevator to the top. Plus you still have amazing views! (other tidbit I learned: all those “skip the line” passes? You don’t actually skip the line. You skip the line for the first elevator but still have to wait for the second elevator AND the elevator to go down. Don’t waste your money!)
It’s hard to pick a favorite part of each city, but I think mine was the neighborhood of Montmartre. It is up on the hill overlooking Paris with beautiful views of the entire city. While the area has become very touristy (watch out for the street performers who somehow trick you into owing them money…) the back streets were quiet and much more the classic Paris I had imagined: cobblestone streets, musicians playing on corners, overgrown ivy and plants everywhere. Not to mention we had delicious fresh baguette sandwiches and hot wine to carry around.
Sacré-Coeur is the Catholic church located at the top of the Montmartre. It is amazing how different this church looks compared to Notre Dame! While the exterior may be a bit unusual the inside was absolutely stunning. Sadly no photos were allowed, but trust me when I saw you need to visit here. If not for the church than for the view of the city down below.
Arc de Triomphe
Twelve streets intersect at the Arc de Triomphe in a massive roundabout. I hate regular roundabouts, so I can’t imagine trying to navigate this thing! Once again, the Arc is much larger in person than I ever realized in pictures and the detail in the sculptures is amazing. If we go back I would like to go to the top of the Arc, just for the views of the intersections and the city below.
I am a huge fan of cemeteries, which might sound weird, but oh well. If you love the history behind cemeteries you’ll have to make a stop here.
Gardens: Luxemburg and Tuileries
We visited Paris in March and it definitely felt more like winter than spring. While the gardens were still nice to walk through, it was nowhere near as beautiful as the pictures I’ve seen once the weather is warmer. We did see cops on roller blades though! And that was pretty entertaining.
Shakespeare & Company
Bookstores are incredibly dangerous for me. I have more books than I could ever read already, yet I can’t help but buy more. Luckily though…international bookstores are safe. There’s no room in my bag to buy more! Shakespeare and Company is a literary icon. Not only is it a bookstore, expat writers have been living in the store in exchange for a few hours of work since the 1920’s (the original Shakespeare and Company used the same system and was around to see the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald). While the store is now very popular and extremely crowded, it is still a must see for book lovers. There was an elderly woman playing a piano in a corner and I found a cat living upstairs. This is basically my heaven.
Honorable mention for best book store goes to Abbey Bookshop. Another English (technically Canadian) store with SO MANY BOOKS. Like…can barely walk through the store without knocking something over.
WHAT TO EAT
I was going to write “where to eat”…but that’s impossible. There are so many restaurants we haven’t even scratched the surface! It also took us a few days to learn the Parisian meal schedule and we missed a few opportunities because of that. Before arriving we didn’t understand there was a difference between a café and a restaurant. Cafes are more casual, open the whole day, and all seemed to have very similar menus. It was a bit overwhelming because there is one on every corner and how do you choose?? I’m sure some are better than others, but all the ones we went to felt the same and unimpressive. Dinner in Paris (and most of Europe) doesn’t start until 7-8pm and that’s when the restaurants open. Considering our first day we were asleep by 8pm, we missed out!
The other thing we had trouble with was getting the waiters attention, whether it was for another drink or simply for the check. Unlike here in the US, they don’t keep checking on you every ten minutes. so you have to flag them down. It was hard to do this without feeling incredibly rude. I’m sure they must be used to this, but it was kind of uncomfortable for us.
We had a few specific items we were dying to try in Paris, so let’s start with those.
Croissants (Le Clou de Paris)
Either we were sleep deprived and starving so we became a bit delirious, but the croissants we ate in Paris the very first morning were by far the best we had. The typical Parisian café breakfast special was baguette with jam, a croissant, orange juice and coffee. And it was as good as you’d expect! The croissants were still hot from the oven, like…so hot you could barely eat them. And so flaky and buttery and perfect. I’ll never be able to eat a regular croissant again!
I think Europeans have different internal clocks than us. We would wake up each morning and feel like we had the city to ourselves. Doesn’t anyone work at 8am? Where is the traffic? The line at the coffee shop?? It worked out in our favor though. If we weren’t eating croissants, we were trying every other pastry we could get our hands on, grabbing an Americano (side note: we really needed a “how-to-order-coffee-in-Europe guide”) and heading over to Notre Dame to start our day. Chocolate croissants, chausson aux pommes (apple turnover), and chocolate brioche were our favorites, but nothing ever beat those initial hot croissants.
There were numerous crepe stands and we stopped at basically all of them. And they were all delicious! Nutella is a classic but the savory were actually our favorite, especially ham and cheese. Lemon was also good but turned into a sticky mess. Good thing I found helpers to clean my fingers!
Croque Monsieur/Croque Madame (Le Ponthieu)
As a recent convert to fried eggs I was SO excited to try a croque madame. A croque monsieur is an open-faced toasted ham and cheese sandwich and the madame adds a fried egg on top. My first monsieur was a bit of a disappointment, with just white sandwich bread and a melted slice of cheese, but the madame I had was much better. A crusty slice of bread, lots of cheese and a runny egg. Messy, but delicious.
Cheese and Champagne (Le Buisson D’Argent)
It sounds like I’ve been complaining about Parisian cafes this whole time, but they are perfect for an afternoon snack and drink (just not the best for dinner). Case in point: any time we got tired of walking, we would find a place to get a cheese plate and a glass of champagne. I would live on cheese if it was humanly possible and love trying new flavors. I also love people watching, so sitting out on the patio watching the world go by while I munch on fresh bread and cheese is basically my dream. During this particular afternoon I watched someone get their rooftop patio landscaped (lucky) and played with a lost cat, before sending him on his way home
I realize this may not be what you typically expect to eat in France, but I can’t tell you how many people said we HAD to go to Berthillon for ice cream. It’s supposed to be amazing! Sadly since we were there in the off-season their hours were limited and were not open the days we were in town. We did however find authentic Italian gelato at Pozzetto (made by a true Italian, I asked) and that pretty much made up for it.
We ended the trip on a good note and had our two favorite meals on our last day. The first we stumbled upon by accident in the Montmartre neighborhood. Grenouilles was the absolute cutest sandwich shop, with fresh baguettes, meats, cheeses and hot wine! (or mulled wine as we know it here). Walking through these cobblestone streets, eating crusty bread and sipping hot wine…that was when I finally felt like THIS was the Paris I had imagined.
Our final dinner in Paris was a French tapas restaurant Sourire. Since we eat like the elderly with 5pm dinners at home, we showed up pretty much right when the restaurant opened and had the place to ourselves. Tapas are great for an indecisive person like me because you don’t have to pick just one entrée, you can have multiple! We shared things like raclette cheese and veggies, chestnut gnocchi, spinach and ricotta gnudi (a cheese dumpling of sorts) and Iberico pluma bellota (pork shoulder). Everything was delicious and it was a really fun atmosphere. I would definitely recommend coming here!
Phew. I think that’s everything to tell you about Paris! Are you overwhelmed yet? Looking back it’s amazing we fit so much into just a few days, yet there is still so much to see! I’m sure we will end up in the city of lights again someday. Until then, au revoir, Paris!