Nine Days in Paris and Northern France

What Were Our goals?

Paris was our first stop in a 30 day European holiday.

Our other destinations were Brussels, Amsterdam, a bus trip in Switzerland, Venice, Pisa and Rome.  A lot to fit into the time available, so we planned to see as much as we could, without skipping through things and missing the details.  Going somewhere just to take a picture and leave, isn’t our idea of a holiday.  We like to see something very well.  Even if it means missing out completely on something else.

Having only visited Paris once before, and then only briefly, we wanted to see the main attractions, while experiencing some of its more unusual aspects. We planned a total of nine days in this great city, about half of which would be spent on day trips to surrounding regions.

How Did We Get There?

Airfares were booked for Air France from Sydney to Paris, via Shanghai. These flights were code share and operated by China Eastern.  This was a bit of a gamble, for although the airfares were cheap the reviews for the operating airline are mixed.  We found that they comparable to the experience we had when we flew with Qantas and Cathay Pacific.  The food was typical airline food, and as expected Chinese, although pizza for breakfast was a little hard to take.

Flying time Sydney to Shanghai was 10.5 hours.  This was followed by a 4.5-hour stopover in Shanghai.  We had to check-in for the onward leg, as Sydney could not allocate us seats.  This meant a simple stop at the transit desk, where this was quickly done.  Then came the wait to get through an immigration check point, with only one booth open to check IDs and tickets.  This was followed by another wait at the security check, after which we made it into the departure terminal, found a coffee shop, bought some snacks and waited out the remaining time until our plane left at midnight. 

The final leg to Paris was a very long 12.5 hours.  We arrived at 6:30AM, clearing immigration with no problems and then looking for our booked transport to our hotel.  After some inquiries, we found it near one of the departure lounges.

Where Did We Stay?

We planned to use the Metro, or walk to most places in Paris itself.  To simplify this, we chose a centrally located hotel, near the Louvre and a Metro Station (Louvre Rivoli).  The Best Western Premier Louvre Saint Honoré is a small boutique hotel, with only three rooms to a floor. The booking was made directly through the hotel as their rates were better than we could find through online booking sites.

The staff we all very friendly and helpful.  Breakfast was served in a room downstairs, consisting of breads, pastries, cereals, hot food, cheeses and yogurt and some fresh fruit.  Nice strong coffee was also provided.  The room opened at 7:00AM, which was OK for half of the time we were there, but we often left earlier than this for some of the booked trips.

The room was small but comfortable.  We expected this, and were very happy with it.  The bathroom was also up to expectations.  Most importantly, the bed was comfortable and the room was quiet at night.  We heard little or no street noise while we were there.  As there were only three rooms on our floor, noise from other guests was also minimal.

Due to size restrictions, the lift was extremely small, fitting only two people with a suitcase each.  People with lots of luggage or families, made several trips to get to and from their rooms.  This didn’t bother us as there was only the two of us.

Overall, we were very happy with our choice of hotel.

Getting Around

The Metro

Travelling around central Paris is very easy.  If somewhere is a bit too far to walk, take the Metro.  It is extremely easy and efficient to use.  If you have been on the London Tube, New York Subway or any other underground system you will know how it works.  We purchased a seven-day ticket from one of the main stations.  These run from Monday to Sunday.  As we arrived on the Sunday, we could use if from our second day onward.  The ticketing staff showed us how to set it up.  You need a photo on the card.  You can use one of the photo booths, usually located in the stations, or as the staff member suggested, a photocopy of our passport photos. 

The 30 Euro cost was good for us, as we made several long train trips that cost over ten Euros each (to Provins).  Depending on how many trips you intend to take, purchasing individual tickets might be better.

Be aware that pick pockets operate in the metro system.  There are constant warnings in multiple languages over the PA system to remind people to be careful.  Keep your bags closed and where you can see them.  Don’t keep your wallet or phone in your pocket.

Walking

Depending on the weather, this is a great way to see more of Paris as you move between attractions.  Again, be careful of pick pockets.  Despite warnings and being aware of the danger, we had a phone stolen on the first day.  Fortunately, the thief discarded it, as it was pass locked.  Someone saw this and returned it to us.  Lesson learned.

Nearly everywhere you go there are street hawkers trying to sell everything from selfie sticks, water, sunglasses, hats and other cheap items.  They are generally more annoying than a hazard.  Just ignore them.  After a day, they blend into the back ground.  Their main impact is to make Paris and its attractions look cheap and degrade their appeal.

Organised Trips in Paris

Why pay for an organised trip, when you can visit many of the attractions yourself and not pay for a guide to escort you around?  For us there were several reasons, although they varied by attraction.

Firstly, many of the Paris attractions have huge (and I mean hours long) queues to get in.  You can get skip the line tickets, but these are becoming popular, so it means that instead of the very long line you go to the not so long line.   Guided tours mean you have a specific entrance time and do not have to wait.

Secondly, despite access to audio guides in many places, walking and talking with an expert who shows you specific items and areas along with their personal interaction, provides a far greater understanding of what you are experiencing.  A guide can be organised in your own language, so communication is easy.

Thirdly, there were trips too far from Paris for us to attempt in a day.  A bus trip seemed like the best way to do them.  See our detailed review of these trips to see what we thought.

Finally, some of the experiences simply are not available without a guide.

We found that all the drivers and guides we organised in France were excellent.  Their knowledge was first-rate and they were friendly and cheerful.  Each trip is listed below, with a brief description.  Click on the link for the larger review.

Paris Catacombs

The queue for the catacombs often stretches for several hours.  We chose a guided tour, as this both bypassed the queue as well as enabling us to visit areas off-limits to general visitors.

Paris Catacombs
Paris Catacombs

Retro Sidecar Tour of Paris

This tour can only be done as a guided tour.  Absolutely brilliant experience and highly recommended, as you see Paris from a whole new perspective.

The Retro Sidecar
The Retro Sidecar

Loire Valley Chateaux

We took a small mini-van trip to the Loire Valley.  There were six of us and the driver/guide.  The guides experience and knowledge meant that we travelled to each château quickly and had a full briefing on its history as well as where to go to see it at its best.

Château de Chenonceau
Château de Chenonceau

Normandy and the D-Day Battlefields

Normandy seemed too far for us to travel without a car, but in hindsight we should have combined it with Mont Saint Michel and spent several days here on our own.  The guide was excellent, but we were often rushed and missed much that we would have liked to see in more depth.

Memorial Omaha Beach
Memorial Omaha Beach

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel itself was amazing, but not worth a 14-hour day travelling to and from Paris.  This should have been combined into a multi-day stay in the area, to have a greater feel for Normandy.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel

Champagne Region

We visited the Champagne region as a small group mini-van trip.  With six of us in the van and a very friendly driver/guide we had a great time.  As we planned to sample the local produce, a driver was essential.  We were able to visit several Champagne houses as well as some minor ones.

Vineyards in the Champagne  District
Vineyards in the Champagne District

Versailles

We found a guided tour at Versailles that enabled us to ski the line, have breakfast there as well as see the King’s private apartments that are off-limits to unescorted visitors.  There were around 20 of us on the tour.  The driver took us there and then handed us over to our guide for the palace who was exceptional in her knowledge.  The palace is breath-taking and the gardens magnificent.  The tour and the palace all exceeded expectations.

Hall of Mirrors Versailles
Hall of Mirrors Versailles
Private Chapel Versailles
Private Chapel Versailles

Day Trip From Paris – Self Guided

The Medieval Town of Provins

We visited Provins on our own, as there is a train that runs from Gare de l’Est to the town.  The train takes about 90 minutes with return trains roughly every hour.  We found it very easy to get around the town on foot and visited most of the attractions there. The big advantage of travelling by ourselves was that if something interested us, we could stay and explore longer and once finished we could leave.

Provins City Walls
Provins City Walls

Major Attractions Visited

The Louvre Museum.  The Louvre is very busy during the day, making it difficult to see some of the famous exhibits.  We went in the evening, when the crowds were much smaller.  We could walk around at our leisure and enjoy the museum, without being crushed by fellow tourists.

During the day, hawkers and pick pockets infest the approaches to the museum, so be careful.

Pyramids at the Louvre
Pyramids at the Louvre
Babylonian Statues
Babylonian Statues
Caryatid Columns
Caryatid Columns

Arc de Triomphe.  We caught the Metro to travel here.  There is a walk way under the road, so that you do not have to brave the eight lanes of insane traffic that travel around it.  As well as walking around the base of the monument, take the trip to the roof.  There are fantastic views from the top.  The museum pass gets you free access inside.

View From the Roof
View From the Roof
Paris From The top of the Arc de Triomphe
Paris From The top of the Arc de Triomphe

Musee d’Orsay.  Again, we used the metro to get here.  Not really being art experts, we walked around looking for the famous works that are on display.  Unlike many people, we did not spend long here.  Some art lovers can spend days browsing the masterpieces on display.

Notre Dame Cathedral and Bell Towers.  One of the iconic must-see destinations in Paris.  Entry to the Cathedral is free.  There is usually a line outside, which gets longer during the day.  It moves very quickly, so don’t be put off if it seems long.  The interior of the cathedral is immense, so no matter how big the queue might be, the crowds inside don’t seem as big.

Entry to the Bell Towers has an entry fee.  The Museum Pass does not cover this.  There used to be a huge queue here, but this has now been replaced by a ticket and time system, so you know when you can get in.  There is an App that you can download to get your time.  The climb to the top is quite steep and can be a little confining.  The views at the top, the gargoyles and the bells of course are amazing.

Gargoyle on the Bell Towers
Gargoyle on the Bell Towers

Basilica du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre When we got off the Metro here, we found out that the lift was not working.  The climb to the top seemed worse than the Bell Towers or Arc de Triomphe.  We used the funicular to travel the last hill to the top.  A fun experience itself and covered by the Metro Pass.  Entry to the Basilica is free.  The interior is breath-taking.  The views from the steps over the city are worth the trip there.

Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb.  As with most major museums, the Museum Pass gives free entry here.  The main reason for our visit was to see Napoleon’s Tomb, which is gigantic and a fitting tribute to the Little General.  The interior, especially the altar is spectacular.  Only a brief look at the remainder of the museum was made.  Several hours at least would be needed to do it justice.

Napoleon's Tomb
Napoleon’s Tomb

Pantheon.  Originally a church, this amazing building is now the final resting place of many famous French men and women, including Victor Hugo and Marie Curie.  The Museum Pass covers the entry fee.

Pantheon
Pantheon

As well as these major attractions, we visited, passed through or passed by many others.  Each worth a quick visit.  Paris was many gardens, statues, fountains, buildings, districts and streets deserving of a visit. 

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower
Fontaine des Fleuves
Fontaine des Fleuves
Place de la Concorde

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