A few words…
Arrondissement: Properly, “arrondissement principal”, or administrative district. Paris has 20 of them, surrounded by a sort of a beltway, the Boulevard Périphérique. Each has its own unique flavor and characters. A few of notes: 1st Arrondissementnt, the touristy part of Paris; 3rd and 4th Arrondissements (Le Marais); 5th Arrondissement (Le Quartier Latin); 18th Arrondissement (Montmartre and Le Moulin Rouge). More on these down below.
Quartier: “Neighborhood”. It’s these “quartiers” that make each arrondissement unique.
Brasserie: It’s a restaurant/bar/brewery/cafe all rolled into one relaxed setting. It serves food practically all day (while restaurants and/or bistros do not); and one can simply nurse a beer or a glass of wine at a sidewalk table. My favorite hangout during any given day.
S’il vous plait, Je vous en prie, Merci: Respectively, “please”, “you are welcome”, and “thank you”. If you must know the absolute minimum French, know these. They, with a smile, will get you far. My words.
If you have only a day for Paris, the bus tours are good choices. They are essentially guided tours on (double-decked) wheels. And they seem to be everywhere; wherever I was at any particular moment, there was one either in front or behind me.
(I don’t have a recommendation, since I did not use them.)
This is a good chance to get all your touristy photos in. Make sure your camera’s geo-tagging is turned on; that’s so you can identify later where each photo is taken on a map (and also to show off to your CONUS-bound friends where you have been).
If you have more than one day? Explore the city on foot.
Paris on foot
The city is wonderfully walk-able. And walking was how I discovered Paris.
My recommendation is to make the Arc de Triomphe your pivot point for all your adventures on foot. The majority of Paris public transit routes (which I relied on to get around) either ends there, or passes through there. On the transit map, it is known as the “Place Charles De Gaulle”.
At that point, you are within walking distance to and from some of Paris’ most famous landmarks: Montmartre, Le Marais, Le Quartier Latin/The Sorbonne, The Seine, Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, just to name a few.
(If you do choose to use the transit system:
- Great choice. The Paris transit system is very well established. Considering the system consists of train, bus, and metro, it is also very well coordinated: you are within two to five minutes of catching the next ride, be it train, bus or metro.
- Know your “home” station/stop, i.e., where you depart from and return to. Mine was a bus stop outside of Clichy-Levallois station. Mention the name to the bus operators, and he/she should be able to point you to the right bus/metro connection.
- Consider getting a MOBILIS ticket. It cost me seven euros, it lasted all day, and it covered all transit media: you can transfer between train, metro, and/or bus without having to pay additional money.)
So now, where to start?
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Sure, walking this famed avenue (and its continuation, the Avenue de la Grande Armée, on the opposite side of the Arc De Triomphe) is probably the most cliched thing to do in Paris. For a first-timer such as myself though, it was still definitely worth the stroll; then afterwards, sat in one of its many outdoors cafe’s, with a beer.
It just felt obligatory.
There are certainly plenty of things to do and see along the way: you will find quite a few high-end shops (read “expensive”) worth poking your head into; grab a macaron in any one of the cafe’s; have a wine or coffee while checking out the latest Renault models at L’Atelier Renault (both a cafe and a car showroom; we Vietnamese have a thing for Renaults); and, of course, there’s always the McDonald’s if you miss the taste of home. (I in fact found something reminiscent of home on the Avenue de la Grande Armée: a bicycle shop, Vélo & Oxygen, where I scored a cycling cap with the French tricolor on it. Well, and a pharmacy on the avenue itself, to help with my lactose intolerance. One cannot suffer from such condition being in food-city.)
Montmartre–once the heart of Bohemien Paris–is often compared to the Village of New York City, usually in the past tense. It was associated with all that is arts and Paris: artists, writers gathering in flamboyant, often debauched cafes and bars; the inspiration to the likes of Picasso, Zola and Renoir, who lived and worked there; where American Jazz first found a French audience; where Hemingway honed his craft.
That was then. Now, what’s most prominent are a series of sex shops lining its main street, the Boulevard de Clichy.
After spotting me taking photos of these shops, a greeter (hostess?) stopped me and asked if I had wanted to come into her shop. “For five Euros,” she said, in English, “you can watch for free. Pretty girls.” (By “for free,” she probably meant “all I wanted”. After all, it costs five euros to get in. And, pretty girls can’t be free!) When I declined, she added that I could get a “sex massage” for an additional five Euros. Then, as if to demonstrate said massage, she proceeded to lightly run her hand over my stomach.
I could not suck it in fast enough.
Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre
I could not believe how commercialized the area around Sacre-Coeur is. You cannot walk two steps without running into a portrait sketcher or people hawking water, beer, etc.
Somehow, I had imagined a much more tranquil–maybe even a bit reverent–area, being around with such a famous place of worship. Instead, I was tailed by a portrait sketcher for a time; he even attempted to start a conversation with me by asking whether I am from Japan. (“No, I am from Missouri,” I told him. The “Missouri” part is true, by the way!)
Same as on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, French knowledge is not required here: the merchants automatically greet you in English.
Wonder why that is.
I did end up getting a beer (lukewarm, at best), found some shade near the basilica front steps, to sit and listen to a (pretty decent) rendition of “At Last”.
All that said, I do recommend a visit to the basilica. It is situated at the highest point of the city, and–from there–one can get quite a panoramic view of it. Quite a sight.
The Seine and Notre Dame De Paris Cathedral
The Seine, that languorous, sometimes-sullen, source of inspiration to many a Vietnamese composer and writer (more on this later).
The week before I came, the river overflowed its banks. These photos were taken a couple days after my arrival. Except for small debris here and there, I could not tell the city was flooded. (In fact, the weather was practically perfect during my eight days there.)
As I strolled her banks, I did wish I had brought larger baggage. Lined alongside the upper bank are little open-air stands, selling everything from kitschy knick-knacks, to old books, records, CDs. If one has the time (and patience) to sort through some of the things offered, one might find a few little treasures: old books by Ernest Hemingway (in French), CDs of American jazz produced in France, etc.
Vietnamese readers of this post (from a certain generation) might remember the “Lucky Luke”, “Tintin”, “Astérix le Gaulois” cartoons? I found a number of them, pristine, plastic-wrapped.
I had to remind myself several times that books are heavy, and my baggage was already heavy enough.
Quartier Latin/La Sorbonne
If Montmartre is hip debauchery (or simply debauched), then the Quartier Latin is hip intellectualism, as anchored by the famed learning institute “L’Université de Paris”, more commonly known as the Sorbonne.
(Why “Latin”? Because it was the language once spoken in and around the University; and was considered the scholarly language.)
Essentially a college town, it is overrun by students. There are quite a few cafes, bars, bistros, in the area; and, at all hours, they were packed with kids, either taking a coffee break, doing homework with a coffee, or enjoying a lively discussion (not sure if it was entirely scholarly) with a coffee. (Yes, coffee rules here, as in all other college towns).
This was where I found a “food-bar”: literally, that is how it is advertised on the menu, and it is the equivalent of the American all-you-can-eat buffet. It offers quite a diverse selection, from Middle-eastern dishes, to basic french baguette and cheese. It is also where one can order a “café américain”: it is a café diluted with hot water, in a proper 6-oz cup.
This was also where I found a “fin de serie” and a “€” (pronounced “Euro”) stores: respectively, they are the equivalent of the “Tuesday Morning” stores (selling things either out of production, or about to be), and the ubiquitous All-American “Dollar” stores.
I suppose it’s all to accommodate the scholarly (read “tight”) budget of the students.