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Surviving Paris Without Losing Your Mind and Draining Your Pocketbook

The view from the 1st floor of the Eiffel Tower is stunning, even on a rainy, overcast day

I lived in Paris for a time over 30 years ago, as a fresh faced, 20 year old Canadian girl on her first trip abroad, dreaming of a career as a high fashion makeup artist. Back then, you could truly live on a $10/day budget that included a bottle of wine and a little wheel of brie so, even if you felt lonely and isolated in a huge, foreign city, enduring rudeness that bordered on performance art , at least you could be spend the day pleasantly buzzed!

The Eiffel Tower, lit up, will never stop being magnificent

After a few months, being poor in this beautiful city started to weigh on me, I got sick of living off of bread and cart crepes, window shopping and eating pickled beets, so I moved on to Munich where I worked a lot more, made enough money to fund a nice life with new friends with ample left over for continued travel. Paris was not an easy city for a naive, young girl on her own and if I am honest, I was left with less than positive memories. It is one of the only cities in Europe that I not only never returned to, but never had a desire to return to.

Fast forward over 30 years and my son is graduating high school this spring. We promised him a big trip to celebrate and for the first couple years, I was terrified that he would pick $$ Japan but he and his father decided that they would like to visit Paris with a side trip to Rome. Being a grown up now, I relented and we booked a 10 day trip but I truly didn't know what to expect of this city had left me with such conflicted feelings.

Big Changes

In the old days, the only thing that stood between a tourist and all the things that this vibrant city as to offer was money. When I returned to Paris after a 30 year absence, I finally had enough money to eat out, shop and site see but now, money is no longer the only obstacle to being a tourist here. 

the tower at night - le sigh
In the early 80's, if I wanted to pop into Notre Dame, I could do that with little fanfare and not much in the way of a line up. I could visit the Pompidou as often as I liked and because I had a roommate who worked at the Eiffel Tower, which was not surrounded by fences and security back then, trips up to the viewing floors were a regular occurrence.

Oh how this has changed. If you want to see most of the tourist sites, you either have to be prepared to line up for HOURS or spend vast amounts of money to book a Skip The Line tour from one of many tour companies. There is no way around it anymore. From the minute these sites open up until closing time,  the lines snake all the way down the street, often around the block, just to buy tickets and then, for some things, you have to join a second line to actually get in. If you are in Paris for weeks, you might be able to afford to spend the better part of an afternoon lining up to get into a tourist site to save some dough but, if you don’t want to waste huge chunks of precious time, you are going to have to suck it up and pay for the luxury of getting in quickly. If you have brought a kid or three with you, this is going to get very expensive very quickly so you need to choose wisely.

My mean family would not let me buy this guy

Luckily, we all enjoy going to a new neighbourhood every day and then just exploring it. On this trip we were walking at least 15km a day and had a really wonderful time taking hundreds of photos, eating at little neighbourhood bistros, finding really weird shops (Parisians love taxidermy!) and just marvelling at the beauty that awaits you around every corner. There is nothing quite like getting lost in Paris when you don’t have anywhere to go and no schedule to adhere to.

Book this trip

Paris, by night, is magical

If you don't have hours to line up every day, you are going to have to suck it up and book skip the line tours

We decided to choose one big touristy thing in Paris and one big thing in Rome and so I booked a Skip The Lines Vatican Museum Tour with Viator and a Skip The Line trip up the Eiffel Tower with Fat Tire Tours. Perhaps, if we return to Paris, we will do a Fat Tire Tours bike tour of Versaille or even tackle a bit of the Louvre, but for this trip it was the Eiffel Tower for my engineering loving husband. 

Louis Augustr Blanqui , famous French Socialist and very important figure during La Commune de Paris

As a special treat for our son, I set out to find a tour that would cover the period of La Commune de Paris since my socialist history nerd had become very interested in this short lived but important 1871 Paris uprising. Nobody loves a revolution like the French but this three month uprising was the first time that the people, joined by the National Guard who sided with the working men and woman of Paris, rose up against the government as opposed to a monarch. Three months of fierce fighting ended with La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) starting on May 21, 1871 when the French army finally gained control of the city by slaughtering hundreds of Parisians. I could go on and on but you can read more about it yourself if you are interested and it is a very interesting story, indeed.

The tomb of slain journalist, Victor Noir, is not only an important stop on our Commune de Paris tour. He is famous because it is said that if you rub his crotch, you will get pregnant and, in fact, the area in question is polished to mirror shine!

Every tour company offered to, perhaps, add on a couple little Commune centric stops on their group French Revolution tour, but nothing more and I didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for another tour that wasn’t even what we wanted in the first place. I was ready to give up hope and started crafting a self directed walking tour for him myself when I heard back from the only tour group that was willing to work with us.

Localers is a tour company comprised of really knowledgable historians, bloggers, food lovers and photographers who all live in and love Paris. You can choose something as unique as lunching in a Parisian's apartment or a photo shoot of Paris by night but they also offer an opportunity to make special requests. Because they didn't have anything about the actual Commune, they hooked me up with Alberto, who does their Pere Lachaise cemetery tours. Since this cemetery figures prominently in the story of the Commune, he adapted his regular tour so we didn't have to pay the higher foo for a tour that is absolutely customized. In the end, it only cost 145€ for a private tour for all three of us. An amazing price for an amazing tour and worth every penny.

Despite the fact that we were an hour late (I didn’t realize that everything was in my calendar in Toronto time so I didn’t get my standard alerts, I was still a bit jet lagged and out of sorts) our tour was even longer than the promised 2 1/2 hours long and it was absolutely a highlight of our entire trip. Just the fact that he wasn't angry that we were late, didn't cut our tour short because we were so tardy (which he had every right to do) and actually called me to see if I was lost, alerting me to the fact that our tour was NOT THE NEXT DAY AS MY IPHONE  WAS TELLING ME. 

Alberto had all sorts of extra photos, news articles and other media to share with us to enhance our tour

Alberto took great pains to find out all kinds of obscure facts about the Commune and seemed to be truly thrilled to have the opportunity to learn even more about this place that he already knows so intimately. If you are going to Paris and want to learn about something really off the beaten track, please book Alberto and ask for his Commune de Paris Pere Lachaise tour because it was amazing and not something you can get anywhere else. He showed us a secret mass grave, he sang revolutionary songs and even gave us directions to find another little known spot located outside the walls of the cemetery that we came to find the next day. I will be writing in depth about this tour at a later date but trust me, it was absolutely a must. It would be a shame to think that he customized this fantastic tour and didn't have the chance to add it to his regular roster.

Our  Fat Tire Tours Skip the Line trip up the Eiffel Tower was great as well and money well spent just to get in quickly but the fact that we had a really fabulous guide was a bonus. Like the majority of their guides, he was young, exuberant, full of interesting fun facts, weird stories about different landmarks, gossipy trivia, engaging and willing to answer everyone’s questions. This company also has a great line up of tours that you can book that will meet almost any interest/fitness level. From what I have heard, their various tours of Versailles are the only way to go but we saved that for the next trip.  I would also like to take the nighttime bike tour of the city because nothing says "IT's OKAY, I HAVE GREAT TRAVEL INSURANCE" quite like a boozy spin through one of the most congested cities in Europe, in the dark, on a strange bike without a helmet!

Be aware that for many of these sites you will have to go through security, have your bags searched, perhaps put them through an airport style scanner and you might be patted down and/or wanded so you are best to pare down, carry a small bag with just the essentials to avoid being stopped for inadvertently carrying a fork in your purse (trust me, it happens).

things that have been confiscated from bags, including an inordinate number of forks

Paris is a sprawling city with streets that curve and change directions, forming a  chaotic maze that causes even Parisians to find themselves going west when they thought they were heading north and hopelessly lost. Before smart phones, everyone depending on their little Plan de Paris, a thick little book that contained a million page map of of the city but now, with a good data plan and your phone, you can find your way around the city, plan your metro trips and find that little bistro that your sister told you about in Les Halles. If your provider doesn't offer a flat rate plan (Telus lets you use your phone just like you are at home when overseas for a flat rate of $10/day for every day you use your phone), think about keeping an unlocked old smart phone just for travelling so that you can buy a local sim card and use that phone instead.

Things that are free and/or don't require lines and expensive tours in Paris:

Make your lodgings feel like home

flowers are sold everywhere and give you a big bang for your buck
If you are staying in an apartment, buy flowers, which are everywhere and they are one of the few things that were not more expensive than they are at home. We immediately buy flowers, a scented candle and a bottle of wine so that we can make our airbnb feel like home. Visit the local cheese shop, grab charcuterie and a stop for a fresh baguette from a boulangerie so that you can snacks on hand - you will need something to go with that bottle of wine. I also bought eggs, yogurt, juice and a chunk of delicious, salty French butter so that the kid could have his breakfast without having to pay 12 € for a really lovely pastry and one perfectly cooked egg with toast soldiers. You can shop at a local market, a grocery store or specialized shops because these people eat like professionals so good food is everywhere (except, it seems, in the actual restaurants where too much of the food is just okay but the food available in the markets and shops is ridiculously wonderful)

nothing makes your airbnb feel like home like fresh flowers

Getting Around

Re: the Paris Pass and my thoughts on this:
In some cities, these city passes are amazing and will save you a ton of money. The problem with a city like Paris is that despite gaining free entrance, it will do nothing about the insanely long lines for everything. This is why we chose to skip the Paris Pass and spend the same amount of money on Skip the Line tours for just  one or two activities that we really wanted to experience.

Also, if you are taking kids, national museums and monuments are free for all those who are under the age of 18 (or between 18 and 25 for EU residents) so keep that in mind as well when making your budgetary decisions.

Get a metro pass or, at least, buy strips of ten tickets. We used the metro at least once a day and it's easy to navigate and we found it safe. We were warned, often, by kindly Parisians, to keep an eye on our bags and iphones that were casually sticking out of our pockets, so be mindful. I will say that just after we were there, another friend went with a large school group and they had a terrible time, her son was almost mugged on the subway, a couple of the girls reported that they were harassed and she HATED everything about Paris. I say, keep yourself on the down low, don't bring attention to yourself by looking and sounding like a tourist, don't whip out your expensive electronics, keep your valuables in your front pockets or somewhere in the front of your body (it's what you need to do in any huge city when on public transit) and you should be fine. I added this little bit of information after I wrote this entire post because I felt like it would be wrong not to, especially because I have certainly had some terrible experiences back when I was a young girl living there back in the day but on this trip, we took the subway at all hours of the day, every day and had no trouble ourselves. As always, be mindful.

10 tickets are 14.50€ and passes are priced according to length of time and zones travelled but most people are fine with the basic 1-3 zone range  Paris Metro Info

If you don't already use Uber, it works really well in Paris. For North Americans, you need to set up your account so that payment comes from your PayPal account but once you get that sorted out, it works like a charm, it's cheaper than local taxis and, most importantly, if you don't speak much French, it is easier than hailing a cab because you write your destination when you request your ride so the driver already knows exactly where you are going and there is no need to try to pronounce 

Rue Vauvenargues at 2am after a bottle or three of wine.


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the view from the Church, overlooking the entire city

Sacré-Cœur is a beautiful church that sits on the highest point of Paris overlooking the entire city. It was of extra interest to us because the construction of this Church served as a sort of National penance, asking forgiveness for the sins of the Communards and their Socialist uprising as well as for the loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. 

What they might not tell you is that it is rumoured to have been built on the site of a mass grave containing the bodies of hundreds of Communards, slain by the French government during the final week of the uprising during the battle at the Butte of Montmartre.

Go down to the catacombs if they are opened because they were closed when we went. You can also climb the 300 steps up to the dome for an incredible view for a small fee but you cannot access the bell tower. You can download this free audio tour because they don't allow guided tours in the interior of the church.

Use your metro pass or a metro ticket to ride the funicular to get up to the top. 

We sat on the steps and listened to a couple of charming young musicians, rode the carousel at the bottom for a couple of euros and had a very lovely afternoon. This church is never quite as crowded as, say, Notre Dame and it's every bit as beautiful in it's own way.

a ride on this lovely carousel will only set you back 2€

Visit Cemeteries

People are buried in Pere Lachaise all the time, with a ten year waiting list to get in

It might sound weird that I am recommending putting aside at least an entire afternoon to explore a cemetery but these places are beautiful and really do serve as city green spaces. The  Cimitière du Père Lachaise (Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Chopin) and the smaller, less popular but just as interesting Cimitière du Montparnasse (Baudelaire, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre)  and Montmartre Cemetary (Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, Nijinksy among others).

there are crypts from this year sitting next to others from the 1800's here in Pere Lachaise

I could visit Pere Lachaise every day for a week and not get tired of it. It's free, it's beautiful and you can spend as much time as you like in these lovely, inner city green spaces but please remember that it is IS a cometary and that many graves are recent so there are actual family and friends visiting graves of loved ones so be respectful while wandering around.

Explore the City, Neighbourhood by Neighbourhood

Explore neighbourhoods like Montmartre, Le Marais, St Germain - the Montmartre , Marais and St Germain Archives on Messy Nessy Chic are a great place to start reading up. You can pass an entire day in each area, stopping for coffee on a patio (or a glass of rose if that is how you roll), grabbing a delicious sandwich at a Boulangerie and enjoying an impromptu picnic on a bench or a patch of grass. Canal St-Martin is a great place to discover, especially if you loved the movie Amelie. It's got all of the romantic charm of the cinematic Paris that we all carry around with us.

the Louvre, at night, is magical

Walk down to the Eiffel Tower at night and just soak it in. Every hour it lights up with flickering lights for about ten minutes and it’s gorgeous. Although it's fun to go up to the second level to see the city from up there, I prefer being far enough away to see the whole thing all lit up at night. In fact, we ended up down there almost every evening just to gaze at it and take more photos because, let's be honest, you cannot take too many pictures of the flickering tower at night. You might want to consider a 12 € trip up the Arch de Triumph instead since the views are beautiful and it's less popular, therefore the line ups are not as crazy.

Don't be afraid of the free public toilets - they clean themselves from top to bottom after every visit so they are very clean and they are free! It will save you from a lot of 3€ coffees just so you can use the loo.

Hop on and off Seine boat tour at least once so you can go from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin de Plants on the  Batobus all day, stopping at nine different places along the way. You can book a 1, 2 or 3 day pass and it is much nicer than the hop on and off busses. A one day pass will set you back 17€ for adults and 8 for kids aged 3-15 or for another 2 euro, you can get a two day pass.

seeing the city by boat gives you a whole new perspective on the city

Grab Lunch on the Run

this tuna sandwich was perfection
Read about my six favourite meals in Paris here

Eating in Paris is never cheap, so let's just be honest about that. I found we were paying, in Euros, what we would pay for stuff at home in Toronto. The bad news is that the Euro cost almost $1.50 CND so that meant that everything was 50% more expensive than at home and we live in an expensive city so feeding three of us (imagine these two demanding to eat at least three times a day???) really started to add up after a few days. My first tip is something we learned too late, but not too late for you.

 Get lunch from a bakery and eat on a bench. Trust me, some of the best things we ate in Paris were the sandwiches and slices of savoury tarts from the boulangeries that can be found on every corner of the city. Even the worst bakery will make a good sandwich and we found that we could feed the three of us for the price of one prix fix lunch in a restaurant and when you are eating all meals out in a city like Paris for a week, you start paying attention to such things.

For the price of one dippy egg with toast soldiers at a cafe, we all ate at home

We bought such delicious prepared foods, slices of stuffed roasts, pates and rillettes from local butcher shops and market stalls that I think that you would be wise to go this route and eat at least a few of your meals in your apartment (please rent an apartment instead of staying in a tiny hotel room and experience the city more like a local).

Grab a slice or two of something like this instead of eating out every night
a fresh, warm baguette will bring tears to your eyes. If you want to look like a Parisian, you bite off hunks as you walk down the street and eat it as you go.

lose yourself for hours in the stalls selling old clothing at the March St Ouen

more taxidermy, my new obsession

We were lucky to rent this apartment through airbnb which was a short walk from this market and it was an awesome way to spend a leisurely Saturday. Spend hours getting lost in the maze of stalls selling everything from vintage clothing to insanely expensive antiques. The market started in the late 1800's, in what was then the outskirts of the city but has now taken over 7 hectares in the north end of the 18th arrondissement with over 3000 vendors there selling to about 180,000 visitors every single weekend. There are lots of places to stop for coffee, food or the obligatory glass of rosé. Actually, it's a grouping of 15 distinct markets within the banner of St Ouen, each with their own specialities. If you are really looking for something specific, do some research and find the right vendors to visit, check their hours and get ready to do some heavy haggling. 

We all bought lots of interesting little trinkets, old postcards and newspaper illustrations from the 1800s. Oh and always ask if you can take photos because many of the vendors do not allow it and they get very testy if you try. Not that I am speaking from personal experience or anything.

Oh, and if you go and you see the guys under a bridge selling sausages, skewers and vegetables out of a giant, steel wok on a hot plate, perched precariously on a stack of wooden crates, please grab a sandwich from them and let me know how it is. I am still haunted by the smell but it was my first full day there, I was tired and had just eaten something so I passed, thinking I would get one the next weekend but when I returned, they were not there.

 Marché d’Aligre

 This is a gorgeous farmers market in the 12th arrondissement where you can wile away the hours drooling over the beautiful food and grab tasty things to eat as well. There are lots of open air markets but this one is gorgeous. Go read this great post about it on David Lebovitz's blog  

With that info under your belt, I leave you with a few more photos of lovely Paris

Paris is a dog lover's paradise

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