PHOTOS: Tony+Mary Ann DeSantis
Forget the same-old beach condo this summer and head to Paris, France, for an unforgettable experience. With lower airfares and a decent rate of exchange for the Euro, there’s never been a better time to visit but be sure you do your homework before you go.
I have two kinds of girlfriends: the first group absolutely loves Paris; the second group has never visited the City of Light but it’s high on their bucket lists. Some friends have visited as a group, while another brave soul went completely by herself—and had the experience of a lifetime. And, if you are a guy, maybe you should think about a rendezvous with your special girl in the world’s most romantic city.
Tons of guide books and an infinite number of blogs exist about things to see and do in Paris. Finding the right one for your trip is a quest within itself. Many will point you to the crowded tourist sites with little advice about getting off the beaten path. Taking a guided cookie-cutter tour leaves you even less time for discovering the true Paris—a magical city that has drawn writers, students, and adventurers for centuries. The best advice I received when I was planning my most recent trip was to take it slow and savor the Parisian lifestyle.
Years ago, on my first trip when I was an energetic 20-something, I flitted from site to site, not really understanding what I was seeing or enjoying the culture. It was a race to see as much as I could. Now that I’m older (and more laid back), I know that is not the way to truly experience a country.
Rather than racing through the city at breakneck speed (which you can’t do anyway because of the traffic), I decided to prioritize the places I wanted to see and cover what I could. Most importantly, I built in time to sit and enjoy the Parisian café scene where people-watching is an art form. I also sat in the Champs de Mars, the area between the Eiffel Tower and the École Militaire, and the only thing missing was my wine and cheese because I realized too late the park is great place for a sunset picnic.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Preparation is the key to any great trip, and I’ve found it’s particularly easy with Paris because so many resources are available.
Before you buy a travel guidebook, thumb through several to find the most applicable for your trip. Most guidebooks are available for tablets. However, the most helpful books are not always guidebooks. Before my trip, I read “The Sweet Life in Paris,” by American David Lebovitz, and “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” by historian David McCullough. Both books are enjoyable even if you aren’t planning a trip anytime soon, and they can put things in context when you do visit Paris.
Learning a few words of the language is always helpful. Enroll in a non-credit “French for Travelers” class or buy a language CD or app. Just knowing the pleasantries, such as “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” goes a long way with the local shopkeepers when exploring on your own.
If you have a smart phone, be sure to download walking tour apps—just be certain updates are current. I downloaded one for the Musée d’Orsay that I thought would help me avoid the cost of renting the museum’s audio guide. However, I was quite confused when my iPhone app was describing paintings on other floors, not the ones where I was standing. The Musée d’Orsay had recently undergone a major renovation, but my app was not current.
Walking-tour apps are priceless because you don’t have to fumble with paper maps. And you can even get them based on your interests. I recently downloaded a Paris literary tour guide from GPSmyCity.com. This particular app offers not only a mapped route but also an estimated time duration, the total distance (3.7 miles), and a brief synopsis of each stop. Walking tours are available for all kinds of interests, including best food markets, best galleries, and, of course, shopping.
Girlfriend getaways must include shopping! Be forewarned Paris can be expensive, especially with so many high-end designer shops. After all, it is the fashion capital of the world.
The Champs-Élysées and Rue St-Honoré are the ultimate destinations for shopaholics with stores like Cartier and Gucci. Window shopping may be all you can afford, but that’s okay because a walk along these boulevards is a memory you’ll cherish. For more purchasing power, head to Rue Oberkampf in the Marais district, which is popular with youthful fashionistas. And don’t miss the most famous department store in Paris, the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, which opened in 1893. Discover its history with a free, 45-minute guided tour.
PRACTICING SAFE HABITS
As with travel in any city, be aware of surroundings. If you are jet-lagged when you arrive, don’t try to do too much. Save the major sightseeing for when you are more alert and spend the first evening enjoying a walk and a quiet dinner. On our first day, my husband and I opted for one of the hop-on, hop-off buses so that we’d get an overview of the city. A river cruise on the Seine is also a great way to relax.
Unfortunately, pickpockets and gypsies frequent the major tourist areas. You know the drill: keep your wallets hidden and purses securely next to your body. Be aware that there are scams everywhere, and many guidebooks address the current ones making the rounds.
Paris is still safe even if media reports lead you to believe otherwise. Paris is divided into 20 municipal districts called “arrondissements.” I stayed on the fringes of the 11th arrondissement within sight of the Eiffel Tower. Although it was a hike to other parts of the city, I never felt threatened. My friend who traveled alone, stayed in the first arrondissement and felt perfectly safe, albeit in a “noisy neighborhood,” she said. Another friend, who was a part-time Paris resident, lived in the fifth arrondissement (the Monge/Mouffertard area) and recommended it along with the fourth (near Notre Dame). A group of girlfriends recently rented an apartment in the seventh arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower. Short-term rental apartments are available throughout the city, and when you split the fee among a group, the cost is much less than individual hotel rooms. Friends who travel to France every summer recommended the rental site, www.apartofparis.com. I can’t think of a better way to embrace the Parisian lifestyle.