I recently had the privilege to travel to Paris this June for a medical conference. My wife joined me and we stayed for a couple extra days to make a vacation of it. This was my first time in Europe, so I was excited but also not quite sure what to expect. We had a wonderful time, but also some hiccups along the way. Here are some fresh off the plane thoughts that might just help if crossing the pond is in your near future.
1. Take a direct flight. There’s too many things that can go wrong with connections internationally. Lost baggage, having to reenter security after customs, transfers at different international terminals. It’s the worst, so if you can, don’t do it. That convenience factor of being able to fly out of your small hometown airport is far outweighed by the lack of headaches from no connections.
2. Don’t check all your bags. My wife and I were together, so we were likely going to have to check something. Might as well check it all, I figured, so we’d have less to lug through the terminals. Bad move. While you may have to check some things, make sure that your essentials are with you in the cabin. Basic toiletries and a complete set of clothing for whatever your itinerary is for the next day. If work, then bring a full set of work attire in your carry on. Including shoes and underwear. Oh, and don’t check your camera. I’ve had recurring dreams in the past of being somewhere exotic and forgetting my camera. Well, for two and a half days, I was in exactly that position. As great as my iPhone camera is, it’s not what you want to be capturing your memories with, and it sucks to be without it.
3. Pay for the extra room on the plane. For a number of reasons, we didn’t end up getting the seats that we wanted on the transatlantic flights. As I was crammed up against the window to JFK on our way home, visions of traveling in steerage on the Titanic entered my mind. I craned my neck to get a better view of the economy plus section (or the mind-blowing first class with flat bed seats beyond that) with envy. The extra room would have been welcome on the seven-hour journey.
4. Be prepared to feel off schedule. The time difference to Europe is a lot (six hours from the east coast to Paris). We flew through the night, which was essentially like taking the red eye from the west coast. This was my first time flying east across the Atlantic, and I was definitely tired. Be warned that the sun fantastically doesn’t set until 10PM in June, which is great for late night café dining and street wandering, but that time change will hit you like a mac truck when you have an 8 AM work breakfast the next morning you’re your body still thinks it is 2AM at home in the states.
5. Expect the big city. My wife and I used to live in Manhattan, and we found Paris to be refreshingly familiar. Of course it’s different, but there were countless times that we were sitting in a street-side café or walking down a boulevard and we remarked that it felt like we were in the Big Apple. Even the language barrier was not as different as one might think it would be. Many restaurants have English menus available if you ask for them, and the majority of the service staff at hotels and café’s speak working English. In New York, you’re constantly surrounded by people from other cultures and speaking different languages anyway, so that wasn’t a big stretch. In addition, we found the Metro to be very manageable and rode it often. The signs, connections and routines were all, again, very similar to New York.
6. Get ready to walk. Sure, there are lots of options to get around (Metro, taxi, bus, waterway shuttle boats), but we found that most of the time we just walked to things. There was so much to see around every street corner, getting there was a big part of the fun. (Unlike the airplane). The sights in Paris are unbelievable. I had no idea of the vast number of historic buildings, from the Pantheon, the Louvre, Hotel Invalides (Napolean’s tomb), Notre Dame, Arc de Triomph, and many, many others.
7. Enjoy the food. I will be the first to admit that I am no foodie, but even I enjoyed Paris’ countless corner café’s, bakeries, and pastry shops. When you see a line of locals outside a place, that’s a good sign there’s something extraordinary. When we saw throngs of people walking down the street, munching on a baguette, we followed them to the source and weren’t disappointed with the results. We had breakfast a couple days at a nice street corner café called La Odessa, alternating between a waiter who announced everything he brought to the table with a musical ‘da, ta, da!’ and his gruff colleague, who ran out into the street to yell at cars for honking too long and sighed when I ordered coffee the wrong way.
8. Get the Museum Pass. My wife did a lot of the planning of our day-to-day schedule, and one of her best learnings was buying a multiday museum pass. Sure, it costs a bit, but if you care about museums, it is well worth it as we bypassed the lines at the Louvre, Saint Chappelle, Musee D’Orsay and others. She saw even more while I was working several days and anything you can do to avoid extra lines and frustrations is worth it. Save all that negative energy for the airlines.
9. Stay at a small boutique hotel. Again, my wife did a great job finding our lodging. Instead of staying right in the main swing of things, like on the Champs Del Elysses, we stayed a 10-15 minute subway ride away in an area called Montparnasse. I compared it to New York’s Upper West side. It’s quaint, not a lot of tourists, and very cute. It felt like we were coming back home each day from our travels. And don’t forget the staff. I’ve never been one to care much about being waited on (my wife loves it), but in a foreign city, it’s very nice to have someone that is desperate to help you out with reservations, directions, call the airline to track your lost luggage and more.
10. It’s not just the Eiffel Tower. I don’t like heights, so we didn’t go up in the tower, but it was lurking in the distance over the top of building and trees just about everywhere we went. We waited until dark, when the tower is brilliantly lit (after 10PM) to get close. We stopped at the Trocadero metro stop, which is a great view for pictures. Another great vantage point is from a bridge on the Sienne River, which runs through the center of the city. We experienced great elevated views of the city anyway from two other spots. Tower Montparnasse is one of the few modern tall buildings (and terribly ugly), but there’s a great observation roof that gives you views of the whole city (including the Eiffel Tower which you can’t see if you’re on the tower itself!) The other lookout was at the historic Sacre Coeur cathedral which sits on the top of a high hill on the northern part of the city. We took the subway there and were surprised at a very different feel than in the main historic district (kind of like New Yorks outer boroughs), particularly on a night when the World Cup soccer match was on TV, but the view was quite good.
11. Act like a Parisian. Get some lunch, a bottle of wine, and sit in the grass or by the river for a while. There’s no open container law, it’s beautiful, and you might just find yourself feeling like you don’t want to ever leave. We spent time at the gardens outside the Louvre and at Luxembourg Gardens near our hotel. It felt a lot like Central Park, except for the ancient fortress behind us. It was fun to watch the little kids running on the grass speaking French, the locals having group picnics on blankets and let the world go by. Speaking of quaint spots, try the small Ile St. Louis as well. Great food, shops and an amazing ice cream place called Berthillon shouldn’t be missed as you walk through the narrow cobblestone streets. If you’re like me and don’t know any French, make an attempt at some of the basics that you probably don’t know you already know. Bon Jour, Au Revoir, Merci Beaucoup, Bon Voyage, Sil Vous Plait gets the job done most of the time.
12. Go with someone you love. Sure, you’ll still probably argue about where to cross the street, how to find each other in a crowded park, which line to go to at the airport ticket line, or where the next exhibit is in the mammoth museum (or maybe that’s just us), but Paris is the city of love and it’s a good place to remember how to be romantic. You’ll have the whole plane ride home to remember how things usually are.