I have dreamed about visiting Paris ever since I was in my high school French class 25 years ago. I took four years in high school and another year in college. While I don’t remember everything I learned, I do remember being absolutely fascinated by my teacher (who was from Spain) and the culture of the country itself. I became an instant Francophile. I wasn’t able to go on the France trip with some of my classmates, but swore I would go as an adult. A husband, a career, and two kids later, I made it! My husband doesn’t love traveling and has never really had any desire to visit France, but when conversation about where we’d go to celebrate my 40th birthday started coming up a few years ago, he said “We obviously have to go to France!”
Planning any trip is my jam, but our first trip to Europe involved another level of excitement and research. I knew that I wanted to spend several days in Paris, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the rest of our time in other parts of the country or in neighboring countries. After TONS of research, I decided to go all in on France. That way, the next time we cross the pond, I can return to favorite places or choose to cross other European countries off my bucket list. We decided to spend 4 days in Paris, 3 days in the Luberon part of Provence, and 2 days in the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera). Here are my posts about Provence and the Côte d’Azur! I researched and knew what I wanted to see, do, and eat but there were SO many options as far as where to stay. Also, the idea of booking transportation stressed me out when considering the huge time difference, the language barrier, and having little knowledge on international flights/rental car laws/and high speed train types. Josh suggested we use a travel agent and for the reasons listed above, it was ABSOLUTELY the right decision for us. Corey Nussbaum, a Smartflyer Advisor, quickly went from travel advisor to friend. She is an absolute dream!! She and Karine from We Travel France handled all transportation reservations (flights, private airport transportation, TGV, and rental car), restaurant reservations, and advance skip the line tickets to everything we wanted to see. They made my life so much easier!!
I planned our days to be mostly walkable by looking at what things we wanted to do and pairing sites in arrondissements that are near one another. Arrondissement is a French word that refers to a district and administrative unit of Paris. The city is divided into 20 of these, beginning with the 1st arrondissement at the city center and spiraling out clockwise to the 20th and final district in the northeast. The Seine River cuts the city in half and divides it into the left and right banks. If you look up an address, you will be able to tell what arrondissement it’s in by looking at the postal code. It will begin with 750 and end with the arrondissement number. When you’re out and about, blue, white and green street signs that are on buildings (not on posts on corners) will also tell you the street and arrondissement you’re in.
*A note about traveling internationally during Covid times: Everything takes more time at the airport, so plan accordingly. At check-in, we had to complete a sworn undertaking for anyone from Green List countries to comply with rules for entry in France, then show our CDC vaccination cards. On the way back, we had to show our negative test results taken within 72 hours and complete an Attestation confirming a negative result. We had to have timed entry tickets for sight-seeing and restaurant reservations were highly encouraged. We did not have to show our CDC vaccination card/negative results to get into any sites until the last day of our trip, so I believe the new Health Pass is going into affect many places as I type this.
Curious what I packed for France? Read about it here.
The flight there was just under 10 hours in the air, but France is 7 hours ahead of us in Kansas. We chose to leave after lunchtime because that would put us there the following morning. We were able to catch a few hours of sleep on the plane so that the next day wasn’t completely ruined by jetlag!
We got in hours earlier than check-in, but Relais Christine was able to store our luggage for us so we used the lobby bathroom and headed out immediately! It was the most beautiful boutique hotel we’ve ever stayed in, centrally located in the cute Saint Germain neighborhood (see map above) steps away from the Seine and Latin Quarter. The building is a former 16th century mansion that was renovated in 2017.
Our first stop was at the Musee d’Orsay, which is in a former train station built in 1900. This was just the first of 4 museums-thankfully Josh is a trooper! The Orsay contains the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world. I loved getting to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and my favorite of his self-portraits. We spent about 2 hours here.
We then walked to the Arc de Triomphe. Many don’t realize that you can go up inside the Arc. It is cheap, the line was short, and most feel the view is better than from the top of the Eiffel Tower because you get to actually see the Eiffel in your view. But you have to climb up and down 284 steps first. Little did I know that this was just the first of dozens of times I would curse stairs on this trip.
We had lunch at Le Comptoir Principal. Then we went to our hour-long Bateaux Parisien Seine Cruise before walking back to our hotel to officially check in and freshen up (we were still in our plane clothes!)
Our room at the hotel exceeded my expectations! It had plenty of space that included a desk, two closets, a toilet room with a sink, and a large shower and sink in a separate bathroom.
Since this was our 15th anniversary, we had one of the nicest dinners of the trip at Les Ombres. It’s on top of the Quai Branly Museum and has a rooftop terrace with amazing views of the Eiffel Tower. It was incredible to watch it light up and sparkle for the first time shortly after 11!
We had complimentary breakfast at our hotel (because our stay was longer than 3 nights) and then walked through the Tuileries Garden to get to the Musee de l’Orangerie. The Orangerie is filled with works by numerous impressionist and post-impressionist artists, but our favorite part were the Waterlilies rooms designed by Claude Monet himself. I think these eight large murals are what the museum is most known for. They were stunning, and the special Magritte/Renoir exhibit was great. We spent 1 hour and 45 minutes inside and both agreed it would be hard to top this museum!
Next, we crossed the Seine to the 4th arrondissement to wander the two remaining natural river islands in the city, Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. Île de la Cité is the exact center of Paris and is the oldest settlement in the city. It is the largest of the two so we headed there first. We were able to see the gorgeous stained glass windows in Saint Chapelle before walking to see what remains of Notre Dame Cathedral from the outside. The fire caused so much damage but in April, the French President declared that restorations will be finished prior to the city hosting the Olympics on July 26, 2024. We also saw the cutest restaurant exterior ever at Au Vieux d’Arcole.
Île Saint-Louis was next, mainly so that we could grab ice cream at the famous Berthillon (where there was shockingly NO LINE)! Josh isn’t a big fan of desserts, but he is still talking about their sorbet. We left the island as we finished our cones to walk the colorful Rue Cremieux. Lunch was at Breizh Cafe, a creperie. I had a sweet crepe (duh) and Josh had a savory.
We made our way to the 3rd arrondissement so we could visit the second museum of the day, the Picasso Museum. The building is a beautiful former hotel from the 17th century. It’s the perfect backdrop (and contrast) for all of Picasso’s abstract works! While I loved the beauty of the museum itself, it was my least favorite that we went to in terms of art.
The Eiffel Tower re-opened the day we visited. We had skip the line tickets but still needed to get in a short line for security. To get to the top, you take two separate elevators. The view from the top floor is incredible but is a bit obstructed by fencing. (I had to take my pictures with my phone placed within openings in the fence to not have grids from the fence in my pictures). The view from the second floor is honestly just as beautiful and is unobstructed.
Dinner was at Les Antiquaires in the 7th and it was delicious! Then, back at Relais Christine, we had half our bottle of champagne from Corey in the library of the hotel and half out in the courtyard. We talked about our day while I did my best impression of someone slightly tipsy trying to sit on a bench that turned out to be a moving swing.
First thing in the morning, we went to the Louvre hoping to beat the crowds. We got there when it opened, showed our timed tickets and went straight to the short security line at the pyramid entrance. The museum is enormous and I’m sure we barely scratched the surface, but I was able to see the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and all of the other pieces on my list in 3 hours.
I love interiors and seeing the opulence of the Napoleon lll Apartments was incredible. All of the paintings, crystal chandeliers, gold, and velvet really made this space feel like the lap of luxury.
We were running short on time so we barely scratched the surface of the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement. We stopped at multiple bouquinistes. They are stalls that sell used and antique books along the Seine. We popped into the beloved Shakespeare & Company bookstore, then enjoyed cream puffs from Odette.
I was glad I had a jacket because not only was evening approaching, but we were headed underground! The Catacombs are in the 14th, somewhat far from our hotel and everything else on our itinerary, so we took an Uber. I used an audio guide to learn about their history. They are underground ossuaries that hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network. By the 17th century, the cemeteries in Paris were overflowing and exuding a strong smell from decomposition. In 1780, heavy spring rains caused the wall around the largest cemetery to collapse and rotting corpses spilled into the nearby neighborhood. Can you imagine? The solution agreed upon was to empty the cemeteries and relocate the bones of the deceased to the tunnels that were already already under the city from the 13th century. Each section was marked with the information about the cemetery where the bones came from. It was such a surreal, sad, overwhelming experience.
We had an Uber pick us up and take us straight to Ô Chateau. Ô Chateau has been named the best wine bar in Paris. We knew we wanted to visit after a recommendation from a good friend. We did the 2 hour Tour de France tasting, which came with an English speaking sommelier, 1 champagne, 5 French wines, and bread. We added a cheese platter. It was such a cool experience! I learned a lot, including that I actually like quality champagnes!
We did some window shopping along the Champs Elysee and *may* have purchased my first LV goodie in the flagship store! I also grabbed Rowan a Paris Saint Germain FC hoodie at the Nike store.
We ended the night by walking by the Louvre to see it lit up at night and then we sat along the Seine with dozens of other couples.
We grabbed an Uber from the hotel to Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen, sometimes referred to as Les Puces de Saint-Ouen. It’s the largest flea market in the world. I had no idea what to expect! It was very pricey, which I knew going in, but I walked away feeling so inspired!
We Ubered to lunch at Hardware Societe in Montmartre. Then, we had the rest of the afternoon to explore the area. Some of my favorite things we saw: La Maison, Place du Terte, and Sacre Coeur.
We had dinner at Cocorico. We were supposed to eat at Pink Mamma, but we didn’t realize this was the day the Tour de France was coming through. A lot of roads were closed so traffic was gridlocked and it was impossible to get anywhere in a vehicle (and we hadn’t braved the Metro). We needed to go somewhere within walking distance and it ended up being yummy!
My biggest tips for visiting Paris: carefully select the neighborhood you stay in, have tickets for everything you want to do in advance, visit the Louvre first thing in the morning, do some research about where you’d like to eat, and be open to Ubers/taxis even when you could walk if you’re trying to maximize your time and see as much as possible. We were able to do and see a lot, but I think I could go back numerous times and not repeat any of the same activities but still fill up our days! I was sad to leave the “City of Light,” but it exceeded my expectations and I was excited for Provence. We’ll always have our first trip to Paris!
And for what it’s worth, I’m not sure where the stereotype that the French are rude or hate Americans came from, but our experience couldn’t have been further from this. We of course smiled and greeted everyone we came into contact with before attempting our minimal French in conversations. In turn, we experienced nothing but kind and patient waitresses, drivers, docents, concierges, and shop owners. Moral of the story: don’t let a language barrier stop you from seeing the world. Kindness and making an effort to use another language will always WIN!
- Eiffel Tower
- Please see Paris at night! The Eiffel Tower, Louvre, & sitting along the Seine are musts!
If France interests you, I was a podcast guest on Join Us In France and hope you’ll give it a listen on your next commute or laundry day! You can follow the link below, or use a podcast app on your device: just search for the “Join Us In France” podcast. https://joinusinfrance.com/episode/anniversary-in-paris-and-provence/
Curious what I packed for France? Read about it here.
Find our Provence Road Trip details here!
And read all about the French Riviera here!