Top 10 Things to do in Paris

Each time I visit a city, I try to come up with a list of the “top things to do” by reading reviews on Trip Advisor and Rick Steves to plan an unforgettable trip.  The list will contract or expand based upon the amount of time I have.  I always like to mix city/historical tours with off the beaten path activities.  Below is a list my top 10 things to do when visiting the lovely city of Paris.

10.          Take in a Moulin Rouge cabaret show.

The Moulin Rouge cabaret was built in 1889 by Joseph Oller and is close to Montmartre (a must see during a walking tour) in the Paris district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement (it is marked by the red windmill on its roof).   “The Moulin Rouge is best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance revue evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe.” (Wikipedia).  Today the Moulin Rouge is a tourist destination, offering musical dance entertainment for visitors from around the world.  Be sure to book your tickets in advance as the shows tend to sell out.  I also recommend you watch the 1941 “Moulin Rouge” film starring Josephine Baker as Princess Tam-Tam before you go.

9.            Shop til you drop.  Paris is the place for fashion.  I find myself people-watching just to figure out how I should update my wardrobe.  You can either book a shopping tour (including a Discount Couture tour) or strike out on your own and visit boutiques, street markets or local department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Bon Marche).   I picked up an invaluable etiquette tip from my Rick Steve’s “Paris” guidebook:

  • Before you enter a Parisian store, remember the following points:
  • In small stores, always greet the clerk by saying “Bonjour” plus their title (Madame, Mademoiselle, or Monsieur) and say “Au revoir, Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur” when leaving.
  • The customer is not always right. In fact, figure the clerk is doing you a favor by waiting on you.
  • Except for in department stores, it’s not normal for the customer to handle clothing. Ask first.
  • Forget returns (and don’t count on exchanges).
  • Saturday afternoons are busiest.
  • Observe French shoppers. Then imitate.
  • Don’t feel obliged to buy. The expression for “window-shopping” in French is faire du lèche-vitrines (literally, “window-licking”).

8.            Get a scoop (or more) from a Berthillion ice cream shop. 

Berthillion Ice Cream shop (photo courtesy of David Monniaux)

Berthillon is a French manufacturer and retailer of luxury ice cream and sorbet.  I first became addicted to their ice cream during the summer of 2010.  Berthillon’s fame results, in part, from its use of natural ingredients, with no chemical preservatives or artificial sweeteners.  Its ice creams are made from only milk, sugar, cream and eggs…just like homemade ice cream.   Their flavors are derived from only natural sources (cocoa, vanilla bean, fruit, etc.). Fifteen flavors are produced everyday by the chefs depending of the season, the availability at the market and customer demand. In total, about sixty different flavors are produced throughout the year.  Try to get there early to have a greater selection of flavors.  Personally, I love the raspberry and chocolate flavors!  Berthillion’s has 3 locations on Ile St. Louis (31 rue St. Louis-en-l’Ile, another across the street, and one more around the corner on rue Bellay).  It’s a perfect stop after visiting the Notre-Dame!

7.            Relax at a café.

There are tons of cafes in Paris and you would be remiss if you didn’t stop in one for a café au lait, croissant or crepe.  I usually like to pop in during the afternoon for a light treat since most restaurants in Paris do not open for dinner until at least 7pm.  Cafes are a perfect place to take a break after a busy day of sightseeing.

6.            Explore the Catacombs. 

The catacombs are an underground ossuary in Paris. Located south of the former city gate (the “Barrière d’Enfer” at today’s Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuary holds the remains of about 6 million people and fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of Paris’ stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867.  The Catacombs entry is in the western pavilion of Paris’s former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters to the darkness and silence broken only by the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct channelling local sources away from the area, and after passing through a long (about 1.5 km) and twisting hallway of mortared stone, visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector. Soon after, they would find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la Mort (‘Stop, this is the empire of Death’).

Beyond begin the halls and caverns of walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement. Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised “La Samaritaine” because of later-added engravings. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs – many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours. (Wikipedia).  I first heard about the catacombs when I did the Paris Ghost Tour in September 2011.  I found out there is an entire culture down there!  The “cataphiles” (people who are basically obsessed with the catacombs and very familiar with the layout) have parties, film festivals, concerts, etc.  However, note that you should never try to visit the catacombs without a proper escort/guide…because you will get lost & never find your way out.

5.            Cruise the Seine River.

The Seine is a 482 mile-long river and an important commercial waterway within the Paris Basin in the north of France. It rises at Saint-Seine near Dijon in northeastern France in the Langres plateau, flowing through Paris and into the English Channel at Le Havre (and Honfleur on the left bank).  I suggest taking one of the excursion boats (i.e. Bateaux Mouches) that offer sightseeing tours of the Rive Droite and Rive Gauche within the city of Paris.  I suggest the Champagne Tasting Seine Tour or Night Bike Tour.  It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the city.

 

4.            Take a French cooking class.

There are only so many cathedrals & museums I can visit before I’m ready to do something different.  I love to cook and try out new techniques and recipes.  To that end, I registered for a baking class with Cook’n with Class.  We learned (through hands-on instruction) the proper techniques for making croissants, pain au chocolat, focaccia, pain au raisen, etc.  It was awesome and the chefs are absolutely delightful!  They offer several different classes:  Baking, Classic French Desserts (crème brulee, molten chocolate cake, souflee a Grand Marnier), Macaron (3 different flavors), Morning Market (where you will go to a local market and learn how to select fresh produce & ingredients) and many others.

3.            Visit the Louvre.

I highly suggest you take a couple of hours and tour the Louvre.  It’s massive so you will need to strategize and prioritize what you want to see (i.e. Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, Egyptian collection, etc.).  If museums aren’t your thing, you still should walk or bike past it to see the magnificent exterior.  It’s absolutely breathtaking at night!

2.            Visit the Eiffel Tower.

Love, love, LOVE the Eiffel Tower.  Built in 1889, it has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world; millions of people ascend it every year. Named after its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.  Three hundred workers joined together 18,038 pieces of puddled iron (a very pure form of structural iron), using two and a half million rivets, in a structural design by Maurice Koechlin.  The tower was much criticized by the public when it was built, with many calling it an eyesore. Newspapers of the day were filled with angry letters from the arts community of Paris (Wikipedia).  Which I find interesting as it is now considered one of the most beautiful structures built.  I love to sit and stare at it.  Especially when it lights up at night.  That 5 minute “sparkle” is spectacular!  I highly suggest you buy your tickets online to decrease your wait in line.  The Eiffel Tower’s online reservation system, which lets you skip the ticket line, is up and running (www.toureiffel.fr). At the tower, attendants scan your ticket (which you’ve printed at home or at the hotel) and put you on the first available elevator. Even with a reservation, however, you still have to wait in line with the masses to get from the second level to the summit.

1.                   Walking Tours. Take a bike ride thru the city.

The top thing to do in Paris?  Take a walking or bike tour (or both)!  It’s a great way to see the city and learn the history.

  • For walking tours, I suggest Sight Seekers Delight (tours of the city, Montmartre, & Jewish Tour of Marais for a cost of 35-40 euros), Discover Walks (which offer free 90 minute tours of Notre Dame, the Left Bank, Marais, and Montmartre by native Parisian guides) and the Paris Ghost Tour (a neat tour thru the Jewish Quarter focusing on the myths & legends of Parisian ghosts & hauntings…suspend belief and roll with it), and Paris Chocolate & Pastry Food Tour (which is a walking tour of Paris’ finest chocolate & pastry shops…tastings are included).
  • For bike tours, I suggest Fat Tire Bike Tours.  I’ve taken 3 of their tours in Paris.  They have offices in London, Barcelona and Berlin as well.  All of their tours are phenomenal.  It’s an American company and employs expats to conduct the bike tours in English.  They are a fun way to see a lot of the city in a 4 hour span of time.  They also do a bike tour of Versailles (which is awesome and lasts 8.5 hours).

E True Versailles Story: Royals Gone Wild

I decided to tour Versailles.  Since I had such a great time on the Night Bike Tour in Paris, I booked the Versailles tour through Fat Tire Bike Tours as well.  The tour lasts approximately 8.5 hours so it’s a full day of riding & sightseeing.

While in Paris, we ride our bikes from the bike shop to the train station (which is about 10 minutes away), then put the bikes on the train for a 20 minute ride to Versailles.  Once we arrive, we pedal over to the farmer’s market to buy food for our picnic that afternoon.

The market is fantastic!  You can really go broke (because a tray of raspberries and other fruit cost me 17 euros) but the freshness of the food is unbelievable.  I ended up buying some fruit, tomatoes, green beans, rotisserie chicken and water.  I passed on buying a bottle of wine as I remembered the drunk pedaling from before.  So, after we load up the bikes with our purchases, we bike over to the grounds of the Palace of Versailles (or as it is called in French, Château de Versailles).

Apparently, they try to keep the château & grounds true to history so the horses and sheep are there for decoration which has to be a pretty plush job for them.  Our fabulous tour guides are Sadie and Matt.

Okay…I hope I remember all the history correctly.  If there are inaccuracies, then let me know.  Versailles used to be the hunting grounds of King Louis XIII and was made the capital of France by King Louis XIV (“KL14”) from 1682 until the French Revolution which started in 1789.  Three kings lived in Versailles (KL14 who built the Palace of Versailles, KL15 who enjoyed it, and KL16 who paid for it…with his head).

The Palace is lavish…in fact, it’s downright gaudy.  You know how some folks just don’t know that less is more?  Well, that was the Louis’.  In the end, all that flash came back to bite them in the butt.

This place has a lot of gold…like Mr. T had been their architect and interior designer.  They just covered everything with flowers and paintings.  It was like they had to have it all.  Even if it didn’t quite blend in with the décor.  They’d just see something, buy it, put it in a room and name it a certain “salon”.

Apparently, the Dauphin & Dauphine (king and queen) had their own set of suites on opposite sides of the palace.  And, considering all the mistresses that KL14 & 15 had, it’s no surprise.

The dining room was called the “Hall of Mirrors” and is 250 feet long, with 17 arched windows and 17 matching arched mirrors that look at the garden.  The literature states that it “reflects an age when beautiful people loved to look at themselves.”  I saw the portraits of a lot of folks back then and um…let’s just say that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe it’s just me but I think I’ve only seen 1 portrait of someone who I thought was attractive.  Otherwise, they just all looked plain.  And, a couple of the women look like men dressed in drag.  I mean, it was a painting so they could’ve done some photoshopping and prettied them up with a few strokes of the paintbrush.  One woman was painted with a light mustache.  If that was me, the painter would’ve have been shown the door.  Make me thinner & prettier…not fatter and more masculine.

Sorry, I digressed.  Guess I got caught up in all the beauty.  Back to the dining room.  It was huge.  But KL14 (or as he named himself, the “Sun King”) felt like he needed more space to entertain.  So, he made all the people move out of the village of Trianon so he could build a SECOND DINING ROOM!  Apparently, pretty people need a lot of space to eat.  KL14 went all out.  Nothing was too good…he even had the marble brought in from Italy.  KL14 was spending the money from France’s treasury on furnishing his home like he was at the strip club making it rain.  One figure I heard was that he spent HALF of what was in the treasury.  So, he kicked the folks out the area and named the dining hall after the village in honor of them.  I’m sure they appreciated that sentiment as they were living under a bridge.

If anything, KL14 needed to be building a shower and bathtub because it is rumored that he only bathed two or three times in his life.  I was reading The Raucous Royals (because I love gossip & scandal even if it’s hundreds of years old), and it stated that “In King Louis XIV’s day, people thought a good, thick, grimy layer of filth would keep you healthy and strong.  They believed water spread diseases by penetrating the pores of the skin and then infecting the bloodstream.  Most people didn’t bathe more than once a year. The wealthy did change their linen throughout the day because they believed that the linen wicked away sweat and dirt, but they still stunk.”  And that made no logical sense.  Come on, France.  To combat the smells, the men and ladies in KL14’s court would douse themselves with perfumes and powders.  So, imagine being back in that day and having to smell Jean-Claude’s funk mixed with Cody Wild Musk for Men.  Ewwww.

To be fair, the book stated that KL14 was so clean that he was almost fussy about it. “He often bathed in a big Turkish bath.  When not in his bath, he rubbed spirits or alcohol on his skin (perfume gave him headaches), which acted as a disinfectant. And, as if that were not enough, he changed his undies three times a day!”  The book also said that KL14 towered over his subjects at an amazing 6’10”. Unfortunately, he was only 5’4” when naked.  “To compensate for his short stature, he wore a twelve-inch-high wig and six-inch red heels. But this was one look that no one could copy. King Louis XIV decreed that only the king could wear red heels.”  Only the king wears Prada, y’all.

Now, this book also said that Queen Elizabeth 1 would bleach her teeth with dog urine so keep that in mind when judging the veracity of their information.  Regardless of bathing or not, whatever he did it must have paid off because KL14 lived to the ripe old age of seventy-seven and was king for seventy-two years, longer than any other French monarch in history.

So, KL14 builds up a lavish palace and dies then KL15 assumes the throne (after a regency period since he was only 5 when his great-granddaddy went to the gilded gates).  KL15 was known as the playboy extraordinaire.  He claims to have had 5000 mistresses.  Okay, Wilt Chamberlain.  One mistress, Marie Anne de Maillynesle, put together a business plan for her future when her looks started to fade.  She figured out that KL15 liked his women more than ruling so when she felt like she was getting too old, instead of having him kick her to the curb…she became a pimp and procured women for him.  However, she wanted more power…and since he didn’t really want to govern anything outside the bedroom, he let A Pimp Named Marie Anne run the country.  She would just start wars (like the Seven Years War) so she could resolve them and have even more power.  The most famous of his mistresses are Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry.  Of course, with all the sleeping around he was doing, you know they all had cooties.  How are you going to be scared of water but not STDs?  Come on, France.

We then pedal over to the Hamlet of The Domaine de Marie Antoinette (aka The Hamlet).  In order to understand the significance of The Hamlet, I’ll give you a bit of background about the events leading up to the French Revolution.  As I stated above, KL14 & 15 were living the high life by spending money on buildings, wars, clothes and women.

Then, KL16 comes along.  He was set to marry Marie-Antoinette after the Seven Years War as a way to solidify peace between France & Austria.  The story goes that KL16 was a nerdy kid who, at 15 (the age he married Marie-Antoinette), preferred to collect bugs & locks than look at women.  Then, there was the supposedly beautiful Marie-Antoinette (“MA”).  Sigh.  I saw the painting.  We’ll give her a pass.  So, “beautiful” MA marries KL16 at the age of 14.  Her primary goal was to get knocked up with some heirs.  But, KL16 wanted to go out and collect fireflies and pick locks.  And, MA, having read the precursor to the book, “He’s Just Not That Into You” was upset.  Which many women can sympathize with.  It’s one thing to be rejected by a fine man.  Quite another to be rejected by the French Urkel.  MA tries to seduce KL16 to no avail.  People start looking at her all suspiciously because she hasn’t gotten knocked up yet.  So, she did what most women do when they are depressed.  No, not eat chocolate and binge drink (or maybe that’s just me).  She went shopping.  And spent MASSIVE amounts of money on all the latest fashions.  Where did that money come from?  The treasury into which folks paid their taxes.

Finally, 7 years later, MA gets pregnant.  Maybe she put on some kinky ladybug lingerie and rubbed her legs together like a spider to entice KL16.  Who knows?  She ended up having 4 kids.  After having her kids, she decided that she wanted to know what it was like to live like a peasant…so she had The Hamlet built.

This “peasant village” was basically a big dollhouse & playground.  She had sheep that she would have dyed a different color each day depending on her mood.  She then would pretend to milk a cow into a porcelain bowl.  Her peasant dresses were tailored.  You can only imagine from the pictures how much this little playground cost the taxpayers.  And, apparently, when the villagers saw her making a mockery of their lives…well, let’s just say that karma is a ______.

MA had her own place with a moat around it and required KL16 to send a written request before coming to visit.  Legend is that she had a Swedish lover that she would meet at the Temple of Love she had built for their rendezvous (which was not at all discreet…Temple of Love, Marie?  Seriously?).  With 80 acres of land, they could slip off and not be seen by anybody.

After the French monarchy were on MTV’s “Cribs”, the bourgeoisie class (which were the middle class and merchants) were like, “WTF?”  They were tired of seeing their hard-earned money go to waste.  People were starving because taxes had risen dramatically to pay for such a lavish lifestyle in Versailles.  So, they ended up signing the “Tennis Court Treaty” where they wrote a constitution and basically decided to revolt.  Which, I don’t know why KL16 didn’t see this coming.  The French had just helped out the US for the American Revolutionary War…put down the bugs, buddy.  You know the Americans were like, “Listen, Pierre, you gots to get out now.  You think I’m gonna let George tell me what to do?  I’m not calling him “king”.  Plus, I think he’s got a mental illness and I don’t have time for the drama.  Britain can kick rocks!!! U-S-A-U-S-A-U-S-A.  What?  Is he your master now?  Can he beat you up?  You need to take notes and tell Louis that France don’t have time for bug collectin’ and prancing around in stockings and high heels while folks can’t buy bread!  Revolt, man!”  While KL16 was collecting butterflies, the French were collecting guns.

So, the French Revolution starts in 1789 when KL16 finally gets a clue that something is going on and sends his army into Paris to put the smack down.  The citizens think the soldiers are about to attack and get all Matrix on them and storm the battalion to set free the political prisoners…of which there were only 5; and get the gun powder which was stored there.  Then, the fishmonger women (you know, the women who work at the docks) started marching on Versailles and surrounded the Palace.  Finally, KL16 & MA surrendered under the condition that they would live under house arrest at the Louvre.

They lived at the Louvre for a few years but when they saw the guillotine had been built and folks were getting beheaded…well, they came up with an escape plan.  I think it’s now pretty obvious that KL16 is no mastermind.  MA passed out her tailored haute couture peasant clothes and they snuck out of the Louvre in the dead of night and probably would’ve made it to freedom had KL16 not refused to take a nondescript peasant carriage.  He said he’d only ride in the royal carriage.  Sigh.  That kinda defeats the purpose of discretion.  Once they convince him to take a Kia carriage, they end up being stopped by a patrolman outside the city.  KL16’s face is on all currency so it didn’t take long for the patrolman to figure out KL16 (aka “The French MacGyver”) was trying to escape.  Somehow, he just wasn’t getting the concept of subterfuge.  So, of course they get caught.  Then, they both end up getting beheaded.  KL16 first…and MA almost a year later after she had been humiliated.  Folks hated MA by this point and would just take any opportunity to ridicule her.

In the end, the whole family (except for 1 daughter) ended up dying.  It’s pretty sad.

But, the grounds are beautiful!  After riding around and looking at the gardens, we had a picnic on the grounds behind the palace.

Finally, I walked through this hall where a guy in period costume was playing chess against at least 12 people…and he beat everybody sitting there.  Most people stare at the board for a while before making a move.  This guy didn’t spend more than 30 seconds thinking of each move…would take whatever piece that was yours and move on to the next player.

Overall, Versailles is gorgeous.  The Palace itself is okay (if you are into that type of thing).  I thought the grounds, gardens and the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette were the most interesting.

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