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It started when I bought overpriced tickets for a train that left too early in the morning.
When I was living in Brussels, Belgium, my sister came to visit for the holidays. A few days before Christmas, we decided to take a weekend trip to Paris.
I had studied abroad in Paris years ago and I was desperate to go back. My plan was to show my adoring little sister how fancy and Parisian I was by giving her a single flawless weekend of macaroons, sparkling Eiffel towers, and fine wines on trendy patios.
It turns out, I wildly overestimated my ability to play tour guide in a city I hadn’t visited in years. You might say that I learned exactly how not to take a weekend trip to Paris.
Here’s what you need to know to avoid my mistakes.
Shop Around For Train Tickets
Swept up in the excitement of going to Paris, I went online and bought the first train tickets I found. They were painfully expensive.
But it’s Paris, I reasoned. It’s Christmas in Paris. Can you put a price on something so magical?
It turns out you can, and the price you should put on it is significantly less than the price I paid.
Just days after booking my pricey tickets, I found another website offering roundtrip tickets from Brussels to Paris for 20 Euros.
I paid almost four times more, a reality that gives me nightmares to this day.
Go To Bed Early Before You Travel To Paris
The night before our trip, we decided to do a cute little pub crawl. No harm in that right?
We could still go to bed at a reasonable hour and catch our very early train, no sweat.
Well, “pub crawl” turned into “nightclub” which turned into “3:00 am kebabs.”
But somehow, we dragged ourselves out of bed in time to make the train and we arrived at Gare du Nord in one piece. Because learning to pack lightly was still on my “to-do list,” we were both lugging enormous backpacks filled with bulky winter clothes.
It would have made sense to take the metro to our hotel, but I insisted that we walk. “It’s so close, let’s save a few euros,” I announced confidently.
My poor, tired sister believed me. We walked for an hour through the cold, cobbled streets, heaving and lugging our bags while growing ravenous.
Don’t Be Late For The Free Walking Tour
We dropped our bags at our hotel, which had adorable, tiny windows looking over the steep Parisian rooftops. My sister fell into the bed — she was still jet-lagged by the way – but I wouldn’t have any of that. There was a free walking tour at Notre Dame in less than an hour and I was determined to join.
So I rolled her out of the bed, dressed her in fifteen coats and scarves, threw her over my shoulder, and carried her out into the chilly streets of Paris.
We sprinted to Notre Dame, bypassing every enticing crepe shop because we were late. Sweating and panting, we found the tour meeting spot in a crowded square just in time to learn that it had been canceled because not enough people showed up.
“Come back tomorrow morning,” the guide said with a sad smile. “Just make sure to be on time.”
Disappointed, we snapped a few pictures of Notre Dame then set our sights on food.
Don’t Get Crepes At The Tourist Traps
In a hungry fog, we stopped for crepes at a little touristy stall near Notre Dame.
There were thousands of places to eat nearby. We could have picked a quaint little cafe with indoor seating at least felt our toes while we ate our crepes. But instead, we got our crepes takeaway and sat on a park bench out in the cold.
The crepes from this particular stand were not very inspiring. We ate a few bites, but I could tell that my sister was hungry, tired, cold, and blister-footed after I ran her through three arrondissements to sit on a park bench.
That’s when I had an idea. I knew exactly how to fix this. I could restore my sister’s faith in me as a tour guide with one simple dish.
When I studied abroad in Paris during college, there was a restaurant down the street from my dorm that had the most amazing, fantastic, awe-inspiring… greek salad.
I know, it’s not at all French. It’s borderline offensive to order anything other than French food in Paris, but that’s now good this salad was. My friends and I made a pilgrimage to the restaurant every few days for a carafe of wine and a Grande Salade Grecque.
The problem was, I couldn’t remember exactly where the restaurant was. I knew there was a striped awning, dark wood furniture, and maybe a corner booth with a TV above it. If I could only find my old dorm, then my Grande Salade Grecque instincts would take over and lead me there, I reasoned.
So I forced my sister back to her feet, re-wrapped her scarf around her wind-bitten face, and we trudged onward. It took about an hour to walk there because, of course, I kept getting lost.
But at least we got to see even more of Paris – one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
By the time I found my old dorm building, it was late afternoon and we were both snippy from only having the weird crepe in our stomachs.
I knew I had to find the restaurant fast.
Together we checked every menu outside every restaurant on the street.
I peered in the windows like a creep, hoping for any pang of familiarity. Then, up ahead I saw a striped awning.
Don’t expect your favorite restaurants from six years ago to have the same menu.
We broke into a run and I shouted, “That’s it! That’s it! I can’t believe we found it!”
The awning. The dark wood furniture, The corner booth with the TV overhead. Everything was the same.
I grabbed the menu posted outside the door and tore through the pages.
Soupe du jour, plat principal, ah, salade.
And there was no Grande Salade Grecque. It was gone. The menu had changed. There was no Grande Salade Grecque.
As if we’re in a movie, it started to rain. We stood there, dumbfounded, the world draining of all color.
Running from awning to awning to avoid the rain, we duck into a cafe a few doors down. It is warm inside, warm and welcoming.
The waiter brought over a warm basket of fresh French bread and a little dish of olive oil sprinkled in pepper. Which we devoured in ten seconds flat.
“Keep the bread coming!” We shouted barbarically to no one in particular, our mouths stuffed full of bread while crumbs spewed across the table and onto the plates of nearby diners.
As we thawed and feasted, the world became vibrant again. The bread was even better than my greek salad, and we were in Paris after all.
Do Make Sure To Visit Montmartre
The next day, my sister finally persuaded me to allow us to take the metro. I had forgotten how divine the Paris metro is. It takes you everywhere, it’s reliable, and it’s quick. We should have been using it from the very very beginning.
We rode the metro out to Montmartre, an artist neighborhood home to Moulin Rouge and the Sacre Coeur Basilica. It is a bit of a hike from central Paris, but well worth it for the sweeping city views you get from the Basilica steps.
If your travel companion does not have a lifelong fear of birds, you can even snack on a fancy French baguette on the steps of Sacre Coeur, basking in that view.
Don’t skimp on time at the Louvre
The Louvre, as we all know, is a monster of a museum. We set aside a few hours to explore the thing, but it wasn’t enough.
We took the required selfies with Mona Lisa. We explored the underground archaeological exhibition about the early history of the Louvre. For hours we walked laps through gallery after gallery.
Next time, I’ll devote a whole day or a lifetime to the place.
Don’t Underestimate The Grocery Store
It was late when we left the Louvre, so we ducked into a grocery store on our way back to the hotel to grab some snacks. French grocery stores have every kind of cheese, bread, wine, and snack you can imagine, and it wasn’t long before our arms were full.
We planned to sample fancy cheeses and sip red while gazing out over the town from our little window.
But there was one major issue.
Do pack your own wine opener
Paris, like your fancy great-aunt, doesn’t do screw-top wine bottles. And we had no corkscrew.
I think it should be a rule that all Parisian hotels have a decent wine bottle opener on the premises. The one they gave us is a flimsy plastic thing that could hardly open a juice box, let alone a bottle.
This resulted in my sister lying on the floor using her entire body weight to pull the bottle down while I stood over her pulling the bottle opener up, both of us screaming and sweating and grunting like lumberjacks.
For half an hour we failed. I had a few near misses where I almost gave myself a black eye. We resorted to slowly hacking the cork to bits with the pointy end of the wine opener.
We extracted cork pieces until we had a tiny hole to pour wine through.
Then, finally, we sat in our window and gazed out over the twinkling streets of Paris. Feeling fancy and mature, we talked about meaningful things like The Bachelor while sipping our classy wine from plastic hotel cups we found in the bathroom.
13. Don’t restrain yourself in a French bakery.
The next morning we woke up well-rested but with sore muscles from the wine bottle workout. We were ready to make the most of our last day in Paris, and our first stop was the Pompidou Museum.
On our way to the Pompidou, we stop outside a bakery. It smelled delicious even from down the block, with its gleaming glass display case filled with delicious baked goods. We happily grabbed a few pastries and ordered cups of steaming coffee. Even though a bitter wind blew, we sat outside and inhaled about 3000 calories of butter and heaven.
Once they were gone, we tried not to stare at the glowing case. We both could have easily gone for round two of the most incredible pastries we’d ever tasted, but we are already covered in bread crumbs so we decided to do the civilized thing and wait until after visiting the Pompidou.
When we emerged from the Pompidou later that afternoon, the bakery had a line a mile long and their pristine display case was nearly empty. Lesson learned, when you are the first one at a French bakery in the morning, indulge with reckless abandon.
Do Make it a point to see the Pompidou
When visiting Paris, you’ve got to see the Pompidou. This museum is level after level after level of beautifully bizarre, inventive, and colorful contemporary art.
Open your mind to it. You won’t find classics like you would at the Louvre. But you will find gems like entire galleries filled with solid blue canvasses. If you’re a modern art fan, the Pompidou museum is definitely one of the best things to do in Paris!
Don’t miss the Eiffel Tower
For our final stop in Paris, we decided to see my favorite, off-the-beaten-path spot in Paris. You may have heard of it. It’s called the Eiffel Tower.
The line to go up into the Eiffel Tower practically stretched back to Brussels, so we snapped a few pictures in front of it for my mom to use in her Christmas card.
Then we staged a few pictures of my sister pretending to climb the security fence and got chased by a very attractive security guard. We considered going back and do it again.
Maybe this time he would talk to us.
With our time in Paris coming to an end, we found a little cafe with two free seats outside. From our spot, we could see the top spire of the Eiffel Tower. Around us, groups of friends were chatting and laughing. I ordered a Greek Salad. A few chunky snowflakes started to fall. It was perfect.
Don’t Ever Leave Paris
It’s safe to say, I botched my tour guide role pretty badly. We didn’t do all the things you’re supposed to do in Paris. We didn’t see every art museum or take long leisurely walks along the Seine. We didn’t go to a wine tasting or fall in love with Parisian men. We didn’t even go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
But on the train ride back to Brussels, all we could talk about was how much fun we had.
That’s the thing about Paris. Paris forgives you when you don’t follow the guidebooks. It rewards you when you get lost and feeds you when you get hangry.
And just when you think your life is over because your favorite Grande Salade Grecque no longer exists, it sits you down in a cozy cafe with a basket of bread and your favorite person in the whole world.
Because even when you do Paris exactly wrong, you’re still in Paris.
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