Photo by iStock. Design by Erik Mace for Yahoo Travel.
One of the most difficult conundrums in traveldom is planning a trip to Paris. The city’s gifts are too numerous, too diverse, and altogether too delicious to have to choose how to spend those precious waking hours in arguably the world’s most gorgeous city. What makes the cut and what must you leave off until next time? It’s impossible even for Parisians. I lived there for four years and left with the frustrating realization that there were museums, restaurants, hidden passages and entire neighborhoods that I’d not yet discovered. Simply stated, it could take several lifetimes to really know Paris. But conversely, if you have only one single day to spend in the city, it is possible to be quick and efficient — and to leave thoroughly satisfied with your Parisian jaunt.
In fact, more people than I can count write to me with the question: “I’m passing through Paris for 24 hours. What should I see?”
As it happens, I recently also had the briefest stay there, a quick stopover on my way home from a longer spin through the Pyrénées and the Atlantic coast. Knowing that I would be done in from exhaustion at the end of the day (crevée is the perfect French adjective for this level of fatigue), I had to plan well and that meant, first, a look at the Time Out Paris website to see what exhibit(s) was a must-see and if I needed to buy tickets beforehand. (A few years ago, there was an exhibition of the photographer Helmut Newton at the Grand Palais, and the ticket line extended for what seemed like miles.)
If I have one day in Paris, I like to cover several key categories. It’s easier than it seems (remember, it’s Paris and you will regret not maximizing every second there). So using these as a template, I set forth accordingly.
A few details to keep in mind: get a good map — one that includes the Métro — from your hotel, or else bring one with you. The Plan de Paris par Arrondissement is indispensable. Getting lost in Paris can be part of the adventure, but that’s for a longer sojourn. Also, right after you’ve had your café crème and croissant or baguette (forget vacationing gluten-free in France) go to the nearest Métro and get a Carte Mobilis, a one-day pass that costs 7 euros. The Paris Métro is one of the most efficient in the world, and one of the easiest to negotiate. It’s glorious to walk for miles without stopping in Paris, but sometimes, you need to get off your feet.
With those logistics in mind, and with an awareness beforehand that your visit is out of necessity highly curated, here is my checklist and my own recent itinerary for the perfect abbreviated stay in Paris.
1. Stop and Smell the Flowers
Jardin des Plantes (Photo: GabPRR/Flickr)
In all my years I Paris, I had never been to the Jardin des Plantes, the sprawling, four-century old botanical gardens on the left bank, with its four massive Belle Époque greenhouses. I was early, so I grabbed a second strong coffee right outside the Austerlitz Métro station. The gardens were swoon-worthy, blooming with asters, globe amaranth, sunflowers, and lilies in the deepest oranges, crimsons, yellows, and pinks. I was so inspired by the sprawling grandness of the place that I even took a walk through the zoo, and saw primates and big cats housed in elaborate nineteenth-century buildings.
2. Visit the Heroes of the Past
The Panthéon (Photo: iStock)
Clear across the left bank and straight into the heart of the Latin Quarter is the Panthéon, one of Paris’s best-known treasures and one of its truly spectacular buildings. It was the first place I visited on my first trip to Paris, and I remember being bowled over by its vastness and beauty, and also surprised by its peaceful location atop one of the city’s hills. Built by Louis XV as a church to honor Paris’s patron saint, it is now the resting place of France’s most accomplished citizens — mostly men, with the exception of the double Nobel-prize winning scientist Marie Curie. I always love to stop in the Panthéon and gaze at the frescoes and be mesmerized by Foucault’s Pendulum but this year, there was a bonus: two more women have finally been added to the Panthéon: Geneviève de Gaulle Anthonioz and Germaine Tillon, both of whom were honored for their work in the Resistance during World War II.
3. See an Art Exhibit
The Jeanne Lanvin retrospective at the Palais Galliera. (Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)
From the left bank, I took the Métro all the way to Trocadéro because I wanted to catch the Jeanne Lanvin exhibit at the Palais Galliera, one of Paris’s loveliest small museums and dedicated to high fashion. I only had time for one show, but this was my top choice, hand’s down. The rich silks, the beading, the flowing lines, the astonishing artistry: this is haute couture at its most alluring.
4. Eat, Part 1
Dine on the terrace at Monsieur Bleu. (Photo: Monsieur Bleu)
To save time in Paris, I always try to have lunch at a museum, most of which have excellent restaurants. My two favorites are the café at Musée Rodin and the elegant restaurant at Musée Jacquemart-André, both of which serve terrific food. I have a new one to add: the terrace at Monsieur Bleu at Palais de Tokyo, one of Paris’s modern art museums, right across the avenue from Palais Galliera. Chic, divine, with the Eiffel Tower close enough to kiss, this is a place so Parisian that even lunching alone is a celebration.
5. Walk on a Bridge Across the Seine
Stroll along the Pont Alexandre III, admiring the statues along the way. (Photo: iStock)
Nothing quite grips me like the sweeping vista of the city from the river. Paris shimmers, even in the rain, and I never quite feel as though I’ve been there unless I stop in the middle of a bridge and take in Paris’s utter, inimitable grandness. This was my chance for the post-lunch power walk, so I headed east to the Pont Alexandre III, and crossed over, past its gilded statues, Art Nouveau lamps, and bronze nymphs.
6. Sit for a Spell in a Park
Grab a patch of grass and relax at the Place des Vosges. (Photo: iStock)
Heading east to the Place de la Concorde, I jumped on the Métro. I love to while away hours at the Tuileries gardens, and normally I would, but time was short and I wanted to get to the Marais and the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Since most of the open-air markets close for along lunch and do not reopen until 4, I rested up at the Place des Vosges, still lush, still an island of calm in the bustling Marais. I always tell people that if they really want to know Paris, it is important on occasion to just stop moving. There is no activity more Parisian than this: quiet moments on a park bench, surrounded by history, beauty and the changing light.
There’s plenty of great shopping on the rue des Francs Bourgeois. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
The rue des Francs Bourgeois is more commercial than it once was, but everything is there: Bensimon for those adorable sneakers, Fragonard for embroidered linens, Le Comptoir des Cotonniers for lightweight T-shirts. At Maje I found a blue leather jacket for my daughter, but mostly, I was on a mission to find sandals (on sale, of course) by Les Tropeziennes, an inexpensive rendering of the more expensive K Jacques and Rondini brands that are made right in St. Tropez. Mission accomplished, I headed over to Merci for bracelets and a few of my favorite waffle-cloth dish towels.
8. Go to an Outdoor Market
Fabulously fresh fruit and more at the Marché des Enfants Rouges. (Photo: Jean Heintz/Hemis/Corbis)
Life in Paris takes place in the markets and it’s important to walk through one and experience that pivotal moment when you forget the sterile supermarket aisles at home and see the freshest cheese, meat, vegetables and bread displayed and sold by proud vendors. The Marché des Enfants Rouges was my neighborhood haunt when I lived in this neighborhood. It has a hidden entrance, but inside it hums, and the summer produce rendered the air fragrant and thick. I bought a giant peach and ate it American style (as I walked) and drops of juice rolled over my bare wrists. I strolled back to the Métro, as I was quite a distance from my hotel. It was 4:45 and I had a 7 p.m. dinner appointment.
9. Rest a Minute and Eat Again
Dine at the legendary Les Deux Magots. (Photo: Les Deux Magots/Facebook)
In Paris, I normally I stay in the Marais since it’s the neighborhood I know best, but the area between Invalides and the Eiffel Tower seemed central and practical for this trip. Back at the hotel, I put my feet up for an hour and made a cup of strong coffee, which wasn’t bad, considering. I hopped the Métro again and made my way to dinner. My destination? Les Deux Magots. A friend of mine had suggested we meet at this storied left bank bistro, and it was a genius idea. We sat right by the window, with a front-row seat on the Boulevard St. Germain, busy, and unchanged for decades and maybe even centuries.
10. See the Eiffel Tower at Night
You won’t want to miss seeing the Eiffel Tower all sparkly and lit up. (Photo: iStock)
For five minutes on the hour at nighttime, the Eiffel Tower erupts in a profusion of silver lights that twinkle and shimmer, illuminating the entire city like a woman in a sequin dress. Exhausted as I was, I made my way the few short blocks from my hotel to get the full view. This light show never gets old, and like Paris itself, it is tasteful but spectacular, refined but glamorous, and it becomes more beautiful with time. I was tired, but sleep could wait, so I stopped at a bar on rue St. Dominique that was bursting with people who, like me, couldn’t face the end of another perfect day in Paris.
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