Paris accurately conjures up images of couples in love, strolling hand in hand along the Seine, sipping café au lait at a bistro on the Champs-Élysées and devouring gastronomical delights by candlelight after a full day of filling your soul with art, history and the unique bohemian air that permeates the city. White sheets and tangled limbs chase the morning’s frost away only to step out onto chilly balconies, warming liquid in hand to see clusters of Parisians unhurriedly enjoying gossip and smoke breaks in time with the slow tempo of the age-old buildings that surround them.
The only people that rush in Paris, are the sightseers off to one more art gallery, museum or an item on their bucket-list. I imagine that those Parisians who are not yet immune to the throngs of tourists scurrying about the most visited city in the world, must be amused by us. I can’t imagine wanting to see Paris to it’s fullest and not feeling the urgency to add more to the itinerary as you go along. There is so much and all of it is magnificent.
Valentine’s Day naturally makes me think of love and as a recent self-professed travel addict and bucket-lister, my thoughts roam to Paris. Paris, with it’s dramatic and macabre history of rolling heads, power-hungry and petulant rulers, pestilence and drama is hardly the type of city that would logically be considered to be the City of Love and epitome of romance. Yet, it’s the very fact that despite all it has been through, Paris and its people live, laugh and love through it all – as strong and persistently as the beautiful buildings that form its landscape.
My Valentine’s blog is dedicated to the city of Paris, my love, my husband, that took me there and the beautiful children of mine that shared it with us.
Here is my directory of where to stay, eat and the top sites I recommend that you visit. I like to know exactly what I’m getting, how and when so my inner control freak rebukes at the thought of travel agencies. Instead I spend inordinate amounts of time painstakingly researching and cross-referencing reviews on where to go, stay, eat, shop and how to travel.
Note – I do not get paid to refer or advertise any establishment that I’m recommending. My recommendations are my personal opinions based on my travels and are colored by my experiences as a South African expat living temporarily in the Middle East. I’m a mom of tween and teen girls who are as different as chalk and cheese. I travel with them and hubby. I do not prescribe to budget holidays nor the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I like hotels / restaurants / sights with top reviews that offer good value for money. I do not eat McDonald’s on holiday and I won’t stay in fancy hotels where I need to shush the kids every 2 minutes. I do not limit my children simply because they’re children. My kids go to art galleries, museums as well as amusement parks and candy stores. If you’re like me, I may save you some time in planning your trip to Paris…
Where to Stay:
Hotel Ekta (http://www.hotelekta.com/en/) met ALL my requirements and thoroughly deserves their top rated 25th spot on Tripadvisor and 9.2 rating on Booking.com. Despite being a 3 star hotel, it has a 5 star rating and location. I found it the equivalent of quite a few 5 star hotels that we’ve stayed at and at a fraction of their prices. The design of the hotel is contemporary, modern. It is a step away from Avenue des Champs-Élysées, has it’s own breakfast-serving restaurant, a terrace garden and offers suites with terraces. We stayed in the Terrace Suite which had a shared bathroom with amenities, a kitchenette, a separate adults room which led to a furnished terrace and a lounge with ample space for our many suitcases, a safe and a sleeper couch that turned into a bunk bed. Even though the children were with us, waking up in Paris with a view of grand old buildings and the overcast Spring sky is unarguably romantic.
Rooms range from 115 Euro to 305 Euro per night.If you decide to stay here, you don’t have to have their breakfast as there are many nearby restaurants – including a Starbucks. I highly recommend that you ask the hotel to book a table for you at the famous patisserie, Laduree, for breakfast one morning.
Hint: If a website doesn’t yield the results you’re looking for, call the hotel and negotiate. Have a look at booking websites as well as hotel websites because one of these sites may have a discounted rate.
What to see
A few days ago, my husband pointed out a few places we hadn’t yet been to in Paris despite having visited twice this past two years. I replied that it would take weeks to see all that Paris had to offer and that would be seasonal, so a return is inevitable. I won’t thus be listing every place we’ve visited but am rather going to focus on the ‘hot spots’. If you’re a museum and art lover, I strongly suggest that you buy the Museum Pass. You can purchase it in advance on the official websites (http://booking.parisinfo.com/il4-offer_i147-paris-passlib-paris-pass.aspx – the official tourist website for Paris – or the museum pass website – http://en.parismuseumpass.com/) or during your stay in Paris at a tourist office or through the hotel’s concierge if they offer that. It also allows you access to other attractions and discounts. As well as being cheaper, it allows for fast-tracking at certain attractions. We used it to gain magnificent views of the artists’ quarter, Montmartre and the Champs-Élysées from the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe.
The Eiffel Tower (http://www.toureiffel.paris/) is one of those bucket list attractions that you absolutely have to visit. The first time I was at the Eiffel Tower, my younger daughter refused to go up as she was petrified of heights and so we picnicked on the grass at its based and explored the little market across from it, along the Seine. My eldest daughter had been to the top on a school tour and although she described the view as astoundingly beautiful, the many notices coming from the intercom system about being weary of pick pockets put a damper on the experience. Coming from South Africa, where crime is rife, I was not in the mood for that. I found a great compromise that made my visit to the Eiffel Tower more memorable than an elevator ride and a few pics of a view. I booked a table at 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant. It has its own entrance so again, I skipped queues, and its own elevator. We booked an early evening sitting and paid extra to ensure a Trocadero view. It was worth every cent. We sat by a window directly in front of the Trocadero and could see the bridge across the Seine, the boats cruising up and down as well as the market across the road. When the sky darkened, we were treated to a spectacular view of Paris lit with a multitude of golden lights. The dinner itself was gourmet and beautifully presented. Even my younger daughter’s meal was made with special care and ended off with an Eiffel Tower shaped dessert. The only let down was the service. I think our waiter was allergic to children. We did not let him spoil the experience for us though. Very little can in such an atmosphere where every few minutes a bottle cork is popped and restaurant patrons are cheering for another happily engaged couple. It was incredibly romantic.
The chill in the air and late hour after dinner ensured a nearly empty viewing platform and we managed to walk around and take photos to our heart’s content completely undisturbed.
This dinner is admittedly expensive at 87 to 120 euro per adult and 26 euro per child. Lunch is cheaper at approximately 42 euro per adult and 19 Euro per child. I wanted to see Paris by night. It was worth every euro.
Hint: Print or save your confirmation as it appears on the screen after you pay as I did not get mine in email straight away and had to contact the restaurant to forward it to me. The ‘early bird gets the early worm’, so email or Facebook message the restaurant requesting a good table with a view if you’ve booked one as soon as you’ve received your confirmation. There were other tables in the same category that did not have a seat right by the window.
No visit to Paris is complete without a visit to The Louvre (http://www.louvre.fr/). I’ve heard about how massive it is, how much time it takes to take it all in and not knowing where to look for certain pieces. I’d also, on a previous visit, spotted the long queues to get in. With tightened security in light of terrorist attacks, the queues can be even longer. My research offered a solution in the form of a private guided tour of the Louvre. There are many and they vary in price. Again, I wanted a top rated guide at a good price. I found that Paris Muse (http://parismuse.com/) deserved their excellent reviews.
The tour guide met us at the Arc du Carrousel at 10 am. By then the lines of people waiting to enter the Louvre were inordinately long. We sailed past them, behind our guide and entered the building seamlessly. That was the first reason I was glad I booked the tour. The second came when she whipped out a treasure hunt map and a list of questions and began engaging the children. She wove stories that my husband and I were drawn into as well and when the children went off with her to hunt for clues, it gave us time to have a leisurely look at what we wanted to. The third reason for using a private tour guide such as this is that there are bits of information that is not stated on plaques next to exhibitions. This guide offered a treasure trove of interesting facts that we would not have noticed on our own. Lastly, we managed to get prime spots to take pics with highly photographed exhibitions such as the Sphinx and Mona Lisa as our tour guide knew how to move around and through the crowds.
Why did I book a private tour guide and not one of the many group tours available? As a family paying per person, even with child rates, it is often cheaper to book a private guide. Additionally, a private tour guide matches the tour to your pace, stopping longer at exhibitions that you’re interested in and whisking past those that don’t engage you.
Paris Muse’s prices are middle of the range at 320 Euro for the 2 hour family Louvre tour including a prize for the children, entrance fees and the tour guide’s services. (http://parismuse.com/tours/paris-muse-clues-louvre-family-tour/)
However, if you’re on a tight budget then it is perfectly fine to visit the Louvre on your own. All museums are free for children under 18 and all EU citizens under 26. Proof of age may be required in the form of official identification such as a passport copy or ID card.
I know many who love the building and fondly think of the fabled hunchback. Compared to the older, more beautiful churches in places such as Istanbul, the UK and other parts of Europe, however, it is disappointing. It is beautiful but it is not as beautiful as it is made out to be. However, if the likelihood of you visiting other churches in Europe is slim, then do go have a look. In this case, it will blow you away.
Hint: Book a tour to see the towers. Paris Muse offers family, private and group tours to Notre Dame. The queue had a waiting time of over an hour and we opted to forgo it. Also, in the square in front of the cathedral there are steps leading down to an archaeological museum. It is tiny but worth the quick 15 to 20 minute visit if you want insight into how Paris has changed over the centuries. They have a few interactive digital games that engage the children as you move through it.
The movie! The song! The legend! The many pictures of the iconic windmill! It is a must in Paris. However, I would suggest that you arrange for a babysitter through your hotel. The show is for 6 years and upwards and they even serve kiddies’ meals. The meal will be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings, with excellent singing, choreography and fantastic acts – from stunts to trapeze. The catch… the ladies go topless in the first song and don’t put their tops back on. We did try to look past the nudity because we were in Europe and the Europeans tend to be blasé about this sort of thing. However, my husband did feel a tad uncomfortable with his daughters at the table and my teen did go a lovely shade of red at times.
I honestly recommend it though. The most unbelievable act was when the floor parted and up rose a gigantic aquariam filled with anacondos. A beautiful snake handler swam amongst them without flinching. What made it even more amazing was that our table literally touched the tank. http://www.moulinrouge.fr/?lang=en
Hint: We didn’t buy the most expensive tickets. We bought mid-range tickets a few months in advance and I emailed the establishment to ask for a good table. They obliged.
Seine River – Cruise or Walk?
If you really must cruise along the river or you have a free ticket in one of your passes, then do hop aboard. Personally, I found it to be like a bus tour on water. A lot of inaudible talking over the speaker system and sitting around staring at scenery without actually getting a proper look at the sights.
Otherwise, walking is a much better way to see the Seine. Paris is made for walking and there are ample benches and good walkways all along the river, offering close up views of beautiful buildings, fascinating houseboats and the Parisians’ daily lives. On the street level, there are many bridges to cross, including the famous Bridge of Lovers with its locks as testament to lasting love, as well as book stalls, museums and eateries.
It is a much more educational way to see the Seine for the children and an infinitely more romantic route for lovers.
Hint: the Seine is easily reached from tourist hot spots such as the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. We had no difficulty obtaining directions. Wear comfortable walking shoes as the cobble stones don’t take kindly to heels.
Arc de Triomphe
Arc De Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) is found along the Champs-Élysées. This spectacular piece of architecture commemorates the French soldiers who fought during the Napoleonic wars. An eternal flame burns at the base of the arch. The detail and architecture of this monument alone is worth the visit. Inside the building, spiral wrought iron stairs, straight out of a gothic novel, wind up towards a historic level where bathrooms, tourist shops and the history of the arch may be found. Thereafter, comes the highlight of the attraction – the unbelievably spectacular views of Paris including the famous Bohemian suburb of Montmartre where Moulin Rouge is situated and the Eiffel Tower. The view of the Champs-Élysées itself is grand. http://www.arcdetriompheparis.com/
Magic everywhere! A much smaller Disneyland than the one in the US, it does have a number of rides and being in France, there is an odd mix of American Disney with a hint of France. It makes for a fascinating experience. I love Disney so I don’t mind the queues, waiting for parades and the themed food. I thrive on it as do my children. Hubby, not so much. I won’t go into detail about Disneyland Paris here as I think it deserves a blog post of its own. I will recommend the following though:
- While a day trip from Paris is easily accomplished via train directly from Paris, I recommend that you stay at a Disneyland Paris during peak times as it gets packed. It is not unheard of to wait in queues for 2 hours. My daughter did a day trip from Paris with her school and managed to do 3 rides for the entire day while my younger daughter and I who were staying at a Disney hotel managed to do double that during the extra magic hours exclusive to hotel guests before it opened to the public – and on the same day!
- There are a number of excellent nearby hotels – from 5 star to unrated. However, if you do the math and calculate the cost of the park entry plus the accommodation, it makes more economical sense to stay in a cheaper Disneyland Paris hotel if on a budget. I’ve stayed in two hotels there – the first was with my daughter at the Wild West themed, Hotel Cheyenne. It was a 2 star hotel but breakfast was adequate, it was clean and one fast past per day and extra magic hours were included. The second time we stayed at the top, 5 star Disneyland Hotel at a 50% discounted rate when they had a special on accommodation. While I don’t think this hotel is as posh as it is made out to be and the breakfast is not that much better, the hotel is situated at the very gates of the park and there are extra fast passes included in the stay. Many recommend the mid-range, 3 star Sequoia. I may try that out next time.
- Buy the meal plans – they work out much cheaper. I recommend the half-board plus plan. Also book your tables way in advance. Excellent restaurants are Bistro Chez Remy, Walt’s, Auderge de Cendrillon and Blue Lagoon.
- Don’t book the tours. I did a Paris bus tour. It was horrible. If you want to claim to have seen a city from the seat of a bus, then this is a good option for you.
- If you need a break from Disneyland, consult the ladies at the tourist office outside the train station and they’ll advise on villages you can take a train or bus to. We opted to go to nearby Lagne, which had a tiny medieval village (2 small streets), good restaurants, a bakery with the best meringues I’ve ever had and award-winning croissants as well a good beauty salon. There were many locals that did not speak a word of English but that added to the fun.
Where to Eat
This all depends on your budget. You can dine in Michelin star splendor for a steep price, see where your feet find you and stop off at a bistro or pop into the ample global dining franchises that have even infiltrated France. There are very few places to go wrong as far as food is concerned, particularly if you stick to French food.
Macaroons and breakfast from Laduree on the Champs-Élysées – a Parisian institution (the best macaroons I’ve ever had). If you don’t want to eat here, then do pop in to gawk at the impressive array of pastries and sweets. I bought one of the most beautiful dessert cookbooks I’ve ever beheld here. Even if you don’t like macaroons – just buy one, preferably vanilla and try not to moan when it hits your tongue.
Crepes – most places sell crepes although my daughter swears that the artists’ quarter has the best creperies
Roasted chestnuts from a traditional roastery – I found some in the market next to Eiffel Tower when I was there last.
French hot chocolate – thick, liquid heaven and served with ample amounts of cream.
If you’re craving fast food – the entrance to a small mall (and paid fancy toilets with a toilet menu and posh colored loo paper – I kid you not) is under the bridge at the road next to the Louvre’s pyramid structures. The mall is called Carrousel du Louvre.
Hint: The best food I’ve eaten in France is in a village that’s a 30 minute public bus trip away from Disneyland. It was also the cheapest as Paris and Disneyland inevitably charge ‘tourist prices’. So, if you’re a foodie, consider renting a car / taking a bus or train to explore the nearby villages. Regarding Laduree – if you want to avoid the busy period, go for the first breakfast sitting. Afterwards, it becomes considerably busier until late afternoon.
Getting there and getting around:
Getting around town:
While taxis are plentiful and you can easily hail one or arrange one through the hotel you’re staying at, I recommend that you buy a Paris Visite travel card and use that for public transport. Paris metro is one of the most user and tourist friendly metros I’ve used and if you don’t know which line to use, you can always ask your hotel’s staff beforehand.
For more information:
I absolutely do not recommend that you use the tuk-tuk style vehicles. They’re an absolute rip off. We had a nasty incident of triple checking prices and then being ripped off anyway and dropped off in the wrong place. When we informed the hotel, they weren’t surprised and urged us not to use them.
Hint: A European’s view of distance is different to a South African’s as they walk and take public transport whereas we drive. So, when in Europe, when someone tells me a place is a short 30 minute walk away, I take public transport if I’m in a hurry or the kids are tired because it is most likely 45 minutes to an hour away. If they tell me it’s 10 or 20 minutes then I’ve found that it is generally okay to make the kids walk quickly if rushed.
After combing the Tripadvisor forums and online blogs, I discovered that Prestige Transfer (http://prestige-transfer.com/) was the most recommended transfer company. Sure, you can get a taxi from the airport or take the metro. If travelling with kids though, I recommend using this transfer – they’re affordable, reliable and provide excellent service. I do not recommend travelling with the metro. It was not fun at all to lug huge suitcases around with us up and down stairs, cobbled streets, hills and past throngs of people. We did it once and not again. If you’re transferring from Charles De Gualle airport or Paris to Disneyland Paris, then this transfer company is also a good option. If the French countryside bores your children, then the in-car tv playing Disney movies will keep them occupied.
From Europe or the UK, it’s fairly easy to get to Paris via train but as I only know of people that have done this and haven’t done so myself, I won’t elaborate on this here. Flight options depends on where you’re coming from. I recommend that you do a search on https://www.skyscanner.net/ or Google to see which airline flies direct or with as few flights as possible to Paris. This is a sanity saver when travelling with kids. I then book my flights directly through the airline’s website as I’ve found that to be cheaper every time – not to mention more secure. From Kuwait, I fly to Europe with Turkish Airlines and preferably transit in Sabiha Gocken as it is the quieter airport. I’ve found this to be not only a cheaper option but also excellent value for money. Why pay three times for something very similar with a European airline or Emirates Airlines?
Paris Is Always A Good Idea…
I did not always love Paris. In fact, the first time I visited it, I hated it. I fell in love with Paris on my second visit when accompanied by all the loves of my life – my husband and both of my children. There is something about the city, when visiting with those who hold your heart, that taints the entire city in the light red hue of romance and if it is magic, then consider me be-spelled by Paris.
This framed Audrey Hepburn quote my husband photographed in Hotel Ekta says it all…