Over decades of traveling abroad, I’ve fallen captive to the popular quest for authentic experiences, far from foreign hot spots overrun with Americans. So it was with some trepidation that I began planning a week in Paris, the European city second only to London in total visitors last year.
My mission: Shepherd three family members, including two who are over 70 years old, through all the top sights without inducing complete physical and mental exhaustion. When I furnished them with travel guides and suggested they pick what they wanted to see and do, they replied, “Everything.” So the key was to maximize comfort and convenience, embracing my inner tourist and breaking my own rules about economical self-sufficiency.
Consider That Overpriced Hotel in the Tourist Center
There’s a reason why Americans flock to tourist centers and the hotels there cost a lot: They’re close to everything we want to do. I proposed to my group some cute apartments in trendy neighborhoods near a Metro stop, but all bets were off when they saw Hotel La Tamise (https://www.paris-hotel-la-tamise.com/en), a full-service hotel a half-block from the Tuileries Garden.
The Paris Metro is terrific, but you can sap a lot of energy walking to the station, navigating underground passageways to change trains, and descending and climbing several flights of stairs (forget about escalators!) before getting anywhere near your destination. Instead, from our hotel we enjoyed gorgeous 15-minute walks to the Louvre, the l’Orangerie and Musee d’Orsay art galleries and the Palais Garnier opera house. Plus, my group loved popping around the corner to the uber-touristy Rue de Rivoli to find souvenirs, which my travel guru Rick Steves says cost no more than they would anywhere else.
We also loved the hotel breakfast, a definite “don’t” on travel websites. Sure, you can spend a lot less grabbing a croissant on the street, and there are benefits to getting out the door at 8 a.m. to be the first in line when tourist sites open. But my group enjoyed lingering over coffee, fruit, yogurt and pastries and then freshening up before starting our day — a civilized way to gear up for our 15,000 steps.
Go Ahead and Book the Tour
When visiting tourist attractions, I typically carry around pages from a book and read facts aloud to my fellow travelers. But from the get-go it was clear my group likes an oral narrative from a human being who can answer questions, so we didn’t skimp on guides.
Paris Walks (https://www.paris-walks.com) offers affordable tours for small groups. One of their guides expertly maneuvered us through the sea of humanity at the Louvre, which recently had to cap its visitors to a mere 30,000 per day. Our guide illuminated the most famous of its 350,000 works of art as well as some that we would have overlooked. He also showed us the fascinating original castle foundation and moat, where we could get some air and cool off. Two days later, another Paris Walks guide took us on a stroll through Montmartre, detailing its colorful history and the lives of the starving artists who found community there.
Because we weren’t staying in a residential area, we chose a Paris by Mouth (https://parisbymouth.com/food-wine-tours/) tour of the charming Marais district with a local who’s also an accomplished food writer. She treated us to samples of the neighborhood’s award-winning bread, pastries, chocolate and cheese and showed us around the Marche des Enfants Rouges, the city’s oldest food market, full of friends gathering for a drink after work.
For an effortless visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny, we took a group tour in a small van with Blue Fox Travel (https://www.bluefox.travel). Thank goodness! Our guide was not only knowledgeable and hilarious but also able to drive us directly to the site, squeeze into an illegal parking spot and steer us past a mile-long line of visitors to the group tour entrance. We also booked guided tours at Musee d’Orsay and l’Orangerie, featuring Monet’s water lilies, gaining invaluable context for the art, the artists and their times.
Know Your Limits
Visits to Versailles and the Eiffel Tower are particularly challenging for the faint of heart. We knew Versailles would involve miles of walking, so we took a taxi there to save steps to and from the train station. Still, we could have conserved our energy by skipping the massive palace gardens, despite their lovely sculptures and fountains. It took us more than an hour to make our way to the more interesting Trianon palaces (built in part for conducting extramarital affairs) and Marie Antoinette’s “hamlet,” where she could pretend to live as a peasant amid flocks of sheep and quaint thatched-roof buildings. Mercifully, for 5 Euro a “petit train” at the hamlet took us back to the chateau for the final leg of our visit.
At the Eiffel Tower, gone are the days of just strolling over and climbing to the top. You need to book entrance and elevator tickets well in advance, and the security checkpoints and crush of crowds can make the experience anything but romantic. My group was happy we made the effort, but we might have settled for seeing the view from the second level rather than enduring the painful ordeal of getting all the way to the top.
If You’re Game, Start Planning
It’s never too soon to start planning a plunge into Paris, even for winter travel. With the floodgates opening in the wake of the pandemic, the city has no low season; there’s only high season and VERY high season.
I love the fantasy of hopping on a plane and then wandering aimlessly through a tangle of colorful streets, allowing experiences to spontaneously unfold. But in reality, visiting all the iconic sights in a brief time frame requires a strategy. Airfares can skyrocket about three to four months before your travel dates, and options for hotels and even some sights might disappear weeks before you depart. To avoid spending hours in ticket lines, and for some sights to gain entry at all, you’ll need to buy tickets in advance. Even with a Paris Museum Pass, some attractions require scheduling a timed entry online.
Is it worth it? My group, along with the 44 million people who visited Paris last year, said yes.
Barbara Wells is a long time resident of Capitol Hill and a theater writer for this newspaper.