Published May 21, 2013
| Budget Travel
With flowering public gardens and boulevards made for strolling hand-in-hand, this is the perfect time of year to visit the City of Light. Here, we share our favorite tips for finding the perfect views, affordable meals, and making Paris your own.
The famous song "April in Paris," written by the Tin Pan Alley composer Vernon Duke and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and a host of other jazz singers, would have you believe that the city's prime visiting time has passed this year. Not true. April in Paris is, in reality, rainy. You'll find better weather--without the summer crowds and high prices--in June.
HAVE A PLAN, BUT BE FLEXIBLE
John Baxter, author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, recommends that you pick one must-see for each day in Paris, but improvise the rest of the day. This combination of planning and spontaneity is ideal for Paris, a city that offers not only super-famous sights like the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe, but also super-secret spots that are all the more special for being off the beaten path. "Paris can't be done with just a map or a guidebook. You have to get lost, frustrated, overwhelmed. Only then will you find that perfect cafe, that market that seems like a local secret, or that hidden garden. You have to discover Paris for yourself and then it will be yours," says Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology recently returned from a year in Paris.
GET THE PERFECT VIEW
Dubbed "this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower" by the city's most prominent artists when it was proposed by engineer Gustave Eiffel, Paris's ultra-iconic observation tower debuted as the entrance to the 1889 World's Fair and quickly became so popular that it was never taken down. These days, the only "monstrous" thing about the tower is the line to buy tickets--the Eiffel Tower attracts more than 7 million visitors each year. It may no longer be the tallest man-made structure in the world (it held that title until the 1930 completion of New York City's Chrysler Building), but the view of the City of Light from the top--including the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, the Seine and its many bridges, and the surrounding countryside up to 40+ miles--has no earthly match. The elevator to the top: 14.50 euros (buy tickets online to sidestep the line). You can toast the view with a glass of Champagne (from 10 euros), and beat the crowds by visiting later in the evening--the floodlit tower is open until 11 p.m. through mid-June, then to midnight in summer. Insiders suggest that you take the No. 6 Metro line to the Bir-Hakeim station--you'll get an unforgettable view of the tower as your above-ground train approaches the station. Looking for a less-crowded view? The top of Notre Dame cathedral can't be beat, and the view from the Arc De Triomphe is spectacular as well. Or try this insider tip: "Head to the top of Tour Montparnasse around 4:30 p.m. for a Champagne overlooking the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower," suggests Geoffroy-Schwinden.
SEE THE GARDENS
Sure, museums like the Louvre and D'Orsay insist on keeping world-famous paintings like the Mona Lisa indoors and that's where you've got to go to see them. But if you visit Paris in springtime, don't stay cooped up inside. The Louvre's collection includes not only paintings, drawings, and sculptures, but also the Carrousel gardens and Tuileries, which offer explosions of spring color, fragrant paths, and inviting landscaping. And for a real dose of spring flowers, don't miss the Luxembourg Gardens and a day trip to Versailles.
A lot of sit-down restaurants in Paris will set you back hundreds of bucks at dinner time. Save them for a (really) special occasion. But Baxter reminds us that prices at some of the top joints can be 50 percent lower at lunch time. He also suggests you can't go wrong at lunch time picking up a spot where the diners stuff napkins into their collars and mop up their plates with pieces of baguette--if picky Parisians are happy with the place, you'll likely find a $40 lunch that includes a good wine. Don't be a wine snob: House wines in Paris are among the best in the world. And don't forget that tips are always included in the bill, so don't tack on an extra 20 percent.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
As great as Paris's restaurants and museums are, Baxter insists that the city's vibrant street culture and grab-and-go options may be its most alluring. Munching on a fresh baguette with world-class French cheese and jambon (ham) while strolling along the boulevard or sharing a park bench costs just a fraction of the price of a sit-down lunch, and may very well end up being the meal you never forget.
EMBRACE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
The Paris Metro trains and buses are clean, safe, reliable, and affordable. In fact, some visitors insist that booking a hotel near a Metro station is the most convenient way to see the city. Opt for a carte orange, a weekly pass.
DON'T GET LOST IN THE STARS
Paris hotels are rated by the French government with a star system. Some one-star hotels are charming and reliable while others are not well kept and have rooms without private bathrooms. Baxter suggests staying in a three-star hotel. They are typically under $200 per night, including a private bath and complimentary coffee and croissant each morning.