We said our goodbyes to Arnaud, Marie-Laure, Coco and Hector at Chatellerault train station, the owners of the chateau we had been housesitting while they were holidaying in Australia. It was sad to say goodbye because they are such a lovely, generous family, and their trust and openness has been a major factor in our journey being a resounding success. This train ride to Paris was the beginning of our final few weeks on this 12-month adventure that is coming to an end way too soon.
We arrived at Gare Montparnasse, and made our way to the Metro station so we could meet up with the family we were going to be staying with. For the final few weeks we’ve tried to line up Couchsurfing hosts along the way. There are two main reasons for this; firstly it keeps costs way down as there are no accommodation expenses to consider, and secondly you get to share stories with and get tips and advice from locals who actually live where you’re visiting.
For anyone pushing a pram like us, or are similarly encumbered such as those in a wheelchair or pushing lots of luggage around, the Paris Metro is an absolute nightmare. It was quite a walk from the train station to the Metro, all underground and not an elevator or escalator in sight. Instead we struggled along long flat tunnels, and up and down stairs that seemed to be constructed for no other reason than to make life difficult.
Meeting our Couchsurfing hosts
We managed to make our way to Parmentier Station with a change in the middle (i.e. more long walks and unnecessary stair climbs), then headed along Rue Oberkampf to the lovely, spacious apartment of Arnaud (not the same guy as our housesitting owner) his lovely wife Estelle, and his two delightful children Hugo and Anais. It’s always a little awkward when you first meet a Couchsurfing host, because despite never having met these kind people, they are opening their home to you while you visit their city. But after getting through the initial small talk and the subconscious sussing of each other out, we discovered what a great family they are and our minds were instantly at ease.
Couchsurfing is a truly magical concept. People around the world are willing to open their homes to complete strangers for nothing in return other than the opportunity to share their experiences and the satisfaction they must feel for helping someone enjoy their visit just that little bit more. In our experience so far, the host has always cooked us dinner on the first night, given us a key so we could come and go as we pleased (even when they’re not there), and provided us with excellent information about where to go and what to do that only a local would know. Not to mention the great company and conversation that we probably wouldn’t have experienced had we stayed in a hotel.
As we had arrived in the evening, we didn’t do any sightseeing in Paris that day. Instead we stayed up talking for a few hours, getting to know our Couchsurfing hosts, before hitting the hay ready to embark on our adventures the following day.
Discovering Paris by open top bus
They’re definitely very ‘touristy’, and I suspect no self-respecting ‘traveller’ as they prefer to be called would be seen dead on one, but I’m a big fan of the open top hop-on hop-off tourist buses that operate in popular cities around the world. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, buses from a particular company run continuously around a pre-determined route that takes you to all of the major attractions. You can get off at any stop, explore the area and take in the sites, before heading back to the bus stop to get on the next bus coming past. Generally speaking they’re around 15-20 minutes apart during the summer months, and up to 30 minutes apart during winter.
I did this with my mother when she visited us in Paris in January, and it meant we got to visit heaps more than if we were on foot, because mum is a little older and I was pushing Jack around in a pram. The reality is Paris is actually a very walkable city, and if you’re visiting for a few days at least and you’re staying somewhere near the centre, you could walk to all of the major attractions without any problems.
We decided to take a L’Open Bus because they have four different routes that cover pretty much all of the city. It’s only a few Euros more expensive than the Big Bus Paris for a two-day pass, but they only have one route and don’t cover quite as much of the city. For those who only need a one day ticket, a good option is Foxity who have just a single route but only charge €20 (Big bus is €27).
Here’s what we saw across our two days in the bus:
Place de la Republique
This is where the enormous march of a million plus people ended just days after the senseless shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices. The outpouring of anger and grief was still evident on the Statue of Republic in the middle of the square, although the flowers and signs were now a little worse for wear. While it doesn’t make beautiful viewing at the moment, the French are reluctant to clean it all away because they aren’t ready to forget what happened in their city just a couple of months earlier.
Academie Nationale de Musique (Paris Opera)
If you’re looking to see the opera, a ballet or some other concert or performance, Opera as it is commonly called in Paris is the place to go. It presents around 380 performances every year, so there is bound to be something you’ll enjoy on the bill while you’re in town. However, we simply got off the bus to walk around the area because there are some stores to see and dream about what we might be able to buy if money was no object. Unfortunately for us, it very much is!
The Louvre Museum
Despite not being a museum person, I was really disappointed we didn’t go in. We planned to on our last day of sightseeing in Paris, but work got the better of me and I had to stay in and finish an assignment for a client. But we did swing by for a look outside on our wanderings through the city. Obviously the Mona Lisa is arguably the number one attraction at the Louvre, but I’ve seen it before and it has to be one of the world’s most disappointing tourist attractions. It’s about the size of a magazine cover and doesn’t look technically superior to other pieces of art. In fact, most other paintings are far better to look at, and you’re better off admiring these than fight your way through the crowds hovering around the Mona Lisa for a quick, and predictably disappointing look.
- Open: Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday – 9am – 6pm; Wednesday and Friday – 9am – 9.45pm
- Cost: €12 for access to the permanent collections, however there is free admission for people who meet certain criteria (click HERE for more information).
Notre Dame de Paris
This beautiful cathedral is located on one of the small islands in the middle of the River Seine that flows through Paris. It’s the parish of the Archbishop of Paris, and is said to contain the Crown of Thorns, part of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. Believe what you will of those claims, but it’s undeniably impressive and if you want to climb to the top of the towers, you’ll get brilliant views of the city. While Sarah and I admired the intricate detail on the outside of the cathedral, such as the rows of statues, doorways and windows, Jack was busy chasing French pigeons for about 30 minutes!
- Open: 8am – 6.45pm seven days a week (open until 7.15pm on Saturday and Sunday)
- Cost: Free, but it costs to visit the Treasury and climb the Cathedral Tower (click HERE for information).
Avenue des Champs Elysees
Champs Elysees means Elysian Fields in English and is the paradise where dead heroes settle down after being slain senselessly in Greek Mythology. We got off the bus at Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris, at one end of the Champs Elysees and walked the 1.9km to the Arc de Triomphe at Place Charles de Gaulle, at the other end. It’s famous for its many cafes, restaurants, theatres and luxury shops, and you can tell it’s the place to be seen by the number of Parisians dressed like runway models (without the runway model face and body) dragging a less than obedient ‘dog’ that looks more like a ferret on a lead along the footpath. We stopped along the way to buy Jack an overpriced ice-cream just so we can say he’s eaten ice-cream on the Champs Elysees. In hindsight I’m not sure anyone will care, including Jack and I!
Originally dislike by the locals when it was constructed to be the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair, it has since gone on to become the iconic landmark of Paris, and is the most visited paid monument in the world with about seven million people paying to go up each year. We walked from Trocadero, opposite the Eiffel Tower across the River Seine, because it’s probably the best place to get a photo if you want to be in it.
After asking a tourist to take a photo or two for us, we made our way through the gardens where we saw a game of Cups and Ball being played. You know the one where there are three cups, a guy puts the ball under one of the cups, then after moving the cups around on a table, you have to guess which cup the ball is under? If you ever see this and think you can make an easy dollar or two, forget about it. You’ll no doubt see people winning and losing as the game goes on, but the truth is they are more than likely all working together with the guy running the game to suck you in and take your cash. It’s a trick, you can’t win, so keep your money in your pocket.
After stopping at the carousel over the road for Jack (and Sarah) to take a spin, we sat underneath the Eiffel Tower for a while just to take in its majesty. I’ve been up before, and Sarah wasn’t interested, so we didn’t go up this time around. But if you do, the views are truly magnificent.
- Open: 9am – midnight (mid-June to early September); 9.30am – 11pm (the rest of the year)
- Cost: €9 for lift to second floor (€5 to walk); €15.50 for lift to the top (prices for Adults, click HERE for the full price list)
Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur
Moulin Rouge (Red Mill in English) is the spiritual home of the can-can dance, and today you can enjoy a meal and a show with the thousands of other tourists who visit each year. Because we’re travelling with a little boy, watching women kick their legs in the air in unison ‘sans knickers’ isn’t really on our agenda, but if that’s your kind of thing then knick yourself out.
After taking our happy snaps in front of the Moulin Rouge, we walked up to Sacre Coeur. This Roman Catholic church sits on top of the highest point in Paris in the area known as Montmartre, and offers impressive views over the city. It’s always busy and you should be wary of pickpockets and scammers who operate in the area. You can go in for a look, then take a stroll around the nearby streets. It’s famous due to the number of renowned artists who used to call this area home, such as Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, and if you want to buy some art or have your portrait painted or drawn, this is the place to go.
- Open: 6am – 10.30pm every day
- Cost: FREE
The Latin Quarter
We took a stroll around the Latin Quarter, famous for its lively atmosphere, shopping and restaurants. It’s home to La Sorbonne (the University of Paris), and the large community of students makes it a lively destination. The narrow streets are great for wandering and there are plenty of typical French retail stores to have a look in.
So much more to see in Paris
There is so much more sightseeing in Paris to experience that it would take years to see it all, and far more pages of text than what you see here.
On our last day, while I was working, Sarah and Jack went out to explore the city. They started their day at one of the covered shopping arcades, checking out some of the boutique shops and an oasis from the rain outside. The architecture is truly amazing and you can stop for a bite to eat and refreshment while admiring the stunning windows, chandeliers and other impressive details.
From here they went to the flower, bird and pet market near Notre Dame. They explored beautiful florists and saw lots of precious little birds. The animal lover in Jack must have ignited within him because he decided to open the cage of a group of birds that cost €25 each. Luckily none of them escaped and Sarah shut the door before any financial damage could be done!
The Natural History Museum was next on the agenda. First they wandered about in the park outside where you can see some animals (not that impressive) and have a play in the playground and carousel, then they ventured inside to see the evolution exhibition. It was very impressive, with life-size models of the smallest animals to elephants, giraffes and other exotic animals from all over the world. You need about 90 minutes for this section, but you could spend a whole day there if you want to check out the other exhibitions as well.
- Open: Daily (except Tuesday) from 10am – 6pm
- Cost: Click HERE for information
Check out this photogallery of our four days sightseeing in Paris…