There’s so much to see in the renowned and remarkable capital called Paris. First, there’s the architecture, which stirs the imagination on the masterful blend of old and new within a few square kilometers. Next, there’s the appreciation of culture, evident in the careful preservation and exceptional displays of art in museums, theaters or film houses. Lastly, there’s the food, where every single bite is both an introduction and a study, whether you eat a plate by the street, in the park, or in a classic Parisian cafe on the busy corner of the quarter.
But what if you had only one day to make the most out of your visit? Will you spend it in line outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral? Will you make your way through the maze that is the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa? Or will you simply get lost in the sea of tourists and go where the flow takes you? Here is my take on what to do within a day in Paris.
A quarter for breakfast
Staying in the charming quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés can be a revelation for any first-timer. For residents of the quarter who call themselves “Germanopratins,” mornings are best spent with a slow pace, easing oneself in either with a short stroll along the streets or a simple breakfast of crêpes or the requisite croissants with butter and jam. As it is, the area is known for several famous cafés such as Les Deux Magots, the Café de Flore, the Brasserie Lipp, and le Procope, and is more famous as the cradle of numerous bookstores and publishing houses.
Early that day, I made my way to the Seine via the Rue des Rennes, and peered into the windows of shops selling every manner of clothing, shoes, and even kitchen implements. The Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter, though known as a chic and expensive neighborhood, has many to offer to those with a tight budget, which wouldn’t go a long way in places like Rue de Rivoli or Champs-Élysées. I promised to check the shops out later in the day, when they open to both locals and tourists to sell their goods at a better price than the rest of Paris.
The walk may take you to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg or Luxembourg Garden, the construction of which began in 1612 by order of Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV of France, for the Luxembourg Palace. At 23 hectares, it is a perfect venue for a stroll amidst flowerbeds, tree-lined lanes, and grass-filled lawns, and is famous for the Medici Fountain that has called it home since 1620.
The Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter is also home to two storied churches, within a short distance from each other – the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Church of Saint-Sulpice. The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded in the 6th century, has a long history of patronage from France’s early rulers, and is the burial place of the Merovingian kings of Neustria, as well as philosopher René Descartes. The Church of Saint-Sulpice, on the other hand, was built at a later time between 1646 and 1870, and is the second largest church in the city next to the Notre-Dame. It is home to a grand organ with 102 speaking stops, said to be the “most impressive instrument of the romantic French symphonic-organ era.”
As I finally reached the banks of the Seine River, I came across a sight different from that of the sleepy quarter I was just in. On one side of the river, I saw artists selling their art along the wall bordering the Seine. On another, I saw Parisians doing an early exercise routine on a large extension of the Seine’s banks. Paris, surely, was waking up.
The art of love
I made my way across the Seine through a “bridge of locks,” where couples young and old bring (or buy) padlocks, decorating them first using all kinds of paint and pens, and then secure them unto the railings of the bridge before finally throwing the entire set of keys to the waters below. This extraordinary expression of love, while meant to last, caused the collapse of the railings of the Pont des Arts a year ago. Nevertheless, the tradition goes on in this part of the Seine, as I saw a couple throw their keys unto the river with much spirit, sealing the act with a kiss right after.
Upon crossing the bridge, I stepped foot into the Jardin des Tuileries or Tuileries Garden, which was named after the tile workshops or tuileries that stood in the area before the gardens were commissioned. At the time of its construction, it was the most opulent and beautiful garden in all of Paris, measuring five hundred meters long and three hundred meters wide. Today, it features not just colorful shrubberies and topiaries, but also the Arc de triomphe du Carrousel, and 21 statues made by artist Aristide Maillol.
Before long, I caught myself in front of I. M. Pei’s imposing glass pyramid, and made my way into one of the largest and most visited museums in the world, the Musée du Louvre. A fortress-turned-palace, the Louvre was turned into a museum in 1793 and currently houses nearly 35,000 objects and artifacts from the Middle Ages to 1848, ancient civilizations and the Islamic world, and works of Western art. Like any giddy tourist would do, I followed the crowd into the Denon Wing and saw for the very first time La Giaconda or the Mona Lisa, a marvel of European artistry by Leonardo da Vinci. As it was easy to lose myself in this maze of paintings, I noted my time admiring the remainder of the Italian and French displays before speeding up to the Egyptian galleries for a cursory look at the hieroglyphs.
Pleased as I was with my visit to the Louvre, I made a quick turnaround and made my way to the Musée d’Orsay on the left bank of the Seine. Originally a railway station, the structure that now houses the museum was inaugurated in 1900 for the World Fair, and was transformed into a museum in 1986. As it houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist creations in the world, I focused my visit on Daumier (and his caricatures), Van Gogh (his “Self Portrait” and “Starry Night Over the Rhone Arles”), and the 86 paintings of Claude Monet.
I wished to see other museums around Paris, such as the Conciergerie, the Musée National Eugène Delacroix, and the Musée Rodin, but alas, the first two museums took a chunk of my time, and I only had time left for a third visit. I then took a quick ride and made my way to Les Invalides in the Musée de l’Armée. Though it houses one of the largest military art and history collections in the world, the main reason I made my visit is to see the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is buried in the open crypt directly below the dome of the former church. Just before closing, I was finally privileged to see it – the red quartzite sarcophagus of the famed leader, fittingly adorned with flowers from the French people.
The city of illuminations
Dinner in Paris could comprise anything; in restaurants across the city, you can eat meat and cheese with baguettes, or experience haute cuisine in some of the more posh joints surrounding the famous tourists spots of the Arc de Triomphe and the Tour Eiffel. “How about French Onion Soup with Beaujolais?” asked the maître d’ of a restaurant along Champs-Élysées.
Evening time in Paris can be magical, and not just because it is where famed cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and Lido de Paris have found residence. When darkness descends upon the city, and the yellow lights transform the streets into an illumination piece, Paris beckons its visitors to savor the offerings of the night, starting with a shopping spree along Champs-Élysées.
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is one of the most famous streets in the world for upscale shopping, and is home to the biggest international brands such as Adidas, Benetton and Cartier, as well as luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss and Lacoste. At night, the avenue comes alive not just with the lights of the shopping centers, but as I saw it, with street performances by dancers, singers and other artists who find a haven for their art in the Champs-Élysées.
Having done my bit of shopping, I made my way from Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, which stands at the end of the avenue. Built in the 1800s, the monument serves to remember the martyrs of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and is a valuable rallying point for national parades and events. As it stands at a very iconic spot in Paris, the best way to experience the Arc is by going up to its deck, which affords an exceptional panorama of the Champs-Élysées and much of the city of Paris.
And to treat myself to a final glimpse of the city, I rode a cab and made my way to the ultimate symbol of Paris – the Tour Eiffel or the Eiffel Tower. Constructed out of iron in 1889 to serve as entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, it is still sought by visitors to this day, who may climb up to the 324-meter high tower’s three observation decks, either by stairs or by lifts. And although entry to the tower doesn’t end until right before midnight, I contented myself with joining young Parisians on the tower grounds, waiting for the tower’s illuminations.
At midnight, the tower finally dimmed its lights, and 20,000 bulbs started sparkling in a frenzied dance of joy and rhapsody, much to the delight of the spectators. As I gazed upon the pulsating structure, I knew my day in Paris was at an end. And so I made a pledge before the Iron Lady that I would return to this impassioned city. After all, one song from a French-inspired musical sings of “one more dawn, one more day, one day more!”
TIP 1: For your way to the museums
Paris is home to a great number of museums and monuments where tourists can appreciate world art, architecture and other works of the mind. But given the vastness of Parisian museums, one can easily get lost inside every hall of collection, which may both be a good experience in terms of unlocking the secrets of a museum, or a total waste of time.
To make the most out of the museum experience, plan your visit ahead by doing a bit of research. Which works would you like to see, and how do you get there? Do you need to reserve or purchase a ticket in advance? Are there items prohibited inside the museum? These you must ask yourself first in order to afford a smooth and flawless hop from one museum to another.
Paris also offers the Paris Museum Pass, which gives you queue-cutting access to over 50 museums and monuments in and around the city. Simply choose between the 2, 4 and 6-day passes and skip the lines on your way to the entrances of your chosen venues.
TIP 2: For getting around Paris
Like most European countries, the hop-on hop-off bus is the answer to every tourist’s transportation problems. These buses simply go around the famous tourist spots dropping tourists to their chosen places and picking them up as well. In Paris, the Paris L’Open Tour allows access to four tour routes around the city, which will take you to see all the major sights in Paris.
For a different point of view, you may also try a cruise along the River Seine with Batobus, which offers both a one-hour cruise through the heart of Paris, or a hop-on hop-off service to various stops along the river.
For your guided tour needs, local travel company PARISCityVISION also offers sightseeing and tasting sessions in and around Paris, museum and entertainment tickets, and multi-day tours for individuals and groups.
TIP 3: For the world tastes of France
While France is considered as the birthplace of haute recipes and the brigade de cuisine, its prominence as a multicultural haven means the city offers a multitude of flavors from all over the world. The Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter is one such example.
Corner cafeterias reign supreme in this part of town. Restaurants such as Cafe Cassette and Cafe du Metro serve both French and American-inspired plates, while in another part of the quarter, the quaint patisserie known as Colorava opens its doors in the morning for diners looking for a hearty breakfast or a quick sweet snack. Chez Napoli along Rue Saint-Placide serves authentic Italian fare such as pizza and lasagna.
At five months young, however, Osaba with its owner Frederic’s choice of tapas, cheeses and wines, has earned a reputation for its rustic but flavorful plates of Basque cuisine. Delectable sausages such as chorizo doux and saucisse seche are sold by the gram, or form part of the Planche Osaba (mixte) with cheeses such as bleu and brebie. These selection of meats and cheeses are then enjoyed with bowlfuls of bread, and is recommended to be paired either with Spanish or French wines, coming mostly from the south.