A wistful, “ah, Paris!” was the reaction of nearly everyone who heard we were headed there. The name evokes a hundred images: the city of lights, the city of romance, the capital of fashion, the home of world-renowned chefs in Michelin starred restaurants and some of the most famous monuments and museums in the world. I wondered if it could possibly live up to its reputation.
The public transit system in Paris is wonderful. Metro trains arrived as frequently as one minute apart, efficiently and cheaply whisking you to every part of the city. We started our visit in the Luxembourg Gardens, a beautiful public park residing in front of the splendid Luxembourg Palace – previously a royal residence, now the seat of the French senate. We spent most of the day simply wandering the streets, getting a feel for the city, and seeing a few of the sights, before the cold wind and overcast skies drove us back inside.
The next morning, we got up early to make our reservation time at the Louvre – 9:00, right when it opened. After a short wait in line, we found ourselves inside, sharing the museum with only a precious few other visitors. Knowing that the famous Mona Lisa would be mobbed in short order, we headed directly there, where we were able to admire the work up close. I am surely not enough of an art buff to understand why this curious work is one of the most famous paintings on the planet, but it was still fun to see the painting in person.
The Louvre is enormous, trading the density of artwork we saw in the Vatican for sheer square footage. We spent hours admiring the various exhibits, from Egyptian sarcophagi and stelae, to Renaissance paintings, to ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. At one point, we were wandering through a sculpture hall when we turned a corner and nearly walked into the Venus de Milo. Neither of us had even remembered that the Louvre was home to the famous sculpture. Even for those that only casually enjoy art, the Louvre seemed to have something for everyone.
After hours of walking, we headed up the street for a re-fueling at Angelina, a locally-famous café and pastry shop. Founded in 1903, Angelina has become a fixture in Paris and has expanded to opening shops all over the world. I ordered a seasonal (citrus) adaptation of their signature pastry, the Mont-Blanc – chestnut cream vermicelli layered over a citrus meringue and whipped cream center. Jenn, meanwhile, selected a decadent cake of chocolate mousse and brownie draped with a bitter chocolate ganache. While both were outstanding, the most amazing was the hot chocolate – thick, silky and luxurious, served with a generous portion of whipped cream, it was the most incredible hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Before leaving, I also chose an assortment of some truly exceptional macarons, so tender that they almost dissolved when you bit into them, releasing the simple, rich flavors inside – coffee, raspberry, chocolate, lemon, caramel… my mouth is watering as I type this.
Our next day was spent admiring the iconic landmarks of Paris. An early appearance at the Notre-Dame Cathedral allowed us to explore the interior of the beautiful church without waiting in line, and with a minimal amount of crowding once inside. On our way to the Arc de Triomph, we passed the Pont des Arts bridge, once famous for its “love locks,” where couples would pledge their love by securing a padlock to the bridge’s railings, throwing the key into the Seine so it could never be unlocked. Though the locks were removed in 2015 due to structural concerns (the weight was causing sections of the bridge to collapse), a nearby railing overlooking the water alongside the Pont Neuf still retains the promises of thousands of couples. After pausing to help photograph a couple adding to the collection, we walked up the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. The famous monument, honoring the soldiers who died in the French Revolution & Napoleonic Wars, stands proudly at the end of the arrow-straight avenue. We ascended the 284 stairs to the top, taking in the hazy view of the city and admiring the most identifiable part of the Paris skyline – the Eiffel Tower.
Of course, we needed to get a more intimate view of the tower, so we headed off in the direction of the beckoning metallic structure. Completed in 1889 and intended to be temporary, as the entrance to that year’s World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower is now the most visited paid monument in the world. It’s quite a remarkable construction, a densely woven spider’s web of riveted steel that changes in shape and complexity as you get closer. From far away, it appears elegant, a slender sculpture of wires and toothpicks emerging from the city skyline. As you approach, the scale of the massive monolith becomes more apparent, the 7,300 tons of iron embedded immovably into the earth and towering 1,063 feet above the surrounding park. Even though the green space around the tower was jammed with picnickers, visitors waving selfie sticks, and hundreds of men waving cheap replicas of the tower and chanting, “one Euro, one Euro” in a repetitive monotone, we managed to find a few less-crowded areas for some photos in the charming city.
We began our last day in the city with a walk up Montmartre Hill, near our apartment in the 18th arrondissement. The small prominence is crowned by the elegant Sacré-Cœr Basilica, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. A stunning construction of white travertine, the basilica was completed in 1914 and sits on the highest point in the city, providing beautiful panoramas of Paris. After enjoying the warm sunshine and scenic view, we stopped for lunch at the Café de la Paix, a small café located on the ground floor of a historic hotel, to try what I had read to be the best croque monsieur in the city. At its simplest, the croque is an unassuming ham and cheese sandwich, optionally dressed with a “hat” of a sunny-side up egg to make a croque madame. This café had elevated it to a piece of art, though, and so tender, rich and perfect that it was almost like eating a pastry.
After making a return trip to Angelina to grab some desserts for a classic, Eiffel Tower picnic in the Champs de Mars, we then headed for the top of the iconic monument. There are two ways up the tower, a lift from the ground floor, or 706 metal stairs up to the second floor before taking an elevator the remaining distance. We opted for the two-part approach, winding our way up the tower’s south pillar before packing into the lift to the top. Though crowded, it’s a thoroughly beautiful view of the city; the network of streets carving blocks of buildings into triangles and squares, and the Seine slicing a shimmering blue path through the middle of it all. It seemed like an appropriate view for our last afternoon in the city, so we bid farewell to Paris before descending back down to the street.