Trip to Paris, France
This travel review covers two separate trips I made to Paris - the first in August 2015 for one week and the other with my hubby for 5 days over Thanksgiving 2019. I visited a few different places on both trips so I combined both trips into one review, for example, in my 2015 trip I visited Notre Dame de Paris, which was closed in November 2019 after a devastating fire in April of that year. Another difference between the two trips is that in 2015, I stayed with one of my best friends from college who lives in Paris, but on my second trip, my hubby and I stayed in a hotel. In spite of visiting this beautiful city twice, there are still so many more things I want to see but so far, I have been able to visit some of Paris’ main attractions including the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris, Paris Catacombs, Musée d’Orsay and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to name a few. Read on to get some tips about travelling to and around Paris on two very different but equally memorable trips.
Paris, or the City of Lights, is the capital of France and the Île-de-France region and is situated in the north-central part of the country along the Seine River. Paris was first settled between 250 to 200 BC by the Gauls of the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that had settled on the banks of the Seine. In 52 BC, the settlement was conquered by Julius Caesar and the Romans would go on the found a city called Lutetia. The city changed its name to Paris during the 4th century and Roman domination in the city ended in the 5th century when Paris was invaded by the Franks, a Germanic people. In 508, the first king of the Franks, Clovis I, made Paris the capital of his empire. In 1789, Paris became the epicenter of the French Revolution when Parisians stormed the Bastille, a state prison used by the Kings of France to incarcerate political enemies. The French Revolution saw the death of over 17,000 by guillotine until general Napoléon Bonaparte brought stability to the country in 1804.
In 1851, Napoleon’s nephew became Emperor Napoleon III and he promoted the city’s urban development. With Baron Haussmann as the prefect of Paris, the city changed its urban structure, rebuilding the center, knocking down its fortification and expanding the metropolitan territory. Then in 1889, under the Third Republic, the Eiffel Tower, the worldwide symbol of Paris, was constructed. Although Paris managed to hold off a German invasion during World War I, it was not as fortunate during World War II and the city was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1944. In 1968, Paris was again rocked by the largest student protests to ever occur in the country known as the May 68, which involved more than 22% of France’s total population at the time and caused French President Charles de Gaulle to flee to Germany (the irony!) fearing a civil war or revolution. Paris currently has a population of about 2.2 million people and has an area of 41 square miles and is the largest city in France.
Things to Know Before You Travel to Paris
As a dual national (Jamaican and American), I always just stick to the passport that provides me with visa-free travel to the country I am visiting. On my first trip to Paris in 2015 (before getting US citizenship), I travelled on my Jamaican passport and I had to apply for a Schengen visa. I was very surprised at how simple and easy the process was, and I would rate it as being a lot simpler than getting a B1/B2 tourist visa to visit the U.S. You can check whether you need to apply for a Schengen visa to visit France here. For my trip to Paris in 2019, I used my U.S. passport because American citizens do not need a visa for tourist or business trips to France lasting less than 90 days. And, similar to visits to other countries in the Schengen area, your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond your planned date of departure.
Before you travel outside the U.S., you should probably check the U.S. State Department travel advisories for the latest information about the country you wish to travel. I always read travel advisories because they not only give you information about the security situation in the country you plan to visit but they also provide information on required vaccinations and local laws that may affect tourists, for example, laws concerning LGBTQI or women. You can look up travel advisories by country here. France did not have any security travel advisories or vaccine requirements when I traveled there in 2015 or 2019.
Nuts and Bolts
Visas, vaccines and security adversaries aren’t the only thing you need to think about before travelling abroad. You also need to figure out what to do about mobile data and whether you need a power plug adapter/voltage converter to charge your electronics. On my first trip to France in 2015, I had T-Mobile, which offered free data and roaming that allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends back home for no extra money (the good old days!). Unfortunately, T-Mobile has long cancelled that data plan/policy and by 2019, I had switched phone companies and ended up using Verizon’s TravelPass during my second trip to Paris. If travelling to Paris from the U.S., you will need a power plug adapter because France uses electrical plugs/sockets C and E, while the U.S. uses sockets and plug types A and B. I recommend purchasing a universal power adapter, which works for most if not all countries and regions of the world from any online retailer, electronics store or big box retailer. Most electronics (cellphones, laptops, cameras, tablets) support dual voltage, making a voltage converter unnecessary but you can always check the fine print on your power cord to be sure.
Both times I traveled to Paris, I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), which is located around 14 miles (23 km) northeast of Paris. CDG is the second busiest airport in Europe and the busiest in France and in my experience, cheaper to fly into than the city’s other international airport, Paris Orly Airport (ORY), which is located about 8 miles (13 km) south of Paris. There are multiple options to get from CDG (and ORY) to Paris, you can rent a car or take a taxi, bus or train – the option I used on both trips and which I highly recommend. It may seem overwhelming trying to navigate public transport in a foreign country but CDG is a huge international airport with a lot of signs (in English) to help you get to where you need to go and many help desks with English-speaking customer service employees.
On my last trip to Paris, my hubby and I did Delta Vacations, where the flight and hotel are bundled together for a great price. We stayed at Citadines Tour Eiffel Paris, an Apart Hotel featuring large rooms (at least for Europe), a kitchenette, 24-hour service desk and a fantastic location in the 15th Arrondissement in Paris, right across from the La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle metro stop. It is very easy to navigate the Paris Metro system using posted signs and trains schedules, but we also used Google maps as well. In the unlikely scenario that you get lost, there are many information counters and ticket offices with people who speak English that can help you, especially in the heavily trafficked train transfer stations. We purchased a 5 day Paris Visite travel pass for €38.35 (about $44 USD) per person, which gave us unlimited use of public transportation in Paris (zones 1-3) and the Île-de-France region for 5 consecutive days. You can learn more about the different travel pass options for Paris here.
Notre Dame de Paris
On my trip to Paris in 2015, I visited Notre Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”) and at the time, who would have guessed how special my visit to this famous Gothic cathedral would be? The construction of Notre Dame started in the 12thcentury but was not completed until 300 years later. And, because the cathedral took so long to complete, it has a variety of architectural styles ranging mainly from French Gothic, to Renaissance to Naturalism, making this cathedral unique in its beauty. Notre Dame was also one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses, which are arched exterior supports. Although the current damage to Notre Dame is quite extensive, the cathedral has weathered disaster before, including during the 1786 French Revolution when it was not only badly damaged but also looted and pillaged by Parisians, and left in disrepair.
It was not until Victor Hugo’s classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), where the cathedral was one of the main characters in the book, that there was renewed interest in restoring Notre Dame. Then in 1844, King Louis Philippe ordered the restoration of the cathedral, which was completed almost two decades later in 1864. The cathedral was also the site of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Germans in August 1944. The significance of Notre Dame to Parisian and French history is incalculable, but just like the city in which is it located, Notre Dame will weather this new disaster, looking more beautiful and stronger than ever before. When I visited Notre Dame in 2015, there was a very long (but quick moving) line to get into the cathedral. Admission was free but there was a fee to enter the tower and crypt. Unfortunately, I did not visit either attraction, but I enjoyed walking around inside the cathedral and viewing its beautiful dome and stained-glass windows.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart
I also visited La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre (“The Basilica of the Sacred Heart”) back in 2015. Construction of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart started in 1875 and was completed in 1914 but was not consecrated until after the end of World War I in 1919. The basilica is located atop the Montmartre hill in the trendy Montmartre district of Paris known for its cobbled streets, authentic charm and its role in the Belle Époque (1872 to 1914), where many notable artists including Vincent Van Goh, Pierre Brissaud Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Suzanne Valadon and Pablo Picasso lived and worked.
I did not go inside the basilica, but I did walk around the building and sat and enjoyed the tiered park in front of the cathedral. I also did a walking tour of the Montmartre neighborhood, which I highly recommend it because I learnt so much and I got to see saw where many famous artists lived and where they found inspiration for their work.
I visited in 2015 was the Paris Catacombs and it was definitely the highlight of that trip. The Paris Catacombs is an underground ossuary that holds the remains of over 6 million Parisians. According to the Paris Catacombs website, the history of the underground vault began in the 18th century, after a series of spring rains caused the wall around Les Innocents – Paris’ oldest and largest cemetery – to collapse spilling rotting corpses into a neighboring property. The solution to the problem of Paris’ overpopulated cemeteries was to transport these dead bodies five stories underground into Paris’ former mining quarries. Moving the bones from Les Innocents and other cemeteries began in 1786 and continued for 12 years. During the French Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacombs and several important figures from the Revolution including Maximilien de Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat are buried there. The city stopped moving bones into the ossuaries in 1860, but bones in the ossuary date as far back as 1,200 years ago. At first workers would simply place the bones inside the tunnels, but overtime the quarrymen began arranging the bones into shapes and decorations, a practice that became more involved as the idea to turn the catacombs into a tourist destination began to take shape.
When I visited the Paris Catacombs in 2015, visitors had to wake up really early to wait in line to purchase tickets on a first-come, first-served basis but fortunately, the Paris Catacombs now offer online ticket purchases (yay!), so you can buy your ticket ahead of time. I really enjoyed visiting the Catacombs because I had never seen anything like it before. But a couple things to keep in mind is that it is not very disability friendly, in fact, you can’t take wheelchairs or even strollers inside the catacombs. Additionally, it is quite chilly in the catacombs even in the middle of summer, so you may want to take a jacket with you, regardless of the time of year that you visit. I did an audio tour and I am glad I did but you can also do a guided tour if you wish. It takes about an hour to walk through the areas demarcated for tourism but stay on the guided path because the catacombs extend for many miles under Paris and not only is it illegal to visit most areas but people have been known to get lost and even die in the catacombs.
The Eiffel Tower
You can’t go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, but I did exactly that in 2015. However, I didn’t repeat that mistake in 2019 when I visited with my hubby. Construction for the Eiffel Tower began in January 1887 under the direction of French civil engineer Gustave Eiffel, and was completed 22 months later in order to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the start of the French Revolution and to coincide with the start of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a world fair that was set to take place in Paris from May 6 to October 31, 1889. One interesting tidbit we learnt about the Eiffel Tower was that the project initially drew widespread criticism, particularly from writers and artists who argued that the Tower was “a tragic street lamp”, “belfry skeleton” and “a half-built factory pipe”, but after completion much of the criticism of the Tower fell away.
There are a lot of ticket options to visit the Eiffel Tower and we went with the ticket that gave us access to the 2nd floor with the elevators (because who wants to climb stairs on vacation?). And, because we travelled to Paris during low season, the line to enter the Eiffel Tower was shorter than usual and since we got to choose the time of our visit, we only waited in line with people who had the same time on their ticket as you. We had a great time walking around the Tower and taking pictures of the amazing views of Paris, but it is quite windy up there so be sure to take a light jacket or cardigan with you when you visit. You can find out more about tickets here but if you rather take the stairs (why would you?), those tickets can only be purchased at the on-site ticket office.
You can’t go to the Louvre museum only once, you just can’t. I spent the entire day there back in 2015 but I knew when I visited with my hubby, I would only be spending a few hours and so I had to choose the pieces of art I wanted to see wisely. The Louvre Museum (or the Louvre for short) is the world’s largest art museum and is housed in the Louvre Palace, a royal residence that was the primary residence for French Kings until Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his primary residence in 1682. During the French Revolution the decree was made that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s (using that term extremely loosely of course) masterpieces. The Louvre is divided into 8 departments: Egyptian Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; Prints and Drawings.
The Louvre will ruin all other museums for you. It was as impressive the first time I visited as it was the second time around. I highly suggest that you visit early so that you can get to spend as much time as possible with some of the museum’s most famous pieces, for instance, when we visited early in the morning we were one of the first people to view the Mona Lisa, which is typically extremely crowded (and it is a small painting so you likely won’t get anywhere close to it when there is a crowd) and we got a security guard to take pictures of us standing in front of the Mona Lisa. It was awesome! I also got to revisit some of my favorite paintings without having to elbow my way through a crowd gathered in front of the painting. My favorites include July 28: Liberty Leading the People(which is also one of my favorite paintings ever) and The Raft of the Medusa(also one of the few paintings in the Louvre with a Black person in it). I tried to find Portrait of Madeleine(formerly known as Portrait of a Negress) which was featured in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Apesh*t videobut couldn’t locate itLThe Portrait of Madeleine is unique because it presents a black person as the sole aestheticized subject and object of a work of art, a definite rarity in Western European art. Unfortunately, by the time we made our way out of the European art section, the museum was too crowded to take a good picture of The Winged Victory of Samothrace and Aphrodite, known as the “Venus de Milo”but there is always next time!
Palace of Versailles
Another repeat visit for me was the Palace of Versailles. Although my experience of palaces and castles is limited, Versailles remains one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. Versailles was the principal royal residence of France from 1682 until the start of the French Revolution in 1789. The Palace was built on the site of a modest hunting lodge built by Louis XIII and went through multiple stages of enlargement and renovation during its time to become the palace that we can visit today. We did a guided tour that took us through Marie Antionette’s rooms and taught us the history of the palace, including the fact that Versailles was very much a working residence, with thousands of people and animals on the grounds every day, making the palace very hot, smelly and overcrowded most of the time.
The Palace is located in the department of Yvelines, which is about 20 km (~12 miles) southwest of the Paris city center and is easily accessible by train from Paris. The Palace is a short walk from the train station and on my first trip to Versailles in summer 2015, I did not buy my ticket in advance but ended up coughing up the money to buy a ‘skip-the-line’ ticket after spending almost an hour in the summer heat waiting in line for a regular ticket. The second time around we bought timed-entry tickets in advance and went early in the morning, when there were no lines and were able to basically walk right in. Although it was great not having to wait in a long line when we visited in November, the trade-off was that most of the flowers in the beautiful gardens were dead and the fountains were not turned on, so with that in mind, I highly recommend visiting Versailles in the summer, so that you can get to really experience the gardens with the flowers in full bloom. There are many other buildings on the Palace compound including the Estate of Trianon, a private estate located on the palace grounds where the royal family could escape to in order to have a brief respite from courtly etiquette. There are also many ticket options for those who may only want to the gardens and estate or for those who may only want to visit the palace. You can easily spend almost the entire day touring the palace, the estate, the stables and the gardens like I did in 2105 but with the gardens in such a sad state during late Fall 2019, the hubby and I just did the tour of the palace and then had brunch at one of the restaurants located on the palace grounds.
I visited the Musée de L’Armée – Invalides (Army Museum) on my second trip to Paris. The Army Museum was created in 1905 to serve as France’s national military museum and it merged the Museum of Artillery (1795) and the Historical Museum of the Army (1896). The museum complex is very large and has seven main spaces and departments that contain collections spanning hundreds of years, from the 13th century to WWII. I enjoyed this museum a lot more than I thought I would but by far the most noteworthy thing to see at the Army Museum is Napoleon I’s tomb, which is located in the Dome of the Invalides. I also enjoyed the movie and display in the basement of the museum about Charles de Gaulle and his role in leading the French Resistance in WWII. I also enjoyed seeing the different weapons and uniforms of the French army and learning about how the territorial borders of France has changed throughout the centuries. Another weird but fun thing to see in the Army Museum is the skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon I’s famous war horse, depicted in the painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Again, I recommend purchasing tickets in advance for the Army Museum and take care to have a good pair of shoes on when you visit because the grounds are made primarily of loose gravel that do not go well with heels of any sort!
Travelling While Black and/or Female
Paris is the most racially diverse city in Europe but unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into feeling very safe or comfortable as a Black traveler. However, my experiences in Paris and even rural France when I was walked the Camino in 2015 (post coming soon!) were overwhelmingly positive. I have heard many horror stories of going through immigration at CDG airport but I have travelled to France on two different passports – my Jamaican passport with a Schengen visa and my American passport – and I didn’t have any problems with immigration or being racially profiled by security services either time. Nevertheless, I would be remiss to say that Islamophobia is a huge problem in France (and many other parts of the world) and so Black Muslim women may have a difference experience when travelling to France and dealing with French immigration. One of my favorite travel bloggers, Oneika the Traveller, wrote a very good articleon whether or not Black Americans are treated better than Africans abroad and the short answer is yes, they are, especially in France. Black Americans have a long history of fleeing in order to escape racism and censorship in the U.S., notable examples include Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to name a few. Nevertheless, having visited Paris alone and again with my husband, I have had nothing but positive experiences in Paris (again, even in rural France), so I highly recommend Black travelers visit this wonderful and beautiful city!
On our last day in Paris, I asked my husband what he thought about Paris and his response mirrored my own the first time I visited Paris, it truly is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Paris has great restaurants, museums and historical landmarks and it is clean, safe and easy to navigate even without being able to speak French (full disclosure, I am proficient in reading and writing French, but I struggle with speaking French). When we return to Paris, I want to take the hubby to visit the Orsay Museum (Musée d’Orsay) which I visited in 2015 but lost all my pictures and everyone knows it didn’t happen unless you have pictures, right?
My main piece of advice for those who want to travel to Paris, especially during high season, is to book all your tickets in advance! I cannot stress this enough and I don’t know why so many tourists still refuse to do it! Buying your tickets in advance may not always spare you a wait in line, but it drastically reduces the amount of time you spend in line, leaving more time to enjoy the attraction and visit more places in a day. I also recommend spending at least a week in Paris, because we were in such a rush for most of our 5 days trip we made some major vacation faux-pas, such as making sure we had good pictures of our visit to Sainte-Chapelle, a 13th century chapel that commissioned by King Louis IX to house relics from the Passion of Christ such as the Crown of Thorns. If you have the time, I recommend visiting Sainte-Chapelle because although it no longer houses the Crown of Thorns (they were held at Notre Dame cathedral and fortunately survived the April 19 fire), it is a very beautiful example of gothic-style architecture with (almost) floor to ceiling stained glass windows
Another recommendation is to make dinner reservations in advance, especially if it is a short trip. Even before we left SLC, I made dinner reservations for 3 of the 5 nights we were in Paris and I loved not having to think about where we were going to eat or how long we would have to wait to get a table. Two restaurants that I booked in advance were Le Petit Canard and Le Mirage and they were so good that even now, one year later, my hubby and I still talk about what we ate for dinner at both of them! These trips to Paris will certainly not be my last and although I highly, highly, highly I recommend Paris to everyone, I think it is a great first city to visit to those who have never visited mainland Europe before because there is something for everyone to do in Paris and have a good time, even if you only want to visit Disneyland Paris (but I mean seriously?). I love Paris, it is hands down one of my favorite cities and I don’t think anyone who visits will be disappointed!