Travel Diary: Paris, France
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
I figured with all of the time I have at home these days, it might be nice to look back at travels from the recent past. This travel diary covers my trip to Paris in the fall. Kev and I spent a week there, and we met our friend Kim for a few days, who hopped over from London. Paris turned out to be one of my favorite places I've ever visited. In fact, after we came home we booked a return trip that was supposed to take place at the end of March, but which was canceled due to COVID-19.
Paris. Almost a cliche to love it so. It's very much like New York in that way (NY being my frame of reference for all things), a place where of course you'd love to go, a city of endless magic, abundant possibility, and as a direct result, borderline unrealistic expectation. Perhaps because it reminded me of my beloved hometown, or what I could imagine as some version of New York in some parallel universe, I loved it pretty much immediately.
Dazzling beauty containing complicated tensions, kaleidoscopic culture, an esoteric social code, excellent food, better(?!) wine. My kind of place, I thought. I don’t get it here, not quite, not yet. But I think I could and I want to.
Before Paris, Kevin and I had a clear favorite European city in Prague, where we'd spent several amazing days under cloudy skies shrouding a sun that was always about to set. During our week in Paris, we asked each other (more than once, more than twice) “Do we like Paris more?”
Paris captured our hearts like no other city before it. It’s the only place from which we've returned where we immediately set about writing a list of things to do the next time we visited. It’s also the first place that we've ever booked a return flight to since we began traveling in earnest as a couple. Maybe it can be a place that we go, I said. Like the summers in Montauk from his childhood which I joined in on and got to enjoy with him in our twenties, that week away becoming a touchstone of summer - maybe Paris can become a staple too. A place to return to time and again, with favorite haunts to visit and favorite things to do, and a history we make together.
It was our first visit to the city, and our second to France. We spent a week there, with only one day trip planned. We wanted to take it easy, and to try to experience what it might be like to live in Paris. We even picked up some fresh flowers from the market on our first morning there as a gesture toward settling in.
We did a lot of planning (it paid off handsomely in that we were able to get all of the dining reservations we wanted), and we lucked out on a stretch of perfect weather: sunny, 70 degree days with not a drop of rain, late sunsets, and mostly balmy nights with just enough of a crispness in the breeze to keep you alert.
Our time there was a feast of simple pleasures. Great food enjoyed with cheap and delicious natural wine, amazing baked goods that fueled us while on the go, pretty streets that lured us to walk miles at a time, and hassle-free transportation to use when we so chose. So many cafes. Balconies for people watching. Architecture and art. The mesmerizing Seine that called us back again and again. So much to see, too many places to eat. The late summer sun warming all our days.
Flying to Paris (before COVID)
Nonstop roundtrips to Paris from NYC are common, and if you book far enough in advance, you can often find favorable prices for economy seats. We booked in mid-April for this September trip at $289 non-stop roundtrip per person via Norwegian. We booked at the end of December 2019 for our March 2020 trip, and found flights via Air France for $285 roundtrip per person. (Air France has since issued us vouchers for those tickets.) From what I've seen, flights around $350 are a good deal, and flights under $300 are a great deal.
The trip takes about 7 hours and 30 minutes. Our luggage routine includes carry-on only suitcases, a laptop loaded with movies, an audio splitter, and a Nintendo Switch for playing Mario Kart. With these items, some granola bars, and a nap here and there, a trip across the ocean in economy seats can be quite manageable.
CDG is about an hour by train from Paris. Taking public transportation (which we did) would include rides on the airport shuttle, the RER train, and the Paris Metro. Not as complex as it may sound.
During our trip, we walked, rode the metro, and called Ubers in order of frequency of use. Paris is very walkable, which means that you can traverse several miles a day without really noticing. Because the weather was so beautiful when we were there, we often chose to get around on foot so that we could see more of the city.
The metro is very convenient as well, but compared to the NYC subway, I was surprised by how close together (i.e. inefficiently spaced) the stations were. You can actually see the station before and after yours if you peer down the tunnel in either direction! Sometimes we'd check Google Maps and find that going on foot and taking the metro to a destination would take the same amount of time.
Between the two of us, we used two 10-packs of metro tickets over the course of a week (10-packs are cheaper per ride than single tickets). For future reference, Paris recently announced a phase-out of paper tickets, moving to a Metrocard-like refillable pass called Navigo Easy which we'll look into next time.
We also saw many people zipping around on rented scooters. It's something we may try as well.
Where We Stayed
For this trip, we thought it would be interesting to experience staying in two different neighborhoods. We began in an AirBnB in Le Marais and switched accommodations mid-week to Hotel Monge in the 5th arrondissement (also known as the Latin Quarter) on the Left Bank.
Kev found our AirBnB, a quirky place with a little Juliet balcony, not-quite level floors, a lofted bed, and an adorable, diminutive kitchen. We had to go up and down stairs in the flat to go from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen and living area, which added to the charm. The location turned out to be even better than we’d hoped. It was right at the edge of Le Marais, close to a couple of metro lines, and walking distance to many of the places we’d marked on our map.
From our window on the third floor, we had a nice view of the street, Rue de Turenne. We often kept the window shutters open to let the breeze and neighborhood sounds waft in. Our friend Kim, who’d moved from Brooklyn to London earlier in the year, met us for a few days in Paris and serendipitously picked out a place just around the corner. It felt like we were neighbors, which was surreal but also really cool.
We picked Hotel Monge as our second place to stay, a well-rated boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter. This place also has a hammam that you can book for private sessions, which I took advantage of, with inky black tiles that were lit with tiny dots of LED lights like the night sky. I really liked it here.
On this trip, we liked the Le Marais location more, mostly due to our AirBnB's proximity to several restaurants, sights, and shops that we'd wanted to check out.
Late mornings and later nights
While dinner reservations are typically available from 6pm on, we noticed that the heart of the dinner rush is usually later in the evening. The restaurants we visited seemed most busy as we were leaving around 8pm or later. In the evening, from our window over Rue de Turenne, we could see the crowd at the bistro on the corner, with people lingering over glasses of wine, stretching dinner until well past 11pm.
Mornings on this trip weren't as early as we typically like for them to be when we travel, but it felt right for where we were. Something about the vibe in the city nudged us to take it easy, and though we mostly obliged, we still ended up packing a lot (but not enough!) into the week.
Boot Cafe, a popular hole in the wall coffee shop that was just down the street from our AirBnB, was my preferred first stop of the day while we were in the area. However, I was surprised to learn that it doesn't open for business until 10am, which feels late for a cafe.
What We Did
While there, it seemed that we were often on the go, covering so much ground. And yet, there is so much we didn't see or do that we have on the list for future visits. Below, I cover selected highlights, including places we loved and some that we didn't, with plenty of pictures to go along. One aspect of our experience that I won't get into as deeply here is Parisian dining. It was a major part of why we loved Paris so much and why we're so excited to go back someday. I’ll touch on some of that here, but I’m saving the bulk of it for another post as I think it could otherwise easily overwhelm this recap.
Marché des Enfants Rouges
This market (the oldest covered market in the city, dating back to 1628) was a few minutes from our AirBnB, and our first stop on our first morning. We got a sandwich from Chez Alain Miam Miam, which is not for the faint of heart. Lots of ingredients, a satisfying amount of griddle grease on the bread, and two hands required. I'm not a big-time eater in the morning, but I really enjoyed the few bites I got in.
We arrived just after 10am and the market was not yet crowded. There are twenty or so stalls selling food, produce and other goods in this space. We picked up a bunch of freesia flowers for the apartment and munched on the sandwich on the way back to drop them off.
This market would be a great option for a casual bite, or for provisions for a picnic or a homemade meal. The entrance is unassuming and looks like a driveway behind a green gate. But inside, there are painted walls, compact rows of bench seating, and treasures aplenty to discover. There’s also a beautiful, old door right by the market entrance with a potted garden in front that’s worth a gander.
Montmartre & Pigalle
After the market, we went by metro to Montmartre, heading to the Sacre Couer Basilica high atop the hill, whose wide front steps offer sweeping views of the city below. Because the basilica is a popular tourist attraction, we decided that it would be a quick visit early in the day to try to get ahead of the larger crowds.
We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring the streets of Montmartre, visiting the Wall of Love, grabbing a baguette from Pain Pain and an espresso from Cafe Tabac, and checking out the photobooth I'd marked on the map (alas, it was out of order).
We made our way down the hill and into the neighborhood of Pigalle, passing by the Moulin Rouge. We stopped at hotel Le Pigalle, near the Pigalle metro station, for a quick break and a glass of wine, sitting at a small curbside table and people watching for a little bit.
Before heading back to Le Marais for lunch and to meet Kim, who'd arrived earlier in the day, our last stop in this area was the Musée de la Vie Romantique. It's a tiny museum located down a cobblestone alleyway. Upon entering, we found cottages from the 1830s with sage green shutters and rosebushes in the courtyard. The garden is open for tea and coffee, with the cafe counter located in the greenhouse. The museum is small enough to see in under 20 minutes, and entrance is free. If you're in the area, I would recommend stopping by for a peek.
Montmartre and Pigalle are two areas I'd love to see more of, as we only had a short time there on this trip. The sloped streets make for a very different feel from the other arrondissements, and we saw plenty of adorable boutiques and eateries on offer. Plus, I'm hoping they will have fixed up the photobooth by the next time we go.
We walked down to the Siene, and though we'd been in Paris only about 24 hours, I remember thinking that it had taken too long for us to get to the water. Along the way, we made a stop at Kerzon where I picked up a wonderfully summery smelling soap, and another as we passed through the Place des Vosges, a square park lined with trees, with sandboxes for children, a fountain, pups, and picnic-goers. We hung out on a bench there before moving on. It was such a lovely and peaceful place to be.
At the riverside, we picked up a large beer (again, to share - we were saving room for dinner!) from Les Nautes, a popular bar right on the bank, and squeezed into a spot at the edge of the water, our legs dangling over the side. It was crowded in a buzzy way, with people enjoying the warm afternoon, music playing from portable speakers, and river cruises occasionally passing by. The sun was getting low at this point, as golden hour set upon us while we sat by the Seine. I'm pretty sure this was the moment I fell in love with Paris.
The UNESCO World Heritage List includes "Paris, the banks of the Seine" as a site, and if you read the description, you understand that it's listed this way because the history of Paris can be seen from the river. But the banks of the Seine are a beauty unto themselves. A walk along the river will take you across the heart of the city, with pedestrian bridges aplenty to cross and two islands in the middle of the river to explore.
Mostly, I just wanted to hang riverside. On the next day, we went back to hang out there in the evening with Kim, bringing along a bottle of wine and a few mugs from our kitchen to drink it with.
Dinner that night at Au Passage was vegetable centric, amazing, and served up with interesting wines. Afterward, we hung out for a long time at the wine bar Margo on the recommendation of our waitress.
Atelier des Lumières
I was feeling rough the next morning after all of the wine consumed the prior night. However, we had 10am tickets to Atelier des Lumières and so I dragged myself into an Uber and we went.
The exhibit projects light on the walls and floors of factory-sized rooms at a large scale, and featured the art of Van Gogh while we were there. It was cool to see, but didn’t altogether feel like a new way to experience his artwork. I think this format would be awesome for space imagery and videos, or microbiology perhaps, but would skip it otherwise.
Aux Bon Crus
While we were planning the trip, we’d come across a timely New York Times article about a crop of canteen style eateries serving simple, classic French fare for low prices. Interested in trying one, we picked Aux Bon Crus.
Lunch here was indeed no frills. It was solid if not amazing, but I also wasn’t very hungry so we didn’t order a large spread to try. I enjoyed the ambiance greatly: vintage signage, white tablecloths, and a gathering of older gentlemen who were breaking out the bottles of red wine at 12:30 on a weekday. Dining there felt simple, pleasant, and approachable, which is exactly what I'd want in an everyday sort of place.
We met up with Kim and headed to the Musee D’Orsay next. Crossing the Place de la Concorde, through the Jardin des Tuileries and over the river, we arrived to crowds and live music outside the museum. It was almost too bright to be outside, with sunlight glaring off of the pavement as we waited in line. Our pre-purchased tickets allowed us to enter in just a few minutes' time.
Once inside the three of us fanned out, meandering around and only loosely keeping together through the exhibits. The museum is set in a converted train station which is both more novel and quirkier in person than you'd expect. Amongst the art, I found marble sculptures that awed me, paintings of sunrise over a desert that were maybe the most gorgeous use of color I’ve ever seen (one example pictured above. IRL the color is mesmerizing), and a whole room of fine china vases with intricate animal themed handles and feet that I snapped a few dozen pictures of. This is a museum I’d recommend.
After the museum, we visited one of the city’s covered passageways, picked up wine for the evening, and snacked on pain au chocolat from Maison Kayser and macarons from Lauduree. (Both of these establishments have locations outside of the country, including in NYC.)
L'avant Comptoir De La Mer
Our apéro hour was spent at this seafood wine bar, where we had the best butter of the trip and too little time to eat and drink. Again we were saving ourselves for dinner.
This place offered freshly shucked oysters and clams, simple preparations of all sorts of seafood, and interesting, unusual looking dishes that I would have loved to try had we had the room in our stomachs.
Our waiter was just as disappointed as we were by our small order. It's a must-visit stop for our next trip so that we can give it its due attention... and enjoy some more of that amazing butter.
My hangover from the prior night was in its last throes as we sat down for dinner at the famed Clown Bar.
So while I was able to enjoy most of it, I still felt off, and didn’t have too much wine or food at dinner. One dish in particular, a bocce ball sized meat pie with foie gras and duck, was too much for me to even to look at in that state. I couldn’t bring myself to try a single bite of it. A shame, and I'm sorry Clown Bar!
Wine by the Seine
By that evening, I was finally recovered and raring to get back to the riverbank. Kev and I packed up wine, a bottle opener, and some mugs from the AirBnB and met Kim to head over. We found a spot to sit and watched the city lights reflecting off the water. Though we couldn’t see the structure itself, we saw distant western skies lit up by the Eiffel Tower over the buildings behind us.
The trip home was probably the most energized I'd felt all that day. It was after midnight and there was a cozy quiet that had taken hold. How pretty Paris is at night.
The next day, we checked out of the AirBnB, leaving Le Marais. We checked into Hotel Monge in Paris 5 on the Left Bank, then spent the morning walking around our new neighborhood, stopping for a sidewalk coffee at Cafe Des Arts in the Place de la Contrescarpe. Lovers of the writers of the Lost Generation will recognize the name of this square from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.
Soon it was time to start the 37 minute walk over to Clamato for lunch with Kim. The journey was really enjoyable, and we got to see the mains and side streets in Paris 5, 4, and 11 as we dutifully followed Google maps. Since Clamato doesn’t take reservations, we’d agreed to meet at opening time to ensure we could get seated. The effort was rewarded with a sun dappled booth at the back of the restaurant with a view of the garden. We had a veritable feast of fresh seafood for lunch.
After lunch, we headed over to the kitchenware store E. Dehillerin via metro. We purchased a handsome copper sauce pot and I also scored a wooden spatula in a paddle shape that I’d been on the lookout for as a pottery tool. Miraculously, I was able to pack the small but substantial pot into my carry-on to bring home without exceeding the weight limit. All credit to my neurotic packing methodology.
Arc de Triomphe
Our next site to see being the Arc de Triomphe, we headed westward across the 1st arrondissement, passing through the Jardin du Palais Royale, wandering the passages of the beautifully tiled Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris's covered passageways filled with shops, and popping into the courtyard of the Louvre before getting on the metro.
We’d purchased tickets for the Arc ahead of time, and made the easy climb to the top in under five minutes. Although the structure isn't all that tall, you get amazing, long views down Paris’s wide boulevards which extend from the Arc like spokes on a wheel. The city has a relatively low skyline, and you can get a nice view of the Eiffel Tower rising well above the rooftops in the distance.
The only drawback for us in making this stop is that there weren’t many other places of interest to us in the immediate area. We hopped on the metro to head to the Eiffel Tower next.
It’s the Eiffel Tower. No surprises there.
The lawn in front was crowded with people on the grass and many vendors peddling Eiffel Tower keychains, bottle openers, and magnets that light up like the tower does at night.
Although we like to climb things in general, we skipped this very crowded line. The swarm of people waiting really put me off. I would advise any visitor to skip the climb as well, and to use that saved time to keep exploring the city. Climb the Arc instead and enjoy the view of the tower.
From the Eiffel Tower, we called an Uber to Verjus for our dinner reservation. I loved this meal with its adorable location, inventive food, and a dining room that boomed with the contagious laughter of a particularly good humored patron throughout the night. Afterward, Kim somehow powered through and headed back to the Eiffel Tower to see the light show, whereas I was utterly defeated by my food coma and retired back to the hotel with Kev.
Château de Versailles
We woke up early on our fifth day in Paris to procure picnic ingredients from the shops on nearby Rue Mouffetard before taking the metro and then the RER train to visit Chateau de Versailles.
Rue Mouffetard in Paris 5 is one of the oldest streets in the city and a remnant of a Roman road that once led all the way to Rome. Today, it's a marché in street form, with small produce shops and specialty stores selling meats, cheeses, and wine.
We hoped that visiting Versailles on a Tuesday would mean a reduced number of people but that was not the case. The line was hundreds of people deep, folding back on itself like intestines, and just as unappealing to behold. With our pre-ordered tickets, we went through the entrance behind only about fifteen people. Pre-ordering made such a difference here.
My quick take on Versailles is that it was gorgeous, it was HUGE, and overall, it was unenjoyable and I wouldn’t go again. It’s very beautiful. But it wasn’t my speed.
Inside, I felt I was one of a herd of sheep being ushered along a very restrictive path. The crowds were crushing and detracted greatly from the experience. That said, you can’t help but to notice the grandeur and opulence all around. Such fine details. Such exquisite finishes. The place embodies the term “fit for royalty” and I had a growing sense as we went of how grotesque a display of wealth it all was. Of course the French Revolution happened, I thought.
We left the grounds after a tour around the musical gardens, stopping to eat the picnic we packed of fruit and cut saucisson that we’d bundled into a disposable shower cap from the hotel. Without making our way all the way across the property to see Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, we cut our visit short and headed back to the city.
Rue des Rosiers
We picked up macarons from Pierre Herme in unusual flavors such as pu-er tea, fig, rose-lychee-raspberry, and orange blossom-lemon-honey, and stopped at one of the Breizh Cafe locations for a simple crepe and a pitcher of cider before heading back to the hotel to drop things off before dinner.
Our reservation for that night was at Septime, right next door to Clamato, its sister restaurant. The dining room was beautiful with wide open windows and flowers all over. We enjoyed great food once again, with candlelight and orange wine. Afterward, we walked home through the city at night, passing through Rue de Lappe, crossed back over the Seine, and watched Ratatouille in our hotel room while enjoying those Pierre Herme macarons.
Du Pain et Des Idees
We woke on Wednesday morning earlier than usual to head to Du Pain et Des Idees in the 10th arrondissement for breakfast pastries. Kev got the pistachio escargot (a swirly confection) that the patisserie is famous for, and I got the chocolate and banana croissant (loved it). We each ordered an espresso and stood at the bar outside the shop to eat.
Our next stop was to nearby La Tresorerie, including the Suite La Tresorerie across the street from the main store, to browse their beautiful collection of home goods. I brought home a small wooden hand brush to use for brushing clay dust off of my work surfaces.
In the afternoon, we crossed over to Ile Saint Louis for ice cream from Berthillon, which was one of the first places that Kev's mom recommended to us when we told her we were planning this trip. This island was quieter and more residential than Ile de la Cite and the banks on either side.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, visiting the concept store Empreintes, sitting down at Fragments for lunch, sampling some beers at La Fine Mousse, and finishing the day with dinner at Maison.
Our Last Day
Before leaving on an evening flight on our final day, we set out for a last walk around the city.
We visited the Pantheon, stopped for crepes, walked around the Jardin du Luxembourg, enjoyed a glass of wine at Maison Maison by the Pont Neuf, and picked up some baked goods from Le Petit Grain to snack on. It all felt ordinary in the best way, a glimpse of what living there might be for us.
Going back through my Paris pictures was a wonderful and much needed escape on the one hand, and on the other, made me both long for the day when we can go out into the world again, and mourn what I know will no longer be the same about travel.
But beautiful places like this will remain, as they have across history, even if the way we interact with them will be different. Cities like Paris, like New York, are getting through the pandemic because each of their millions of residents are individually resolving to stay indoors to stop the spread, putting our lives on hold for the greater good. Applause rings out every night in both Paris and NYC, so that from sunset to sunset across our timezones, we are unified in our gratitude for the Parisians and New Yorkers who put themselves at risk to care for the sick, to keep our cities running.
So in a strange way, I've never felt so close to Paris. Here are more pictures from this amazing city.
Clockwise from top left: Jardin du Luxembourg, the walk back from Frenchie, a bridge over the Seine, La Droguerie (a crepe shop on Rue des Rosiers)
Clockwise from top left: Sweet shrimp amuse bouche at Frenchie, goodies at Du Pain et Des Idees, another shot of the sweet kitchen at our AirBnB, a lush walkway in Paris 5, the delicious orange wine we ordered with dinner at Septime
Clockwise from top left: La Creperie near the Jardin du Luxembourg, an aubergine door, Place de Furstemberg, sidewalk plants, golden hour in Paris, lofted sleeping quarters at the AirBnB
Clockwise from top left: Église Saint-Eustache, some very french street art, market bags at Merci, the cafe at Merci, Rue du Nil, a florist on the Left Bank, the door of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, flower boxes on balconies
Clockwise from top left: Outside Au Passage, pots & pans at the AirBnB, more flowers, La Tresorerie, linen napkins at Merci, marble detail at Musee D'Orsay, Odette
Clockwise from top left: A nook in Empreintes, ivy on Rue Clovis in Paris 5, students outside of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, a side street near Au Passage, a spiral staircase at chocolatier Jacques Genin, La Creperie again, Clamato, Shakespeare & Co's cafe, Breizh Cafe, Sainte Chapelle
Left: Pantheon, Right: Across the Seine
Clockwise from top left: View from atop the Arc, view from window at Verjus, Boot Cafe, a flower shop in the adorable, tiny, and tucked Place de Furstemberg
Clockwise from top left: Figs were in season as we saw at Du Pain et Des Idees, street scene on the Left Bank, Frenchie, night scene on the way back from Septime, swans on the Seine, the butcher shop on Rue du Nil