People dream all their lives of visiting Paris. So when they finally get the opportunity, they want to see EVERYTHING. They research top sights on Google, make lists, read Tripadvisor, buy guidebooks, and generally try to pack in as much as possible. And they ask locals like me for advice about itineraries like this:
- Day 1: Airport to the hotel, lunch near Notre Dame Cathedral, boat trip on Seine, Eiffel Tower, and Champs Elysées & Arc de Triomphe.
- Day 2: Louvre museum, Tuileries & Concorde, Sacre Coeur & Montmartre.
- Day 3: Conciergerie, Orsay Museum, Luxembourg Gardens, Pantheon and Catacombs.
- Day 4: Day trip to Versailles Palace and visit the Marais & Bastille neighborhoods in the evening.
After reading this type of itinerary, I usually sigh and point them to my bucket list tips of things to do in Paris. It is technically to follow this itinerary, but I hope you brought a comfortable pair of shoes!
It is at this point that I usually introduce my foreign friends to the French word “flâner”. Why would you want to rush around, especially on holiday?! Most French people do not rush around on their vacations, even when visiting a city like Paris. (It could also be because they generally have 6-10 weeks vacations compared to the North American 2-3 weeks, but I digress.)
Flâner is the art of strolling around. It involves wandering towards whatever catches your eye, discovering hidden corners, and seeing beyond the facade. The itinerary I have above is doable, but one that misses the French idea of flâner. It doesn’t see the forest for the trees. (It is also one that doesn’t consider long queues, public holidays, strikes and other unforeseen closures.)
What you should do instead
Visiting Paris should be more than ticking off a bunch of places off of a list. Paris is about wandering about and stumbling into a tiny secret garden in the Marais, hidden in a square.
Notice that street food vendor that seems to be serving something so delicious, a long line of locals are patiently waiting their turn. Walk down the Canal Saint-Martin at dusk and watch the locals play pétanque and enjoying their apéro picnics by the water. Wander through Belleville and come across a pig’s head in the window of a boucherie (butcher’s shop). Right next to it is an artists’ hideout and art gallery. The real Parisian experience is about looking around and noticing the plaque on the wall outside an elementary school, honoring the young Jewish students deported by the Nazis from that very spot.
Paris off the beaten path
Âme – Spirit, Heart, and SoulFrench – English Definition
Paris is the beauty and the history, the sadness and the triumphs, the search for the soul of the city. In French, the word for soul is “âme”, from the Latin word “anima”, meaning the breath and respiration.
When I visit any place, I want to breathe in the space and imagine what it would be like to live there. In Paris, just pondering the depth of history of the people who have walked in those same footsteps is amazing. And not just the famous people, but the ordinary people, whose lives became extraordinary because of the events of their time. Revolutions, wars, liberations, things that have all marked the city and its inhabitants.
Just imagine if you saw the Mona Lisa on display at the Met Museum in New York, instead of at the Louvre. It would be wonderful, but it is not the same. Going to the Louvre Palace is imagining King Philip II ordering the peasants to construct the original fortress to protect Paris from the English in Normandy. And just imagine Napoleon Bonaparte striding down its halls with his bounty of plundered loot from across Europe!
Advice from a Local: how to organize your trip to Paris
So next time you are planning a trip to France, rather than following a set itinerary, I suggest: book one set of tickets per day for the sights you want to see and get a general idea of where you want to go. (Sights like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum should be booked in advance because lines are long, quite unaccommodating to being a flâneur/flâneuse.)
But after that, just wander around. Go where the locals go, discover your own Paris, and make your own memories. You’ll cherish it a lot more than seeing the Mona Lisa with a hundred other people trying to elbow you out!
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