Paris is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, and consequently one of the busiest. Backpacking in Europe will bring you into contact with some of the most unexpected places and people, but a trip to Paris would not be one of those experiences. I thought Paris was amazing, but I would have to say that there were so many expectations leading up to my stay, that some of it fell short. Thus, I felt it would be useful to know how to approach a trip to this city.
Through my month of travelling, I generally felt welcomed by locals who understood that I was eager to learn about their country, culture, and food. I had visited small, tranquil towns, and larger cities with a feeling that I was experiencing their country. Paris does not have this feeling. I honestly felt like I was getting a tourist’s experience, wandering between large Asian tour groups and individual groups of travelers, to get from Attraction A to B. Some of the things I saw were breath-taking, like stained class masterpieces in La Chapelle, but I felt like I was moving through a premeditated experience conjured by years upon years of tourism. I feel that many people anticipate going to Paris and have built up an idealized experience, that there is no way that an actual place could meet all their expectations.
You should expect crowds and waits at most of the popular attractions, with common tourist interactions including but not limited to:
- Incessant selfies
- The use of selfie sticks
- Whining children
- Lack of personal space
- “Is this the right line” followed by moments of panic to find out if it is in fact the “right line”
- “Is it worth the wait?”
- “It must be worth the wait”
- “Why is the line not moving?”
I’m only half-joking, as most tourists are polite, but there are bound to be some strenuous moments. The locals are friendly enough, but I guess when you see so many tourists over and over again, you become desensitized to tourists. I felt safe in Paris and I didn’t feel that they were unwelcoming, but I also think that Paris isn’t the best place to meet French people.
Paris is a mecca for famous artwork and has many notable museums. Maybe it is my ignorance towards art and art history that led to my failure to appreciate the vastness of the collections in world-famous museums. I visited the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay and while I can say I enjoyed both, I would not say they were my favorite museums. Like many casual art lovers, a few hours in a museum is plenty of time to appreciate art, but repeatedly walking through the massive showrooms dulls the excitement of every subsequent room. At a certain point, grandeur starts being less impressive and you will pass notable paintings without a second glance.
The most well-known painting in the world is housed in the Louvre, cordoned off from the public behind ropes and bulletproof glass. The Mona Lisa shares a room with other paintings, the one directly across is a gigantic mural that nobody remembers. It is the busiest room in the museum, and probably the busiest room of any museum in Paris. The increasing eagerness and anticipation in viewing the work matched the mood in the room. However, the actual painting seemed so diminutive beside some of the other great works. Tourists crowded in a semi-circle, sticking up phones, Ipads, and cameras in an awkward sea of amateur paparazzi for a rather plain-looking woman. Pictures that catch a reflection off glass anyways and can’t really amaze your friends back home. I was excited, but I really didn’t follow the hype.
My best advice for enjoying museums is to find the stories behind the artwork and spend time learning about individual artists and paintings. My favorites, Sorolla and Monet, have interesting backgrounds to their works and lives, which led me to enjoy browsing their works. I loved how Musee D’Orsay was arranged into different genres of art from different periods, with ample descriptions of each style. Browsing through the Neo Impressionism section was interesting, even though I didn’t recognize the names on the walls.
I traveled to Paris on the border between the off-season and busy season of travel, near the end of June, where children were beginning to leave school for the year and the weather begins to improve. I did not expect the amount of tourists that I encountered and the lines at popular attractions astounded me. In Barcelona, another popular destination, the beaches and main attractions were crowded, but manageable. I couldn’t even compare those crowds to Paris.
Pay attention to when attractions are closed! Musee D’Orsay is closed on Mondays, while most other museums are closed on a Tuesday. I took this as a misguided sign that I should visit D’Orsay on Tuesday, as it was open. Tuesdays are the worst day to visit D’Orsay, as all other museum-goers end up at D’Orsay for the day. I am not a fan of waiting for attractions, but for museums, coming in advance of opening time is strongly recommended to avoid hour-long waits. I wish I had viewed this guide before planning my days in Paris.
The catacombs of Paris are also on many tourists’ to-do list, and while a unique attraction, the organization of this attraction left much to be desired. Only 200 people are allowed through the site at one time, and given that tourists take over 45 minutes inside, any line after the initial 200 people tends to be a tedious wait.
There are waits for just about anything that is worth the effort to see or experience. One afternoon, armed with knowledge of an address and a map, I searched for a notable falafel stand, L’As Du Fallafel in the Jewish quarter of the city. Arriving on the correct street, I passed three falafel stands of increasing popularity, when I reached my target and then realized that the previous three stands were for people who didn’t have the luxury of waiting in line. There were about 40 people in line to buy street food, albiet some of the best street food I had ever tasted.
Paris is a huge metropolitan sprawl, with great distances between some attractions. I nearly spent a week in the city and didn’t get to enjoy all of it. I can comfortably say that you won’t be bored in Paris, but don’t expect a magical experience.