"It is the ugliest beastly town in the universe" wrote Horace Walpole. Almost everyone else disagrees. It seems that more has been written and sung about Paris than any other city on earth. Everyone who has visited Paris comes away with a little bit of it as their own, and everyone who has not yet visited Paris keeps the idea of spending some time in Paris as a yet-to-be-fulfilled ambition.
We may even long be very young and carefree and live in Paris for a few years in the company of Ernest Hemingway and his friends. Paris of the 1920s fueled some good literature and some great memoirs, but Paris has always lent itself freely to romantic natures and to over-romantic memories. And visiting Paris in 1920 is no longer an option.
Luckily, the 1990s are a great time to visit Paris. Even a few days in the capital will give you a feeling for it, and a closer connection with this most famous of cities. If you love the place you might tear up your return ticket and stay forever - you wouldn't be the first to do that. Or you might think that two or three days are enough and head out into the French countryside very well satisfied.
However long you stay, you must be prepared to walk. Stride down the Champs Eleysee as the troops of Napoleon, Hitler and the Allied Armies of Liberation have done. Stroll over to Faubourg St. Honoré and see the designer stores with price tags that might make Marie Antoinette think twice. Take a good look at the Place de la Concorde and recognize the fountain from movie sets (American in Paris) and remember that on this site, just a few steps from the designer shops, is where Marie Antoinette and much of the French nobility lost their heads.
"The veneer of Paris is the thinnest in the world" according to Hilare Belloc. If you were to spend two or three days of wandering aimlessly in Paris, looking through this thin veneer into the heart of the city, you would not regret it.
Every doorway you peer into, every whiff of baking your nose notices, every crooked street you can follow will each be the highlights of Paris in your memory. But the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre are there too.
Here's a personal list of a few must-sees in Paris which are best used to punctuate ambles around the city.
The best use of this (or any other list) of things to do and see in Paris is as destinations for your walks. If you walk to any of these great sites, fabulous as they are, and find that getting there has not been at least half the fun, you may send me the bill for your walking shoes.
The Champs Elysées: Before Napoleon, Paris did not have this grand boulevard. The Little Emperor blasted it through the city to facilitate the movements of his troops. A good first stop is the French Government Tourist Office at #127 which will provide schedules of regional events, maps, and advice for your visit in France.
The Louvre: Half a day is not enough, half a lifetime might suffice if you were quick. But even a couple of hours to contemplate a small fraction of the artworks in this palace is better than nothing.
The Eiffel Tower: Best seen from a distance.
The Left Bank: Was existentialism invented there? The most difficult question may not be about the meaning of life, but where to stop for the next expresso. Don't look for big monuments, it's the recent history that makes the quarter sing.
Notre Dame Cathedral: Older than almost anything else in Paris Try to go when the crowds are least and remember that it has been a place of worship for a thousand years. Notre Dame has no hunchbacks, but there are plenty of gargoyles.
La Musée d'Orsay: Formerly a train station, the architecture is still a controversy, but there's agreement on the value of the works of the impressionists on display inside. An interesting view of the city from the museum caf.
The Picasso Museum: No one thinks Picasso's best works are housed in this museum, but just finding this place will give you a tour of Le Marais, one of the oldest and most interesting parts of the inner city.
Montmartre: The famous wedding-cake church of Sacré Coeur has the definitve view of over the rooftops of Paris and is in a neighbourhood still favoured by artists.
The Rodin Museum: Even if you only remember the statue of The Thinker, you'll love this small museum. There's a cafeteria discreetly tucked into the wall of the long quiet garden and lots of benches for sitting in the sunlight. It's just across the street from Napoleon's Tomb, and unlike almost all museums in Paris, The Musée Rodin is open Tuesdays.
The one exception to the Walk Everywhere rule might be a first-visit orientation cruise on a bâteau mouche, the tour boats which Parisians liken to flies (mouches) because the bubble windows resemble insect eyes. Paris grew up around the Seine, these tour boats give a rare glimpse of the city from the water. It's a popular way to see the city by night, and it's the perfect way to use your first few jet-lagged hours while your hotel room gets ready for you.
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