First France Trip!
June 17, 2013 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Seeking advice for a two-week France adventure

My friend and I are planning on going to France for two weeks in the second half of October, and we're on the verge of booking our flights/lodging. I just wanted to lay out the general plan and seek some general advice, since this will be our first time traveling to Europe. Tips on anything--including flights/deals, getting around, stuff that's good to know, eating, etc--would be greatly appreciated.

Our main goal is just to go and see all the major sights around Paris--particularly want to visit the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Catacombs (a little further), etc. We're also interested on splurging on a couple nice French meals--we love food, so eating well should definitely be part of the experience. So far, we're planning on two weeks, flying out on a Wed (supposedly a good time to fly?). We searched up tickets by just typing the plan into Google and found roundtrip options around 1200 (rounded up)/person. We're looking at staying in a little place in Montmartre (via that's very close to the LAMARCK subway station, and just using the metro to go out and visit places every day. How feasible is this? We're both young (mid-late twenties) and healthy so lots of walking should not be a problem. We don't have a set itinerary for each day.

So far we've budgeted around 3500 US/person, which includes flight, lodging (based on the vrbo listing rates), metro passes covering 2 weeks, museum pass, food + gifts. I'm sure we're missing a bunch of little costs somewhere in there, but it seems like a pretty reasonable budget. Soooooo:

1) Any other costs that we should definitely factor in? (probably telephone/calling cards)
2) Any recommendations as to places to visit/eat? Like I said above, we love museums, cool historical places, good food.
3) Any other tips regarding getting around Paris? How does the above plan sound?

Thanks in advance! I'm not the most experience planner when it comes to travel, so any insight is welcome! :)
posted by sprezzy to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (22 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Musée d'Orsay is fantastic!

Contact people you know who are in france / paris. Local knowledge makes a world of difference in the experience. I didn't really enjoy paris the first time I went (too touristy) but I loved it the second time. The difference? tractorfeed and partner hosted us, showed us around and gave us tips. Eating at a good tiny corner bistro, knowing where to get croissants, what park to visit and hanging out by the canal eating bread and cheese and drinking wine/beer on a sunny afternoon. Awesome.
posted by srboisvert at 2:32 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Something I've always wanted to try (and will, next time I'm there) is Voulez Vous Diner, where you have dinner with a local family.

If the line is crazy at the Louvre, take a short walk over to the Musée de l'Orangerie. Most tour groups never stop here and it's amazing.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:42 PM on June 17, 2013

If you have even the slightest interest in his art, don't miss the Musée Gustave Moreau. The bottom floors preserve his home and furnishings, and you go up a little spiral staircase to enormous chambers full of his most famous paintings, plus bins and bins and racks of hundreds of smaller works you sort of paw through to see. It's hard to arrange a more intimate encounter with famous 19th C. art.

Also don't miss Père Lachaise Cemetery. The tomb of Oscar Wilde, covered in lipstick kisses, is particularly moving, but look around for Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Abelard and Héloïse, Paul Éluard, Sadegh Hedayat, Gertrude Stein, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:43 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why would you pay for telephone/calling cards? If you're taking a laptop, you can use Skype or Google Voice.

Be aware that Patris metro tickets are an awkward size and shape to carry, so have a good system for keeping track of how many you have and where on your person they are.
posted by knile at 2:47 PM on June 17, 2013

That's not a France adventure, that's a trip to Paris. It's a whole country and mostly quite lovely. I'm a fan of Carcasonne, the Perigord region, the Gouffre de Padirac, the Normandy beaches, the Pont du Gard, all kinds of places.
posted by w0mbat at 2:54 PM on June 17, 2013

Response by poster: Oops apologies...I didn't mean to imply that I think Paris is the only place to see there. I just used "France" to cover the entire area. Of course I know there are many other beautiful regions and if anyone has tips or suggestions on visiting those, I'd love to hear it!

Thanks, w0mbat!
posted by sprezzy at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2013

If you want to see more of France than than just Paris, I can recommend heading to the south coast (which only takes 3 hours or something via TGV). I've just got home from a couple of months of backpacking around France, and my favourite places were the cities down there. Marseille is lovely and is the European capital of culture this year so there should be plenty going on, Toulon has the most amazing market for fresh and local food, and seems to be going through a regeneration at the moment, and I heard great things about Montpellier, though I didn't have time to visit it myself. I'd avoid the richer and tourist-ier parts of the Cote d'Azur (Nice, Monaco, Cannes etc), but if you do go there I'm sure there will be loads to do too.
posted by Ned G at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2013

Enter your flight specs into this site and set up an alert, too. Also, Kayak offers fare alerts. I was most recently able to get a round-trip, NYC/Paris, for about $600 for my partner, who has to frequently make that trip. That's insanely low, but I've recently seen fares in the $700-$800 range, if you can be a little bit flexible. Be ready to snap up a low fare, as they go quickly. The airline offering the fare was XL Airways France, which gets terrible reviews for communication. Seriously, their English is awful. But if you speak French, not a big deal.
posted by houseofdanie at 3:23 PM on June 17, 2013

If you do decide to get a phone or SIM card, consider all the other options, like SFR, before going with Orange (nee France Telecom). I just picked up an Orange SIM card last month and it was insanely expensive, with like a 30 euro set up fee before you can even use it. Blech. Also before you count on using Skype or Google Voice, a lot of the WiFi access in the various hotels will be really slow, so it might not work out so well.

If you're looking to go out for any really, really nice meals, like haute-cuisine, Michelin-stars kind of nice (which you don't have to, but is certainly A Thing in Paris), investigate your options and call a month or more ahead to get the best chance at a reservation that's compatible with your schedule.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 3:30 PM on June 17, 2013

Okay, so first off, hold your horses on ordering those tickets. We have found that around a month before anticipated travel, the prices drop pretty significantly. Case in point: this summer, flights to Paris were just damned ridiculous. $1600 round trip. And that's with one stop. With a little flexibility, I ended up paying $900 for my ticket to go in July. I'll be flying into Brussels, but even with the added train fare it's still a much better price. Also: bonus city! (And chocolate!) And I'll be leaving on a Saturday and returning on a Sunday, so the old rules about traveling on Wednesday to economize may just not be so set in stone. So the lesson that I impart to you is to wait to purchase those tickets, and think about what you could do to be more flexible about locations you fly into. You've got two weeks. It isn't like you're going to waste 60% of your trip on trains to and from your destination.

There are plenty of threads on AskMe about where to eat in Paris, so you should have an easy time figuring out places that are recommended (as well as those which aren't). People may be hesitant to retype all their Paris restaurant suggestions here because it is just repetitive and it's a well-worn path on AskMe. (But I will again specifically mention that Chez Marianne in Le Marais is an excellent and delicious option for a late lunch.)

As for how to organize this, I'd start with trying to decide how far afield you're willing to travel. Are you willing to rent a car? Are you willing to take regional rail? Or are you sticking to those Metro cards religiously?

When I was 17, my mom and I spent 10 days in France. It was our first time. At that point, I spoke no French and she spoke only high school French from 30+ years before. We picked up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle and immediately drove to Mont Saint Michel. There's an excellent bed and breakfast there - maybe a little splurgey, but it's only one night or so, right? - called Le Manoir de la Roche Torin. It has a view of the island abbey in the distance, and if you schedule a dinner in the glass-walled restaurant, you can watch the sun set over the beautiful silhouette in the distance. There you can have the local delicacy - agneau de pré salé (salt marsh lamb), and a calvados (apple brandy) with a cheese board.

The next day we drove from there to La Rochelle, stopping for lunch on the harbor with its ancient battlements. (That was where I first tasted Orangina. A formative experience, clearly.) And afterward, we drove on to the Pyrenees, where we were visiting a friend who was seeking a spiritual experience at the shrine at Lourdes. Even if you aren't religious, a trip like this can be a truly magical experience. The mountain villages and local markets are each a treasure unto themselves. Or if you don't wish to go that far, you can stop in Bordeaux, tour vineyards and take a day trip to Bearritz! Or slip over the mountain tops into Northern Spain and visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We drove into Northern Spain and went to Pamplona for lunch - where they run the bulls, and where Ernest Hemingway took up residence. It's all an easy day trip from the Pyrenees.

On our way back, we stopped in Chartres, where the great cathedral rises like a Kubrick-esque monolith out of the flat French countryside. It is worth seeing, whether on a day trip out of Paris or as a stop on your tour.

And then we stopped in Paris and we did all of the things that you suggested. We abandoned our car at the airport and used public transit without any issue. My cousin is French and her family took us to the Tour Montparnasse for dinner at Le Ciel de Paris. It is quite possibly a tourist trap. But there's something magical about getting to see that view of the Eiffel Tower as it sparkles in the night. We did the Louvre. I went to the Musée d'Orsay twice because I couldn't get enough of it. And we went to the Rodin Museum, which was spectacular. We stopped by all the churches in the Latin Quarter and found two concerts we wanted to hear. Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers in Notre-Dame and Vivaldi's Four Seasons in Sainte-Chapelle (which is a regular feature). We went to Sacre-Coeur, which was a madhouse and under renovation. But didn't know to check out the amazing little flea markets at the base of Montmartre. (Which I did years later with my cousin.) We zoomed by the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergere. I browsed in Shakespeare & Co. and got ice cream outside Cluny, the Middle Ages Museum (which was closed for renovations). We went to a market in the Latin Quarter. We took a ride on one of the Bateaux Mouches. And we ate pastries at every possible opportunity.

And we did all of that Paris stuff in 3 days. We didn't see Versailles. We didn't see Monet's gardens (which you could make a stop on your way to Mont Saint Michel). We didn't go visit Fontainebleau. We didn't do Parc Asterix or Euro Disney. We didn't see Pere Lachaise cemetery. We didn't go up in the Eiffel Tour. And aside from a joyride around the Arc de Triomphe, we didn't spend any time on the Champs-Élysée.

I guess what I'm getting at is that you can probably do a whole lot of things in Paris in 2 weeks. You can probably check off all the Standard Tourist Destinations. But you can also make a major dent in them in 5-7 days. So maximize those other 5-7 days and see some of the other amazing things France has to offer!!!

I'm headed back for my fourth trip to France this summer, and there are still things that I haven't done on that list. It's about prioritization and it is about knowing yourself and how you travel and what you want to do. Feel free to memail me if you have any questions.
posted by jph at 3:40 PM on June 17, 2013

Places to see/eat in Paris, previously. Question was from a couple of weeks ago, so answers should still be relevant. Enjoy the trip!
posted by asciident at 6:04 PM on June 17, 2013

Why did you choose Montmartre? While it's fine (e.g. safe), and can be pretty, it's not very central. You might look into staying in the Marais or Bastille area, which are more central and are a bit more happening, esp. at night.
posted by benbenson at 6:14 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've lived in Paris for nearly three years of my life, in several installments, and traveled fairly widely in France (not so much the Nord-Pas de Calais or Normandy, but much of the rest of the country). I can make recommendations about specific things, but your question is fairly open-ended.

Do either of you speak French? If so, you have a leg up on many tourists. In Paris, odds are that you'll find someone who speaks enough English for you to communicate, but elsewhere, the odds drop. If you speak French and bring a couple of passport-sized photos with you, you can get Navigo passes for the Métro/RER/Transilien network, which provides transport for all of the Île-de-France region, not only Paris. You want the Navigo Découverte*, which costs 5 €, and then you can add your subscription, which is a lot cheaper than the Paris Visite card (if you're going to stay in Paris most of the time; the weekly Métro passes run Monday through Sunday). The city of Paris is zones 1-2; beyond that, there is a zone system in which fares increase the further you go. However, the regional system recently introduced a policy where the zones don't apply on weekends. So if you want to visit places in the region, you can get a Paris-only card (or zones 1-3 if you want to visit places in the adjacent suburbs) and then do a weekend trip to Meaux, Fontainebleau, Versailles, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (mostly kidding, though it is a good example of French New Urbanism in the 60s and 70s) without having to pay extra. The website has a decent English section. (Travel information in France is complicated. The RATP handles the Metro and 2 of the RER lines. The SNCF handles the other RER lines, other commuter trains, and long-distance trains. However, the Transilien is a regional consortium that consolidates information on transit in Île-de-France.)

Many Parisian parks and the district (arrondissement) town halls have free WiFi. With Skype, you can keep in touch without having to spend a lot on roaming.

One tip that will save you hours of frustration: restaurants and shops in Paris will take credit cards with magnetic stripes (usually), but most automatic machines--including those from which you buy your metro and train tickets--only accept cards with a chip+PIN system (a "puce" as they say in France). The main exception is the Vélib' bike share system, which will take Amex magnetic stripe cards, but not others. You can get a Vélib' subscription (even a 1-day one) online with your US credit card. But for buying train tickets, you should either arrive at the station well in advance and be prepared to wait, or find a French travel agent who is an authorized SNCF agent (SNCF is the state railway company). For Métro tickets/passes, you can go to a major station (any of the Paris Métro stations that also has an RER station, and a few others, such as Strasbourg-Saint Denis), which have ticket counters. Most of the stations, though, no longer have counters, just machines that only take cards with chips or coins, not banknotes. (I did see one machine at the Denfert-Rochereau RER station that took banknotes, but that's the only one I've seen in all of Paris, not that I was looking too closely.) But you can buy Métro and RER tickets and passes at any tobacconist's shop with the RATP or Navigo logos on them.

If you have specific questions about traveling outside of Paris, let me know by memail. The same for restaurant recommendations. If you can give me an approximate total budget for your memorable dinner, I can give more useful advice; it matters whether you want to spend 50 € per person or 150 €.

*Some RATP agents will insist that the Navigo Découverte card is only available to residents of the Parisian region or French citizens. This is not true. If someone tells you that, smile, nod politely, then go to another agent.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:17 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I lived in Paris for four years and just returned from a visit there last week - I'm jealous of your two week trip - I'm ready to go back! Just a few random thoughts below:

1. Phone card. Contrary to even just five years ago I did not see one person using a phone booth and most looked vandalized and borderline nonfunctional. Everyone has a mobile phone so if you think you'll need a phone for those at home to contact you or to make restaurant reservations or coordinate other plans you should get a SIM card (assuming you have an unlocked GSM-band phone - not CDMA, i.e., Verizon) and buy voice/data credits. I'd also recommend SFR vs. Bouygues or Orange - the network is reputedly better and the SIM and usage credits are cheaper. SIM card will run you about 25 Euros and you can get one at any SFR boutique, FNAC or Darty stores. I used my old 3G jailbroken iPhone and it worked fine.

2. Public WiFi. In theory it is available (and Starbucks is the place to go if you need it) but is less available than it used to be due to the HADOPI law. In other words, you can't rely on it. Make sure your AirBnB place has wifi and they provide you with the login credentials. Any place you rent should have it - this is not an unreasonable requirement.

3. Arrondissement. Unless you're wedded to staying near Montmarte you might want to look at a more central location like somewhere in the 11th. It's close enough to be an easy (20-30 minute) walk into the heart of Paris, i.e., Notre Dame or the Louvre but just a bit out so that the rents are less expensive. I just rented a two-bedroom place with washer and dryer on the 1st floor off the street (so no street noise) for $140/night.

4. Walking. While taking the Metro is easy and nice, you will want to walk everywhere. Buy a little map booklet from any kiosk (even though you might have/use a smartphone/gps) as it's just as easy and sometimes more convenient. Bring band-aids. While French bandages are *awesome* (there's a certain brand that adheres to your skin - I don't understand why we don't have these in the US!) they are also expensive. Even if you are used to walking *a lot* at home it's not the same as walking all day, every day. My cousin (who I was just traveling with) and I spent more than 100 euros on band-aids. And I should know better. Don't be us.

5. Cool walks. Walk the Promenade Plantée or down the canals from Parc de la Villette to the Seine.

6. Websites. The following have various Paris posts that may give you some ideas re: places to check out/things to do:

David Liebovitz. A former Chez Panisse baker who's lived in Paris for years.

Messy Nessy Chic

My Little Paris

... there are tons more sites but these are just a handful I like.

7. Others above have noted places they like but I'll throw in my four cents: the Rodin Museum (outdoor sculptures!), Sainte Chapelle, Versailles, Pere lachaise. You'll need a whole day for Versailles but it is worth it if you're interested in history or want a fun excuse to take the train out of the city for a day. You can wander in and out and around Pere Lachaise for however long you like.

Okay, that's it for now. As I'm sure you've gathered there are an infinite number of things to do in Paris and everyone has their favorites. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions or want any more info. I'm not an expert but I have spent a lot of time there over the past 15 years so am happy to answer any questions. Most importantly: don't stress and have a great time!!!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:17 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think Montmartre is fine for a hotel - it will be cheaper in that area, and the metro is indeed practical. You'll very probably get around mostly on foot though, Paris is a walker's paradise!

Loads of good recommendations about Paris already posted here. As for other parts of France to visit, absolutely try out the south. Even "just" Lyon is wonderful, with Roman ruins, loads of cinema, wonderful food, bookstores galore, and neat landmarks. It's a very different feel from Paris, much more intimate even though it too is a large city.

Marseille and Toulon are gorgeous indeed.

Not sure why the French Riviera was de-recommended by another poster... it's recognizable for a reason :) plenty of reasons! It's easy to reach by train from Marseille/Toulon, and Nice and Antibes are the best stops. Cannes is pretty boring when the film festival isn't on, likewise, Monaco is rather "meh" though worth a day to see the castle and gardens. In Nice there are several museums - Matisse and Chagall both lived here, modern artist Ben is still around, the Villa Arson is situated on a Roman site and has other modern art galleries as well. Our new mayor has gone all-out on improving the city and it's had a real facelift these last few years, very easy to get around by tram and on foot. Neat prehistoric, Greek and Roman ruins as well; Nice's history dates back to the first humans in Europe, and there are a lot of traces of them in the city and surrounding area. Then there are the villages perchés, but you would need to rent a car for those. Or, you can take the small train to Tende that goes past a couple, including destination Tende itself, though they're slightly less impressive than others. Still very beautiful, especially in the feet of the Alps. It's a nice area to visit for getting sights of all sorts of different surroundings at once: sea, hills, cities, villages, rivers, mountains.

And in October you'll have the azure skies that the Côte d'Azur was named for. Summer is definitely to avoid here... too hot, humid and overcast. October is usually gorgeous.

But yeah, France is a big country and has so many different, beautiful areas that it's hard to boil down to just a few. Anywhere you go will be amazing in its own way, so pick what speaks to you the most!
posted by fraula at 6:25 AM on June 18, 2013

I did something like this some years back. Did a few days in and around Paris, then took the TGV (high-speed rail) down to Bordeaux and rented a car. From there, some wine tours while heading south -- thence the caves at Lascaux (fab), the crazy giant castle of Carcassone, the ontime papal palace in Avignon, and just hanging around the beautiful squares in Aix-en-Provence. I think we caught the TGV back from Marseille, but that I'm not sure of.

In the north, it's worth visiting the champagne caves (Reimes comes to mind) and also the crazy enclosed town on the western coast (Mont Saint Michel) connected to the mainland only at low tide. If you're at all a history buff, the Bayeaux tapestry is worth a visit too.

Good luck! Should be a hoot.
posted by acm at 6:42 AM on June 18, 2013

I love Paris, absolutely love it, but a week is about enough of the congestion for me. If you're not a city person, or even if you are, it's very nice to get outside of Paris for the second week. This is especially true when it all feels so foreign. Having a break from the intensity is so nice.

My favorite non-Paris spots in France are Normandy and Provence. Normandy has a rich history, beautiful countryside and small towns, and gorgeous seashores. Provence is as picturesque and lovely as you can imagine, and the vineyards and orchards incredible. In either place, I'd suggest renting a small house and a car, and tootling around and seeing the countryside. They're magical. The TGV to Aix or Avignon will get you south quite quickly.

Have a magical trip. France is my favorite country in the world, and I hope you love it.
posted by Capri at 7:13 AM on June 18, 2013

I cannot recommend Sandeman's New Europe Tours enough. They have a free tour for a bunch of cities, and some paid tours (I did Versailles- totally worth the 30 EUR, and I'm planning on doing the others when I go back.) English native guides who know- and love- their cities, just a really fantastic experience all around.

For food recs, check out David Lebowitz- he's an American chef who lives in Paris, and he has a really great food blog.

I'm not a huge fan of the Louvre, to be honest. Too big and too touristy, and it's really really easy to get so overstimulated that you can't appreciate the few genuinely standout pieces there are. And I really want to know which idiot went and put the Mona Lisa (nice enough, but small and sort of dark) opposite the freaking Wedding at Cana (huge and bright and covering an entire. freaking. wall.)

The Musee d'Orsay was much better- it has some gorgeous work, but at the same time it's small enough you can do it in an afternoon, and without getting art fatigue.

One of the best ways to see Paris is just... walk. The city is laid out so well it's damn near impossible to get lost if you have any skill at map-reading, and really, so many of its treasures are buried in little alleyways and bylanes it would be a crying shame if you didn't take the opportunity. And! Take advantage of the fact that you have your own kitchen and hit the farmer's markets. Is there anything better than a fresh-baked baguette, tomatoes, and a slice of one of France's many awesome cheeses? I doubt it.

Bon voyage!
posted by Tamanna at 11:13 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

We spent all of May in Paris, London, England and Scotland. We are ready to go back to Paris and also explore more of France.

The most important thing I learned was my brain could get more tired than my feet. I could rest my feet and legs sleeping overnight but my brain just got full. I was in a museum in London on the second week and had to leave after 30 minutes because I was mentally exhausted and miserable. And felt guilty about feeling miserable. "Oh, it's just so hard to see all these amazing museums on this incredible vacation!" Ugh. So First World Problem-ish. But it happens and it doesn't mean I am ungrateful or arrogant or whatever.

I recommend the Paris Museum Pass. I'm not sure we couldn't have done better financially paying for the museums separately (especially because we ended up skipping Versailles) but being able to bypass the lines was a luxury. And feeling like we could come and go as we pleased helped avoid the "Oh, I've paid so much for this one visit, I must see it all to get my money's worth!"

You are younger than we are and you are only going for two weeks so the fatigue thing probably won't as big an issue but plan in some down time. More than you think you'll want. You can always add more activities but it was more disappointing to me to anticipate things like Versailles but have to skip in in the end. We saw a group of people sitting on the Pont Neuf one evening having a picnic. That looked delightful and completely Parisian. I'm sorry we never did that. And next time, we'll plan that in - picnics or even just sitting more and absorbing the atmosphere and way of life.

Have a great time. We can't wait to go back!
posted by Beti at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2013

Oh and give some thought to a city sightseeing bus tour. We did that in Edinburgh on our last day (mostly because we were tired but didn't just want to sit in the hotel room) and I wish I'd have done that the first day in each of the big cities we visited. It can be touristy but it helps to get the lay of the land. It's a nice, low-key activity to do when you arrive when you are feeling jet-lagged but anxious to get out there and see the destination.
posted by Beti at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

PS If you do go on one of Sandeman's tours, see if you can get Alex. He's a slightly mad Kiwi and hands down the best guide to Paris (and Versailles) you can find.
posted by Tamanna at 12:48 PM on June 18, 2013

Oh, I also wanted to mention: if you do have a smartphone but don't want to use it for data, Trip Advisor has an Offline City Guide for Paris (as well as for lots of other cities) that I found somewhat helpful. I downloaded it (via my apartment's wifi) onto my other (new, CDMA) iPhone and carried that around as well to use for info about museum hours and locations, etc. [And, somehow it still manages to use the gps in your phone to pinpoint your location on maps, etc. I really didn't understand how this could work (see: CDMA phone) but somehow it did.]
posted by hapax_legomenon at 4:26 PM on June 18, 2013

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