Our love affair with Paris began with our first visit in 2008, and four return visits later, has not abated. Paris is a big city, but its dreamy architecture, cobblestone streets, and elegant parks can make it feel much more intimate. And don’t get me started on the food and wine! For those who say the French are snooty and unfriendly, it’s more likely that they just don’t understand the French culture; we’ve found the French to be warm and helpful in most situations. On our most recent visit, we wanted to get off the beaten path in Paris, and explore towns further afield, specifically, Lyon, Toulouse and Carcassonne.
There is an abundance of information on what to do and see in Paris, so I won’t cover that extensively. One of my best tips for exploring Paris is to learn the Metro system immediately. As a tourist you will have to buy individual trip tickets (versus a pass), but the ticket machines are multilingual and not too difficult to navigate once you get the hang of it. If you plan to use the Metro extensively (recommended), buy multiple tickets at once and be sure to discard your used ticket immediately!
Once you’ve checked the box on the top touristy things like the Eiffel Tower (best night viewing spot is on Rue de Buenos Aires), the Louvre, L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame (visitation is suspended due to the devastating fire of 2019), check out some things that may not be at the top of the tourists’ check list.
Sainte-Chapelle: Although not a secret, the stained glass chapel and crypt in this church should be at the top of your sightseeing list. Oh, and it was built to house the Crown of Thorns. Buy tickets online to avoid the queue, and try to go near sunset for an especially magical experience.
Conciergerie: Is it a palace or a prison? It’s both! Once a medieval palace, it became a prison during the French Revolution, and was the final residence of Marie Antoinette while she awaited her fate. A replica of her cell is on display, and visitors can enter the yard where female prisoners where held before being transported to their execution.
Atelier des Lumieres: This art space hosts extraordinary exhibits that are typically affordable. Check the calendar, and if the Van Gogh exhibit is showing, do not miss it!
Rue des Barres: A beautiful Parisienne street that will transport you back in time.
Place des Vosges & Jardin de l’Hotel de Sully: Place des Vosges is likely to be packed with locals enjoying a picnic or playing with their kids. Park yourself at a cafe to soak up the scene, then find your way through the l’Hotel de Sully for a quick peek at these pretty gardens.
Jardin du Luxembourg: No matter the time of year, this garden is a delight, especially the Medici Fountain.
Square Rapp: This little dead-end street has some of the best Art Nouveau buildings in Paris. Nearby at 29 Avenue Rapp is the spectacular Lavirotte Building, built in 1901.
Ile St. Louis: Il de la Cite tends to get all the action, but this little island next door has charming shops and cafes and is usually much quieter and more quaint. Berthillon has my favorite ice cream…don’t be surprised if there’s a line!
Montmarte: Quickly check out the super crowded Place du Terte and Sacre Coeur then take your time wandering the back streets. You might even spy a windmill! You can use a Metro ticket to ride the funicular if you don’t want to brave the steps.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery: While all the tourists are hovering around Jim Morrison’s grave, take the opportunity to explore the rest of this spectacular, peaceful space.
Getting Out of Town:
Thanks to France’s vast rail system, getting out of Paris is easy and affordable. For those with an interest in Champagne, Reims (pronounced something like “ronce”) is less than an hour away. Versailles is also a quick train ride and worthy of a full day of exploration, even if you only have a few days in Paris. Strasbourg is just under two hours by train, and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Plus, it’s near the German border so it has a rich French and German culture.
Once we departed Paris, we took the train to Lyon for an overnight stop on our way to Toulouse. Lyon has a marvelous old town with some nice shops and restaurants. We arrived late in the afternoon on a rainy day, but during our short visit we enjoyed wandering along the Rue Saint-Jean. If you’re looking for a workout, climb the steep street that leads to the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière. Lastly, a visit to Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a must and there is usually something happening in the square.
The next morning we made our way to Toulouse where we would spend the next four nights. Toulouse is famous for its pink architecture; the capitol building in the center of town is a prime example. We spent a full three days just wandering around Toulouse, exploring side streets and cafes, but some of the highlights were the neighborhood of St-Cyprien, the Jacobin Church and Cloisters, and the Basilica of Saint-Sernin.
During our visit to Toulouse, we took a day trip to Carcassonne, which is under an hour by train. When you arrive at the train station in Carcassonne, it’s two miles to the walled city, which can be reached by foot or taxi. The interior of the Cite is best explored on foot, and you will want to reserve at least three to four hours to get lost in the ancient alleys and streets. The top attractions are the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus and Château Comtal. Visit the chateau early so you can really take your time walking along the ramparts and discovering all the nooks of the castle. The old city of Carcassonne is a dreamscape and was one of the highlights of our 2019 travels; those who pine for picture-perfect villages will want to add Carcassonne to their travel wishlist!