An Abbreviated Guide to Paris
My first trip to Paris was everything I wanted it to be, albeit one thing: time. With only four days to see the city, I really struggled with deciding which restaurants to eat at, museums to visit and neighborhoods to wander. While it pained me to opt out of landmark sights that would consume an entire day of our vacation (read: the Louvre), I knew that we had to make strategic choices if we wanted to optimize our trip. I wanted to make sure that we allowed for time to experience Paris as Parisians do: lounging aimlessly on park benches, cappuccino-sipping and people-watching outside cafes and stocking up at gourmet food shops (boulangeries, fromageries, charcuteries...sigh). While the following guide - and I use the term "guide" loosely here - is not at all comprehensive, it covers the bases on limited time. Read on for my recommendations from our short but perfect stay in the City of Light.
If you want to experience Paris as it was - prior to Haussmann's complete overhaul of the city during the 19th century - stay in le Marais. Located in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the Marais has more pre-revolutionary buildings and streets left standing than any other area in Paris. And what glorious streets they are: narrow, winding cobblestone alleyways brimming with cafes, bakeries, bars, boutiques and galleries. I recommend booking an apartment here through Airbnb so you can experience the neighborhood like a local (I dare you to find an accommodation better than this place).
Eat + Drink
For me, Paris was less about the museums and more about the eating and drinking. The cafe culture in Paris was perhaps my favorite thing about the city. Take time here to slow down and enjoy the dining experience.
Croissants, croissants, croissants! Be sure to ask for a croissant au beurre (made with pure butter) rather than a croissant ordinaire. Pure-butter croissants are long and straight (not the curved variety that you might be accustomed to in the U.S.). Life changing.
Cafe Charlot for the quintessential Parisian cafe experience. We loved this spot for brunch in particular - it has a fantastic hamburger on offer and it's open on Sundays (a rarity in Paris). Try to grab a table outside and enjoy the people watching.
Rose Bakery for coffee and dessert (brownie and cake to die for!). Prepare to swoon at the restaurant's glass facade and display cases lined with crates of fresh ingredients.
Ellsworth for a French take on American comfort food. Sister restaurant to the wildly popular Verjus, the dinner menu at Ellsworth is served tapas-style and includes a memorable fried buttermilk chicken with spicy Napa cabbage - alongside a beautiful selection of wines.
Marche des Enfantes Rouges (sorry, no website!) to experience a French market - the oldest covered market in Paris, to be exact. Having lunch at this market felt a bit like dining in a French version of the Original Farmer's Market in Los Angeles (which I once lived across the street from and have missed dearly ever since). A bustling maze of food stalls with cuisine from across the globe.
Candelaria to satiate your taco craving (stay with me here). The first authentic taqueria in Paris, Candelaria may not be the best Mexican food you've ever had (certainly not if you've lived in Texas, Arizona and California), but they serve up commendable tacos and tostadas. After digging into a plate of tacos we hung around until closing time, trading stories with the Mexican bartender about life as foreigners over a couple complimentary pours of Mezcal. Behind the tiny taqueria is a dark, cozy bar that serves a variety of tequila-based cocktails.
Wine by One to educate yourself on French wines. This wine bar/store/club allows you to taste a variety of French wines using a pre-loaded debit card. You control the tasting experience - select your wine and choose whether you'd like a taste, half glass or full glass. For those able to read French, there are screens next to the self-serve stations that display information on the wine and region of your choice.
Nuba to dance the night away on a terrace above the Seine amid a very hip crowd of Parisians. There's a DJ booth that resembles a beach hut and a permanent food truck hawking burgers and fries. This was our favorite after-hours experience in Paris.
See + Do
Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, so the majority of these sites and activities need little introduction - you can find them in any guidebook. Need help narrowing down the never-ending sightseeing options? Here's my take.
Notre Dame to see the heart of Paris (literally - all distances in France are measured from this site). If you are short on time, opt for the 35-minute audio guide tour of the cathedral and skip the towers, which have a horrendously long queue.
Jardin des Tuileries for long walks, kissing on park benches, ferris-wheel rides and relaxing pond-side. This is the place to watch the world go by.
Arc de Triomphe for sweeping panoramic views of Paris. Visiting this monument will only take about an hour of your time, after which you can wander up the grand Champs-Elysees to the aforementioned Wine by One.
Shopping in the Marais. Okay, so we spent a lot of time in this neighborhood. Even if you aren't as in love with it as we were, you should at least come here to browse the unique shops that dot its streets. My personal favorites were superstore Merci and bohemian dream Mes Demoiselles.
Musee d'Orsay for a vast but time-manageable collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art, housed in a 19th-century railway station. If the Louvre is too large/intimidating/time-consuming, this is a great alternative.
A Food Walking Tour to experience the defining tastes of Paris with a fascinating history of the city's food scene. We opted for the 3-hour 'Bellies on Foot' tour of Les Halles, an area named after the enormous food hall that long served as the central wholesale market in Paris. Although the market has since been dismantled (a section of which was moved and reconstructed in Japan!), this area remains a gourmet food shop paradise. You'll visit a french cooking equipment store and specialty shops for foie gras, fromage, charcuterie and pastries (the oldest pastry shop in Paris!). The tour ends with a feast of your findings, accompanied by wine and baguettes of course.
Versailles for the one exception to your no all-day activities rule, because it's the French palace of your dreams. Get here early to avoid Disneyland-like lines at the entrance, and spring for the 1.5-hour guided tour that takes you through little-known areas with a national museum lecturer. It's near impossible to cover the entire grounds in a day, so hit the palace highlights and leave time to grab a glass of wine and snack on macaroons in the estate's gardens.
A night Boat Cruise to see the Eiffel Tower glittering over the Seine. Along the way you'll pass throngs of Parisians drinking wine, picnicking and dancing on the river banks. This is around the time you'll begin contemplating your move to France.
Good to Know
Map out your trip well in advance and purchase tickets online whenever possible - this will save you from wasting precious time in long queues. If you're planning a museum-heavy visit to Paris, it's worth your while to buy the Paris Museum Pass, which allows you to cut the lines for over 50 museums and monuments in the city and outlying areas. You can order the pass online and have it delivered to your home prior to your trip. If you only have time to hit up a couple sites, purchase individual tickets in advance at FNAC - a Best Buy-like store found throughout Paris.