Being my 7th trip to France, I was keen on seeing something I never had before- the champagne region. After talking with a friend who was also interested, we decided to go for our spring break in late April 2016. Over Christmas break, I just so happened to be checking out flights to Paris on www.kayak.com and found one for $790 (that seems to be my magic number for flights). We booked through Finnair, which has a partnership with American Airlines. We had a direct flight from Chicago to Paris, but our return flight path was Paris-Helsinki-Manchester-Chicago. Whew! We had just a one-hour layover in Helsinki, but I guess I can say I’ve been to Finland? No, that doesn’t count. We did, however, have a nice 20-hour layover in Manchester so it was like a second vacation! I’ll write more about that part later.
What I Packed
After the success I had with packing just a carry on for Vienna, I attempted to do the same for France. Didn’t work out quite as well. I mean, I was able to fit everything into a carry on, but I ended up checking it- just didn’t want to deal with limiting my liquids. As far as shoes, I wore my to-the-knee boots on the plane and packed a pair of comfy slip-ons from the Gap as well as a pair of semi-dressy flats. I walk a LOT when I travel and so it’s really important for me to have a variety of comfortable shoes. I wore all three pairs equally during the trip. As far as clothing, layers were the key again. Late April in Paris can mean frigid temperatures, heat waves, or rain. We had all three within the week. I just brought one pair of jeans and 4 pairs of my go-to black leggings. Paired with oversized sweaters or comfy cotton dresses, I was good to go. Because my suitcase was jam-packed, I also slipped in an empty duffel bag for extra room in case I bought a lot of stuff- which I did.
How I Got Around
I LOVE the Paris metro system. Someone told me that no matter where you are in Paris, you are never more than 400m away from a metro stop. It’s great, it’s easy, it gets you everywhere. The last time I was in Paris was in 2011 and the metro seemed a lot cleaner now than it did then. Paris has really stepped up their game on cleanliness. It’s safe, but just like in any big city, there are pickpockets and panhandlers. Just pay attention. On that same Paris trip in 2011, my mom and I were standing on the platform, waiting for the train to arrive when we heard this loud scream. We looked over and not more than 10 feet in front of us, a girl had gotten her iPhone snatched right out of her hand. We watched the thief casually run away like it was nothing. Just pay attention!
From Charles de Gaulle airport, just hop on the RER (regional train) to get into the city and connect with the metro line. It’s about €10 for a one-way ticket into the city, which takes about 20-30 minutes. Taxis are about €40-50 from the airport into the city and there is a bus that will take you directly to the Opera Garnier for about €9.
If you fly into Orly, which you most likely will if you’re coming from within Europe, there is a bus that connects you to the RER to take into the city. I’ve done it once and it was easy. It’s about the same price.
Once in the city, you can buy metro tickets from a kiosk at all stops. The best deal is to buy a carnet (book of 10 tickets) fir about €15. The tickets are these small white rectangular things that you have to put through the turnstile to access the metro. GUARD THIS WITH YOUR LIFE. In 2007 when I was in Paris, I threw out the used ticket before boarding the train. When we exited the train, there were uniformed enforcers there checking to see that everyone had a ticket. I was caught without mine and had to pay €25 on the spot. Since then, I’ve been to Paris 3 more times and have never seen these guys again, but just a heads up.
On this trip we also rented a car to drive to the champagne region (about an hour and a half drive east of Paris). We opted for a car over the train because we also went to visit my family that lives in eastern France. The train system in France is great. You can buy your tickets minutes before your train leaves. If you plan on using the TGV (speed train) or plan on taking the train outside of France, I recommend looking into tickets a few days before.
Driving was easy once we were out of Paris. Our super sweet Audi had a built-in GPS which made things a whole lot easier. Driving in Paris is daunting, but if you are aggressive and follow the pattern of traffic, there will be no problem. Just watch out for the millions of pedestrians and cyclists! We paid about €15 in tolls from Paris to Reims- center of the champagne region.
Reims is a much smaller town and we ended up just walking the entire time there. One of the shops we popped into handed us a city map, which we ended up not even using. There is a decent tram system but we did not attempt it.
Where I Stayed
If you’re not using AirBnb, boutique hotels are the way to go. They are smaller, but have all the conveniences of a major hotel chain for half the price. During my 2011 trip to Paris, my mom and I stayed at Hotel St. Jacques in the Latin Quarter (http://www.paris-hotel-stjacques.com/en/). It was centrally located and was just a 5 minute walk to Notre Dame. The elevator was tiny, naturally, but the room was comfy and had a sizeable bathroom as well.
On this trip to Paris, we stayed in my favorite neighborhood, Le Marais. Another boutique hotel this time – Hotel de Neuve Le Marais (http://en.hoteldeneuveparis.com). Located on a quiet street, across from an elementary school, this hotel was perfect. Staff was very friendly and helpful, room was tiny but comfortable with a huge shower! We were located right in between the St. Paul metro stop and the Bastille metro stop, so it was very easy to get anywhere in the city.
In Reims, we happened to get a great deal for the Holiday Inn Reims City Center (http://www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/gb/en/reims/rhegc/hoteldetail). Super clean, large rooms, and a bathroom bigger than our entire hotel room in Paris. It was a quick walk to the Cathedral in Reims, which is all we really saw. The champagne tour was our whole reason for being there.
After Reims and visiting my family, we returned to Paris for 2 days. This time we splurged on an amazing AirBnb apartment with a balcony view of the Eiffel Tower. We were in the 15th Arrondissement, but I’m not sure the name of the neighborhood. It was definitely a more residential neighborhood, tourists definitely not to be found. But it was quiet and filled with ample restaurants/ bars/ cafes. We were a block from the Pasteur metro stop. The apartment itself was huge, per Paris standards. There was one bedroom with a full bed, where my friend slept. I stayed on the pullout couch, which was probably the most comfortable pullout couch I’ve ever slept on. There was a small kitchen with a washer/dryer, so we even did a little laundry. The only con to this apartment was that it was on the 7th floor of a large winding staircase, with no elevator to be found. Carrying our luggage up this was a nightmare. When I finally made it to the top, legs weak, drenched in sweat, I fell to the floor and my suitcase decided to go for a ride back down the stairs. Luckily, my friend caught it before it got too far. What. A. Workout.
For our 20-hour layover in Manchester, England, we got another AirBnb place close to the airport in the suburb of Didsbury. We used Über to get to and from the airport, which only set us back about £20 round trip.
What I Ate
Oh god what didn’t I eat. There’s tons of places in Paris to get a great meal, but here were four of my favorites this time around:
1. L’avant Comptoir: I watched “The Layover” episode on Paris before leaving for my flight. Anthony Bourdain is my spirit animal. This place was mentioned and so we went. It’s a standing only, very small bar. Good place to grab some drinks and a small plate to share. We had champagne and a delicious cheese plate before going to dinner. Menu is hanging from the ceiling with pictures so you can just point to what you want- but they’re all young guys tending the bar and speak English! Right off the Odeon metro stop.
2. Les Ombres: Kind of pricey (€100 for 3 course meal including wine, per person) but the food is amazing and it’s a rooftop restaurant that overlooks the Eiffel Tower. Can’t beat that! You should make reservations online if you want to go here (http://www.lesombres-restaurant.com). Right off the Pont de l’Alma metro stop.
3. Cafe du Rendez-Vous: Perfect for lunch. Right off the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Awesome people watching too and not too expensive. Portions are huge. I got a croque-monsieur which came with a side salad and a hefty side of fries. We ate here before going into the Catacombs, which were right across the street.
4. Relais d’Entrecote: There’s a few locations in Paris. We visited the one in the Saint-Germain neighborhood. The only thing on the menu is steak frites and they are delicious. You get an entrée of bread and salad, followed by the best steak frites ever. The best part is that they come around for a free second helping. Sometimes a third if you’re lucky. So worth the money. They open for dinner at 7pm and you should get there around 6:50pm or else you will be waiting in line.
The rest of our meals were mostly jambon-beurre baguettes bought from the boulangerie, or nutella crepes from literally anywhere.
In Reims, we grabbed a quick lunch at Paul, which is a chain boulangerie with soups, sandwiches, pastries, almost equivalent to a Panera, per se. After our champagne tour, we grabbed a drink and an appetizer at the Holiday Inn’s rooftop restaurant. Beautiful views of Reims and the champagne region. The mushroom risotto we had was amazing. We opted to get dinner elsewhere but this wasn’t the greatest idea. Reims is a much smaller town than Paris and things close early. We ended up grabbing dinner at the Best Western’s restaurant because it was the only thing we could find open, but I would not recommend this place. At all.
What I Did in Paris
As I may have mentioned before, this was my 7th trip to Paris (cue snooty hair flip and condescending look). On this trip, I wanted to do all the things I hadn’t been able to do before. What I have done before (and would recommend, but I won’t go into detail here) are:
- The Louvre
- Walked the Champs-Elysees
- Visited the inside of Notre Dame
- Montmartre (Sacre Coeur, walked the neighborhood and bought art, saw the Moulin Rouge)
- Centre Pompidou
- Cinemathique Française (definitely worth checking if you’re a film buff)
- Les Halles
- Climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe
- Did a bike tour with Fat Bike Tours (http://www.fattiretours.com/paris)
- Visited Les Invalides and saw Napoleon’s tomb
- Versailles (20 minute RER ride to Versailles)
- Bought a book from Shakespeare and Company (the just added a café in 2015!)
- Opera Garnier (worth the tour, this place is amazing)
- La Madeleine
- Grande Arch de la Defense (only go if you plan on going to the top, otherwise there’s nothing here)
- The Pantheon
- Boat tour of the Seine
- Walked around the Jardin du Luxembourg
This time around, I did the Catacombs- amazing and so worth it. I freaked myself out beforehand because I was reading the reviews on Google and Yelp. Most to all of them will tell you that if you are claustrophobic (which I am not) or unfit (which I am) that you should avoid them. Once you descend into the Catacombs, the passages are dark and narrow and the only way out is by continuing forward. There’s literally no going back. That part was fine for me, minus the voice in the back of my head that kept telling me that there could be a random earthquake at any time, forcing us to become part of the Catacombs ourselves. While walking through the dark tunnels, I was curious as to why people who were not in good shape should avoid this. It was a whole lot of flat walking. As we approached the end of the tunnel, the audio guide told me to catch my breath and prepare for an 83-step ascent back to the street level. The wide, spacious staircase that we descended on was a dream compared to the narrow, STEEP, winding staircase that was supposed to lead back to the street. If one suddenly decided to take a breather on the way up, everyone behind you would be forced to stop and wait- there was no room for anyone to pass around you. As I began the climb, I counted each step. 83. I could do it. Around step 40, halfway there, I was feeling good, sans the Spanish high-school kid’s ass in my face the whole walk up. By around step 75, I was out of breath, but still doing well, so I stopped counting. Big mistake. Those last 8 steps were killer and when I got to the street it took me a full 15 minutes to catch my breath and stop sweating. You don’t have to be fit to do the Catacombs, but it helps.
In 2011, my mom and I took a croissant baking class at Cookin’ With Class (http://www.cooknwithclass.com). It was such a fun experience and we really enjoyed ourselves. This time around, my friend and I decided to do the macaron class and it was equally fun. You don’t have to have any cooking experience to enjoy it. The chef speaks English and is sure to email you any and all recipes at the end of the class. There were about 7 of us in the class and everyone had a chance to be a part of the macaron baking process. I could not recommend this place any more. They have tons of different baking and cooking classes to choose from.
We visited the Musee d’Orsay which hosted a lot of Van Gogh, Manet, and Monet. The building itself was beautiful- a former train station in the center of Paris converted into an art museum. MUCH smaller than the Louvre, but still an extensive collection.
The culminating moment of this trip to Paris was the moment I finally made it to the top of the Eiffel Tower. A crippling fear of both heights and elevators prevented me from making it past the second floor a total of 3 separate times. But this fourth time, I closed my eyes, bit my knuckles, and silently wept during the ride to the top. Worth it.
What I Did in Reims
There are not many tour operators that offer champagne tours in the region. I was thinking it would be similar to Napa Valley where there are an unlimited amount of vineyard tours- not the case. We settled on Cris Events (http://www.cris-event.fr/?lang=en) and so glad we did. Sebastian, the owner and tour guide, picked us up from the Holiday Inn and whisked us away to the vineyard. After explaining the history of champagne and how it is made, we got to the good part- tasting. There are about 15,000 different champagne houses in the region. We went to two and after some heavy handed pours, we were feeling fine. Sebastian was amazing, everyone was super friendly and we really enjoyed ourselves. Do it.
What I Did in Manchester
With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, security is definitely raised, so I’ve never felt safer. Even when I visited previous times (1989 and 1996 with my parents, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011 with friends) I always felt safe. In 2011, I had 2 days alone before my mom met up with me and walking alone at night I felt fine. Just be aware as always! Pickpockets know to hang out in touristy areas, especially the Eiffel Tower. Just keep your belongings close. People tell you to keep your passport in your hotel room in case you get robbed or pickpocketed, but I like to keep mine on me at all times. I just feel safer knowing I have it.
Tips and Tricks
The French are notorious for being super rude when it comes to speaking their language. However, I think this has faded over time. The French I have encountered are quick to speak English with no attitude whatsoever. They are super appreciative if you speak French, which thankfully I do, but do not fear asking if they speak English. My own opinion is to attempt French first and when they see it’s not going so swell for you, they will switch to English.
As mentioned in my previous post, I don’t trust currency exchange kiosks. I think they are a rip-off. Use your ATM card and trust that you bank will give you the best exchange rate. ATMs are abundant in Paris so that should not be a problem.
French tap water is safe to drink, but if you want to buy a bottle to carry around, grab one in a grocery store. You can get a huge bottle for less than a euro. Anywhere else, they are €2-€3. Also at restaurants, ask for “une carafe d’eau” rather than paying for bottled water. I think paying for water is absurd.
Buy tickets for everything ahead of time online. The queue for the Catacombs was literally blocks long, but we walked right to the front of the line with our tickets purchased ahead of time. Same with the Eiffel Tower and Musee d’Orsay. It’s slightly more expensive to do this (like €1-€2 more) but it will save you hours of standing in lines.
I’m lucky enough to have family in France (hence the 7 trips), so the country holds a special place in my heart. There is no doubt there will be an 8th, 9th, 10th trip and a million more things to see and write about!