Wednesday, August 22, 2018

14 tips to avoid tourist hell in Paris

Paris is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Elegance graces every Haussmann-designed street corner. Even the graffiti is pretty. And the food and wine?  Mon dieu! 

Problem is, the rest of humanity knows this too. Consider that over 19,000 people visit the Eiffel Tower each day. That's an entire hockey arena.

No, you can't avoid the herds of selfie sticks, but you can avoid baking 90 minutes in the sun to view the Mona Lisa or Louis XIV's gilded mancave in Versailles. You can hop around Paris for 3 euros (US$4) a day. You can eat well without selling your first-born. How? Read on:

1) The Eiffel Tower
Buy ahead online from home, on your smartphone, wherever. Just do it before you land at CDG. Don't bother with Skip the Line tickets which cost twice as much. When I reached the Eiffel on a sweltering late-Friday morning, I passed literally hundreds of people lining up to buy tickets. With ticket in hand (and phone), I darted to the ticket-holders line of five people. Yes, cinq. That's half the Toronto Raptors' starting line-up. Whoosh! Joined the security line for ticket-holders and 25 minutes later (again faster than the the ticket-holders line) I was rising up the iron lady.

Another tip: You can see more detail of Paris from the second level, which costs 16 euros, than at the very top (above) which costs 25. Total waiting time for ticket-holders: 30 minutes. For ticket-buyers: 90 minutes in 39C humidity.

2) The Eiffel Tower again
After sunset on the hour for five minutes, the tower sparkles like an enormous birthday cake candle. Simply dazzling. Make a picnic of it on Champs-de-Mars to the immediate south, or on the grass of Trocadero to the north. Uncork a bottle of wine and enjoy. It's fun for families and romantic for couples. Best of all, it's free (just clean up after yourself).

3) The Louvre
Again, buy ahead of time. So, it costs a euro or two more than buying at the museum door, but the line-ups at the main entrance choke I.M. Pei's giant glass pyramid (left). Is it worth wasting a full hour of your vacation to save a euro? Take your pre-bought ticket, avoid the pyramid and instead find enter through the Porte des Lions or the Carrousel du Louvre. Better yet, take to the metro to Palais Royale station and walk to the Carrousel entrance, all underground. On a Wednesday afternoon, I walked into the Louvre at Porte de Lions without waiting a nano-second. Voila.

4) More Louvre 
Speaking of Wednesday, the Louvre is open later, till 9:30 pm (Friday, too). The daytime crowds dwindle around 6:00. Instead of 200 tourists angling selfie sticks before the Mona Lisa, there'll be only 40. (Free admission on the first Sunday each month, you ask? I wouldn't do it, unless you want to feel like a sardine.)

5) Versailles

Doesn't matter that it takes an hour to travel from central Paris to Louis XIV's ginormous pleasure palace. Every damn tourist in Paris flocks to Versailles. Why? It's a gilded playground, bursting with jewels and priceless art, and fronting the world's biggest manicured backyard. Like the Louvre, you need to spend the entire day here, so arrive around the 9:30 am opening. Of course, there will be a massive line-up of hundreds of souls roasting in the sun without trees to shade them (think the Bataan Death March). Be smart and buy a 10-euro Tour of the King's Apartments online ahead of time (see a theme?) Instead of lining up outside, you meet 25 other tourists in a comfy room lying to the right of the main gates. There, a tour guide leads your group through security (where you can check your bag for free), then delivers a thorough 90-minute tour of the king's lavish digs. The tour is insightful, accesses many rooms that the general admission ticket does not, and allows plenty of time for photos. My tour guide was great. The highlight was her leading us into a private opera house (above) that was only slightly smaller (and a little older) than Fenway Park. After the tour, you're free to roam the other buildings and gardens. You still have to pay the 20-euro general admission to get into Versailles, but for 10 euros more, you get a quality tour with exclusive access to rooms, and save yourself a brutal wait.

6) Navigo Pass

If you're staying in Paris for a week (ideally starting on Monday), then buy this for 22.80 euros. Navigo lets you ride any metro, RER train, bus or even funicular (at Sacre Coeur). It's unlimited--hop on and off anything with wheels that reads says RATP or RER. This includes the ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport into the city, which costs over 11 euros on its own, and from central Paris to Versailles, which is 7. Do the math: a little over 3 euros a day with Navigo vs. a single 1,90-euro ride. Just remember to bring a passport photo from home or pay 7 euros to get one shot at a photo booth there. Bring your photo to the train station connected to CDG and ask a friendly RATP transit employee where to get your pass processed. You can buy a Navigo any day of the week, but it expires at 11:59 pm Sunday. So, if you start sightseeing, say, Thursday, it may be worth picking up a Paris Visite travel pass instead.

7) Food: restaurants
It's a myth that Paris dining is expensive. Sure, you can pay 20 euros for an entree of escargots, but you can also eat an entire meal for that price. Do your homework at, say Tripadvisor, and make a short list of restos that are: i) near tourist attractions you will visit, ii) fall within your budget, and iii) suit your appetite. For example, Bouillon Pigalle (above), just south of Sacre Coeur, will set you back 15 euros for a glass of wine and a beef bourguignon. Another good bet is 4 Pat in Le Marais for 12-euro pasta. No patio, but a groovy interior. Also, some places will charge a corkage fee of one or two euros if you BYOB.

8) Food: picnics

Parisians love to picnic. Buy a baguette, cheese, sliced meats, some fruit, maybe a ready-made sandwich and a bottle of wine. There's no shortage of shops specializing in these. Grocery store wine (French wine, remember) starts at 3 euros. Compare that to a glass at a restaurant for 6. Picnic along the Seine (where there are toilets) or parks like Monceau (above), east of Arc de Triomphe, or Place des Vosges in Le Marais, which is surrounded by gorgeous 17th century homes. Yes, you can drink booze in public. Just clean up your garbage and don't piss anywhere. (Tip: carry hand sanitizer and a corkscrew.)

9) Food: street food. If you're sightseeing, you'll need fuel. Grab a pastry, ready-made sandwich or baguette from at a patisserie or boulangerie. A ham-and-cheese goes for 5 euros. Also find them from convenience stores and supermarkets. You'll commonly encounter crepes and kebabs, and many stalls are good.

But my favourite Parisian street food are the fat 6-euro falafels at L'As or its neighbour Chez Hanna (above) in Le Marais. (FYI, you can dine at both places at a higher price). And carry water. The tap water is safe in Paris.

10) Free buildings

Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Opera, Madeleine, Sacre Coeur and Grand Palais are some of the top attractions in Paris and they don't cost a centime. Okay, you pay to get inside Opera and Arc de Triomphe, and to climb to the top of Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, but you can admire all these beautiful structures from the outside. You can even enter Notre Dame, Madeleine cathedral (above) and Grand Palais free (below).
The latter is actually a magnificent art museum housed in an art nouveau building capped with a glass dome. It is gorgeous, and IMO an overlooked attraction, just off Pont Alexandre III. To the north, the steps of Sacre Coeur boast a glorious view of Paris, day and night. After dark on Ile de la Cite, the square outside Notre Dame offers quality dancers and buskers galore, performing for loose change.

11) Sundays: Some shops and cafes close on Sunday. Use that—and your Navigo Pass—to your advantage. There's less traffic, so hop on and off buses.
Go nuts and visit the places in tip #9 as well as Place de la Concorde (above), a sweeping square with an Egyptian obelisk. Stroll along the Seine and catch bands playing, from acoustic to bossa nova.

12) Take a cruise
For only 10-15 euros you can rest your feet yet sightsee on a boat along the Seine (60 minutes) or the Canal St. Martin/partially the Seine (2.5 hours). The latter snakes up the system of locks that line the canal. Key scenes of the grand film Amelie were shot on this canal (above). Another cool part of this cruise is the long tunnel that stretches beneath the south. The cruise will start or end at La Villette, an overlooked park chock full of cafes, theatres and even amusement park rides. (Tip: Pack a sandwich for the Canal St. Martin cruise.)

13) Accommodation: Like London, Paris ain't cheap. For under 100 euros per person a night, try Airbnb. Find a place near a metro in a safe area and preferably near a tourist attraction.

Consider Pigalle, just south of dreamy Montmartre (above) or Le Marais, two hip quarters with plenty to see and eat. As for hotels, I stayed at an Astotel and scored a three-store, air-conditioned hotel room complete with a breakfast buffet for 100 euros. A bonus is that you can pop into any Astotel across Paris and enjoy their coffee, croissants, washrooms and even internet. (No, they're not paying me to write this, but I'll ask for a discount next time.)

14)  Maps/water/shoes: Carry a water bottle, and wear comfortable shoes. Also, speak un peu of French to receive better service. Study your map, so you know where you're going. Sure, you'll get lost anyway, but getting lost in Paris is not a bad idea. Enjoy...

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