This weekend L & Q welcomed in the New Year with a romantic jaunt to la belle Paris. From the time our plane landed to the time we left French soil again, our trip totalled almost exactly 48 hours. In that time we not only saw all the major tourist landmarks, but also absorbed some local culture and authentic Parisian charm. Here is how we did Paris in a weekend.
Get yourself a cheap ticket, a cute Airbnb and a best friend to go with. Plan excitedly for weeks. Dust off your French skills. Create a playlist and listen to it nonstop (I recommend putting it on now to read this article to). Pack exclusively black clothes and shoes that your feet will thank you for. Don’t forget un parapluie; if it rains you’ll be sorry.
Montmartre is the area of choice for a real Parisian experience; it is chic, artsy, so photogenic and bursting with cafés and bars and restaurants festooned with lights and stuffed full of Parisians drinking Bordeaux with friends and spilling out onto the iconic outdoor tables. Roaming through the labyrinth of streets you will most certainly find gems of shops nestled amongst the various eateries. Pigalle / St-Georges is also good, if you can get the northern end closest to Montmartre.
These areas are perfect because whilst they contain some of the essential must-see places (Sacre-Cœur, the Moulin Rouge, Café des 2 Moulins (the café from Amélie, if you didn’t know)), they are sprinkled amongst largely authentic streets. We stayed on the Rue des Martyrs, and it was perfect.
Friday evening – Sacre Cœur & Moulin Rouge.
It takes about an hour to get from Charles de Gaulle airport to Montmartre. Buy a ticket for the RER train for €10 and ride it for about 40 minutes to the Gare du Nord. It takes about 15 minutes to get to Montmartre by metro from Gare du Nord. Buy your tickets in bulk; it’s cheaper. Take line 2 (dark blue) West for 2 stops to Anvers.
As you come out of the metro station, turn right, cross the road and go straight up the hill to reach Sacre Cœur. Louvre is open late on Fridays, with last admission at 9:30pm. If you can get your shit together in time when you arrive, you can probably check this one off your list early. We were planning to do this. We didn’t do this.
Q & I fumbled around trying to get into our apartment, had a brief spruce, then headed out into the moonlit streets of Montmartre. We explored the back streets, bought crêpes au sucre from a street vendor, stumbled upon the Sacre Cœur entirely by accident, and explored the red light district around the Moulin Rouge (got yelled at by a drunk guy who claimed to be the mayor of Paris. We weren’t convinced.) We ended the evening drinking Bordeaux in a bar which looked like something straight out of romantic French cinema, being mistaken by a fellow Englishwoman for a pair of friends abroad on an internship. We dug that.
Saturday – every bloody French landmark you can think of.
We woke before Paris itself did. The city was sub-zero, the light was blue and thick. Our breath came out in plumes and our fingertips tingled against the warm cups of coffee we clasped. Chausson des pommes et un café noir pour moi; pain au chocolat et un cappucino pour tu. Onto a metro train by 8:30, headed west.
Take line 2 from Pigalle to Charles de Gaulle Etoile.
Landmark #3 and #4 before 9am: off the metro at the Arc de Triomphe, exiting the station onto the Champs-Élysées. Paris is gorgeous at every hour of the day. I led Q down Avenue Kléber, pointing out the little newsagent in a side street where E & me bought baguettes and Boursin and wine that tasted like honey almost three years before. The morning had advanced to a pale silver, ethereal and impossibly perfect.
#5, #6, & #7; Jardins du Trocadéro, Tour Eiffel & Champ de Mars. We strolled past the fountains of Trocadéro, which were frozen over in the -5 degree Celsius morning, and crossed the bridge over to the Champ de Mars and Tour Eiffel. The Seine was steely grey and stoic. Our fingers and toes went numb.
We took the lift to the summit. Paris looks very clean and crisp from above, the buildings startling bone white and uniform. It has the most consistently picturesque architecture, from inside, outside, above and at ground-level, of any city I can think of, and there is something breathtaking about the view which makes it hard to descend again. I love to pick out the charm and history and character of unplanned European city streets; Paris in particular has a grandeur which is palpable and clings to your person as you move through the snaking streets, leaving traces of romance which you can never quite shake.
Walk east to the Pont de l’Alma station and get the RER train, line C. If you’re not freezing your appendages off, get off at Invalides, cross the river, see the Obélisque de la Concorde and walk through the Jardin des Tuileries (or better yet, just walk the whole way from Tour Eiffel). If, like us, you are possibly about to get frostbite, stay on the train until Musée d’Orsay and then cross the river on foot.
Louvre is free to visit if you are under 26 and live in the EU (RIP us).
We took a double-decker train to Louvre. The scale of the museum is titanic, but the Mona Lisa is really much smaller than we anticipated. It was more than made up for, however, by the incredible architecture, a nice butt on an ancient Greek statue, a Roman bust whom some kind soul had taken pity on and donated their beanie to, and the collection of African, Asian, Oceanian and South American art which was tucked away in some obscure corner. That, and some top notch mockery of classic paintings by yours truly. (Q is a total delight to visit art museums with, you should go with her sometime).
Lunch, then a stroll along the snaking Seine and a leisurely peruse of the bookstalls which hug the banks of the river like a favourite dress. A light drizzle; a brief use of our parapluies. Notre Dame leaned out from amongst the afternoon mist, and we waved ‘bonjour’ to her as we ducked across the road and into tourist spot #11. Shakespeare & Company is every bit as enchanting as I had anticipated. It had that old book smell that bibliophiles lust after, gorgeous aged wood aesthetics, old-world schoolhouse charm. We poured over the dusty tomes hungrily, perched on a rickety old stool browsing copies of The Paris Review from the 1960s and 70s. One purchase each, a glance at l’Hôtel de Ville on our way through to the metro, and home to our apartment on Rue des Martyrs by 5pm for a rest and reviving glass (or two) of Bordeaux before dinner & the cabaret.
(At dinner Q experienced her first crème brûlée and we both continued on the Bordeaux).
Of all the delights and beauty we saw this weekend, the cabaret was far and away the most authentic, extraordinary, breathtaking, spellbinding. In fact, I am at a loss for words to describe it. We were almost certainly the only native English speakers in the place, which created a delicious intimacy which is difficult to verbalise.
We rolled into Madame Arthur around 10pm and paid our €15 entry fee. The mademoiselle on the ticket desk told us the cabaret would be starting again at 11pm, but in the meanwhile if we wanted we could join the dance class next door. We took part in the most hilarious wine-tinged dance-workshop-cum-aerobic-workout in a grand concert hall with a velvet lined balcony above and two enthusiastic French dancers up front on the raised stage. Très bizarre.
Just before 11 we refilled our glasses and slinked through the crowds of the main cabaret hall; the most opulent room, air heavy with heat and perfume and glitter dancing in snatched corners of the low light. Q gasped and I followed her gaze to the most beautiful Queen I have ever seen in my entire existence.
I am not even going to attempt to convey the perfection of every single member of the Madame Arthur troupe. Every single Queen was flawless. We were totally dumbstruck. We watched the show with our jaws on the floor. They shimmered, they dazzled, they flirted, they bubbled over with irresistible French seduction. It was hypnotic. We didn’t understand a word of the show, but in a way that enhanced the experience; paying such close attention to the ways that they bent and shaped and smoothed and stretched and commanded their language into song and storytelling was beyond description. It was as though we were privy to a thoroughly exclusive and intimate event. It reached into my core and tweaked something; my soul is still shimmering and beaming from that cabaret.
Sunday – patisseries, crêpes, and ‘au revoir’ to Paris.
On Sundays, many of the big supermarkets and shops are closed. Sunday is the day for buying fresh produce; we saw many Parisians just going about their business, balancing a baguette on top of a crate of oranges and cucumbers as they stopped by the fromagerie on their way to the vegetable market.
We woke lazily, eased our bones with a warm shower and stepped into the cool streets around 11. Our precious last few hours we planned to spend leisurely perusing the bookshops and boulangeries and patisseries of Montmartre. We discovered pastry heaven at number 28 Rue des Martyrs, the perfect wine shop at number 11 (their €5 bottle of Bordeaux far exceeds anything I’ve ever bought for any price in the UK), and too many picturesque second-hand bookshops to count.
We ate crêpes and drank coffee and iced tea in Café des 2 Moulins, or the Amélie café as you may know it better, and it was certifiably divine.
We ended with macarons, of course, and a slow muse back to our apartment to collect our luggage and stash our wine in my suitcase. At the very last moment, on a detour down a road we hadn’t explored already, a vintage boutique presented itself to us. I am now the proud owner of a French vintage dress. Parfait. One last (accidental) glance at the Sacre Cœur, a final au revoir to our adorable fifth-floor apartment, and we were back on the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport.
We left French soil at 6pm, 48 hours and 30 minutes after we had arrived, feeling exhausted, satisfied, and full of longing to return to the beautiful city as soon as humanly possible. Q & I saw all the major sights, and then some, and we did it in a single weekend.
Paris was sublime, transcendent, impossibly chic. Simply put, c’était magnifique.
All photographs are Copyright property of Sarah Lawrence.