I have no idea how helpful this will wind up being, but I wanted to share some things we discovered (some through research, some through trial and error, and others through dumb luck) that would have been useful to know ahead of time about sightseeing in Paris.
Paris Museum Pass. The pass can be purchased for 2, 4, or 6 consecutive days. It seems like a lot to pay up front. We bought the 4 day pass for 54 Euro each. It includes many of the major sights – Notre Dame (entrance to the church is free but climbing the towers isn’t), Versailles (probably the most expensive sight), the Louvre, the Pantheon and Les Invalides. The Eiffel Tower is not included. To figure out if it made sense for us, I wrote down all the things I knew we wanted to see, and added up their individual cost. That was significantly more than the 54E for the pass. Then I had to try to arrange our itinerary to make sure we could see all of those sights on 4 back-to-back days. This made for a really busy schedule, and a lot of planning and walking. For us though, we felt it was worth it.
The pass will allow you to avoid a line at some attractions, but not all. It’s also not always clear when that’s permitted and when it’s not, so watch carefully for signs and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Saint Chapelle. We didn’t visit on the day we were scheduled because the line was too long. We went back the next afternoon and saw another couple skip the line with their museum pass. There was NO sign indicating you could do this. So we walked right past everyone in line outside. Once you got past the ticket window, where we just showed our passes, there was yet another long line to get inside the church. Up ahead, we saw a somewhat marked path for museum pass holders, so we were again able to bypass a very long line to get inside. This was a favorite stop for both of us, and it’s not to be missed.
Versailles. We had every intention of being on an 8:15am train to Versailles to beat the crowd. Well, we slept in. Then we got on the wrong train. And then we picked the WORST station to turn around at because it took an hour. So, by the time we got there the line was insane. JR was confident we didn’t need to wait in it, because of our pass, but we were repeatedly told that the long line was for ticket and pass holders. And so we waited. FOREVER. Probably 90 minutes? And the truth is – I feel like this is something you aren’t supposed to admit – it kind of sucked. It was far too crowded to enjoy any of the rooms. We felt like we were cattle being herded from room to room. With us being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with people moving through the different rooms, there was no time to appreciate it or truly look around. And the crowd around us seemed just as annoyed as us. My advice would be either MAKE SURE you can get there by say, 8:30am (doors open at 9), or a later time in the day to skip the crowds.
Notre Dame. We stayed on the island right beside Notre Dame on the River Seine, Ile St. Louis, so we walked past it almost every morning. The first morning we did our visit there. The church opens at 8am and the towers at 10. There was hardly anyone at the church when we arrived at 8:30, and we didn’t ever see a line that early in the morning. We spent an hour in the church, and it was nice because it was not crowded at all. Around 9:30, we walked outside and got in line for the towers. That line probably had 25 people in it, although it started to grow steadily after we joined. By the time we made our way up the tower and looked down at the entrance to the church, there was a pretty long line just to get in. So go early!
Where to stay. A friend recommended that we try to stay on the Ile St. Louis in the center of the city near Notre Dame. A quick search of hotels showed it to be a very pricey location. JR suggested that we try to rent an apartment since we’d be staying for a whole week. We reasoned that an apartment would give us more space, allow us to possibly eat-in a few meals, and hopefully would be more affordable than a hotel. We used airbnb.com and found the perfect place. Well, minus the fact that it was on the 4th floor with no elevator, which really kills your legs after a full day of walking around the city. But we loved the apartment and felt like we picked a perfect spot.
Rick Steves’ Audio Tours. Another friend suggested that we download Rick Steves’ Audio Tours for our iPhones. We downloaded his app first (which is free) and then downloaded his Historic Paris Walking Tour, the Louvre, and Versailles. We really enjoyed having these to listen to while we explored the city. It saved money on getting the audio guides, and it gave us some interesting tidbits that we wouldn’t have known. I highly recommend checking out his website to see what other locations he has available.
Vaux le Vicomte If you are interested in visiting Vaux, there are some tours that leave directly from Paris or you can travel there on your own. We took a 25 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon to Melun, and then we were able to get a taxi right outside the Melun train station. It was a ten minute (and to JR’s chagrin, 20 Euro) cab ride to Vaux from the station. The staff at Vaux called for a cab pick up when we were done with our visit.
In general, we had difficulty using our credit card at the train station and metro stops. It was very hit or miss. Those machines would accept cash, but only coin. This was fine for the 1.70 Euro metro ticket (a great deal) but for longer trips, we needed the ticket window to be open to use our credit card. It caused us to miss a train because we couldn’t get our ticket purchased in time. We found the city to be quite walkable, we’d either walk all day, or take the metro to one destination and walk everywhere from there. The only time we took a cab was in Melun.
Also, eat as many crepes as you can from the street vendors. You can’t go wrong with a nutella and banana crepe!