Our sixth day in Europe we said farewell to London and flew via EasyJet to Paris. We weighed the options of Chunnel vs flying, and flying won hands down as it totaled half the cost for the six of us, even with rail travel from London to Gatwick, and Charles De Gaulle Airport to Paris.
A sunny blue sky day, we entered the plane on the tarmac – a first for my kids, and 45 minutes later landed in France.
While on the airport wifi, I took screenshots on my iPhone of directions via public transit to our new ‘home’ in Paris and we set off to find where to buy tickets.
Side note – both my teen daughters studied French for years (I have never) so I was looking forward to them interpreting and translating on our family’s behalf. We quickly realized communicating would be a team effort. My girls described how different it was conversing in French class with a teacher who spoke perfect grammar and at a moderate speed. So though not yet fluent, the girls were very knowledgeable and helpful in translating written French on maps, menus, etc.
We located the RER B (Réseau Express Régional) train that connects the north and south suburbs through Paris city center with easy connections to the Paris Metro system, purchased tickets at a kiosk that took our US credit card, and were off to Gare du Nord (North Station) to switch to the city Metro system line #4. The Metro lines run throughout the city center, considered Zone 1 by the transit systems and you need another ticket to enter that system from the RER trains. We bought our Metro tickets from a kiosk near the turnstiles within the Gare du Nord.
The best value was a carnet of 10 adult tickets and another carnet of 10 child tickets. A ‘carnet’ translates to a ‘stack’ of tickets. Children under age 4 travel free. Kids 4-10 years pay the full adult fare for single tickets, but children’s tickets bought as a carnet are half price, so it pays to plan ahead! Bring snack size ziplock baggies to hold these tickets – they are only 3 cm by 6.5 cm.
We laughed along the ride listening to the train’s automated overhead speaker announce the names of the upcoming stops then comparing the pronunciations to the spelling of each stop as we passed. We were so far off!
Our Paris condo was in the neighborhood of Marais in the 3rd Arrondissement, in the heart of Paris. Smaller than our London flat, this condo had only one bedroom, two beds in the common room and just one bathroom, but still slept six. Any comforts we gave up lodging in a smaller space were more than outweighed by all the plusses of the location – one block from both the #9 and #4 Metro lines, in a lively neighborhood brimming with eateries, grocery markets, and buildings of classic French architecture lining the streets.
There are really no skyscrapers in Paris, most buildings seemed only as tall as ours which added to the feel of our view from our condo window where we could see the top third of the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur Basilica off in the skyline. So spectacular to see before going to sleep and upon waking in the morning. It was gorgeous!
Just off the intersection half a block from our condo, there was a wealth of cafes all with sidewalk dining, so picturesque! Our first evening in Paris, of course, we were in search of crepes! We found a tiny family owned gem Mayda (92 Rue Rene Boulanger) where we had the most delicious meal of galettes (gluten-free crepe-like circles stuffed with savory goodness), dessert crepes (of course!), and some well-deserved Bordeaux for my husband and me.
Best meal & ambiance we had in Paris! After dinner, we talked about our family plan for our time in Paris.
Our Paris Site-seeing Itinerary:
Monday – Eiffel Tower (I wanted to see the tower first thing so that every time we saw it from afar after we’d remember the feeling of being there!), Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysée, boat ride on the Seine.
Tuesday – Palace of Versailles, starting with the Guided Tour of the Private Apartments of the Kings.
Wednesday – Catacombs Tour for my two teenage daughters and husband while my 8 & 10-year- olds and I enjoy the toy sailboats at Luxembourg Gardens, then meet up to tour Notre Dame and St Chapelle. Lourve in the evening.
Thursday – Sacre Coeur Basilica & Montmartre before departing en route home via Reykjavik.
Monday – Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysée, boat ride on the Seine
We set off our first morning intent on beating the lines to visit the Eiffel Tower. Our first view of it on the walk from the Metro was jaw-dropping, the enormity of it! We arrived just before opening to purchase tickets to climb the stairs to the first two viewing levels then elevator to the top (everyone has to elevator to the top, otherwise I would have incentivized my crew to complete that climb as well!). The hike was easy and fulfilling, even my 8 & 10-year-olds breezed through it. The views all around were mesmerizing for us, the Paris skyline is so different than Chicago. We enjoyed the old photos and historical information posted throughout. It was wild to think about how such a structure was created at the time it was built for the Paris World’s Fair, and that it was originally planned only to be maintained for a few years then dismantled!
In the gardens below after, we took these silly photos my kids came up with:
My 8-year-old imitating the tower.
My 10-year-old being the ‘I Fell’ tower.
From the Eiffel Tower, we walked to the Arc de Triomphe which, after the viewing of the Eiffel Tower, was worth walking to and noting, but not very impressive in comparison. We opted not to spend the time to figure out how to cross the crazy roundabout and view up close or go to the upper level. Instead, we walked down Champs Elysee as requested by my teen daughters. We quickly realized most of the stores on Champs Elysee we had easy access to back home in Chicago. After a bite to eat at a sidewalk cafe, we turned south towards the Seine River to catch an afternoon boat ride and see some more of the city while resting our feet.
There are many river cruise companies, all take the same tour along the Seine from near the Eiffel Tower towards Notre Dame, return back past the Tower and finally turning around at the mini Statue of Liberty. We rode the Bateaux-Mouches line for a multilingual architectural and historical cruise. The ticket prices were reasonable for the afternoon ride, and the views of the city from the boat’s rooftop deck were spectacular!
A day well done, we returned to our condo. The kids enjoyed some wifi time while my husband and I stepped out for a craft beer at Bon Esprit (310 Rue Saint-Martin, 75003 Paris), then picked up ham, cheese, and fresh-from-the-oven baguettes at the G20 corner market for dinner.
Tuesday – Palace of Versailles, Guided Tour of the Private Apartments of the Kings
The next morning, we set out to Versailles – a ‘must-see’ for my two teen daughters. We bought tickets before our trip from the Versailles website for the 10 am 90-minute ‘Guided Tour – Apartments of the Kings’ for 10 Euros extra per person. The tour is a favorite of a college friend who has traveled to France with her family of five multiple times. There were only a few activities we bought tickets for before the trip (play at the Globe Theater in London our final evening, Versailles Kings Apartments, & Catacombs). We didn’t want to commit to a timeline too far in advance with the weather, etc.
Our plan was to get on an early train and arrive when the palace opened to tour the gardens then embark on our tour. We did get on an early train, but about 45 minutes into that ride, we realized we were on the wrong train and not going anywhere near the city of Versailles. We exited the train at the next stop and walked to the other side of the station to go back towards Paris.
A friendly Frenchman explained it would take us a very long time retrace our route and travel all the way back through Paris. This was when we decided to take one of our iPhones off airplane mode, turn on the international data for the first time, and figure out how to get where we wanted to be. Oh, the wonders of iPhone maps! How did we ever find our way without?!?!
Finally, in the city of Versailles, we walked quickly to the Palace, then waited in the crazy long line to get through security. We forgot we had read it was more crowded on Tuesdays because the Louvre was closed on Tuesdays. The security line moved quickly though, thankfully. The door to the Apartments of the Kings Tour is to the right as you enter the main gate. We went there to explain our mishap and inquire about joining a current tour. Sadly, as our tickets were for an hour prior, we had to buy another set of six tickets – ugh!
Next, we went across the courtyard to the left as you enter the palace grounds to buy our Paris Museum passes. These passes are an incredible money saving deal! Passes need only be purchased for those over 18 years old in your group. Everyone 18 years and younger with adults with a pass enter for free! We bought two of the two-day Museum Passes (48 Euros each) for my husband and I. With these two passes, our family of six visited Versailles, the Louvre, the upper-level tour of Notre Dame including the bell tower, and St Chapelle Cathedral. The passes also include admission to Musee D’Orsay, we just ran out of time to visit there.
To make the most of our time before our tour, we walked to Marie Antoinette’s ‘weekend estate’ on the grounds. It was a sight in and of itself with the architecture and marble, tiles, and ornamental gardens. It’s worth the walk to see and try to comprehend what the life of the royal elite must have been like if the queen has her own personal estate just for weekends!
Several hours later than we had planned, we finally got our guided tour of the Kings Apartments. The tour was by far our favorite part of visiting the Palace of Versailles! The whole family enjoyed all the stories & information the tour guide told about the history of the kings and queens and what life was like living in that palace. The tour ends in the gorgeous theater, which has an elevating floor to transform into a ballroom – amazing! From there, the tour group exits right into the main part of the palace avoiding the main entrance waiting in line, another plus indeed!
The main palace rooms were even more over the top opulently decorated than the weekend estate and the private apartments, it just didn’t seem real! And the excessiveness of it did make us think, “no wonder there was a rebellion!”. The main palace rooms were also super crowded! (Another reason to take the private apartment tour.) Nearly everyone had their mobile phones in the air capturing pictures or videos and not moving along. It detracted from the experience so we made our way pretty quickly through the rest of the open rooms.
On our way back to the train station we discovered a bakery with macaroons the size of McDonald’s hamburgers – a kingly treat for a day at the royal palace. They were scrumptious!
Then I don’t know if it was slap-happiness setting in after a long day of behaving maturely and soaking up French history or what, but my kids all surprised me by not only suddenly really wanting berets but then also wearing them for the trek home to our condo. I loved it! To me, times like that is what traveling is all about.
Wednesday – Catacombs Tour, Luxembourg Gardens, Notre Dame, St Chapelle, and Lourve
My husband and teens ventured to tour the Catacombs while my ‘littles’ and I visited Luxembourg Gardens to check out the ‘push boats’ on the pond a friend told us about. My crew arrived at the gardens about 10:45 am after exchanging US money for Euros for the first time of the trip! (Everything else everywhere took our Costco Visa for payment which had a great exchange rate.) We found the pond and the boat booth but it was empty. I began to worry, “maybe you can’t rent the boats for play during the week during school hours.” But some nice gardeners saw us and relieved my worries saying the boats came at 11 am, and that they did.
For four Euros each, the kids got sailboats to play with for 30 minutes. We had a blast! It was such good old-fashioned fun – you push a little sailboat with a stick and see where it goes. Supremely designed, these little boats did not get stuck out on the pond despite there hardly being a breeze at all. People came by and asked my kids if the boats were electronically controlled and were surprised at the simple fun when we showed them how they were manually powered. We played well past our 30 minutes as there weren’t many other customers that morning. The booth worker told my kids they could keep going. My 10-year-old son said, “I think we’re good advertising”.
We did move on eventually to meet the rest of the family in front of Notre Dame, just a couple metro stops from where we were. I thought we’d walk it, but short on time, the Metro was the way to go. And what a beautiful part of the Metro system we saw on our way!
We found our other half easily and heard their tale of arriving at the Catacombs to find it closed due to the workers being on strike for dark and damp working conditions (did they not know what Catacombs were when they applied?). Instead, they fit in a walk in the Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Jim Morrison’s and Edith Piaf’s graves. They said it was really interesting and pretty.
We ate our packed lunches looking at the awesome gothic Notre Dame and all the people taking pictures. It’s free to enter and tour the cathedral main level. The stained glass and information on the history of how it was built blows the mind. To build a structure that takes over 200 years to complete, the faith those craftsmen had to have I can only imagine.
I was happy to use our Museum Passes to visit the cathedral’s observation deck and bell tower too, my kids not so much. They staged a minor mutiny to hiking the spiral staircase up. I just kept going and let them gripe.
They followed begrudgingly and eventually quieted as we reached the deck and took in the close-up view of the gargoyles, buttresses, and Paris from above with Eiffel Tower n the distance.
While so close to St Chapelle Cathedral just a few blocks away, we used our Museum Passes for admission there too. The stained glass at St Chapelle is incredible, with panes depicting over 1000 scenes from the Old and New Testament of the Bible, and over seventy percent of the stained glass is still original!.
Clearly, in need of refueling and rest after our little rebellion, we went back to our condo to recharge before going to the Louvre only evening open. We read it’s less crowded then, but if what we experienced was ‘less crowded’ I would not like to visit during a crowded time. There is so so much to see there I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate all of it in one visit.
Of course, we saw the Mona Lisa and the Wedding at Cana (so much more moving and impressive to me than the Mona Lisa). We saw other paintings and statues we or the kids recognized – very cool. We got lost. We found an ‘interesting’ portrait of a young-ish man/boy that brought us to doubled-over laughter. We finished and found our way out before they turned the glass pyramid lights on, boo! We’ll just have to return to Paris to see those and the night lights on the Eiffel Tower up close.
Thursday – Sacre Coeur Basilica & Montmartre
Our last day, we packed up and said au revoir to our condo. We had one more scenic overlook on our list – Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica. It’s hilly in the Montmartre neighborhood, which made for a challenging climb with our full travel backpacks on. But it was so worth it – the view with the sun and the clouds in the sky, and the basilica with mosaic artwork like I’ve never seen. I highly recommend!
There’s a fun market to walk just east of the basilica with artists painting right there. We shopped for souvenirs, bought some overpriced gelato, mailed off postcards, and set off to the airport for our flight to Reykjavik, Iceland our stop en route home to Chicago.
We hadn’t thought of visiting Iceland before finding these ridiculously cheap airfares on WOW airlines ($175/person from Paris to Reykjavik, $175 Reykjavik to Chicago). But we figured, if we’re stopping for 2 hours, why not layover for two days to see what there is to see in Iceland? To be continued…