On a recent trip to Paris I faced one short break with one very long to-do list. Here's how I managed to see it all and still have a stress-free weekend...
Montmartre (the 18th arrondissement) is an ideal base and one of Paris’ most vibrant districts. It’s full of character and is steeped in history, arts and culture. Don’t be put off by the presence of tourist attractions such as the Sacre-Coeur, Place du Tertre or the Moulin Rouge, where admittedly many ‘adult’ shops exist.
Montmartre is full of cobbled streets with art galleries, bistros and some of the finest views of Paris. It’s been the setting for numerous hit movies. And there are many drinking spots, from touristy Irish bars to trendy local haunts. So no long walks, metros or taxis back to the hotel after one too many Pastis!
Where to stay
When looking at the map (click 'show map' above the pics), you want to stay anywhere between Rue Caulaincourt and Sacre-Coeur, and above Boulevard de Clichy.
The Terrass Hotel Paris (from 150 euros per night) is on the corner of Rue Joseph de Maistre and Rue Coulaincourte, 200 metres from the area's best restaurant Le Basillic (see where to eat below). Make sure that you ask for room 505 (a classic double) or 710 (a superior double); both have great views over Paris and the Eiffel Tower.
The Comfort Inn Sacre Coeur Paris (from 80 euros per night) boasts a great location on the Rue Des Abbesses. There are art shops, bistros, cafés and florists all on your doorstep.
Timhotel Montmartre (from 130 euros per night) is 400 metres from the funicular to Sacre-Coeur and surrounded by cafés and bistros that are open till late - voila!
Breakfast in a hotel will cost a fortune eg six euros for a bowl of cornflakes in the Hotel Terrass! Alternatively, find a local café for fresh pastries or an omelette and eat outside watching the world go by.
Picnicking in a local park or on the banks of the Seine is extremely common, especially with locals. Make up a packed lunch in the morning and take a blanket. My favourite spots include the park at the bottom of Saint-Jacques Tower (between Chatalet and Hotel De Ville metro stops) and on the banks of the Seine at the end of the Ile Saint Louis (behind Notre Dame).
And don't leave without trying France’s most famous ice cream, Bertillon (31 rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile), just across the bridge behind Notre Dame. Look for a long queue and you won't miss it.
Un Zebre is a cool little bistro and, at 23 euros for a three course meal, pretty cheap too.
(38, rue Lepic, Montmartre; +33 1 42 23 97 80; www.unzebreamontmartre.com)
Le Targui is an African restaurant serving fantastic tagine (16 euros). You can watch your dinner roast on the spit behind the bar - so not one for vegetarians!
(15 rue Joseph de Maistre, Montmartre; +33 1 42 55 16 85)
Le Basillic is situated in a fantastic corner position where Rue Lepic meets Rue Joseph de Maistre. This is one of the best-looking restaurants in the area and has a reasonably priced fix-price menu (45 euros) which includes an aperitif.
(33 , Rue Lepic, Montmartre; +33 1 46 06 78 43)
Where to drink
If you want to play safe and stick to popular Irish bars, go to Boulevard de Clichy towards the Moulin Rouge. For something a bit more en vogue, try the many small trendy bars in the backstreets such as...
Le Vrai Paris (Montmartre) – this place can get pretty lively at night and plays a combination of lounge/ acid-jazz / house music. Last time I was in here the bar man set fire to the bar with lighter fluid. Unfortunately, for one customer, he also set fire to his jumper. I wouldn’t recommend it for dinner or if you want to chat with friends.
Le Doudingue (Montmartre) – a hip little joint playing electro music and great for a chat over a cocktail.
What to do - lesser-known spots
If you've already covered the essentials and are looking to explore a further, try these...
Place de Tertre is a short walk from Montmartre towards the Sacre-Coeur. Watch the street artists show off their talents or have your own portrait done, perhaps in caricature or silhouette.
Saint Germain-des-Pres is great for people watching as it’s one of the trendiest districts, with many chic cafés, restaurants and boutique shops. Get off the Metro at Saint Germain des Pres and explore the streets around Boulevard Saint-Germain heading towards Boulevard Saint-Michel. The Abbey is well worth a visit.
Musee de l’Orangerie is my number one must-see. It houses a magnificent collection of 20th-century paintings acquired by Paul Guillaume (who appears in a number of the pieces) and inherited by the French state. With only 144 paintings in total the museum is easily manageable but the pièce de résistance is Monet’s 'Water-lily series' (the Nymphéas) on the upper floor.
1. The Eiffel Tower – each leg of the tower will be designated for different things; one for people walking up, the others for lifts. Look at the screens above the ticket booths for info. I recommend walking up; queues tend to be shorter (especially by the time those who didn’t check the screen realise and turn back!), the views are better, and it’s not as difficult as you’d imagine - you’re only walking the first two floors, not to the top!
2. Arc de Triomphe – if you’re no good with steps give this a miss. Save yourself for Notre Dame Cathedral that has much better views. If you can manage the 284 steps you will get great views of the La Defence Arch, the Champs Elysees and get to lean over the edge and wince as you watch the traffic negotiate the unmarked roundabout.
3. Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral – it may be free to get inside the cathedral but to look for Quasimodo in the towers you’ll have to join the queue to the left of the building and pay about 9 euros. Once you have climbed the 400 steps you’re guaranteed some of the best views of Paris – better than from the Eiffel Tower as you're high enough and central enough to pick out most sights. Entrance to the tower is in 10 minute slots, let in at 10-minute intervals so queues can be deceptively long. Anything shorter than 100 yards is good.
4. The Musée du Louvre – it’s not all about the picture of the woman in the slightly odd mood. Pencil a serious amount of time out for visiting the Louvre, the place is vast and you can easily get lost. The maps you are provided with are not the easiest to follow. To avoid the queues, try one of the alternative entrances, from Rue du Rivoli or follow the signs from the metro station. If there’s one thing you’re going to plan ahead for your trip to Paris – this is it.
5. Sacre-Coeur – one of the best views of Paris. Stroll up at dusk to listen to street musicians entertain the crowds, sit on the steps of the Basilica, and watch the city light up as darkness draws in.
6. Champs Elysees – the most famous high street in the world. Unless you’ve come to Paris to go shopping this can easily be skipped. However, if you can’t leave Paris without seeing it, or you’re looking for a good way to walk off lunch, I’d recommend walking the 2.5 km or so from Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre.
How to do it all in a day
With a bit of forward planning it is possible to see the majority of my recommendations in a day. Here's how:
1. Start at the Arc de Triomphe – use the subway to get to the outside of the roundabout for the best photos.
2. Next, walk and window-shop your way along the Champs Elysees in the direction of the Louvre.
3. When you cross Place de la Concorde, the Musee l’Orangerie is on your right (up the steps behind the ice cream van).
4. Leave the Orangerie and continue through Jardin des Tuilerres until you finally reach the Louvre.
5. Walk behind the Louvre and along the River Seine until you reach the bridge over to lle de la Cite for Notre Dame.
6. Take the Metro to the Eiffel Tower. If you time it right, you might get to see views of Paris both during the day and night as dusk creeps in.
7. On your way back to Montmartre, get off the metro at Pigale for Moulin Rouge and Chat Noir. For can-can lovers, you can pick up tickets for one of the shows at 9pm or 11pm for about 100 euro.
8. Finish the night with a walk up to Sacre-Coeur to look over Paris at night.
The Paris Metro is as good as the London underground or New York subway. It’s also pretty cheap at 1 euro 60 per ticket. Ask for strips of ten (a carnet) which costs just under 12 euros.
The velo system (rent-a-bike) is also popular, but unless you’re a competent cyclist you’d be mad to try it.
Arriving by Air
Most people fly into Charles de Gaulle (CDG) which is about 15 miles out of the city. Taxis cost a fortune (60 euros) and traffic can be a nightmare. Buses may be cheaper, but you'll still have the traffic problems. So, take the train. CDG has a direct link to the city (the RER) which will get you there within the hour, for less than 10 euros. There’s one every 15 minutes and they run from 5.00am to midnight.
Buying your train tickets
You can walk to the RER from Terminals 2 and 3; follow the signs saying "Paris – by Train". From T1 you take the free CDGVAL shuttle. When you reach the RER terminal, ignore the ticket office, and just use the touch-screen ticket machines.
Now, regardless of how many confused looking foreigners there are around, I promise you it couldn’t be easier. Choose your language, hit 'tickets to Paris', pick a number, press confirm/pay and stick in your credit card. It really is that simple. And, if you get stuck, there are plenty of staff on hand to help you out.
Getting on the right train
There are two trains into the centre, one is an express (taking 30 minutes). Check the screens on the platform for the one with fewer stops and get on that.
Arriving by Train
The Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord, which is right in the city, so it’s just a walk or Metro ride from there on in.