What to see and what to skip in Paris

The appeal of Paris is as universal as it is timeless.

ByABC News
February 18, 2017, 1:47 AM
Paris rooftops and the Eiffel Tower are seen in this undated photo.
Paris rooftops and the Eiffel Tower are seen in this undated photo.
Getty Images

— -- The appeal of Paris is as universal as it is timeless.

But special circumstances make this an especially attractive year to visit: a drop in tourism numbers, a weaker euro, and hotter airfare competition have suddenly converged to make the City of Lights a bargain travel option. That’s why it’s on Travelzoo’s WOW Deal Destinations list for 2017.

Planning your own Paris visit? These tips will get you going.

Skip the Cab, Buy the Card

My friend Lara Barlow, country manager for Travelzoo Canada, just got back from a five-day jaunt to Paris. She says the “Visite Paris” card, which she bought upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, is a no brainer.

“If you get the five-zone ticket for 63 euros, it covers your train into the city (and back) from terminal 1, the metro within Paris, and the train to Versailles and Fontainebleau,” she says. “Given that a taxi to the city is at minimum 37 euros each way, and the train to Versailles is 7 euros round-trip (Fontainebleau even more), this was an easy way for us to get around Paris, as well as saving us money overall.”

Skip the Champs-Elysees, Shop Chic

Strolling down the most famous avenue in Paris is nothing short of an iconic tourist experience. Barlow enjoyed walking down the Champs-Elysees toward the Arc de Triomphe after dark because “the nightlife is bustling and the atmosphere is fun.”

But my colleague Stephan Renard, head of publishing in Travelzoo’s Paris office, is not so sure. In unabashed French style, he says, “A real Parisian symbol for many, I find Champs-Elysees rather unpleasant, especially in the evenings and on weekends. The shops are boring and devoid of personality, and the restaurants are nowhere near as good as you would expect from Paris. If you must tick it off your list go early to avoid crowds and leave time to explore so much more of what the city has to offer.”

Instead, Renard sends shoppers to Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, which is home to almost every major international fashion brand, and Place Vendome, a historic square that’s teeming with ritzy hotels and famous designers. “These are the places to visit for the real ‘chic a la Française,’” he says.

Barlow adds, “If you’re less focused on global brands, stroll around Montmartre, where you’ll find some unique smaller shops.”

For hungry shoppers, Renard suggests La Grande Epicerie inside the exquisite Le Bon Marché department store. Located in the seventh arrondissement, or district, the 30,000-square-foot shop features more than 30,000 gourmet products – an international array of artisan meats, cheeses, fruits, seafood, pastries, breads, even high-end wines, as well as various venues in which to taste them.

“The shop inspired one of France’s most famous writers, Emile Zola, for his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (or The Ladies’ Delight),” says Renard. “It’s on the pricey side, but certainly worth a look.”

Skip Lunch, Try the Cheese

If cheese is your weakness, the bevy of shops dedicated to the dairy treat won’t disappoint. My colleague Jonathan Rougeot, a senior producer in Travelzoo’s NYC headquarters, visited Paris earlier this month and did a comprehensive tasting in the cheese cellar at Pere et Fille Maitre Fromager.

“They took a small group of us down to the basement and walked us through the art of making cheese,” he says. “The thing I found fascinating was how different cheese can taste depending on how you eat it. They had us put the cheese in our mouths, chew it up, and then pour wine through it. Then they had us eat the cheese alone and learn how to still smell it after we swallowed it, which was fun and strange!”

Skip the Restaurant, Hone Your Skills

You don’t go to Paris if you’re on a diet. This is an international culinary epicenter, and great restaurants abound. Barlow loved her meal at Leperouse, located along the Seine and across from the Louvre. What started as one of King Louis XIV’s mansions in the 1760s later became an under-the-radar rendezvous for businessmen and their escorts, who were often paid in diamonds.

“The ladies, wanting to test whether the gifts were real, would scratch the mirrors in the dining rooms – those mirrors with the scratches still hang on the walls!” she says. “The ambiance is intimate and luxurious, and the food is fine dining.”

Renard’s favorite dining spot right now is French-Japanese fusion restaurant Kei where “the décor is immaculately white and the food is both beautiful and surprising.” Rougeot really enjoyed La Basalic in Montmartre for the food as much as the look.

“What drew us was the Tudor-style building in the middle of a fork in the street that was covered in ivy and white lights,” he says. “It looked like something out of the 'Lord of the Rings' or something.”

Paris, of course, is the place to hone your own kitchen skills, thanks to a bevy of cooking schools. Cook’n With Class Paris features an ongoing schedule of quick pastry and dessert classes, market visits and wine-and-cheese tastings; kids’ classes are offered too. Le Foodist runs a slew of gastronomic tours and classes, including cooking classes that culminate in a four-course dinner with wine. The world cuisine and enology class at L’Atelier des Sens get high marks as well as the big-name schools from Le Cordon Bleu and celeb chef Alain Ducasse.

Skip the Roundabout, Climb the Arc

The Arc de Triomphe is one of this city’s primary landmarks. You’ll also find the Tomb of the Unknown Solider here, which is rekindled nightly in memory of the dead from World War I. But you can climb the Arc, too, and the view it offers is unique: “Out to La Défense, the business district of Paris, through the Champs-Elysées and Place de la Concorde, all the way to Bastille,” says Renard.

Skip the Eiffel Tower, Catch a Different View

Want more awesome views? Tough to beat the selfie ops at the Eiffel Tower, of course, but unique vantage spots abound in Paris. Whether you climb the 200-plus steps or ride the funicular, the views from the base of the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre are breathtaking.

The fact it’s off the beaten path adds to the charm and romance of Parc de Belleville, and the views of Paris from this green haven in the heart of a residential neighborhood are lovely. Take a picnic and enjoy the panorama from Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Check out the sights from atop the Saint-Jacques Tower and the Montparnasse Tower. For a bite with a view, nosh and sip at Restaurant Le Zyriab at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the 43 Up The Roof Bar at the Holiday Inn in Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the Le Perchoir bar. When you visit the National Museum of Modern Art, take the elevator to the very top for picture-perfect peeks at Notre Dame Cathedral.

If you’re at Notre Dame, Rougeot recommends “hiking the 400-some-odd steps up to the top. You can get a close view of the famous gargoyles along with a 360-degree view of the city. It's a bit of a hike up, though, and I wouldn't recommend it for those who are claustrophobic, because the stairs get tight toward the top.”

Skip the Louvre, Go Small

Barlow loved her visit to the iconic Louvre museum. “Even if you don’t spend time with the exhibits, go into the central courtyard,” she suggests. “As the former palace it is absolutely breathtaking and, from there, it is an easy walk to the Latin Quarter and on to Notre Dame and the ‘La Marais’ area."

Many smaller museums can be unique alternatives to the Louvre. The Sewers of Paris museum is a 1,500-foot underground path dotted with machine models that showcase the history of Paris’ sewer system -- complete with stomach-turning odors. The Musée Carnavalet, inside a 16th-century building, features 140 rooms that chronologically highlight the city’s history. At the Musée de la Magie, check out magic tricks and devices that span three centuries, or catch a magic show. At the Musée du Vin Paris near the Eiffel Tower, admission to exhibits and artifacts that trace the history French winemaking comes with a glass of wine. And at the Musée de Montmartre, the former residence of various artistic greats, stroll the gardens that once inspired August Renoir.

Skip the Ticket (If you qualify)

Certain groups can enjoy free admission to most Paris museums, including disabled visitors (plus one accompanying person), journalists and guests under age 18. Everyone gets free admission on the first Sunday of every month, though this is when you’ll get the longest wait lines, too. Visit the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau website for more info.

Skip the Walking Tour, Tour by Boat

“Start with a river cruise on the Bateaux Mouches, the city’s sightseeing vessels,” suggests Renard. “The Seine is the city’s main artery, from where you will be able to see many of Paris’ top monuments in one trip: Notre Dame, the Musée D’Orsay, the Assemblée nationale (the home of the French parliament) and the Eiffel Tower. From the water, you will also be able to have a peek at the interiors of the hôtels particuliers – the luxurious townhouses -- of the island, Île Saint-Louis.”

Skip the Boat, Tour by Citroen

To tour Paris on land, check out 4 Rues Sous 1 Parapluie, a company that drives you around in a Citroen 2CV, the stereotypical French car. But they don’t stop there. The cars are “driven by a stereotypical Frenchman dressed in a stripy sailor top and a beret,” says Renard. “The only things missing are a baguette and a bottle of wine!” Tours are themed to take you shopping, or show you Paris by night, or visit romantic avenues (which ends with dinner for two).

Skip the Champ de Mars, Go Urban

The rolling green expanse of Champs de Mars is one of Paris’ favorite picnic spots and evening hangouts, especially in summer. But don’t miss out on some this city’s many other distinctive parks, many of which are wonderfully repurposed spaces. Parc André Citroen sits on what was once a Citroen manufacturing plant and features various glass structures; the helium balloon tethered on site will whisk you 500 feet into the air, weather permitting.

The Promenade Plantée sits along an abandoned railway viaduct and is a walker’s dream; the nearly three miles of paths and tunnels take you past myriad trees and plants. Nature lovers congregate at La Recyclerie, an old rail station where you can now stroll past trees and vegetable patches, or take a gardening class. Also, ask about the slew of community gardens peppered throughout the city.

Did I miss your favorite Paris spot? Share your favorites with me on Twitter @GabeSaglie.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on Paris hotels, flights, activities, restaurants, spas and shows at www.travelzoo.com.