When I was just a small child living outside of Boston we had only a few tv stations to choose from. WGBH Boston was the local public television. That’s where I met Big Bird, Bert & Ernie, the Count and the Cookie Monster. It’s where a I saw the Muppet Show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and a local children’s program called The Electric Company.
Daily children’s programming was followed by episodes of Bob Ross painting his “puffy little clouds” and then it was time for The French Chef with Julia Child.
I fell in love with Julia. She conjured images of my own grandmother who was a much shorter but also stout woman who was always in her kitchen, and in command of it. I was mesmerized by Julia’s instructional descriptions and her use of French terms about butter.
Somehow this relationship with Julia planted the seed of curiosity about France and the French culture that would grow throughout my lifetime.
In high school I was fortunate enough to experience “French In Action”, a French language tutorial series. I followed Mireille through the streets of Paris, watched her stroll along the banks of the Seine in summer and attend her classes at the Sorbonne. She showed me the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. I was spellbound.
Finally, in September of 2017, I made it to storybook France and spent a few days in Paris. It was familiar to me as if I’d been there long ago and was returning. It was exactly as I knew it would be. Two days was not nearly enough. I dream of renting a flat in the 6th arrondissement and staying for a month with nothing to do all day but sip coffee and nibble croissants in street-side cafes, wander endlessly in museums and meet a handsome Frenchmen who takes me to dinner on a Seine river barge and then kisses me in the dim light of a streetlamp on a bridge overlooking Notre Dame.
My 2017 trip also took me to the Alsace region and the village of Colmar, a medieval city near the border of Germany in northeastern France. Another storybook destination.
Click destination to jump to that section.
Getting There/Where To Stay
The main airport is Charles de Gaulle. Orly Airport is the other option. You can fly here direct from the U.S., but remember that once you fly into Europe it is easy to connect to anywhere. I was combining France with Germany and planned to depart from Frankfurt, so I actually flew into Frankfurt and then connected to Paris. It was quicker and cheaper than going direct to Paris from my home city.
Once in Paris, you will want to choose a home base. The city is set up in a numbered set of arrondissements (neighborhoods) that spiral out in a circle from the center. Each arrondissement offers something unique, so do your research. I chose to stay in the 6th (Saint-Germaine-des-Pres) because it is somewhat central and has a wide selection of restaurants. I usually set up accommodations near the food so I won’t have too far to wander after dinner.
The 6th arrondissement was a great location. On a future trip I will consider trying to rent something on Isle St. Louis, the neighborhood on the island near Notre Dame. I walked there to dine on my last night and fell in love. I’m quite sure its a very exclusive address, so I would expect rentals to be pricey but you never know!
Alright, you are checked in and freshened up. Let’s get started!
Rick Steves Audio Europe
Before we get too much further and you start feeling overwhelmed about how to plan this trip, let’s meet Uncle Rick. If you’ve not viewed my other European destination pages, then perhaps you are not yet familiar with Rick Steves. Rick has already done all the work of planning European vacations for you. This trip is heavily based on his recommendations, tip and tricks. Click the image below to learn more. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
Already sold on Uncle Rick? Click here to buy his France travel book on Amazon.
From a nibble to a huge bite:
A Word on Planning Your Time in Paris
It can be so tempting to cram every possible site into your first trip to Paris. I’m totally guilty of this myself, having conquered not only Paris the city but also several of the day trips and side trips in just 3 full days.
If I had to do it again, I’d spend more time doing my homework and I’d narrow down a list by priority. To experience Paris properly is to stroll, not run. To sit and watch, to linger, to listen. To detour. To take your time tasting all the flavors and to listen to the melody of the language.
Purchase and read your guidebooks in advance. Use the Audio Europe app – it offers more than 30 recorded discussions/interviews about Paris – from historical perspectives to modern culture and overviews of other key sites. These are an excellent way to prepare for your trip and decide what sites are most important for you.
Don’t worry if you don’t fit it all in. So what if you didn’t see the Mona Lisa? Do you even know why that is important, or are you just doing it because you feel like you’ll lose points if you don’t?
I implore you to not make the mistake I made of trying to cross everything off the list. Set a limit for each day, and leave time for the experiences that you simply can’t plan for.
The Major Sites
I could not have accomplished all that I did in the three days I spent in Paris without Uncle Rick.
His guidebook is a must, and the app the icing on the cake. The Historic City Walk audio tour is a perfect way to spend Day 1. It starts at Notre Dame (and gives a thorough overview), jumps over to the Isle St. Louis (menu shop while here – such wonderful restaurants and so romantic) then returns to finish the Ile de la Cite. It then covers the Latin Quarter, which is a must neighborhood and puts you on a bridge just off the right bank. This tour is 83 narrated minutes but will take you about half a day between walking to each site, eating, photographing and lingering.
Perhaps take in a museum in the late afternoon (or even after dinner – Rick’s suggests the Louvre in the evenings to experience it with less crowds). There are guided audio tours of both the Louvre and the Orsay Museum, both just enough to give you a flavor for each one and ensure you catch the key pieces.
There are many sites to see that are not on the audio app, so make sure you have Rick’s Paris guidebook in your backpack. This will give you overviews of the other big sites – Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Sacre-Coeur – some have walking tours that were easy and fun. It also gave insight into other smaller museums not to mention crucial tips on when to go and how to get the most from each place. These guidebooks are a treasure and allow for you to mostly just enjoy. No paid guides needed!
Lesser Known Sites
- Palais Garnier – Opera National de Paris-very worthwhile!
- Place de la Concorde – views of the Arc de Triomphe
- Luxembourg Gardens – look for marionnette puppet shows
- Montmartre – the neighborhood on the north side of the city where Sacre-Coeur is. A hike but worth it (Moulin Rouge is here).
- Les Invalides – originally founded as a home for disabled soldiers, Napoleon’s tomb is here
- Cafe des Deux Magots – a famous cafe in the 6th arrondissement where everyone from Picasso to Hemingway hung out
- The Seine – that river! Take some kind of boat ride, even if just using the Seine taxis as transportation. See the Eiffel at night from here for best pics
- Rodin Museum – a collection of the famous bronze sculptor – “The Thinker”
Day Trips from Paris – Versaille Palace
This is a sprawling palace and garden complex. You’ll take the train from Paris and buy a ticket for the palace tour. It was quite extensive and while I enjoyed it, I remember being exhausted at the end.
For some, it is a must do. For me, this would be something I’d recommend on your 2nd or 3rd visit. Paris has so much to offer on your first trip – no need to leave the city.
There are no words to describe how much I loved every second of eating in Paris. Sharing the most memorable.
- Le Caveau de L’isle – Isle St. Louis, simply exceptional, warm and inviting, ultra romantic – duck confit perfection, pommes, french onion soup
- Le Flore en L’isle – just over the bridge from Notre Dame on Isle St. Louis, people watch, appetizers
- Restaurant Polidor – 6th arrondissement, found near my hotel and ate here 3 times, mom-n-pop place with amazing authentic food and oh! their escargot!
- La Mediterranee – an upscale spot across from the Odeon Theatre, 6th arrondissement, seafood
- Creperie Breizh Cafe Odeon – this creperie has many locations – crepes are not only for dessert! There is a reason people stand in line
- Chez Mademoiselle – in the Marais (4th arrondissement), a precious neighborhood cafe, modest and comfortable with excellent food. They served me homemade ice cream and gave me the whole crock
A gallery celebrating the glorious cheese of France – it’s for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner and for dessert.
The Alsace is a region in northeastern France near the borders with Germany and Switzerland. Control over the region alternated between the French and German for centuries, and it now remains part of France but with a distinct mix of the two cultures.
This storybook village of Colmar is a good base for the region. It may be the perfect destination in France. All the French foie gras you can eat in wine country with a side of beer and brats. I learned of this destination as I do many European hidden gems – Rick Steves. It was a pleasant train ride from Paris and an idyllic place to spend a few days (or more). This village was spared from bombing in WWII, so many of the buildings are original.
Getting There/Where To Stay
You will take a scenic 2.5 hour ride, 1 stop train through Strausbourg to Colmar. Strausbourg is a bustling town and I spent about 3 hours here checking it out before continuing on to Colmar.
I used VRBO to select a little apartment in the heart of the village. It was so absolutely charming and perfect, with a kitchen and laundry, and was located above a candied fruit shop. There were hotels if you prefer just a room, but I was mid-trip and wanted to spread out a bit and feel like a local resident for a few days.
I quick search today in 2020 tells me there are still an amazing selection of reasonably priced gems on VRBO.
Things To Do
The obvious thing is to wander the village of Colmar itself. Explore the quaint shops, menu shop for dinner. There was a FABULOUS market (probably Saturday but might be daily) where I purchased some locally made foie gras that is the best I’ve ever had and which I returned for the next day so I could smuggle some jars home.
I rented a bike one day and did a biking tour that led me into farmlands and wineries. It was lovely. Stopped at a winery, bought a bottle and had a picnic lunch.
The Alsace Wine Route
Rent a car for a day in Colmar and drive the Alsace Wine Route (routes de vin Alsace). There are several quaint towns in a fairly compact area making for a really pleasant adventure. I visited Eguisheim, Ribeauville, Wettolsheim and Turckheim all in a single day. Rick’s larger “France” guide book covers this region and helps highlight key sites in each village.
The most commonly produced wines of the region are Riesling and Gerwurtztraminer. Many are made my local families, some working together as a co-op to bottle. Prices are a steal.
The Black Forest, Germany -Day Trip!
Since I had a car, I decided to take a drive into the Black Forest of Germany – it’s very close!
Fantastic drive through flatlands and farm towns and then into the misty Black Forest, up steep inclines and winding back down in the mist.
Spent some time in the town of Triberg where they make cuckoo clocks. Ate a huge plate of German sausages and kraut, and black forest cake.
The town was a goldmine of handcrafted souvenirs and charm. They have a waterfall attraction here.
This map shows many options for day trips – You could be in Basel, Switzerland just as easily. That’s the beauty exploring Europe!
- La Cocotte de Grand-Mere – Colmar village, the name says it all, an upscale version of your French/German grandmother’s kitchen, lovely!
- Chez Hansi – so charming, their dinnerware was old world adorable, excellent meal
From Colmar, I took another train into the Mosel River Valley of Germany to Cochem where I spent a few more perfect days following the recommendations of Uncle Rick. Click below to jump to my Germany page, then jump to Mosel River Valley.