When I got laid off, I immediately booked airfare to Paris. I was enchanted with the idea of Paris. I imagined tree-lined streets with beautiful boutiques, well dressed Parisians chatting over their morning coffees, and taking a long dinner with some wonderful wine while overlooking the Eiffel Tower.
Paris was my first city on my multi-week backpacking excursion and I was, frankly, terrified. What are hostels like? Would I make friends? Would I do alright as a solo traveler?
Well, as discussed here, my arrival in Paris was less than magical. I was overwhelmed and on the verge of a breakdown. I even looked at return flights to see if I could cut my journey short! It’s embarrassing to think about now, but I was a wreck.
Like I said … I imagined a peaceful city. Oh boy, was I wrong.
France is the most visited country in the world, and Paris is, by proxy, the most visited city in the world – with over 30 MILLION visitors per year to Paris alone. Crowds on crowds on crowds. Sketchy salesmen hocking clearly shoddy souvenirs plagued the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower. Locals held their backpacks and purses close while riding the Metro. It didn’t feel magical, it felt crowded and honestly somewhat unsafe.
I hadn’t yet figured out my travel philosophy but Paris is where I first began to develop it. I genuinely did not enjoy my first few days in Paris, but with some re-adjustment of expectations, I ended up having a wonderful time in the City of Lights.
This guide is not meant to outline all the most common attractions you have to see in Paris. I’m not going to recommend the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or the Louvre – we all know those are famous. Instead, this is everything else – the experiences, not the sites.
1. Go shopping for food and have a picnic
This is the most quintessentially French thing I think I did. I stopped by a boulangerie to buy a cheap and delicious baguette, a fromagerie to buy a wonderful wedge of French cheese, and a market to purchase fruit. I am not exaggerating when I say the most delicious fruit I’ve had IN MY LIFE was in Paris. Raspberries that exploded with tart sweetness when you bite down on them. Strawberries that were so sweet, they tasted almost like candy. Delish. Best of all, it’s guilt-free since Europe has much stricter food laws.
And, of course, a trip to a French market isn’t complete without a macaron or an eclair.
Sometimes I ate on a bench while overlooking the river Seine. Sometimes I ate in front of a church and watched the shuffle. Oftentimes, I ate at the hostel and shared my finds with fellow backpackers. The wonderful part of purchasing groceries like this is it’s flexible, delicious, inexpensive, and social – depending on what mood you’re in. Plus, it’s quintessentially French!
2. Buy a wine corkscrew & a nice bottle of wine and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night
I specify that you need to purchase a wine corkscrew because I didn’t think of that and ended up with a basically useless bottle of wine. Don’t forget this! You can definitely pack one, just make sure you check it instead of carrying it on.
French culture seems to me about friends and food. It’s about savoring the moment.
What is better than having a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower while drinking world-class wine? You can purchase wine from various salesmen at the Eiffel Tower, but you’ll end up paying almost literally 5x what the market price is, and the wine won’t necessarily be as high of quality as you could get in a store. Take the extra effort and seek out a bottle on your own and bring it there. Bring along some cups, too, and enjoy the evening.
If you’re backpacking, I can 100% guarantee you will pick up friends on your way there if you mention wine.
3. Take a cooking class!
What is France known for?
Food, wine, and love. That’s what I think of, at least. Take the opportunity and learn something classically French while you’re there!
I took a macaron baking class at Cook’n With Class Paris and I absolutely loved it. They have other classes, too, like french bread & creme brulee. Yum! The classes are small so you’ll get some individual attention and meet fellow travelers. Plus you get to take home everything you make.
Let me tell you, this baking class gave me a new appreciation for macarons. I always internally scoffed at their $2-$3 per cookie price tag. How on earth could a tiny little pastry be so expensive?! This cooking class completely changed my mind. These things are like the calculus of the baking world. Chocolate chip cookies are pre-algebra. Macarons are differential equations or something. They are complex and finicky. But it was fun learning how to do something that is so far beyond my normal abilities, and I was able to bring home 18 delicious macarons ranging from salted caramel to raspberry to white chocolate ganache.
4. Book a skip-the-line tour of the primary attractions
Your time has value. You’ve already taken your vacation time. You’ve spent hundreds (thousands?!) on your airfare and hotel. Splurge a little bit more to skip the line. It means your trip will be more fun AND you can do more.
What are the primary attractions? The Eiffel Tower, the Catacombs, the Louvre, and Versailles come to mind.
I skipped the line to ascend the Eiffel Tower and to enter the Catacombs. I cannot recommend both tours enough. Both these activities are a little more adventurous than the other activities I’ve listed but it’s good to mix it up. There are skip the line tours of so many different attractions so figure out what you’re interested in and splurge a little bit. I promise you, your sanity is worth it.
5. Sit at a bistro table outside while chatting and people watching
Again, quintessentially French.
Sitting at an outward-facing bistro table while sipping wine or coffee and watching the goings-on is a classic French activity. There is a lot of etiquette associated with this activity, so be sure to be mindful of your surroundings and follow social norms.
Sit down, relax, enjoy your company & your beverage, and savor the moment.
6. Take a bicycle tour
I’ve said this numerous times on this blog but I love nothing more than a good bicycle tour. In Paris, I took a tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours and LOVED it. We explored the gardens at Versailles and it was wonderful. I met so many awesome travelers, had a spectacular tour guide who told funny and interesting stories, and was able to enjoy WAY more of Versailles than I would’ve been able to on foot. Not to mention, biking around is a good change of pace from walking everywhere.
It was a great way to escape the crowds and do something a little more active.
7. Get some classic treats at the best Parisian bakeries & cafes
You MUST have a macaron when you visit Paris and the most famous shop for macarons is Ladurée. There are many locations in Paris so I recommend you don’t limit yourself to just one macaron!
Another famous treat is the hot chocolate at Angelina’s. This link will take you to the take-home options but you can get fresh hot chocolate to take away at the cafe. Are you visiting in the summer months? They do iced chocolate as well!
8. Go to the Arc de Triomphe and watch the chaos at the round-about
I think I watched the Arc de Triomphe chaos for almost an hour. I swear it’s like 12 lanes wide but without lanes. I don’t think there are any rules. I don’t think there’s any order. I think you go where you want to go and make sure no one is in your way.
This round-about is not for the faint of heart. Rumor has it your car requires a special insurance policy if you want to take it through this round-about even once. Go watch.
I realize a lot of what I mentioned is more relaxing which isn’t everyone’s style, but I personally found Paris very overwhelming. My recommendations are attempting to be a mix of relaxing, harnessing the French way of life, and actually doing things.
What is your favorite thing to do in Paris? Comment below!