If you had never been to Paris, and had about a day-and-a-half there, what would you do? Museums? Shop? Café culture? The point is, Paris is a big city with lots going on, and spending a single day there–particularly when it’s your first visit–is not advisable. I nearly opted for a day-trip to Versailles, but in the end felt it would be a shame to ignore the city proper.
So, I decided to just walk. And walk and walk and walk. Boy, did I walk that day: 14.5 miles (23 km), to be exact, and I’ve got Steps to prove it.
Was it a deep-dive into the city’s fantastic culture? No. But that was never going to happen with little over a day in town. I always feel the best way to get to know a place is simply to set out and start walking. I generally prefer walking without a plan, but given my short time and appalling sense of direction, I didn’t want to waste time by getting lost or doubling back on myself. The wise thing probably would have been to follow a self-guided walking tour, like I did in Carthage, but that did not occur to me at the time. (Following a gin-soaked, multi-day wedding party in southern France then catching up with a friend in lambic-infused Brussels, you’ll forgive me if perhaps I wasn’t operating at 100% at this point.)
Anyway, I think I did a pretty decent job by keeping Google Maps close at hand–crucial when it came to figuring out which Métros and busses to hop. My plan? Start in the area I was based, Montmartre, make my way down to the Eiffel Tower, then head over to the Marais, seeing whatever I could in between. Let’s go.
First, make sure to lace up in a pair of boots you bought literally two days prior. It’s always a good idea to break in a new pair of shoes on a day of intense walking (they were tweed- and chain-embellished combat boots, they looked amazing, though).
Second, be immediately distracted by wine and food. To be fair I got a late start and would have to eat lunch at some point anyway, right? La Boîte aux Lettres in Montmartre is down a quieter street, clear of the tourist hotspots. With just a handful of tables in a space that’s open to the street and filled with homey decor, the kitchen is led by a chef who worked under Alain Ducasse. Simple but nicely done, my beet and goat-cheese tartare followed by ham risotto, and washed down with rose, made for suitable fuel.
From there I headed uphill, into the tourist hordes of Place du Tertre, Montmartre’s historic city square and erstwhile hub of artists such as Picasso and Modigliani. Continuing up, to the top of the hill overlooking Paris, it’s impossible to miss the gleaming white domes of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica crowning the city. I took a turn around the Roman Catholic church before heading back down through Montmartre’s quaint streets that still have a bit of the village-like qualities of Paris old–if only they weren’t exploding with tourist tat.
My next big stop was Eiffel Tower, and it seemed like the best way to get there was by Métro. Making my way to the neighboring Quartier Pigalle, I passed through the red-light district and by the famed Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge on the way to the Place de Clichy station. Hopping on the 2 line, I first decided to stop at the Arc de Triomphe, thinking it would be easy to pop out and glimpse it. Not so, mon ami! There is a lengthy (I mean lengthy) underground stroll before you make it outside to the Arc, and French people may be yelling at you in French which you don’t speak, and though it’s not immediately clear that they’re Métro attendants because they weren’t obviously wearing uniforms or tags and you may think they’re trying to scam you or sell you some junk so you keep ignoring them till they chase you down, you may simply need to show them your Métro card to be scanned.
From here I considered walking to the Eiffel Tower, but new boots, breaking in, yadda yadda yadda. So back to the Métro, catching the 6 line to Bir Hakeim. Finally at the Eiffel Tower, I took a slower pace around the landmark, enjoying the pretty Champ de Mars at its base. There was something being filmed here with people in period clothing and the tower in the background. I made a halfhearted effort to figure out what it was, but it was inching toward mid-afternoon and goddamnit I had places to be.
But I wasn’t entirely sure where I was heading next. How about the Île de la Cité? Sure. From the park, I found a relatively close bus route that would get me there. Getting off near the Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge, I walked across it to Paris’s medieval place of foundation. I really liked this little island in the Seine–despite being at the heart of the city, it had a more peaceful atmosphere. This is also where you’ll find the Notre-Dame, which was still very much boarded up and damaged from the fire that ravaged it earlier that year (the goal is for it to reopen in April 2024, the five-year anniversary of the fire). The structure is still quite something to see, though a luxuriously fluffy white cat, sitting on a window sill above a bicycle just steps away, was stealing most of the attention.
In need of caffeine, I crossed the Pont Saint-Louis to Île Saint-Louis and grabbed a sidewalk seat with views of Notre-Dame at the perfectly Parisian café Le Saint Régis, lively with chatting friends, sharp waiters and black-and-white tile floors. From there I took my coffee buzz to briefly nose around this lovely, old little island before going back to the Métro and taking the 1 line from Châtelet to Champs-Élysêes – Clemenceau, with the idea to take in the sights from the Grand Palais to the Louvre. (Yes, this is essentially a backtrack. I could have more easily/efficiently gone to the Grand Palais from the Eiffel Tower and then walked this route to the Île de la Cité and then the Marais, but I didn’t, so deal with it.)
This was a fantastic stretch of city walking. The gorgeous Grand Palais and Petit Palais wow with dramatic Beaux-Arts architecture, truly something that’s tough to tear your eyes away from. Petit is an art museum and Grand is an expansive complex filled with exhibition halls, a science museum and event spaces, surely worth properly visiting if you have the time. As we know, I did not. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; go directly to the next destination.
From here the next move was easy: an amble along the Champs-Élysées and its gardens, lined with trees just starting to turn colors for the nearing autumn. Though beautiful in its own right, I couldn’t help but be reminded of walking on Philadelphia’s mile-long Ben Franklin Parkway, which runs from City Hall to the Museum of Art and was inspired by this Parisian thoroughfare. Before long I was at the traffic-hectic Place de la Concorde. Nearly hit by a car, I thought at least my death would be in good company–this is also where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Louis XV’s “favorite,” Madame du Barry, were executed during the French Revolution. There’s much to see at this busy intersection, from the two 19th-century monumental fountains and the hieroglyphic-covered Luxor Obelisk, to Hôtel de Crillon, eight statues paying homage to French cities and Tuileries Garden all within sight.
I briefly passed through Tuileries Garden before hopping across the luxe Rue de Rivoli for a quick peek into the Vendôme neighborhood, where Neoclassical buildings house designer boutique after fine jeweler after world-class hotel. Crossing back over the Rue de Rivoli to the other end of Tuileries is the Louvre‘s courtyard, where IM Pei’s glass pyramids stand. Will it be frustrating to not go inside the world’s largest art museum? Absolutely. But steel your nerves and soldier on. There’s more to see.
I was at this point getting a bit tired. Next stop was the Marais (and hopefully a long, lazy bottle of wine plus a meal), but it seemed a bit of a walk away down the Rue de Rivoli. I sought out a Métro station to no avail. The one nearby that would take me where I wanted to be was closed. Merde!
Back to hoofing it. Some 45 minutes later I made it to Le Marais. With its mix of history and hip spots, I knew it would be a good place to spend the end of my day, wandering its cobbled streets, popping into interesting little shops and galleries and taking the occasional seat for a coffee. Finally relaxing. I loved the little lanes lined with sidewalk cafés and old aristocratic buildings draped in ivy, the archways leading to courtyards, and what was my favorite park I’d yet seen in the city, Place des Vosges. Surrounded by red-brick buildings with regal arcades that once housed the likes of royalty and author Victor Hugo (his home is now a museum devoted to him), this park may not be as grand as others I’d seen, but had a surprisingly residential feel, with families meeting so their children could play, young people sunning and others reading on shaded benches.
Eventually I found a comfortable spot for dinner, Au Bourguignon du Marais, got my table on the sidewalk and a massively deserved glass of wine. Taking a risk, I ordered its namesake boeuf stew–it was exactly the sort of thing you want after hours of walking, the meat tender and savory.
You would think, after achieving all that I had wanted to in a day that was well waning at this point, I would take the easy route home. You would be wrong. I decided to spend more than an hour walking back to Montmartre from Marais via Place Vendôme, so I could see the Colonne Vendôme, which I had overlooked earlier, and then just up the Rue de la Paix to the Palais Garnier before trudging up the hill past the Casino de Paris and through Pigalle to finally call it a day in Montmartre.
Feet? What feet? You’re going to be spending most of the day in an airport and on a flight tomorrow. Functional feet are optional.