Day 2: The Historic Heart of Paris

Sainte-Chappelle

Best of Paris Itinerary: Let’s begin where Paris did, on the Île de la Cité. Your guide will lead a walking tour of the city’s early history, including visits to a pair of the world’s most significant medieval Gothic churches: the legendary Notre-Dame Cathedral and the exquisite Sainte-Chapelle. Then we’ll take a stroll through the bohemian Latin Quarter, with free time for lunch on your own. We’ll end our afternoon at the Cluny National Museum of the Middle Ages, where after an introduction, you’ll be free to visit the sublime Lady and the Unicorn tapestry and have a rare, up-close look at the artistry of original stained-glass windows from Sainte-Chapelle. Walking: moderate.

Journal

Monday, May 2
We met with the tour group after breakfast, and jumped right into an orientation on the Metro system – at Monday morning rush hour! We bravely took the underground subway to the Île de la Cité, historical center of Paris. First we stopped at the fabulous Sainte-Chapelle, famous for its beautiful stained glass windows, and continued to Notre-Dame, Paris’ cathedral, known for its hunchback Quasimodo. We spent a lot of time looking at the facade and portals to the cathedral, learning about the significance of the statues and the the stories they tell.

At lunch time, we joined Julie and Suzi for an outdoor salad lunch in the Latin Quarter. After lunch, Arnaud led a tour through the quaint Latin Quarter, passed by Odeon theater, Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, the Sobonne University, and Musée de Cluny, which is entirely dedicated to medieval art, and has a display of the famous The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. We explored the museum, then headed back to the hotel with some others from our group.

I tried out the Google Translate app to interpret an urgent-looking sign at the bus stop, but it has its limitations – the bus route was either cancelled completely, or just one stop on the route was closed. Our small group compared notes about whether anyone had actually seen the bus we were waiting for … and eventually, one showed up, so all was well. Note for next time: work on more vocabulary about transportation – tickets, closures, delays, “where is the Metro station?” and “why is the airport terminal closed off?” 😬

In the evening, we had a light supper with Katie at Bistro St Dominique: baked camembert cheese with honey, served with a baguette; ham & cheese omelette. As we walked home, Mom was struck by a sudden urge for crepes, so we popped into an odd little restaurant down the street. (The place always seemed closed, with a locked door, although you could sometimes see a woman standing in the back.) The creperie was empty but its door was open this time, so we gave it a try – the sweet crepes were fine, mine was even served on fire! 🔥 A good ending to an action-packed day.

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”

– Thomas Jefferson

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Day 4: The Marais District and the Louvre

Louvre

Best of Paris Itinerary: We’ll begin our day with a walking tour through Paris’ diverse, history-layered Marais district. As we walk we’ll learn about enlightened 17th-century urban planning at the beautiful Place des Vosges, the cultural roots of the Jewish Quarter and how the French Revolution grew from this neighborhood. Our walk will end at the Carnavalet Museum, a cavalcade of Parisian history, which you can visit on your own. This evening, Europe’s greatest museum—the Louvre—is open late, and we’ll take full advantage of that. You’ll come face-to-face with the works of Rafael, Delacroix, and Leonardo, and timeless treasures that include Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, and hundreds more. Walking: strenuous.

Journal

Wednesday, May 4
We enjoyed strolling through the Marais district. There was a beautiful little garden with dozens of little birds swooping through and singing. It’s so lovely to find these little pockets of green where you can step out of the busy city for a moment.

We had lunch with Darrin and Tami at a Middle Eastern restaurant – we knew it would be good, because there was a long line out the door. It was our first time eating falafel, and we had a really fun time visiting with this delightful couple. After lunch, Mom and I shopped around the Marais district and sampled some macarons at a cute little bakery.

Getting ourselves to the Louvre, our sense of direction worked fine today, but depth perception was a little off! We thought it was just a few blocks away, but kept walking … and walking … and walking. (It’s the biggest museum in the world, it has to be around here somewhere.) Mom approached a trio of French Armed Forces – serious-looking men, carrying very big weapons – and made a “pyramid” sign with her fingers. They just looked at us, unsmiling and puzzled. We kept walking the same direction, and soon – voila! – we saw a glimpse of the great glass pyramid that is the entrance to the museum. Tip: take Bus #69 – it drops you off right at the front of the museum. 😳

We met our tour guide, Charles, who led us through the highlights of the Louvre – Venus de Milo, the Wing of Victory, the Crown Jewels, and of course Mona Lisa. I hardly took any photos today – there was just so much to take in with my eyes, so much amazing European art. One thing that stood out: a 3,750-square-foot ceiling painting by American Cy Twombly – suddenly you find yourself in the sea and sun of the Mediterranean. The Louvre has room for everything.

Tip: Wednesday night is a perfect time to visit the Louvre, when it is open late. Except for the Mona Lisa exhibit, it was not crowded at all!

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”

– Oscar Wilde

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Day 5: Château de Versailles

Versailles gardens

Best of Paris Itinerary: Today we’ll explore the elaborate palace that Louis XIV, XV, and XVI called home. We’ll make the 30-minute train trip to Versailles, where we’ll have a guided tour of the dazzling Hall of Mirrors and other sumptuous rooms of the palace. You’ll then have free time to wander through the expansive gardens and visit the farm animals at Marie Antoinette’s hamlet—or zip back to Paris early via one of the frequent trains. Train: 1 hr. Walking: strenuous.

Journal

Thursday, May 5: Ascension Day
Our Versailles day trip coincided with the beginning of a 4-day holiday weekend to celebrate Ascension Day, and gorgeous spring weather – so it was a very popular destination. We took the RER train from Paris in the morning, and Arnaud led our group through a less-crowded back entrance into the palace. There we met Catherine, our tour guide for the day and a long-time friend of Arnaud. She led an interesting tour of the immense 18th-century palace, with guilded apartments and Hall of Mirrors. I recalled that some friends were visiting here in January, and the palace was closed due to a strike; they were able to view the Hall of Mirrors without any other people – that must have been incredible!

Our tour ended outside with an amazing view of the gardens, greenhouses, and the Grand Canal down below. After a forgettable touristy lunch, we strolled the gardens to view the marble statues, then took the Petit Train to view more of the property, which included the Grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s estate. There were long lines of people waiting to get back to the palace via the petit train, so we kept our seats and just went along for the ride. The impressive fountains were turned on in the late afternoon, and there was classical music playing in the gardens – a nice touch.

Tips: Arrive at Versailles early in the day, and go see Marie-Antoinette’s digs. Arrange to rent a bike and pedal around the property, and enjoy a picnic lunch in one of the lovely open green spaces.

We took the RER train back to Paris in the late afternoon, then popped into the laundromat across the street. After a few tries, and patient instructions from Arnaud at the front desk of the hotel, I managed to do a load of laundry while Mom took a nap. Our efforts were rewarded with a batch of clean clothes and another fabulous dinner at Café Constant on the corner.

“Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant.”

– Honoré de Balzac

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Day 6: Masterpieces of Paris

Clock at Orsay Museum

Best of Paris Itinerary: This morning we’ll tour the Orangerie Museum featuring Monet’s magnificent water lilies and home to a fine collection of other works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and more. You’ll be well oriented and have time this afternoon to see the world’s greatest collection of Impressionist art—almost next door—at the Orsay Museum, with art from Monet and Degas to Cézanne and Gauguin, and beyond. Or visit other nearby places covered by your included 6-Day Paris Museum Pass, such as the Rodin Museum, or the military museum of Les Invalides. Tonight we’ll enjoy a farewell feast together, sharing travel memories and toasting new friends. Salut! Walking: moderate.

Journal

Friday, May 6
We visited two wonderful museums today: Musée de l’Orangerie with a fabulous guide, Joelle, who was Arnaud’s art history teacher. She gave us plenty of time to learn about and appreciate Monet’s great project, The Nymphéas [Water Lilies], which occupied the artist for three decades. One enters these rooms by way of a small, empty circular room, painted in white with a single skylight. The intention is to clear your mind, to become new, “like a child”, and allow for the full-color impact of what is to come. The museum displays the panoramic frieze of the Water Lilies in two elliptical rooms, and the effect is magnificent.

Fun fact: an orangerie is a greenhouse for citrus trees. This museum building was built in 1852 as a winter shelter for the orange trees that lined the garden of the Tuileries Palace. Before then, the orange trees were housed in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.

Next we visited Musée d’Orsay, a museum with an impressive 19th and 20th century European art collection housed in Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station. The beautiful clocks in the museum were made famous in the film Hugo, and it is amazing to see Paris through the glass face of a clock. We had lunch in the hip café on the top floor, and enjoyed wandering through the museum’s many galleries afterwards.

Our final tour group dinner was held at Le Bosquet. The wine was flowing and the conversation lively! I tried one snail (escargot) – now I’ve done it! Delicious artichoke starter, duck for dinner, apple tart for dessert.

It was a little sad to say goodbye to our new friends from the tour – like the end of summer camp. We had a lot of fun experiencing Paris with this group, and Arnaud was a terrific guide!

“Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”

– Claude Monet

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Le Bosquet Menu

Entree au choix / starter:
Ravioles de royans
Royans ravioles stuffed with cheese and herbs
Six escargots de Bourgogne extra gros
Six extra large snails from Burgundy
Artichaut de Bratagne prepare
Artichoke, herbs French dressing

Plat (Main dish):
Confit de canard de la ferme, puree maison
Duck confit with mashed potatoes
Duo de poissons frais a la provencale, riz et haricots verts frais
Two fishes (gambas & seabass) Provencal mode with rice and fresh green beans

Dessert:
Tiramisu
Fraises melba
Strawberries and vanilla ice cream
Tarte tatin
Apple tart

Day 7: Musée Rodin

Rodin garden

Best of Paris Itinerary: Tour Over After Breakfast. Breakfast is provided, but there are no group activities today. It’s a breeze to reach Paris’ airports by taxi, shuttle or public transportation. Your guide will help you with any post-tour planning, leaving you well prepared for the road ahead. Merci et au revoir!

Journal

Saturday, May 7
We said goodbye to Arnaud and friends from our tour over breakfast, then headed out to make use of the last day of our museum pass. First we did a little shopping at the upscale Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, the oldest (and perhaps most expensive) department store. Ooo-la-la! We window-shopped a little, bought a few treats at a dry goods store with tablecloths and aprons, and explored a few of the sweet little pocket gardens.

We discovered Café Varenne nearby and had a delicious and relaxing lunch – fresh green bean salad, ratatouille, and good people-watching.

In the afternoon, we visited the outstanding Rodin museum and sculpture gardens. Rodin rented space, lived and worked here in the early 20th century – one of the exhibits is a recreation of his workshop area (goosebumps!) Among the other artistic tenants of the Hôtel Biron were the writer Jean Cocteau, the painter Henri Matisse, the dancer Isadora Duncan and the sculptress Clara Westhoff, future wife of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1908, Rodin rented four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios. From 1911 onwards, he occupied the entire building.

Musée Rodin was also Rodin’s workshop, and contains most of his significant creations, including The Thinker, The Kiss and The Gates of Hell. Many of his sculptures are displayed in the museum’s extensive garden. Fun fact: the park covers nearly three hectares (7.4 acres) – and we walked over 14,000 steps today.

This evening, we strolled through the Rue Cler street market, had dinner in an Italian cafe, and dessert from a street vendor for dessert. It was a nice “vacation” moment to walk down the cobblestone street in the evening, eating ice cream.

“Nature and Antiquity are the two great sources of life for an artist.”

– Auguste Rodin

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Day 8: Jardin des Plantes

Jardin des Plantes

Journal

Sunday, May 8 – Mother’s Day (U.S.) and Victory in Europe Day
Today was Mother’s Day back home, so this was Mom’s special day and very well spent in the vast Jardin des Plantes (garden of plants) – the main botanical garden in France. We had purchased tickets in advance to see Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, but opted to go here instead: no need for a train trip out of Paris, and no holiday crowds. Mother’s Day is celebrated in late May in France; however, May 8 was both the final day of a 4-day Ascension holiday weekend and Victory in Europe Day – so we expected tourist attractions to be busy. I was torn, until a friend advised that Monet’s Gardens is equal to Versailles in level of popularity. Jardin des Plantes it is!

Plant species are grown in a number in botanical and alpine gardens, and restored 19th-century hothouses. In addition to serving as the site for the city’s huge Museum of Natural History, the park is also home to a small zoo. It was a perfect spring day for garden strolling and picnic lunch, and there were plenty of colorful tulips and lilacs in bloom.

For dinner, we aimed to try a place where President Obama had dined: La Fountaine de Mars on Rue Saint-Dominique. When we arrived, there was the bustle of a film crew setting up outside, and a fancy Italian car parked out front. When I requested a table, the host said they weren’t open yet. I had read that this is a place Parisians go to see and be seen … perhaps we weren’t the target clientele? 😉  Lucky for us, Rue Saint-Dominique is home to no less than three restaurants by chef Christian Constant. We had a wonderful meal at Les Cocottes, concluded with a truly fabulous dessert, just as the name promises.

Mother’s Day Dinner

Les Cocottes, 135 Rue Saint-Dominique – 75007 Paris

Dinner:
Poached egg with crispy bacon and rocket salad
Les cocottes: fillet of cod with buttered savoy cabbage
Les cocottes: beef stew

Dessert:
The fabulous Christian Constant chocolate tart get the recipe

Wine: Petit Chablis

“That was the moment I fell in love with Paris and the moment that I felt that Paris had fallen in love with me.”

– Carol, Paris, je t’aime

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Day 9: Eiffel Tower

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Journal

Monday, May 9
Our final day in Paris! We went downstairs to the hotel breakfast room, which was filled up with the next batch of Rick Steves “Best of Paris” clients, excited about the start of their tour. Today we took a similar walk to our first day in Paris, over the bridge and down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, continuing all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. The workweek was beginning and the city streets seemed clean and fresh after a hard rain the night before. We were hoping it might drizzle a little so we could wear the raincoats we packed especially for the trip.

We stopped in for coffee and macarons at Ladurée on Champs Elysées, recommended by a friend as the place to have this Parisian treat. It is said that Ladurée invented the macaron … in any case, they have gorgeous window displays of the cookies and so many flavors to choose from! We selected four from the menu and savored them with coffee in an elegant tea room upstairs.

We enjoyed taking a closer look at the Musee de l’Armee at the center of the Hôtel National des Invalides. It has a beautiful church inside, and the golden Dôme des Invalides contains Napoleon I’s tomb. We also took a second walk by the living garden wall outside of Musée du quai Branly.

As the afternoon got late, it was time to bid farewell to Paris … from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve posted a video of one of two elevator rides we took to the top. Don’t look down! 😳

Final Dinner in Paris

We returned to a favorite restaurant for our last special dinner: Cafe Constant

Dinner
Volaille «Patte Bleue» rôtie au beurre d’herbes, petits oignons, lardons et champignons
Chicken roasted in herb butter, onions, bacon and mushrooms
Crème de potiron, émietté de châtaignes et croûtons
Cream of pumpkin soup with crumbled chestnuts, croutons, and cheese ravioli
Get the recipe

Desserts
Profiteroles maison, sauce au chocolat chaud
Profiteroles (cream puffs) served with hot chocolate sauce
Fromage de saison
Seasonal cheese

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more sublime.”

― Victor Hugo

Video: ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower