Impossible, they told us. Just fork out for a hostel overnight, they told us. You won’t even get through all the sights, they told us.
But they were wrong. If you are living or staying anywhere near London, it’s perfectly feasible to attempt to see Paris in a day. Wear a good pair of shoes and have a strong map-reader in your group and you can wander the city of love and lights and be home by bedtime.
Where To Start
You begin with the Eurostar, which you have booked weeks in advance to get the best deal. You’re only paying £67 return and the journey from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord takes just under three hours. It would take longer and be more expensive to get to many places in the UK from London. You spend your time in the queue talking about how cool that is to your friends.
You alight at Gare du Nord at 11:30 and at once everything is very confusing. You don’t even know which exit you just came out of and there are no road signs. This is where your strong map-reader comes in. They need to get you onto Boulevard de Magenta heading north, because the first place you’re visiting is the Basilique du Sacre Coeur.
Getting up to Sacre Coeur takes a lot of endurance, both in getting up the steps and avoiding the touts who aren’t afraid to grab at you in an attempt to sell their tat. It’s worth it though, because from outside the cathedral you get the most wonderful view of Paris. Even on a foggy day this view has a mystery about it that you wouldn’t want to miss. There are always buskers surrounding the Sacre Coeur and they are usually surprisingly talented. I’ve always stopped to watch and even bought CDs there.
Behind Sacre Coeur, Montmartre extends. Montmartre is my favourite area of Paris. It’s the Paris you’ve seen in movies, the narrow streets lined with chocolatiers, the cafés on the square, the artists. It’s incredibly charming and, were you to stay longer in Paris, you could probably spend a day here alone. You could stop here for lunch in an adorable café or pick up a sweet or savoury crêpe if you want to keep on the move.
Wander down the steep hill heading out of Montmartre and wonder at the houses and boutiques that line them. “People really live here,” you murmur as you turn right on Boulevard de Clichy, and suddenly you are smack bang in the middle of the sex industry. Open-mouthed and incredulous that a place like this really exists in the middle of Paris, you gawk at signs advertising a whole lot of things you don’t want to do in bed until the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge rears up in front of you. It’s a huge anticlimax and nothing like the Baz Luhrmann film, but there’s a vent outside you can stand on and pretend to be Marilyn Monroe. This amuses you.
Heading south down Rue Blanche until you hit Rue Sant-Lazare, the ambience changes completely as you pass the Galeries Lafayette, the poshest department store in all of Paris selling haute-couture pieces that you won’t get anywhere else. You won’t get them here either because you can’t afford them, and if you walk in without a Louis Vuitton bag security will wrinkle their nose at you. But you can dream.
Along Boulevard Haussmann and let me tell you, this is a long and uninteresting walk. This is when you start to think the naysayers might have been right. After a hundred thousand miles, Haussmann becomes Friedland and suddenly in front of you is the Arc de Triomphe. It is so huge and ornate and magnificent that your feet stop hurting. Truly a monument to the history and beauty of Paris.
Crossing the road and trying to get a picture from the middle, you meet the world-famous Avenue de Champs-Élysées. Although many of the designers on display at the Lafayette also have boutiques here, so do more affordable places like Zara, Sephora, and McDonald’s. Trees and street performers line this broad street and you walk slowly down, absorbing it all.
The long walk takes you onto Place de la Concorde, which is pierced through the middle by an obelisk you recognise from the Da Vinci Code. Through the gates into the Tuileries Garden. Chairs and garden benches are arranged around little ponds and fountains where you can rest for a moment. The Tuileries Garden is a beautiful, understated part of Paris that is often less crowded – definitely worth a visit. At the bottom of the garden is the modern iconic symbol of Paris – the glass pyramid that stands in front of the Louvre.
The Louvre is one of the most stunning art galleries in the world, and worth the ten euros if you have a penchant for art. It’s not worth it if you just want to see the Mona Lisa. It’s the world’s worst kept secret that the Mona Lisa is tiny – absolutely miniscule – and the crowds that inevitably surround her mean you can’t even get a closer look. From the Louvre, walk along the river and cross one of the many bridges that leads onto the Île de la Cité, upon which stands the Notre Dame. This 850-year-old cathedral is free to enter and the queue moves quickly, so you must not miss a spectacular walk around the inside. The stained glass windows alone are worth going in for. If you walk slightly behind the Notre Dame and to its left, you can cross another bridge onto a smaller island that is largely unbeknownst to tourists yet boasts affordable cafés that are swarming with locals. As every traveller knows: it’s always good to eat with the locals.
Back over the bridges and past the Notre Dame to the Left Bank of the river, and your first port of call has got to be Shakespeare & Company. You might recognise it from the outside as ‘that bookshop from tumblr,” and the inside is a veritable maze of countless books in English. They are priced well and stock some gorgeous editions, and you can get a special Shakespeare & Company stamp from them if you ask at the till.
From here you face a choice. It’s probably about 6 or 7pm at this point. If you still feel energetic or you particularly want to visit the Orsay Museum, you can walk all the way up the Left Bank to the Eiffel Tower. This is a long, long, walk, and no one will judge you if you hop on the Metro to the Tower instead. Ending the day at the Eiffel Tower was an inspired choice on your part: it’s much less busy in the evening and, if you’re in Paris in the autumn or winter, by this time it might be lit up. Although the Tower is much more beautiful at night, by day you can still admire the architectural feat that has become a symbol of Paris, France, or even Europe.
It’s late and you’re exhausted, so descend back into the Metro and head up to the Gare du Nord for your nighttime Eurostar back to London. You’ve accomplished so much in one day, covering almost ten miles and almost all of Paris’ major sights on foot. You might pull out a book, or your camera to flick through the day’s photos, but sooner or later you will be snoozing into your headrest. A well deserved rest.
Are there any other sights in Paris you’d want to include in your day trip? Have you managed to see any other cities in a day? Discuss with us in the comments!
Written by Abbey Lewis
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All photos taken by Abbey Lewis