Arriving in London is usually the cheapest destination in Europe. And you can easily travel from the UK to the European continent, by bus! We took a 10-hour bus ride from London right into the heart of Paris. Arriving at about 10pm (our bus came in late) we checked into our campsite (more about that later) and struggled to maneuver around a city for which we did not fluently speak the language. Despite this—Paris is brilliant. Forget what you’ve heard about French people! We were worried our American nationality and English speaking would turn people off—as it is commonly thought in the states. But quite the opposite. Parisians went out of their way to stop us on the street, whether we were looking at a map or buying a metro pass, to ask us if we needed help. In English! I know what you’re thinking, and we never even came close to being pick-pocketed. Usually you’ve got to watch out for these “helpers” who target lost tourists as means to a new phone or wallet. But none of these locals approached us in this way, they were genuinely trying to be helpful and we felt very safe.
Something that entranced me from the start, and all the way through Europe, was the architecture. Normal buildings, apartments, shops—even McDonalds—are built inside the most beautifully crafted historical architecture. Simply walking around the streets is the best way to fully absorb Paris and its beauty.
For the day that we were there we had three objectives: Eiffel Tower, Catacombs, and the Louver. A piece of advice is know where you want to go, how far away they are from each other, and what method of transportation is best. The metro was perfect for us and our plans because it made each spot accessible and was wonderfully easy to maneuver. I recommend getting the one or however many day pass that you plan to spend there, it’s a way to spend money and know you’ve got a secure way of getting around. Second, get out early. You’ll be waiting in lines for everything. We got up around 7, ate breakfast, and were at the Eiffel before 9. This was lucky because the Tower didn’t open up until after 9, so we got a good spot in line and didn’t have to wait long. One forewarning: PARIS IS NOT BACKPACK FRIENDLY. At least not for traditional backpacking size, where you’ve got a 40-lb pack with you at all times, which we had that day. We almost didn’t get into the Eiffel because of our large backpacks, small purses are fine, but large bags must be checked for security reasons and they were hesitant to even let us through. Therefore, I’d recommend staying in a place in Paris where you can securely leave your bags while you’re out, or renting a locker. Once inside, you have to pay for a ticket for the elevator up to the top, or a cheaper ticket to climb the stairs. We climbed as high as is allowed (with our packs) and then took the elevator up the rest of the way. You don’t have to pay for another ticket at the second level, nor to get down. I highly recommend going all the way to the top, the third level. The elevator is cramped and a bit sketchy—if you have a fear for that sort of thing. But it’s a short ride and well worth it. The view of Paris is spectacular. And the Tower itself is magnificent. Much bigger than I’d expected!
After the Eiffel we made our way back to the Catacombs, which is in the center of the city and can be a bit hard to locate. Every sign and person will direct you to a triangular strip in the middle of an intersection. You’ve got to walk around the perimeter of it until you’ll see a small wall with little letters saying Catacombs. Of course, you could always just follow the line. We waited two hours in a massive hoard of people; some friends of mine who went a few weeks later waited four. Allow for this kind of waiting time in your schedule. The Catacombs were awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed them and all their creepiness. It’s literally stacks and stacks of ancient bones, and eerie old signs written in French (“mort” was all I could understand). Again our backpacks were a problem, but here they’ll let you store your pack in a room and you can wander below freely. However, you’ll have to find your way back to the entrance to retrieve your bag, because the end of the displayed tunnel spits you out a few blocks down. It’s truly amazing how far those Catacombs reach. They cover nearly the entire city. We didn’t opt for a tour; you can learn on your own by reading informative signs—and maybe secretly trailing a tour group or two.
The Louver unfortunately did not happen. Security wouldn’t let us in with our bags, and they had no lockers or rooms to store them. Disappointing. But I’ve heard exploring the whole museum takes many hours. Also some nights and days of the week offer free student admission to limited exhibits and there are many discounts you can take advantage of by checking their website. I’ll be back to Paris undoubtedly, and the Mona Lisa will be waiting for me.
Our hostel situation was a different, but good, experience. We stayed in a campground in the garden of a discontinued hospital that was now used to house low-income passerby’s and locals. The check-in lady described it as a place for artists, starving musicians, and travelers to stay and be welcomed. The price reflected this! We stayed in a teeny tent atop some wooden planks and had close neighbors. Besides the audible next-door snoring and slight panic at a spider inside our tent—the place was great. I’d recommend it to people who are looking for a unique experience; it’s not for those who prefer luxury. We showered outside under a pull-down tent, used outdoor sink and toilet facilities, and yoga mats to sleep on (plus other rentable equipment) were provided. All in all, it was a positive experience.
Paris is an incredible city that needs to be explored. You definitely can’t do everything in one or two days, so plan accordingly to get to the things that are most important to you. And remember not to carry around a backpack! We didn’t feel comfortable leaving our packs in our unlocked tent, so the only thing I’d do differently is sleep somewhere secure as to leave our bags there. From Paris it was time to fly to Milan where we could catch a bus to Venice and arrive by morning. Or so we thought…