Paris is over-romanticized. There, I said it. And before you start accusing me of dragging one of the world’s most iconic cities, let me explain.
Without a doubt, there is a reason Paris is a destination to more than 15 million international visitors a year. Just ask someone who has never been to the city and I can guarantee that they can give you at least five different sights to see or do as a tourist. Most notable: the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. These sights are quintessential Paris according to travel guides, and have made their way into American media and pop-culture, whether it’s an episode of Sex and the City or headlines of Kim and Kanye renewing their vows atop the Eiffel Tower (apparently Kanye didn’t get the memo about how horrifically cliche and unoriginal this is… and also bad luck according to some lore!). Because, as an American, I have been exposed to the “magic” of Paris from a young age (hell, who remembers that Rugrats movie where they go to Paris?!), when I actually got there, I did not feel that sense of allurement and fascination that I thought I would experience. Why? Because it had become ordinary to me. That’s the thing with exposure through TV or magazines; it’s only a glimpse, a moment in time that is edited. We don’t see the scam artists trying to sell plastic Eiffel Towers under the real thing, nor do we smell the potent urine in nearly every subway station. With that said, we also do not see the real magic of Paris; the magic that cannot be found with a tour group of all those sights previously mentioned, but only when the experiences of the city are taken into your own hands. Only then will you see Paris as an extraordinary city and not as the produced for the masses, over-romanticized city that people blindly experience it as.
It is easy to see why I was a little apprehensive for my first inevitable trip to Paris. There were a lot of expectations on my mind about all the stereotypes of Parisians, but I knew I was in for a fun five days of exploring since I would be conquering the city with Kayla, a friend from Ohio State, who was spending a semester abroad in France. We had found a promising hostel in the northern neighborhood of Montemare, and I must say, the view from my hostel room’s balcony has yet to been beaten. Any doubts about this city were immediately alleviated when I opened the curtains and saw this:
For our first night in Paris, we decided to go on the Mysteries of Paris Vampire and Ghost Tour. I cannot recommend going on “ghost walk” tours enough. They usually take place in the evening or early in the night, once the sun has gone down and the bustle of tourists has calmed down for the day. Most major cities have them and unlike other tours that may escort you and upwards of 50 people like hordes of sheep to landmarks that you are very capable of seeing on your own (all while the tour guide recites the wikipedia page of said landmark), ghost walks show you the darkest places in the city’s past and the interesting folklore that cannot be found in a textbook. For this particular tour, we met by the Charlemagne statue by Notre Dame just as the sun was setting. Our tour guide, Robin, was a young guy from Paris who looked like he could be the newest member of the Ghost Adventures Crew. He was super knowledgable and enthusiastic about all things dark and sinister of Paris. He lead us through narrow alleyways, explaining who was murdered by who, and the legacy of these deaths that continue to haunt Paris today. We even saw the original location that inspired the myth behind Sweeney Todd. Don’t be fooled, Fleet Street in London is not where humans were killed, then minced into pies. It all happened in Paris, sometime in the 13th century, or so Robin told us.
Our next day in Paris was our designated “do touristy things” day, but we did it on our terms and made it memorable. We started off bright and early by taking a train to the Catacombs. Although we had to wait THREE HOURS to get in (when you’re at the 90 minute mark, it’s too late. You’re committed. No turning back, and that’s what Kayla and I did– we waited it out by playing word games), it was another world once we walked down the stairs, under the hustle and bustle of Paris, under the surface of the city, to a city of the dead. Dimly lit long corridors with bones lining the wall, at parts going 20 feet back, for as far as the eye could see. Femurs and skulls were arranged in patterns of crosses. It felt intrusive, yet peaceful and welcoming. Sacrificial, yet religious. Neglectful and simultaneously protective. Anonymous and intimate. Millions upon millions of humans rest here in the cool, stagnant air, never to see sunlight again. It was a cool experience to navigate the kilometers and kilometers of tunnels, and when it’s finally over and the sun touches your face after climbing your way out of the narrow corridors, you truly feel alive.
After Les Catacombes, we started to experience the Paris we were looking for. A friend of Kayla told her the best way to see Paris was by using the city bike-share, Velib. We rented our bikes, made our way along the River Seine, and when the opportunity presented itself, hopped off and grabbed some pastries for lunch. I think the two biggest tips I can give to someone who wants to travel to Paris, but on a budget, is this: rent a bike and eat pastries for lunch. It’s no surprise that Paris is an expensive city. By renting a bike, you cut down on the cost of subways or worse, taxis, and you get to explore the city in a more personal way. Regarding pastries, they are super cheap and a huge part of Parisian culture. Get your fill of pain au chocolat and macarons for under 5 or 6 euros and save the 20+ euro meal for dinner after a long day of exploring. Plus, if you’re riding a bike everywhere, you don’t need to feel guilty about eating all those delicious pastries!
Now, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a tiny bit afraid to ride these bikes in Paris. The traffic was chaotic and European drivers tend to be overly confident and reckless. But to be honest, it was liberating in a sense, riding around, having the freedom to stop whenever, despite the multiple times I thought I was going to be thrown off my bike by a Peugeot or a Renault coming at me full speed. The fear quickly subsided and proved to be the best way to travel in Paris. The magic of Paris lies along its tree lined avenues and there’s no better way to feel that magnetism than on a bike with the wind in your hair and a bunch of angry French drivers behind you. We managed to see all the major sights while on our bikes, like:
Later that night, we definitely slept well, but woke up early to catch a train to Versailles. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see the Palace of Versailles, mainly because both of us were residents of Europe at the time and under 26 years old, which meant entry to the palace was FREE. The weather that day was absolutely beautiful, jokingly saying “these clouds thoooo” every ten minutes during our 90 minute wait in line. But, for real though, look at these clouds. It’s amazing how much clearer the sky is when you go outside of the city.
As you can tell, very bourgeoisie. The inside matched as well; gold embellishments along the staircase railings, grandiose hallways, paintings of royalty against velvet walls. All very regal, but I must say, my favorite piece of art was a bit random:
We went through the “apartments” as they’re called, seeing all the fancy bedrooms, living spaces, and of course, the Hall of Mirrors. We then made our way to the gardens, which were personally my favorite part of the day. Luckily, we were there in the spring, so the flowers were starting to bloom and the fountains were newly filled with clean water. These gardens are known for their style, French formal, which focuses on symmetry and “imposing order on nature.” It’s refined, detailed, and unnaturally natural. The romantic, transcendentalist in me rejects this concept, but I cannot lie: it was beautiful.
Fast forward past our evening back in Montemare, where we had a dinner of French cuisine and wine, and took a stroll down to Moulin Rouge, to our final full day in Paris. We decided to treat ourselves and go to the undisputed most magical place in Paris: Disneyland. Granted, it was nearly an exact replica of Disney World, but the inner child within us could not resist a trip to this fun land. Yay commercialism and American capitalist endeavors in France!
I’m still conflicted about the time I spent in Paris. I did the touristy things the way I wanted, but it wasn’t enough. It is a city that caters to the tourist in so many ways, and I feel that there is no way to understand a city on these terms. The best moments were when we were displaced from the super touristy areas, perhaps aimlessly riding our bikes through nameless neighborhoods, and experiencing the city as a Parisian would. Paris was best experienced when the camera was stowed away and we walked down an avenue, waffle with chocolate in hand, admiring the gorgeous architecture. I still believe that Paris is over-romanticized, not because TV shows and movies make it out to be a destination that cures ones insufferable wanderlust, but because people see the city and do not experience it. Otherwise, you’re going to see the same thing that 15 million other people see every year.