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Top 10 tips for first-timers visiting Paris

I was going on a Viking River Cruise to Southern France with my best friend, Joan, who mentioned that she had never been to Paris. Mon dieu! I immediately set out to rectify this grave error, and rebooked our flights so we could at least spend the weekend in Paris before heading down to Avignon to board our ship. Paris is made up of twenty distinct districts (arrondissements) which circle the city like a garlic infused escargot. With over 2,000 hotels in the city, choosing where to stay was the most daunting part of the planning process. After endless hours of research I chose two boutique four-star hotels (both looked perfect for girlfriend getaways) so Joan could get a feel for the different nabes. We also booked a couple of tours, reserved our Paris Passes, packed our most fashionable black pieces and set off for 48 hours in Gay Paree. 1. Hôtel Les Dames du Panthéon Our first night stay was at Hôtel Les Dames du Panthéon, in the heart of the historic 5th arrondissement (Latin Quarter), which overlooks, umh…the Panthéon! Fresh from a recent, nothing subtle about it, face-lift, this glam hotel sports a sexy vibe enhanced by dramatic red and black accents. Each floor features a different style, inspired by daring independent French women (Les Dames means “ladies”) ranging from George Sand to Juliette Greco. Perfect for two independent American women! Dames du Pantheeon Our cozy room offered all the prerequisite girlie touches including plush robes and slippers, comfy duvet covered beds, heated towel racks, magnifying mirror and a chilled bottle of bubbly. Bonus points for the scrumptious breakfast (crepes and omelets made-to-order), the complimentary afternoon tea and pastries (so welcome after a long day exploring) and the exceedingly helpful staff. 2. Hôtel Baume Equally enjoyable was our stay at newbie Hôtel Baume located in bustling Saint Germain minutes from Jardin Luxembourg. Color-crayon bright, this chic art-deco property incorporates luxurious style elements from the 1930’s such as exotic woods, satin and textured silk. Many of the individually themed rooms (and the exceedingly pleasant breakfast room) overlook the calming, leafy courtyard and have either an Italian-style shower or bathtub, a towel warmer, robes and slippers, luxury toiletries and complimentary Wi-Fi. We made note of the Deluxe Terrace Suites for our next stay, where guests can enjoy an al fresco breakfast overlooking the rooftops of Paris. Hotel Baume Kudos to Maya at the front desk who could not have been sweeter or more patient as we bombarded her with questions. 3. Le Calife If I were writing the screenplay for a classy romantic film, I would have the falling-in-love montage take place on Le Calife during a (truly) magical dinner cruise on the Seine River. Our absolutely perfect introduction to a twinkly Paris at night began with a glass of Champagne after we were shown to our table under the cozy, glass-enclosed roof. The rest of the evening we just sat back and savored a feast for all our senses, as we dined on a Michelin-caliber four-course French meal (don’t miss the “Famous Calife Foie Gras “starter” with crispy gingerbread in caramelized balsamic vinegar) pausing between succulent bites to gaze in wonderment as we glided past illuminated monuments. The showstopper was a spectacular Eiffel Tower light show. Le Calife dinner cruise Le Calife is a gorgeous boat, owned by Nicolas Gailledrat, a quirky world traveler, collector and musician who painstakingly restored the vessel (which was once used to transport cereal) turning it into a recording studio and jazz club. After dinner you can head downstairs where you’ll find the sound studio, a scattering of musical instruments including the last Steinway Grand to be produced at the original workshop, a polished mahogany concert room with bronze ceiling, huge brass doors from an old pharmacy and many other eclectic artifacts from Gailledrat’s travels. The delicious food, caring service and beauty of our surroundings provided a très magnifique evening. 4. The Paris Pass The Paris Pass offers the perfect answer for time-challenged visitors. It’s easy peasy, plus you’ll save big bucks, which you’ll need for #5, and included everything we wanted want to see and do. Paris Pass Insider tip: before getting started grab a seat at a sidewalk cafe and review the informative 120 page Paris Guidebook which is chock full of information about the city to help you plan the perfect day. Circle the museums, art galleries and historic monuments that strike your fancy. The pass provides free entry to over 60 attractions including The Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Orsay Museum, and a Seine River Cruise. They even throw in a wine tasting class held in a historic wine cellar where the sommelier will teach you the basics of French wine. Since we were so short on time we really appreciated their exclusive Fast Track Entry, which allowed us to jump straight to the front of the line at a handful of popular attractions. Do-it-yourself types can take advantage of the free travelcard that covers all sorts of public transport to help you navigate the city with ease. Since map-reading has never been part of my skill set, we were delighted to board the ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’ which provided a fab overview of the top attractions. We would hop off for photo ops, a quick neighborhood walk -about or just exchange self-satisfied smiles with the Mona Lisa. 5. The Champs-Elysees We timed our last hop-off for a stunning sunset pic of the Arc de Triomphe before shopping along the posh Champs-Elysees – one of the world’s most beautiful avenues and a short cut to heaven for fashionistas. It was almost impossible to drag Joan away but after seeing the endless queue snaking around the Louis Vitton store, I was finally able to persuade her to join me for a glass of Champagne at the as-elegant-as-ever, Four Seasons Hotel George V, where we marveled at the 18th century French antiques, extravagant objets d’art and spectacular flower arrangements. Four Seasons Hotel George V lobby 6. A culinary walking tour After seeing the wonders of Paris by boat and getting a great overview from the “hoppy” bus we decided the next best way to get some local flavor would be to join a walking tour. We chose two: Culinary Tours of Paris Montmartre walk and the Jewish History Tour of Marais by Sight Seeker’s Delight. Both were top-notch picks providing hours of incredible fun, lots of interesting history and some much needed exercise to burn off our plural morning pain au chocolat(s). One important tip: come hungry, VERY hungry, to one of Jean-Paul Fortney’s Culinary Tours of Paris – and it’s a good idea to wear baggy pants and comfy shoes. We joined Jean-Paul for his half-day tour of the picturesque Montmartre Movable Feast. Although J.P. is an American ex-pat, this captivating, food-loving Francophile could not be more in touch with the local culinary scene – even going so far as to marry a French cider-maker’s daughter. The food focused around traditional, French home-style cooking which we enjoyed at three atmospheric bistros. We started our food frenzy with a huge platter of homemade Charcuterie and Fromage and some rather obscure but delicious wines. (J.P. is also extremely knowledgeable about wines and shared with us the names of some excellent wines that could be purchased for under $10.) We moved over to the family owned, A la Pomponnette, a cornerstone of the neighborhood for over a century, where I ordered the pig trotters, which were every bit as good as Thomas Keller’s at Bouchon. We waddled down to a charming creperie for dessert where I indulged in a flaming Calvados crepe with apple sorbet served with fermented cider. Fabulous crepes In between feedings, J.P. would point out various spots of interest, such as where Van Gogh and Picasso lived or the bakery that won 6th place in last year’s baguette contest, which is no small feat since there are over 800 contenders! There are many other walking tours, but we would follow Jean Paul anywhere. 7. A walking tour of the Marais We wanted to learn more about the trendy Marais area; the center for Paris’s Jewish community (the third largest in the world) so picked this nabe for our other walking tour.   While researching the different tours here, Sight Seeker’s Delight Unique Walking Tours, particularly those led by owner Karen, scored one rave review after another, with many comments on her wonderful sense of humor. After our thoroughly enjoyable tour, it came as no surprise to find out that this dynamo had won Tripadvisor’s 2014 Certificate of Excellence. Her company offers 6 tours ranging from a tasty sounding “Tickle Your Tastebuds” tour to a spooky one that divulged the “Secrets of the Night”. Karen pointing out Marais best spots Originally from Philadelphia, Karen had studied drama at Temple University, which she is just one reason why her tours are so mesmerizing. She’s extremely passionate about her topic, is as funny as Jackie Mason, and has amassed incredible knowledge about Jewish history in France. We were thoroughly engaged as she brought the turbulent history of Jews to life through her spellbinding stories. She told us that many Holocaust survivors have been on her tour including one client who had been a patient of Josef Mengele and another who had been on the same train as Elie Wiesel. Over the years, Karen has developed personal connections with the local rabbis so we were able to visit synagogues that are not open to the general public. We broke for a yummy falafel lunch at the renowned L’As du Falafel. There is always a line out the door but thankfully they are also friends of Karen’s, so we had a table waiting for us. After she guided us through this historic old neighborhood, down secret alleyways and hidden gardens we emerged onto the bustling main drag filled with designer boutiques, high-end cheese shops, and expensive art galleries Joan and I exchanged slightly smug smiles, feeling a little sorry for those shoppers who had no idea of the real stories behind the Marais. 8. Louis Vuitton Foundation Exciting chance encounters are par for the course in Paris. It just so happened that during breakfast we overheard two French women discussing the soft opening of the highly anticipated Louis Vuitton Foundation that was scheduled for that morning so we immediately scrapped our plans and hailed a cab to Jardin d’Acclimatation. Towering above the park’s trees, like immense silver beetle wings flying over rolling waters, was the new $143 million art museum/cultural space. It was designed by Frank Gehry for L.V. billionaire Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man, to showcase his vast collection of contemporary art. Louis Vuitton Foundation This is a Parisian double-header for Gehry, since there is also a major retrospective of his career going on at the Pompidou Center. 9. “How to become Parisian in one hour” This hilarious comedy will teach you everything you need to know about how to pass for a Parisian during your stay. The wildly successful, one-man show is performed in English, albeit with a charming French accent, since this cutting satire about the snobbiness of the French is put on by a Parisian! Comedian Olivier Giraud’s gift of mimicry will have you howling with laughter as he teaches you how to shop, order food, hail a cab with complete rudeness AKA the Parisian way! It’s so fitting that the name of Olivier Giraud’s company is La French Arrogance Productions. How to become Parisian 10. Take a train ride My final tip is when you’re getting ready to leave town try and take a train ride to your next destination so you can see the spectacular French countryside. We were heading to Avignon next and during my frenzied search for train tickets I discovered Loco2, a super new website where you can easily research, pay and print your tickets in minutes. Loco2 says, “Our mission is to make booking a train as simple as booking a flight” and based on my experience, it was actually much easier!

Janice Nieder

Janice Nieder could be the love child of Indiana Jones and Julia Child. Previously a specialty food consultant in NYC, Janice is currently a SF-based culinary tourism writer who has wined & dined her way through 90 countries. To keep things in balance, Janice also enjoys writing about her Girlfriend Getaways which include spa visits, soft-core adventure, cultural events, shopping, boutique hotels, and chef interviews.

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  1. Hi – its joan the lucky best friend. Couldn’t have said it better myself! Paris; the boutique hotels, the magnificent Seine dinner cruise, the passionate, and detailed historical district tours and the added Parisian comedy and Louis Vuitton foundation/Frank Gehry masterpiece made for an extraordinarily inclusive (albeit quick) and delicious taste of a city where I can see myself visiting again and again. If you only have a few days or a few months in Paris, enjoy the above experiences to add to your list of best moments.

  2. I absolutely love walking down the Champs-Elysees after dark. Such a magical feeling and wonderful atmosphere.

  3. great list…many of our favorites from an eight-day trip in September, especially Bateau Le Calife — a truly memorable meal and excursion on the Seine — and a stop at George V if only to see the tapestry and flower arrangements

  4. These are certainly great tips! The only thing I would add: don’t spend hpiyrs trying to create the experience you want. First time, tenth time, trust to a travel expert to get you connected to the best experiences and guides perfectly suited to your personal preferences and style. Don’t leave anything to chance and save time and money! Call a travel pro!

  5. Hi Janice!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!! I just wanted to Thank you because I had 4 fabulous women book my Jewish Tour from reading your article’ thanks so much and hope to see you in Paris again soon!!!

  6. So glad to see you wrote about Karen Reb Rudel and Sightseeker’s Delight! Karen is a gem that every tourist to Paris deserves to find! And the falafel isn’t bad either :-)

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