After quite a few months of planning and research (I'm embarrassed to say how many), our four-day trip was a smashing success. Our itinerary was planned out in advance – with self-guided walks, and with the addresses of restaurants, attractions, and choice shops along the way. Only on the fourth day did we find ourselves too tired to do the planned activities, which we left for next time, with no regrets. Here are some highlights:
Transport from airport – After much deliberation and a strong united push from this forum, we intended to take a taxi from CDG to our hotel in the Marais. However, when we exited the terminal we faced a daunting and slow-moving line that I think could've taken more than 30 minutes had we chosen to stay on it. Instead we took a car service for 60 euro (an Israeli ex-pat) and we were glad we did. We hit traffic, and a cab could've ended up costing at least that much. It took about an hour to get to our hotel.
Our hotel: The Beaubourg in the Marais. Great 3-star hotel for a super-reasonable price. Would stay again.
Itinerary – Based on a slew of guidebooks (including Top 10 in Paris and Rick Steves), and advice from this forum, I created daily routes with plenty of down time (Google Maps rules), no more than about 8 km of walking a day (including traipsing around museums), and timely food breaks along the way. I limited us to four museums (we ended up going to three) and we decided to look AT most monuments and buildings rather than go in or up. It worked out beautifully.
Food – All the restaurants we ate in were kosher and they were all terrific. These included Le Grand Mechant du Louvre (near the Louvre), Lotus de Nissan (near the Bastille), L'Asiatik (near the Eiffel Tower, in the 16th), Il Palazzo (on Blvd St. Michel), L'As du Falafel (in the Marais), L'usine Micky (also in the 16th), Pitzman and Korcarz (both in the Marais). These places will probably not mean much to those who are not strictly kosher but if anyone IS interested in kosher dining in Paris, just ping me. Even if you don't eat kosher, the pastries and baked goods in Korcarz (29 Rue de Rosiers) are worth a trip to the Marais.
L'As du Falafel – as all the guide books say, this place was packed. Coming from the land of falafel, we weren't ready to spend 6 euro for that particular sandwich (which is more than twice what we pay here in Israel) but we did get a platter, which was great. We waited on line to be seated and the service was quick and efficient. We were glad we experienced this Paris landmark.
Breakfast – Every morning, I'd go out for coffee and my husband would go to the aforementioned Korcarz for bread and pastries and we'd meet up in our hotel room for breakfast. WHAT a great way to start the day!!! Must also recommend the greatest onion rolls in the world from Boulangerie Murciano on Rue de Rosiers.
Transportation – We bought a Carnet and ended up using it plus an additional ride on the metro. We bussed three times and Metro'd three times, and on the last day we used the Batobus (which is both scenic and practical). The interactive bus map was a great help, and the Metro is a breeze to figure out. My goal was to not use taxis (which broke the bank last year when we were in Rome) and I stuck to my guns with no problem.
The Marais – We deliberated long and hard before we chose the Marais (for a variety of reasons including the aforementioned kosher food). We were happy with our decision though I may opt to find a base a little further away from the Pompidou Center (i.e., a bit more east) where the vibe is a little livelier.
The weather – utterly unpredictable. We bought an umbrella as soon as we got there and promptly left it behind the next day when the skies looked clear. An hour later we had to buy another one as the skies opened up. The last day – when it turned much warmer– we again left our umbrella(s) behind only to get caught in another shower. Moral of the story – take the umbrella everywhere.
Museums: 1) The Orsay -a great museum. Just the right size; lots of people but it didn't feel packed. The 5th floor had such a concentration of beautiful art – so much stunning color – that it brought tears to my eyes. Van Gogh's "Starry Night" was the only painting that felt crowded but I realized that everything is relative when I got to … 2) The Louvre – overwhelming, packed, and just too big. We walked miles just to see a few highlights. When we tired, we recessed for lunch and returned, but quickly tired out again. Saw the highlights (which for us included the masses trying to photograph Mona), took some fine photos and left, spent. The building itself was stunning (as another poster said, it's the greatest masterpiece on display). 3) L'Orangerie – short and sweet (bought a joint ticket with the Orsay and it was a good deal). The rooms with Monet's water lilies are a serene, calm haven in the storm of Paris attractions.
Lines: We didn't buy the museum pass but I can see why it'd be a real time saver. That said, we waited on two lines: the Orsay (a 25-minute fast-moving line for security and a very brief line for buying tickets); and the Louvre (a 10-minute security line – at 11:30 am, at the Carrousel de Louvre [which was much longer a few hours later]) and a short line to buy tickets (at the machines). Once we had the ticket, though, we were able to leave and eat lunch, and when we got back we sailed through a priority line at the pyramid. All in all, nothing too terrible.
Views: We went up the escalator alongside the Pompidou Center (we didn't pay full entrance for the museum) for 3 euro. I wanted to ride the escalator, which looked cool in pictures, and we did this a few hours after we arrived, as sort of an overview of Paris. It was great. As a bookend, a few hours before we left, we intended to go to the 6th-floor terrace of the Printemps and take in that view, as well. But we were beat at that point, so I'm particularly glad we rode up that escalator on the first day.
Nicest viewed from afar – Sacre Coeur. It looks like a Disney castle floating in mid-air on a cloud.
Attractions: Paris. All of it. Gorgeous city, beautiful buildings. Romantic, luxurious atmosphere.
Shopping: Most of the stores I went to were in the Marais. Prices for clothing were on the high side so I didn't get the fabulous boots I was looking for (though I did buy a great red hat). I fell in love with Pylones, and I bought some cute souvenirs there. Other souvenirs included music boxes, scarves, a t-shirt, some magnets in the museum stores and some note cards.
Music boxes: I wanted a nice music box for my granddaughter and tracked down Ana Joliet (in the Palais Royal). Bought just the box I was looking for – really lovely store.
BUT: We later saw the same music box for 10[!] euro less in Noah's Ark on Ile St. Louis. Let the buyer beware. (The Anna Joliet store is good for pricier and more unique boxes.)
Top Highlight: The Eiffel Tower at night from the Trocadero. Really breathtaking.
BUT: Most disappointing: The fountains in Jardins du Trocadero weren't lit up.
Runner Up highlight: Luxembourg Gardens (beat the Tuilleries hands down in the Best Garden in Paris contest). Beautiful gardens/park. Photos don't do it justice.
Second runner-up: The Orsay. Great stuff.
Most under-rated: Ponte Alexandre III – pure Paris. Golden and gorgeous.
Least crowded– The Flame and the Princess Diana memorial. Not exactly a major attraction, to say the least, but we were in the neighborhood…
Runner up: L'Orangerie. So lovely, and so relaxing, yet so empty.
Just "eh" – the Champs Elysees. Very Parisian and an important part of the Paris experience but not a critical part of our trip.
BUT: The Arc de Triomphe was really impressive. And very photogenic.
Best-Kept Secret: The Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens – it's beautiful in a lush, gorgeous setting.
Runner up: The fountain at Place St Michel – nice! (Yes, I love fountains.)
Best place to rest– Palais Royal gardens. We wound up in the courtyard of the Palais Royal after a grueling visit to the Louvre and we ended up relaxing there between rain showers. We were kept company by three nannies and their adorable charges who were dressed way better than we were (like most Parisians we saw). Lovely interlude.
Runner up – Place des Vosges. We didn't picnic there but just walking through is a relaxing and elegant experience.
Most charming: The Stravinsky Fountain near the Pompidou Center.
Runner up: Little works of art all over the place, juxtaposed with the grand, classic buildings nearby. For example, as we walked to the Invalides, over the glorious Ponte de Alexandre III, with the Grand and Petit Palais behind us, we encountered a silver-painted car alongside a ceramic sculpture of shiny colorful asparagus. In the plaza of the Hotel de Ville, there's a newly installed work of art by Kirili which looks more or less like little pipes sticking out of the ground. So unexpectedly quirky.
Unexpected II: Along the two sides of the Champ de Mars, there is a (temporary?) display of statues called Buddy Bears, representing all the countries in the world. These added a splash of color to the cool green expanse of lawn and the stark brown of the tower. A minute or two later, a marching band came through – also a nice surprise.
Most romantic: Putting a lock on Ponte des Arts. When in Paris…
Best baked goods: Korcarz (29 Rue des Rosiers). Try everything – it's all delicious.
Runner up: Onion rolls at the Murciano bakery, also on Rue des Rosiers.
Single most awesome building: The Notre Dame. We didn't go inside, but we did view it from every angle and it is incredible.
Runner up: The Hotel de Ville. Really beautiful, elaborate building. Maybe not worth a special trip (since there are so many extravagantly gorgeous buildings) but once you see it you won't forget it.
Best surprise: The coffee is way better than I expected.
Most moving: the Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation on Ile de la Cite. Highly recommended.
Low point – Forum les Halles – ugh; as opposed to the mall at Carrousel du Louvre, which is really nice.
Wake up and smell the roses – The window displays, particularly of the bakeries and chocolatiers, are stunning. Strolling along and taking in these windows is better than a visit to a museum.
Next time: I would go to the Orsay again – I adored it. I'd also try to get to the Marmottan. I would spend more time walking around the Left Bank. Every stop in Paris is a discovery; every building is a work of art. I would also try to get to the Picasso Museum if it ever re-opens. I'd go back to Pylones to window shop (and spend some euros that are burning a hole in my pocket).
Skip it – The Bastille (which is just a traffic circle with a very tall pillar and a nice gold figure on top). We went because my husband is a huge "Les Mis" fan and he wanted to stand there and sing. He did (softly). End of story. Nice pillar, though (even nicer than the obelisk in Place de la Concorde).
Possible skip – our one free guided tour (a Discovery Walk). Husband liked it (a lot!), and the guide (Philippe) was knowledgeable and personable. But it meant two hours of standing and listening, and it was tiring and a tad tedious (for me). The walk itself was short (from the Notre Dame to the Louvre) but, as mentioned, it was a lot of standing around.
Generalizations: Everyone wears scarves. Everyone smokes. Everyone walks through the streets carrying a baguette. French women are stylish, thin and beautiful. They really know how to dress. French men seem to pay just a little too much attention to their hair and their clothes (as opposed to Italian men who are busy paying attention to the women).
Unnecessary worry: All the Parisians we encountered – in stores, hotels, sites, Metro stations, on the street, etc. - spoke English and were happy to break their teeth so we wouldn't have to. Not sure why they have such a bad rep but it's totally unwarranted. By the end, we were able to manage with the French menus and could even order a "carafe" of water. As so many people have said here, one "bonjour" is worth a thousand words.
Unnecessary worry II: We were told that my kippa(yarmulke)-wearing husband would be better off wearing a cap. He tried that for a very short while, didn't feel comfortable, and wore only his kippa the rest of the time. We felt no antagonism or hostility at all.
Money spent for two (aside from air fare): Hotel was 140 euro/night; food (three meals a day) came to 375 euro; sites came to 75 euro; transportation (taxi, RER, Carnet, Batobus, Metro) was 125 euro; shopping , souvenirs, and other miscellaneous items ran around 200 euro. It ain't cheap (but, amazingly, it was exactly what I anticipated).
Kilometers walked: about 30, over 4 days (including the km we put in in the museums). For you Yanks out there, that's about 20+ miles.
Shoes: Merrells – I never leave home without them.
Transport to CDG – after our four days in Paris we no longer felt like foreigners so we did what the locals do and we took the RER to the airport. On one hand, I'm glad we didn't do this when we arrived (a lot of schlepping through big halls and long corridors) but it was a cheap way to get to the airport, which was good since we were happy to save money at that point. BUT it was packed and hot and it didn't take us all the way to the last stop and the announcement telling us to get off the train was in French and we had to wait 20 minutes for the next train to take us to our terminal. Still a big money-saver but I'd think twice before I did it again.
Conclusion: I'll miss beautiful, theatrical, extravagant Paris. Looking forward to returning.