I hit all the landmarks in Paris on my first trip there…
… and I loved ticking every cliche off my list.
I landed in Paris midday (flew in from New York) and chose to ride the bus from Charles de Gaulle airport into Paris. As a rule, I never take the train into the city—no matter what my destination is—primarily because I don't like the idea of lugging my luggage around train stations while simultaneously navigating my way through an unfamiliar city. The bus is usually simpler. In my mind, it also offered less chances of being attacked by pickpockets or having my bag hauled off by some miscreant.
I took the Air France coach from the airport (very easy to find, it was right by the Disneyland Paris booth) to the Arc de Triomphe. A one-way ride was €17 and took between 30 minutes to an hour—super painless and easy.
I don't think I could ever completely explain in words how it felt to be looking out the window and seeing Paris unfold before me. The Paris I expected and knew from all the movies and documentaries and books I read rolled into view as we drove closer and closer to our stop. And seeing the Haussmann architecture, the blue roofs, the skinny streets and their sharp corners slowly flash in front of me after years of waiting was pure magic.
When we drove up to the bus stop at the Arc, it took all my might to maintain my composure. This larger than life piece of history was right there—in front of me! I could hardly believe it. (Also, it was really, REALLY big).
My cousin, who's lived in Belgium for many years, told me to book a Hop On Hop Off ticket months before my trip. She said it was the first thing I needed to do once I landed in Paris. The point was to get all the big, milestone monuments out of the way and to see everything big-picture first. After the initial shock (no other way to describe it!) wears off, you're supposedly better able to zone in on the sites you want to return to for a more in-depth visit.
From the Arc, I took the Metro down two stops to Rue de Magdebourg and made my way to my Airbnb. I was staying at the Trocadero (16eme arrondissement), with the Eiffel Tower's best views just a few paces away.
The Hop On Hop Off bus is as touristy as touristy gets—if you're able to let go of the cool factor and embrace the cheesiness of it all, it's one of the easiest ways to see the city. You pick a route, get on at any of the many stops, get off wherever you want, ride a full circle or more if you want to—easy.
From the Arc (our meeting point), we drove toward the Champs Elysees (pictured above) and I began getting really, almost laughably, emotional. Thankfully, there was a Filipino couple seated right in front of me at the bus that I was able to talk to from stop to stop so I did not look like a complete doofus, jaw dropping and all.
I had three museums on my list for this first trip (the Pompidou; the Louvre, naturally; and L'Orangerie for Monet's water lilies). But Paris has a plethora of museums that I didn't even know about and thanks to the bus tour, I was able to get a bird's eye view of them—taking notes about what I could possibly visit on my next trip to the city.
You best believe I took a couple dozen shots of the Eiffel Tower the first time I saw it. (I will spare you from all the selfies).
Thanks to my cousin's expert advice (she's played Parisian tour guide countless times before), I was able to book my ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower way in advance. There is a massive line to climb / take the elevator up the tower so it'll do you a ton of good to reserve your ticket online beforehand.
I did the official going-up-the-tower tour two days after my Hop On Hop Off experience. I decided to take the elevator up and the stairs down, which was quite a feat in and of itself. Whether you decide to stop at the middle platform or go all the way up (what I did), the views will certainly speak for themselves.
It was fun to get a glimpse of Rodin's Thinker while on the bus. It totally pays to stay on the upper deck on your first ride.
The Ecole Militaire is pretty impressive. Napoleon attended school there in his youth, which blew my mind, knowing that this functioning piece of architecture that was in use in the 1700s is still up and running today. I love how French history is so integral to this living and breathing cosmopolitan city.
La Madeleine's neoclassic facade also caught my eye. I didn't make my way back here, but I vowed I would go back to this church on my next visit to Paris (two years later, I actually did!). The columns are astounding and regal—it's interesting that a building that would probably be a government facility back in Manila is used as a church on the other side of the globe.
The Palais Garnier's visually arresting facade was the first thing that convinced me to get off the bus. I found it so interesting to see the actual building in which Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" was set. How fiction and reality mixed and melded together in this super flamboyant structure was fascinating. I walked around the building's perimeter (and snuck a peek at the nearby Galeries Lafayette too) and made plans to go back and take the actual tour.
*saving everything about the Opera House for another post! [note to self]
And what is a trip to Paris without paying tribute to the Louvre?
We studied IM Pei a lot in college and seeing the glass pyramids in real life was pretty remarkable. Before my trip, I had booked a slot in a private, small group tour of the Louvre with Localers for my second day in Paris. While it cost me a €98.10, I have to say the tour was worth it for skip the line access and insider info care of our very knowledgeable, friendly and well-spoken tour guide, Jonathan.
Must-see #2, wherein I learned this was actually part of a boat. (The more you know…)
Must-see #3, wherein I learned that Leonardo da Vinci had a thing for hands in all his paintings. I felt like I got a gold star from our tour guide when I pointed this out 🌟
The Louvre, which holds antiquities and Renaissance art can be overwhelming to say the least. Jonathan was able to take us to the main essentials (pictured above, along with a couple more I didn't bother including because then this post would take forever to complete) and also to the less popular parts of the museum.
One of my favorites was the underground entrance. After moving through the glass pyramid, you find yourself walking alongside a wall—one of the museum's recent discoveries. As it turns out, the Louvre used to be a medieval fortress whose walls were excavated in the 80s. The walls are still there! Preserved and perfect! Wonders never cease.
I had not been to Versailles or inside the Palais Garnier when I visited the Louvre so I found this hall, which contained a bunch of jewelry, other precious artifacts, and a whole lot of gilding, quite arresting. Little did I know that this was peanuts compared to everything else I was about to encounter in the next couple of days!
We drove by the Seine and its many bridges while on the bus. Just before leaving for Paris, I caught "An American in Paris" on Broadway so finding my way by the river was extra special.
I would've wanted to go on a tourist-y ride through the river (like in "Before Sunset"), but getting a glimpse of Pont Neuf (???) on the bus was good enough.
And again! More bridges!
Notre Dame was another one of those historical monuments that had me stumped. I didn't realize that this church's story goes back to the 12th century 🙀
The church was another one of our favorite topics back in architecture school so seeing the flying buttresses up close was quite an emotional experience for me.
If there's ever a place to watch out for pickpockets, the Eiffel Tower would be the first and this church would be the second. If you stay quick on your toes though, I don't think anything bad can really happen.
Besides, the view from the inside is worth the journey there. My cousin and I took a walk to the church the morning after my Hop On Hop Off.
Last on my virtual tour of Parisian landmarks is the Place de la Concorde. Located at one end of the Champs Elysees, the Luxor Obelisk rounds out the bus route that had me all over the city. If you're interested at all in the French Revolution, it's worth noting that this used to be the Place de la Révolution and was the setting for the death by guillotine of Louis XVI. (For happier times in Louis' life, check out my previous post about Versailles).
The other Hop On Hop Off route would have taken me to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, but my friend Queenie and I had made plans to visit those spots another day (I couldn't not visit them as I was and still am a huge fan of the movie "Amelie"). Other places I visited were the Palais Garner, the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Pompidou and L'Orangerie, and Versailles, le Marais, and Shakespeare & Company—all of which will take a whole other post to cover.
For the first timer though, I really do recommend getting a look at the city snapshot-style through the Hop On Hop Off to get a handle on where everything is situated so you can navigate your way through the different arrondissements more efficiently (and maybe more like a local) over the next couple of days of your visit.
More from Paris soon, mes amis 🇫🇷