I thought myself an expert on traveling. My parents have been taking my sister and me on trips ranging from weekend road trips in Las Vegas to week-long trips at Mexican beaches, from 20-hour road trips visiting family to mini-vacations in neighboring states, ever since we were born.
I had no idea how unprepared I was for my first trip to Europe, but I learned so much. Visiting Paris after graduating with a degree in French was incredible, but also incredibly stressful. I learned how to truly make the most of the trip, including the correct way to deal with jet lag and the truth about the “Mona Lisa.”
Here are the most valuable tips I picked up on my first trip overseas.
Above all — sleep!
The third day we were in Paris, I woke up feeling like I had strep throat. For those of you lucky enough to have never been touched by this ungodly illness, strep throat feels like someone pulled an iron rod into a fire and shoved it down your throat in your sleep. Breathing hurts, talking hurts, and eating hurts. I’ve been unfortunate to have had strep throat twice in my life, and I thought that bad luck had struck me on my dream trip.
I woke up and I wanted to cry at the thought of getting out bed and hopping into the shower. Yet I knew my parents were almost ready and would be popping in to hurry me up soon. I knew I couldn’t waste a day in Paris. The thought of staying in the hotel room all day was unbearable, but the thought of leaving bed was worse.
In the end, I did not have strep, much to my relief. I suffered from a much more preventable illness: sleep exhaustion. We had left the airport early in the morning on Friday, and after many hours of frantically running through airports to catch connecting flights and only three hours of sleep during the plane ride, we arrived in Paris the next morning. Then we waited in the customs line for another two hours. After the time, effort, and confusion it took us to buy our transportation passes, navigate the metros of Paris and walk a few blocks to finally get to our hotel, we were essentially walking around in a state of lucid sleep walking.
Sleep is important. As a college student, I had never realized how true that fact is. I would stay up until all hours of the night doing homework, hanging out with friends, or watching TV.
Maybe others are better equipped to handle weeks with little to no sleep, but I am not one of them. I strongly advise travellers to listen to their body; eat, drink water, and sleep. Also, research ways to avoid jet lag. Trust me, you don’t want to walk around Paris looking like a sullen statue somberly sulking about trying to hold your head up and keep your eyes open.
The truth about the “Mona Lisa”
I found it a mystery that some landmarks in Paris are so much more famous than others — not because anything in Paris is overrated, but because everything is extraordinary. There are so many museums, historic landmarks, and incredible attractions; even walking around, staring at the ground for hours could provide sufficient entertainment.
Of course, there are some famous tourist sites that everyone feels they must visit when they go to Paris. However, the crowds in places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and other famous places are outrageous. If you have the time and patience to deal with these famous places, then they’re undoubtedly worth the visit.
If you don’t have very much time though, like me, or if you want to avoid crowded rooms full of people snapping selfies with every single step, take a moment to consider the value of the places you visit. There are over 100 museums within city limits, and only a handful of them are famous.
Understanding the reason why some attractions are famous can also lead you to be open-minded. For example, in 1911 a former museum employee stole a Leonardo Da Vinci painting from the Louvre. The media circus brought by this heist made the Mona Lisa one of the most recognizable in the world, and that’s where its fame started.
Until then, the “Mona Lisa” was just one among the many paintings of Da Vinci. Of course, getting the chance to see such a famous painting is an amazing experience, and learning its history only makes it that much more interesting. But learning the truth about the “Mona Lisa” might help keep your mind open to visiting museums other than the Louvre and valuing the thousands of paintings in Paris comparable to it.
The first takeaway is to relax; you don’t have to see everything on your first trip to Paris. It is better to enjoy fewer sights than to rush through every museum and tour. Vacation is not supposed to induce anxiety.
To avoid lines and overwhelming crowds, go to the Arc de Triomphe instead of the Eiffel Tower and Le Petit Palais instead of the Louvre. Though I had been dreaming of going to Paris for over a decade, I do not regret not going up the Eiffel Tower.
We almost did so, but we decided not to when we saw the line and the stairs we would have to climb. We were too tired and didn’t have enough time. Instead, we walked around the structure, took pictures, enjoyed the view, and it was still so fantastic. Instead, we climbed up the Arc de Triomphe to see what many call the most beautiful view in Paris. It was not crowded, and the view included the Eiffel Tower.
We did go to both the Louvre and Le Petit Palais. Even though the Louvre is bigger and has more renowned art, Le Petit Palais has a permanent exhibition that is free to the public, and I was able to breathe comfortably and enjoy every painting without my view getting obstructed with selfie sticks.
At some point, you are walking around either out of time, energy, or simply surrounded by too many people to enjoy the beautiful, historic art around you. For me, that is worse than not going, especially since the more popular the destination is, the more money you have to pay.
Even if you go completely off the tourist track and into the 17th arrondissement, you can’t go wrong in Paris, so don’t be afraid to customize your trip to your own desires.
Quick tips for your trip
Waiting in line
If you brave a long line with at least one other person and you have the opportunity, trade off every so often so that one of you waits in line while the other takes a break. If you can enter the attraction without being already exhausted, you will be able to enjoy it more.
Tips for taking pictures
Be mindful of your pictures. You want to take great photos to remind you of your amazing trip, so read up on some tips for taking pictures while travelling. However, don’t spend the whole trip looking through a lens; remember to put the phone or camera down and enjoy the moment.
This is especially true for museums, where you can likely find a higher quality photo of the artifact online. Consider your reasons to take a photo; documenting a memory is worth it, but documenting a well-known piece of art … not so much.
For getting around Paris, consider buying passes for public transportation (prices). The Batobus in particular is one of the best values as several boats continuously make rounds around the Seine (tickets). It’s not necessarily a pretty boat, but you will essentially get a tour of the river (and transportation) without needing to take an expensive cruise.
Buying a metro pass might be worth it to save money on taxis and explore the city like a parisian, but it requires figuring out the map of the metro which can turn into a headache.
Roll up your clothes instead of folding them and put them into gallon-sized ziplock bags. This will compress them and allow you to remove the air which will allow you to pack lighter— or to pack more things. You might even be able to fit over 100 items into your carry-on.
Essentially, make your dream trip whatever you want it to be. It’s not often that you have the chance to go to an amazing destination, so do what you can to make it the best experience possible. Treat your body nicely by getting enough sleep, eating enough food, and drinking plenty of water— especially if you are travelling in the summer.
This trip taught me to always do what I enjoy, not what I think I should do because of what everyone else says. I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit this beautiful city and I cannot wait to go back!