We’ve all seen those posts that promise a list of “the top”, “the best” or “the only” places worth visiting in Paris. With short holiday breaks, everyone is looking for ways to best maximize their time in Paris, and how great is it that someone has compiled a complete list for you?
The thing about those lists though, is that they usually include the same “musts” with very little variation. For example, you’ll almost always see the Eiffel Tower listed. The Eiffel Tower is a bit of a no-brainer. Don’t get me wrong – you can’t visit Paris and not go to the Eiffel Tower. I’m pretty sure that would be punishable by guillotine. But places like the Eiffel Tower, and most others included on those lists, are insanely popular. Even more so because everyone is funneled into the same places. I guarantee that a large part of your experience will include being stuck in a crowd waiting and watching as person after person blocks your view while posing for multiple selfies.
Of course, how you spend your time in Paris is ultimately your choice. I’m not here to tell you what to do. If your goal is to only cram as many typically Instragram-worthy sights into your visit, that’s okay. Just know what to expect. My advice for you is to visit those insanely busy, and justifiably popular sights – but to balance your time with a mix of less popular treasures.
What I’ve learned through years of travel, including multiple trips to Paris, is that escaping from the crowds not only gives me room to breathe, but it also uncovers delightful parts of the city not heaving with people and their selfie-sticks. There’s so much to experience in Paris, and I thought I’d share a few of my own suggestions. Check out the “musts”, then take a break somewhere a little calmer nearby.
Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be looking for a few spots to escape the crowds and insanity.
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the sprawling Luxembourg Gardens is the tranquil Medici Fountain (named for Catherine de’ Medici). Many visitors to Paris, and the park itself, miss it. In fact, it took me several visits to Luxembourg Gardens before I stumbled upon it myself. What I found was an ornate and historical fountain like nothing else I’ve found in Paris. The ducks floating on the water outnumbered the people, so it’s a perfect spot to sit and relax unbothered. Bring a baguette sandwich or a pastry, and enjoy the near-solitude for a while before you head back out of the park onto your next stop.
Chances are, you’ll find yourself at everyone’s favourite English-language bookstore at least once during your visit to Paris. Shakespeare and Company has enjoyed a cult following for decades, which means that it’s packed all day every day. It’s a great place to pick up a book as a souvenir of your visit to Paris – don’t forget to ask the cashier to stamp the inside of your book for you. But once you’ve escaped with your life (when I say it’s busy, I’m not kidding), why not walk a few minutes and visit Saint-Severin Church? Dating back to AD 650, Saint-Severin is peaceful (as you’d expect a church to be) and a great place to catch your breath. Although you’ll quickly lose it again while taking in the beautiful interior. Be sure to look for the twisted pillars that many say resemble palm tree trunks. If you’re lucky, the massive organ will fill the church with music during your visit. When you head back outside, don’t forget to look up at the large collection of gargoyles.
Rosiers–Joseph Migneret Garden
Chances are that you’ll also find yourself in the historic Le Marais neighbourhood of Paris, waiting in line with everyone else at l’as du Fallafel to purchase a cheap and delicious falafel lunch. Once you’ve received your order, there’s not really anywhere to eat it comfortably. It’s not uncommon to see people crouched down at the edge of a narrow road trying to eat without making a mess. It’s not ideal, trust me. That’s where nearby Rosiers-Joseph Migneret Garden comes in at just the right time, because the chaos of the outside world disappears as soon as you enter through an almost hidden entrance. Aside from the calming atmosphere, the garden’s namesake makes your visit a moving experience as well.
The Abbey Bookstore
Speaking of bookshops, if you prefer to not be up close and personal with dozens of strangers at Shakespeare and Company, The Abbey Bookshop nearby might be more your speed. Opened in 1989 by fellow Canadian, Brian Spence, The Abbey Bookshop is located in a charming building on a quiet street. It offers over 35,000 English-language titles and is well suited for perusing the bulging shelves while looking for your perfect purchase. Ask Monsieur Spence for a recommendation if you’re struggling to decide. After I visited the shop, I enjoyed a complimentary coffee outside before setting off to my next stop.
The area of Montmartre is famed for its vine covered buildings and cobblestone streets, as well as the bird’s eye view over Paris. The two most popular spots are in front of the imposing domed Sacré-Cœur Basilica and nearby Place du Tertre, a square packed with artists and their easels. They’re both fun to check out but definitely feel touristy. My favourite place to escape to is Montmartre Cemetery. It’s a 20ish minutes walk away, but it won’t feel that long. As you’ll experience in Paris, there’s so much to look at and discover. Before you know it you’ll be entering a gate and wandering between the last resting place for many important Parisians. Keep an eye out for the cats that also call Montmartre Cemetery home.
Other Tips to Escape the Crowds in Paris
Take advantage of your jet lag and visit the busiest places early in the morning. If it’s a park, you’ll feel like you have it to yourself. Plus your photos won’t be full of other people. Same with popular squares and cute little streets. If you want to visit a place with set hours though, try to pre-purchase online tickets for the start or end of the day.
If you can, walk as much as possible as Paris is best enjoyed on foot. It gives you the chance to pop into interesting looking places and take all the door photos. Plan your route beforehand and group together the places you’d like to visit to avoid unnecessary backtracking. If you have to take the Metro, I’d suggest avoiding connections at Châtelet–Les Halles if possible. It’s one of the biggest underground train stations in the world and sees a staggering 750,000 commuters pass through every weekday.
I mentioned the Eiffel Tower at the start of this post, and the unfortunate truth is that you won’t escape the crowds there. But with a bit of planning you can optimize your visit. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can purchase “skip the line” tickets for the Eiffel Tower. These don’t exist. The only way to jump the line (so to speak) is to pre-purchase your tickets online directly from the official website. You can secure tickets for as far out as 2 months prior to the date you want to go. Purchase tickets that grant you access to the top floor – I’ve never met a person who only went part way up and didn’t regret their decision. I also suggest that you check out when the sun will set on the day you want to visit. If the weather is nice that day, you’ll have the added bonus of experiencing the magic of watching the sun go down from the Eiffel Tower. Book your ticket for an hour or two before sunset, which will give you enough time to visit before heading back down to watch the first light show of the night.
Have you been to Paris? Where do you like to go to escape the crowds?