A flâneur is literally someone who strolls. A wanderer. And whether you’re a first-time visitor to Paris or someone who knows it well, I’m here to recommend that this is the best way to visit the city. That’s right. Minimal planning. A lot of wandering. You might surprise yourself and discover a whole new side to Paris!
On a recent trip, two things made me (not) plan very differently and I think I like it! Firstly, I had very little time to plan in advance so I had no choice but to wander a lot more than I usually do, but I actually found the lack of planning very freeing. I’ll admit that I do have a fairly large “Paris file” (paper and digital) where I collect names of places of interest (eats, drinks and things to do and see) that I update constantly. At any given time you could deposit me in Paris with my files and I would have no shortage of things to do. For, like, weeks!
Secondly, this trip was a little different in that I only had a week (normally I spend around 3-4 weeks in Paris so time is on my side in terms of “crossing things off my list”) and I was travelling with my mum. Mum is as fit as they come and game for anything so I knew we wouldn’t have any trouble filling our time. But I didn’t want it to be too regimented. When I travel on my own, I generally have an agenda packed with things to do and I have a blast but return needing a(nother) vacation. On this trip, I knew mum would be jetlagged and I would be exhausted from a busy winter term teaching so I wanted to take it a little easy.
But “taking it easy” didn’t mean we saw less. It just meant we saw Paris differently and I loved it!
Tips for visiting Paris sans guide (book)
1. Make some notes
Much as I am advocating for NOT planning, if you’re heading to a city like Paris (heck, anywhere – especially for the first time) you’ll definitely have some ideas about things you want to see. I have a digital file as well as a physical file of articles on the go at any given time featuring addresses I want to check out when I’m in Paris next. Restaurants, shops, galleries, exhibitions, even movies that are coming out – they are all in my lists. When I’m about to travel, I haul out both of these files and do a little bit of pre-planning, picking and choosing what I want to try to see on this trip, knowing I won’t get to everything.
2. Map it out
When I have my files in front of me, I like to place mini Post-its on my Paris map book so I can get an idea of where points of interest are located in relation to other points of interest. Wait, what? Don’t you mean Paris map APP? Why no I actually don’t! Having lived in Paris for many years, I know the classic map book used to be the “must carry” of every Parisian. It was one of the first things I purchased when I moved there and every few years, I still update my copy. Why? Well for starters, it doesn’t require data. Many travellers (me included, up until a few years ago) don’t have access to “on the go” data so a map is necessary. But noone wants one of those giant fold-out maps that makes them look like a tourist, right? Well here’s the answer. This tiny book has detailed maps for each arrondissement and it fits in your purse. And, from experience, I can tell you that it’s just as quick to find a street in this as it is to power up your phone and hope there’s wifi. Bonus? Baby Post-It notes fit nice and discreetly in the pages so that when you open up a double page, you can see exactly what you’re wanting to see in each arrondissement.
3. Have a very rough plan for each day
On my recent trip, one day we knew that we wanted to go up to Sacre Coeur. That was our “destination” for the day. Once we had climbed to the top and checked out the view, I opened the map and looked at the pages for the 9th and the 18th. I’d marked a couple of bakeries, chocolate stores and pâtisseries I wanted to visit that were in walking distance and we mapped our route from that. So yes, a little bit of planning but really, choosing ONE main activity (on another day we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower for the first time in over 30 years for us both) each day and then seeing what you feel like doing afterwards. The map book with the sticky notes is a good way to ensure you don’t get back to your rental apartment or hotel and figure out you were just 2 blocks from that pâtisserie you’ve been meaning to try for months!
4. Check opening and closing hours
When you’re travelling, the absolute worst thing you can do is rely 100% on any guidebook or website to tell you opening hours – and that goes for shops, restaurants, boulangeries, pâtisseries and museums. Especially if you are travelling in Paris in the summer, you’ll need to double check everything you have noted down about opening hours. August is the most affected month followed by the period around Christmas and New Year so be extra vigilant at those times. Phone ahead or better still, walk by to check hours in advance.
5. Now shoo – go, get lost and have fun!
By following these simple steps with just a tiny bit of planning, my mum and I had a wonderful week in Paris. We managed to cross some “biggies” off our “to see” list (Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel) and enjoy a few “off the beaten path” experiences at the same time. No, we didn’t always go to the” trendy” café that’s all over Instagram and social media (well we did a little bit of that too…). But we did experience a slice of “real Paris life”. One of our best moments was heading into an everyday café for lunch, being amongst very few tourists there and experiencing the magic that is the French weekday lunch (plat/ dessert for around 15€ with a glass of wine – what could be more perfect?).
Note: this post contains Amazon affiliate links meaning that if you click over and purchase something, the author of this article will receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.