My friend Erin issued me this challenge: You are in Paris for a 24 hour layover. What do you do?
I am not sure a more difficult challenge could be issued to me, and I only mean that a little bombastically. Paris is one of my favorite places on earth. I know it well–it’s definitely the place outside of the USA where I’ve spent the most time. On the other hand, it never ceases to surprise me, it is never the same, but is always familiar. I know it’s cliche to be that bougie American bitch who loves Paris, but I like to think that my relationship with the city is not a superficial one.
There are so many different ways that I could pass a day in Paris. It could be a nostalgia walk—in areas that remind me of people and times that I love and cherish. It could be a museum day, where I visit some of my favorite museums, the ones that led me to my love of art and history. It could be an architecture walk, visiting some of the best Paris has to offer. It could be a food tour—hitting up some of my best and favorite places to grab some French treats. Honestly, it really has to be all of the above.
Let’s set the stage. I am off on a trip and I have a layover at CDG, where I have enough time to go into the city for the day. I’m going to pretend that customs and security lines don’t last forever. I’ll arrive in the city proper at 9 AM and my flight leaves at midnight, so I’ll need to RER to the airport at like…9 PM. TWELVE hours in Paris. I am able to leave my stuff in the airport so no chucking around luggage (phew). I am imagining that this day is in the springtime, still chilly, but comfortable.
Mission 1: Prend un café crème et un chausson aux pommes.
I will probably, owing to habit, take the RER to the Luxembourg station, disembarking there and finding a place near the Luxembourg gardens to eat my breakfast. For that breakfast, I will consume a cafe creme and a pastry, probably one of my favorites, the chausson aux pommes. Yes, I will be hungry in less than an hour, but this is my French petit-dejeuner of champions. A cafe crème is similar to a cappuccino or a cafe au lait, but with a little bit less milk. I might go back and forth between a cafe crème and a noisette (a macchiato)—or heck, go for both.
But the real treat will be the pastry. If you google “chausson aux pommes” you will see english results that call it a “French apple turnover” with pictures of triangular pastries. I feel like this is a description that loses something in translation. There is no triangular shape, but a semi-circular pastry with scalloped edges that show off the intensely laminated layers to perfection. On chaussons, there is no crunchy sugar topping, or even worse, some kind of icing drizzle. Filled with an apple compote, the texture of the chausson aux pommes is ridiculously delicious in its simplicity.
I will eat my petit dej, while enjoying the sounds of a city coming alive. I love Paris to such a degree that even just existing within its arrondissements makes me a happy girl. It has its own smell (there’s one stretch of metro that you could take me to blindfolded and I could tell you where we are immediately) and its own feeling and I love it so, even when it’s mildly (or egregiously) disgusting.
At that cafe, preferably in outdoor seating, I’d spend about 45 minutes to an hour sipping my cafe creme and eating my chausson and reading some kind of trashy novel–likely ordering une noisette after I finished my cafe creme. At the 45 minute mark, I know I’d be hesitant to get going, but simultaneously anxious to do so. Getting up, I’d do a little stretch and leave the little bit of comfort that the table and this spot provided. It was mine for breakfast, and I’ll leave it to someone else to enjoy.
Mission 2: Morning Walk through the center of touristy Paris
Given my choice to breakfast near Luxembourg Gardens, I’ve set myself up for an exemplary walkabout in some of my favorite areas of Paris. This walkabout is NOT for the weary. I’d walk my way up the Rue Sufflot and say hello to the Pantheon and St. Etienne. I’d maybe walk toward Rue Mouffetard and Place de la Contrescarpe, reveling in memories of my misspent youth. That sounds poetic doesn’t it? It really wasn’t that misspent, but I did traipse about with a backpack full of cheap wine, beer, and liege waffles for nights of youthful exuberant fun with mes amis de Paris.
Then, I’d wind my way back to the Rue Saint Michel and the Seine. I have oddly affectionate memories of Place St. Michel. At this intersection, there are several French bookstores that I might wind my way through for a hot second maybe picking up some postcards and bric a brac. I’d turn my sights toward the Seine and move toward Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame de Paris. I haven’t seen the cathedral since it caught on fire in 2019, so I’m sure I’d spent some time inspecting the structure to the degree that I am able. After finishing up with NDdP, I would think about going to see Ste. Chapelle, but then remember that it costs something absurd like 10 euro to go in and tell myself I’d go the next time I’m in town. I’d hie over to the Rive Doite and take in the Hotel de Ville. From there I would likely decide do I head east toward the Marais? Or west toward the Louvre?
I think heading west would win out. I’d walk along the Seine until I get to the westernmost bit of the Louvre. I’d go and check on my Napoleonic arches. La Grande Arche only from a distance; it’s too far out to really pay attention to today, but I can at least see it down that fine Hausmannian road. Nevertheless I’d pay attention to the Arc du Carrousel for many minutes and enjoying one of my favorite prospects, les Jardin des Tuileries. I’d cut back over the Seine, and keep walking. This walk would allow me to glimpse sights of some of my favorite Parisian buildings, most of them stereotypical touristy items like the Tour Eiffel, the Musee D’Orsay, the Academie Francaise. I’d conclude at the Tuileries. I’d hop on the Metro, ligne 1, en direction de Porte de Vincennes. I’d disembark in the Marais at the station St. Paul.
Mission 3: Lunch at L’As du Falafel OU un sandwich jambon beurre
Unsurprisingly, my chausson aux pommes would have long since left my memory during this jaunt around Paris. After getting off the metro at St. Paul, I’d head toward L’As du Falafel to get some of my favorite food to eat in Paris, the sandwich grecque, done, or falafel, whatever you want to call it. There are so many of these little shops and restaurants in Paris that sell the delicious doner kebab and its variants that to me, it’s one of the most dependable foods that I can always rely on to be cheap, fast, and filling when I’m traveling in Europe. It’s never led me astray and always satisfied me. This place, however, is *good*. It’s in the Marais, a neighborhood that is traditionally Jewish and still has a very strong Jewish presence (this is where you would go in Paris to find a bagel!). Given this fact, it is one of the only restaurants open on Saturdays in the area and is often overwhelmed with customers. Still, I’ve never seen it without a line. This day, since it’s my perfect day, is not going to be a Saturday. I will order a sandwich with frites, and literally shove it in my face with glee.
As tempting as this food will be, there is a good chance that hunger might drive me to seek sustenance elsewhere if faced with a substantial line at L’As du Falafel. In that case, I’d seek out the simplest and best of the French repasts, the sandwich jambon beurre. The smooth, rich saltiness of the French butter on that crunch, bien cuite, fresh baguette with the not-as-salty-as-in-the-US ham is just one of my favorite, favorite sandwiches that I cannot replicate aux Etats Unis, as much as I might (and I have) tried. My disappointment at not finding a smaller line at L’As du Falafel will not last long.
Whatever my lunch choice, I am also confident I would acquire a Fanta au citron and guzzle it down. I would be in a state of complete and utter happiness and exhaustion, but fortified to move on to the next mission.
Mission 4: Macarons from Pierre Hermé
Ah, the macaron. The crisp meringue cookies sandwich delightfully flavored buttercream. Rich and indulgent, these are among some of my favorite French sweets. Not too far from L’As du Falafel is one of the best establishments to get macarons, Pierre Hermé. No, not Hermès. Ladurée is great in a pinch (and available in the US, though only in NYC, DC, Florida, and California).* I’d hustle over there and pick up a box of these confections and eat them throughout the rest of the day.
Per usual, I’d choose my favorite parfums: vanille, café, pistache, and framboise (raspberry), and perhaps I’d try some more adventurous flavors. After getting my loot, I’d choose one to eat, and pocket the rest in my bag to be enjoyed later.
* There is also a Pierre Hermé in the US, but only one in Saks 5th Ave in NYC.
Mission 5: Une musée!
This is a hard decision to make. I must go to a museum while I was in Paris. As much as I would long to go visit the oodles and oodles of Roman statuary at the Louvre or the architectural awesomeness of the Musee D’Orsay, that’s just too much. For this single day of awesome, these museums take up too much time and energy. So I’d likely choose between a few of my favorites, which are all smaller, but stellar, museums.
- Musee Marmottan Monet: Massive collection of Monet including one of the most famous Impression, soleil levant, as well as other works that date from the medieval to the modern eras.
- Musee Gustave Moreau: Not going to lie, this is one of my favs but not for the collections, which are exceptional. The former home of Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, this museum preserves his home and workshops which he left to the state at his death. It also happens to contain one of the most magnificent staircases of all time. The entire edifice just screams Belle Époque to me and I love every bit of it.
- Musee Rodin: Housed in the Chateau Biron, a building in which Auguste Rodin, one of the best sculptors since Bernini, used several rooms as his studio space, this museum is a treat. The museum’s collection is composed of lots of his works, in addition to works that he collected, including a room dedicated to sculptures by Camille Claudel. Best of all, this museum is both indoors and out with sculptures in the well-manicured gardens, including a cast of his remarkable La Porte d’Enfer and iconic Le Penseur.
- Musee Carnavalet: This is the museum dedicated to the history of the city of Paris. Not going to lie, this is the one that will probably win out amongst the others. For one, it isn’t too far from Pierre Herme. However, it’s also just an awesome museum that occupies two hotels particuliers. The Musee Carnavalet just opened after a large renovation in May of 2021, so of course I’d have to check out the changes, if my poor memory can fully recall what it was before. This museum’s collection goes well beyond painting and objets d’art, though it certainly contains oodles and oodles.
Mission 6: Confit de canard
After hours of museum going, I know my appetite would be demanding for some noms. I’d walk around a little bit more, probably in a direction that would let me accomplish goal number 8 (see below). The goal for dinner will be to find a classic French bistro that’s not toooooo touristy to eat my favorite French dinner. Confit de canard, crispy potatoes, and a salad with a lemony vinaigrette that I have not yet figured out how to make. I would probably glance at the dessert menu, but forcefully say no—there are better treats to be had elsewhere.
Mission 7: Trouvez des carambars fruits et des gaufres
The timing of this particular mission is inconsequential and should be based entirely upon opportunity. Carambar fruits are manna from heaven. They are what Starburts should aim to be. There are several varieties of carambar. The original flavor is a kind of a caramel chocolate tootsie roll that is *very* chewy—could pull your tooth straight out of your head if you were not careful. The fruit versions come in four parfums: orange, citron, fraise, and framboise. Unlike starbursts which are so sweet they hurt your teeth, these aren’t as sweet and they’re much softer in texture and less waxy. They’re my absolute favorite candy of all time.
Mission 8: See the Tour Eiffel sparkle
My last and final mission is a silly and sentimental one. Every night, on the hour, the Tour Eiffel sparkles for five minutes. It’s a sight that never fails to bring a smile, however small, to my face. I can’t deny that part of my love of Paris is its tendency to hit all of my favorite whimsical and romantic notes. I fell in love with Paris before I ever visited. My grandparents traveled a bunch and my grandpa would put together scrapbooks of their trips, with matchbooks, pictures, tickets, napkins, menus, all of the random things you collect while traveling. In addition they had all of these guidebooks. Whenever I visited, I would pore over them. The pictures, the history, the food, the cafes! Paris just seemed to have this aura that I wanted to revel in. It would have been hard for me to pick a favorite of their scrapbooks (one which I very much wish I had), I know I probably spent most of my time in their Paris albums and their Ireland albums. Taking French in high school and in college only pushed my love of Paris further. I finally got to meet Paris in 2004, for a 3-week trip for January term.
I was 18, and it was my first trip outside of the United States. I was lonely (definitely the only dork on the trip more interested in France than drinking), experiencing some unexpected travel shock, and my camera had broken on our first outing. I had been approaching Notre Dame for the first time—its size shocked me and it seemed unreal. I tried to snap a pic on my point and shoot (ugh, I’m ancient) and it just wouldn’t forward the film. I nearly cried. So later that day, when I saw the Eiffel Tower sparkle (which I’m not even sure I knew it could do until that moment), I just remember that feeling of contentment and disbelief that I was actually there, in Paris, in France across the ocean from my home overwhelming me. The bright sparkling lights brought joy and excitement for that trip and that experience back to my mind. Ever since, it’s moments like those that I try and chase that deep-seated contentment with the view in front of you and the experience at hand. A sparkly tour Eiffel now has the benefit of memory accrual—it brings to mind all of the wonderful memories I have when the tour was sparkling.
After winding my way through the city and my memories, my belly full of duck and potatoes, I’d probably try to find a crepe au sucre just to round out the culinary delights of the day. I’d head to the Pont des Arts before needing to catch the RER back to the airport. On the Pont des Arts, I’d feel that same feeling I felt in 2004, that deep-seated feeling of rightness. I can’t believe I am here in this city that I love, how lucky am I to be here. How lucky am I to return. And then the tour will sparkle.