I’ve never been a planner. Other than personal and professional commitments, I have never tried to plan out my life, choosing instead to live by the philosophy “let’s see what I see.” Leading an unexpected life brings far greater rewards than if I stuck to a single path, where I’d miss out on so many wonderful surprises.
I have, of course, extended this way of being to my travels. When arriving in a foreign destination, I can tell you some of the things I’d like to see and do, but don’t ask me to stick to an itinerary. This may be the reason why I prefer traveling alone, and why I avoid/disdain tours. So, when someone asks me to help plan an itinerary for Paris, I tend to shrug my shoulders (how Gallic of me) and say, “Why don’t you see what you see?”
It’s harder to say this to someone who writes to say they’re visiting Paris—for the first time ever—and have only two nights to spend in the city. “What would you recommend I do with such limited time in the city?” they asked.
Two nights (and therefore, two days) is hardly enough time. I nearly hyperventilated just thinking about what kind of itinerary I could recommend to someone who had never before visited Paris. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to explore Paris with such time restrictions. But just before the moment when my panic threatened to paralyze me, I took a deep breath and remembered why she was asking me. This woman wanted my perspective, so that’s what I gave her.
“If you have to pick a landmark,” I offered, “visit the Eiffel Tower. After all, I reasoned, she’d get to see the most magnificent view of Paris while earning “tourist points” for having been there, done that.
“And if you want to do a museum,” I continued, “choose the d’Orsay. The Louvre would take up a full day, and you still wouldn’t see half of it.” I did tell her seeing the exterior of the Louvre with its iconic glass pyramid was a must, particularly when approached through the Tuileries.
But what I really recommended to this woman was that she take the time to explore the streets around the Eiffel Tower after coming back down to earth; to stroll the arrondissement and explore the hidden courtyards or jardins that give Paris its true character. And then I suggested she make her way by foot over to the 6th arrondissement. “Buy a baguette or a crêpe before sitting on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg, enjoying an afternoon treat just like the Parisians you’ll be sitting with,” I told her.
But I really wanted her to see that Paris was so much more than the list of “Top 10 Paris Landmarks” that many tourists seem to carry with them. I wanted this woman to get a sense of Paris. To soak it up and let the city flow through her lungs and her veins. But with just two days at her disposal, I needed to find a way to compress that particular experience. So I sent her to the Marais. “Grab a falafel on the rue de Rosiers and then just wander around,” I suggested. “One day in the Marais reveals the Jewish quarter, the Village St-Paul, the Place des Vosges, a free museum (the Carnavalet) and the Musée Picasso. But even without a map or a plan, you’ll discover so many wonderful treasures that are the real Paris. Sit in the little park and watch the neighborhood kids play. Eat at a restaurant that doesn’t offer an English menu, because that’s where Parisians eat. If it’s a nice day, cross the Seine to the Ile Saint-Louis, buy a sandwich and drink from the local boulanger and have yourself a little lunch picnic on a bench down by the river. This is the real Paris.”
After sending off my reply, I wondered if this person—a complete stranger—would appreciate my more whimsical approach to trip planning. I hoped so. But I had to be realistic, because I know that some people just want to check things off their list.