Paris without a plan: balancing popular attractions and living like a local! C'est magnifique!
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Paris, the city of love. Where architectural and culinary delights are effortlessly interspersed with creative fashion shows and tempting shops and galleries. A city that you have to visit several times in your life to check off all the must-sees on your list. And even if you have seen the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées, Montmartre, etc. with your own eyes, the city still beckons. Anyone who has been to Paris a few times remains a final challenge: exploring Paris without a predetermined plan. Is that a "oui" or a" non"? With these tips you can't go wrong!
On a sunny Saturday in September I left for Paris. Yes, without a plan. With the knowledge of previous visits, of course, but with the idea: no obligations and everything is possible.
1) Don't go to Paris without a plan if it's your first time. In that case, you have to see all the important museums, buildings, parks and squares. Makes perfect sense! Go with the intention that it really doesn't matter!
2) Exploring a city without a plan is a little easier if you are only a three hour drive or a train ride away. Thalys is a good option in Belgium and the Netherlands for example. I took the train at Antwerp Central Station. In less than two hours I was standing on the Gare du Nord train platform...
3) I immediately have to contradict myself in point three, but a bit of planning is necessary, namely: buy your train ticket and book your hotel in advance. I don't want that "Paris without a plan weekend" to be a financial loss for you! Hotels and train tickets can be expensive when you book them last minute.
4) That brings me to the following tip: don't choose a hotel near a historic monument or in a very famous neighborhood. That's how you really get to know a city! It might also save you some money...
5) Wherever you decide to stay the night, check in advance if there is a metro stop nearby that has connections with interesting lines. Instead of paying a single ticket or taking a card for 2 to 3 days, you can also opt for a ten-ride card.
6) Choose one location where you have already been before. Then you will at least visit one place you really like. You will now also look at the spot with different, perhaps better eyes. This time around you can spend more time there, shop more specifically, drink one more café noisette...
7) Do you have to reserve something in advance food wise? That's a dilemma. There are countless options for eating and drinking in Paris. The aforementioned culinary gems are numerous here, but unfortunately the tourist traps and the bad bistros too. The ideal golden mean could be: improvise for lunch, but do reserve something for dinner one day in advance. You could even make your afternoon walk depend on the location of the restaurant.
8) Go upstairs, take a lift. Go to the top floor of your hotel or a shopping mall, before you know it you're standing on a roof looking at the best of what Paris has to offer from above. Take the Galeries Lafayette roof terrace for example. Part of it is reserved for hungry souls, but the other side is open to visitors. And it's a free entrance!
9) The parks and squares often give Paris that indescribable charm. There are the usual suspects such as the Jardin de Luxembourg and Le Jardin des Tuileries and but don't forget the small squares and lesser known parks waiting for your behind the street corner. Do you see a sign with a less famous park or square written on it in the tangle of Parisian streets? Go for it!
10) My last tip requires some form of discipline. If it doesn't matter all that much, the temptation to spend hours in the hotel room is real. However, taking forever to eat those croissants in the morning might work counterproductively. Since you don't know where you are going in advance, you have to get up on time to decide what to do and see how you get there. Difficile? Believe me, when you are sipping from your glass of Chardonnay at the end of the day looking back on that fantastic, spontaneously filled day, you will be eternally grateful to me!
Still have doubts about a weekend in Paris let it go style? Below, for inspiration, the artless trail that I took, including the entertaining places that I encountered.
Day 1 - Opéra - 10th arrondissement
For that famous dome, of course, and to browse between the house collection of scarves and accessories that is well worth the detour. Then take the elevator to the rooftop (free) for a beautiful view of Paris.
A lunch spot that I think belongs to a hotel but where you can just come and eat and drink freely, with a partial view on the back of the Galeries Lafayettes. Very tasty tapa dish on the menu.
I walked in here out of sheer curiosity and came across an authentic shopping gallery with antique dealers, book shops, souvenir shops and coffee bars. Pay special attention to that beautiful architecture!
Casual bar in the tenth arrondissement, near a photogenic arcade arch and with a large terrace when the sun is out! Also look at the ceiling where a beautiful wall painting of flowers provides a strong visual statement.
Does hearing turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and especially 'naan' make you very happy? Baranaan takes you on a trip to India! Literally: this street food bar with sharing concept intended to simulate a train ride through the land of the curry, including luggage carriers and flashy 'look out the window' images.
Day 2 - Le Marais
Picturesque starting point for your walk through Le Marais. The oldest square in Paris was formerly called Place Royale and you immediately feel that more than 'royal' appearance. Beautiful symmetrical architecture and artfully trimmed trees.
Meert is actually a specialty store of Lille origin, but a big city like Paris also has a number of points of sale of course. In addition to tons of chocolate bonbons and other tasty sweets, this delicacy mecca is best known for its flat wafers filled with vanilla from Madagascar. Recommended!
A cozy bistro where typical French dishes are served. From a fresh dish of the day to a simple baguette with cheese or ham.
Internationally oriented covered market with street food stalls. It is wonderful to be here on a Sunday afternoon, between the locals of course!
The sweetest accessory shop in all of Paris with affordable, fine jewelry. Almost all necklaces cost 20 euros each here! Want!
Small-scale boutique with cool sweaters, original dresses and especially: affordable prices.
A hidden gem in Le Marais. In the Summer time, the park with its vegetable garden comes completely to life! An oasis of peace in a busy city. And this also makes my heart beat faster: during the week this garden is also used for educational workshops for children.
For those who want to walk along the water coming from Le Marais and feel like having an ice cream, this is the place to be! An ice cream close to the Seine. Perfect intermezzo if you miss being a tourist a little bit ;-). If he weather is good you can walk down the steps at the bridge and eat your ice cream by the water! My favorite flavor was the praline with pine nuts.
Authentic brasserie cuisine where cooking with local products is of paramount importance. They describe it themselves as bistronomy..
Tip: ask for the only table at the window when booking!
Day 3 - Saint-Gemain des Prés - Montmartre - Bercy
The Saint-Germain-des-Prés church gives its name to the entire neighborhood. It is known for its extensive range of art galleries and world-renowned bistros such as Lipp and Les Deux Magots. This square behind the church is the perfect place to take a break.
A cup of coffee at Le Pré aux Clercs? Top notch location! This place used to be known for its deadly love duels (what a man won't do to capture a women's heart right), now people come here for the retro-looking interior and the cozy jazzy atmosphere.
Montmartre is of course not within walking distance of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but if you visit Paris without a plan, you obviously do not know where you will end up ;-)
There is a good chance that you will come across a tourist here. It might be an idea to take get off at the Château Rouge metro station. This gives you the chance to walk up another part of the park where the occasional local sometimes comes to picnic or read a good book.
Want to escape from the hustle and bustle of Montmartre? Say no more! Walk pass La Passe-Muraille and the Buste de Dalida to enter a quieter part of this neighborhood. Via a number of photogenic staircases you can walk from the Lamarck-Culaincourt metro stop to L'Escalier. A no nonsene brasserie for the locals. The daily menu is more than reasonably priced here and a simple salad is also an option.
Around the hotel - 12th arrondissement
The twelfth arrondissement in Paris is certainly not a well-known neighborhood. In the evening it is a quiet place and in the weekend the occasional flea market or fruit and vegetable market pops up there.
I will not say that the Parc de Bercy is worth the detour, but if you had intentions to stay in the twelfth arrondissement and feel like reading a good book in a park surrounded by locals, then this place is for sure recommended. Think: no tourists, photogenic galleries, subtle hints to its wine storage past and close to a shopping center where you can score a last souvenir for the home front and where hundreds of colorful balloons beg for an Instagram snapshot.
After all that shopping and sightseeing, it is nice to have a last cocktail close to your hotel before you go to sleep. Le Petit Cosy is located near the Picpus metro stop and is an ideal base for exploring Paris without a plan. The small-scale hotel is linked to a more than decent brasserie on the ground floor where you can have a nice dinner, perfectly enjoy a happy hour and a eat one last croissant before the Uber brings you back to Gare du Nord. That is exactly how I ended my Paris without a plan weekend, although this time around I exchanged the croissant for a last glass of Champaign... Santé!