Our Paris Top Ten

I’m from the era of Late Night with David Letterman.  He had his “Top Ten” staple on every show, and as cliche as it may be, I really like the Top Ten concept.  So here it is. I took some of these verbatim from my Trip Advisor reviews.  My contributor name is JulieG if you are a Trip Advisor junkie.

The Funtrips Top Ten Favorite Experiences in Paris…

10. Shopping at Louis Vuitton:  Now this seems a little silly, but I had been saving for a LV handbag for a long time.  Shopping at the flagship store on the Champs Elysee turned my purchase into a luxury event, including complementary French Champagne.  I don’t splurge like that often, but I say, if you are going to splurge, do it right!  So by making this purchase in paris, I got the purse and the experience.  And, for Americans, the exchange rate benefit ($ to Euro) and the VAT refund make the net price of French luxury goods a little more palatable now…so use THAT for your justification!

9. Lunch at La Duree:  We went for lunch at the location on the Champs Elysee. Honestly, I expected this visit to be disappointing. I thought it would be overpriced and a bit snobby. But, we really enjoyed the food and the service was lovely. The only funny price issue was that my husband’s Diet Coke cost 2 Euros more than my wine! Gotta love France! My kids and husband had a chicken sandwich, and I had a chicken Caesar salad and both were good. The macarons are truly unlike any other. I think the vanilla is heaven.  I have friends who went for tea here and also enjoyed that experience, so there are plenty of options.

8. Dinner at Vins et Terroirs:  In a city with an overwhelming number of dinner options, we went here twice.  That either says something about them or something about us.  We loved the restaurant and the entire area around it (St. Michele).  Our meals were delicious and a wonderful value.  I had the canard avec sauce a l’orange…it was tres bon!   My kids had steak and the staff ensured the sauce was on the side…because my girls are picky. Overall, the staff was so friendly and welcoming to our kids that it made the meal enjoyable for all of us.  Our server recommended two great wines that just added to the deliciousness too. To top it off, the menu had English translations, but that didn’t take away from the ambience or French authenticity (as with other touristy restaurants).

7. Dessert at Amorino:  We went twice during our visit to Paris…both times after dinner at Vins et Terriors (Amorino is down the street). We loved the classic chocolate, chocolate chip and vanilla. Not necessarily exotic flavors, but they were delicious. And the presentation was so fun! They make the gelato in the cones in the shape of flowers (see the featured image above). In making those flowers, they allowed multiple flavors in a single order. The petite is better with no more than four flavors…so if you want more than four, go bigger!

6. The Louvre in the evening:  I had read about this somewhere else in my research and it was one of the best tips I received.  On Wednesday and Friday evenings, the Louvre is open late (check the website to confirm, but I think closing time is about 9:45 pm).  The lines are MUCH shorter (especially when trying to view the Mona Lisa) and the building is more peaceful (more conducive to enjoying art).  We entered at about 6pm and left at about 9pm.  This gave us plenty of time afterward to enjoy dinner nearby (and there are plenty of options).

5. Walking:  I know this sounds odd, but we loved walking in Paris.  We didn’t use the metro (subway) once.  We walked EVERYWHERE!  Paris is a city of big things and little things.  Stay with me here.  The big things are the obvious things – museums, monuments, etc.  The little things are the architecture, the outdoor cafes, the little alleys and squares, the shops, the “Space Invader” street art, etc. It’s definitely easier to enjoy the little things if you are wandering on foot.  And, while wandering is great, when you have limited time, you have to make your wandering productive.  We planned out our days so that we had time to walk and enjoy neighborhoods between destinations.  My favorite walk was from our hotel in the 1st Arrondissement to dinner in the Latin Quarter.  It took us over two bridges and through the Ile de la Cite.  Some of our favorite photos were taken on that walk.  And it doesn’t hurt if you have an international data plan through your domestic phone service…using our maps on our smart phones saved us a lot of frustration and wasted time.

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It’s fun to spy the “Space Invader” street art throughout Paris.

4. Notre Dame:  I did a whole blog post on it we loved it some much.

3. The Eiffel Tower:  Obvious!  Did a blog post on that too!

2. Staying at the Relais du Louvre: We loved the location in the 1st Arrondissement.  This location allowed us to walk to all the main city sites (see #10), and there was plenty of shopping and eating nearby, including the high end places on Rue St. Honore. The room was darling and very traditional French, and we felt like we were in family home. We were in room 51 (check it out on their site) which had plenty of space for our family of 4. Having breakfast (which was plentiful) served in the room was a treat and really a perfect way to start the day of touring. Also, the staff speaks amazing English but politely allowed us to practice our much weaker French. They called us cabs when necessary that arrived quickly and were clean/safe/helpful.  We cannot wait to return!

1.Bike About Tours:   We took a fantastic bike tour with Bike About Tours and the lovely Laura, future best-selling author. We learned so many fantastic tidbits about Paris that you don’t learn in the guidebooks or the history books. What sold me was their “off the beaten path” approach. We saw areas of Paris that we wouldn’t have gone on our own such as the Marais. Yet we also saw some important “typical” sites like the Tuileries or Centre Pompidou. Overall, the bike tour was a highlight of our Paris trip! And I appreciated their focus on safety. I never thought I would let my kids ride bikes in the streets of Paris!  But, we all survived without a scratch!

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A Harry Potter visit that was truly magical

Last night was Halloween, and no surprise, my daughter and her friends were watching Harry Potter movies on TV.  It reminded me of our trip to the Warner Bros Studio Tour London to see The Making of Harry Potter.  We talked about this tour, and how we almost missed out, in a previous blogpost.  All I can say is, plan early!  If you like Harry Potter movies even a little, you will not want to miss this tour!

TRANSPORTATION AND TIMING

As I previously explained, we waited too long to buy our tickets directly through the Warner Bros site.  This is your best bet, by far.  This gives you the most flexibility during your day and allows you to spend the necessary 4 hours (minimum) at the WB Studio (no joke). The website gives you instructions on which train to take to the WB Studio in Leavesden, about an hour away from London, and how to grab the shuttle from the train station.

Our only option was to buy our tickets through a bus tour we found on Trip Advisor called Golden Tours.  We met the tour bus in downtown London (near Victoria Station) and they drove us out (and back) to the WB Studio.  The ride itself was fine, but Golden Tours only schedules a three-hour visit to the WB Studio.  We were fortunate to get on the first bus which left a little ahead of schedule and got us to the WB Studio 30 minutes early.  We lined up immediately and the WB Studio staff let us in before our scheduled time (which may or may not be normal…it doesn’t hurt to try).

We had over three hours for the visit…and we felt rushed.  By the time you look at everything, wait in line to ride brooms, practice with wands, and do other interactive things, the time flies.  We did stop and shop at the WB Studio store, which was an absolute zoo (but remember we were there in August). My husband lined up to pay while we shopped in order to speed up the process.  My girls felt like there were items at the WB Studio store that they did not see at Universal Studios Hollywood.  I personally could have skipped shopping, which is a rare statement for me.

FOOD

We didn’t stop for a snack halfway through the tour, except to eat the granola bars and drink the water they let us bring in.  Many people stop for Butterbeer, but we had already tasted it at Universal Studios Hollywood.  We would have enjoyed having a more leisurely lunch/dinner before jumping back on the bus, but the time was limited.  The cafe in the main lobby has MUCH better eating options than the cafe inside (but only Butterbeer is sold inside…be forewarned).  We ordered pizza and pasta for our kids to quickly eat and took most of it with us for the ride back.

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OUR FAVORITE THINGS

The tour starts out in a group with guides/employees of the WB Studio.  However, once you get past the Great Hall, you are set free to go through the rest at your own pace.  The first room (which is enormous…no claustrophobia here) has on overwhelming number of things to see.  The costumes, the make up, the sets, the props…all of it is so detailed and fascinating.  Of course they have sets that you recognize, but they also have the drawings/plans and models that they created before building the sets.  They also have demonstrations and videos to show how they did their special effects.  I suppose that younger children may tire out quickly, but since I had a 12 and 13 year old, they took the time to look at the details.  Also, we enjoyed the interactive exhibits which seemed to be open to all ages.  If you need some fresh air, there are outside exhibits as well.

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The Great Hall
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Harry’s costumes over the years

 

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Harry and Ron’s room
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The Sorting Hat
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Professor Snape and Potions Class
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And there are plenty of outdoor sets too!

 

The broom riding (on a mechanical broom with a green screen backdrop) was a must-do for us.  The line is a bit long to wait, but it is super fun!  The activity is free, but it is quite pricey to buy the videos and photos.  We did purchase all of it (and have done nothing with it), but it is an expense we weren’t expecting, so be prepared.

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All in all, visiting the WB Studio was a highlight of our London trip!  It was educational and entertaining for all of us.  I’m so grateful that we did not miss this!

 

Exploring Outside of London

It’s no secret that we are Starwood people.  So it’s no surprise that we are staying at a Starwood property in London with our points.  You gotta love that “5th night free.”  So we had six days and five nights to plan out in London and the surrounding areas.  We already decided what we wanted to do in London, but we needed to nail down our day trips/excursions outside of London.

A high priority for my kids was seeing the Warner Bros Studio Tour for Harry Potter.  It is an hour outside of London and a popular day trip.  Our family had talked about this excursion for almost a year.  In my travel planning, I had bought every other ticket imaginable, and for some reason, I failed to buy that one.  It hit me one day as I was driving home.  I had a “palm to forehead” moment!   I was in major panic mode as I rushed upstairs to my office.  With one month advance, I went online to book the tickets.  Nothing!  Nothing available for the ENTIRE duration of our London visit!  I scrambled to look for other resellers.  The only tickets available were through a tour company (clearly more expensive and restrictive) and were for the day AFTER we were supposed to leave London for the countryside.  So what did I do?  Yup!  I rearranged our whole trip so that we would be able to go see Harry Potter.  What a pain!  When I relayed this story to my youngest daughter, she interrupted me half way through and said, “mom, please tell me that in the end we are still going to see Harry Potter!”  Fingers crossed that this is a great excursion, because it ended up being a lot of money and finagling on my part.  However, I am grateful that I even had an option…I never would have lived down that mistake.  Such is life when you travel with kids/teens.

There are a multitude of other short day trips that you can take by train from London.  We considered several to fill an additional open day in our itinerary.  I really wanted to go to Oxford and Blenheim, but the train ride is over an hour just to Oxford, and then you need to take a bus to Blenheim.  It’s much better suited for a car trip.  We will have to save it for next time. We also considered Canterbury.  It is also well over an hour by train, and while it is rich in history, we weren’t sure our daughters (12 and 13) would appreciate it as much as we would (they won’t be reading Canterbury tales anytime soon).  We settled on Windsor because it is incredibly convenient at only 30 minutes by train and very family friendly.  We plan to canoe down the Thames while we are there (with a guide of course) to make things a bit more interesting (praying for good weather).  We will also visit Windsor Castle and we can compare it to the digs we see at Buckingham Palace.

Beyond our time in the London area, we also wanted to spend a day or so exploring the countryside.  We felt the best way to do so would be by car.  I chose to go to the town of Bath because of its history.  It also has a lovely location near the Cotswolds, an area of quaint and quintessential English villages.  My husband is a bit wary of driving on the other side of the road.  And he refuses to drive in big European cities.  So I rented us a car leaving from the airport…this way we will already be outside of London.  Also, I researched to ensure that our hotel in Bath has a parking lot (no parking on cobblestone streets).

We only plan to spend one night in Bath, but that will be enough to see the Roman Baths, the Bath Abbey and eat at Sotto Sotto, an Italian restaurant with amazing reviews (sticking with the Roman tradition).   On our way back to London from Bath, we will stop at Stonehenge and Salisbury.  Stonehenge has obvious fame.  Salisbury is home to the highest steeple in the UK and an original copy of Magna Carta (thanks to our friends for this fun tip).

London: Getting Around

We are less than a two weeks away from our trip to Europe, and while I’ve posted about Paris planning (Paris: Le Plan et Le Pass and Le Tour Eiffel), I have yet to discuss my London research.  I was a little late to the London planning party partially because I didn’t know where to start.  We are staying there more time, but I really had much less knowledge about what to do.  In November I grilled some dear friends who used to live there and they helped me get a start…but then I did nothing for several months.  I’ve spent the last several weeks exploring my usual planning sites and talking to other friends, and I think I finally have a more solid plan in place….but with the requisite flexibility, of course.

We are, once again, going with the philosophy of less is more.  We know we can’t see everything and won’t have fun if we try.  So I am narrowing down some of our “must haves” and ensuring they make it in the plan.  This list includes Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben/Parliament, the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, the British Museum and the Tate Modern.

My friends suggested that we check out the “hop-on, hop-off” double decker bus options for London.  They think that is really the best way to get to know the city.  We are staying on Piccadilly and the bus will go right by our hotel, so it could be a very convenient option. There are a few different companies that run buses and they have package deals that give you other perks like boat rides, walking tours, etc.  The positive reviews declare that they are convenient and allow you to cover a lot of ground.  The negative reviews claim that the information provided isn’t over interesting (on certain routes) and the buses get stuck in a lot of traffic.

I have narrowed my focus to two companies:  The London Pass (run by Golden Tours/Gray Line) and The Original Tour.  The London Pass is similar to the museum pass we purchased in Paris, but it also includes the hop-on, hop-off bus with multiple routes.  Honestly, without considering the bus, the way I plan to see London, the Pass won’t pay off the same way it would in Paris. For example, it is good for the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, but I don’t plan to go to both of those places in the same day.  Therefore, I would have to buy a two day London Pass and that isn’t cost effective.

The second option is The Original Tour.  This pass includes the multiple-route hop-on, hop off bus tour.  It also provides some freebies such as a boat tour of the Thames and some walking tours.  There are no individual museum/attraction admissions (but they can be purchased separately).  This option seemed better for us because they were running a special.  In addition, considering that we plan to “hop on” at our hotel, the routes seem better for us.  We bought this tour for one day and bundled a Tower of London admission so we don’t have to wait in the ticket line there (I read it gets crowded).  As soon as we arrive in London, we will go to validate our online (print-at-home) tickets at one of the indicated locations so we are ready to rock and roll on our first full day!

I’m still researching an Oyster Card, which is a pre-paid metro/subway (aka, tube) card. I’ve read that it can be a cost saving to buy it in advance but I’ve been told by other friends that it isn’t necessary.  Since our trip is close, and I won’t receive it in time anyway, I’ll just wait and chat with our concierge.

I was excited to read about the redesign/relaunch of the Heathrow Express.  Since we are landing in the afternoon, I read that taking a cab from Heathrow could take up to an hour to downtown and cost as much as 80 GBP.  No thank you!  Since we plan to pack on the lighter side (ha!  let’s see how that goes), I am planning on using Heathrow Express instead.  The trains come every 15 minutes to various terminals in Heathrow and it only takes 15 minutes to Paddington Station (clock starting from the final Heathrow pick up…see diagram above).  Once at Paddington, there is a newly designed/expanded taxi station to provide access to the rest of the city.  We purchased round trip tickets for just 50 GBP, and learned in the process that kids under the age of 15 travel free.  I booked online and printed the tickets at home.  EASY!  Just remember, for American English speakers, a “return ticket” is a roundtrip ticket, not just a ticket for the returning part of your trip! (you’re welcome)

 

Paris: Le Plan et Le Pass

My Paris Museum Passes arrived this weekend via DHL.  This was yet another milestone in our Paris planning process.  I’m so excited to have them, along with our Eiffel Tower tickets.  It makes the trip feel so much more real!

I’m a planner, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  We only have three days in Paris, and I don’t want to spend time waiting in lines if I don’t have to.  During my research, I continually came across suggestions to buy a Paris Museum Pass.    If you go to the website (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/) you will find all of the locations for which the pass is valid.  Also, you can find the locations where you can purchase the pass in Paris (and other locations in Europe).  My primary focus was convenience, so I didn’t want to have to find a place to buy a pass.  I chose to pre-purchase the passes and have them sent to my home. Because of the overseas shipping, this was a pricier option, but they arrived safely (we had to sign for them) and very quickly (ordered and received within a week).  Now I have them, and I don’t have to waste time upon arrival!

Before purchasing the passes, I had to decide if they would be worth the price tag.  My research showed that I did NOT need to purchase the passes for my kids.  Anyone under the age of 18 can enter most Parisian museums for free (and all of the museums I was interested in).  EU citizens have an even broader age range.  There are a couple of locations (Les Invalides for example), where I will need to queue up to get a free ticket for my girls.

In true planning-addict form, I mapped out my three days in Paris and priced out the cost of purchasing the pass vs. purchasing individual tickets.  The Museum Pass website (above) actually helps you do this, which is, of course a marketing ploy (but quite effective).  The pass does not come in a 3-day option…just 2-day and 4-day options.  This presented a bit of a wrinkle.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I always try to avoid over-scheduling our days and ensure that I prioritize sightseeing and remain flexible in moving things around (or chopping them from the list).  Just based on my knowledge of Paris (I’ve been several times) and my family’s limited tolerance for museums (not inherited from me), here are our priorities:

  • The Louvre.  This is an obvious visit, but I plan to have us enter in the evening because I read that the crowds are less intense (a relative term).  You can check the hours on the website.  Given our schedule, we will go on Friday evening (open until 9:45pm).
  • Musee D’Orsay.  Another obvious choice.  I also read that it was best to go in the late afternoon, but the only day they have later hours is on Thursday.  This won’t work with our schedule.  So we will brave the daytime crowd.
  • Notre Dame.  Some portions supposedly require a free child’s ticket.  We want to visit the cathedral, climb the 400+ stairs to the top and visit the catacombs.  I need to do more research to see if all of that is one ticket or multiple tickets.
  • Sainte Chappelle.  It is very close to our hotel and to Notre Dame, so I plan to include it with our Ile de la Cite walk.
  • Arc de Triomphe.  Getting a good view is always on my list!
  • Centre Pompidou.  My family is not big into modern art.  This is close to our hotel and the exterior and elevators are fun.  We may not go into the actual museum (yes, such philistines, I know).
  • L’Orangerie.  This is near the Louvre and because we have passes we may “pop” in. They have a beautiful collection of famous Monets.
  • Les Invalides.  This is part of the military museum.  This was not originally on my list, but I think that my husband would like it, and I read that they have an excellent audio tour for kids with a scavenger hunt of different kinds of weapons.  Will this be too much of a “boy thing?”  I don’t know, but I will report back.  Also, seeing Napolean’s tomb is kind of cool.

All of these locations (and many more) accept Paris Museum Pass.  Once I organized all of these items in logical groups and considered our Eiffel Tower visit as well, I realized that I didn’t want to commit to a 2-day pass because the days have to be consecutive, and I could not imagine cramming all those museums into two days.  But when I priced out all of these visits vs. the 4-day pass, I determined that purchasing the pass was still a solid decision. Yippee!

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The guide that came with the passes.  This can be found online!

 

Le Tour Eiffel

Things have been a little crazy around here with the end of the school year.  It’s enough to make me really grumpy (and in need of a getaway).  Summer cannot come soon enough!

It was such a refuge for me to spend the day thinking about Paris (yippee!).  What prompted the planning was my desire to secure my tickets to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Yes, I’m going in August and it’s only May.  However, I’ve been reading on travel websites (both French and U.S.-based) as well as on TripAdvisor that the lines are crazy in high season and pre-sold tickets will sell out.  Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance, and I was at the 90-day mark!

There are both advantages and disadvantages of pre-purchase.  On the plus side, while you still have a line for the elevator, the ticket line is much longer.  So if you have your tickets, it’s one less line.  We are not line people.  Patience is not our virtue.  Traveling in Europe in August when the rest of the world is on vacation is already going to test us.  The disadvantage of pre-purchase is the commitment.  The tickets are non-refundable.  So if it’s raining that day, someone is sick or you just aren’t in the mood, you are stuck with your tickets.

We are not commitment-phobes.  On a big vacation like this, I like having an outline of a plan to ensure that we see what we want to see.  If we don’t have the framework, we are aimless each day and our time gets away from us.  Everyone has expectations (including me) and nothing is worse than taking an epic trip and thinking, “I really wish I had…” Now, reality is that you cannot do everything.  There will be things that don’t get seen, eaten, ridden, explored, etc.  That is why we prioritize as a family, and we decide our “must haves” and “nice to haves” in advance.  And, if we go to a museum that I want to see, then we go to an amusement park my kids want to see.  Balance keeps us sane.  But every family is different, and some have the endurance to do it all.  We do not.

So, for OUR family, what I have learned along the way is:

  • Keep extra time in the plan for eating, wandering, flaking, etc.  Being over scheduled makes for very un-fun trips.
  • Keep the plan flexible.  Prioritize the absolute “must haves” each day and know which items you are willing to abandon if necessary.
  • Pre-research rest stops, kid-friendly food and fun.

So, clearly, the Eiffel Tower is a “must have.”  So, booking tickets in advance was important to us.  We purchased our tickets at http://www.toureiffel.paris/en/preparing-your-visit/buying-your-tickets.html.  I opted not to go with a “front of the line” tour group because of the price and inconvenience of being with a group.  Instead, we will do this on our own.  There is some great information on this website and it is fully in English (such as the featured image above).  I also found some great tips on TripAdvisor (as usual) and in a great series of articles on Conde Nast Traveler by author Wendy Perrin, who traveled to Paris with her two sons a few years back.  Here is the link to one of her articles:  http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2012-06-18/family-travel-paris-museums-monuments-with-kids-photos-tips .  But, she has more than one article  on the site.

From my research, I plan for us to walk up to the second floor.  If we poop out at the first floor (that would be embarrassing), there is an elevator that will take us to the second floor from the first floor.  It may cost a small fee.  Regardless of how high we make it, we WILL climb some stairs because I understand the view is great from the stairs.  At the second floor, my understanding is that the queue for the elevator to the third floor (the top or sommet) is very manageable. As we will be exerting ourselves, I chose a 10am time slot for my ticket purchase.  Not too early (must enjoy breakfast at the hotel), but early enough that we are still fresh.  I read that others arrived 15 minutes early and were allowed in early.  I imagine we will be standing in line, so if we are early, it probably won’t hurt.

I plan to research places to eat nearby after visiting the tower.  We will need to eat after all that stair climbing!  The restaurant at the top of the tower is out of the question for my family (although I did research it).  It’s out mostly because my kids are so picky that they wouldn’t appreciate the expensive meal.  But also, I don’t want to be tied to a meal reservation when exploring the Tower.  It will be our top priority for the day, and I want to give it all the time it needs.

I purchased the tickets online and was able to print them immediately.  I have an account on that website where the pdf files are stored if I lose these copies.  It’s just like online ticketing for concerts, etc.  And voila!  We are set!

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