Paris sits near the top of almost every traveler’s must-see list.
While we had checked that box many years ago, having been in our 20s and crazy enough to drive around the city in a little rented Fiat, most of what we saw was blurry and had a slightly fearful aura attached to it.
By far the bulk of our attention was devoted to avoiding an accident while not getting hopelessly lost.
Now that we are older and wiser — and knowing we’d be jet-lagged — we decided that hitting the highlights with a guide was not a touristy cliché to be frowned upon, but a stress-free way to visit some of Europe’s most famous landmarks. It also struck us as a great way to scout locations for our upcoming week in Paris. A private tour would be ideal, but expensive, so we contacted Viator and booked their Best of Paris Tour.
Our small band of eight curious travelers from around the world made the outing more interesting and entertaining than a solo excursion, all the while maintaining the individual attention we would have lost in a large group.
Instead of dozens of people in a huge bus, we spent the morning riding throughout the city in a van, sans the anxiety of being behind the wheel.
The initial part of the tour was a whirlwind overview of the history and geography of Paris starting with a cruise along the Champs-Élysées, and a couple of laps around the insanely traffic-filled circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe.
Our guide and driver, Sabastian, who was the perfect combination of comical and informative, mused that an accident occurs in the circle every twenty minutes.
However, having impeccable timing, he limited his lapping to fifteen minutes, therefore beating the odds, and allowing us to escape unscathed.
In contrast to the crazy congestion at the Arc, we proceeded to the narrowest street in Paris, Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche or Street of the Fishing Cat, no doubt the only one in the city without a single vehicle on it!
Periodically the van stopped for a quick look-around, giving us a chance to hop out and snap a few photos.
Our first opportunity came at the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, where we had a chance to crane our necks up for an eye-to-eye with the gargoyles peering down at us.
Built over the course of nearly two hundred years, beginning in 1163, Notre-Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to incorporate the flying buttress as reinforcements for the walls.
Not part of the original design, as construction progressed the grand scale of the building required additional support, and a buttress or two was the perfect solution.
Check out more about Notre Dame Cathedral
Back in the van, we took a spin through the nearby grounds of the Louvre and, while seeing the famous pyramid was cool, it only made us more detemined to go back and explore the great works housed inside.
We passed the Palais Garnier, generally known as the Opéra de Paris, or Paris Opera House.
We knew it as the home to the Phantom of the Opera, but that is only a small part of why this may be the most famous opera house in the world. The amazing architecture could be more responsible for that stature.
Our next stop was the golden-domed Hotel National des Invalides, that is said to have been an inspiration for the United States Capitol building.
The complex was initiated by Louis XIV as a hospital and retirement home for war veterans, and it still serves that purpose today.
It is also home to several museums and monuments related to the military history of France.
Many of the country’s heroes are laid to rest here, including Napoleon Bonaparte, whose tomb is beneath the dome.
We set out for what is often considered the best view of the Eiffel Tower in town, looking across the Seine River from the Trocadéro Gardens.
Even shrouded in fog, Tour Eiffel stood out as the most impressive emblem of Paris.
Crossing the river for a closer look, we discovered yet another reason to love this tour, no lines.
Instead of waiting behind the hundreds of eager tower visitors, we walked right on to the elevator and rode up to the first observation level to take advantage of our lunch reservations.
The restaurant, le 58 Tour Eiffel, provides attentive table service fifty-eight meters high on the most recognizable landmark in Paris, and more memorably, a seriously cool way to hang out high above the city.
See more photos of this seriously cool eatery and our antics at the Eiffel Tower
Gustave Eiffel designed and built his tower in 1889 as an entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair.
Even though it was the tallest man-made structure on earth, at over a thousand feet high, he probably had no idea that it would become the enduring symbol of La Ville-Lumière, the City of Light.
After our meal we hit the stairway and climbed to the second observation level, just over a third of the way up.
From this vantage point the panoramic view of Paris was spectacular, and since the top was hidden in the clouds we didn’t see any reason to go any higher.
Instead we met back up with Sabastian for an afternoon of opulence at the Palace of Versailles.
After the short drive out of the city, we once again bypassed the waiting crowds and walked right in.
The Château de Versailles became the royal residence in 1682, when Louis the Fourteenth moved out of the Louvre in favor of the country house and gardens that had served as a hunting lodge since 1624.
Of course, major renovations were in order, one can’t rule properly from a hunting lodge.
It seems that the redecoration was quite a success! No wonder Louis is known for his furnishings.
We were particularly enthralled by the Hall of Mirrors, and the artwork on the ceilings, but every room made it quite obvious that it was good to be king… that is… until there is a revolution.
But the rise of the republic did not vanquish the palace, even though many of the furnishings were hauled off by angry mobs — no cake for them — it has been restored to its previous glory.
Versailles continues to play host to political functions by hosting heads of state in the Hall of Mirrors and housing meetings of the Sénat and the Assemblée whenever revisions or amendments are made to the French Constitution.
Nearly as impressive as the interior, the grounds have to be seen to be believed as well. After all, what is an emperor’s country château without a garden? We wouldn’t have to answer that question, because Versailles has the backyard to end all backyards. Even in late autumn, we were easily engulfed by its lovely, lush repose.
Almost two thousand acres of trees, flowers, fountains, ponds, statues, and perfectly trimmed hedges forming designs and mazes, all with string quartet music perfectly piped throughout. No kidding, no matter where we walked it always sounded like they were right behind the next tree.
Over time the gardens fell into a state of overgrowth, but now the Petit Parc – Louis XIV’s pleasure garden – is being restored to the same condition that it was in at the end of his reign in 1715.
See more photos of Versailles – there’s so much more over-the-top royal stuff to share!
We returned to Paris at the base of the Eiffel Tower to embark on the last leg of the tour, an evening cruise along the Seine just as darkness was engulfing the City of Light.
The backdrop could not have been better for a romantic meal.
If we were looking for a sure-fire way to improve on the ancient adage: “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou” we would have been hard pressed to find a way.
Slowly sailing past illuminated landmarks, while enjoying a three-course dinner, was the ultimate end an exquisite day.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
See where we stayed in Paris
See our antics at the Eiffel Tower and learn a few things about her that you didn’t know!
Follow us to Versailles – there’s so much more over-the-top royal stuff to share!
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Check out all of our adventures in France!
YOUR TURN: Is Paris at the top of your must-see list? Or have you already checked it off? What would be YOUR first stop in Paris?