Monday, April 18, 2016

Travel Tips for an Awesome Trip to Paris (with Seniors)

Falling in Love

Wow, in the last sixteen months, I've traveled around the world to Iceland, the Swiss Alps, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C. and most recently, Paris and Amsterdam. You can read about my Iceland road trip here and please come back if you're interested in getting recommendations and travel tips for the other places. I have a lot of travel posts to catch up on and Paris is up first!

My sister and her husband are living in Paris this year so we decided it was the perfect opportunity to do a family trip and take our parents to Paris. I admit, I was really nervous about taking the parents to Paris: they are "senior citizens," it was their first time in Europe and their English is limited so forget about French. But thanks to some good planning and my sister and brother-in-law's awesome Paris-living skills, this was one of the best family trips we've ever had.

I've always had Paris up on a pedestal but my first trip there in 2012 was disastrous and I left the city pretty disappointed. This time though, I fell hard in love with Paris. What's different? I think traveling with the right companions or traveling solo is key to a happy trip. Of course, planning is key too so here are some tips that I hope will help a fellow traveler especially if you have seniors in tow. 

Notre Dame


Hotels are expensive in Paris and with a bigger group, getting multiple hotel rooms and not having a common space to relax and share experiences at the end of the day is a bummer. I recommend you identify the arrondissement you want to be in and then search for an apartment via Airbnb or VRBO based on the areas you want to be in. Make sure the apartment has an elevator if that's a requirement for you. A lot of buildings don't have elevators and Paris 1st floors are really the 2nd floor in the US.

Paris is organized into twenty arrondissements that spirals out like a snail shell and most of the popular Paris landmarks (e.g. Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame) are located in arrondissements 1 to 7. It's more pricey to stay in those areas and it can be tourist central if you stay near a landmark but if you have limited time in Paris then maybe those districts would be best for you. 

I usually prefer to stay in areas that are a bit outside of tourist areas so I'm not assaulted by magnets and postcards at every turn, or worse, a Hard Rock Cafe. I've stayed in the 10th arrondissement (aka Canal district) before and it's lovely but the canal was drained in March and I wanted to be closer to my sister so I chose this lovely 2-bedroom apartment in the 11th arrondissement (Bastille district). This apartment had all the amenities we needed and it was the perfect location for us: close to three different subway lines making it easy to get anywhere in the city (average 20m-30m to any Paris landmark) and it's surrounded by amazing bakeries, bistros and the awesome Aligre Market.

Before you travel, look up places of interest on Google Maps. When viewing a listing in Google Maps, there's an option to *star* it and save it to your Google Maps. This can help you get oriented to a new place and sometimes help you decide what area you want to stay in. When you're on the go, pulling up Google Maps can tell you how close you are and transport options to any of the starred places. These are the stars I added just for the area near our apartment. I do not travel without Google Maps; it's indispensable. 

Museums & Landmarks

Paris has 100+ museums and countless historical landmarks and the crowds can make a visit feel like a contact sport. Make peace with the fact that you're not going to be able to do it all and don't rush. Decide on the key places you want to visit, be prepared to spend a few hours and follow these tips to help you navigate the crowds:
  • Check for advance tickets online. If you can deal with a schedule then get a timed ticket to help you get through long lines faster. We made the mistake of showing up at the Louvre at Noon on a weekday and the line to get in was about a mile long and we gave up. Lesson learned, we got timed tickets for a visit the next day. You may need to book tickets earlier during peak season.
  • Go early or go late. Visiting the museum when they first open or near closing time helps a lot. I got a timed ticket to visit the Musee d'Orsay at 9am and I was one of the first people inside. I was overwhelmed with awe walking into the Orsay and feeling like I had the place to myself those first few minutes.
  • Study the museum floor plan. Know what you want to visit first and build in breaks. For example, I went straight to the top floor of the Orsay because that's where all the masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas and Picasso are housed and I got some precious alone time with my favorite impressionists! Then I got some rest by having lunch at the museum restaurant before continuing my visit (the food at the Orsay is so-so but the dessert and the views are great).
  • Check Google. Look up a place on Google or Google Maps and for a lot of popular sites (and restaurants), Google will tell you what the peak visiting times are. That can help you plan around crowds.
  • Invest in gear to travel light. Traveling light can help you get through security faster. Yes, there's airport-like security at the major sites and sometimes the security line is as long as the ticket line. You'll also walk lighter and faster not being weighed down by heavy bags and after hours of walking, you won't want to be carrying anything. March is pretty cold in Paris so I invested in a Columbia puffer jacket that had multiple zipper pockets that allowed me hide a few cards, cash and smartphone in the inner pocket and travel sans purse. Also make sure you have good walking shoes that you've broken into in advance. You can easily spend five hours walking around places like the Orsay, Versailles or the Louvre. I wanted some fashionable shoes for Paris and I discovered these amazingly comfortable Teva boots at REI that I wore the entire time (average 20,000 steps a day).
Edgar Degas. Dancers in Blue. 1899. Degas' ballet series at the Musee d'Orsay is beautiful.

Food & Shopping

Visiting supermarkets, farmers markets and department stores is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. It helps you get a feel for local life, discover new or different foods and products that you won't see at home, get an opportunity to interact with locals...and feed a shopping addiction. These are my favorite places:
  • Le BHV / Marais. Six floors of shopping heaven with smaller specialty stores focusing on men, pets, etc. in the neighborhood. This place is like a Bloomingdales and Nordstrom mash up but even better. Imagine, the second floor alone is dedicated to paper and arts/crafts goods. It's also conveniently located in the 4th arrondissement, right across from the Hotel de Ville (not a hotel but a city hall building since the 14th century with gorgeous Renaissance revival architecture) and within walking distance to the Picasso Museum, Centre Pompidou and Les Halles station (huge subway station with a mall attached). Closed on Sundays.
  • Monoprix. Think equivalent to Target with both food and home goods. There are multiple locations throughout the city. It's a great place for groceries and food souvenirs like jams, cookies, fleur de sel, chocolates and more.
  • Bakeries. Good bakeries in Paris are plentiful so go explore. So many were within 5m-10m walking distance that I would visit more than one just to gather all the goodies I wanted that morning for breakfast. I'll highlight the good ones that were in our neighborhood. 
    • Ble Sucre has butter croissants, baguettes, madeleines and cakes that you'll dream about forever. With all my visits, I think I ended up buying over two dozen madeleines here. 
    • Cyril Lignac Patisserie is also great for croissants, baguettes and some very fancy cakes (think about $6usd/piece). Across the street, they also have a cafe specializing in chocolate desserts with a nice sit-down area to enjoy your dessert with coffee. If you go on a weekend afternoon, the lines to both the bakery and chocolate cafe can be out the door.
    • L'Autre Boulange is a low-key neighborhood bakery and don't be surprised that popular items are sold out by 10am. My dad loved the sugar-crusted choux pastry puffs there. I would buy a dozen and they'd be all gone before I even get to them.
Breakfast spread with breads and pastries from Ble Sucre and L'Autre Boulange and delicious thick-cut bacon, eggs and fruit from Aligre Market. Another reason to do Airbnb is you get to put together a delicious spread like this every day.
  • Aligre Market. This wonderful indoor and outdoor market was a 10m walk from our apartment in the 11th arrondissement. In the outdoor area, you'll find about 2-3 blocks worth of vendors selling all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables and some stalls selling used clothing, books, records and knick knacks. Read the produce signs carefully because not everything is local and if its marked "par avion" then it's flown in from somewhere else. The indoor area has several butchers selling all kinds and cuts of meat, roast chicken and roast pig if you're lucky and vendors specializing in seafood, fresh eggs, spices, and dairy products like cheese, butter, cream and yogurt. One of my favorite memories on this trip is shopping at this market with my mom and together marveling and drooling over all the delicious foods. 
Roast pig at Aligre
Fruit at Aligre
  • Rue Montorgueil. David Lebovitz has a detailed post about this street. Lebovitz is one of my favorite food writers so I'm not even going to try to repeat what he's written so check out his post. I will say that I enjoyed this street so much that I visited twice and bought foie gras, fleur de sel sea salt from Geurande and mirabelle plum, cassis and eglantine jams at G. Detou, chocolates at A la Mere de Famille and Charles Chocolate and a great assortment of cheese and charcuterie from La Fermette.
Cheese at La Fermette. That blue cheese on the left is made with lavender.
  • Pylones. Cute overload is probably the best way to describe this chain. It's a fantastic place for souvenirs (e.g. scissors shaped like Eiffel Tower), jewelry, household items, office supplies and kids toys. There are multiple locations and there's a pretty big store at the Les Halles station.
Squirrel-shaped rice paddles from Pylones.
Goodies from Pylones and Amsterdam

Traveling with Parents / Seniors

My mom is in her 60s and my dad is in his early 70s and they aren't super active in the US so I was afraid we'd over tire them. Everyone is different but these are tips that served us well on this trip. 

  • Don't over-schedule. There's a lot of walking in Paris so it's important to take it easy and not overdo it. We didn't schedule any activities in advance of arriving in Paris but my sister and I did prep a list of famous sites ranging from museums to gardens to markets (I translated it into Chinese of course) for the parents to review. Depending on energy levels and weather, we'd decide where to go the day before and we'd only pick one main activity a day. We would do more only if our parents were up for it and we made sure there were a couple of hours in the late afternoon for rest or a nap before dinner. This strategy worked well for us instead of scheduling activities from dawn to dusk and rushing from place to place.
  • Have something familiar. Yes, French food is delicious but at some point you and your parents will miss what's familiar. We're Chinese so we missed Asian food and we ended up trying Thai, Chinese and Tibetan food in Paris and they were all yummy. I know some people may think that's crazy. Why have Chinese food? You're in Paris! The world is fluid. People's nature is to roam and not stay behind arbitrary national borders and when they move, they bring their food culture and traditions with them. I think it's fun to try foods not considered to be "traditional" to a place. These restaurants are using local ingredients, so to me, it's still a local experience.
  • Tag Team. I'm lucky. I have two sisters (and a brother-in-law) and we were all on this trip with our parents. My sisters and I are all independent travelers and we often go on solo trips around the world. Knowing this temperament, my sisters and I tag-teamed and sometimes, one sister would take over sightseeing with the parents that day and the others were free to have a solo day. Hey, everyone needs some alone time. Trust me, it's good for sanity so if you're able to have someone tag team with you, do it.
  • Health Insurance. Investigate options and consider purchasing travel health insurance. Your US health insurance most likely will not cover you while traveling. If you do get sick and you're staying at an Airbnb (e.g. no concierge to help you), you can also try calling the Paris branch of SOS Medicins. They will send a doctor to your home so it's good for non-ER situations. I used it back in 2012 and it cost me around $100usd. Money well-spent.
  • Public Transportation. Figure out public transport options in advance based on where you're staying. Know where your nearest bus stops and subway metro stations are and what lines are served there. Get a Navigo pass if you're staying a week or longer in Paris. It's good for Zones 1-5 (that'll cover probably 99% of travel cases) and travel to/from CDG. Paris by Train is a good site for more train transport info.
  • Use Uber or taxi. Public transport is really great in Paris but there will be times when calling an Uber or taxi will be totally worth it like going to or from the airport with a lot of luggage (a lot of subway stations do not have elevators or escalators) or needing to go to some faraway place for dinner after a long day of sightseeing. 
  • Pack the right clothes. We were in Paris in mid-March so it was pretty chilly for us Los Angelenos (think average in the 40sF). But we were prepared. I bought these awesome "omni-heat" base layers and jackets from Columbia (like this) for my parents and they also brought scarves, hats and a pair of lightweight pants to wear underneath their jeans. All of this kept us pretty warm.
  • Google. If your parents have a smartphone, at least teach them to use Google and Google Maps. When visiting certain landmarks, my parents would use Google to look up the history of the place and learn more on their own. And after I taught my mom how to use Google Maps to navigate and find out which trains to take for places she wanted to go, she was ready to ditch me and go explore on her own. We're a T-Mobile family so we all had free 2G international data which was fast enough for us to do the above. If you're on another carrier, then you'll either need to get a local SIM card or consider switching to Google's Project Fi which charges a low flat-rate for access to 120+ countries.
  • Safety. The terrorist attacks in Brussels happened while we were in Paris. Were we scared? No but of course we were saddened by the violence. Would that stop us from visiting Paris or anywhere in Europe again? Of course not! There was definitely noticeable heightened security around Paris after the attacks but we felt as safe as we would be if we were in Los Angeles. Shit can happen any where, at any time.
In lieu of the usual light show, the Eiffel Tower lit up in Belgium colors in respect for the victims.

Like I said in the beginning of this, I fell in love with Paris this time and can't wait for the next opportunity to travel there again. I built many new experiences and had unforgettable moments with (and without) my family which I really treasure. I feel like there was something beautiful, historical or delicious at every turn. French people are not as rude as stereotypes would like to make them out to be; in fact, I found many were quite nice and warm to us. And yes, butter croissants are the best thing in the world.

Au revoir!

I leave you with one of my favorite paintings. Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone. It took my breath away when I finally saw it in person at the Musee d'Orsay.