The widespread view is that social segregation has been intensifying and the latest wave of refugees flooding Paris from the recently closed Calais Jungle is likely to only fuel the pervading racism in the capital. One need not mention the city’s recent dark history of riots and terrorist attacks to get the Parisians worried about the additional 1,500 tents pitched up on boulevards and along canals in the autumn. The police dispersed tent villages by early November and their inhabitants were relocated to specially designed centres.
Having said that, it is hard to imagine Paris without its diversity. If you’ve ever been to the French capital, you’ll know how colourful its streets are – with people, clothes and languages from every corner of the world, all boiling together. You would have seen men of colour selling miniature Eiffel Towers, water bottles and sunglasses at most tourist locations. Should it start raining, they pull umbrellas out of thin air and sell those instead. At night they change from selling water to stronger refreshments – take your pick of champagne, rose wines and beers: anything for your convenience. You have also probably been served by them in the corner shops and convenience stores, had them sitting next to you on the underground and passing by while you walked on a street. On the surface, there are harmony, polite smiles and goodwill. It is unlikely that you would see anything ‘dangerous’ as a tourist, unless you’re particularly unlucky or intentionally choose to go to areas of known unrest. And for goodness sake, don’t go taking pictures of the asylum seekers – they’ve suffered enough at the hands of the European bureaucracy. Standard advise for travellers in potentially dangerous areas is to stay away from big crowds, public places and tourist attractions. But let’s face it – unless you’re in Paris on business, these are the places you’ve come for. To date, there haven’t been attacks on cultural venues or places specifically designed for children, such as museums or theme parks, in large European cities.
If you’ve come to Paris to visit the Louvre, Versailles or the Disney Land, the risk is probably sufficiently low and you have deemed the city worth the trouble. In this case – a few words of advise on when best to go. Since 2000 most museums are free to enter on the first Sunday of a month around the year, but only between October and March for the Louvre. On other days, the Louvre is free for under 18s at all times and for under-26s on Monday evenings, for art teachers, carers for disabled persons and for various membership holders. If you’re none of these, the entry is €15. Once inside, make a mental effort to forget the Mona Lisa – she is only famous because she was stolen from the Louvre and she was so unimportant prior to that, that it took the museum 3 days to notice she was gone. There are four floors and two long palace wings full of curiosities for you to see apart from the mysterious, smiling lady, so take your time and enjoy all that the Louvre has to offer. When you do finally come across the small, infamous painting in its grand hall, there will be a crowd of paparazzi to fight through if you want a closer look. Consider this: a selfie with a street poster of the Mona Lisa will look the same on your camera as a selfie with the original; so if you are compelled to fight through the throng of photographers, then do it to admire the painting with a naked eye.
The queue into the Louvre usually moves fairly fast and you can expect to be inside the museum within an hour even on the days of free entry. Avoid the main entrance, in favour of the Porte des Lions or the Carrousel de Louvre entrances instead, to decrease the queue time even further. Another famous attraction with a reasonable queue time is the Notre Dame, with an added bonus of free entry throughout the year. Use your time while in the queue to take a closer look at the Cathedral’s façade and you’ll notice that the gates are all slightly different and tower windows are of varying width, spoiling any hope of symmetry. This is due to the prevailing beliefs in the times of the Cathedral’s reconstruction – only God was seen as capable of achieving perfection and human-made things were not supposed to compete. If you have plenty of time and don’t mind boring queues, then have a go at the Paris Catacombs. This is undoubtedly a place worth visiting, but also the only one for which you cannot buy tickets online, so you’ll have to queue for a ticket, and then queue to get in. 200 people are allowed in every 45 minutes. Expect waiting time of at least 2 hours. A good way to skip all these queues is to buy guided tours for each of the attractions, however, the costs quickly start to add up. An alternative is to purchase the Paris Pass and one of its variations. These will grant free access to many of the museums and certain other attractions, often letting you skip the queue. Some even include free transport around the city. If travelling without a pass, buy a book of 10 Metro tickets and save €0.45 a piece (usual ticket price: €1.90). These tickets allow passage on all types of public transport and you will definitely use all 10 in less than 2 days.
Coming back to the topic of queues, waiting for entrance to the Eiffel tower can take an excruciatingly long time, definitely making it worthwhile to buy tickets online. It is also worth considering going as far as only the second level, rather than all the way to the top. A ticket to this level costs €11 instead of €17 and you will still get an amazing view. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can climb the steps to the second floor for €7. (Steps are not available to the top). If you do take the elevator all the way, you will still have an option to stop at the other floors on your way back down. Do get off at the second floor for a comparison of vantage points, and the first floor boasts a glass floor. However, don’t expect much of the latter – the surface is heavily scratched, making it hard to see through, and there isn’t that much of note to see directly beneath the Tower in any case. What is of note on this floor is the restaurant. If dinner with a view is your thing, then this is definitely the right place. The food is reasonably priced and of fairly good quality. It is also said that the Eiffel Tower Restaurant is slightly cheaper than the surrounding establishments, since it is the only restaurant in the area from which the Tower cannot be seen. Do make sure to book a table far in advance of your trip.
If you fancy a more traditional atmosphere but still with a good view, then head up to the Montmartre Hill standing above the city on the northern side. Once the home to an artistic crowd, including Monet, Picasso and van Gogh, it has retained its charm of the old Paris but acquired a new reputation of a clubbing district and is full of good restaurants and other entertainment. You will still find a lively art market here and some exquisite patisseries. But keep climbing for the crowning jewel at the summit – the majestic, white-domed Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur. It stands side by side with the much older church of the Saint Pierre de Montmartre, and together they look out for the city below. Expect spectacular panoramas and free entry to the Basilica. Montmartre can be conveniently reached by Metro and the famous Moulin Rouge is just down the road.
However, if you want to dine as a true Parisian, then grab a baguette, a bottle of wine, a selection of cured meats, the famous Parisian, raw-milk artisan cheeses and some delicious cakes – the creamy Paris-Brest or some macaroons would do nicely – and head down to the Seine. Climb the stairs from the main road down to the cobbled riverbank and spread out your picnic in the late afternoon sun amidst the other locals. Grab a cheeky crepe from a street stand when the sun goes down and get on a river cruise towards the Eiffel Tower to see it shimmer and sparkle with thousands of lights. This ten-minute light show can be enjoyed at the start of every hour from sunset till 1am. In terms of accommodation, central Paris is expensive, so it might be wiser to go for the outskirts. But worry not – the city is well connected and you’ll be in central Paris within 25 minutes from any direction.
(A new tourist attraction, the Hôtel de Pourtalès, where Kim Kardashian West was robbed in early October 2016.)
(Pop star Sting reopened the Bataclan music venue in November 2016, a year after 90 people died in a terrorist attack there.)