Slow travel in Paris means forgetting about the must-see sights and discovering the city on your own terms for an authentic experience.
I’m sitting at a table at the trendy L’Atelier Renault restaurant overlooking the Champs Elysees when a waiter makes small talk and asks if I like the city. I can’t help but laugh. “Of course,” I answer, a bit puzzled. “It’s impossible not to like Paris.”
My answer seems to please the waiter, but millions of tourists would also agree. France is the world’s most visited destination, pulling in some 84 million tourists in 2015. And Paris, the City of Lights, is the nation’s crowning glory. With its chic cafes and the iconic Eiffel Tower synonymous with romance.
Because Paris is so well known, it can also get puzzling. If you’re a first-time visitor the urge to hit up all the touristy landmarks is overwhelming. The Eiffel Tower or the Louvre are simply not to be missed. But you may ask yourself: am I really getting to know the city, or am I just collecting photo opps?
Here’s how to slow down on your next Paris trip to experience a more local and authentic side of the city.
5 tips for slow travel in Paris:
1. Find a unique hotel with personality
Nobody wants to get lost in the tourist crowd. A small, cozy hotel with an original aesthetic and personable service can make your Paris experience feel unique.
At the Hotel Plaza Elysees, a decadent reception area is complete with golden puma statues, framed paintings of opulent aristocrats and vases overflowing with flowers. All of this, with its playful take on rococo, lets you loudly know that this isn’t your standard beige chain hotel. The receptionist will give you directions, advise you on the nearby Champs Elysees shopping and make you feel you’re not a stranger in this big city.
2. Take time to wander
I only had two days in Paris and knew it would be impossible to see it all. After checking in, I walk to the Arc de Triomphe – the closest landmark.
Then I wander down side streets until I reached the Eiffel Tower. Photographing it from every angle, I feel that indescribable delight when you arrive in a place you’ve dreamed about for years. Although this is my second trip to Paris, it feels no less magical than my first.
Nothing helps you get to know a city as quickly and closely as a long and loosely planned wander.
I walk alongside the Seine until I reach the Place de la Concorde, hopeful to spot some monuments of the French Revolution. Louis XV’s statue was torn down at this spot. And Louis XVI was guillotined here in 1793.
But there are few reminders of the period that eventually helped take Europe into democracy. I change plans quickly – as you often must when travelling – and decide to have a Nutella crepe instead and take a walk down the Champs Elysees.
3. Linger over dinner
Walking for hours will leave you exhausted. I take a break back at my hotel for a few hours, then head out to the Champs Elysees for dinner. Since you can’t do much sightseeing when it’s dark, the evenings are perfect for slowing down and people-watching while taking in local cuisine.
L’Atelier Renault is part restaurant, part bar and part exhibition space where the carmaker showcases its latest technology and its classic models. It is a bright, airy and colorful space with dazzling views of the Champs Elysees that are great for people-watching. I order fish and fries, which come with a creamy and tangy white dipping sauce. I finish off with some perfect creme brulee topped with a crispy layer of hard caramel.
4. Save time with a bus tour
I get up early the next morning to catch the BigBus Paris sightseeing tour.
For about EUR 30, you get an all-day ticket for a double-decker bus that goes to all the major landmarks and gives you recorded commentary in 11 languages. You hop on and off anytime, exploring at your own pace. Touristy? Yes, but also extremely convenient.
What I love is how the bus doesn’t really make you feel like a tourist. French rap plays on my earphones as I wait on the top deck for the bus to start. During our ride down the Champs Elysees, the recorded guide gives funny anecdotes about French personalities and politics, and snippets from daily life.
5. Be flexible
When plans don’t work out, it’s best to think quickly and follow your gut.
After a ride past the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde, I get off at the Palais Garnier, home of the legendary Paris Opera and the origin of classical ballet. But it’s closed on Sundays.
I decide on a whim to walk to Montmartre, a large hill in the 18th arrondissement topped by the beautiful Basilica of the Sacre Coeur. It’s been home to artists and bohemians since the early twentieth century.
The winding streets, uphill climbs and atmospheric cafes are so charming that it’s my favorite part of Paris – even if today’s artists can’t afford to live here. If I had a third day in Paris, I’d return to Montmartre and explore it further.
With evening approaching, I catch the BigBus at the Palais Garnier. I stop briefly at Notre Dame before returning to the Champs Elysees for dinner.
And although my time in Paris is short, the two days convince me that slow travel in Paris is possible.
The city is much more than a collection of iconic landmarks. The more you explore the narrow sidestreets, the more you’ll long to return for another slow travel Paris experience.