18 Hours in Paris
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
A short story about a long layover in the dramatic and directionally-challenging City of Light.
Paris has never been on my list. A tall tower by the river, earthy wines, stinky cheeses - I just didn't get it. So when I was booking a trip to Portugal and noticed most of the flight options included a long layover in Paris, I was not impressed. But, being the go-getter type of traveler that I am, I was a little curious. Maybe there was more to Paris. Maybe I was missing something. A long layover would be a noncommittal way to check it out. I was taking this trip with a friend, Nicki, who felt the same way. But then we started thinking about croissants, baguettes, macarons... The Eiffel Tower would be cool to see in person. It suddenly felt foolish not to stop in Paris. So it was decided. We would fly from Porto to Paris for 18 hours of Parisian explorations.
18 hours may seem like a lot of time to kill, but this was Paris - there was much to see (and eat). I had crafted a thorough plan so we could see (and eat) it all. The way I saw it, we had four missions to accomplish in order to make the most of our journey. The first mission was a successful arrival and transfer into the city.
It was 10 PM on Saturday night when our plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle. After a week of exploring two new cities in Portugal, we felt pretty confident in our abilities to wander around another new place. We would catch the train into Montmarte and our adventure would begin. We quickly made our way to the train station, fumbled with the ticket machine as one does in an unfamiliar train station, and headed to the platform. Once there, we were faced with two tracks. Each one offered an empty train with its doors wide open, ready to whisk us away, but, which one did we want? It was getting late and there wasn’t anyone around to ask. Monitors above each track listed the schedule of stops, however, the schedules were really confusing, despite my thorough preparations. (Train schedules - and bus schedules, as demonstrated on my trip to Iceland - have never been my forte.) As the departure times counted down - and we only got farther away from knowing which train to take - we decided, eh what the heck, and just picked one. We hopped in, the doors closed firmly behind us, and away we went.
Once inside the train, we noticed the map above the door with a light lit up for each stop along the route. Turns out, we had chosen wisely. Mission Number One: accomplished! A quick 45 minutes later, we arrived at Gare du Nord, the gateway to our one night in Paris. We wound through the train station's labyrinth of platforms and walkways, encountering minor difficulties exiting the turnstiles (always keep your ticket handy for the exit swipe), and made our way through the front door. I took my first real breath of Parisian air. I glanced around and felt a spark of excitement about this place that was immediately as beautiful in real life as I had imagined. Centuries-old, opulent buildings lined the streets with cozy restaurants and cafés at every corner, nestled under brightly-colored awnings.
I usually prefer to get my bearings in a new city without a map or GPS. But, when it’s nearly midnight in Paris and the layover clock is ticking, there is no time for navigational mistakes. Commence Mission Number Two: find the hostel. The GPS instructed us to turn right and cross the street ahead, but it wasn’t quite that simple. We were standing at a very large - and very common - roundabout. A friend once explained to me that the streets in Paris don't run parallel to each other on a grid like they do in most U.S. cities. They run like spokes from strategically-placed circles, where each spoke leads to somewhere important. This description was 100% accurate. As we waited for the light to change, I counted eight streets branching from this one circle. Which one was across the street? The street signs were quaintly displayed on plaques along the buildings instead of jutting out into the streets, proclaiming their identities. Lovely, but impossible to read from even a close distance. We made our way around the circle, scrutinizing each street name as we passed by. Three or four streets later, we came to Rue de Dunkerque. This was it! This was where we would check into a hostel and set off on our Parisian adventure. Mission Number Two: check.
This was also our first experience in a hostel. We chose this particular hostel because of its ideal location near all the sights and, of course, the price. There was no need for luxury hotel rooms on this quick trip. We signed in at the front desk and they offered us a welcome beer while the other guests enjoyed their beverages in the lobby and chatted about their plans. We took the tiny elevator (so many tiny elevators in Europe!) to our small, but comfy room. We were happy with the just-right accommodations: two beds, a private bathroom, and a hearty lock on the door. We freshened up, drank our beers, and set out for our big night in Paris. The excitement of arriving in a new city was building.
Back in the lobby, it seemed a shame not to hang out for a bit and have one more drink. We grabbed seats at a picnic table and popped open a couple Tiger beers (as one does in Paris). Random memorabilia hung on the walls along with a guitar. Nicki, a musician at heart, plucked the guitar off the wall and started strumming. Our night was just getting started.
Back outside to explore the Montmarte nightlife, we were surprised by how quiet the streets were. It was only shortly after 1 AM on a Saturday night. We found our way to a bar that the front desk recommended where they offered free drinks for guests of the hostel. In we walked to find a warm, tiny room where the crowd was lively. When closing time arrived soon after we did, we followed the bartender's suggestions for other nearby watering holes. We danced and drank with locals and visitors alike. We discovered the bustling areas of Montmartre, walked up the steep staircase that lines the Funicular and stumbled (literally) upon Sacré-Cœur, the dramatic, white-domed church at the highest point in the city. Our new friends invited us to a party near the Arc de Triomphe, but that was on the other side of town and it was getting late. We had big plans for our remaining twelve hours. We decided to do the responsible thing (after all the irresponsible things) and get some sleep, for a few hours at least.
We set two alarms so we wouldn’t sleep away the rest of our time in Paris. We planned to take the Metro to Notre Dame, then walk along the Seine, pop into bakeries, cafés - anywhere that smelled good - and stop by all the sights along the way. We would end our afternoon at the Eiffel Tower, then head back to the airport by 2 PM. The plan was perfect. Waking up and getting there was Mission Number Three. However, after a night of partying until 4 AM followed by a 7 AM alarm, people are not happy. We didn’t want to move, let alone get out of bed and do more stuff. But eventually we got it together and set out again. Mission Number Three was manageable after all.
Now that we (mostly) figured out our friendly neighborhood roundabout, we were quickly back at the train station, ready to take on our fourth and final mission to see (and eat) everything Paris had to offer. Once again at the tracks, we were presented with two options. This time we felt much more confident in our choice so we jumped in, the doors slammed shut, and we were off.
There were only a couple of stops between Gare du Nord and Notre Dame. Except the stops on the trusty train map weren’t lit up. And the final stop on this route was a little too familiar - Charles de Gaulle... This train was headed the wrong way on a nonstop route right back to the airport! Mission Number Four: epically failed! We had a 45-minute journey ahead of us and then we’d have to come all the way back. A precious hour-and-a-half of our 18-hour layover - wasted. We were tired, cranky, hungover, and we hadn’t yet enjoyed the leisurely French breakfast of a warm, buttery croissant and cappuccino in the cute café that we would’ve undoubtedly stumbled upon according to my well-laid plan. After sitting in hangry, disappointed silence for awhile, we made a new plan. We would take an Uber from the airport directly to the Eiffel Tower so there was no chance for another navigational flub.
The Uber was surprisingly easy to catch outside of the relatively easy to find airport exit. About 15 minutes later, we were standing just outside Palais de Chaillot with The Tower in our sights. As it turns out, one of the best times to view the Eiffel Tower is shortly after 9 AM, when the sun is still rising behind the tower. We pretty much had this stunning view all to ourselves for a little while. Suddenly we didn’t care that we were starving and caffeine-deprived. We were mesmerized. We couldn’t stop looking at it. We walked towards the Tower, stopping every few steps to take pictures from slightly different angles. Finally, all the rushing around, all the worrying about getting it all in melted away. It was simply beautiful.
We wandered through nearby gardens, grabbed a coffee and a snack from a street vendor. We didn’t care that it wasn’t from a fancy café, it was delicious. We strolled past the most perfect carousel I’ve ever seen, quiet and still before the crowds arrived. We walked closer to the Tower, and all around it, in awe of every new perspective. We made our way through the Champ de Mars, where we, of course, took our Eiffel Tower selfies, then continued on our sightseeing journey, looking back at the Tower with every slight change in direction, mesmerized by its hypnotic beauty. Wandering along the Champs-Élysées, we stopped at Ladurée for delectable treats - macarons, chocolate croissants, and other hand-sized pastries - to enjoy while we wandered. (Side note: macarons make excellent souvenirs.) We walked across the historical Place de la Concorde where we pondered the presence of an unlikely Egyptian obelisk surrounded by golden fountains. We passed through the Jardin des Tuileries, and awed at the massiveness of the Louvre (from the outside of course, there was no time to enter).
Along the way, we finally stopped at a charming café along the street for a simple, but tasty crêpe and cappuccino. We strolled along the Seine, across the Pont des Arts. By this time, the infamous love locks had been removed, but people still attached them to every available hook and loop along the river. I imagine we were both thinking of someone we’d like to return with someday. We paused to literally smell the roses at a flower shop along the river and continued to follow our noses to a lovely sandwich shop. The warm, crusty baguette was the perfect accompaniment as we made it to our final stop - Notre Dame. By now the crowds had gathered and formed long lines to enter, but we already knew we wouldn’t have time go inside. It was well into the afternoon hours, which meant our short time in Paris was quickly coming to an end.
We successfully made it back to the hostel to gather our belongings before heading back to the airport (again). Our final mission was complete. There was no doubt, we had already caught feelings for Paris. We knew we would have to come back for a much longer visit so we could enjoy a proper meal in a French restaurant and see the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower at night (but not take nighttime photos of it). There were museums to see, leisurely wanderings to do, cultural oddities to explore, many glasses of Bordeaux to drink, and stinky cheeses to eat.
There are some lessons in life that we seem to learn again and again. I constantly struggle to find the right balance between making a detailed plan and making no plans at all. It seems the more well-crafted the plan, the more opportunity there is for things to go wrong. Travel continues to teach me to leave room for the unexpected, to embrace the madness. It’s nice to have a rough idea of the when and where, but as far as everything else goes, I think it's best to just roll with it. Follow your gut. Follow your nose. If you miss out on a BIG experience because it was the wrong day of the week, you misread the train schedule, or the lines were too long, there’s probably something else spectacular around the corner that you didn't even know about. And maybe this unplanned detour will give you another reason to return someday.
How to plan a long layover in Paris (the right way):
Where to stay: If you're willing to forego the extra amenities and try out a hostel for a night, Smart Place was just enough comfort for us and in a great location. Standard twin rooms with private bathrooms start around €100 per night.
What to eat: I don't have any dining recommendations because we grabbed quick eats at random places. In such situations, the nose knows. Follow it and you won’t be disappointed.
Getting around: For all that is right with the world, review train schedules in advance. Or just take taxis or ride-sharing services so there’s no way to screw it up. Either way, allow plenty of time to get around.
Making a (rough) plan: Check out the official website of Paris and Lonely Planet Paris for ideas and suggested itineraries.
Going beyond the tourist attractions: Consider staying longer with inspiration from Culture Trip and Afar.
Until next time, happy travels!