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Tips on seeing Paris, from museums and parks to safety
Seattle Times travel staff
Some notes and news for travelers to Paris:
A museum must
I'm a culture vulture, but in a week's stay in Paris I could barely scratch the museum surface. The French capital has dozens of museums from the massive Louvre, with its thousands of paintings and miles of corridors, to a little museum of antique Parisian dolls, the Musée de la Poupée.
Buying a Paris museum pass, which gives unlimited entrance for a certain number of days to more than 60 museums, makes cultural sightseeing much easier. Passholders can use a special entrance, breezing past the sometimes long admission lines. Take a break for lunch or a walk, and you can re-enter a museum without paying again.
Buy the pass at museums, major subway stations or online through some travel companies. A 1- 3- or 5-day museum pass costs respectively about $23, $45 and $69; it's validated on the first day of use. For anyone planning on seeing a lot of museums, it quickly becomes cost-effective since a single Louvre entrance ticket costs almost $11. Get information on the pass at www.parismuseumpass.fr/ (click on "English version").
Some things to know: Most Paris museums are closed on either Monday or Tuesday, so plan your visits/pass purchase accordingly. Most museums admit children under 18 free so you won't need a pass for children. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat the tour-bus crowds.
From shoes to unrest
• Don't leave home without a good pair of walking shoes: Paris is a city built for strolling. Some visitors buy passes for the Paris Metro, the extensive and efficient subway, but if you stay centrally you can walk to many sites and it may be more economical to pay for individual rides. If you do take the metro, be sure to keep your ticket; you need it at the exit turnstiles.
• For visitor information, the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau has useful information on transit, sights, accommodations and more at www.parisinfo.com/ or contact the French Government Tourist Office, which has a U.S. office, www.franceguide.com or 514-288-1904.
• Take a good map. Many Paris neighborhoods are confusing mazes of streets. I relied on "The Paris Mapguide" (Penguin, $10). It's compact, has easier-to-read maps than most guidebooks and brief descriptions of major sites.
• After the protests: The violent demonstrations that flared for some weeks last fall in some impoverished, immigrant Paris neighborhoods have subsided. Even at the time, there was little effect on visitors, since the areas are far from central Paris. In case of any future unrest, travelers can get updates at the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, www.amb-usa.fr or check with the U.S. State Department's travel-advisory service, www.travel.state.gov or 888-407-4747.
Taking a break
at peaceful Palais-Royal
After roaming the Louvre museum for hours, and wading through the crush of people to see Leonardo Da Vinci's famed Mona Lisa painting, my daughter and I needed a break. We headed across the street to the Palais-Royal, a surprisingly tranquil hideaway in the heart of the city. Built in 1629 as a sprawling mansion, it now houses government offices and its courtyard garden, open to the public, is edged with a covered arcade containing antique shops and quiet cafes.
The Palais-Royal has gone modern, however, with a permanently installed outdoor sculpture in its courtyard consisting of hundreds of black-and-white striped columns of varying heights. Kids jump from one to the other; roller-bladers weave among them; strollers ponder the meaning of it all.
Speaking of Mona Lisa
The Louvre museum and its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, are centerpieces in Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" and the movie based on the book that will be released in mid May.
Sites that are featured in the book, including the Louvre and the ancient church of St. Sulpice, already are crowded with book-loving tourists. Some tour companies offer daily Da Vinci Code walking tours lasting several hours, including Paris Walks, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pariswalking/ and Classic Walks, www.classicwalksparis.com/
You could bankrupt yourself at some Paris restaurants, but it's easy to eat well and cheaply. Join the many tourists and Parisians who picnic in parks or on the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge across the Seine by the Louvre, spreading tablecloths on the wood footbridge for a sunset view. Get picnic supplies — quiches, savory tarts, salads at bakery/pastry shops. Or buy a baguette — it costs only about 80 cents (the price is fixed by government) for the classic, thin loaf more than 2 feet long — and some cheese.
Another economical option is takeout from sandwich shops; some offer made-to-order Italian-style panini.
When you do eat at restaurants, be aware that many include a service charge in the bill so you don't need to tip nearly as generously as in the United States.
A garden of delights
If you're traveling with children, give them a break at a lovely little amusement park in the heart of Paris, by the Louvre museum in the Tuileries Gardens. It has a Ferris wheel that gives sweeping views of the city, from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower and the gleaming white domes of Sacre Coeur church.
The Tuileries is dotted with formal gardens, broad paths and sculptures. It also contains the Orangerie museum, which has been closed for renovations and is expected to reopen in May with its world-class collection of late 19th and early 20th century paintings by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and others.
Paris knows how to party in the summer. A two-mile stretch of riverside expressway in the heart of the city is turned into an urban beach, with imported sand and deck chairs, swimming pools and umbrella-shaded cafes. Called Paris Plage ("Paris Beach"), it usually runs from late July to late August. Last year it attracted 3 million people, locals and tourists, who came to stroll, sunbathe and play beach volleyball.
The city's, and France's, biggest party day is July 14, Bastille Day, which is the country's national day.
Counting the ways
Two different ways of counting in France, and much of Europe, could catch you unaware.
In buildings, what Americans call the first floor is known as the ground floor; a French first floor is our second floor.
Dates are written with the sequence of day of the month, then month, then year. For example, 08.07.06 is July 8, not Aug. 7.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company