Europe is our dream travel destination. For a long time we put it off for reasons unknown even to us. This past December, we finally realized our dream and checked off some of our favorite European cities from our list - Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges. After this trip, I honesty think the best time of the year to travel in Europe is during Christmas. Cities decked up with its finest Christmas decorations, colorful Christmas markets selling heartwarming delicacies, the smell of mulled wine filling the air and festive music playing around every corner - you could truly get lost in the magical atmosphere. Above all, I cannot think of a better way we could have celebrated our 11th anniversary than in some of the most romantic cities in the world.
Planning the most memorable trip of our lifetime wasn't easy. It involved a great deal of preparation and a long checklist of things to keep up with. But in the end it's worth every second of the time and effort we put in.
Day 1: It was a grueling 20 hour journey, from home in Florida to our first destination - Paris, including a stopover in Iceland. We took an Uber from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport to our hotel. The drive from the airport was no different than any of the big cities in the US, until our Uber driver introduced us to Arc de Triomphe and that’s where the picturesque Paris we know of actually begins, then it was love at first sight.
Hotel Duquesne Eiffel was such a cute surprise. We have stayed in many hotels in our travels but never in such a small space with narrow walk ways, steep staircases and a tiny little elevator. It would have been a bad choice to rest at the hotel with jet lag and all, and that wouldn’t have helped our swollen feet as well. So we dropped our bags, quickly freshened up and hit the streets.
Hotel Duquesne Eiffel / Basement breakfast area
Paris is a city full of iconic splendors. One such is the Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited monuments in the entire world. Eiffel Tower was only a short walk from our hotel. We walked through the festive streets adjacent to the tower admiring cute little cafes and bistros. We grabbed quick bites from the cafes and got our first taste of French pastries and desserts.
Our first full view of the iconic Eiffel Tower was from Champ de Mars, a large public park with the tower on one end and military academy on the other. École Militaire, the military school built in 1750, is an architecturally impressive structure. Just opposite the academy is the statue of Joseph Joffre, a French General who served in World War-I and in front of it is the Wall of Peace, a structure of glass and metal symbolizing peace.
École Militaire / Wall of Peace
The magnificent tower, standing over 1000ft tall, looked more majestic as we got closer and closer. As we strolled through the park, like all tourists we kept stopping for pictures every few steps like it was never gonna be enough.
Eiffel Tower from Champs de Mars
Once we got a closer look of the tower, we walked around to the other side as well. There was a small scale Christmas fair below Pont d'lena (Jena Bridge), right next to Seine river. Across Pont d'lena are Jardins du Trocadéro (Gardens of Trocadero) and Palais de Chaillot, offering some of the best views of Eiffel Tower. Every hour after sunset, there is a light show when the tower sparkles for a whole 5 minutes looking truly magical. We got to witness the show few more times during our time in Paris, from many different locations.
Eiffel Tower during the light show
There were many vendors around the tower, on the bridge and at Palais de Chaillot selling souvenirs and cold weather accessories. There were also many souvenir shops near the gardens. On our walk back we took to the little streets once again for some dinner and to see the Christmas decorations lit up. And that was how we spent our first day in the city of lights.
Decked up for Christmas
Day 2: Woke up at 4:30am, thanks to jet lag, while my husband was snoring away next to me. I used this time to sort photos from yesterday and started writing this blog. Eventually the sun rose and we got on with our day. Our hotel had a cute basement with exposed brick, where our breakfast was served. And then we took an Uber to Ile de la Cite.
Ile de la cite is an island in Seine river in the centre of Paris and is a tourist magnet. Notre Dame sadly is closed after the 2019 fire and the reconstruction is not expected to be completed before 2024. A short walk from Notre Dame is Saint Chapelle, a royal chapel built in the 13th century and a perfect example of Gothic style architecture. Most of the rich colorful stained glass windows in the upper chapel, depicting scenes from the bible, are original works and are truly remarkable. We were glad we booked our tickets in advance to the chapel because the place was absolutely packed. It doesn't take too long to tour considering it's small size, but it was impossible to take a step without bumping into someone.
We walked all over the place appreciating and clicking hundreds of pictures of the breathtaking architecture scattered around. La Conciergerie is an impressive structure located on the north side of Ile de la cite, once a palace, part of which was later converted into a prison that held notable figures during the French Revolution. Part of the building is currently being used as court. On the north bank of Seine river is Hotel de Ville, another striking 19th century building, currently the city hall and houses the mayor of Paris. The large square in front of the city hall was festively decorated and had a small Christmas market. As we strolled around we also got to have freshly made crepes from one of many cafes in the area, and some mulled wine from the Christmas market.
Hotel de Ville
Not far from there we came across Saint-Jacques Tower, a 16th century Gothic style tower which was once part of a church that was demolished during the French Revolution. A few steps from Louvre is the Protestant church of the Oratory of the Louvre. It was once the royal chapel for the kings of France and later became a protestant church. Just opposite Louvre there is the beautiful Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois church. There are many many more of these gorgeous buildings and sculptures in every direction.
La Conciergerie / Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois Church
Our next stop was the Louvre Museum, the largest and the most visited art museum in the world. The Louvre was once the royal palace and now houses the most impressive art collection in history. Unfortunately our visit was limited to the outer grounds of the museum due to lack of time and crazy long lines to get in, even with advance booking.
We then proceeded to Tuileries Garden and the enchanting Christmas market located at the park. Above everything we were most excited to visit Christmas markets during this trip. Many wooden chalets decorated with twinkling lights offered a variety of holiday treats, traditional foods, handicrafts and unique souvenirs. There was an ice skating rink and many fun activities for kids. We indulged in a good hot cup of mulled wine, a perfect way to warm up in the cold weather outdoors. We also got to try chicken tartiflette (potato and cheese dish) and the softest waffles ever. There is no better way to experience the festive spirit of the season than paying a visit to one of these markets.
Christmas Market / Best waffles
We spent a good couple of hours at the market and walked our way to Galeries Lafeyette for some more Christmas spirit. Boulevard Haussmann, where the shopping mall was located, exploded with Christmas decor and tourists. It is the busiest street we have been to in Paris. The mall itself had a large Christmas tree in the center, festive decorations around and cute window displays. The top most floor of the mall has an open terrace with a great panoramic view of the city and Eiffel Tower. Printemps, another mall right next to Galeries Lafeyette also had beautiful decorative lighting on the outside and interesting window displays.
Christmas decor inside Galeries Lafayette / Boulevard Haussmann
View from the top of Galeries Lafayette
From there we walked to Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. Trees along the entire stretch of Champs Elysees were decorated in red twinkling lights. The street was extremely busy with tourists and traffic but it was festive none the less. Once again we had booked the tickets to the top of Arc de Triomphe in advance but we did not notice a long line anyway. The climb to the top was painfully steep yet rewarding with a stunning panoramic night view of the city and Eiffel Tower.
View from the top of Arc de Triomphe
A good and bad thing about Paris is that, everything is close enough that you don't need a ride yet exhausting to walk everywhere. Undoubtedly the best way to experience the city is by foot, but without realizing we had walked over 10 miles by the end of the day. Our body and feet were absolutely killing. But guess what, somehow we decided not to take a cab back to our hotel instead to walk some more. We ended our day with some french wine and dinner at L'Escapade right next to our hotel.
Day 3: We woke up late and in bad shape after all the walking. But it was our last day in Paris and there is no time to relax in the room. We checked out by noon, left our luggage at the hotel itself and hit the streets towards Pont Alexander III, once again by foot.
Peaceful residential area in 7th arrondissement
Day or night, Paris is absolutely beautiful to walk and you will fall in love instantly. Walking around Paris is like walking in the classic past. The architecture is absolutely breathtaking. We strolled through what felt like quiet residential streets and peaceful tree lined parks. Classic Haussmannian style apartment buildings from the 19th century, were built in uniform blocks with cream-colored stone, adhering to strict guidelines and having similar style facades. Apart from the buildings, the elaborate artistic entrances to metro stations are a visual treat. There's plenty to learn about the architectural history and reconstruction that lead to the making of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Beautiful apartment buildings
Pont Alexander III is the most gorgeous bridge in Paris. It is adorned with many grand sculptures, intricately carved light posts and has a stunning view of Eiffel Tower. Across the bridge there are more stunning structures to look at. There is always something that makes you stop and admire. On this short stroll to the bridge we came across Hotel Les Invalides - a large complex containing military museums, monuments and tombs of notable warriors; the Air France building; on the other end if the bridge is Grand Palais - a museum/exhibition hall; just opposite to that is the Petit Palais - another art museum; and the Assemblee Nationale.
Pont Alexander III
We took a slightly different route back to our hotel and came across a beautiful church along the way, Basilica of Saint Clotilde. It was a hidden gem in a quiet neighbourhood, unfortunately closed at the time. The number of random structures we saw while in Paris is more than the planned ones.
Assemblee Nationale / Basilica of Saint Clotilde
We stopped at a cafe for lunch, picked our bags from the hotel and took an Uber to Paris Nord station for our train to Amsterdam. It took us an hour and a half to reach the station in absolutely snail paced traffic. The train station was packed with constant flow of passengers to and from metro and international trains. We booked first class on Thalys, which we luckily got for the same price as the second class. The 3 hour train ride was very comfortable and I spent this time again sorting pictures and writing. We were given refreshment towels, were offered champagne, snacks, dinner and drinks, much better than airplane food I must say.
Train to Amsterdam / Food served on the train
Continued in Part-2...