I hit a brick wall in several areas of my life a few years ago. Looking for answers to some of my challenges, I engaged the services of a life coach, who in turn issued a challenge right back at me. She encouraged me to envision what it would look like if I realized a dream. If I could do anything, without considering the logistics or hurdles, purely for me.
What a question. How would you answer it?
Even though we didn’t have a lot of extra resources when I was growing up, my parents made sure that my two sisters and I did things. We didn’t go to movie theaters or have gaming consoles. But we did go camping, and we went to art museums. I grew up loving both.
So I didn’t hesitate long. My mecca since I was a young adult buying giant art books from the Borders Bookstore clearance rack was the Louvre. I wanted to go to Paris.
I’m not sure whether my life coach intended for this to be a directive. But I don’t sit long on dreams. Less than a year later I was on a flight to France, visiting Paris solo to do exactly what I wanted to do there— soak up as much art as I possibly could within my responsibilities to work, my daughter and my budget.
Why did I travel to Paris solo? It’s very a romantic place, after all. But my significant other doesn’t fly. Not that I don’t hold out hope to revisit Paris with him one day. I saved several iconic romantic sites for just such an occasion.
But this was also a trip to realize a dream, one that perhaps not many people share in exactly the same way that I do. It was intensely personal, and it might have proved intensely boring to anyone else. (Except my Miss Mia, who as a little girl spent hours with me during free nights at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art when we lived there.)
One of the reasons that I love to travel solo fairly often is for the opportunity to be in my head and in the moment at the same time. There are no distractions when you travel solo. Of course, there’s also no co-navigator, no dinner date to chat with. It’s a luxury and a challenge and a way to experience the immediacy of a place.
And it would afford me the opportunity to read placards and stand in front of paintings exactly as much as I wanted to.
Visiting Paris Solo — An Art Extravaganza
A flight to Paris is not insignificant. (Check out my tips for surviving a long-haul flight comfortably.) I left Denver midday on a Thursday, flew through O’Hare and landed at CDG — Charles de Gaulle International Airport — midmorning on a Friday.
I like to plan my accommodations in Europe around public transportation, especially from the airport. Paris was no exception. I used the invaluable guide from Paris by Train to take the Paris RER B train into the city center. The guide sounds terribly confusing upon a skim, but reread it with a map of your destination and make a couple of notes. Then just let it go until you’re on the ground and follow the directions step by step. (I save my notes — links, addresses, times and other details — for every trip in Evernote and call them up on my phone as needed.
The train was a welcome introduction to Paris; there were singers performing for cash on board, as well as a wealth of daily commuters to surreptitiously observe.
From the train station I was able to walk to my hotel, the Hôtel de la Place du Louvre, just a seven-minute walk from the Louvre. Since then it’s been remodeled — and the price has gone up accordingly — but at the time it was charming, if cramped, and only around $100 per night. I’ve paid more for a Quality Inn near the interstate here in the US.
And thus began Day 1.
Visiting the Louvre
It was a bright, crisp February day when I finally got back out on the street after checking in and sanitizing my room.
I’d been to Europe several times before, and even passed through Paris on a whirlwind morning with Mia (see that side story below). But when I emerged onto the sidewalk that February morning, surrounded by beautifully spoken French and buildings that seemed straight out of fairy tales, I still had that moment: Pinch me. I’m here.
One of the benefits of traveling solo in Paris is the opportunity to meander. Try this with a group, and you’re sure to lose someone or get stuck in a glut on the sidewalk. But alone, you can pause, breathe, delight in something and move on. You can also get lost without anyone noticing.
Yes, even though I was just a seven-minute walk from the Louvre, I couldn’t figure out how to walk directly there. Paris streets are a maze, and I was using a paper map inconspicuously. (My favorite trick, as I shared in our solo travel safety blog, is to tuck your map in the pages of a local magazine so that you don’t stand out as a tourist when you stop to look at it.)
Did it matter? Not really, I stumbled upon a stunning church. I encountered a man playing a bandura under an arch. And I came upon the Louvre from the backside, its iconic pyramid a breathtaking surprise as I rounded a corner.
Another benefit of traveling solo to Paris: You can get right through the crowds in the lobby of the Louvre. Groups have to move in a clump. They have to decide where they mutually want to go. They have to buy all the tickets, find the coat room and maybe the restroom…while I slipped right up to an open window, bought my ticket and set off to see what I could see.
There are several entrances to the Louvre, each with different hours on different days. The Louvre has provided excellent visitor instructions online; I like to copy and paste the salient parts into the Evernote I’ve built for my trip so that it’s all in one place. (And I don’t have to rely on sketchy wifi signals.)
Once inside, I realized that my ambitious goal of seeing most of the museum in three full days was a farce. There are entries for more than 480,000 works in the collections of this grand former palace. You may wish to plan out what you want to see if you’re going to spend less time than that — the visitor instructions helpfully tell you which rooms and galleries are closed and when. But I was there to simply see as much as I could see.
I started in the Paintings of Northern Europe gallery. Perhaps not the most popular, which lent itself to my enjoyment. Fewer people roamed the upper floor to stand before rich renderings of obscure ordinary people and places. It was perfect for me; I was still having that pinch-me moment.
Of course, when you travel solo, there’s no one with whom to share your observations: Hey, that Danish teen looks like one of your old boyfriends! Or, I would kill for her dress. Or, this man looks as if he just smelled something very, very bad.
To amuse myself, I made up captions for the most striking paintings and sculptures, the ones that I would have wanted to tell a fellow traveler about. As I wandered from room to room, spending time with whatever caught my eye, I posted photos of those paintings and my captions to Facebook, tagging whomever might be relevant to the scene. I think I drove people bananas with my posts, but it was immense fun, I heard some great stories of Louvre visits in return, and I had a hilarious collection of weird snapshots when I came home.
Midafternoon, I decided I should make an attempt to see the most famous painting at the Louvre — the Mona Lisa. I’d heard stories about how difficult it is to get a glimpse. The stars were aligned for me, because for a brief moment I was able to make my way right to the front to view her without a crowd. (Another perk of traveling solo!) She was lovely, yes, but so were the massive, enormous, vibrant paintings on the wall opposite her.
After a few power hours — this is still the day on which I arrived in Paris — I slipped out for a snack near my hotel.
My walk took me along the Seine, that most magical of French rivers, where industrial, private and tourist boats plowed the sparkling waters under the many bridges spanning its famous banks. I surreptitiously gawked at the fashion of the women passing on the street, wondering how European women always manage to look so distinctly sophisticated without trying.
It was dark when I finished dinner, but I felt comfortable with the short, well-lit walk back to the Louvre to peruse one of the galleries open for the evening. It contained lots of statues of Baby Jesus, so I took lots of photos of cute baby backside, baby cheeks and baby feet, plus a lacy marble shawl carved onto a statue of a woman that looked as if it might float.
They had to make me leave when the gallery shut down. I lingered as long as I could in the lobby, then went back to my room to collapse.
Salad for Breakfast
Alas, my hotel didn’t have a free breakfast. The times when my hotels in Europe have offered a free breakfast buffet, it’s been expansive. In fact, it puts the words “free continental breakfast” to shame. There’s often a chef, and there are many styles of eggs and meats, smoked fish, fruits, pastries, custards, even vegetables. I always eat enough for breakfast and lunch.
I found a restaurant down the street from my hotel, a little corner place that would be nondescript except for the fact that it lies along the banks of the Seine, and ordered smoked salmon and eggs. As per usual, it came with salad, a frequent European breakfast feature that I appreciate. Fresh fruits and vegetables are pure gold when traveling.
After stopping for the typical photo of the locks on a bridge crossing the Seine, I re-entered the Louvre and wandered into a bright, sunlit gallery where a class was sketching the Roman sculptures. It was a scene straight out of a meet-cute rom-com.
I wended my way through the antiquities gallery and the sculptures of France, set in a greenhouse-like room. I found even the details of the palace housing the museum to be stunning in their own right.
Finally, the Louvre was closing for the day, and there were no evening hours. I made my way to a gorgeous, swanky cocktail bar where I sat largely alone sipping a French 75 and making dinner out of the cheapest snacks on the menu. Shortly after I returned to my room and collapsed.
The first trick to visiting Montmartre? Learning how to pronounce Montmartre. I still can’t say it with confidence. But it too was a part of fulfilling my Paris art dream.
Near the end of the 1800s, this was the place to be if you were a part of the grand new artist crowd. Famous names including Modigliani, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Valadon, Mondrian, Picasso, Pissarro and van Gogh lived, worked and socialized here.
It was another fresh, sunny day when I set off on foot to this area atop and around a small hill in the 18th arrondissement. I’ve been told that the Paris Metro is fantastic; I wouldn’t know, because I decided that walking would give me a “boots on the ground” sense for all the middle parts I’d miss being underground.
By the end of the day, I had changed my mind.
I mentioned that Paris streets are confusing. If you’ve never looked at a map, you’ll see that they stop and start. They come together at irregular angles. It’s like someone was holding an Etch-A-Sketch while riding in the back of a hay wagon and decided, This is how we’re going to lay out our roads!
In fact, much of Paris was destroyed in the mid- to late 1800s so that the city could be better laid out according to the vision of Napoleon’s prefect. And there is tremendous charm in the way the streets are broken apart — a sort of intimacy is achieved that would be impossible along wider, straighter thoroughfares.
But that didn’t make it easier for me to find my way.
After walking confidently for nearly twice as long as I should have, I finally reached the stairs to climb to the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur. These are iconic, meaning a) you’ll have a great photo op with Paris spread out behind you and b) everyone has the same idea, so you’ll have to wend your way through.
At the top I waited in a small line for admission. I adore European churches for all their drama and detail, each exquisite in its own way. I also find them familiar territory, having grown up Catholic. I worked as a book editor for a Catholic book publishing company for a while, so I always peek in the bookstore to look for works I’ve edited. I bought a little paperback on the history of the church to read later, then made my way back outside.
There’s usually a crowd outside Sacré-Cœur enjoying the live musicians performing on the walkway alongside the basilica. Stop to listen — they were marvelous — but hold on to your possessions. Places such as these where large groups of tourists are distracted is ideal territory for pickpockets.
By now it was early afternoon and I had walked miles. By happy accident, I came across the lively scene at Place du Tertre, a bohemian square a few blocks away populated by artists showing their wares. I needed food, a potty and a few minutes off of my feet. Because I was traveling solo, I managed to snag a perfect tiny table in front of a restaurant on the square that someone had wedged into a wobbly slot of sidewalk by the door.
People-watching was its own form of entertainment, but I still had two more stops on this side of Paris.
The next was one of the more quiet, intimate experiences of my solo trip to Paris. The Musee de Montmartre was where the figures I’d studied for so many decades in those giant art books actually spent their time. The museum is established in a 17th-century building where artists revamped the art world from their studio apartments (you can tour Suzanne Valadon’s) surrounded by gardens made famous by representations such as Renoir’s “The Swing.” There were no blooms in February, but its beauty was apparent. A section of the museum is dedicated to the Chat Noir cabaret culture, for whom Toulouse-Lautrec created distinctive posters…copies of which I had in my dining room.
The weather wasn’t the only reason I got chills.
But the weather was prevailing. I usually travel in the off-season to save money, and February in Paris can be cold. During the afternoon, clouds had rolled in and it had begun to sprinkle. Now it was nearly dark, and I had yet to see the famous windmill at Moulin Rouge.
I hurried down the hill to snap some photos. The crowds on the streets had changed; it was time for shows, dinner, bars. As a woman traveling solo, I try to return to my hotel before dark for this reason. I headed back in the direction from which I had eventually come that morning, first stopping to buy two half-bottles of wines in a shop on the street to try in my room.
Somewhere along the way, I made a wrong turn or two and ended up in a darker, more residential section to the east of my route south. I was worried about people and traffic — one seeing me, the other not — as I wound through the busy streets along less populated sidewalks. I was relieved to finally see bright lights and familiar streets, but not before passing a forlorn man with what I assume to be mental health issues calling out incessantly from a bench. Put a pin in that.
When I realized I was near my hotel, I stopped in a tiny market to pick up some snacks, fruit and water for my room. I had two heavy bags, including my earlier wine purchase and some souvenirs, when, confident once more, I strode out the door… and turned right instead of left.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I was headed in the wrong direction until I again passed the wailing man. My heart sank, my feet hurt and my shoulders burned with pain as I retraced my steps back toward the market, then beyond to my hotel. I would have caught a cab if I had seen one, but it was just me, my heavy bags and my remorse at failing to follow my usual rule — be near the hotel by dark. Not only is it safer, but it’s also easier to see landmarks too.
Back to the Louvre
I was ready to return to familiar territory. It would be my final day at the Louvre, so I had to go big before I went home. I toured an entirely different type of artwork that day.
First up was Napoleon’s apartments. It was fancy, yes, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the dusting required for all those chandeliers and furniture. No wonder he had armies. I also blazed through the decorative arts gallery — unique and exquisitely crafted wooden furniture is often my favorite part of an art museum tour. I made a lap in the Galerie d’Apollon, where sparkling royal jewels in cases compete with lofty ornate ceilings for attention. And on my way out, as the museum was closing, I passed through the hall of large-format paintings, astounded by the talent it took to paint close-up such a massive image, as well as the force it took to hang that thing on the wall.
I ventured out into the streets to peruse some of the shops in the nearby streets, landing in a breathlessly cool multi-story boutique with a little bit of decor, a little bit of makeup, a little bit of clothing and a vibe that will forever be captured for me by the song “Crave You” by Flight Facilities, which I heard there for the first time.
It was starting to drizzle and grow dark so I took myself out to dinner in an actual fancy sit-down restaurant. I usually avoid dining out very often on solo trips not because I dislike sitting alone, but because I’m on a budget. But it had been days since I’d had more than snacks from the market, so I enjoyed a full hot meal in a tiny room filled with couples. I edited photos on my phone, looked at tourist information and eavesdropped on the people sitting on either side of me while waiting for my food.
That night I wanted to see Ville-Lumière, the City of Light, in her finery. I strolled the world-famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées past twinkling fashion boutiques bearing the names of the biggest brands on the planet. I slipped unnoticed past families enjoying the now-mild night and the Ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde, as well as a group of joggers stretching on the steps to the Palais-Royal. I paused to marvel at historic stone churches and arches that would be main attractions in most cities, but here were only dimly lit pockets on a brilliant evening stroll.
As I approached my hotel, I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Not only was it lit, but it was sparkling. I slowed, taking in the sound of the Seine below, the twinkle and glitter of the city, the now-dark and somewhat mysterious pyramid of the Louvre. I inhaled as much as I could before another day was gone.
Visiting the Musée d’Orsay
Here was where my Impressionist fancies would take flight…if only I could find the building.
I had mapped my route before I left the hotel’s wifi. (I wasn’t traveling with a sim card.) But somehow what should have been a short walk ended up being a confusing maze. The route took me over the Seine unnecessarily soon and to what I later learned was the back of the building, completely unmarked with directions to the front.
In the building at last, I was again glad I was in Paris solo — the entrance was a mob scene where everyone had to pass through a ticket line and check their belongings. While the Musée d’Orsay is housed in an airy historic train depot, it didn’t seem suited to today’s kind of traffic.
I didn’t have time to do the museum justice in a single day, but I started at the bottom and made laps of each gallery until I was approached by an Italian man who wanted to chat. He insisted on showing me around, telling me about various works, until I said that I needed a restroom and a coffee. (I did.) He saw the line for the ladies room and said he was going to keep going. I decided that as a woman traveling solo, this might be a handy trick in the future for peeling off unwanted hangers-on: Duck into a ladies room. Two birds, one stone!
After my bio break I headed straight for the upper floor, where the most iconic Impressionist paintings are housed. I firmly planted myself in front of each for the appropriate reverence they deserved, unswayed by the crowds trying to jockey for position to and fro. These were the paintings I had poured over for years, whose artists I had read about voraciously. I can’t tell you why I was so obsessed with Impressionist art for a long time, but there it was. Judging by the hushed but excited voices, I wasn’t the only one having a moment.
The Ultimate in Customized Paris Trips
My solo trip to Paris was likely not at all what people dream of when they imagine five days in the Ville d’Amour, the City of Love. And yet it was perfectly, exquisitely customized to achieve one of my lifelong dreams.
Trips for me are often an attempt to comprehensively canvas an entire place in one go, because I don’t expect to ever pass that way again. There are too many places left on the globe to revisit many. (I was leaving for a trip to Uganda a week after I returned from Paris.) But I feel there is still a side of Paris that remains to be seen. And perhaps then I’ll hit some of the other must-see destinations. I also intend to bicycle through wine country and see the places I learned about during my sommelier studies, and I’ve already doped out a road trip through the French Alps.
Ultimately, wherever I go or don’t, I’m so very grateful that I took that challenge from my life coach literally and chased this one dream that was completely, purely mine. It was almost enough art to make my heart happy.
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