The Future Art Historian’s Guide to Paris

I have to be honest, this trip was actually trip organized by my school back in June 2006, which offered all students in my class, who were taking courses in art or French, a trip to Paris. A once in a lifetime chance to go to Paris for a small amount of money to improve my French and see the probably most important art museums in the world?! How could I not say yes to that!

You now probably think that I am just showing off some “been there, done that”-attitude, although I had to sit through boring guided tours, suffer from super-watchful teachers and didn’t experience the city on my own… well, luckily, that wasn’t the case.

The only obligation we had was that we were supposed to stick together in groups of three – other than that, we were absolutely free to explore whatever we desired. Thus, I really do have some great experiences to recount on what to do and see in Paris, due to how my friends Carola, Hannah and I spent our weekend there.

My Top 5 Highlights For A Few Days In Paris:

1. Climbing the Eiffel Tower

You are young, comparably fit, and want to save money? The elevator up to the highest platform is expensive, and the queue in front of it is basically endless… If you take the stairs, you can ascend almost without waiting in line and it’s just so much cheaper compared to the elevator. Plus, climbing up the 638 steps (!!) gives you a unique impression how astonishing this building must have been for the visitors of the world exhibition in 1889.

Also, it offers you some unusual perspectives so that you can take least a few non-standard-touristy pictures of the Eiffel Tower. And oh, it does feel so good to make a little fun of all the lazy tourists, who spend a lot of time and money on the elevator, knowing that you scaled this amazing view all by yourself (and I’m also convinced your butt will feel firmer immediatly).

2. Skip the Louvre?!

I couldn’t have said that now, could I? As an asumed art historian? I know. Yes, actually, I was disappointed by the Lourve. Not because it didn’t fulfill my expectations, but because it overbid them. The Louvre is one of the world’s most important “storages” of art, culture, and history, because it had been a royal palace since the middle ages. The art contained by these ancient walls presets the heritage of almost all cultures and regions on all continents – and if you walked through all the hallways it would be a walk of about 18 kilometers. To see everything, you need at least a week. So, naturally, to go into the Louvre for only two or three hours on a weekend visit to Paris, leaves you majorly dissatisfied.

I wouldn’t say that you should actually skip the Louvre, but don’t expect to see everything you want to see. I did see Delacroix, da Vinci (by the way, even in almost five years of studying art history on a University level, I couldn’t figure out what all that Mona Lisa hype is about), the Nike of Samothrace, and the Venus of Milo, but there was just a whole lot more that I didn’t see…

Luckily, we also visited the Musee d’Orsay, which really made up for not seeing everything I wanted at the Louvre. This wonderful little museum is located in an old station, which offers a great atmosphere for the paintings mostly by early modern impressionist artists. Since the museum is smaller and not as crowded, you can see the paintings very close which is a gift to all those desiring to see Monet’s characteristic style in his Water Lilies. Or Renoir, or Manet, or Toulouse-Lautrec all up close… a dream come true!

3. Do Not Look For Movie Settings…

Back in the day us girls were obsessed with the wonderful French movie Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, in English just Amélie, because every single shot in this movie created a magical impression of Paris, and turned it into this fairy tale place where everything was possible – which we thus deeply wanted to experiecene for ourselves.

We really wanted to explore all the movie settings in beautiful Montmatre: Sacré Coeur, the café Amélie worked at, the little fruit and grocery market, where she would love to feel all the different seeds with her hands… But of course, on a mission like that, you would end up getting disappointed, because it all looked so very differently on screen…

Maybe, this is a general “Paris-Problem” – you have seen it in diverse media so many times before you actually go there that you have something like a reality-shock. You realize, that Sacré Coeur is swamped with tourists and annoying sales people, and that the café Amélie works at is about half the size as in the movie, the bathrooms are disgusting, and the cheapest drink costs 9 €, because the owner knows that all the dumb tourists girls are willing to pay that price anyways…

Thus, my recommendation is: Discover your own favorite places far off the movie settings! Namely, the good thing that came out of our searching very specific spots in Montmatre was that we saw a lot of those streets, in which you probably wouldn’t usually end up at as a tourist. And there, you could discover wonderful little hidden art galleries with the friendliest people to give you a private tour… like it happended to us. (Oh and, if you want to have some nice artsy vintagy souvenirs, Montmarte is such a great place for that, too.)

4. Joining French Student Life

Go to a supermarket buy baguette, cheese, and a lot of red wine. Take a metro to Pont Neuf and walk to the western top of the Île de la Cité, the island within the Seine and oldest part of Paris. At the top of the island the young Parisian people gather at night to drink, talk and fall in love while looking at the reflections of the Louvre in the dark Seine water. It is the cheapest, yet most wonderful thing to do at night, because it gives you this vibe of Paris that really is romantic and just mostly about enjoying life and every single little moment. Parties and clubs you can find anywhere in the world, but this place is just one of a kind – I have never felt so enchanted.

5. Falling In Love…. With The Right Church!

Of course you would want to see Notre Dame, and of course it is absolutely worth seeing, but there is another church on the outer peripheries of Paris that is just so much more beautiful. Not that Notre Dame isn’t breathtaking (especially for Disney movie lovers!), but it again is just way to crowded, and through endless features in movies the ability to surprise has sadly been taken from this place. But the Basilique Saint Denis changed my life. Seriously.

This cathedral was the official beginning of Gothic architecture, because here all the major filigree forms, and the removal of the heaviness of stone walls for a semantics of light were completely implemented for the very first time.

I could write a book about Saint Denis, but I will just say that this is the most gorgeous, most spiritual, most inspiring place I’ve ever been to. And right there, in the divinely colorful light falling into the ambulatory I decided to become an art historian.