A Helpful Guide to Planning Your Trip to Paris, France
In this article, I'll write about how we planned for our trip to the beautiful city of Paris, and how to find your way, in and around Paris. Though I live in the UK, being an Indian citizen, I require a visa to visit France. So, I will cover the planning required for getting the French visa as well. Note that some of the information provided in this article is specific to "Visiting France, from United Kingdom (UK)". But the rest of the information (specific to tourist attractions) is applicable to everyone.
As a first step, you need to make sure you have a valid visa for visiting France. France being a part of the Schengen agreement, you will require a Schengen visa, which automatically enables you to visit 14 other European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden). You can find out more information about Schengen agreement and its member states at: EuroVisa.Info
Not all nationals will require a visa for France, but Indian citizens do need a visa. I heard, an Indian passport can get a French/Schengen visa for a maximum period of 6 months. After searching in Google, I found the following site, that clearly states the visa requirements, and the supporting documentation required for obtaining the short stay visa, for tourism, holiday purposes:
French Embassy in United Kingdom
The specific page that talks about visa requirements is this: http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/asp/service.asp?SERVID=101&LNG=en&PAGID=146. Check out section B: Short stay visa.
This page states that you have to call a premium number (09065 540 700) and make an appointment to submit your passport along with supporting documentation. This call costs £1.50 (GBP) per minute (that is, around $2.70 (USD) or €2.20 (Euro)). This is quite expensive, but that's the only way out, if you want to apply for the visa yourself. Call this number, make an appointment, and turn up at the embassy at the agreed date and time with your passport and supporting documents. If all is well, you should be back with a Schengen visa stamp on your passport, by noon of the same day. The supporting documents include your recent payslips and bank statements, a letter from your employer, travel insurance, a marriage certificate, if your wife is travelling with you, etc.
When we wanted to go, I called the number more than a month before the planned travel date, but there weren't any appointments available before my travel date. So, the only option I am left with was to approach an agent, that claimed they would get me the visa within a couple of days, even though the automated telephone system says there aren't any appointments. So, I sent my passport and other documents by Royal mail special delivery to that agent, and within 3 days I got my visa. I didn't have to step out of my house (except for mailing the passport, of course) to get my visa, but the agent charged me £98 (£49 * 2) for the visa service (I paid with my credit card, over the phone). A trip to London would have cost me £40 anyway, for the taxis and tube trains.
Here's the link to the agent that I used. They are reliable and I'd recommend them:
Thames Consular Services Limited
They have two offices in London, one in Fishers Lane, London and the other in Piccadilly, London, both within easy reach via London tube/rail network, if you want to hand over your passport and documents to them personally.
There's one thing you need to plan for before applying for the visa. The French embassy insists that you have confirmed tickets and accommodation, before you apply for the visa. They want to see your tickets and accommodation details. So, what happens if your visa application gets rejected for some reason? You would have wasted money on your flights/trains/coaches and accommodation. Of course, it is rare that your tourist visa application could get rejected, but it is always good to be on the safer side. But not many airlines and train companies offer 100% refundable tickets. I wanted to go by Eurostar (fast trains) to France, but Eurostar don't offer refundable tickets at the usual discounted prices. So, I reserved a fully flexible, 100% refundable Eurostar ticket (From London Waterloo station to Paris Nord, also known as Gare Du Nord), and decided to cancel it as soon as I got my visa, and reserve a discounted price ticket. The fully flexible ticket is more than double the price of the normal ticket.
A note about Eurostar here. You can either book your tickets online or on phone. However there's a £5 processing charge when purchasing tickets on phone. They were very helpful, professional and polite. You can also book your accommodation through Eurostar. Knowing nothing about Paris, I asked them to find a three star hotel near Eiffel Tower, and they did. They found me a hotel near Eiffel Tower, which is just a minute's walk from the Metro station Dupleix. And the next Metro station is Bir-Hakeim, which is a 10 minute walk to Eiffel Tower. Check out Eurostar and its offers at Eurostar.com.
You can also purchase in advance, the travel passes and other tickets you need in Paris. This will save you time when you are actually in Paris. Before boarding our train to Paris, I purchased the following in the Eurostar terminal in London Waterloo station:
- 3 day train pass that covers zones 1, 2 and 3 of Paris (can be used in Metro, RER and Buses)
- Tickets to Disney Land parks
- A day pass for Open top sight seeing busses (Paris L' Open Tour)
The above tickets cost pretty much the same, whether you buy them in Paris or in London. But buying them in London, will save you time, by avoiding the queues in Paris.
Before I start writing about our Paris visit in detail, here's some stuff, that I found helpful in planning our trip.
RATP - Paris Transport Company: This site helps you plan your journeys with in Paris, from one place to another, or from one station to another, by means of buses and trains. I found this site extremely useful, and took printouts of the routes provided by this site. However, this site may not reflect things like station closures, due to maintenance work etc. So, to avoid delays, plan two different routes, to be on the safer side.
MapPoint 2004: This is a mapping software package from Microsoft, with an integrated route planner, and provides you with places of interest, near a given spot. Very useful for planning your route. Click here to purchase Map Point 2004
PocketStreets: This is a PDA based solution useful to find addresses, restaurants, hotels and other points of interest.
Oanda.com: A currency website, useful for converting amounts from one currency to another, using the latest exchange rates. From this site you could take a print-out of "Currency Cheatsheat". It's a simple currency conversion table of various amounts, that you can keep in your pocket and refer to it before purchasing any items.
Last but not the least, the language. Not many French can speak and understand English. So, don't rely on getting help from locals, when you get lost. Of course, you do find some fluent English speakers but not many. So, if you can, take a crash course in French, if not, at least remember this word "Sortie", meaning "Exit". This would at least help you get out of a place!! Click here to find some French language teaching books
Now that your tickets and accommodation are sorted out, let's talk about the actual journey to Paris. We went by Eurostar first class. The train and the seats were very nice and comfortable. Interior is quiet, even though the train can reach speeds up to 200 Miles per Hour (MPH). Being in first class, you'll be served with a good breakfast and drinks. This is good because, you don't have to search around for a restaurant immediately after arriving in Paris. The journey by Eurostar lasted about 2 hours and 40 minutes (including 20 minutes inside the Channel Tunnel). After crossing the sea and arriving in France, you will see miles and miles of open lands on both sides of the train.
Our trip was only for 3 days in Paris, so we planned to cover only the major attractions in Paris. As soon as we got off the Eurostar train, we used the Metro maps to figure out the route to our 3 star hotel, Tulip Inn Eiffel Capitol. It wasn't difficult. The receptionist at the hotel spoke good English. We got our room, dumped the luggage, and headed towards the major attraction of Paris (or should I say, Europe), the Eiffel Tower, with our digital camera, camcorder, binoculars and a tripod. The nearest Metro station to our hotel is Dupleix, and from there we took a metro train to next station Bir-Hakeim. From Bir-Hakeim station, you can get a first glimpse of Eiffel Tower and it is a 10 minute walk to get to the base of the Eiffel Tower. Once you reach Eiffel tower, you'll be amazed at its size and height, and the amount of people standing in the ticket queues. Eiffel tower has 4 huge legs, and each leg houses a ticketing office and a separate queue. Two of the legs provide entry via lifts/elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and the other two using stairs. The ones that provide access via stairs are marked as such, and avoid them if you can. You don't really want to waste your energy climbing up and down the stairs, instead, spend that energy on top of Eiffel Tower watching and photographing the beautiful city of Paris. There are three different tickets available for Eiffel Tower - to the first floor, to the second floor and to the top floor, top floor being the most expensive (€10). If money is not a problem, and if you want to get the most out of your visit to Eiffel tower, go for the top floor ticket. This lets you stop in the second floor too if you wish. There's a restaurant in the second floor, where you can buy some pizzas, chips, crisps, French fries, drinks, cakes etc. From the top floor, you get some stunning views of Paris, and you will be able to see many of the city's other attractions.
After spending a while on top of the tower, we got down, and headed towards the metro station Alma-Marceau, out side of which is the starting point for cruises on the river Seine. We went on the cruise boats of the company, Bateaux-Mouches. We found out about this company at: DiscoverFrance.net. These cruise boats are big, modern, spacious, and provide a good view of the surroundings, and tickets are very much affordable (€7 for adults, €4 for kids and seniors and free for children under the age of 4). The cruise lasted for more than an hour and provided us with some fantastic views of the city of Paris. There are several beautiful bridges across the river Seine, and you will see some beautiful buildings on the river banks. The commentary available in multiple languages also helps. I think going for this cruise in the evening is a better option. Get on to the boat when it is about to get a bit dark in about an hour or hour and a half. That is, around 5:30 to 6:00 PM is perfect in summer. This way you will see some of the bridges, buildings and monuments in day light and same again (on your way back) when they are lit beautifully. You will get some great views of Eiffel Tower from the boat, and it is especially beautiful, when it is lit. For us, overall, the cruise was a great experience. You will also see a smaller replica of the Statue of Liberty during this cruise. This statue is mounted next to the Pont de Grenelle, a bridge crossing the river Seine, 1.5 km south of the Eiffel Tower.
After the cruise, we headed back towards Eiffel Tower again, to see this giant beauty in lights. Eiffel Tower is sooooooo beautiful at night, when it is lit. If you haven't seen it at night in your trip to Paris, then consider your trip, a waste of time. First we had a closer look at the lit Eiffel tower. Then we walked into a garden, far enough from the tower, to capture the whole of it in our cameras. After walking for a good distance, we took some good snaps of the tower using our cameras and tripod. It is important to have a tripod when taking pictures at night, as the cameras need a longer exposure time at night. While the picture is being processed, if your hands shake a bit, then your picture will come out ugly. No such problems with a tripod. After that photo session we went back to our hotel room, grabbed a spicy vegetarian pizza from a pizza shop over the road, and retired to bed. That's that about our first day in Paris.
If time permits, also check out Tour Montparnasse, the tallest building in Paris, and offers stunning views of the city from its 56th and 59th floors. This building can be seen from Eiffel tower, and nearest station to this building is Montparnasse Bienvenue.
Our plan for the second day was to visit Disneyland theme parks. If you've purchased a ticket that covers 3 zones of Paris, it is not enough to get you to Disneyland, which is near the RER station Marne la Vallée. So, you have to go to the last station in the zone, where your pass runs out, and buy a supplement from there to Disney. Buying a supplement from the last station works out cheaper than buying a full ticket from any other station.
Remember? we purchased the tickets in London, so we didn't have to stand in the queues here. When you buy a ticket to Walt Disney Studios, you can stay in the studios till 6 in the evening, and then move into the Disneyland park next door. So, you get the best of both worlds. But if you directly enter the Disneyland park first, you won't be allowed into the Studios. Also, when you are exiting from the Studios, to go to the Disney park, make sure you get a mark on your hand at the exit. Without that mark, you may not be allowed inside the park, as the Disney staff can't determine whether the same person is visiting both the Studio and the park. There is a Disney village too, which is free to enter, and has lots of shops where you can buy gifts and souvenirs and also has some good restaurants.
While you are at Walt Disney Studios, don't miss the following:
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Starring Aerosmith: This is a good ride if you like Roller coasters.
Whether you are into cars or not, I'm sure you will enjoy the motor stunt show "Moteurs... Action ! Stunt Show Spectacular", a close up on a series of breathtaking car and motorcycle stunts. This show is sponsored by Vauxhall / Opel.
Disneyland Park is full of different rides, roller coasters, shows and spread across different regions like Adventureland, Frontierland, MainStreet, USA, Fantasyland, Discoveryland. Very good for entertaining your kids. Don't forget to check out stuff like Space Mountain. In Discoveryland, make sure you visit the show "Honey, I shrunk the audience", presented by Kodak. A very good 3D entertainer. Last but not the least, don't miss Disney's Fantillusion on the parade road route. Disney describes this parade as a night of light and night of dreams. This one starts at 10:30 PM. This is followed by "Tinker Bell's Fantasy in they Sky Fireworks", which is fantastic too. This starts at 11:15 PM. Before you decide to watch these shows, make sure you have public transport (if you aren't hiring a car for your own) available at that time of the night, to go back to your hotel. Check with the stations information desk. Some Metro stations may close early on weekend nights. We managed to catch the last train out of the Marne la Vallée station and reached our hotel by 1 AM!!!
For more information on Disneyland, Paris, check out the site DisneylandParis.com.
That's the end of our second day in Paris. We kept the third day for covering all the major attractions in Paris, and here's what we did on the third day. Remember? we purchased the L'Open Tour (open top bus) day passes in London? You can hop in and out of these buses all day, at any of their stops. We used their brochure, to find out the nearest stop for that bus, got there by train, boarded the bus at Eiffel Tower. Our first stop was at Musee du Louvre, the museum where the world famous Monalisa painting is kept. This is a huge museum, with some glass pyramids outside, that house the information desk and ticketing counters. All we wanted to see was Mona Lisa, but there were tons of other paintings too. If you want to go straight to the Monalisa painting, then first floor is the way to go. The museum is so huge that you could get lost inside those big rooms. It's not surprising to see a huge crowd in front of the Monalisa painting, all trying to take a picture or video. It is difficult to get a steady shot of Monalisa, in that crowd.
Our next stop was Notre-Dame Cathedral. It is a very tall and beautiful structure and definitely worth a visit. You will find a lot of shops in that area, where you could buy a variety of souvenirs. We bought a bunch of Eiffel Tower replicas, to give away to our families and friends. A lot of cheap stuff there, but most of these vendors are not willing to accept a credit card, unless the amount is about 15 or 20 Euros. There are quite a few good restaurants too, in that area.
Next stop was Champs Elysees, the broad long road, also known as the "the most beautiful avenue in the world". On both sides of this road, you will find restaurants and some massive shops ranging from fashion and perfumes to Mercedes Benz showrooms. You will definitely enjoy this walk. At one end of the road you'll see the beautiful Arc de Triomphe and at the other end there's Place de la Concorde. After checking out some stores, we decided to have a good meal, and our search ended at a Chinese restaurant, named Diep. The food was excellent, but expensive, but it's all worth it. Do check it out, if you like Chinese food. It's at 55, rue Pierre-Charron, off Champs Elysees, towards Arc de Triomphe. If you are an Indian food lover, and if you could do with a hot curry, check out the La Chapelle area, which is close to the Gare du Nord station.
Then it was time for us to head back to the hotel room, pack our bags, and prepare for the journey back to UK. This L'Open Tour bus tour covers lot of other attractions which we didn't visit. Those places include: Opera, Palais-Royal - Comedie Francaise, Pont-Neuf - Quai des Orfevres, Saint-Michel, Musee d'Orsay, George V etc.
Well, that concludes our memorable trip to Paris. We had a marvellous time there, and watching Eiffel Tower at night is undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. I hope you find our experience helpful in planning your own trip. Good luck!