Paris in a Day – A French Day Trip from London
Few cities on earth offer more than Paris. You could live there for years and not take in all the culture and gastronomy on offer. But most of us don’t have the luxury of years – or even weeks – and we have to economize and prioritize. If you’ve only got a day to spare, you still can take in the highest of highlights of Paris. You’ll be knackered at the end of the day, and it will only leave you wanting to see and experience more, but at least you can see and partake of the best of the best that Paris offers.
(*Please do not attack me for the selections I made on this day trip. When planning a tactical guerrilla tourist visit, sacrifices must be made and this itinerary worked for us. Your results may vary.)
You have three options for a day trip to France from the UK: planes, trains, and automobiles (via ferry). For purposes of a single day, driving and taking the ferry across the Channel simply isn’t feasible unless you only intend to visit the French cities on the northern coast. They’re lovely and definitely worth the visit if you have time, but that’s the subject of a different blog. That leaves planes and trains to Paris. We’ve done both and they each have advantages and disadvantages. Flights from London, either Heathrow or Gatwick, are cheap (between £75-£150 roundtrip per person) and only take about 45 minutes each way. It’s a breeze to hop on the train from Charles de Gaulle airport directly into the heart of the city. On the other hand, the caché of taking the train directly from Kings Cross/St. Pancras in London to Gare du Nord is exquisite. The train takes less than 2.5 hours, but it can cost significantly more than flying, depending on how far in advance you book and the times of day you travel (ranging from as little as £50 to as much as £300+ roundtrip per person). For this trip, we opted to fly for several reasons: it cost half as much as the train fare would have been for our selected day, and flights arrived earlier in Paris than the earliest (reasonably scheduled) train – even accounting for the train journey from Charles de Gaulle into the city – and left later in the day than the last train would have afforded.
The map below shows the overall route/itinerary for the day.
This looks a bit convoluted and involved a combination of trains and walking, but don’t worry, I’ll break down each step for clarity. The general itinerary was:
- Charles de Gaulle to Notre Dame
- Notre Dame to Eiffel Tower
- Eiffel Tower to L’Arc de Triomphe
- L’Arc de Triomphe to Champs Elysées
- Champs Elysées to Place de la Concorde
- Place de la Concorde to Eiffel Tower
- Eiffel Tower to Louvre
- Louvre to Charles de Gaulle
1 – Charles de Gaulle to Notre Dame
Since it’s a day trip, we didn’t check any bags and brought our camera and portable charger for our phones (essential kit for a day trip) in a backpack as a carry-on. We got off the plane and headed straight for the train station at the opposite end of the terminal. The trains bound for downtown Paris are easy to find (take the blue RER B line) and leave every seven minutes. If you have enough time to plan in advance, I recommend buying your train tickets ahead of time and bringing them with you. There are numerous online vendors that will ship them to you (we used HelloParis in the UK; the tickets were £25 each and they were delivered within 2 days of ordering and even included a handy Paris map). Be sure you select the “Paris Visite Travel Card” for Zones 1-5 (not just Zones 1-3, as those do not include the airport). You get a small paper ticket that is good for the RER trains and the Paris metro for 24 hours from the moment of first use – perfect for a day trip and we didn’t pay for any transportation otherwise all day long!
The train takes between 25 to 40 minutes, depending on whether you hop an express train. The train goes through Gare du Nord (the Eurostar’s arrival station) and the mega-connection terminal of Châtelet-Les Halles, but just stay on the train for 12 or 13 stops (depending on which terminal you boarded at Charles de Gaulle) and get off at Saint-Michel – Notre-Dame. The station exit takes you directly in front of the grand cathedral.
Entry into the cathedral is free and no matter how many times I see it, I still stand in awe.
There is a separate tour available that grants access to the belfry and affords an amazing view of the city. But you can’t get tickets in advance and there just isn’t enough time to gamble on a short line. So we were just as content to take a stroll around the outside of the entire building to take in the sweeping architecture.
2 – Notre Dame to Eiffel Tower
Once we had our fill of Notre Dame, we wandered back to the front of the cathedral and across the southern branch of the Seine to the St-Michel train station to take the RER C (yellow line) train westbound. These are double-decker trains with ample seating. It’s just four stops to Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel.
The station isn’t directly at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and I think this is by design. Coming out of the station, you catch a glimpse of the top of the Tower hovering above the roofs of nearby buildings.
You’ll note our itinerary includes two stops at the Eiffel Tower. There is no more quintessential Parisian monument than the Tower, and it would be somehow distracting to put off a visit here until later in the day. When researching when to visit the Tower, day or night, the answer we found over and over is: “Yes.” So for this day trip, we split the difference and planned a stop now, with a planned return for later in the day with time to go to the top. This initial visit was to take it in during the morning daylight.
(Photo tip: to get the nifty straight-up-from-the-bottom shot, oddly enough, there isn’t a spot marked as the dead center underneath the Tower. Instead, look for the rather unceremonious manhole cover.)
There are numerous queues to get in, but look for the “no tickets” line for this visit, which permits access to the area underneath the Tower. You’ll go through a quick security check and then you can wander around underneath as much as you like. We strolled around the surrounding gardens, as well, which provide the perfect Parisian ambience, with shuttered windows and pristine landscaping.
3 – Eiffel Tower to L’Arc de Triomphe
After our initial cursory Eiffel Tower visit was finished, we meandered toward the nearby Bir-Hakeim metro station (6 train, green line). We used our Paris Visite card to get to the platform and boarded the train bound for Charles de Gaulle Étoile, the end of the line. The train is a bit more vintage than the others and goes over a bridge headed north. Be sure to glance behind you as you cross the bridge for a picture-perfect view of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine.
The train ends after five stops at Charles de Gaulle Étoile, so you can’t go wrong. Exiting the station, you’re immediately facing the imposing L’Arc de Triomphe.
You’ll find stairs leading down to a tunnel under Place de Charles de Gaulle, the incredibly busy roundabout surrounding the L’Arc de Triomphe. Before going upstairs, find the ticket window and purchase access to the top of the L’Arc (for about €7). We skipped this chance the first few times we were in Paris, but once we finally went up, we were amazed at the view from the top! It’s a lot higher than it looks and it gives you stunning views of the entire city, the Eiffel Tower, and the renowned Champs Elysées. If you can’t handle a lot of stairs, let the guard know when you go through security, and you’ll be guided to an elevator that takes you to the gift shop on the upper level. You’ll still have to take stairs, but up just one flight. It’s absolutely worth the effort!
Take in the view and then make your way back down to the tunnels back under the Place de Charles de Gaulle, and onto the Champs Elysées.
4 – L’Arc de Triomphe to Champs Elysées
By this time, it was lunchtime and we’d already been on our feet for quite some time. So it was the perfect time to stroll down the impeccably Parisian street of the Champs Elysées. Lined with shops and cafes on either side, this was the perfect opportunity to sit down at a café for some food, wine, and cheese. And maybe some croissants. And pastries.
5 – Champs Elysées to Place de la Concorde
After a nice, leisurely lunch and some of the best people watching on the planet, we wandered down the Champs Elysées a bit more before finally hopping the metro (1 train, yellow line) to Concorde.
Place de la Concorde is an open square most notable being the site of public executions during the French Revolution, including the beheadings of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Now, it’s famous for its Ferris wheel, obelisk, and fountain. The Ferris wheel, known as the Big Wheel or “Grande Roue de Paris,” is 200 feet tall. However, in late 2017, Paris councillors declined to renew the operating permit and it is expected to be removed by July 2018 in order to preserve the area’s “historic visual appearance.”
That appearance certainly is maintained by the remaining obelisk and fountain. The 3,330 year old obelisk once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt, but has stood in Paris since 1833. And the gorgeous fountains have graced many movies, including the scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Anne Hathaway tosses her phone into one of them.
6 – Place de la Concorde to Eiffel Tower
On a simple day trip, Place de la Concorde only requires a few minutes to wander around before hopping back on the metro (8 train, lavender line toward Balard – not to be confused with the pink 7 train) to head back toward the Eiffel Tower. From prior experience, we knew that the queues to get tickets to head to the top of the Tower can be hours long (seriously, hours). A day trip affords no time for waiting around, so we researched skip-the-line offers and ultimately selected one through the tour clearinghouse site Viator. There are many different options for the Eiffel Tower, but we chose “Eiffel Tower Summit Priority Access with Host” led by the History Group (about £50 each, but well worth the expense). We researched the anticipated sunset on the day of our visit and scheduled the tour to start about a half hour before sunset, which would give us time both before and after dusk, so we’d get the best of both worlds. The History Group’s offices are a short walk away from the École Militaire metro stop on the 8 train.
The tour guide walked the small group from the History Group’s offices to the base of the Tower and provided a brief history on the way. We aren’t really big on group fun, but the tour guide was friendly, funny, and informative without being cheesy or overly excitable. He escorted us through security and led us directly to the lifts. We skipped the first level on the way up, and on the second level he oriented us to our surroundings before letting us enjoy the rest of the tour independently. The views from the second level are fantastic, but we took the lifts all the way to the summit, which was completely amazing!
If you can time it right, being at the summit right at sunset truly is incredible. And the only way to guarantee that is to book a skip-the-line tour for the specific window you want, otherwise you’re at the mercy of the queues down below.
7 – Eiffel Tower to the Louvre
After relishing the shift of Paris into the City of Lights, we descended and made our way back to the train station. We took the RER from Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel (C train, yellow line in the direction of Massy-Palaiseau) back along the same route we travelled toward the Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame in the morning. But we only went two stops and got off at Musée d’Orsay. If there were more time, the Musée d’Orsay is an amazing visit, but unfortunately, we only had time to enjoy the stroll past it along the Seine. We headed toward the Pont Royal and crossed north over the Seine to the Louvre.
After a short walk through the Louvre gardens, which house a smaller Arc de Triomphe, you cross a street and enter the museum through the iconic gleaming glass pyramids. We planned the visit for the Louvre after dark, since the buildings and pyramids are much more dramatic when lit.
As with the Eiffel Tower, queues for tickets at the Louvre can sometimes get out of control. So we opted to buy our tickets in advance from HelloParis in the UK (less than £15 each), and they arrived within a day of purchase. Tickets in hand, we passed through security and immediately made a beeline for our three chosen works, and snapped a few other pics along the way.
The Louvre is the largest and most renowned museum on Earth. The collection includes 380,000 objects and 35,000 works of art, with 652,000 square feet dedicated to the permanent collection. You could spend months and months here and not see everything. But this was a day trip, so we have to be brutal and narrow it down to just a few high points: Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and, of course, the Mona Lisa.
It was a whirlwind, and we definitely recommend going back when you have plenty of time to take in the beauty, significance, and splendour of everything the Louvre has to offer.
8 – Louvre to Charles de Gaulle
With about an hour and a half before our flight was due to board, we made our way back to the Louvre lobby beneath the pyramids and followed the signs to the underground shopping centre connected to the museum complex (Carrousel du Louvre). Just look for the signs for the train station and you can’t go wrong. We boarded the 7 train at Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre (pink line) and went two stops to Châtelet, where we got off the metro and transferred to the RER B (blue line) headed back to Charles de Gaulle. We hopped the train and rested our weary feet on the half hour train ride back to the airport, with plenty of time to get through security and head straight to our gate.
In all, by taking the flight, we were on the ground in Paris a little more than 11 hours. That was plenty of time to hit the highlights on this itinerary, but it did leave us craving longer in the city. In addition to the countless sights we couldn’t fit into the day trip, like Sacré Coeur, the Panthéon, or Moulin Rouge, some of our fondest memories of Paris are simply strolling around Montparnasse or the Jardins des Tuileries. Paris is not a city that can truly be appreciated in the span of 11, 24, or even 72 hours. But if you’re hard pressed for time, this day trip hit the high points!
If you have any advice or recommendations for this destination, please feel free to post in the comments section below!