On my first trip to Paris, and every trip there after, I stayed with a friend of mine I had met while taking an acting course in New York City. Marianne and I shared a cigarette during a class break, she told me she was from France and if I had the opportunity I should come visit. A year later, I took her advice and she offered me the cheapest hotel she knew of- her apartment. I arrived to Paris at 7am into a world which held history and culture in it’s architecture. Staring out of the window of the taxi on the way to Marianne’s, I passed monuments I had no knowledge of yet. I had walked into Paris blindly, images of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor singing “Elephant Love Medley” flashed in my mind as the taxi traveled up the Boulevard de Clichy past the Moulin Rouge. The taxi driver pointed up and I moved to the right side to look, the streets crawled higher and higher leading to a church. “That is the highest point in Paris”, he told me in his lovely French accent. I found everything in Paris lovely and he must have taken note because he started listing places for me to visit. We finally arrived at Rue Condorcet and I punched in the numerical door code Marianne had sent me as Paris does not have doormen. I walked through the courtyard to the second building and spent the next two hours seated outside Marianne’s tall wooden double doors until she finally woke up to let me in. Then she took me up to where the taxi driver had pointed. I rode on the back of her scooter, adrenaline heating me against the frigid February air and we arrived at my first sight in Paris, Sacré-Cœur. 

Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart), built in 1914, sits at the summit of Montmartre and was constructed in honor of those who lost their lives during the uprising of the Paris Commune. The church itself is beautiful but the culture that surrounds it breathes life into the experience. Hundreds sat on the steps in front of the church looking out into Paris and, during my visit, were entertained by men singing Bob Marley hits, a newly married couple kissing, and a soccer player showing off his skills on a lamp post nearby. 

The cobble stone streets  of the surrounding Sacre Coeur are filled with restaurants, shops, and artists. Montmartre was originally home to many artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Salvador Dali. The contemporary artists now set up at la Place du Tertre, a clearing near Sacre Coeur.  If you attempt to photograph them, expect a heavy backlash. If you would like to have your portrait painted, expect a heavy fee-though you can negotiate a lower price if you’re prepared to haggle. 

If you’d rather watch others fall into the portrait trap, I suggest taking an outside seat at Au Clairon Des Chasseurs. I chose their goat cheese salad and a glass of sauvignon blanc. I also suggest Le Tir Bouchon Creperie for a crepe made freshly in front of you and served through a bright red window.  

The next few days I spent some time retracing a friends footsteps. He had ventured into Paris the previous month posting pictures of tombstones and skulls which lead to my visit to Pere Lachaise and les catacombes de Paris. 

Le Pere Lachaise is located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris on Boulevard de Menilmontant. This cemetery has been around since 1804 and is the final resting place of over one million bodies, including many notable people. 

There is a large map at the entrance showing you were each famous gravesite lies. Or if you’d like to get lost and stumble upon them, take the pocket map. This trip will take up at least two hours of your time. You can pay your respects to the greats, including French singer Edith Piaf, novelist Balzec, playwright Moliere, or The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison. 

I played the stumble around the graveyard game and found Oscar Wilde’s grave sealed with kisses and coated in messages in the languages of the world praising him. This visit was during my first trip to Paris in 2011, by the end of year the tomb was cleaned of all markings due to the fact that lipstick erodes the stone. 

To continue with this theme of our inevitable end, I ventured to the Catacombs. The catacombs were abandoned quarries turned into a maze of bones and skulls after the burial grounds on the outskirts of Paris became so full that the sanitation of the water supply was affected. The entrance is at Place Denfert-Rochereau, and bring your professional camera as there is no flash photography inside. Aside from the wild (and biblical) arrangements of human remains, you will find unfinished carvings in the stone of Port Phillipe, and blocked off rooms leading into what appears to be endless darkness. The experience is fascinating to say the least and not for the faint of heart.  

I went through a few more surprises with Marianne including a free seat at the Cirque d’hiver Bouglione Circus, which I will share with you through photos below.

Side notes:

  • Paris is divided into 22 arrondissements (districts) which are denoted by the last two digits of the area code, they are arranged in a clockwise spiral.
  • All of these sites can be accessed via the metro system in Paris which are fairly easy to navigate, especially if you’ve already used American systems such the NYC MTA.
  • For easy communication, purchase a pre paid phone or if your phone has a SIM card you can also purchase one of those and have them cut it down to fit your phone type. Iphone 4S and up (not including Verizon, which I had) all have this capability. “Whatsapp” is a good way to text for free internationally when you have access to wireless as well, you can find this in the app store. 
  • All sites are reasonably priced, if there is any charge, and cater to student or military discounts.
  • The people are friendly and helpful. My best advice to those who claim “the french hate americans” is ask for assistance properly. Take a step back and acknowledge that you are a visitor in another culture. Use the language, show respect by offering your attempts at French when asking for help and you will be given positive responses.