Have you considered a day trip from London to Paris? By train it’s only an hour or so further than the Kent coast. I travelled there recently for a friend’s birthday celebrations; once we’d checked into the Eurostar’s departure lounge at St Pancras International, the journey was as smooth as beurre d’Isigny.
Two and a half hours after leaving London, we arrived at Gare du Nord, in the heart of Paris’s cosmopolitan 10th arrondissment. Stepping out of the station, there are similarities with London: for a moment, it looked just like the area around Paddington, with its neon signs, steak houses and on-street pizza vendors. But turn the corner and you’re undoubtedly in a different country: with Gothic and Renaissance architecture, artisan food markets and more persistent street hawkers than you would ever find in London.
We were travelling on a group ticket, on a Saturday, which cost £128.50 per person. The tickets would have been a little cheaper if we’d booked further in adance; and if we’d travelled mid-week they’d have been much less expensive.
Our travel itinerary for the day was:
8.31 depart St Pancras International (you need to check in an hour before the train leaves)
11.47 arrive at Paris Gare du Nord
19.13 leave Paris Gare du Nord
20.39 arrive St Pancras International
So – seven hours in Paris. Where to go, what to see? My friend had arranged a itinerary for us:
Lunch at Brasserie Flo
Brasserie Flo is a traditional French establishment dating from 1918. There’s a good-value prix fixe menu (€35.50 for three courses), but it only caters for parties of up to ten; there were around 18 of us, so there was a more limited (but gratifying and flavoursome) menu. We could choose between oysters, snails or paté to start; a formidably sized steak, with puréed shallots and gratin dauphinoise, or cod with parmesan risotto and carrot chips as a main course; and Île Flottante or chocolate fondant for dessert (vegetarian options were available).
Given the traditional nature of its cuisine, and the proximity to Gare du Nord (the restaurant is on Cour des Petit Ecuries, a ten minute walk from the station), I would have imagined more Brits would be found eating at Brasserie Flo. But the wood-panelled, stained glass-windowed restaurant played host mainly to well-dressed French families (there’s a children’s menu available for €11.90). The waiting staff were impeccably polite and attentive; the atmosphere calm but convivial; at one point a hurdy-gurdy next to our table started inexplicably belting out tunes. Brasserie Flo is my friend’s favourite restaurant in the whole of Paris, which is why she chose it; for a taste of typically French food, near the station, I’d recommend this restaurant to any travellers.
A stroll through the Marché Saint-Quentin
This food market was opened in 1866 and lies on the Boulevard de Magenta, a short stroll from Gare du Nord. We visited on our way to Brasserie Flo. The Marché Saint-Quentin is the largest of its type in Paris, and as well as selling meats (cured and fresh), fish and cheese, it has several delicatessan stalls with African, Italian and Portuguese food that can be eaten at tables. There are also the obligatory champagne and oyster booths. The market is closed on Mondays and Sunday afternoons, but the rest of the week it trades from 8am until 8pm, with a two-hour break over lunchtime.
A sightseeing trip to Paris isn’t complete without a visit to the capital’s most famous construction. Completed in 1889, compared to today’s sleek glass-fronted skyscrapers it has the look of a large meccano construction – or an oversized radio transmittor. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful piece of engineering whose scale only becomes apparent when you get up close, and it’s particularly majestic when illuminated by 20,000 lightbulbs at night. From Gare du Nord we took the Metro line RER B, and changed at Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame on to the RER C line, which took us to the Champs de Mars Tour Eiffel station.
If you suffer from vertigo, the Eiffel Tower may pose a challenge to your nerves – in the wind, it can sway six-seven centimetres (it also shrinks by about six inches in cold weather). And the transparent floor on level one may be a little too much for those afraid of heights. But if you can make it up to the top, the views across Paris are unparalleled.
The Eiffel Tower is open from 9.30 to 23.00; and longer in the summer. The super-fit can attempt to walk up its 1,665 steps to the top; for the non-superhumans, there is a lift to the second floor, and another to the top, both of which you need tickets to enter.
These are all just suggestions; there are countless other ways to spend a day in Paris. One of our group, for instance, visited the 44-hectare Père Lachaise Cemetery instead of the Eiffel Tower, and saw the graves of Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.
– Arrive early at St Pancras, and enjoy the early morning atmosphere: freshly baked pastries, pristine, shiny floors and (if you’re lucky) a serenade from fellow travellers on one of the station’s Street pianos (Sir Elton John played a surprise concert there back in Feb 2016).
– Buy Metro tickets on board the Eurostar, so you don’t have to waste time queuing at the station.
– Don’t underestimate the amount of time you’ll need to climb up the Eiffel Tower. It’s the most visited paid-for monument in the world, with almost seven million visitors a year. Security is tight, with queues at bag checks at the entrance; and then there are more queues for the lifts to the second floor, and the lifts from the second to the top floor. Pickpockets also operate there, so hang onto your possessions.
What would you do if you had a few hours to spend in Paris?
If you’d like to read about other short breaks in Europe, check out our feature.