This is a rare post about a famous place (or two) instead of a famous person. It’s about my recent visit to the famed historic cities of London and Paris. For two weeks in September, 2014, after arriving via two flights from San Francisco, I explored these world-renowned cities by foot, tube/metro, bus, train, and on the water after cruises along London’s Thames and Paris’ Seine.
Before I give my thoughts on the cities, here’s a list of some of the sites we (my girlfriend and I) visited. In London, after quickly spotting the iconic Big Ben and London Eye, we managed to tour the British Museum, Buckingham Palace (twice), Churchill War Rooms, Covent Garden, Harrods, Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Kensington Palace, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery, St. James Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Windsor Castle.
We saw much more though thanks to the Oyster card we purchased. It’s a pay as you go smart card that comes pre-loaded with money allowing you to ride the London Underground (tube) as often as you like as long as you continue to add on and/or have purchased enough credit. London highlights were visiting Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms (open only in August and September while the Queen is on vacation), touring St. Paul’s Cathedral, walking through Kensington Gardens, having an ice cream cone in St. James Park, and riding the London Underground (tube) everywhere.
Although we visited Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, nothing compared to the luxurious State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. The rooms are used for much of the year by the Queen and members of the Royal Family for official functions and events. Having toured the palace the first few days we were in town, we received an annual pass (free when you purchase tickets directly from the Royal Trust) and decided to end our trip a few weeks later touring this iconic England palace again.
Also, ironically enough, two of the most talked about tourist attractions in London are two of the best. Besides Buckingham Palace, we loved seeing the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. The collective term Crown Jewels denotes the regalia and vestments worn by the sovereign of the United Kingdom during the coronation ceremony and at other state functions. We rode the moving escalator back and forth several times, viewing these spectacular jeweled crowns of past kings and queens.
As for overall impressions of London, here’s one. Walking along the Thames River towards the Tower Bridge one morning, we found ourselves in a crowd of Londoners making their way to work. For the most part, they all were orderly, quiet, and briskly walking toward their respective place of work. In the fast-paced hurried city of London, there seems to be an organized social context unlike the other European city mentioned in this post. Speaking of that, here’s a list of some of the sites visited in “The City of Light” – Paris.
After arriving at Paris Gare du Nord train station via Eurostar, we eventually found the pre-arranged transportation company’s driver holding the sign with my name on it! As we exited the station and saw our first glimpse of the city in the afternoon sun, it immediately reminded me of a painting my parent’s had up on the wall during my childhood of a downtown Paris cafe surrounded by large buildings and narrow streets. It was surreal. I was in Paris! Sunday is not the best day/night to arrive in this tourist crowded city as it was bustling more so than it was mid-week.
During our stay, we visited/toured the Eiffel Tower, Musee du Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Musee d’Orsay, Pont-Neuf bridge, Boulevard St. Germain, Moulin Rouge, Sacre Coeur, and made the obligatory train trip to the Palace of Versailles (and Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet) as well. Highlights were climbing the stairs to the top of Arc de Trioumphe, riding the elevator and experiencing the top level of the Eiffel Tower as well as sitting back and watching it light up at night, seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, standing side-by-side with the Gargoyles atop Notre Dame Cathedral, and a night time cruise along the Seine River.
Also, key to our stay in Paris was the French bakery/café on the corner from our hotel, just two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. Without it, I might have starved! However, fresh lasagna with salmon and spinach followed by the most delicious chocolate éclair made us return there more than once. Although the kind female employee spoke very few English words, after a day or two she knew exactly what I would order. More an adventure than a highlight was the Paris Metro. Soon after purchasing a Paris Trip Card at the Charles de Gaulle – Etoile station, I looked to my right to see a young man jump over the turnstile. No one was watching, and no one cared. That about sums up the Paris metro for me. We rode at least five different lines and used it quite a bit to get around the different zones of Paris.
Overall impressions of the “City of Lights” are that it is a crowded, chaotic city. It’s also a place with little to no visible security. The police presence seemed absent although you did see it at the major visitor attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. My last night in Paris was spent on a night time cruise along the Seine River and also near the Eiffel Tower watching its light’s sparkle at the top of each hour. When we see England in the U.S. media, often we’re shown Buckingham Palace and the royal family. In Paris, you can’t ignore the marvelous Eiffel Tower. Visiting these iconic attractions were two of the most enjoyable and memorable parts of my European trip. Both final nights in each city were spent on water, cruising the Thames in London and Seine in Paris. Seeing these cities from so many different vantage points and seeing as much of them as I could, it fulfilled a dream, the dream to see two of the world’s most famous cities – London and Paris!