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By Bryan Pirolli in Paris—
When you’re visiting Paris and “hitting the sights,” you shouldn’t spend half of your precious time waiting in lines. If you follow a few simple tips, you could curtail those lines and large groups and spend more time strolling the streets and relaxing in cafés after a day of successful sightseeing.
Here are seven ways to beat the crowds:
1. Sacre Cœur
The Sacre Cœur Basilica atop the Montmartre neighborhood is a gleaming white monument that attracts visitors like moths to a light, especially on weekends and during the summer. But head to the church at night–it’s open until 11 p.m. every day. At night, not only do you get a spectacular view of the city from the highest point in Paris, but you can wander the church without herds of camera-toting tourists behind you. (Speaking of which, there are no photos allowed!)
2. Mona Lisa and the Louvre
Visiting da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa at the Louvre is a must, especially for the first-time Parisian experience. But the crush of people in front of this tiny painting can be unbearable, especially on the first Sunday of the month when museums and monuments are free.
Visiting the Louvre first thing in the morning or during one of its nocturnal openings (Wednesday and Friday from 6-10 p.m.) will allow for a much more pleasant (if more expensive) experience, hopefully devoid of the crazy, snapping crowds.
Getting the best baguettes and pastries in Paris can be difficult if you go during “rush hours.” While there’s rarely a wrong place to grab an éclair or loaf, there is a wrong time. Avoid the bakeries at lunch time and during the evening rush hours. For example, my favorite bakery has a line out the door at 6 p.m. every night, even during the winter. I drop by early in the morning for fresh pastries or later in the afternoon before the rush hour traffic arrives.
4. Department stores
Exploring department stores in Paris can be a rewarding treat. Not only is the merchandise fun to browse, but the stores themselves are works of art. If you show up on the wrong day or time, however, even an hour at the Galeries Lafayette or Printemps stores can leave you exhausted.
During the twice-annual sales, “soldes” in French (during the late summer and early winter), the stores become veritable havens for bargain hunters. No store is safe at these times. During the rest of the year, Saturdays are an agoraphobic shopper’s worst nightmare, as well.
If you need a breather, take the escalators to the top floor. The observation deck atop the Galeries Lafayette is free and offers a unique view of Paris.
While the Metro is never ideal for those inclined to panic attacks, the absolute worst time to ride are during rush hours, around 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Parisian work days typically start around 10 and end around 6, so to avoid the rush, either get to the Metro station earlier or, well, walk. During the rest of the day, finding a seat shouldn’t be a problem. During the rush hour, however, you might not be able to squeeze into the train at all.
6. The Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle
The Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle are two extremely popular tourist attractions, both located on the Ile de la Cité near Notre Dame. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the crowds lined up on the sidewalk, making Marie Antoinette’s prison cell and Louis IX’s stain-glassed chapel feel like Space Mountain at Disney World.
Weekends, again, are bad times to go. Also, if visiting on the “first free Sunday of the month,” remember that the word “free” speaks to everyone. You’ll save some money, but you’ll lose lots of time, so weigh the pros and cons.
7. Eiffel Tower
Ascending the Eiffel Tower is an experience cherished by more than 6 million tourists each year. Unfortunately, most of them will also remember waiting upwards of an hour in line to take the elevator to the top.
There are ways around this, however. The most intrepid and athletic tourists can hike up to the first level by foot and then catch the elevator from there, bypassing the lines at the base of the tower. For those of us with less stamina, remember that the tower is open late into the evening, until 12:45 a.m. during the summer and until 11:45 p.m. the rest of the year. While other tourists are grabbing dinner, take advantage of the shorter lines!