I arrived in France’s Gare de L’est station without an ounce of French-language experience. This was the, for lack of better words, more ghetto station which was about 4 blocks from the main train station. The ticket I purchased was significantly cheaper there, so I figured the kilometer walk was worth it. I couldn’t have misjudged it more if someone paid me. The “east” station was not only sketchy, there were hundreds of pan-handlers right around the area, and where there are pan-handlers, there are tourists – which generally means there are pick-pockets.
This being my first trip to Paris, I had no idea all of the technology would be so outdated. I’ve never walked up so many stairs in my life. I had a large duffel bag, a small rolling bag, and a backpack with me. I had to h=journey from the east station, to the north station, outside the city, and several blocks to an AirBnb studio rental I’d reserved for the weekend. There were so many pastry shops along the way and I was starving. However my bags made it impossible to stop.
Eating French Tip #1: Pack extremely light
When backpacking in France, packing light will make the trip a lot more enjoyable, and getting food a lot easier. There are so many teeny tiny bakeries, meant to serve people on-the-go. Businesses have strange hours and being forced to “drop your bags off” could forfeit your meal options that evening. I also stayed around the 13th arraisonnement which is about 20 minutes outside of the city center. I had to travel at least 10 minutes by subway to get to the nearest restaurants. It’s as if all the mom & pop restaurants around the city of Paris joined together and picked two or three touristy areas to grow their businesses.
I found myself eating pastries daily, as I was rarely able to finish all of my activities in time for a real meal. French pastries are pretty cheap and WIDELY available. Even the McDonald’s had fresh pastries that were superior to what I’ve seen in the US.
Tip #2: Fast Food is Your Friend
I don’t mean this in the traditional sense, I mean food that you can be serviced quickly is the best! Casual dining will save you a lot of tie and frustration, trust me. If you have a schedule, avoid eating at sit-down restaurants.
After my Airbnb stay, I moved to the opposite side of town to stay in an old Parisian apartment. My new location was much closer to evening dining, and there were several “Crêperies” nearby.
Ok, here’s the deal on crepes: the more authentic, the more delicious, as well as overpriced. Authentic crepes are also rather time consuming to eat because of the poor quality food service in France. The crepe on the far right is a caramel apple crepe with slivered almonds & vanilla ice cream. It’s from a restaurant that only serves crepes, ad cost around $15 USD. It took 2 hours to place my order and receive my crepe, and the waiter decided to keep the change. I had my fare share crepe experiences in France, and I’d say learn to love the street crepe. The photo on the left is a shredded coconut & Nutella street crepe that took about 2 minutes to prepare and cost 1/3 of the price.
When I did get a chance to sit down and have dinner, I did it right! You can easily run up a $100 tab eating at a French restaurant. It’s traditional to have soup, tapas, then a full plated meal, dessert, and follow that up with an espresso. It is very common to make a day of having lunch with a friend. The outdoor seating at restaurants is all facing the street, and you have to flag the waiters down if you need anything.
French wine is exquisite, even house wines are smooth and delicious. Most public restrooms were in the basement next to a huge wine cellar, which was kinda creepy. I also found that most restaurants, no matter how small, had a very aged bottle of wine or two for sale at an outrageous amount.
Snails, Fish Eggs, & Raw Meat
Most menus ranged from simple dishes like soups, pasta with marinara, even hamburgers, to complex dishes like Beef Carpaccio and Tiramisu. The Tiramisu was the most moist, rich, and delicate dessert I’ve ever had. It took home the gold for the best dessert I had there.
French Onion Soup is my favorite soup of all time. I’ve ordered it all over the country, hundreds of times. However, I wasn’t a big fan of the French Onion Soup in France. It wasn’t gross or overly…anything. That’s just it, it wasn’t anything. Not a very bold broth flavor, very few actual onion pieces, no bread, very little cheese. It reminded me of the soup at the last soup kitchen I volunteered at, heavily diluted to feed the masses.
The Beef Carpaccio was surprisingly less disgusting than I’d expected. I was provided with enough additional flavor (artichokes, mushrooms, arugula…) that I almost forgot I was eating raw meat. It also wasn’t bloody, thank God. I saw several plates of VERY bloody beef during my time in France. The French are so proud of their snails, fish eggs, and raw beef. Why? I have no idea. With that being said, I would NEVER request this dish, but when in Rome…
TIP #3 Escargot & Frog Legs are surprisingly hard to find
I went to France with the intention of eating escargot everyday. I’ve had the dish twice in my life, once on a cruise, and only ONCE in France. They were pretty tasty, cooked delicately in a mild garlic, butter, rosemary mix, similar to what I’d had before. However, I was rather disappointed they were so hard to find. Caviar is also a rare find, and so are frog legs. Historically snails and frog legs were eaten throughout Spain and Italy; they aren’t exclusive to France because they were Roman exports during Julius Caesar’s rule.
During my time in Paris, I saw all of the typical tourist attractions like the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre, the Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Galeries Lafayette, Île Saint-Louis, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, The Sorbonne, and of course the Eiffel Tower. I also saw some of the less touristic areas like Pigalle, Île de France, Versailles town, and Montmartre.
Old School Charm
Pigalle was a freak show, but Montmarte was simply adorable. As a millennial raised in the youngest power country in the world, 50 years ago seems ancient. Visiting the town where Vincent van Gogh lived was surreal. The Church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre was founded in the 3rd century. Sure, everything in France is old, or meant to look old, but many historical landmarks have been completely disturbed. This town maintained a lot of its original charm, which I found unique.
I spent a couple days in Montmarte and found some impressive local eateries. I ordered quiche at a bakery and it was by far the bets quiche I’ve ever had. Traditional French quiche is something like a deep-dish, egg pizza, with a 1:1 dough to filling ratio. The dough was so moist, not crumbly or flaky at all. I also found this quaint little coffee shop that served 3 things: black coffee, black tea, and hot chocolate. Out of desperation on a chilly day, I ordered a hot cocoa from their very basic menu. I was NOT ready for the flavor explosion I was about to experience. This was easily the best hot chocolate, in the history of forever, period. SO. DAMN. GOOD.
Tip #4: SPECULOOS, SPECULOOS, SPECULOOS
The love of my life, and I first met in the city of Paris. One dreary day, I visited a Gelateria looking for something chocolatey to lift my spirits. I sampled several different flavors, and one stood out like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was none other than Speculoos. This light & creamy biscoff spread, originates in Belgium. It’s kind of like gingerbread flavored peanut butter with teeny tiny cookie crumbles. Thankfully Trader Joe’s sells a delicious version of this spread that I use in everything from oatmeal raisin cookies to apple pie. Let me just say that SPECULOOS deserves all the love.
Tip #5: French baguettes are over-hyped
Maybe hipsters find the idea of carrying around a loaf of bread rebellious. Who knows. In my opinion, the French baguette is over-hyped. In France, it’s more of a standard, like napkins. However, French Bread is really cheap, around $1 to $2. It’s sustenance on the go, and I get why French people eat it regularly. Tourists, on the other hand, expect French people to be walking around in berets, eating baguettes, and singing “Bella Notte.’ Overall this eat-cation earned 5 stars. The service sucked, but the taste and presentation of the food more than made up for it. Though I believe their culinary values are misplaced, French cuisine is untouchable.