On a layover in Paris, it seems lazy to not dash into the city of lights at least briefly. While you won’t really have time to take in the wonders of Disneyland or Versailles, since both are outside the center, there are plenty of treasures you can visit in a couple of hours that are only a hop-away.
The majority of long-haul flights are via Charles de Gaulle, and so the easiest way to get into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport is to take the RER B train. This drops you off right in the heart of Paris. The temptation is to jam-pack the few precious hours you have with a whistle-stop tour, but don’t be over-ambitious with your time. The key to a successful and stress-free layover visit is to prepare in advance and allow plenty of margin.
While three hours is a tiny layover window to discover this fabulous city, it’s possible to squeeze in a quick glimpse. The secret is to concentrate your attention exclusively on a small spot that’s bursting with multiple attractions, like Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris. In this way, you maximise the marvels you get to see while minimizing the transfer time.
If you take the RER B train to the “St. Michel/Notre Dame,” you’ll be flung out right next to the Notre Dame and one of the sweetest corners in Paris. The journey lasts roughly 40 minutes on the express train, but allow a decent margin for any unscheduled traffic disruption. At worst, you’d be able to take an Uber but this will be more expensive. When you arrive in the station, follow the signs for Notre Dame and gaze at the terrific gargoyles spying down over the city.
The views from the towers are breathtaking—costing 10 euros ($11) to climb—but the lines are likely to be quite long which is bad news for a three-hour layover. However, you can find out how long the line will be online before you make the decision to wait. Or, even better, you won’t even need to join the queue if you download the revolutionary “JeFile” app available on Google Play or the App Store. A quick selfie and take-out coffee is probably all you should squeeze into the three hours, but it’s better than staying in the airport terminal.
If you’ve got 5 hours rather than 3 hours, then you’ll have a little more time to flaneur à la francaise. Still focusing on the Île de la Cité, as it’s a great spot to hop off at, you can do a quick wander across the small islands of the Seine: Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis. Along the left banks, you’ll be able to peruse à la parisienne, the iconic green kiosks selling a bunch of books, dreamy art, and souvenirs.
If the green kiosks didn’t fill your lust for books then you can browse the books at Shakespeare and Company. This legendary bookstore is English-language but its beautiful wooden beams boast an impressive legacy in the world of literature. Its rich history isn’t limited to the past with poets and writers still living in the store today and an array of visiting speakers. There’s a piano and typewriters, which make for a quirky artistically buzzing space. Make sure you ask them to stamp your book when you pay at checkout.
If you continue to Rue St-Louis, the main street, you’ll find a wider range of shops, or Rue de Buci, in St. Germain-des-Pres for some authentic cafés. If it’s a nice day you should finish the super-sonic quick stroll with a dab of ice cream at Berthillon, world-renowned for serving some of the best ice cream in Paris. There’ll be an eclectic range of curious flavors that you’d struggle to find at home.
The longer the layover, the more you’ll be able to discover—which is good news for digestion. While a few hours stop can give little more than a take-out snack, because there’s no point going for a fancy sit-down Parisian meal if it’ll be rushed, seven hours gives plenty of time to dine. And what better way to discover the delights of this city than by delving into its mouthwatering cuisine?
But rather than just eating in any old café, why not work to combine the meal with some form of cultural discovery, so as to maximize the excitement of the visit? If you take the metro to Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore, nestled next to each other on Boulevard St. Germain, then you’ll be hanging out in the spot where famous thinkers like Hemingway, Sartre, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and their history-changing circle of artists took their inspiration.
Even if you don’t make it as far as St Germain, you should try to spend time in at least one café. It’s the most Parisian thing to do after all, and allows a few precious moments of pause in a busy day.
If there’s one neighborhood in Paris to see on a flying visit, and if there’s enough time between flights, then you simply have to make a dive for Montmartre.
The cobbled streets are bustling with artists painting breathtaking views, busying over their canvases beside colorful stalls. You can be sure to find a bunch of authentically Parisian artists—in all weather—on the charming Place du Tertre. It’s the iconic spot featured on countless postcards.
Of course, you can’t visit Montmartre without seeing the stunning Sacre Coeur, the defining architectural beauty of this charming neighborhood. It’s at the top of a hill with 222 steps, but don’t worry, there’s a funiculaire that will take you to the top.
If the Sacre Coeur and Place du Tertre isn’t enough to fill your 12-hour layover, then just around the corner you can also visit places like Musée de la Vie Romantique, the perfect place to swoon in the city of romance, or Espace Dali for an extensive collection of Dali works. One of the greatest pleasures of Paris is wandering aimlessly and simply seeing what interesting sights come your way.
How to Get There
Line => RER B (Blue)
Direction => Aéroport Charles de Gaulle / Mitry – Claye
Arrival Station => Aéroport CDG 1, Aéroport CDG 2 TGV
Cost => 10.30€
Schedule – First Train / Last Train from Paris => 04:56 / 22:44 (M-F, station Gare du Nord. 00:14 Sat/Sun/holidays.