My personal guide to traveling through the best of France in 4 days. This guide also includes what to do when you put diesel gas in a non diesel engine, and other easy travel hacks.
If you only have a limited amount of time to travel, as well a limited budget in your life, I'd say probably don't plan a trip overseas to Europe.. however if you find yourself in a situation where you're already going to be in Europe and have less than a week to do one more thing with your time before heading back to reality: this is a pretty good guide for hitting some of the best spots in France in 4 days (if you do so, in fact choose to go to France).
I was alive on arrival in Paris, fresh off the train wearing a Notorious B.I.G. shirt when I met up with my travel buddy and headed to the Airbnb to put stuff down. The first night anywhere is more about drinking and strolling around than actually trying to accomplish anything. In France and most other European countries, happy hour directly translates into 'happy hours' which technically makes more sense (and also sounds cuter) so we went to a less touristy area of Paris and started drinking.
Between random bars and bodegas, you can pretty much go back and forth between drinking inside and trying foreign beers; and then soaking up the ambiance by drinking outside, splitting a bottle of wine in an open spot. This is good because 1. wine in France is super cheap and is still hella good for being only €3 and 2. you can sightsee in a non-touristy way while also drinking in public. It's a good idea to bring plastic wine glasses / silverware with you for easily drinking / eating on the go. Throw it away when you're done and less weight to carry back!
Now that your first night getting drunk is out of the way, you can wake up early (with or without a hangover, that's up to you) and get started on your day seeing the city. You always want to divide up your ~must haves~ and hit things in sections so that you're not walking back and forth all day. I also like to decide what's 'worth it' and what's going to be too 'touristy' for me. For example, I could have seen The Louvre and the Mona Lisa, however when you have limited time in the city, is standing in a museum line for 45 minutes to see mostly one thing worth it when there is so much out there to experience? That's up to you, but let's just say I didn't get around to it this time.
Instead we spent the day hitting famous buildings and areas - i.e. the Sacre Coeur with a beautiful look out point of the whole city (a good chance to pop open that bodega wine and take a break) - as well as trying to hit at least one lesser known museum in the city. I must make it known that both museums we tried to hit were either closed for construction or about to close, so that did not happen, but the thought was there. Lunch was completed with bodega wine, cheese, and baguette (baguette is way better at a bakery, and usually just across the street so take the time for 2 stops). We ate lunch in a famous graveyard under a bridge in Paris until a nice security officer told us that this was disrespectful and we promptly finished our sandwiches on the go. The wine was already finished. (Pour out one for the homies)
I notice that the pastel Paris back streets are reminiscent of a Euro version of San Fran, and that life is essentially the same every where, with each neighborhood and city getting into it's own groove that you somehow manage to slip into rather quickly out of instinct alone. After walking everywhere, stopping for mini wine breaks, and catching as many of Paris' free landmarks and attractions as we could; we wound down the day with happy hours as well as catching a view of the Eiffel tower from some steps on a near-by bridge. This view I did not photograph because I was too busy drinking and the goat cheese & baguette combo was perfect. Some views are temporary but at least in your memory forever.
Leaving Paris was difficult with a hangover and all of last night's home made spaghetti still all over the kitchen in the Airbnb. That being said, navigating through multiple metros with backpacks on, shoes in hand, and a huge plastic bag filled with spaghetti is definitely a sight to see. I wonder how many people were confused by the obvious sense of urgency we had, and why our travel plans somehow included bringing the spaghetti. (Never waste perfectly good leftovers.)
After finding out the rental car will cost more than it said at the time of reservation (this will universally always happen) we left Paris and put on some French hiphop Spotify playlist, navigating through traffic in a tiny ass Fiat until we finally arrived at the Palace of Versailles. This is usually only a 30 minute drive, although back in the day I imagine a carriage would take longer, and there would be no hiphop playlist. Either way you don't really know you're close until all the sudden the Palace is just there, smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood and it's sorta not as climactic as you'd think.. but also it's kinda like BAM there it is.
Did I mention that I freakin loved the Palace of Versailles? Every ounce of love for the Renaissance, French Revolution, and European Art History in general oozed out of me and all over the floors in this place. So regal. Probably the fanciest Thursday morning I'd ever had. Leaving Versailles we caught a quick espresso, got makings for another baguette sandwich, and headed for Bordeaux while eating the spaghetti out of a bag in the car. I happen to be a great co-pilot.
Something must be said for road tripping in France, and that is TOLLS and lots of them. No one really tells you about the costs of driving through Europe but expect the gas to be sold in liters, the stations far and few between, and frequent random tolls of anywhere from 12-40 Euros each time. I also want to point out that navigating without WiFi these days is more difficult than it seems it would be, especially in France, so a nice travel hack is stopping into any place for WiFi to pull up the directions on your GPS. Once you leave, the GPS has already loaded and unless you veer from the drive, the directions will be available the whole time you're outside internet range. Shout out to all McDonalds in Europe for being the 'hang out' spot for free wifi without having to buy anything.
It's nice to break up the drive and stop into cities along the way. Stopping in Tours, I didn't know what to expect from anything outside Paris, but I instantly felt the more chill vibe of what France is actually like in other, bigger cities. Tours is a huge, metropolitan area with tons of old buildings and artifacts - the historical district dating all the way back to Medieval times (as in 1500 or so). Kind of a rainy day so we stopped into an old pub to have a few beers from the area. Quick walk along the river, through the city center, and hit to road to arrive in Bordeaux at night.
In general in Europe things close earlier than in the states, especially restaurants, and especially in cities that aren't Paris. This being said, dinner wasn't amazing - a cheap kebab in the nightlife district is all you get... however drinking Desperados (mexican beer with tequila in it) while roaming the city center by night was really fun. Plus, it's a great way to get familiar with the city in preparation for navigating the next day.
Bordeaux was one of my favorite days of the trip, and probably my favorite French city that we came across on the 4 day tour. The city is clearly historical with it's epic old buildings and cathedrals, leaving the city traditional in some ways for all of time. However, Bordeaux is also quite modern and metropolitan for being a smaller city and seems like a chill place to live and work without the attitude of Paris on your back. We walked through the Jardin Public splitting an orange and a Desperado, checked out an antique store, spent the day stumbling into landmarks, and rented city bikes.
Despite the forecast indicating rain what seemed like every single day in January, we had mostly clear skies but when it started to drizzle a little bit, we popped into this adorable Havana inspired vintage cafe and had some fresh ginger juices (instead of the usual daily espresso). It was here that I heard a song I really liked and jotted the name down on my hand in blue ink. Check it out, it'll always remind me of waiting out the rain under a heat lamp in this cafe. It's called, 'Losing your Mind' by Raury.
Quick note about city bikes in Bordeaux: make sure you have at least $250 on your card for a hold just to rent the bike. The endeavor only costs €1.60 total for the day when all is said and done, but the hold on your card (incase you plan on stealing the bike) is €200. And if you plan to rent two, thats almost $500 in American dollars being held on your card. Also make sure you hear the bike properly click back into it's next station because one of ours didn't, and you could spend the rest of the trip wondering if you'll have money left over in your account from this bike transaction... either way... the €200 bike ride was one of the funnest things we did in Bordeaux. It's an awesome, easy, and fast way to pop over to different parts of town (like Bastille). Bastille is technically a bordering town, right across the famous Garrone river, but it's more of a neighborhood and after checking it out we went back to the center of Bordeaux to walk the streets and look around.
Since this is a short tour of France, one day in a city is pretty much all you get - however it's do-able and at least gives you the feel for different places. Heading out from Bordeaux we hit this small town in wine country named Blaye around blue time, the 15 minutes before dusk when everything has that blueish tint. Parked by a small castle and strolled around inside smoking a spliff, then popped into a small yet classy wine shop just before they closed and purchased our one fine wine of the trip; a Cotes de Blaye 2004. Quite classy, and still only 12 euros! Got back on the road and headed for Nantes.
We hit this city mostly due to it's location on the way back to Paris to cut up the drive, however I'm glad we stopped. This was a bustling university town and on a Friday night, us being foreigners had people approaching us left and right - making me feel somewhat of a celebrity when people were quite literally walking up to you and inviting you to parties.
Again, only shitty chain restaurants and Kebab places were open, so falafel it was. It was at this Kebab restaurant where I twisted my ankle returning back from the restroom (located down a creepy back alley and up the stairs) and was approached by an Iranian woman who comforted me like a mother. She told me to stop crying, and repeated over and over again how beautiful I was. She held ice on my ankle and loved every fiber of my being in that moment. She took care of me in more ways than one, and I will always remember her.
We finished our wine, smoked a spliff, watched Always Sunny in Philadelphia using a fake VPN (using a VPN app which is a really sick travel hack for watching American tv) and went to bed leaving only 3 hours of sleep before we had to get up and keep driving. I'd say the timing of everything wasn't all that well thought out, but the crippling anxiety of missing your flight will energize anyone. After dropping my travel partner off at the airport, I was excited to have a day in Paris by myself before heading home the following day. All I had to do was refill gas, head to Paris, and find the rental car agency. Should be easy, right?
I'd say overall, know going into traveling that most things aren't going to go your way. You'll spend the day walking to museums that are closed, you'll miss the metro (or get on the wrong way), reservations will end up always costing more when you get there, and you'll most certainly always somehow run out of cash even though you thought you brought enough. You will inevitably not sleep as much as you'd like (even on 'vacation') and you may fail to read signs or pay attention long enough to understand you're putting DIESEL gas in a tiny ass Fiat that definitely runs off unleaded ONLY. It's when things don't go the way you planned, when you fuck up, when you're broken down under a bridge 30 minutes outside Paris without any money or WiFi, that you realize who you are in these moments. What you choose to do and how you choose to handle the situation you find yourself in will tell you more about yourself than you think.
For me this was a very expensive 5 minute mistake that ended up being a 6 hour ordeal from start to finish. My car broke down 30 minutes outside Paris and it wasn't until THAT moment when I realized why... the DIESElL fuel.. in a Fiat. *SMH* I met some amazing humans while stuck under the underpass that day who helped me when I was alone, even though some didn't speak even one word of English. Props to the French people, I will forever stand up for their rude stereotype if even just due to those few experiences. One was a man who called his daughter (who spoke english) from his shitty french burner phone who then conference called the rental car agency to let them know what had happened and where I was.
After 2 hours I was losing hope that anyone was coming, and although the man spent a good amount of time with me, he still had a life and had to leave. Another woman pulled over about 30 minutes later (the whole time I'm just cleaning out the car and cursing at the street) and she spoke English very well. She called the agency again, gave them the right address for where I was (the correct address usually helps) and confined it would be okay before she drove away. Another hour later the tow truck guy comes, and even though we use google translate for an hour to communicate, he's still very helpful for only knowing the word 'yes'. After a few metro rides I find myself at the rental car agency and I'm so exhausted, yet thankful to be done with the whole thing I stop in a nearby cafe and cry out all the pressure from the day. The guy behind the counter randomly checks on me, sort of encourages me to stay in my corner, but never asks anything from me. I got out of there a few hours later feeling shitty, but alive.
I treated myself to an actual dinner and got a little drunk and passed out in my hostel. Sometimes we don't get that last day to do what we want, sometimes we make mistakes that cost a lot, but in the end I'll never make that mistake again and I got to meet some very generous humans that proved to me there's still good in the bad. This also made me realize it would help to speak more of the language of the country you plan to visit before you find yourself lost in it. And last but not least, to read directions carefully :)
QUICK TRAVEL HACKS:
- getting wifi at mc donald's as a life hack (pulling up GPS before you leave, stays loaded)
- cheating metro tickets
- walk more than you metro if you can, good to catch small street finds along the way
- make your own sandwiches from bodega store finds, cheaper than eating out every meal
- spaghetti in a bag
- bring plastic glasses / silverware for drinking / eating on the go (aka in the car)
- take photo of metro maps on your phone so you can easily reference map + directions without wifi
- learn at least the words 'sorry' - 'excuse me' - 'thank you' - 'hello' / 'bye' (especially sorry...)
- eat and drink just outside of tourist attractions, in small section of town for cheaper prices (screw the hype)
- gelato and/or crepes at least once while you're there
- splurge on one good bottle of wine (still can get really good wine for around €20)
- take the chance to eat in public random spots (not just cute cafes)
- the french eat a lot of bread... for almost every meal, every day
- the dollar to euro exchange rate is SHIT
- tolls. lots of them. not cheap.
- can trust just about any cheese you try to be v tasty and filling
- even cheap wine in France is still bomb wine so you can keep it under €5 per bottle
- fav city overall was Bordeaux - metropolitan modern city with a chill / historical vibe
- know that at any moment, any toilet you come across could be completely different than the last (for example, no outer rim or lid, an odd way to flush, pushing buttons to flush or open doors, etc.)
- visa works everywhere, american express does not. make sure you have enough money for city activities that require a deposit or hold (for example: city bikes requiring a 200 euro hold)
- take advantage of wifi when ever you can! screenshot important documents or info you need for later
- smaller districts or neighborhoods are more fun and authentic than hanging out in tourist areas
- it's very important to pay attention to which gas your car takes
That about wraps up my short but beautiful Tour de France. Didn't get to see everything, and you can't spend too long in each place, but getting the feel for 5 different cities in just 4 days is do-able. My sense of appreciation for France and the French people has grown immensely, and next time I think about road tripping in Europe, I will definitely be better at considering logistics.