Lessons from Paris, Semi-Solo
If you have the means to fly to Paris for a weekend, I highly suggest you do so. If you’re contemplating going solo, I say go for it. If your Airbnb falls through at the last minute, and your Parisian friend offers to host you at her mother’s apartment, definitely say yes—even if that means your solo trip doesn’t go exactly as planned.
I had wanted to travel by myself for a long time and thought Paris might be a good place to do it. I had been before, but so long ago that I knew my experience would be completely different. Inspired by the many women in my life who have traveled solo and loved it, I booked my ticket for Thanksgiving weekend, ready to put their advice into good use: Go to the city center and find your way from there. Make friends. Or don’t. Drink all the wine, read a book, do what you want. Go with the flow.
And so I went with the flow. When my Airbnb fell through, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t have the full solo experience I had wanted. But staying with locals was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. My friend Floriane and her mom couldn’t have been more wonderful hosts. Flo introduced me to her go-to first stop, fresh off the plane: a local boulangerie for a hand-formed baguette tradition. We walked by her high school and over to the Left Bank to take in the last of the fall foliage at the Jardin du Luxembourg, and then to her favorite cafe in the Marais. Her mom even cooked an incredible Thanksgiving dinner, made even more delicious by the generous use of French butter.
Even with all of that, I was still able to spend most of the trip exploring the city on my own—and came away with a few lessons of my own, which I’ll add to the list of solo travel advice from my friends:
Yes, you might get lonely—and that’s okay. Being in an unfamiliar environment where you don’t speak the language, alone with only your thoughts, can feel daunting and sometimes a little awkward. I spent my whole first day walking around the city on my own in a jet-lagged haze, and it did start to wear on me throughout the day. I’ll say this: Having a list of places I wanted to go and eat bookmarked on Google Maps helped. Memorizing some French phrases helped. Bringing a book with me helped. Drinking a couple of glasses of fantastic (and cheap) Beaujolais Nouveau at a crowded bistro, where somehow everyone who came in knew the bartenders, and frenetic jazz music blared over animated conversation—well, that certainly helped. Before I knew it, I had somehow managed to stretch my dinner over small meals at three of the restaurants found on many a “best of” list in one night. My favorite experience was dining at Clown Bar, where reservations are usually needed—but I was able to snag a seat at the bar, where a kind bartender recommended wine and fed me complimentary saucisson as I waited to indulge in a beautifully overwhelming foie gras and duck pie with yuzu. My lonely, jet-lagged haze transformed into something warm and full as I floated back home on the Metro.
If you want to do it, do it. Even if it scares you. Floriane had mentioned renting Vélib' bikes into the city, but when she got sick on the day we planned to go—my last day—I was still determined to try it. I was nervous to set out on my own, but I liked the idea being able to take in as much of the city as possible. Turns out a day of leisurely biking for most is a high-adrenaline extreme sport for me. Nearly every part of the ride was a struggle, starting with renting the bike in the first place (where of course, the first bike I took out was broken.) After I finally got moving, it took me awhile to get comfortable switching between bike lanes and city traffic. All seemed to be going well after I successfully reached my first destination, the Bastille Market. So I confidently biked further into the city and along the Seine in hopes of reaching Musée de l'Orangerie before it closed. A romantic idea—until I hit cobblestones. And then stairs. Up to that point, I had managed not to fall off my bike, but in trying to push the clunky bike up the stairs, it fell on me and took me down with it. With the help of a visibly concerned stranger, I dusted myself off and made it to the museum, only to learn that all of the nearby bike docks were completely full. Bruised and cold, phone battery draining, I anxiously biked from dock to dock in busy traffic looking for an open space, finally finding one nearly back to where I started. I never thought I’d be so happy to see an empty bike dock, even if it meant I wouldn't be able to make it to the museum in the end. As frustrated as I felt, I was proud of myself for trying something that scared me—and naturally, rewarded myself with some incredible food. Which brings me to my next lesson...
Go with your gut. Literally. My favorite meals came not upon the recommendation of any restaurant critic, but rather by the happy coincidences that can happen in a great food city. Following the crowds at the Bastille Market brought me to a seafood stand about 10 minutes before it closed, serving oysters, sea urchin, and 1 Euro wine. Listening to my hungry body after that long, difficult day of biking led me from wallowing in defeat at a bar to the closest restaurant I could find with good reviews—and the best meal of my trip. With wine, snails, steak, and three pots of crème brûlée, I bid a sweet goodbye to Paris and started plotting my next solo (or semi-solo) trip.