Travel Story What not to miss in Paris — and how to skip the queues

Any trip to the French capital should include these world-famous tourist landmarks and side trips. 

Monet’s Garden is in full bloom. Foxgloves, irises, dahlias, tulips and lupins tumble in a glorious array across beds and borders. Beneath the willows, the oft-painted Japanese-inspired water-lily pond and the much-photographed Japanese bridge are framed with lavender wisteria. A tree-shaded path leads around the pond to a grove of high, rustling bamboo.

Henri, our guide, is an art historian and clearly loves his subject. He speaks of the life and career of Claude Monet and his famous garden. Monet painted his beloved gardens — his solace for more than 40 years — in every season and light. He painted the celebrated water lilies series over several decades, and versions are in Paris at the Musee de l’Orangerie and scattered around the great art galleries of the world. 

At the end of the garden tour, Henri returns us to Monet’s ivy-draped house in the Clos Normand garden. We wander the rooms, each one painted a different pastel shade, as chosen by Monet. Furnished as in Monet’s time, the rooms are filled with artworks and memorabilia owned by the great artist. Delightful views of the garden from Monet’s bedroom window reward our climb up steep, narrow stairs.

Monet’s Garden is in the town of Giverney, 75km north-east of Paris. The main road passes the Bois de Boulogne, a surprisingly large forested area of about 850ha where the kings of France once hunted.

On past visits to Paris, we have not done justice to some of the major “must sees”. So, before heading home from this three-day visit, we purchased tickets online for small-group “skip-the-line” guided tours to Monet’s Garden, the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, as well as the Moulin Rouge experience. 

Leaving Monet’s Garden, we stop for a leisurely white tablecloth lunch under the trees at the Moulin de Fourges on the banks of the Epte River. Back on the coach, we continue to the Palace of Versailles. 

Superlatives understate the magnificence and grandeur of the palace. It was the principal residence of three King Louis, starting with Louis XIV — the Sun King — along with Marie Antoinette.

Passing through the golden gates, we follow our guide — equipped with a Whisper system that transmits his voice to our audio earpieces — through halls of priceless sculptures, paintings, ornaments and other fine art. 

Lit by countless glittering chandeliers, the grandiose Hall of Mirrors dazzles. The hall’s central windows look out over the perfectly manicured Gardens of Versailles to the estate of Marie Antoinette beyond.

The Royal Apartments look more than comfortable. We view the queens’ bedchamber and learn that in order to verify royal succession, the various queens gave birth before a small audience to ensure their babies were not switched for others. 

On our return to Paris, we dine in the relaxed patio setting of the Maison du Danemark restaurant on the Champs-Elysees. Overlooking the fountain, we enjoy a  fine salad, along with vegetable soup, a duck cottage pie and chocolate mousse.

The next morning, we meet Dario — another art historian — beside the Louvre Pyramid in Place du Carrousel. He enthusiastically shares his love of art on an intriguing, anecdote-laden morning of world-famous artworks, discussing the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and works by Titian, Raphael, Van Gogh, Renoir and Rodin. 

Still talking art, Dario leads us to a small boulangerie, where we buy baguettes and cheese, then picnic on steps beside the Seine. Next, at the nearby Musee d’Orsay — the old central railway station — he leads us through a fascinating two-hour masterclass tracing the evolution of French Impressionism.

In the evening, we have dinner at Restaurant Le Sud, next door to our hotel on the Boulevard Gouvion-Saint-Cyr. It is a colourful, cheery place with a Provencal motif, and the Mediterranean cuisine — tomatoes filled with goats cheese, duck breast with mushroom and potato — is excellent. The creme brulee is a masterpiece. 

The next morning, we ride the Metro to the famous Galeries Lafayette department store on the Boulevard Haussmann. Opened in 1912, the central atrium is crowned by a colourful glass dome. Five galleries, where the top fashion houses of Europe preside, rise grandly. A gourmet food court fills the lower ground floor and the must-visit Lafayette Cafe on the roof terrace serves coffee, pastries and lunches, as well as magnificent panoramic views over Paris. 

We save our sweet-tooth experience for nearby Laduree, home of the macaron. This gracious other-era teahouse serves a tantalising selection of its legendary macarons. 

From here, we Metro to Odeon station and walk to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a park of sheltered flower gardens, terraces, imposing statues and the Luxembourg Palace, now the home of the French Senate.

In front of the palace, remote-controlled miniature sailing yachts scud about the ornamental lake. The thump of a Sousa march draws us to the bandstand, where a youth orchestra is performing to those seated beneath the chestnut trees.

Our last evening, at the Moulin Rouge, is worth waiting for. Skipping the queue thanks to our booking, we walk beneath the iconic red windmill through the plush foyer into the lavish gold and burgundy theatre to our table. 

After an excellent four-course champagne dinner, the overture heralds the curtain raising. Stunning dancers in extravagant feather and sequinned costumes float across an enormous stage in the arms of their partners. The grand finale is the uproarious — once infamous, but now legendary cancan.

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