If I suggested you visit the Bastille while in Paris, what would come to mind? A large, abandoned prison that has since fallen into disrepair? A site of proletariat pride and nationalistic importance? Well, that’s what I was expecting to see. As a lifelong history nerd and champion of all that challenges the status quo, the Bastille seemed like the perfect stop on a my whirlwind tour of Paris, especially since my plans to visit Versailles had fallen through.
I have to confess, that’s not completely accurate. I had booked my ticket to Versailles online before I left D.C., and I didn’t realize I’d selected the wrong day until I was halfway to the palace. It turned out that I had bought a ticket for the following day, when I was scheduled to leave Paris on a morning train to London. Oops.
At any rate, there I was: sitting on a crowded metro train at eight in the morning, gripping a ticket to Versailles that I was not going to be able to use. I was in desperate need of a plan, so I picked the Bastille stop off the metro map and hoped for the best. Ironic, right? I intended to visit the symbol of royal excess, only to detour in favor of the spot where the rebellion against said excess began.
Once I emerged from the metro station, I couldn’t help but wonder, So…where’s the prison? After a quick chat with a passerby, I received my answer. This commemorative column, shown above, is all that occupies the place where the famous prison that helped spark the French Revolution once stood. There are some small remains of prison’s original foundation elsewhere in the city, but I didn’t learn that until after returning to the States.
Okay, I understand if a commemorative column isn’t enough to inspire you to start packing your bags. Or some political street art, which caught my eye as I exited the metro. In fact, I’d say the column in of itself is highly skippable, but don’t write off the surrounding streets just yet. What if I told you that a five minute walk from the Bastille monument will bring you to not only the prettiest square in Paris, but perhaps in all of Europe? I bet I have your attention now.
The Bastille offers travelers something rare and coveted: a glimpse into hidden Paris.
I visited Paris in mid-April, so the weather was lovely and I didn’t have to push through the throngs of tourists that descend on the city from June to September. Even so, the city was rather crowded with folks visiting from all corners of the world. I spent about thirty-six hours in Paris, and managed to talk with a couple from Vancouver, a family from New Zealand, two women from Pakistan, and a pair of American girls studying abroad. Not to mention the numerous Parisians I chatted to.
I love meeting people, both natives and fellow travelers, whenever I’m visiting a new place. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of travel, right? However, my first day in Paris had more than one hiccup, and I was still bummed about having to skip Versailles. I desperately craved a spot where I could just decompress and not have to worry about embarrassing myself with my high school French. (The language barrier was a struggle. Turns out, I’d lost a bit of my French since the eleventh grade and the result wasn’t pretty.)
That’s when I stumbled upon Place des Vosges, the charming square that I mentioned earlier. Just look at the above photograph. Remember when I said it might just be the most attractive square in all of Europe? I wasn’t lying, was I? The architecture that surrounds the square is, to me, quintessentially Parisian, and this only enhances the beauty of the place.
To make this square even more interesting, I discovered that it was once the home of Victor Hugo, the famed author of Les Miserables. If you’re a lover of all things Les Mis, you can tour Hugo’s residence every day except for Monday. (I didn’t take the tour, so I can’t speak to its quality, but I thought it was worth mentioning. If anyone has visited the Hugo house, please tell me about your experience in the comments section!)
For the first-time visitor, Paris can be overwhelming. The sheer size of the city is something a traveler can’t understand until he or she attempts to navigate the streets on foot. Deciphering maps has never been my forte, but I almost always travel with my partner, Kevin, who has an excellent sense of direction and rarely gets us lost. (He likes to brag that he has Reykjavik “down pat,” even after spending only forty-eight hours in the city. It’s not just talk, though. He learned that city with remarkable ease.) Kevin, however, was in London attending a business conference while I visited Paris, so I was on my own for my first-ever visit. It should go without saying that I didn’t have access to Google Maps. Curse you, expensive international data roaming! Without a doubt, my first afternoon and evening in Paris had been magical, but I was getting lost at nearly every (wrong) turn, and when I stumbled upon Place des Vosges, I felt as though I’d discovered Paradise.
I bought a croissant, parked myself on one of the square’s many benches, and enjoyed the quiet. I’m not sure if I just won the travel lottery or I arrived in the neighborhood at the right time, but I had the entire square to myself. Trying to find parts of Paris that remain even relatively untouched by tourism and consumerism is tricky – I absolutely hate seeing Zara, Forever 21, H&M, Gucci, and Prada on each street corner of major cities. Tourism is heading to Paris to buy a purse you could purchase anywhere, while travel is experiencing something unique to your destination. Place des Vosges is, without a doubt, that special spot.
The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe ought to be on every visitor’s to-do list, but once you find yourself at wits end with the traffic, crowds, and noise, my advice would be to head to the Bastille. In discovering this lovely neighborhood and square, I learned that I shouldn’t feel guilty about missing Paris’ “must-sees” or not accomplishing everything on my to-do list. I’m sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed Versailles, but Place des Vosges was an unforgettable part of my trip. While those “Top Things To Do” lists that every guidebook peddles can be helpful, never be afraid to get off the beaten path and don’t bemoan all of the sights you didn’t get to see. Oftentimes, we wear ourselves thin by trying to religiously adhere to an itinerary. Enjoy your vacation, and accept that you can’t see everything. Prioritize and reserve time to wander, because getting lost can lead you to a place like Place des Vosges.
My gut tells me that the neighborhood perks up once Victor Hugo’s house opens for tours, which, at the the time of this writing, is ten a.m., Tuesday through Sunday. I arrived at the Bastille metro at about eight-thirty on a Tuesday morning, where there were only a handful of locals to be seen. The neighborhood has plenty of charming cafes, making the Bastille a perfect place to start off your day. Grab a pastry, find a bench with a view, and pretend to be Parisian for a little while.