Originally, this post was my final assignment for a terrific travel writing class I took earlier this year. A couple of years back, my friend Trish and I pulled one last all-nighter when we had an overnight layover in Paris. I had just been there the year before, but we thought it would be an interesting way to see the city and have a unique life experience. Instead of recounting our crazy efforts to stay awake, I have developed an itinerary for any other 30-something intrepid soul who would rather see the City of Lights than sleep in an airport. Enjoy!
Turn an overnight layover into the experience of a lifetime in Paris
You may remember pulling an all-nighter writing papers and cramming for finals. You may also think the experience is best left in your past after getting your diploma. However, for women wandering the world, an overnight layover at an incidental stopping point is a problem with a built-in solution. An all-nighter is an exciting opportunity for a new, completely unexpected perspective on a city – even Paris, the most-visited city in the world. With a little bit of planning, an overnight layover in Paris will yield the most unique experience of all – having the city all to yourself.
You just have to stay up all night.
Paris may be the City of Lights, but it isn’t the city that never sleeps. While it is very safe, almost everything is closed. To navigate and stay oriented as exhaustion sets in, bring a map or buy a Plan de Paris in advance. Then, clear customs and leave your bags checked through, because an action-packed all-night itinerary awaits.
Getting in and around
To maximize transportation options into city from Charles de Gaulle airport, aim to arrive before 11:00 p.m. The last RER train from CDG (€9.25 October 2012) to the city leaves around that time, arriving in Paris just before midnight. The Cars Air France bus (€12 one way, €20 return, discounted if you buy online) also runs until 10:00 p.m., but if you miss the last one, there is also the Noctilien overnight bus service (€7.60). As a last resort, taxis are available all day and night (approximately €50).
The Metro stops running at 1:00 a.m., but all-nighters still have a few transportation options: feet, bike, and night bus. Sign up for a one-day pass on the Vélib bike-sharing system for cheap, classic Parisian transportation (like I did on my first-ever trip to Paris). The system can be accessed day and night, and with less traffic on the streets and a vast network of dedicated lanes, biking is a safe, easy option for navigating the city all night. The Noctilien bus service runs a series of convenient routes covering the highlights of the city, for the price of a regular T+ bus ticket (€1.70 each or a carnet of 10 for €12,70, can also be used on the Métro).
1h00: Catch the last light show
Seeing the Eiffel Tower is an essential Paris experience and watching the hourly light show is a must. The last show of the night is 1h00, except during the summer months when the last show is at 2h00. Getting to the Tower may be a logistical challenge as the Métro winds down, the next best bet is to head towards the Seine and watch the show from Pont Neuf.
2h00: See the sights
No sights or museums are open in the overnight hours, there is still plenty to see on the outside. Iconic structures like the pyramid at the Louvre and beautiful buildings like the Opéra Garnier are lit up all night. With no crowds of tourists jockeying for position in front of landmarks, the only real challenge may be taking too many unobstructed photos.
The odd exception to “nothing is open” is the main branch of the post office at 52, rue du Louvre, open 24 hours a day, convenient for writing home mid-adventure. Drop your postcards in the mail then head over to Place de la Concorde. Normally a frenzy of traffic, it is quiet and serene at night, perfect for watching the magnificent Fontaines de la Concorde, which run all night and feature the gods and goddesses of the sea enjoying their natural habitat.
From the fountains, walk up the Champs-Elysées, which is well-lit and a little more populated overnight. The main shopping area is also a great place for a bite to eat, a quick break for your feet, and some window shopping. Enjoy the larger-than-life projection of Charles de Gaulle’s statue on the Grand Palais, ramble by the gardens around the Elysée Palace, look for lights on at the official residence of the President of France to see if Monsieur le Président is up working late. Walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe to see it traffic-free and dramatically lit.
3h00: Eat and drink
A rest and refuelling stop will be required at some point in the evening. Most restaurants and fast food stops close at 2h00, including McDonald’s and Quick – France’s answer to fast food – but there are late-night fine dining experiences that should not be missed. The number of options are surprising, including L’Alsace (38, av. des Champs-Elysées), a 24-hour restaurant serving German-style cuisine of the Alsace region, and La Poule au Pot (7, rue Vauvilliers), open until 5h00, serving the famous, hearty chicken soup of kings and queens. Both offer prix fixe menus in the €30-range for a three-course culinary experience in the middle of the night. Fortified by rest and food – and maybe a coffee or two – head back to tackle more of the city before the sun rises.
When in Paris, regardless of the time of day, it is always the right time of day to do a little window shopping – faire la lèche vitrine or “window licking” en français. Nothing compares to the window shopping experience in Paris. The stores of fashion dreams along the Champs-Elysées, Avenue George V, Avenue Montaigne, and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré – Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel, and Dior – have equally dream-worthy windows, works of art that bring runway fashions to life in a completely different way. Overnight window shopping is an ideal wallet-friendly solution, since there is no way to succumb to temptation and go inside.
5h00: Getting tired? Take the Métro
If the walking, biking, and lack of sleep are starting take their toll, the good news is the Métro starts running again around 5h00, giving all-nighters a way to cover more ground before sunrise.
6h00: Sunrise in Montmartre
The reward for staying up all night is watching the sun rise over Paris. The best view of the city, day or night, is on higher ground in Montmartre. Climb up the steps of Sacré-Cœur for the best possible view of the city as it starts to wake up. The street cleaners and other Paris city workers are starting their day by this time, and it’s a great opportunity to practice some French and snag a recommendation for a café au lait and croissant for breakfast.
7h00: One last look
Before heading back to the airport, use the Métro to see the sights by day without the crowds. Other travelers will have started to find their way to the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame, but it will be far less crowded than during opening hours.
Sticking it out until 7h30 has its rewards. Classic Paris establishments like Ladurée and Angelina open early so there is time to stock up on macarons and grab a famous cup of chocolat before your flight.
Leave plenty of time to return to the airport in daytime traffic (45 minutes on the train, longer for everything else). Since you’re already checked in for your connecting flight, you just need to brace yourself for getting through airport security on zero hours of sleep.
With a third, fourth, or fifth wind completely spent, be prepared for exhaustion. While falling into a deep sleep on the plane, or even the floor of the airport, take comfort in knowing your last all-nighter was not spent cramming words into a paper about Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein. You just wandered the same streets that inspired them, at pretty much the same time of day.
Have you ever pulled an all-nighter for an overnight layover? What did you and what you suggest for others?