I’m hardly the first person to make a case for the benefits of traveling solo. You get the freedom to do whatever you want, you get to be in touch with yourself, etc etc.
I’ll say it now, I definitely prefer to travel with people. Friends, family, strangers… even when people drive me crazy, it’s nice to have company. But I also am a believer in the importance of spending time with yourself, to test your comfort levels, to spend time in your own mind, figure things out at your own pace. Everyone with the means should do a solo trip in their 20s. It doesn’t have to be backpacking in a faraway country for months at a time. It doesn’t have to be as glamorous as Instagram influencers make it. It can be a weekend escape to a different city in your own country. Or a few days spent in a place you once knew, with fresh eyes.
I’ve traveled “alone” a few times, I suppose. For short work trips. For partial segments of trips in Taiwan (which doesn’t really count because I have more family there than in the states). I went to Croatia by myself after college, but doesn’t really count because I spent the following weeks living with 6 fellow volunteers from around the world, strangers who quickly became friends. I spent half a day wandering around Rome by myself (first time in Italy), waiting for my friend to get out of class. That was the first time I got the taste of being somewhere foreign, alone, a weird kind of peace and clarity.
For me, I knew I wanted to do some kind of solo trip, but I kept pushing it off. I didn’t want to plan, and deal with the stress and anxiety that comes with traveling alone. So my considerations were simple. First, I wanted to go somewhere where I want to go, where I didn’t want to have to wait for a travel buddy. Second, because of the whole not wanting to stress about it, I opted to go to a place that I was fairly familiar with, a revisit. Third, along those same lines of a stress-less trip, it had to be a place where I can get by easily language-wise, and get around easily transportation-wise. Fourth, as a female solo traveler, I opted for a place I can feel safe moving around by myself. Finally, I decided a shorter trip would be best (I feared if I spent too much time with myself, I’d drive myself crazy), and I wanted to go in knowing what I want out of it.
So last year, after two weeks in Spain and Portugal with a friend, I stayed in Europe for an extra week, going back to the place where it all began. Paris. Well, by way of Brussels, but we’ll get to that another time.
Paris was the first place I ever visited in Europe. I studied abroad there, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. Since studying abroad five years ago, I hadn’t gone back. I wanted to revisit Paris before I lost what I had, while I still could cobble up a basic sentence in French, to see if I could still navigate the web of streets by memory. There wasn’t much I wanted to do there except wander. Re-familiarize myself. Which was perfect, because it meant minimal planning and minimal stress. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the experience ended up being so much more.
Some things, like the breathtaking moment you catch a view of the Eiffel Tower, never change. Other things, like the infuriating Bird scooters ditched all over Trocadéro, do remind you that even Paris is subject to the worst of the modern times.
It was healing in a way, and enlightening. I learned about myself, and I learned about Paris. Five years and a lifetime’s difference. A city that felt so familiar, like visiting an old friend, but a friend who also is changing herself.
As Wes Anderson once said,
“Paris is a place where, for me, just walking down a street that I’ve never been down before is like going to a movie or something. Just wandering the city is entertainment.”
It didn’t take more than an hour of wandering before I felt healed. Sunny, even.
With no one but myself to please, I was practically prancing around the city, like a kid in a candy shop, saying hello to old friends: Palais Garnier, the view atop the Pompidou, the bustle along Rue Montorgueil, the buckwheat galettes at Marché de la Bastille. My favorite bridge in the world. The statue of Louis XIV at Place des Victoires.
Same bridge, same angle, taken five years apart. Same me, still obsessed with the beauty of this bridge. Still not over it. Probably never will be.
On the left, views from my bedroom window, taken my first full day in Paris, in June of 2014.
On the right, a peek back into my former life, taken my first full day back in Paris, in May of 2019.
Still probably the most precious real estate I’ve ever called home. I couldn’t have asked for a better study abroad host apartment location. Super central, in a historic “place,” capable of charming me even on a rainy day (which, let me tell you, was pretty much the entire first week of my time there). It’s strange how sometimes physically going back to a place can transport you back to a different time, a different mind.
Sure, it would have been so much fun to go to Paris with a travel companion. But it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t feel as personal. A reunion on my own terms, held to my own (very very lax) timetable. Just me and Paris. A few days with no itinerary, taking detours as I please, only calling it a day when my tired feet made me.
While Paris manages to maintain its glamor to an stubbornly impeccable standard, it’s hard to deny that a lot has changed over the past five years.
The Paris I once knew was a little more rose-colored, a little more naive, a little less burdened. So much had happened since then. Terrorist attacks, elections, protests upon protests… a devastating fire at Notre Dame.
I wasn’t expecting to be so damn happy on this little solo excursion. I had traveled to so many other places since then. I didn’t expect Paris’s charm to be so… potent. I always thought Paris was like “basic” choice. Everyone’s “favorite city in Europe,” every girl’s dream. I almost get embarrassed when people ask me where I studied abroad and I say Paris. Like, of course, Paris, the obvious choice. I suppose London would be even more stereotypical. But it ain’t Prague or Seville or Tokyo or even Rome. As much as it pains the hipster in me to say so, I absolutely unconditionally adore Paris. Despite all its flaws, which I know all too well. It’s like how I imagine many people feel about Disney. Paris is my Disney. The magic works on me. Which reminds me… at some point I should try going to Disneyland Paris.
for some bizarre reason, this exact view of the seine is a recurring setting in my dreams. it’s like one moment I’m back in my college doors and them BOOM, here I am, overlooking the seine to the conciergerie. much of cité was locked down this time around, but from the right angles, it’s still the same perfection.
high key upset that my favorite “street foods” have increased their prices:(
but the galettes at marche de la bastille and the salted caramel ice cream at berthillon are just as drool-worthy as I remembered
In other news, I’m happy to report that I still know those streets very well. That I can still navigate from one landmark to another without wifi. As for my language skills… let’s just say there’s a lot left to be desired, and I should probably get back to square one… ok maybe square two, and start re-learning the language. It’s tough to be in a place by yourself, where you feel so comfortable moving around, the opposite of lost, but you know as soon as you open your mouth, you’ll give yourself away. So I barely spoke at all over those three days. Only to waiters and baristas in broken French (they usually switched to English pretty quickly lol), and to this random old man who insisted on walking me over to the metro station (I wasn’t planning on taking the metro), and engaging in overly enthusiastic (for parisian standards) conversation about his time teaching French in Japan (yes, he was eager to speak with me because I’m Asian and he used to live in Asia; yes, this conversation happened fully in English).
Thinking back, I sometimes wish I stepped outside my comfort zone a little more, tried a little harder to talk to people, to live that aspirational traveler lifestyle, making friends abroad. They make it seem so easy on TV. But I was content spending quality time with my boule of Berthillon in silence.
i know the way up to montmartre all too well. i’m like a walking tourist diagram: i can look over the cityscape and point out all the landmarks along the horizon.
it cracks me up that the “internet” graffiti still persists. but it was well worth the climb to remind me that the pantheon has lost its construction hat from 2014, so we’re down one eyesore at least.
Another thing that cracks me up is the stark difference between the photos I took five years ago and the photos from this more recent trip. There are some passable shots in the archive, but there are so many more questionable photos…
But there’s something to be said about retracing your steps and capturing the same scenes with distinct perspectives. Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to different patterns of movement, I’ve learned to see the world around me differently, to compose my views differently (whether literally or figuratively). It’s interesting to see that manifested side-by-side through photographs, an evolution of taste, education, aesthetic over time.
I used to joke that when I go back to Paris, I’m most excited to visit all my favorite buildings. Just make my rounds, say hello to some old friends I used to see on my walks every day. But then I went back to Paris and that’s exactly what I did for three days.
Had to crop out the weird trampoline thing suspended under the glass roof this time around. Guess even Galeries Lafayette isn’t immune to experiential retail…
The part that didn’t change was the familiar dynamics of bus-loads of Chinese tourists scrambling to buy Louis Vuitton by the dozen.
If Galeries Lafayette is my consistent source of anxiety, Rue Sainte-Anne is my home base, where I can recharge among my people. Aka, where all the Asians flock to get their fill of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese food without venturing out of the pristine central arrondissements.
I used to live just steps away from here, and still wish I could waltz over to ramen.
It was like a dream. And reasonably so… I’ve had this recurring day dream over and over in the past five years. Playing in my mind exactly what I’d do if I could be transported to Paris. What direction I’d wander, where I would linger, which detours I’d take. Exactly what I’d see with each turn.
It was like I was simply retracing the steps from a dream, like I already lived my tour of the city in my imagination, and now I was simply experiencing it again more vividly. Predictable, yet potent.
I’m still infatuated with Pont Alexandre III (like why is it ok for a bridge to look this pretty??). I still can’t get over the panoramic view from Pompidou. I am still not fond of the Latin Quarter. And no matter how many times I retrace my steps, the way the light shifts, dancing along the Parisian facades will never not take my breath away. Impressionism may not be my favorite art period (I strongly prefer Baroque and Neoclassicism lol), I can see why they were so obsessed with light. Once you start chasing the light, everything looks different.
Ah, my favorite building in Paris. I remember so vividly the very first time I saw this building. It was on my very first day in town. I had just gotten settled in with my host family, and my host sister took me and my roommate on a mini tour of the neighborhood. Keep in mind, if you live at Place des Victoires, your neighborhood casually includes things like the Louvre, Palais-Royal, Vendôme, and yes, this magnificent building they call the Opéra. It was a cold, rainy day. In fact, I remember being chided by my host mom for wearing sandals (I really really really hate wet socks, I much prefer wet feet). But despite the clouds, when I first turned the corner and saw this on the other side, I was completely stunned. I didn’t realize buildings could look like this in real, modern life. And she introduced it so casually, just another stop on our neighborhood walk. During my time there, I would often take detours just for an excuse to ogle at this architecture. Five years later, still stunning. Still going out of my way to stare at this beauty.
Rue Montorgueil was another stop on that first day tour. My host sister told us it was a market street with great food options. Of course, I was way too sleep deprived at that point to remember the name of it. But just a couple days later I’d stumble back onto this street, and it soon became a regular stop on my day, feeding me many times throughout my stay. Five years later, I still love this street. Several new tenants, but also some tried-and-true favorites. I really don’t think I realized how lucky I was to live a short walk away from this on one end and Rue Sainte-Anne on the other. Foodie heaven.
My concluding reflections ~
First, Paris is timeless. Truly, it ages so well. And with the Olympics coming up, they’re making sure everything is in tip top shape so the city will be looking its best come summer 2024. But regardless, the views will never get old for me. I know that every time I go back, I’ll be able to see it with fresh eyes, notice something I didn’t notice before, appreciate it once more.
Second, being in your 20s is a fraught time, trying to figure out yourself, trying to balance your pressure to become a responsible adult and your aspirations that extend far beyond your reality. Doing a solo trip helps. It’s a good exercise in getting to know yourself, spending time with yourself, achieving some sense of clarity and peace with yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your motivations and deterrences. It’s healthy to take yourself out of your adult life routine for a little bit.
Idk what this says about me, but I definitely noticed the new graffiti and missing old street art in this plaza.
Looks like Galerie Vivienne got a fresh coat of paint. We could all use a fresh coat of paint every once in a while.
When I popped into the galerie this time around, I immediately noticed something was different. It felt different. I couldn’t quite pinpoint how. It wasn’t until I went back into my 2014 archives that I realized the difference.
This trip to Paris felt like a teaser. And I’m so ready for the feature film release. TBD on whether it’ll be a one-woman show.
[ Last Edited: February 2020 | Last Visited: May 2019 ]