This time of year, travel publications regularly unveil their “top destinations” lists. We’re not being critical of the practice, of course; it’s a tradition we jovially participate in as well. But we could simplify things by giving a few cities permanent spots on the roster. Places like London and Paris would be two of them.
Though both European metropolises are steeped in historic grandeur, each has a way of consistently reinventing itself with restaurants, hotels and cultural activities. On our last visit, we took in as many sights and sampled as many local eateries as we possibly could, all while internalizing just how well these places keep up with the times while staying true to their past.
Mimic this nearly weeklong itinerary and you, too, will see the best that these iconic destinations have to offer.
The pairing of lunch, a lager and any lingering jetlag will make for a short evening for most people. However, if you’ve somehow pushed through the time change, make the quick walk over to Hyde Park. A portion of the 350-acre attraction sits right across the street from your hotel, so you can always visit a flower garden or simply go for a long stroll before calling it a night.
The traditional breakfast served at Grosvenor House Suite’s The Atrium is good fuel for a busy day of exploring London with City Wonders, a premier tour company that specializes in weaving you through the shortest lines to get you VIP access of the top attractions.
See exactly what it means with the Best of Royal London tour. Its itinerary calls for hitting many of the city’s major sights — this includes the London Bridge, River Thames and Buckingham Palace — but doing so in the most expedient and exclusive way possible. So, expect to be the first person to enter the Tower of London that day and have the closest, most unobstructed view of the changing of the guard.
When you finish the tour, make the eight-block walk over to Piccadilly Circus, where you’ll encounter all sorts of shops and spots for lunch.
You’ll need a reprieve back at the hotel, especially considering you still have a big night ahead at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Savoy. Dinner at the hotel’s Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill is an elegant experience filled with Dover sole and West Mersea rock oysters, yet it plays second fiddle to the fabled American Bar.
It all makes sense, considering that the lounge’s famed bartenders have regularly served drinks to stars of every industry since the late 19th century. Become a legend in your own right by confidently ordering a round of Bronze Guardians (vodka, apple, pine, lemon verbena, chamomile, lemon juice and syrup) for the table.
Since you’ve gotten a decent taste of London by now, use today to get out of the city some. Oxford is a picturesque, history-filled destination that’s only an hour-and-20-minute train ride from Paddington Station, making it perfect for a day trip. Do your best to get on the train before 9 a.m.
Once you step from the station, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to another world. Seeing as how Oxford has inspired some of our top writers (Lewis Carroll’s Alice is based on a dean’s daughter), greatest scholars (Edmond Halley studied the stars here), most polarizing politicians (Bill Clinton allegedly “did not inhale” at a local pub in the ’60s) and biggest movies (portions of the Harry Potter series were shot here), your emotions will be warranted.
When you come off your flying broomstick, you’ll likely be hungry. Picture-perfect High Street overflows with more cafés and quaint bistros than you’ll know what to do with. Have your pick at any of them, but make sure you find your way to the Covered Market for Ben’s Cookies, a bakery selling chocolate chip treats so good that you’ll ask why City Wonder hasn’t put together a separate tour strictly for seeing how the sweets were baked.
After your day of walking around the colleges of Oxford, reward yourself with an evening out to sample from London’s esteemed culinary scene. Five-Star The Dorchester’s The Grill wows with impeccable service and tender roast while Jumeirah Carlton Tower’s The Rib Room Bar & Restaurant lives up to its name with standout steaks and an impressive bar that mixes drinks like the Basil Sour (vodka, lemon juice, ginger syrup and basil olive oil) for the discerning sipper.
Trains leave for Paris throughout the day, so there’s no particular urgency here. But since you have so much in store for the City of Light, get on over there as soon as possible. The 9:17 a.m. train will work. The two-hour-and-20-minute ride gives you time to eat the Danish you purchased at the station and finish any sleep cut short by the early start.
By the time you collect your things, it’ll be around 1 p.m. Check into your room at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Hotel Napoleon Paris, one of the city’s most ideally situated hotels. Sitting on bustling Champs-Élysées, the Greco-style boutique beauty is so close to the Arc de Triomphe that you can capture your next Facebook avatar just outside the front entrance.
Once you finish your requisite snapping and shopping, step just off the main strip for your afternoon meal at Miss KŌ. At first glance, this Asian spot may seem out of place in the Arc de Triomphe’s shadow, but after you’ve tried the Yummy Tom (steamed cod, fresh vegetables and rice) or one of the sushi platters, you’ll want to thank its owners for setting up shop where it did.
After lunch and a quick nap, hop on the metro near the hotel around 4 p.m. Get off at the Palais Royal – Musée Du Louvre Station. (Don’t worry — you won’t need to make any transfers on this straight shot.)
Tuileries Garden and the neighboring Seine provide remarkable photo backdrops. Of course, the Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid is a can’t-miss site, too — if you can find a spot without pedestrians in your shot long enough to say “fromage.”
As the name suggests, City Wonders’ Louvre Museum Evening VIP Tour and Wine Tasting allows you to bypass the winding queue to get into the building. Once you’re inside, you’ll only see a fraction of the 460,000 items — the tour is 3.5 hours not 3.5 years, after all — but highlights such as the Great Sphinx of Tanis, The Winged Victory of Samothrace and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People will certainly be pointed out. We’ve been told that some painting of a mystery woman by Leonardo da Vinci is on display here as well.
When you finish exploring the Louvre, the second part of the tour will lead you a few blocks over to Les Caves du Louvre for an evening of wine tasting, bottle label designing and fine dining.
Let the Michelangelo and Botticelli masterpieces that you just admired in the galleries inspire your own work on the labels. Then let the free-flowing chardonnay and pinot keep you busy.
Start your morning off with breakfast at Hotel Napoleon. Trust us, you’re going to need the calories for the long, fun day ahead. The train ride to Versailles is a 40-minute breeze from the heart of Paris.
Just know, though, that the earlier you make the ride, the fewer people you have to contend with in the lines once you get there. (Tip: If you don’t beat the masses to Versailles Palace’s front gates, outsmart them by walking around to the back of the stately structure and exploring the acres of green space that don’t require a ticket to explore.)
Once you do make your way inside the massive building, you’ll pass rooms filled with tapestried walls and ostentatious light fixtures. You’ll see portraits of Louis XIV in heeled shoes with red bottoms. (Yes, those same shoes were the inspiration for Christian Louboutin’s now-iconic footwear.) You’ll walk through the Hall of Mirrors and take an excessive amount of pictures.
After perusing the halls and having lunch at a restaurant in the garden, head back toward Paris. Get off at the Eiffel Tower stop. Remain at street level, if you’d like — views from the bridges over the Seine are some of the most stunning in the city.
But taking the ride to the top is more than worth the effort. From 900 feet up, you can see the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel and other landmarks while, at the same time, witnessing for yourself why the city is a “top destination” contender every year.
Even from as high up as you’ll be in the Eiffel Tower, you probably can’t see Cinq-Mars. The compact French restaurant is so tucked away on a quiet street near Musée d’Orsay that your cab driver might get turned around.
But the journey proves so worth it. There’s just something in the air at this locally beloved eatery. Some of the time it’ll be casual conversations across the handful of tables. On other occasions, it’s the aroma of turbot or free-range chicken coming from the kitchen.
Seal the evening with a fine bottle of 2006 Mercurey or 2008 Morgon, and make sure to toast to two cities you were able to experience in one thrill-packed trip.