Visiting London, Paris or New York? Some helpful tips

By Caitlin Kelly

Remember to take a break -- and just enjoy being there!
Remember to take a break — and just enjoy being there!

I recently re-visited Paris, staying three weeks, and London, staying for one. I live just north of New York City, and have for decades, so know the city well as I am there several times a week.

As three of the most popular cities in the world for tourists — and enormous, bustling multi-borough metropolises — they’re also tricky, costly, tiring and confusing for the unwary or unprepared.

Here are 20 money-saving tips from a young woman who has traveled Europe on a budget; many of hers are the same as mine, like renting a home, walking everywhere and slowing down to truly savor your meals.

Here’s a super-trendy/stylish list of things to do/see/try in the Marais from lifestyle blog Lonny.

Here are a few of my tips…

Transportation

Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.

In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.

I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful. I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.

In Paris, you might take a horse-drawn carriage
In Paris, you might take a horse-drawn carriage

Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.

Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.

Spent my life on the Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes
Spent my life on the London Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes

Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!

When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!

This was our dinner for a few early nights at home...
This was our dinner for a few early nights at home…

Lodging

It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?

As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.

In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.

Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.

Shopping

A whole set of blog posts on its own!

If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.

All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.

Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!

 

Dress

These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”

Stop by this terrific chain store in Paris and select a few gorgeous scarves, for men and women
Stop by this terrific chain store in Paris and select a few gorgeous scarves, for men and women

Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.

Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.

Looking down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason, London
Looking down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason, London

London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.

Staying dry/warm

Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.

To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.

Oh, go on!
Oh, go on!

Eating and drinking

London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.

Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,

A cup of tea at the Ritz in London
A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner.  For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!

New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.

Mix it up! In New York, dress to the nines and savor a cocktail at classic spots like Bemelman’s, The Campbell Apartment or the Oyster Bar. Go casual to a 100+-year-old bar like Fanelli’s , Old Town or the Landmark. The city also offers lovely, quiet tea-rooms like Bosie in the West Village and dozens of cafes. Head uptown to the Neue Galerie’s Cafe Sabarsky. Heaven!

For breakfast, head to Carmine Street and enjoy The Grey Dog.

Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.

When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up.  Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.

And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.

One of my Paris faves...
One of my Paris faves…

 Read about your city!

These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.

I treat myself each time to a new and quirky specialist guidebook; this one breaks huge, overwhelming London into its many villages. 

There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)

Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.

Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.

Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!

 

A home away from home: some favorite hotels

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m not the sort of person who insists on staying in a hotel. I’ve camped, stayed in hostels, even slept in my car one night. We often stay with friends when visiting Ontario or D.C.

hOtEL kaRUppASWamY...
hOtEL kaRUppASWamY… (Photo credit: poonomo)

But ooooooh, I do love a lovely hotel, and we often plan a vacation around fab hotel(s); when we spent three weeks touring Mexico in May 2005, we went this route, and found nothing but pleasure.

The very best hotels have a quality that welcomes you, makes you feel like it’s home for a little while and leaves you aching to return. For me, it’s almost never a mass-market chain.

I really prefer places with history, quirk, elegance and/or character. And, when the wallet can stretch that far, some serious luxury.

Hôtel Ritz Paris
Hôtel Ritz Paris. We didn’t stay there but we did have a drink at the bar! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a short list of some worldwide favorites:

Xara Palace, Mdina, Malta

For those of you old enough to know her name, British actress Julie Christie is one of the best and most enduring, whether as Lara in Dr. Zhivago or the dementia-suffering wife in Away From Her. As I signed the guest register in this elegant hotel, a 17th century former palace, her signature was above mine. Swoon! (She was then filming in Malta with Brad Pitt.)

I spent only a few days in Malta, and chose the Xara Palace for its history and location. It was much more affordable than anything at that level might have been in Paris or London or a major city. The views across the dusty plains were terrific and the narrow alleys leading to the hotel romantic and exotic.

Le Germain, Montreal

Oddly, it is housed in the shell of what was once an office building. Steps off the central shopping street, Sherbrooke, the lobby has a huge, glass fireplace — few sights are as alluring on a frigid February evening! Great location.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The Monte Vista, Flagstaff, Arizona

Tired after a day’s driving in heat and sunlight, I wandered in, simply wanting a drink at their comfortably crowded bar, and immediately loved the historic feel of the place, built in 1926-27. A single room was $81, (summer of 2013), a quick, easy, snap decision.

My room was tiny, with a wrought-iron bed, arched windows and a deep original bathtub.

The bar was a lot of fun, with a local cabbie downing his first Bloody Mary at 6:40 a.m., a perfectly coiffed German woman in her outdoor jacket, and two guys smelling of patchouli. That’s my kind of place.

The Intercontinental, Yorkville, Toronto, Canada

Not cheap! But we’ve stayed here a few times and have never been disappointed. I love the perfect midtown location, across from the Royal Ontario Museum and my alma mater’s handsome campus, University of Toronto. I love the crisp neutrals of the rooms — beige, black, tan, cream and white. I like how small and intimate it is. Best shopping is only a block away, too.

The Reina Victoria, Ronda, Spain

I stayed there in 1980 — and it was renovated in 2012. I still remember the statue of the German poet Rilke in their garden and the spectacular views. I chose to visit Ronda based on the mention of the hotel in the NYT travel section.

Hotel Majestic, Tunis

I have never stayed in so large a room…perhaps 300 square feet — plus a long interior hallway leading to a large bathroom. Room service brought me coffee and rolls every morning, (June 2002) for $28 a night.

Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta

Go! Just go.

I adored my week here, holed up in a small, pretty room by myself in March 2010. The hotel was built in 1888 to resemble a Scottish castle. It has lobby ambassadors — handsome young men in kilts! — and quiet stone hallways and spiral staircases and stained glass windows and a heated outdoor pool in which you can soak while watching the sun set over the Rockies. What’s not to love?

Hotel Sylvia, Vancouver

This little hotel sits directly opposite English Beach. My paternal grandmother lived there for a while. Ivy-covered, it has terrific views in every direction. Not fancy, but historic, opened in 1912 and named for its creator’s daughter.

The Admiral’s Inn, Antigua

I’ve stayed there twice, once as a very young girl, with my mother and once with a husband. I can’t forget waking up, on my first visit, seeing flames outside our second-floor window, as a patio sofa was burning below us. Built in 1788, it has elegant Georgian proportions in a gorgeous setting.

Las Mariposas, Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico

We loved our casita here, set among 18 acres. Hummingbirds, great good, horseback riding and the town of Patzcuaro nearby.

Manoir Hovey, North Hatley, Quebec

Save up your pennies and go!

We’ve stayed here five times since 2001 — desperate to flee New York a month or so after 9/11 — and have loved every single visit. We have been here in the frigid depths of winter, skittering down the icy driveway from our cabin to the dining room, and in fall when I went canoeing and saw a beaver. The dining room has a huge fireplace and windows overlooking the garden and lake. Once a private home, Hovey Manor is both intimate and upscale without pretension or stuffiness. The food is spectacular, the setting perfect and, if you get bored, Montreal is a 90-minute drive north.

Here are several tree house hotels — from $85 to $1,499 a night.

And — boooooo! — one major midtown New York City hotel has decided to stop offering room service.

Jose and I are addicted to room service. What a luxury to eat in your jammies, or in bed or at your leisure. (Just like home!)

Blissed out, at the Intercontinental Yorkville, Toronto.

caitiroomservice

What are some of the hotels you’ve enjoyed?