Image: Eiffel Tower
Rick Steves
The Eiffel Tower is planning to offer online reservations, allowing visitors to book an entry time and avoid a long wait.
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/25/2009 11:20:29 AM ET 2009-02-25T16:20:29

Fantastique France continues to make its heritage and culture easier for travelers to appreciate. Being up-to-date on changes for 2009 will help your visit go smoothly.

Due to a smoking ban, you'll enjoy fresh air in bars, cafes and restaurants throughout France. The smokers have scurried outdoors to sidewalk tables; many of those seats now come with space heaters in winter.

If you're traveling in France by railpass, it's increasingly important to book trips on the TGV bullet trains in advance, as there's a strict limit on the number of seats allowed for railpass holders. And with high gas prices — and the recognition among Europeans that rail travel is about as green as you can go — trains are more crowded than ever.

In Paris, the transit system has introduced a chip-card called the Passe Navigo Decouverte, but for most tourists, the “carnets” (packs of 10 individual tickets) are still the better deal. The new Passe costs about $27, runs strictly from Monday through Sunday, and requires a photo, which means it's not shareable. In contrast, a 10-ticket pack costs about $14, is shareable, and has no expiration date.

Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral has a new modest-dress rule. The “no shorts” code is not strictly enforced, but inside you're expected to be quiet and respectful. A new online reservation system for the Eiffel Tower may debut in 2009, allowing Tour-Eiffel-ists to book a half-hour time slot and avoid the notorious lines. At the Army Museum nearby, the section on 19th-century French military history (“Revolution to Napoleon III”) should reopen in the spring. The museum also has a new Charles de Gaulle wing, offering a 25-minute film, plus a high-tech display of photos tracing the life of France's towering 20th-century figure.

Paris' market streets delight many visitors. While rue Cler (near the Eiffel Tower) has become quite touristy, rue des Martyrs (at the foot of Montmartre) is edgier and a great way to connect with workaday Paris. If you'd like to “do the Time Warp again” while ducking airborne “French” toast, you can enjoy the cult movie “Rocky Horror Picture Show” with a Parisian crowd Friday and Saturday nights in the Latin Quarter.

The Palace of Versailles is undergoing extensive renovation so expect some closures. Repair projects may close its Opera House through June; the Petit Trianon may be closed or only partially open. Busy sightseers can save both time and money by visiting Versailles with the Paris Museum Pass. The pass covers most major sights in and around Paris, pays for itself in about three entries, and allows you to walk right by the long ticket-buying lines at places like the Louvre, the Orsay Museum, the Sainte-Chapelle chapel, and Versailles. However, everyone needs to wait through any bag-check security line.

The charming city of Reims, rebuilt after World War I when Art Deco was the prevailing style, is now served by a speedy TGV train, making it an easy day trip from Paris. Reims is known for its champagne tours (Mumm, Taittinger and Martel), giant cathedral (with Chagall stained glass), and fascinating Museum of the Surrender (General Eisenhower's final World War II headquarters with stirring artifacts and the document of surrender that was signed by German generals right there).

This year is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy; prepare for big crowds — especially from June 1 to 10. Also in Normandy, a museum has opened at Dead Man's Corner, a critical crossroads between Omaha and Utah beaches that saw five torrid days of fighting in 1944. This museum, south of Ste. Mere-Eglise, is a hit with enthusiasts as every display case shows incredible attention to detail. It also has a remarkable selection of D-Day paraphernalia for sale — both original items and replicas.

In Chinon (in the Loire Valley) the massive renovation project has nearly been completed at the medieval castle where Joan of Arc implored French King Charles VII to “act like a man and fight the English.” The castle is now connected to the old town by a snazzy glass elevator. Farther west, at Mont St. Michel, the first stage is under way of an ambitious project to make it a true island once again.

On the French Riviera, Nice has dropped the entry fee for all city museums. Basically every sight in town — except the Chagall Museum and the Russian Cathedral — is free to enter. That's nice. Antibes, just a short hop away by train, has finally reopened its prized Picasso Museum after extensive renovation.

No matter what changes, visiting France is always a pleasure, which is why it remains the number one tourist destination in Europe.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Perfectly Paris

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  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
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