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1st Time to Europe...HELP!! 7 days-France, Begium & Amsterdam-Too much???

I am trying to plan a surprise trip for my husband's 40th birthday. Neither of us have ever been to Europe and when I casually asked him where he would want to go if he could go anywhere he said "France"...I know he wants to see historical war sites there (Normandy, right?) as well as some other main areas such as Paris, but I'm kind of at a loss as to the "must-do's" because my dream trip is Italy and I've never put much thought into France until now. (Don't get me wrong I'm super excited, but I don't know where to start). After researching a bit I get the feeling we'd need around 3 days for Paris and Normandy. Am I way off? So I thought maybe after that we could head to Belgium and then the Netherlands (Amsterdam area). I want to see enough to make the trip worthwhile (we have two young kids and it'll probably be awhile before we get back to Europe) but I don't want to feel overwhelmed like I crammed too much in either. Should I just limit the trip to France only and forget the other countries and if so, what are the must see places in France that we can reasonably do in 7 days. Or should we shoot for multiple countries like this?
Please help

Posted by
8767 posts

Too much? Yes, too much!!! Three countries in 7 days? Does that include your travel days to and from Europe? I have spent 21 nights in Paris alone and have not come close to seeing everything I want to see. Your husband wants to go to France, go to France! Depending on how much he wants to see in Normandy, you should plan on spending at least 2 nights and probably 3 there. Two nights = one full day, so 3 nights would give you 2 full days there. Every time you change locations you need to figure it takes at least a half a day to check out of your hotel, take the train to the next place, then find your next hotel. I would fly into Paris and immediately take the train to the Normandy destination of your choosing. Most people choose to stay in Bayeux. After spending 2-3 nights, head back to Paris for the rest of the week. If you run out of things you want to do in Paris, you can always do a daytrip to Versailles. Since your husband is particularly interested in war sites I recommend you take at least one full day guided tour.

Posted by
11 posts

I had a feeling I was being too ambitious, but once again I really am kind of unfamiliar and research is difficult when you are undecided. I think I'll limit my research/planning to France only now. The dates I am looking into are late April or early May. Is this a good time of year price-wise? Crowds? Weather? Etc?

Posted by
11 posts

Also, No, the 7 days doesn't include travel. We would (tentatively) be arriving in Paris early on a Saturday and flying out again the following Sunday so we should have basically 7 FULL days to "explore". Is that enough time?

Posted by
8280 posts

I totally agree with Andrea. 7 days isn't even enough for Paris. I would only plan on Normandy and Paris. I agree that Bayeux (pronounced "byuh") is a very good base. We've been there 6 times for a week each time (love Normandy) and have never run out of things to do or places to visit. I would spend a minimum of 3 nights in Bayeux, and 4 is better. You need one day for a guided tour, one day to return by car to sites you'd like to spend more time at and see sites not included in tour. A 3rd day is ideal so you can spend time at the WWII museum in Bayeux (the best one imo - there are many) and explore and enjoy Bayeux itself (charming town). I highly recommend staying at Hotel d'Argouges in Bayeux (google it). It's a wonderful hotel in the town center with wonderful owner and staff. The rest of your time I would spend in Paris, my favorite place on the planet. I recommend getting (library or bookstore) the RS Paris and the RS France guidebook. April-May is a good time of year. May is better than April though, it can rain a lot in April. Not that it can't rain anytime :)

Posted by
1986 posts

Tiffany going back to your question:
If your husband is interested in war sites. you will need to spend at least two days on well conducted tours in normangy, that leaves you 5 days for paris, which is time to see a variety of the main sights, and just walk around Paris (a great way to experience it). Other high spots in the vicinity (if you need them): Bayeux (Bayeux tapestry) and Mont St Michel while you are in Normandy. Near Paris- the Loire valley chateaux (can be done in a one or two day tour from paris), and also Chmappagne area- but only if you are interested in that tipple. Frankly, I think you will find so much to see in Paris that you wont neeed these back-up sights. I would do any (or all) of these sites before even thinking about Netherlands and Belgium. Pretty as they are they are much further down the "must see" list

Posted by
11 posts

First of all, this is a breath of fresh air. I can't thank you all enough for your responses. I appreciate every itinerary suggestion, must-see suggestion, and even the back and forth about whether to tell my husband in advance or not. I think I need to clear something up though...this will be a trip JUST for him and I...we will NOT bring our kids. I would love to take my kids someday, but in May they will be 3 years old and 1 year old and I know neither would enjoy the long flights or being dragged to all these different places. I started looking into some of the tours and the one by Paul Woodage would monopolize a full 2-days (plus it'll cost us over $500, which is less a concern, but still a concern)...is it worth it? We like to explore so would we get as much out of doing it all in a car by ourselves if we get some good tour books instead? Someone mentioned Waterloo...is that worth it for a history buff like him? I also like the suggestion of the WWII museum in Paris and somebody offered to write me a suggested Paris itinerary...I'd LOVE that.
Once again, you guys are so helpful and please keep the suggestions coming. I'm sure I will be posting oodles of questions on here now that I know how wonderful of a forum it is.

Posted by
123 posts

Agree, spend your time in Paris. I am not familiar with Normandy but we did travel to Waterloo as it was a must see for my boyfriend. I researched guides and we hired a guide for the day that picked us up and took us to all the war sites and knew the complete history. It might cost a bit, but you could use your time more efficiently. Must do for Paris - Montmartre ( also the cheapest prices for souvenirs) , Louvre - go early in the morning and head for the museum tour desk - book the English speaking tour for that day. Eiffel Tower, Seine boat tour, Versailles, Notre Dame. Etc etc.

Posted by
2349 posts

Yes, just Paris and Normandy is enough for your trip. About that surprise idea. I recently read a study that said that looking forward to a vacation was just as important as the vacation itself. In other words, planning is half the fun. Don't take that away from him. I know the idea is to whisk him away, but let him have some fun thinking about it ahead of time.

Posted by
8767 posts

You are missing the point Ralph. No one has suggested they stay the entire week in Paris. He is interested in war sites and the suggestions are to spend at least 2 days, if not more, in Normandy. The remainder of the time could be spent in Paris. Or at least in nearby locations in France. With a short trip and his interests, there is no really good reason to spend the time (and money if that is a concern) to spend a day or two in another country. Tiffany, I do agree with the person who suggested you let your hubby know in advance. Maybe buy the plane tickets, then put it in a card to surprise him. That way he can have the opportunity and fun to research what he would like to see. Knowing exactly what will be of interest to him will help determine how much time you will need in each place. The tours in Normandy should be booked in advance. Definitely get a France guidebook to help with your planning. If your husband is interested in the Halocaust, Paris has a very good Halocaust (Shoah) museum. Another thing to consider in Paris would be a walking tour. There is a program called Paris Greeters that offer a free private tour to people. You submit an application online stating your interests, then they will try to match you up with a volunteer. You can donate to the program if you chose.

Posted by
2916 posts

I'd definitely limit it to France (as you seem to now have decided), and either spend the whole time staying in Paris and taking day trips, or if your husband really is that interested in Normandy, make it 5 days in Paris and 2 in Normandy. And you might want to look into renting an apartment in Paris rather than staying in a hotel.

Posted by
59 posts

Tiffany, I agree that the "surprise" might be better shared in advance:) Also, playing Devil's advocate here, don't mean to be negative BUT...will you and the kids enjoy the war sites, too? I am enthralled with Mont St Michel, especially now that it has been returned to its true island form. You don't say how young your kids are, but I think Mont St Michel puts us all in our Peter Pan mode with its crenulated walls and towers....My idea would be to use Mont St Michel as a Normandy base and let the hubby visit the D-Day beaches on his own while you and the kids enjoy roaming around the Mont.
Once your husband is in on the plans, he may figure a way to wrangle more vacation time if at all possible (!)

Posted by
16 posts

My husband and I have recently spent a week in Normandy and are frequent travelers to Paris and the rest of Europe. I have also led tours for both adults and students. Here are my thoughts: Day 1. Arrive in Paris, pick up rental car, go to hotel in Bayeux, visit WW2 museum, British cemetery, and, if time, Cathedral and Bayeux Tapestry (Battle of Hastings, not WW2, but your husband will probably appreciate it) Day 2 Visit Utah/Omaha beaches, American Cemetery, try to also get to Sainte Mer Eglise, where DDay began with members of the 101 and 82nd Airborne parachuting into town. Great museum there. Btw, the kids will love the beaches. Day 3. When you tell your husband about the trip, give him this day to explore on his own OR to pick what you all will do. He knows what he would like to see in the area, I'm sure.
Hope this was useful! Let me know if you would like something similar for Paris...

Posted by
5460 posts

Because you live in California and a relatively young, I think you're right to plan on car rental, rather than the excellent French trains. But since you've never been to Europe, you should think how you'll feel after a night of almost no sleep on the plane, and the driving times involved. Perhaps you should see Paris first? Use Google Maps or Michelin website to check the driving time to Bayeux, and onward to Mont St. Michel. How are your kids in a back seat without DVD players in the headrests ... only partly kidding! I hope you have Rick's France book, since he has great thoughts for first-time travelers. When my wife an I made our first trip to Europe, we spent a week in London and a week in Paris. We never got bored with either city. But you are right to give your husband's interests some priority. BTW, do you know how small cheaper hotel rooms in Paris can be? You need to think hard about your budget and what to do with the kids - there's no room for two cots like in Motel 6 at home. That's the kind of thing Rick is good on. The book is worth the money. You can't get all those details on the internet.

Posted by
11450 posts

I think its not safe at all to plan on driving after a 12 hour flight, fighting jet lag, travel fatique and total unfamilaryity of a place. Not safe for you, or for the other cars on the road. As everyone says, Paris and Normandy are good for 7 days. I would choose May over April , it can rain anytime, but the coast can be just a bit wetter and cooler in April then May. Book hotels well in advance for best choices and rates, by jan-feb ,, most hotels have good cancellation policies so you can book something , keep looking, and cancel and rebook if you find something better, DO read canceallation policy before you do this. I have done this a few times, a bird in the hand sort of thing. Also remember, Paris has tons to see and do, 7 days or even 17 can be filled, and that wouldn't even have to include some great daytrips you could do) Giverny for Monets Gardens, Versailles, Chartes, etc) I agree tell hubby, but not yet, do some homework, get some stuff together, and maybe let him open a box at Christmas filled with brochures etc.. he can help plan a few details and put in his specific sightseeing requests!

Posted by
12040 posts

"Someone mentioned Waterloo...is that worth it for a history buff like him?" Not unless he's really, REALLY into Napoleonic history. I visited expecting something like Gettysburg. Instead, I got a potato field with a handful of historical markers, and a few derelict buildings. OK, you also get to see two interesting films (including clips from Sergei Bondarchuk's amazing "Waterloo") and the cyclorama is pretty cool. But otherwise, I was underwhelmed.

Posted by
800 posts

Tiffany-if arriving early Saturday, you have 8 nights in France. I personally wouldn't spend all that time in Paris. I think you have enough time to do 3 places-definitely Paris (2-3 nights), Normandy (2-3 nights), Loire Valley (2 nights), return to Paris for your last night. Driving would be great-get your car on the western edge of the city to drive out to Normandy. My husband is also a big war buff and we did the beaches on our own (with help from the Rick Steve's guide). A car handy to have in the Loire - that way you can decide at the last minute which castles to see, depending on your time. It is about 3-3 1/2 hours drive between the 3 spots(Paris-Bayeux-Amboise) and we always enjoyed driving through the countryside-very romantic! And good for you for doing this trip without your very young children. Surprise your husband with a guidebook and a Michelin driving map and let the planning fun begin!

Posted by
800 posts

Ralph has a good idea too-after Paris and Normandy, drop the car and take the day long train trip to Amsterdam. Book your flight open jaw (into Paris, out of AMS) and head home from there after a few nights.

Posted by
8280 posts

Hi Tiffany, the WWII museum I recommended is in Bayeux, not Paris. Andrea suggested the Holocaust Museum in Paris. I think a 1 day guided tour of Normandy is well worth it. We did it after many self-guided trips to Normandy, and knowing a lot about the Invasion and it was really worthwhile for us. There have been past threads on tour guides that Helpline regulars recommend that can be found using the Search function on the Helpline.

Posted by
8767 posts

You could do a one day guided tour, then have an additional day to explore areas the tour didn't get to, or see some other places on your own if you get a car. After arrival in Paris I would train to Bayeux. You could do your guided tour the next day. Get your car after that if you think you need one. If you would like to go to Mont St. Michel after Normandy, and/or the Loire you should drive that portion. I would give Paris a minimum of 3 nights, which is only 2 days.

Posted by
800 posts

Andrea has come up with a great itinerary (train to Bayeux upn arrival in paris). We've even driven after a flight as long as it was under 3 hours-but we are coming from the east coast so not sure if that makes a difference and also how much you can sleep on a plane. But I have arrived in a major city and taken a train ASAP to our ultimate destination. It makes for a long first day, but it gives you a real good start going all in one direction, leaving Paris for the end. Bottom line is you will have a great trip-its a good thing for your husband, your marriage and your kids!

Posted by
11613 posts

Tiffany, sounds like you have great ideas and suggestions. I also vote for letting your husband in on the plan, and for you visiting the Normandy sites with him. It's a gift in itself to share something that's important to the one you love. Since this is a birthday trip and a break from hands-on parenting, I would limit the trip to Paris and Normandy (maybe do the open-jaw suggestion and spend a day in Amsterdam). Once you get to a place, you'll find so many things you want to see that you didn't know about in advance (not a list of must-sees, but just wandering around the neighborhoods, a couple of hours in a park, etc.). Have a wonderful time and I hope you'll post in Trip Reports when you come back.

Posted by
12882 posts

Tiffany, Normally, I would recommend to you and your husband with the interest in Waterloo to see that place but to get the most out of that visit, even if you plan on staying all day, you need to be motorised. But with seven days, it's better to stick to France (this time) and see those war sights in Paris and, as suggested, in Normandie. Save Waterloo for the next trip. If you intend on getting a rental car, see the Nord Pas-de-Calais, some of the beach towns still have remnants of the pill boxes. The city of Arras is where a large British cemetery is located and a lot more. I suggest in the Paris area the US military cemetery at Suresnes, also a bit north of Paris see Compiegne, which is reachable by train, but depending on his war interest, the chateau at La Roche Guyon. You need a car to get to that town from Paris. You just might have to set the priority of seeing the Napoleonic "stuff" or WW II sites. Take the train to Fontainebleau, see the chateau, where Napoleon said farewell to the Guard, etc., the bus drops you off at the tourist office across from the chateau. Within walking distances ca. 15 mins or so, if you know the way from the chateau is the Napoleonic Musee on 88 rue Saint Honore. Obviously, by the name a lot more "stuff" on Napoleon. You and he may find that pretty interesting.

Posted by
8396 posts

This company offers World War II guided walks in Paris. You will need to read reviews of the company on Trip Advisor, though.
http://classicwalksparis.com/paris/tours/world-war-II-walk Also, I suggest you and your husband read "Is Paris Burning" before the trip to get a feel for the city during WW II. Certainly others can provide many more reading suggestions. We toured the Normandy war sites with Overlord Tours and recommend them.

Posted by
1986 posts

We also fly from the West Coaast. Arriving in London before noon we can comfortably drive out to the Cotswolds, and even some driving in the evening- so 4 or 5 hours driving is very doable. We do try and avoid driving through Cities- Motorway driving is fine. You will have the advantage that the french also drive on the right. It can be done- just dont try and overdo it on the first day

Posted by
813 posts

If you can book flights in to Paris and out of Amsterdam, here's my suggestion. Fly in to Paris, take 1-2 days to see Paris (it's fast, but you only have a week, so it can be done). I don't really count the day you fly in as good sightseeing time, it's too exhausting just getting from the airport to the hotel. You'll need a whole day to get around Normandy. From Paris, rent a car and drive through Verdun/St. Mihel and other good battle sites. Go to: http://www.abmc.gov/home.php It is a great resource to plan where you want to go and what there is to see. You need a car to get to many of these places, they are in tiny, rural areas. I can recommend a great B&B in St. Mihel area. Spend the night there. Then drive up to Amsterdam for your last day or two. I don't see a problem with moving quickly and seeing what you want to see. If you can drive in San Diego, the autobahns are no problem.

Posted by
8767 posts

If you follow Kathy's suggestion of renting a car in France and then driving it to Amsterdam, be prepared to have it cost hundreds of extra euros to rent in one country and return in another. You have received many good suggestions. Since the trip is for your husband's birthday you might want to let him decide where he wants to go.

Posted by
1065 posts

We went to Paris for 11 days in May (including 7 days on a Rick Steves City Tour). While we did not go to the Normandy beaches, we did take day trips to Versailles and Giverny. We prefer the type of travel where you find an interesting home base and get to know it. It is exhausting and expensive to do too much traveling from city to city. I would also find it stressful to see too many countries in one trip, due to the need to adjust to different languages, currencies, culture, etc.