Yellow Van Travels: A Family Travel Blog

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Fishers Finery Packing Cubes: Review

When planning our 3 week trip to Europe this summer, I knew we would need to be smart about our packing situation. I knew we would be going from place to place and that we would be on a cruise ship with limited space. Because of our on-the-go itinerary and the fact that we got cheap flights because they charge extra for baggage, I decided that we would only take one carry-on and one backpack each for our trip.

After I decided that, I looked at tons of articles on Pinterest to see if there were any secrets to packing for 3 weeks in a carry-on (I'll be doing my own post on that in the future). After much searching, I found out about an item called packing cubes. I was intrigued as to why a little bag that held your clothes that you just put inside of your suitcase would be such a big deal. But the more I looked into it, I realized that we needed some packing cubes.

As I scoured the internet (mostly Amazon) for the cheapest packing cubes possible, I came across Fishers Finery. They had a set of 3 packing cubes (small, medium, and large) that looked like they would fit our needs. And they were so much less expensive than the packing cubes I was finding other places.

The Fishers Finery Packing Cubes come in three different colors: black, blue, and red. We ordered the black ones and the blue ones so that we could each have a set. They are made of durable material that is still lightweight and they have great zippers.

In the smallest packing cube, I found that it was perfect for packing our smaller items like underwear, socks, and swimming suits.

The medium cube held our shirts, my skirts, and a pair of shorts or two.

The large cube we used for our bulkier items like dresses, nice shirts, pants and Ben's suit for our cruise.

I was amazed at how much I could fit into each cube! I found that the best way to pack the cubes is to roll up each item of clothing as tightly as you can and then lay next to each other in the cube. Depending on the size of the cube, I was sometimes able to get 2 rows of rolled clothes in each cube.

Another thing that I loved about the packing cubes was the ease we had finding our stuff in our suitcases. I knew exactly which cube I needed to pull out to get a clean shirt or where my extra socks were. I didn't have to dig through my suitcase to find the one item I needed.

Throughout our trip, we re-packed our bags a few different times. Sometimes Ben and I had clothing in each suitcase that we had. It was so nice that we each had our own color of packing cubes because I could just find the medium black one and know that that's where my shirts were or I could pull out the small blue one to get some socks for Ben so he could go rock climbing.

Packing cubes were definitely a game changer for us in the way that we pack and plan for trips. I
highly, highly suggest that you invest in some packing cubes before you go on your next big (or small) trip. They are so awesome and really helped keep me from feeling like we were living out of suitcases for 3 weeks which made our vacation so much more enjoyable.

**This post was not sponsored by Fishers Finery, we just love their product and want to share it with you! There are Amazon affiliate links in this post though if you do wish to purchase these awesome packing cubes. We will receive a small portion of the purchase which will help to support us in writing this blog for you!**

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Towers of Notre Dame

While I did write a couple weeks ago about the Notre Dame Cathedral, I did not go into detail about the tower tour that is available there. This is because there is an extra cost and considerable extra effort involved in this tour so they really are separate activities. In fact we did them on different days. The tower tour is amazing though, so if your wallets and your legs are up to it I highly encourage you to go.

Title Card for the Towers of Notre Dame with Gargoyle looking over Paris

How to Get There:

Of course the directions for getting to the Notre Dame Towers tour start out exactly the same as getting to Notre Dame for any other visit. You can read my directions here

Once you are at the façade of the cathedral go to the left side of the church. Running along the wall you should see a line leading away from a door on the corner of the leftmost tower. If you are either very early or very lucky this line will not be long, but most likely it will be pretty lengthy, but go ahead and get in the end of the line, it will be worth it in the end. 

Meagan in line for the Notre Dame Tower tour

The line moves in jumps because they only let in a certain number of people at a time. You won't need to buy tickets until you get up the first set of stairs in the tower, so don't worry about that until you get there. If you have a Museum Pass you can use that to get in, but it won't let you skip waiting in line. While you are in the line there will be plenty of crepe stands across the street, so if you feel hungry have someone hold your place in line and get some of my favorite French cuisine. 

What You Will See:

Once you get inside the tower you will ascend the first set of stairs to a chamber where you can buy tickets and there is a small gift shop. You wait in this room until another group comes down from the top then you will be taken up. The walk up is very long and strenuous depending on how good of shape you are in. There were a couple of elderly ladies with us who had a hard time and kept stopping so people could go around them. This is a somewhat scary experience as the stairs are in a tight spiral so there really isn't much room to put you feet on the inner side. My advice is that even if you are slow just keep going up until you reach a landing where you can actually stand aside. 

When you finally come out of the stairs you will exit onto a parapet where you will immediately be able to see some of Notre Dame's iconic gargoyles. You will have seen many of the smaller gargoyles on the side of the build ing while you waited in line, but the ones at the top of the stairs are the real deal, the ones you've seen in pictures. The first set you may have seen from the plaza below, but here you will be right next to them. 

Gargoyles at Notre Dame

More Gargoyles at Notre Dame

As you walk down you will see that you can continue straight or go to the left. Make sure you go to the left as this is the only way to get into the bell tower and see some of the inner area gargoyles that cannot be seen from anywhere else. Once you take the left turn there will be a small door on the right that you can enter to get to the bells. This will require walking up some extra stairs, but you wouldn't want to go to Notre Dame and not see the bells, right? 

Ben and Meagan in front of one of the bells in the Notre Dame Bell Tower

Once you have seen the bells and the inner gargoyles you'll continue on from where you turned. This will lead you to another stairway. At this point you will have a choice whether to continue up to the panorama view from the top of the tower, or to go back down and exit. I highly suggest you continue on to the top. 

From the top you will be able to see splendid views of Paris on all sides. Each group only gets 5 minutes up here though so make sure you have your camera ready and try not to block other guest's way. I could have used maybe a two minutes longer up there, but I remember waiting in that line at the bottom, so down we went when our time was up. 

Paris cityscape from the top of Notre Dame

Then it is down, down, down, all the way to the bottom where you will exit back onto the plaza. Be careful going down, as this will be harder on your legs then going up and you do the whole distance in one go. 

Sum Up:

The Towers of Notre Dame were one of favorite things in Paris. Meagan was hesitant about waiting in the long line, but afterward she said it was more than worth it. It costs 10 euro per person if you don't have the Museum Pass, but I think even that would be worth it to be able to be in the towers. For me it was a more enjoyable experience than the cathedral itself.

The yellow van on the Notre Dame Towers tour.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Why You Don't Need to See the Louvre

One of the most iconic places in Paris, after the Eiffel Tower, is probably the Louvre museum. With its glass pyramid entrance, it is an enticing museum to go see. But when we went we were very underwhelmed.
Yellow Van in front of Louvre museum

How to Get There:

Using the Paris Metro, get off on the Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre stop. This stop is not like a normal metro stop because it is actually inside the museum. A lot of the museum is underground and by exiting on this stop, you will end up in a mall sort of area with shops that skirt around the actual entrance to the museum. 

This was one of the first annoying parts of the Louvre. There were so many people and not very good signage so it was hard to find out exactly where we were supposed to go. Since we had our Paris Museum Pass, we were able to go right up to the wing where our Rick Steves Audioguide started, but it was confusing trying to get there.

What You Will See:

lion statue at the Louvre

We used Rick Steves's free Audio Europe App and listened to the Louvre track. Because the Louvre is so overwhelmingly huge, we decided it was best to just stick to what Rick said so we only ended up touring one wing of the museum. On our tour we saw a TON of statues as well as some paintings, including the Mona Lisa which is just as underwhelming as everyone says it is. It is far more entertaining watching all of the tourists mob around the painting trying to get up close to see it. 
Mona Lisa at the Louvre

The one part we did like was an area that used to be a palace. It was interesting for us to see the history of the building through the artwork from the time period. We also enjoyed seeing a collection of crowns and royal jewels in this exhibit. 
Crowns and jewels from the Louvre

View to the outside of the Louvre

Sum Up:

During our trip to the Louvre, we really discovered that we are not art people. We enjoy art in small amounts, but statues are not our thing. So if you are an art person, especially an art person who loves sculptures, you would probably enjoy the Louvre. There are also just so many people (easily the most crowded place we went to while we were in Paris) that it didn't lend to an enjoyable experience for us. If you have a Museum Pass it might be worth it to go see one or two things inside (like the Mona Lisa) just to say that you went to the Louvre. But if you are paying for tickets, I would suggest not even bothering. Our favorite part of the whole experience was simply seeing the glass pyramids from outside the museum. That was where we took the most pictures and enjoyed our time the most. It is such a huge area that it isn't overcrowded with people and the pyramids are were a lot more exciting for us to look at and appreciate than some of the pieces of artwork inside the museum. 
Panorama of the Louve's courtyard
Meagan in front of a glass pyramid at the Louvre

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Pinterest image: Why you don't need to see the Louvre

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Four Apps for Traveling in Europe

Even though we did not have any cell service while we were in Europe and only had intermittent wifi access, I still relied heavily on mobile apps to help with our experience while were there. In this post I'll talk about some of the most useful ones.

Title card of yellow van in front of canal

Since internet at European hotels and hotspots is not always reliable it is best if you can download and prepare these apps before you leave home. Always open an app after you download it to make sure that any further downloads of maps or information is complete. This is also useful in making sure that the app actually works before you need it.

Google Translate:

Google Translate Icon

If there is only one app that you make sure you download and prepare before leaving make it this one. Unless you are fluent in the languages of all the countries you plan on visiting this will be an extremely useful app for you. You can of course put in a phrase and have it translated into the language of your choice, but since I have a very hard time with pronunciation I don't find this particularly useful. What I do find awesome about this app is the camera feature which allows you to point the camera at any text and have it translated, in the picture, to the language of your choice. 

This is extremely useful if you are in a country or area of a country that is less English friendly. You can simply point your phone's camera a the sign and get a (sometimes rough) translation of it. Even though these are not perfect translations they are good enough to help you figure out the way you need to go. 

The key is to make sure that you have each language you will need downloaded into your device before leaving the internet. Not every language is available for download but most of the major ones are and they are adding more with each update. 

Rick Steves Audio Europe:

Rick Steves Audio Europe Icon
You can get audio guides at a lot of European locations, but they normally cost extra and have a robotic monotone translation voice. That's not bad, but the Rick Steves app is free and Rick is a native English speaker, even if his jokes aren't that funny. You can learn a lot from Rick but he doesn't completely overwhelm you.

We highly suggest using Rick Steve's audio Europe in the places he has audio tours available. Make sure that you download all the guides for places you are going to visit before you go. Be aware that some places (like Notre Dame in Paris) don't have there own guides but are included in walking tour guides for an entire area.

Lonely Planet:

lonely planet icon
This is one of the most popular travel apps in the last year and with good reason, it is a clean looking app that is easy to use. The app will give you lots of information on specific cities, unfortunately a lot of cities, even major ones, haven't been added yet, but I know that more are coming. I used it when we were in Paris and Venice.

Each city guide contains a map that will show your GPS location and points of interest in the city. You can filter these by different categories, and when you click on one you can find useful information about it. When Rick Steves guide wasn't available I often used this app to get a good English overview of site.

Google Maps:

google maps icon
This one probably seems like a no-brainer to some of you, but I know there are still a lot of people that don't realize they can download offline maps from Google Maps. This means that even if you don't have data available it will still be a very useful app as long as you remember to download them before you go.

Simply go to the area you want to download on the map, zoom out to the appropriate level, tap on the menu icon and choose "Offline Areas". You can then tap the blue + icon to add download the area. While offline you won't be able to get turn by turn directions but you will be able to view the map and find you way. 

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Napoleon's Tomb in Paris

Paris is full of things that are, or were once, the biggest, most expensive, or most impressive in the world for their class. Unfortunately for Napoleon the Pharaohs really made it nearly impossible to claim the title of the most impressive tomb, but that didn't stop him from trying. The result is one of the most ostentatious resting places for one of the smallest men on the planet. But even as you shake your head at it and wonder at the ego that gave birth to this kind of huge display of wealth and power after death you realize that here you are visiting it, so it pretty much worked, didn't it?

Title card with yellow van outside Napoleon's tomb

How to Get There:

Getting there is simple, Napoleon's tomb is part of the Museum of the Army located at Hotel Invalides, so you just have to get off at the Invalids metro stop and look for the great golden domed church. That would be Napoleon's tomb. Walk there, be prepared for a quick security check to enter the grounds. When we were there this check was run by soldiers, I don't know if this was due to the state of emergency still in effect while we were there or because it is part of the Museum of the Army.  So your milage may vary. 

What You Will See:

The main attraction of the site is the gigantic casket that rests in the center of the building. This is where the mortal remains of the great general rest. You enter on the main level where you can view the casket from above from the central balcony. This balcony forms a complete circle allowing you to view the casket from all angles. 

The casket of Napoleon seen from above.

Alcoves surround the balcony wherein other important people are entombed. Not having a ton of knowledge of French history and not reading the language these did not particularly strike me, but they were pretty cool looking. 

There are stairs in the back of the building (opposite where you enter) which will take you down to the level of Napoleon's casket. This is also the level of his wife's tomb which can be found by going right after the stairs. 

Sum Up:

Ben and Meagan outside Napoleon's tomb.

The tomb of Napoleon is a quick stop if you don't also do the Museum of the Army (which we did not do). It is part of the Museum Pass so if you went ahead and got that it is definitely worth going to see. If not then I wouldn't say it is a must see in Paris. You can walk around the grounds for free if you want, and the building is pretty cool on its own, and it wasn't very crowded when we were there.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Visiting the Arc de Triomphe

Ever since I was little, the Arc de Triomphe has been on my list of things to see in Paris. I even wanted to see it more than the Eiffel Tower. I'm not quite sure what my draw to the Arc de Triomphe was, but I was so glad we were able to see it while we were in Paris.
Visiting the Arc de Triohpme

How to Get There:

Getting to the Arc de Triomphe isn't that hard, especially if you use the Paris Metro App. Use the app to get to the Charles de Gaulle stop (the metro will also have Arc de Triomphe in brown letters at the same stop). From there, just head up the stairs and you will be right in front of the Arc. This is the best place to take pictures of the whole Arc de Triomphe because you are far enough away that you can get you and the Arc in the same shot. 
Arc de Triomphe
From there, follow the signs that will lead you to the Arc itself. You will have to go underground because the circle where the Arc de Triomphe is located is very busy with no way for pedestrians to get across. Once you get to the Arc you can walk around under it for free, or you can stand in line to purchase tickets to enter the Arc itself. You can also use the Paris Museum Pass if you have one. This is one of the sights that lets you skip ahead in line. We didn't have to wait at all to get right in. 

What You Will See:

To get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, you will need to climb a lot of narrow, spiral-y stairs with few places to stop. There are no elevators to the top that we saw. On its own the stairs are not too bad, but if you are planning on doing it the same day as climbing the Eiffel Tower or doing the towers of Notre Dame, your legs might hurt the next day. 
Arc de Triomphe
At the top of the stairs there is a small gift shop, restrooms, and a few gallery pieces to look at. Then there is one more smaller set of stairs that will take you to the very top of the Arc de Triomphe. The views are amazing from up there! You can see a complete 360 degree  view of the city. There are plenty of places for photo ops with the Parisian skyline in the background. Even though the views are awesome, be prepared for not a super clear day. When we went it was quite hazy and smoggy. Another fun thing to do at the top was to watch the traffic move around the Arc. It would be really cool to take a time lapse of that. 
Paris Skyline
Underneath the Arc (which is free to enter) you will see beautiful stone work and engravings as well as the memorial flame for the Unknown Soldier. There are plenty of places to sit under the Arc and it is just a nice place to be while you recover from the hundreds of steps you have walked up and down. 
Memorial flame of the Unknown Soldier
When you are ready to leave, go back to the stairs that you climbed up to get to the Arc de Triomphe but turn around to see the stairs to exit. We walked all around the Arc to try and find the exit route and it was just behind where we started from. 
Arc de Triohpme

Sum Up:

The Arc de Triomphe is a beautiful Parisian staple. It is a really fun place to go if you want to see a beautiful view of Paris. Even if you don't want to pay to climb to the top of the Arc, just getting off the metro stop and taking pictures of the Arc de Triomphe or walking to see the underside is a great, easy opportunity to see one of the classic sights in Paris. 

Visiting the Arc de Triomphe

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Packing Your Personal Carry-On

After flying and traveling across the world for 3 weeks, I came to discover what I actually, really, really needed in my backpack/purse. While traveling, I tend to overpack. I like to be prepared and ready for any situation. But after traveling a lot in the last year, especially on quite a few flights, I think I have come up with the perfect list of things to pack in your personal carry-on item. I've found a good balance of things that I need as well as a few things that are nice to have that don't weigh down my bag. There's nothing worse than hauling too many pounds of stuff that you don't actually need through the airport.

  1. Phone and Charger: This one is pretty obvious right? Make sure to load up your phone with an audiobook or two or some podcasts. 
  2. Power Bank: This is a great way to give your phone a boost, or even to totally charge it, when you can't get to an outlet. 
  3. Headphones: These are key to getting some peace and quiet while flying. I always use Skullcandy ear buds because they are comfy on my ears and they are super good at blocking out outside noise. I also keep my ear buds in a little pouch to keep them from getting too tangled. 
  4.  iPad: Load it up with games, coloring apps and books. 
  5. Kindle: I absolutely love my Kindle, especially when we are traveling. While some people might not need this and an iPad to read on, it is much easier on my eyes to read on an e-ink screen than it is to read on a backlit screen. Plus, if you're planning on reading outside, a Kindle is much easier to see. And it has a good battery life. I read on it a lot while we were in Europe for 3 weeks and I only had to charge it once. BONUS TIP: Instead of buying new books for your Kindle, check out your local library. Most libraries  nowadays have digital collections where you can download ebooks and audiobooks for free!
  6. Zipper Pouch: To keep my things organized, I put all of these electronic items in a zipper pouch. Then when I sit down at my seat on the plane, I just pull this guy out and stick it in the seat pouch in front of me. This way I don't have to keep getting in and out of my bag throughout the flight. The one I have is from RuMe and I really like it. 
  7. Journal and Pen: I am a journaler. I write in my journal every night. I like to bring my journal on my flight with me because sometimes I like to write while we fly or I will use the paper and make lists, plan out our music videos, or simply doodle. 
  8. Camera: While I don't use this on my flight, I definitely carry my camera with me instead of checking it or putting it in my carry-on suitcase. 
  9. Passport: Definitely needed if flying internationally. 
  10. Wallet: I love having this wallet with a wrist strap. (Similar wallets here and here.) It is big enough to hold my cards, gift cards, coupons, a change purse with cash, and even my phone! It fits nicely into my various purses in different sizes and makes transitioning easy from bag to bag. It also is easy to find when it is in a large tote bag or backpack while traveling. 
  11. First Aid Kit: Inside of another small zipper pouch I keep a mini first aid kit that holds medicine, bandaids and any other personal medication I'm taking. 
  12. Snacks and Gum: I need to eat something every 3-4 hours or else I can get super cranky and start to feel sick so it is super important that I carry snacks with me wherever I go. I almost always have a granola bar of some kind with me. Ben and I also NEED gum on our flights. During take of and landing chewing gum helps our ears to pop and not hurt. 
  13. Chapstick: Airplanes always dry out my lips so I always bring my chapstick. This brand is my favorite. 
  14. Sunglasses: I almost always take my sunglasses with me, that way I know they have a smaller chance of  breaking. 
  15. Sarong: My parents got me this sarong while they were in Hawaii and I absolutely LOVE it while I'm traveling. In addition to using it as a swimsuit cover-up, I use it as a blanket on the airplane. On our long-haul flight to Europe, the plane got so cold! And I liked having my own, light-weight blanket with me to use. Sarongs are nice because they can be big enough to cover you (I'm 5' 10" and my sarong fit me perfectly) but they can still fold up to be pretty small. Here is one from Amazon that comes in lots of fun colors. 
  16. Water Bottle: Read here about my favorite water bottle
  17. Neck Pillow: Definitely a must if you are planning on sleeping on your flight. Even if you're not, I liked to have mine around my neck when I was watching movies or reading. This is the same brand as mine and I really liked having it.  If you don't like light while you sleep, you also might want to pack a sleeping mask
  18. Compression Socks: These I would recommend if you are flying for more than 2 or 3 hours. I have bad circulation and was worried about sitting for so long on some of my flights, but these compression socks helped a lot with my circulation. They also helped with keeping my feet and legs warm while flying. Here are some similar to mine on Amazon.

Other Things:
  • I also will wear a cardigan while I travel. I like them because they are lightweight but keep me warm. I also can fold (or wad) it up and throw it in my bag without it taking up as much space as a jacket or being as heavy. Only if I'm traveling in winter do I take a coat with me. 
  • I also always wear a scarf while I travel, again this helps with keeping me warm but if I get too hot I can always take it off and throw it into my bag. This is my favorite scarf for traveling! 
  • My destination determines the type of bag that I use for my personal item. If we are just going to visit my family in Minnesota, I take a large purse or a tote bag. If we are going some where for a longer vacation or are going on a more adventurous trip, I will take a backpack
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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame is the most famous cathedral in Paris. It majestically sits at the very center of the city, its nobel façade standing as one of the great symbols of Paris. It is a must see an almost everyone's list when coming to Paris, and for good reason.

How to Get There:

Before you try to get to Notre Dame make sure you are prepared to go; if you've been to a European church before you probably know what this means. Come modestly clothed, that means don't wear shorts, sleeveless shirts, or other revealing attire. You don't want to stand in the often very long line to get inside and then not be allowed in. Don't wear a hat inside and don't use your selfie stick inside either. These restrictions are because Notre Dame is still an active church and people come here to worship, so please be respectful. 

Once you are appropriately attired to go the best way to get there via the Paris Metro (see our guide to the metro) is to ride to the Cité stop (Cité is the is island on which the Notre Dame stands). When you exit this stop it can be a little confusing because you don't see the cathedral, this is due to how closely the buildings are packed here. Notre Dame is actually just about a block away. We were going the wrong direction until we saw a sign in a flower shop that said Notre Dame and an arrow pointing the opposite direction. 

The thing to know is when you exit the Cité metro station go left to walk across the plaza you exit on to. When you reach the street go right. You will soon see Notre Dame on your left. If you see Sainte Chapelle, you are going the wrong way. 

If you want to go into the Cathedral get in the line that snakes its way across the plaza in front of the façade. The line for the tower tour is on the left side of the building when facing the façade. Just make sure that you get in the correct line for what you want to do. 

What You Will See:

Going into Notre Dame is free. So it's a good thing for everyone to do when visiting Paris. The line was pretty long when we were there but it actually moved very fast. There is a security check at the door so make sure to have your bag open when you approach the entrance.

Once inside you will be in a small gift shop area where you can also rent an audio guide if you desire. We recommend just listening to Rick Steves on the Audio Europe app. The tracks for Notre Dame exterior and interior are in the Paris walking tour guide. You can listen to the exterior at any time, you might be tempted to do it while you stand in line, but that wouldn't allow you to get as close to the façade as you really need to in order to see some of the details. 

You can also choose to just wander the church on your own. It is quite large with the central area being taken up by seating for the main Masses held each day. Please remember to be respectful when in this area and follow the instructions on the posted signs.

All the way up the central area of cathedral you will see the beautiful stain glass windows. Around the sides you will find many smaller chapels and confession booths. There is a lot to see, so you can take your time walking around in here.

Outside the Cathedral there is also a lot to see. The facade is covered in statues and if you go to the right you come to a very nice park/garden that will take you around the back of the Cathedral. There is also an optional tour of the churches treasury that you can go on for a cost. The towers can also be seen for an addition cost. (Stay tuned for our spot on the towers!)

Sum Up:

The Notre Dame Cathedral is an awesome place to see. Even if you are not religious it holds significant historical value for Paris both as a church and the island of Cité on which it stands. We definitely recommend you visit it, especially since it doesn't cost anything. There are also free public restrooms just off to the side of the plaza in front of the the Cathedral, we didn't use them so we can't vouch for how nice they are, but they are there if you need them. We also found some amazing mango gelato at a street cart by the bridge to the right of the facade.

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