Barons and Bonaparte, gastro-bistros and Velib bikes, have all left their mark on the French capital and its characteristic twenty arrondissements. Sophie Massie lifts the shroud off the City of Light.
For hundreds of years Paris reigned as the world’s undisputed capital of literature, culture and cuisine. In more recent times however many tourists overlooked Paris in favour of brasher, burgeoning cities like Berlin or Buenos Aires: the sentiment which pervaded travel circles was that creativity and discovery have vanished in France’s capital. Yet Paris is a city prone to revolution, with an inherent tension burning slowly below the surface, and Paris is never far poised from a rebellious comeback. Like the spiralled orientation of its twenty arrondissements, Paris’ potential energy is coiled tight like a spring, ready to release at any moment. From the political revolutionaries who overthrew Louis the XVI to the impressionists who challenged the Academie de Beaux Arts to today’s super chefs who reject the pomp and circumstance of traditional French haute cuisine, when Parisians have had enough, they aren’t afraid to stir the ever simmering pot of dissent.
The original Celtic and later Roman foundation of the city was centred around the islands of the Seine, the river that bisects Paris into two banks: the traditionally bohemian Rive Gauche and the more sophisticated Rive Droite. Within those sides, each individual arrondissement possesses its own personality traits (the 4th is traditionally gay, the 16th old money, etc.). They are connected to each other by large sweeping boulevards that date back to a massive 19th century restructuring of the city conducted by the civic planner Baron Haussmann. His renovations reshaped the medieval city into the modern metropolis we know today: a mélange of stately boulevards and winding alleys, now full of old world brasseries and trendy “gastro-bistros”, sprawling museums and petite galleries, tiny boutiques and corner tabacs. A city ripe for exploring…
Best of the Beaten Track
Several of the city’s most recognizable sites flank the river, so a promenade along the water front is certainly in order. Alternatively the Batobus, a glass covered tour-boat-come-water-taxi (day pass €14) allows passengers to hop on and off as often as they like, with stops at the Musée d’Orsay, Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville, the Louvre, Champs-Elysées, and the Eiffel Tower.
The panoramic view of the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower is well worth the hike. From above you’ll quickly spot the glistening gold-tipped Les Invalides which houses the exceedingly ornate tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. For an equally impressive view, head north to Montmartre, the highest point in the city. After conquering the many stairs and meandering the cobbled streets filled with local artists and caricaturists, catch your breath on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, the great white basilica that crowns the city like a gorgeously iced cake.
Paris’ three largest museums are conveniently partitioned according to artistic eras. The Louvre houses 380,000 objects, 35,000 of which are on display at any one time, with dates ranging from 4,000 B.C. (for the oldest Egyptian artifacts) to 1848. Trying to view the entire museum in one day would be maddening. It is best to stick with one or two individual collections or time periods that appeal to you and savour them at leisure.
Works dating from 1848 to 1915 are held across the river in the Musée d’Orsay. Unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay can be enjoyed in one day. The collection offers an extensive array of impressionist and post impressionist works, including those by such famous masters as Monet, Manet, Dégas, Renoir and many many others.
If you’re craving something more modern head to the Centre Pompidou, the famous “inside-out” museum with its colorful pipes and glass-tubed escalator which course the buildings’ facade. Inside you’ll find two floors for the permanent collection, one dedicated mostly to large scale installations and mixed medias (1960-present day) and one primarily composed of post impressionist, cubist, and fauvist paintings (1905-1960).
For an all encompassing city pass that grants you access to 60 museums, with skip the line privileges, plus free public transport and a boat ride on the river Seine, check out the Turbo Pass website.
With 27 million visitors per year, Paris’ tourist track has been thoroughly beaten. It can be refreshing to check out some of the lesser known sites. The cemetery Père Lachaise in the 20th arrondissement is a surprisingly lovely place to stroll around the resting places of Chopin, Edith Piaf, La Fontaine, and Jim Morrison to name a few. Bring some lipstick to plant a kiss on Oscar Wilde’s tomb and prepare to pay a conjugal visit of sorts to the statue of Victor Noir. Legend holds that a polish on the old Victor Noir knob can improve fertility. More centrally the “cemetery of artists” in Montmartre is certainly worth a look too. Keeping with this morbid theme, the 18th century Catacombs in the 14th afford haunting tours weaving around tight underground passages lined with carefully organized bones. Above ground, enjoy a picnic sur l’herbe at the spacious Jardin de Luxembourg amongst statues commissioned by Cathérine de Medecis.
Paris’ 134 museums offer many interesting alternatives to the mega museums mentioned above. For Monet fans, the Musée de l’Orangerie is an absolute must while sculpture enthusiasts will enjoy the the Musée Rodin’s al fresco collection. For a quirkier experience, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature showcases representations of hunting alongside taxidermic animals while the Musée de l’Eroticisme houses paintings, drawings, and sculptures of a kinkier nature.
Experience & Events
Paris is lovely to visit at any time of year. Spring and summer invite outdoor activities like a picnic along the Canal St. Martin, which is lined with hip bars and restos that open up their terraces to the street. Or rent a Vélib (city bikes stationed all over Paris) and cruise around the expansive Bois de Boulogne (it’s two and a half times the size of Central Park).
On the weekends, head to Porte de Clignancourt or Porte de Vanves to haggle over treasures and antiques at the sprawling flea markets. Foodies will love the Grand Épicerie at Le Bon Marché with its high-end produce and gourmet creations. For those keen on some serious shopping, aim to visit during the Soldes, the traditional biannual sales that send Parisians into a consumer frenzy.
If you can’t get seats to the French Open in May/June, join the crowd of fans at the Hotel de Ville to watch live footage of the matches on a huge outdoor screen. Later in June, Parisians take to the streets for Fête de la Musique, a night of free live music celebrated throughout the city. And of course fans of cabaret should get their hands on Moulin Rouge tickets and enjoy a slice of nightlife history (the theatre first opened in 1889).
St. Christopher’s Inn’s two hostels offer a range of affordable quarters, from dorms with “Pod Beds” (ie. privacy curtain, locker, reading light, wifi and power sockets) to ensuite private rooms that won’t leave the budget traveller down and out in Paris. For something with more comfort and privacy than a hostel, but still with a young and social atmosphere consider the Melon District near the Bois de Boulogne Park. Part student residence, part hotel, all the rooms are ensuite, and it also boasts a cooking lounge, gym and swimming pool for relaxing and mingling with fellow explorers and students. The no frills Hotel Terminus Orléans is clean, comfortable, and located in the vibrant Alésia neighborhood in the 14th – an area seldom explored by tourists. For a modern design hotel check out the 7th’s appropriately named Hotel le Seven. For a quiet, romantic retreat head to the garden-enclosed Hotel Particulier Montmartre. As for luxury hotels, the 5 star Plaza Athénée (€865) stands apart with its Alain Ducasse restaurant and daring cocktail bar, while Le Bristol (€670) is a common haunt among Hollywood elite in town shooting films.
Now is the time to dine in Paris like never before. A bevy of restaurants have cropped up in recent years that serve inspired takes on traditional French cuisine at affordable prices, like Chateaubriand, Rino both in the 11th, and Frenchie in the 3rd. If you need to take a break from French food head to Rue St. Anne for a slew of Japanese restaurants, including Higuma, famous for its tasty pork dumplings and substantial soups. Though late to the trend, Parisians are finally coming around to the idea of upscale pizza joints, with La Briciola and Grazie the most de rigueur of all. For a quick bite, Rue de Rosiers in the Marais is home to dozens of falafel stands and Jewish trattorias. Craving something sweet? No trip to Paris is complete without a few La Durée or Pierre Hermé macarons.
Food-obsessed travellers may also want to check out our guide to Paris’ best bakeries.
Paris’s myriad drinking holes offer something for just about every boozy persuasion. There are lively expat bars like the Lizard Lounge and the late-night Violin Dingue. There are local bars that attract a younger crowd like Café Charbon, Truskel, or Pop-in. For quality cocktails either hit up a hotel bar like Bar Hemingway in the Ritz, or seek out a proper cocktail club such as Experimental or the recently opened taqueria-cum-speakeasy Candelaria (check out our top five cocktail bars in Paris for more!). For high energy dancing hit up Le Tango, one of the few gay clubs in the Marais that welcomes heteros too. You’ll have to be someone famous or be sleeping with the doorman to get into Le Montana but once inside you’ll rub shoulders with fashion icons the likes of Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs. If you’re craving live music, La Bellevilloise and Flèche d’Or serve up a cool mix of popular and obscure.
Getting There & Around
The main airport, Charles de Gaulle is serviced by all major airlines, including Air France. Transport from CDG into the city takes 45 minutes by RER train (17€ one way). Those that prefer a private transfer can reserve a car in advance via the likes of Book Taxi Paris, or Blacklane, both of whom offer fair prices. The cheap airlines EasyJet and Ryanair connect Paris’s secondary airports, Beauvais and Orly, to other European and North African cities. By rail, the Eurostar links Paris’ Gare du Nord to London’s St. Pancras station in two hours. For train travel from other destinations check out the French rail team TGV. For an even cheaper option you could investigate bus routes to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Milan. Not a bad idea if you’re a backpacker.
The official site of the Mairie de Paris is www.paris.fr. Check out My Little Paris for the scoop about deals around town at salons, restaurants, shops, etc. Secrets of Paris is a full online guide to visiting and living in Paris. Lost in Cheeseland provides mouthwatering photos and musings of an American expat in Paris and was winner of the 2011 Bloggie for Best European blog. 52martinis.blogspot.com charts the adventures of a cocktail blogger drinking his way through Paris’ best bars.
Paris has so much going on that it’s often hard to keep track. For a comprehensive listing of cinema, ballet, opera, theatre, museum, concert, exhibit, and general event listings, pick up a Pariscope (40 centimes) at any new stands. As for conventional travel guides, the Moon Metro guide fits traditional advice, oddball picks, and foldout laminated maps in one sleek package. For a feel of what Paris was like in the literary expat circles of the 20s and 30s, Henry Miller’s bawdy Tropic of Cancer and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast are a must. Slightly more recently, Muriel Barberry’s 2006 hit l’Elegance du Hérisson (Elegance of the Hedgehog) exposes Parisians’ idea of class and society with philosophy and wit.
On screen, Matthieu Kassovitz’ gritty portrayal of life in Paris’ housing projects, La Haine is beautifully rendered in black and white while Jean Pierre Jeunet’s unconventional love story Amélie bursts with playful color. For a sexy stylish thriller it’s hard to beat L’Appartement, starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Belluci.
Soundtrack to the City
For even more expert advice check out this two-day itinerary with local tips.