I have a personal love affair with Paris. Paris has captured my heart during every significant milestone in my life. As a college student, I explored every inch of the city with wide eyes; in awe of the glamour of the streets, the smell of the bakeries, the history of the museum walls. As a wife (with my husband), I strolled the architectural alleys, dined for hours over existential topics of life, as Parisians do, shopped, the colorful boutiques. As a mother, I saw the city through the eyes of my children — wide with excitement over the Eiffel Tower, the street corner Creperies, the bustle of the evening. And, with each visit, came new discoveries and bright memories.
Regardless of how you see the City of Lights, its a magical sight, layered with history, beauty and temptation. Je suis Paris!
Practice makes perfect. With every visit to Paris (and generally, any destination), comes new insights about packing necessities. My arsenal of traveling goods always includes, 1) a pocket knife, outfitted with a wine opener, scissors and tweezers, 2) portable silverware for the impromptu picnic on the Seine, 3) a carry-all tote that functions as a market/beach/picnic/grocery bag (grocery stores charge for bags) 4) when appropriate, extra sun lotion (the price of sun lotion in Europe is worth carrying the extra weight in your bag) and 5) a Streetwise laminated map, labeled with every Metro station and street in the city.
Transportation 4-1-1. Paris is a walking city. The hidden nooks and treasures are best discovered by foot. But, if your travels comprise more than a few days, and you’d prefer to navigate the city by public transportation, consider purchasing Navigo Découverte, Paris’ weekly pass. For around $22, the “smart card” gives you unlimited Metro or bus access to all of the major neighborhood “Zones,” (arrondissements) including Charles de Gaulle Airport. Otherwise, purchase a carnet (bulk tickets) of 10 tickets for 14.50 EUR or single tickets for 1.90 EUR. The above options can be purchased at nearly any Metro ticket window.
Stay. Everyone travels differently. One desires room service and requires little space. The other, prefers the option of preparing their own meals. In my opinion, this distinction defines the perfectly suited accommodation. Hotels are in excess in Paris, from boutique, quaint inns, to grander, more traditional properties. Alternatively, using a rental service for an apartment, especially with a larger group, can be cost effective and provide the amenities you are looking for.
Where to stay? How will you be spending your time in the city? Wandering the streets with no defined agenda? Being among other tourists? Retiring early in the evening — hopeful of silence in the surrounding areas? As a student, I sought a lively neighborhood, with late-night bars and inexpensive restaurants. The 6th arrondissement met these needs, anchored by the Sorbonne (University) and active, Latin Quarter. Before children (in my late 20s and early 30s), my focus shifted to a more artistic, slightly upscale district. The 3rd and 4th arrondissements (called, Le Marais) served these requirements. Similar to Soho in NYC, this region houses open lofts, galleries, higher-end boutiques, pop-up shops, etc. On the weekend, you can expect late evening crowds flooding the streets, as opposed to the simmer of the alleyways, Sunday thru Thursday. The 16th arrondissement acts as the Upper Eastside does in NYC. One might argue, a bit posh, the 16th, offers wide, walkable boulevards, stunning boutiques and Michelin-star restaurants. But perhaps the most sellable feature of the 16th, is that it feels “perfectly Parisian.” The quintessential architecture — Haussmannian buildings with wrought-iron balconies, constructed with attic rooms and dormer windows, elderly couples; hand in hand, and the seemingly few tourists populating the area, perfectly define this great district.
Do. In a city of 41 square miles (Manhattan is 23 square miles, for perspective), the “musts” (do, see, shop, eat, etc) far exceed the “nots.” As mentioned above, see and do as much as you can by foot. Wander the city with no agenda, and you will happen upon the most exceptional shops, galleries, bakeries, markets, restaurants, etc — most of which are hardly ever at the forefront of major tourist books or websites. The adventure of stumbling upon a gem, unlike anything you have ever experienced, is part of the journey.
If you must keep to a plan, perhaps consider the following suggestions.
Centre Pompidou. A museum that houses the largest modern art collection in Europe. Kandinsky. Jackson Pollack. Picasso. All are beautifully represented in this space. The Galerie des Enfants is of particular interest to children with it’s interactive exhibits and workshops. Take note, every first Sunday of the month, the museum is free.
Deyrolle. Opened in 1831. Part curiosity shop. Part taxidermy gallery. Life-size presentations of lions, tigers and bears (plus zebras, rhinos, etc). With the support of meticulous artists and collectors, a stunning array of butterflies, insects, and microscopic creatures are also on display. A one-of-a-kind shop, worthy of a visit.
Arc de Triomphe. Monument standing prominently at the center of twelve avenues, and overlooking the Champs-Ellsees. Historically, the Arc became the rallying destination for French troops after successful military missions. Beneath the Arc, is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, from World War I. Climb the 284 steps to the observation platform, to witness the true beauty of the city. From the extensive flow of the avenues, to the Eiffel Tower and beyond — the view is among the most special in Paris.
Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens. Perfectly Parisian. Lined with quintessential French park seating, both gardens act as a stunning backdrop to an afternoon picnic, or mid-day nap. At the Tuileries, kids can ride the carousel, jump on the in-ground trampoline and exhaust their youthful energy on the playground. Escape the bustle of the city in the numerous grass pastures and amongst the trees lining the park. Luxembourg also offers a restful reprieve from the rigors of the day. Rent a vintage wooden toy sailboat (3.50 Euro for 30 minutes) or explore the fountains, statues and winding paths of the historical gardens; the heart of the city’s Left Bank.
Public art. Free-thinking, uber-creative and avant-garde masterminds have dotted the city with provocative displays of culture and art. On a vacant wall in Le Marais, you may find graffiti in the form of a politically-infused poem. On the storefront window of a fashion-forward concept shop, you may stumble upon a modern showcase of food-inspired paintings. Stravinsky Fountain, outside Centre Pompidou offers a whimsical and artistic perspective of composer, Igor Stravinsky’s works of art. Be open to being surprised by the city’s creativity and inspired visual messages.
Shop. The blending of “on the rack” department shopping with traces of less conventional, neighborhood boutique purchases, is very French. A Saturday stroll, may commence in Galeries Lafayette, and continue to the high fashion, street-style shop Colette, with stops in between at unnamed vintage stores and prominent book shops. The ways of the “effortless” Parisian, extend beyond the category of style — into their lifestyle, home, gifting, etc, purchasing behaviors.
Depending on your shopping interests, there is something for everyone on the streets of Paris. These few are among my favorites:
La Droguerie. Translated as “The Drugstore,” this bead and sewing shop is awe-inspiring and exceptionally unique. The most beautiful array of buttons and ornate decorations, stacked in glass jars, for every DIY creative undertaking. Global fabrics, yarns and fashion patterns line the walls, offering inspiration for the aspiring designer.
Bis Boutique Soldaire. If you are in the market for a unique, highly-stylized, and very Parisian souvenir, look no further than vintage clothing shops, flooding the streets of the city. There are perhaps more of these niche boutiques than there are Starbucks in Paris, but if you are particularly drawn to the “hunt” (i.e. scavenging through racks of treasured used wares), than Bis Boutique Soldaire is for you. Clean and organized, with a significant array of inventory, the Marais location of this outpost, requires part creative vision, part patience (in pursuit of the timeless piece to compliment your wardrobe and be the envy of your style squad) but is worth your time and money.
E. Dehillerin. A well-known favorite of Julia Child, this kitchen-supply institution has been selling its copper stock pots and specialty tools since 1820. Stroll the packed aisles of hanging pans and peculiar kitchen tools, and marvel at the history of this Les Halles establishment.
Tumbleweed. The most curious of toy shops. A small, playful nook, found in Le Marais, Tumbleweed stocks a well-curated selection of challenging puzzles, hand-made toys and games. Lynn, the owner, scrambles each puzzle before wrapping the package, as Parisians do, for the inquisitive recipient. (Note: If after two months, the puzzle can not be solved, Lynn advises to email her for the answer.)
FYI: Paris holds two major sales a year — end of January and July, so plan accordingly.
Eat. Today’s Paris can no longer be defined as “traditional.” The modern Paris dining scene looks quite different than yesteryear’s. An influx of Japanese, Latin, Middle Eastern, among other international influences, are now competing with the rustic, decadence of France’s time-honored style of cooking. This infusion has left innumerable choices and opportunities for wonderful dining experiences in Paris.
I, for one, however, still prefer classic bistro-inspired French fare, and thus, my recommendations reflect that admiration.
Chez Paul. In keeping with tradition, Chez Paul is the truest of French bistros, serving conventional dishes such as escargot, pork terrine, French onion soup and foie gras. Priced very reasonably, the restaurant, remains, as it was, when it opened in the 1920s.
Chez Janou. A charming restaurant in the Marais, Chez Janou is wonderful for groups or intimate gatherings (but call ahead for reservations, as they don’t accept them online). Forget the entree (which is reliably, delicious), go straight to their chocolate mousse. The finest chocolate dish in, perhaps the world! Served in a XL terrine (that must serve about 6-8 people), its decadent, and airy, but with a hint of bitterness from the dark chocolate. Divine, with a capital “D.”
Marche Bastille. One of the largest, open-air markets in Paris; held on Thursday and Sunday. A true definition of the mantra — there is beauty in everything. From the robust smells of charcuterie, cheeses, roasted chickens, creperies, grilled lamb stands, to the colors of the vegetable stalls, olive displays and art, to the energy of the passerbyers, Marche Bastille is worth the visit. Take a pause on Sunday, as Parisians so, and gather some delicious bites at the Market. for the perfect Parisian picnic.
L’As du Falafel. In the middle of the Marais, follow the smells and lively crowds to L’As du Fallafel. Served on thick pita rounds, this falafel is worth the traditional French lunch diversion. Messy, crunchy, creamy — oozing with tahini sauce, the Middle Eastern sandwich at this extremely popular outpost, can be engulfed, while hoarding the entryway of a neighboring shop, or inside the restaurant.
Lafayette Gourmet. Galeries Lafayette food hall, located on Boulevard Haussmann, this special 2-story gourmet shop, occupies a grocery, delicatessen, chocolate shops, local coffee and tea outposts, cheese mongers, bakers, etc. A foodie’s heaven on earth.
Paris is a wonderland for the gourmand, the window-shopper, the adventurer, the art connoisseur, and every character in between. It has stolen my heart more than once. I dare you to visit and have it not steal yours.