I first visited Paris in the early 2000’s. Back then Paris still had some grit–in certain quarters there was more grime than graffiti, litter blowing in the gutters, sketchy characters, nude prostitutes standing in doorways and in the woods, and waaaay more smoking. But outside of the tourist spots, the people passing by were certainly French. You could never mistake that Paris for the version at Epcot Center.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later to 2016, my most recent visit, and circumstances had certainly changed. The city was cleaned up–even the rough neighborhoods were gentrified, far more signs were in English, and tourist spots and sidewalks were packed with visitors from around the world. Nevertheless, it felt like my heart had come home, like meeting an old friend whom you hadn’t seen for many years but with whom you just clicked right back.
So why Paris? Read on.
Anthony Bourdain Said it Best
So what do I recommend you do if you are fortunate enough to visit Paris? Yes, you should check off some of your bucket list items, but you should also get off the beaten path and save some time for pure leisure and enjoyment. It’s a very walkable city–take the time to wander and explore without the tyranny of an agenda. I think Anthony Bourdain offered the best Parisian travel advice:
Most of us are lucky to see Paris once in a lifetime. Please, make the most of it by doing as little as possible. Walk a little. Get lost a bit. Eat. Catch a breakfast buzz. Have a nap. Try and have sex if you can, just not with a mime. Eat again. Lounge around drinking coffee. Maybe read a book. Drink some wine. Eat. Repeat. See? It’s easy.
So yes, get a good travel guide (I like Lonely Planet and Rick Steves) but craft a trip hat is meaningful to you. On that note, these are my favorite sites/activities/experiences for Paris, in no particular order, with my own photos (some yellowing with age).
My Top Ten Paris (in no particular order)
1. Visit Musee D’Orsay
A beautiful former train station filled with impressionist art and soft light, on a scale that will delight, not exhaust. Let yourself be mesmerized by Henri Rousseau’s dreamlike jungles.
2. Explore the Isle de la Cite after checkinga out Notre Dame:
*Sainte Chappelle On a sunny day, pass through a dingy government courtyard and up into the vaulted ceilings of Sainte Chapelle, giving you the feeling of being encased inside a sparkling gem.
*Berthillon Ice Cream There are outposts of this traditional Parisian outpost across Paris but visit a dedicated stand for the widest selection of flavors. Get 2 scoops and try flavors you can’t find easily at home–like nougat or black currant.
*Shakespeare and Company This English-language bookstore has a fascinating literary history and quirky traditons that go back decades. Take some time to fully explore the entire shop and be sure to have your purchases stamped with their “Mile Zero” stamp.
*Flower & bird market Monday through Saturday, stroll through the flower markets for a peaceful interlude; or Sundays, to check out pet birds for sale. Buy some flowers to spruce up your hotel nightstand or purchase a souvenir (like my favorite, a little music box that plays the theme from Amelie).
3. Shop at a food market/local grocery/Monoprix/pharmacy
This is one of my favorite things to do when traveling anywhere–check out the local markets and groceries, not only to make a snack or picnic but for some unique and well-priced souvenirs.
Monoprix is like the French version of Target–find affordable clothes, home goods, stationary, and more. It and larger French pharmacies offer all kinds of lovely skin care, makeup, and hygiene products, like the heavenly-scented Tahiti bodywash.
4. Check out some offbeat sites–not everything needs to be high art and sophistication:
*Les Catacombes Not as spooky as expected and much more extensive than you may realize. The bones are stacked carefully, some with a artistic eye.
*Musee des Egouts Please learn from my mistake and do not visit the sewers museum after having a less-than-positive dining experience with a very…ahem…fragrant andouiette sausage. My idiocy aside, it is a fascinating museum but understand that it is in the working sewers of Paris.
*Cimetiere Pere Lachaise Paris is peppered with historic cemeteries that offer a bit of quiet history. Quite a few famous people rest at Pere Lechaise, though the Doors singer Jim Morrison’s grave is probably the most notorious. Stop by and you’ll see what I mean.
5. Enjoy Le Refuge de Fondus
A fun and funky spot just down the hill from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. It helps if you’re limber enough to swing your leg over a table to reach your seat but don’t worry, the baby bottle of wine served with your fondue makes it worthwhile. (That was not a typo, LOL.) The food is good, but you’re not coming for a rarefied gourmet experience, you’re here for the lively atmosphere and unique experience.
6. Experience authentic FOOD, on French terms
The French meal is recognized as a UNESCO heritage, so seek authenticity and avoid chains and places with tourist menus in English prominently displayed. Take the time to sit and savor each course and the pacing of a French meal. Enjoy food that is in season and items that you would be hard pressed to find at home, like regional raw milk cheeses. This is not the time to follow your strict diet or request menu substitutions, this is the time to enjoy.
7. Walk/explore a neighborhood:
*Bateaux Mouches I suggest you take a Bateaux Mouches ride just before sunset, to appreciate the city being bathed in the warm glow of disappearing light and to be transported by the moment the Eiffel Tower’s lights twinkle on for the night.
*City parks and gardens Paris has so many lovely parks and Parisians appreciate them. Take a break from museum-hopping and spend some time outside relaxing.
*Fountains In addition to the green Wallace fountains, perfect for refilling your water bottle, and newly-installed sparkling water fountains, Paris is filled with fountains that cool down the hot summer air. Take a seat nearby, rest your feet, and enjoy the people watching.
*Non-touristy stuff & places Get a real feel for the city and seek out spots sans touristes. I loved the enormous Saint-Ouen flea market and Canal St. Martin. Plus, patronizing local businesses that aren’t geared to tourists is enormously helpful for supporting a livable Paris for Parisians.
Keep in mind that Paris is an incredibly multicultural city, with all kinds of vibrant experiences filtered through a French je ne said quoi; why not try some Chinese take out (with a delicious French twist), enjoy food from Reunion Island, or go to a French hip hop show? Catch the energetic vibe and attitude of the “This is Paris” music video to inspire a night out.
Need a day off from sightseeing? Get scrubbed down Turkish style at a hammam and recover with a glass of mint tea on the garden patio. Don’t waste too much of your time in Paris waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower or queuing up at the Louvre. You may be surprised and find that the off the beaten track experiences resonate more with you than the big tourist sites.
8. Support current artists, not just the dead-and-gone greats:
*La Caveau de La Huchette is sited in the cellar of a 16th century building and is a traditional venue for jazz artists and swing dancers. Both tourists and locals come for the high-energy and unique atmosphere.
Jazz musicians at Le Caveau.
*Look for upcoming art/concert/culture eventsand check out small galleries and performance spaces.
*Purchase original art as a souvenir or gift, instead of/in addition to that Monet poster.
9. Speak some French *and* understand the French
The French, and especially Parisians, have a reputation with many Americans for being cold and snobbish. Really, a little advance cultural understanding goes a long way in dispelling this stereotype. The French place great importance on etiquette, are more formal in social settings than Americans, and take great pride in their language.
So, yes, even if you feel like an idiot, try to speak some French. No matter how mangled, the effort will be appreciated–even if it’s just bon jour and merci. Before your visit, take the time to learn about the culture and practice some traveler’s French. Pack clothes that are appropriate for a European city, not for a day at the beach back home. You will have a richer, more meaningful experience and better interactions with locals.
10. Take a day trip:
If you have time to spare, consider a day trip so you can experience more of this beautiful country’s scenery, culture, and history. Leave as early as possible to maximize your day and miss the crowds of tourists who are sleeping in. If you don’t dare to drive or the train system doesn’t connect, plenty of bus tours leave Paris on a daily basis to many destinations.
*Monet’s Garden This was one of my favorite day trips from Paris–Monet grew a wild garden in place of a staid and sterile front yard–quite befitting for an artist living in a watermelon-colored house.
Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny.
*Versailles If you enjoy history, formal gardens, or eye-popping luxury (or maybe I should say head-popping luxury), visit Versailles.There
*Mont St. Michel Mont St. Michel is not the closest day trip from Paris by a long shot but it will get you to a different region and allow you to savor some sea air. Wander the marvel that is Mont St. Michel and allow your imagination to run wild.
Mont St. Michel rises from the flat Normandy landscape like a mirage or a dream.
*Rungis Market In the suburbs of Paris lies Rungis Market, food wholesaler extraordinaire for the entire Paris area. Imagine a Costco warehouse times like 5, with one building each for cheese, meat, seafood, produce, and flowers. You’ll have to get up early and don an incredibly attractive smock and hairnet ensemble but if you’re a food nerd like me, it will be worth it.P
Places I still want to explore:
*Musee des Arts Forain Outside of the city center, this museum houses a delightful collection of circus and carnival items, such as Ferris wheels.
*L’Atelier des Lumières A multimedia gallery merges technology and art to delight and engage the visitor.
*La Petite Ceinture Hike this abandoned railway line through Paris’s heart and enjoy the graffiti.
Paris is Always a Good Idea
Geographically, France is a small country and Paris is not a large capital city but you could never run out of things to see and do, no matter your interests and priorities. Take some time to learn its history and traditions and let this knowledge guide your itinerary. Acknowledge that Paris is a living city people call home, with all the attendant challenges and wonders, not a museum exhibit for tourists. Spend your time there with an open mind and respect.
I recognize that I’ve had the very good fortune to visit Paris multiple times and I’m not sure I could really explain my connection to it. I can say that I feel more at home, in sync with France than the United States, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly why. On an episode of “This American Life” Kristin Hohenadel, an American who moved to Paris years ago and now feels more at home there than back in the States, struggles to capture this connection herself. The best she can express is that “…here, I just think, yes, this is exactly it. This is how life should be– the pace, the scale, the way it looks.” Indeed, indeed, indeed.
There are so many quotes about Paris, all of them equal measures cliche and truth. I could end this post with Hemingway’s observation that memories of Paris are a movable feast, but he was a creep, LOL. Instead, in agreement with the lovely ghumanitarian Audrey Hepburn, I leave you with this advice: “Paris is always a good idea.”