Paris is one of those destinations you do not visit just once in a lifetime. The first sojourn is – unavoidably – consumed in exploring the standard touristic landmarks, but, once this is completed, the city opens her arms – sometimes in an elegant and coquettish way, other times, in a crude and unrefined manner – inviting the visitor to an initiation process that leaves none untouched.
The more I travel around the world, the bigger my desire to experience life through the eyes of the locals. And, although the City of Light is still (to me) a mystery not fully deciphered, I have developed an indicative list of preferences which I share below for all those wishing to explore the city a bit deeper.
- Spend some time in the numerous parks
Paris is full of small and large parks dotted with statues, benches, and fountains, their narrow pathways shaded under the protective canopy of plane or chestnut trees. Stories reverberate in every corner: from the footsteps of Jean Valjean and the first amorous heartbeats of Marius and Cosette in the Luxembourg Garden to the various scenes captured by the Impressionists in their effort to grasp the meaning and behavior of light, color, and shadow in a frame.
Promenade through the same paths, and stretch (like the locals) on chairs and chaises longues at every (rare) appearance of the sun. Read a book, listen to the humming chatter among friends, follow a game of petanque, or, like me, just sit watching the sky (which, for some reason, always seems broader in Paris) and the fast-changing cloud formations that make the weather so unpredictable in the city. Make sure you add les Tuileries, le Jardin du Luxembourg, and the garden of Palais Royal in your agenda and allow enough time to enjoy the experience.
- Visit the local food markets, the boulangeries, and the patisseries
Despite the attractiveness of the plentiful bistros and brasseries, do not rush to spend all your time (and money) there. Search for a local market and amble around the various food kiosques, spending (naturellement!) more time at the cheese corner. A nice seller may help you (with some cheese-tasting) to choose from the various options, and you will leave with small precious packages to devour over a picnic lunch. Once you have also selected a few fresh fruits and vegetables, pass by the nearby boulangerie (baker shop) to grab your freshly baked, still-warm baguette (ask for la tradition which is my favorite) and, if you want to feel like a real local, start munching the top of the bread while you are still walking. Finally, since no meal is complete without dessert, do not omit to choose something from the mouth-watering variety offered in every boulangerie-patisserie. Although croissants, eclairs, and fruit or lemon tarts are a “must,” do try la religieuse, la tropezienne, or a gateau basque as well. No risk of getting disappointed by any choice!
- Get involved in some of the art events offered daily by several museums or galleries
Museums are not usually my first choice when visiting a city for just a few days. I get too fascinated by the real life around me and too engaged in understanding the subtle details of the town to prefer the rather static environment of an exhibition. However, passing by Paris without getting involved in any of the numerous art events that are organized by museums or galleries is as if one has neglected a crucial aspect of the city.
Avoid the big crowded institutions and choose instead a small museum or a temporary exhibition where you can spend a couple of hours lost in the world of art. The most significant benefit is not the artistic enlightenment per se but the deeper understanding of France’s historical and cultural background, especially over the past couple of centuries. Most exhibitions are currently curated in a storytelling style, transporting the visitor to a parallel reality which is as virtual as a movie and as tangible as the presented art objects. The dialogues, think-tanks, and additional analyses complementing each exhibition are indicative of the level of the ongoing exchange of ideas, the character of the city, and the Parisians’ perpetual attempt to keep digging deeper into the wonders of human creativity.
- Stroll around Le Marais District
Le Marais is a historical (and aristocratic) district that will undoubtedly steal your heart. In my mind, it represents the ideal Parisian neighborhood, as if coming out of a book or a movie. Start from the St Paul church and allow yourself to get lost among the narrow streets with the old buildings, the cafes, bookstores, boutiques, and antique stores. On the way, you may wish to rest at the cozy tea shop of Mariage Freres (a gourmet tea company founded in 1854 by the Mariage brothers). Prepare to spend quite some time just choosing your tea among the various intriguing options (especially if you are a tea lover like me), and do not neglect to taste a cake or two. Last time, I chose the green-tea madeleines which were simply divine and would highly recommend them. Your steps may later lead you to Place de Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and one of the most beautiful in the city. As you walk under the arcades, you will frequently stop in front of the windows of the several galleries, and, if you are not already full, you will be tempted to sit at one of the brasseries. Many well-known politicians, aristocrats, and artists resided in this square during its 400 years of existence, Cardinal Richelieu at No. 21 (from 1615 to 1627) and Victor Hugo at No. 6 (from 1832 to 1848) to name just a few.
- Do not leave Bastille out of your plan
Paris is much more than just its fancy center with its luxurious arrondissements. If one wishes to understand further this fascinating and controversial city, one needs to venture into other neighborhoods that may be a bit off the beaten track for the typical tourist. La Bastille represents an easy first step, since it has turned, over the last few years, into a hippie-style area with several opportunities for entertainment. Just a few decades ago, it used to be a wood-processing and furniture-making neighborhood, occupied by the respective merchants and workers. Today, under the general process of gentrification that has changed the face of many neighborhoods in Paris (and elsewhere), Bastille is what the locals call a “bo-bo” district (i.e., “bourgeois – bohemian”). Relatively affluent residents moved away from the center of Paris towards less developed urban areas, renovating them, but keeping at the same time a friendlier quality of life and a rather “bohemian” style. Walking down the streets of Bastille, away from the Haussmannian influence of the center, one can enjoy the simpler facades, that, yet, emanate style and elegance.
Pass by the old La Pause Café (I did not find its ambiance very interesting, but the cafe is famous especially after featuring in a movie), or Le Bistro du Peintre (which is similarly old and well-known, with an amazing art-deco interior); search for various expressions of street art in corners and nooks; spend some time people-watching; pass by the flea-market which, like any flea-market around the world, may have precious treasures hidden under piles of uninteresting paraphernalia; and do not leave before a quick visit to the Blé Sucré that is considered to be the best patisserie of the neighborhood.
- Go to an evening concert in Belleville
Once a working-class neighborhood, Belleville has turned over the past few decades into a colorful, multi-ethnic district with a relatively alternative character. Street art and large graffiti are quite dominant, while the artistic ambiance of the community is reinforced by the ghost of Edith Piaf who was born and grew up there, numerous other artists, and several features in the French and international cinema. The area has not been immune to gentrification, and its style has been influenced by the ongoing changes. Still, it remains quite unusual and, as such, it was recognized in 2016 as “one of the most unique neighborhoods in the world.”
I attended a concert of manouche (gypsy) jazz in a small brasserie (where the music was much better than the food). The jolly ambiance and the ongoing change of musical ensembles on the tiny stage of the restaurant gave the night an entirely different feel.
- Connect with initiatives like L’ Alternative Urbaine to discover some of the most authentic neighborhoods
L’ Alternative Urbaine is an association for social and occupational inclusion that uses urban walks as a pedagogical support and re-mobilization of people who are unemployed or face other precarious conditions. Joining one of their tours gives the visitor the opportunity to connect with some of the most authentic corners of Paris through the eyes of the locals – and the amateur guides can share a point of view to which we would otherwise remain oblivious.
- Ramble around Bois de Boulogne
Allow some extra time to explore Bois de Boulogne, one of the biggest parks in Europe and the second in size park in Paris (being slightly smaller than Bois de Vincennes). There is so much to do there that it is impossible to fit everything in, in just one day. Roam around the English landscape garden with the numerous lakes, or explore the Chateau de Bagatelle with its beautiful formal French gardens; visit the zoo or the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, a complex of greenhouses holding a hundred thousand plants. Take the boat towards the cute Chalet des Iles for a coffee or tea, or walk towards the Hippodrome. Visit the Luis Vuitton Foundation with its futuristic architecture or the GoodPlanet-Domaine de Longchamp Foundation where you can watch the HUMAN documentary and TERRA exhibition. Above all, enjoy the enchanting landscape and the interaction with the joggers, dog-walkers, or painters that you will undoubtedly encounter along the way.
- Discover the most enchanting cafes in museums
Besides their exhibitions and their occasional architectural interest, museums often hide another treasure: a café-restaurant with an ambiance so magical that it can be an amazing experience by itself. Search in Paris for these bijoux which promise not to disappoint you. For example, the café-restaurant at the Jacquemart-André museum is the actual dining room of the family that built the house, and you can savor a salad, coffee, or a piece of crunchy mille-feuille under an original Tiepolo ceiling. On the other hand, at the Quai Branly museum, you will enjoy a much more modern surrounding with a breathtaking view towards the Eiffel Tower. Exploring the hidden trail of such beautiful cafes is an adventure by itself – and a most gratifying one!
- Take the train and spend one day out of Paris
Within a couple of hours distance from Paris, there are several incredibly picturesque towns, usually with a well-preserved castle worth visiting. Paris is almost like a state within a state, so venturing for a day into the countryside can offer a more holistic experience to the traveler. Either choose a destination in advance or – for some extra adventure – go to one of the main railway stations and jump on the first departing train. The train journey in France is an experience on its own, especially if one comes from a country where the network that connects all towns and cities is not as efficient or friendly. The moment you cross the outskirts of Paris, you will immediately feel the difference. It is not just the landscape which is, of course, covered with lush forests and far-reaching fertile fields, reminiscing several Impressionist paintings as if nothing has changed over the past 150 years. It is the contrast between Paris and the rest of France which is unmistakable and gives a hint about the internal complexities of the country.
As an example: during my last trip, I visited Nogent-sur-Seine, a quaint little town just one hour away from Gare de Paris-Est, nestled (as the name implies) by the banks of the Seine river. It has kept its 19th-century atmosphere intact, with its charming residences, traditional timber-framed houses, and a substantial artistic inheritance, since it has been the birthplace of Marius Ramus, Paul Dubois, Alfred Boucher, and Camille Claudel (all famous sculptors of the late 19th century). The town is also known for having inspired Gustave Flaubert for his novel Sentimental Education.
Since it was raining heavily, I spent most of my time in the Café de Bellevue (which has excellent cuisine and very reasonable prices) and in the newly-opened Camille Claudel museum which is truly inspiring. There are several other attractions (including a nuclear power plant that fumes next to the river in total contrast to the rest of the landscape!) and beautiful trails to follow into the surrounding fields – which, due to the weather, I will just have to explore another time.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Complement this article with more cultural trips in Italy (A Road Trip Through my Favorite Tuscan Villages), Lebanon (Hidden Treasures in the Old City of Tripoli), and Greece (A Tour to my Seven Favorite Churches in the Historical Center of Athens, Exploring Samothrace: Personal Tips and Preferences, and A Journey through the Historical Landmarks of Samothrace).