By: Elissa Richard
Ahhhhhh, que la vie est belle à Paris. You’re sure to be uttering words much like these (ahhhh, isn’t life beautiful in Paris) after visiting this fabled European city that has inspired and mesmerized starry-eyed lovers, writers, artists, dreamers, and schemers for centuries. Inherently designed for romance and the sheer enjoyment of life – imagine lunching with exquisite wines on a charming terrace setting or strolling manicured fountain-filled gardens in the heart of the city – and for reveling in nighttime beauty – in the form of luminous bateaux-mouches on the Seine, the floodlit facade of Notre Dame, or the twinkling metalwork of the iconic Eiffel Tower – modern-day Paris is sure to bewitch both repeat and first-time visitors.
You could live a lifetime in Paris and still be left with more to discover, so don’t expect to take it all in during the course of just one visit. Three days gives a hurried opportunity to take in the compulsory highlights – a Louvre visit; some strolling on the Ile de la Cité with its majestic Notre Dame; a cruise down the Seine; a trip atop the Eiffel Tower; a promenade down the Champs-Elysées to its crowning Arc de Triomphe; and perhaps a quick jaunt up to the old bohemian quarter of Montmartre with its white-domed Sacré-Coeur. Five days is considerably more ideal, allowing for more leisurely exploration of the diverse neighborhoods on foot, from the intellectual center of the Latin Quarter and the chic Marais to the up-and-coming artists’ enclave by rue Oberkampf; you’ll also be free to linger a bit in the quarters’ abundant green spaces and antiquated squares. The added days may also permit you to indulge in a more thorough sampling of Paris’ vast museum offerings – the d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Rodin, and Picasso museums are our picks for the crème de la crème of Paris’ rich artistic offerings. A week will leave time for whiling away afternoons at atmospheric sidewalk cafés, picnicking in parks, and shopping.
As for the notion that the French don’t like Americans or that Parisians are snobbish – pish posh. Current foreign affairs aside, it’s worth remembering that cosmopolitan French and American cultures have long shared a discreet love affair. You’ll be amazed at the reception you’ll receive simply by using a few French words. A well-placed bonjour here and a merci there can truly work wonders with Parisians, who, for the most part, have a basic enough command of the English language to meet you the rest of the way. And with that, you’re in for a bon voyage!
Paris as a whole is divided into 20 municipal sections called arrondissements, each with its own character and attractions. But the thread that connects it all is the Seine, the river that divides the city into the Rive Droite (Right Bank) to the north (with such draws as the Champs-Elysées, the Louvre, Montmartre, and the Marais) and the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) to the south (home to the Latin Quarter and St-Germain, among others). Both sides are connected by some 30 picturesque pedestrian and vehicular bridges, while between the shores are two small isles that double as Paris’ heart and historical birthplace – the Ile de la Cité, also the site of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Ile St-Louis, with its romantic, medieval mazelike streets and antiquated mansions.
The best way to discover Paris is à pied (on foot), with a good map in hand – definitely consider investing in a good pocket plan of the city by arrondissement (widely available at area newsstands and bookshops) to navigate the city with ease. For longer jaunts, or if you’re in a hurry, the Métro is a remarkably efficient and modern subway system; there is additionally a vast network of bus routes, should you prefer to stay aboveground, as well as taxis for hire at designated stands.
Organized tours are widely available by bus, boat, foot, or even bike. Popular double-decker bus tours with English commentary include Cityrama (2 rue des Pyramides; 17-95€; www.pariscityrama.com), which offers a multitude of customized Parisian tours as well as day trip excursions, and Les Cars Rouges (17 quai de Grenelle; regular departures from 9.30am-6pm; 22€; www.carsrouges.com) which features hop-on, hop-off service with nine stops throughout the city.
Reputable walking tours include Classic Walks (24 rue Edgar Faure; 12-20€; www.classicwalksparis.com), with thematic (e.g., World War II, Da Vinci Code) and neighborhood (e.g., Latin Quarter, Montmartre) outings; and Lire et Partir (6 rue Raffet; 13€; www.lireetpartir.com), which conducts literary tours in the footsteps of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Balzac, Hugo, and others who all once set up shop in Paris. Fat Tire Bike Tours (24 rue Edgar Faure; 24–28€ with bike rental and guide; www.fattirebiketoursparis.com) provides a fun alternative to seeing the sights.
Still, by far the most popular way to see Paris is by boat tour along the Seine. Your two best bets are the Vedettes du Pont Neuf (Square du Vert Galant; 1hr; 10€; www.vedettesdupontneuf.com), close to the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chappelle, in the 1st, and the bateaux-mouches (Port de la Conference; 8€ or 50–125€ with lunch or dinner; www.bateaux-mouches.fr), which offers romantic dining cruises from the 8th. Whichever tour you take, you’ll sail past Paris’ brightest stars, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, and the Louvre; underneath the soft arches of numerous bridges; and around the circumference of the small river islands. From this unique riverboat perspective, you’ll witness some incredible scenery, nearly impossible to recapture on land. Keep an eye out for our favorite bridges: exceptionally charming Pont Neuf (1st arrondissement); the pedestrian-only Pont des Arts (between 1st and 6th arrondissements); and the 19th-century Pont Alexandre III (between 7th and 8th arrondissements), the most elaborate of all Parisian bridges, boasting intricate details – sculpted marine deities and cherubs among others – and phenomenal views of the Eiffel Tower.
The Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau (daily 9am-7pm; www.paris-info.com) operates nine welcome centers throughout the city – its main headquarters are at 25 rue des Pyramides in the 1st arrondissement. The bureau can assist you in booking hotels, arranging excursions, or getting tickets for select shows and museums, as well as transportation passes.
THE CRADLE OF PARIS: ILE ST-LOUIS & ILE DE LA CITE
An excellent starting point to any tour of Paris is Ile de la Cité, a small island in the midst of the Seine that’s considered the very heart of Parisian civilization. Indeed, this “cradle of Paris” was home to French kings until the 14th century, before they moved into the Louvre palace across the river (see below); today, the island hosts a slew of medieval attractions, the most prominent of which is the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral.
Indeed, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (Place du Parvis Notre-Dame; 7.45am-6.45pm; free; www.cathedraledeparis.com/EN/0.asp) has been an iconic Parisian symbol since the 12th century. Staring up at the Gothic cathedral’s immense facade, note the wonderfully detailed threesome of main portals (the Virgin, the Last Judgment, and St. Anne), depicting stone-carved images of various saints and kings; above that is the Kings’ Gallery, lined with 28 statues of the kings of Judea and Israel; still above that is the remarkable West Rose Window, with the Virgin and Child as its focal point. Inside the cathedral itself, you can admire magnificent stained-glass rose windows and the Treasury (Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm & Sun 2-6pm; 3€), which hosts a piece of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and one of the nails used in the Passion of Christ. Cap off your visit by walking up the 255 tower steps (daily 9.30am-7.30pm; 6.10€) – the close up look at Notre-Dame’s spire and flying buttresses, and at the peculiar gargoyles and fantastical creatures that guard it, is well worth the effort.
A footbridge behind Notre-Dame leads to charming Ile St- Louis, a pedestrian paradise with quaint cobblestone roads lined by 17th-century mansions and one-of-a-kind boutiques. This is coveted real estate for some 6000 well-to-do “Louisiens” who live here today – in fact, the island was long a haven for aristocrats and great minds, offering residence to the ilk of Voltaire and Marie Curie. The ice cream at Berthillon (29-31 rue Saint Louis en l’Ile; 10am-8pm; www.berthillon-glacier.fr) has a reputation for being simply magnifique.
Back on Ile de la Cité are two more stellar historical sites: The imposing Conciergerie (2 boulevard du Palais; March-Oct 9.30am-6pm, Nov-Feb 9am-5pm; 6.50€; www.monum.fr) served as a royal palace in the 13th and 14th centuries, before being converted into a holding cell for thousands of Revolution-era inmates, including Marie-Antoinette, before her execution by guillotine in the late 18th century.The neighboring 13th-century royal chapel, the Gothic Sainte-Chapelle, (4 boulevard du Palais, March-Oct 9.30am-6pm, Nov-Feb 9am-5pm; 6.50€; www.monum.fr) is renowned for its stunning stained-glass windows. Steps from here, under the Pont Neuf, you can easily hop on a boat tour of the Seine to take a breather (see boat cruise information, above).
THE RIGHT BANK
The attractions of the Rive Droite will surely command most of your attention whilst exploring Paris, what with its exceptional museums (the Louvre, Musée National d’Art Moderne), majestic squares (Place Vendôme, Place des Vosges), historic monuments (Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Bastille), grand shopping boulevards (think Champs-Elysées), and captivating quarters like Montmartre and the Marais. Plan on budgeting the bulk of your sight-seeing hours on this northern bank of Paris.
The Louvre & Tuileries
One of the world’s greatest art museums, the Louvre (Palais du Louvre; Mon, Thurs, Sat–Sun 9am-6pm; Wed & Fri 9am-9:45pm; 8.50€; www.louvre.fr) is an absolute must-see on any visit to Paris although there is absolutely no way to see all that’s inside (some 35,000 works are on display) in one, let alone 100, visits. Nestled between the Seine and rue de Rivoli, this onetime French royal palace (until Louis XIV, the Sun King, picked up and moved to Versailles in 1682) has housed the French State’s massive art collection since 1793. The main entrance is via I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, a futuristic 70-foot-high glass structure completed in 1989; no matter what you may think of the work, it certainly provides an interesting juxtaposition against the palace’s classical facade.
The collection is indeed overwhelming, although well organized, so make sure to catch the highlights. You’ll discover Leonardo da Vinci’s legendary La Gioconda (Mona Lisa); return visitors will be pleasantly surprised to see that the inscrutable smiling lady has recently been rewarded with a room of her own, the Salle des Etats. Other noteworthy da Vinci pieces include Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Virgin of the Rocks. The armless Venus de Milo and the headless Winged Victory statue, dating from about 100-200 B.C., are two major draws in the Greek antiquities section. Works from such greats as Delacroix, Botticelli, David, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian will also surely vie for your attention. Guided tours take in many of the most reputed pieces on display, and are a smart bet if you’re short on time.
Back outside, make way to the nearby Jardin des Tuileries, the most formal garden in Paris. Originally restricted solely for the use of royal residents of the Louvre, and the setting for extravagant regal galas, the 63-acre garden’s present 17th-century design is attributed to Louis XIV’s famed gardener (Le Notre), who was also responsible for the extraordinary landscaping of Versailles and the gardens along the Champs Elysées. Two large fountains serve as focal points, and terraces, sculptures, flower gardens, and seating areas abound, making the Tuileries a popular meeting place for friends, and a regular weekend destination for bourgeois Parisian families, whose children delight in pushing around model boats on the ornamental ponds. Kiosks and open-air cafés are also sprinkled along the perimeters, making it a great place to grab a coffee or a quick bite to eat after visiting the Louvre.
The Champs-Elysées & Arc de Triomphe
With the majestic Arc de Triomphe at its end, and glimpses of the Eiffel Tower along the way, there is no more quintessentially Parisian street than the 1.2-mile-long Champs-Elysées. Starting from the Place de la Concorde at the western end of the Tuileries, the wide boulevard known as “the most beautiful avenue in the world” is a decidedly exhilarating place to walk, what with its broad tree-lined expanse of upscale designer boutiques, bustling outdoor cafés, theaters, gardens, fountains, and restaurants. Dating back to the 1600s, and synonymous with prestige and elegance, you’ll find it especially pretty at night, when the soft glow of Parisian streetlights and the magnificent, illuminated Arc de Triomphe will guide your way.
Head to the observation deck atop the Arc de Triomphe (Place Charles de Gaulle; Apr-Sept daily 10am-11pm, Oct-Mar until 10.30pm; 8€; www.monum.fr) for great views of the scene: the Champs-Elysées, place de la Concorde, La Défense, Sacré-Coeur basilica, and the Eiffel Tower are all visible from here. The Arc de Triomphe is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and you’ll see an eternal flame commemorating France’s fallen warriors.
Place Vendôme, Opéra Garnier, & the Grands Boulevards
North of the Tuileries, via Rue de Castiglione, you’ll stumble upon yet another magnificent pocket of Parisian paradise halfway to the opulent Opéra Garnier. Here lies the massive, octagonal square of the Place Vendôme, whose commercial residents include the ritzy Hôtel Ritz, as well as some of the world’s most high-end jewelry stores. Paris is at its most elegant here, blending simplicity with a sense of classic beauty that will never go out of style – rather like Coco Chanel, who lived and worked here for a great portion of her life! If you’re lacking deep pockets, you’ll have to content yourself with window shopping at the illustrious shops that line the ground floor arcade, and pausing at number 12, where the celebrated composer Frederic Chopin lived in his day.
Continuing north on Rue de la Paix, the rococo Opéra Garnier (Place de l’Opéra; www.opera-de-paris.fr), a stunning 19th-century marble building replete with elegantly carved statues and interior ceiling frescoes painted by Chagall, served as the inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. If you can’t get tickets (5-130€), don’t fret – you can tour the property during daylight hours (daily 10am-5pm; 7€).
The opera house’s surrounding area is also known for its Grands Boulevards, a broad avenue lined with cinemas, theatres, shops, and cafés. Shoppers will also want to be sure to discover the two grands magasins (mega-department stores) sited just behind the opera: The Galeries Lafayette (40 boulevard Haussmann) and Printemps (64 boulevard Haussmann).
The hilltop quarter of Montmartre, in the very north of Paris, was a sleepy farming village before evolving into one of the world’s most influential artistic centers. While recent years have seen the bohemian population decline as tourists invade the area, you can still enjoy quiet walks along the streets that once inspired the likes of Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec by veering off the tourist path. Some of our favorite rues (streets) include the winding Rue Lepic, once home to Vincent van Gogh (he lived at number 54) and the site of Café des Deux Moulins (showcased in the film Amélie); the pretty Rue Constance; charming Rue des Abbesses; and Rue Tholozé, with its great views over the neighboring rooftops. If you look up at the intersection of Rue Tholozé and Rue Lepic, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Moulin de la Galette, one of the two remaining windmills in the area, and the inspiration for paintings by van Gogh and Renoir (displayed at the Musée d’Orsay, covered below).
You will inevitably have to rejoin the tourist crowds to experience the white-domed Sacré-Coeur basilica (Place St-Pierre; daily 6.45am-11pm; free; dome and crypt daily 9am-6pm; 5€; www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com), the neighborhood’s stand-out attraction. While its neo-Byzantine architecture is certainly noteworthy, it’s typically the sweeping views of Paris that leave visitors breathless. You can enjoy them from the church’s broad, white stairs that double as makeshift benches – you can even bring a bottle of wine to enjoy while soaking up the ambiance and incredible panoramas.
End your tour of Montmartre at the lively Place du Tertre, a square at the heart of the neighborhood. It’s particularly lively at night, and a good spot to enjoy an alfresco dinner with the lovely domes of the Sacré-Couer peeking through the trees above you.
Les Halles, Le Marais, & Bastille
Just north of Ile de la Cité, a hodgepodge of attractions, museums, and squares await exploration à pied. First stop is the City Hall, or Hotel de Ville (29 rue de Rivoli), an impressive assemblage of archways, towers, and numerous statues, and a stunning backdrop for any photograph.
A few blocks north of here, Les Halles was once the food-and-meat marketplace of Paris; today it’s been replaced with a large, underground shopping mall, Forum des Halles (main entrance on Rue Pierre-Lescot). The real reason to come here however, is the modern Centre Pompidou, a mecca for modern-art lovers since its 1970s debut, when it was dubbed “the most avant-garde building in the world.” A site for sore eyes for some, and a brilliant architectural statement for others, the tubular building is undoubtedly an appropriate venue for the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Place Georges-Pompidou; Wed-Mon 11am-9pm; 10€; www.centrepompidou.fr) inside. The vast collection of 20th- and 21st-century art includes works by Calder, Duchamp, Dalí, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, among others. The plaza fronting the building is another place to see performance art of a different ilk as circus performers, musicians, mimes, and other assorted street performers strut their stuff here throughout the day. Make sure, too, to visit the top floor, for fantastic city views.
Due east of Beaubourg (as this quarter is commonly known), the immensely trendy Le Marais (literally, “the swamp”) neighborhood unfolds, a residential area popular with Paris’ gay and lesbian community, and loaded with one-of-a-kind boutiques, bars, and restaurants on the ground floor of 17th-century mansions. The foremost attraction of the area is the Musée Picasso (5 rue de Thorigny; Apr-Sept daily 9.30am-6pm, Oct-Mar until 5.30pm; 6.50€; www.musee-picasso.fr), an absolute must for Picasso fans. Given to the French government by Picasso’s family following his death – to defray paying what would otherwise have been an enormous inheritance tax – the works are in fact “Picasso’s Picassos” – pieces cherished and kept by the artist himself.
A few blocks away, there’s no better place to retreat than to the oldest of Parisian squares – Place des Vosges – an exceedingly harmonious spot, where little more than its name (it was originally known as Place Royale) has changed since 1612. Of the various glitterati who have maintained residences here, the most famous of all is undoubtedly the revered writer, Victor Hugo, best known for authoring Les Misérables, and resident here from 1832 to 1848. The Maison de Victor Hugo (6 place des Vosges; Tues-Sun 10am-5.40pm; free) is open to the public, and worth touring for a glimpse of 19th-century life.
A final stop on the Right Bank is a couple of minutes to the east. Here, the Place de la Bastille remains a symbol of the French Revolution, which started here after a mob of revolutionaries descended upon the square on July 14, 1789 (now the date of France’s patriotic Bastille Day holiday) and freed a handful of prisoners from the barracks that once stood here. Nothing is left of the prison nowadays (it was burned to the ground in the scuffle), save for some paving stones; the primary memorial is the Colonne de Juillet (July Column) at the square’s center. A snazzy newcomer, the Opéra Bastille (2 place de la Bastille; www.opera-de-paris.fr), also vies for attention on the square’s southeastern edge; inaugurated in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the modernistic building shares operatic duties with the Opéra Garnier (see above).
THE LEFT BANK
The Seine’s southern banks, the Rive Gauche, with its delightful, antiquated neighborhoods seeped in history, are a walker’s paradise, especially so in the Latin Quarter, St-Germain, and the idyllic Luxembourg Gardens. Of course, the star of the show here is the enchanting Eiffel Tower – followed closely by the breathtaking Impressionist and Postimpressionist art collection at the Musée d’Orsay.
The Eiffel Tower
Whether it be your first or fiftieth encounter with the sleek iron lady of Paris, the adrenaline rush that arises in the presence of the steel-girded Eiffel Tower (Champ de Mars; Sept-Dec & Jan-mid-June daily 9.30am-11.45pm, mid-June-early-Sept 9am-12:45am; 3€+; www.tour-eiffel.fr) never diminishes. The most breathtaking approach to the tower’s entrance is from the Right Bank, along the esplanade of the Jardins du Trocadéro; here, a massive pool adorned with stone and bronze statues shoots jets of water into the air, making for an especially remarkable sight come nightfall, when they’re joined by a light show. Of course, the real show is to be had from the tower’s three observation decks, the highest of which boasts the most spectacular panoramas of all, with visibility stretching almost 40 miles on a clear day.
If you only have time (or the energy) to visit one other museum after the Louvre, make it the Musée d’Orsay (1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur; Tues-Wed & Fri-Sun 9.30am-6pm, Thurs 9.30am-9.45pm; 7.50€; www.musee-orsay.fr), one of our favorite Parisian art institutions. Housed in a beautifully restored Belle Epoque train station, fans of Impressionism and Postimpressionism will be agog over the masterpieces here painted by big names like Whistler, van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, and Degas, among many others. A few not-to-miss pieces include Whistler’s Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, several of Monet’s Rouen Cathédrale series, and Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette.
Latin Quarter, St-Germain, & Luxembourg Gardens
The Latin Quarter (5th arrondissement) has long been heralded as the intellectual heart of the city, where Sorbonne students conduct their studies and great French luminaries lie in state at the Pantheon. Neighboring St-Germain (6th arrondissement) is a center for publishing houses, literary haunts, antiquated churches, bookshops, and chic boutiques. Strolling the streets and people-watching from local cafés are by far the best activities in this part of Paris.
A good place to start a walking tour here is at the Pont des Arts, just across from the Louvre. From here, you’ll be able to wander through labyrinths of St-Germain’s narrow streets lined by literary and historical haunts: Hemingway, Racine, and Richard Wagner all once lived on Rue Jacob, while Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were regulars at celebrated cafés like Café de Flore at 172 boulevard St-Germain and Les Deux Magots at 6 place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, across from the quarter’s namesake, St-Germain-des-Prés, one of Paris’ oldest churches, with some sections dating from the 6th century. Organ recitals and concerts are occasionally held here; if there’s one on during your visit, do stop by – you’ll be in for a real treat, what with the medieval ambiance and superb acoustics.
The Latin Quarter, meanwhile is home to the Sorbonne (Rue de la Sorbonne), the renowned university founded here in 1253. Indeed, the neighborhood’s academic origins are to thank for its Latin moniker, after the professors and students who studied the language at what is today one of the world’s oldest universities. The Sorbonne’s galleries and courtyards are open to the public while school is in term.
Around the corner, the Panthéon (Place du Panthéon; Apr-Sept daily 10am-6.30pm; Oct-Mar daily 10am-6pm; 7.50€; www.monum.fr) serves as the final resting place for many great thinkers from France’s storied history: Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marie Curie (the only woman) are all entombed here.
Capping off the area, the 60-acre Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Garden) provides a lush haven from the busy streets. Its extensive lawns, embellished fountains, elegant sculptures, and meticulously designed flower gardens are just some of its charms; look for older men playing boules along the park’s perimeters, and children steering tiny remote-controlled boats over the central, octagonal pond. It is a wonderfully animated setting, and a perfect place to observe real Parisians enjoying their free time in their element.
If you still have more time to spare in Paris, a handful of off-the-path attractions are worth considering. We especially recommend the famous cemetery, Père-Lachaise (16 rue du Repos; Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat 8.30am-6pm, Sun 9am-6pm; until dusk in winter; www.pere-lachaise.com), where elaborate tombs, massive mausoleums, and fine statues pay tribute to many notable luminaries with Parisian ties; some of the bigger names here include Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaff, Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Eugène Delacroix, among others. That said, possibly the most famous resident is Doors singer, Jim Morrison.
Also on the macabre front are the city’s Catacombs (1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy; Tues-Sun 10-5pm; 5€), a series of underground tunnels lined with piles of human bones moved here from overcrowded Parisian cemeteries. A sign at the entranceway reads, “Arrête! C’est ici l’Empire de la Mort” (“Stop! This is the Empire of Death”); you may very well want to heed the decree, as the long, dark, and damp passageways that lie ahead promise encounters with some six million skeletons.
Art and garden lovers would do well to budget an afternoon at the sculpture gardens of the Musée Rodin (79 rue de Varenne; Apr-Sept Tues-Sun 9.30am-5.45pm; Oct-Mar Tues-Sun 9.30am-4.45pm; 6€; www.musee-rodin.fr), occupying the Hôtel Biron, the sculptor’s onetime residence. Its interior is filled with Auguste Rodin’s works, Le Baiser (The Kiss) among them; a selection from his personal collection of works by van Gogh, Renoir, and Monet; and a section devoted to the art of his mistress, and fellow sculptress, Camille Claudel. Equally appealing are the sculptures outside in the splendid 18th-century style rose gardens; it’s here that you’ll find masterpieces like Le Penseur (The Thinker) and La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gate of Hell).
The hotel you choose will certainly help sculpt your experience of Paris – while a modern hotel with high-tech gadgets might be your typical lodging of choice, perhaps a centuries-old, refurbished mansion-cum-hotel with a four-poster bed and antiquated Parisian décor will prove to be more your style for this voyage. Surprisingly good values and intimate settings can be found by steering clear of the main tourist areas, and are ideal for those looking to get off the beaten track a bit. Also, in anticipation of your hotel stay, there are a few things to keep in mind: Note that most hotels do not include breakfast in the room rate; air-conditioning is not widely available (although Parisian summers typically do not get unbearably hot); and French showers, with their handheld nozzles and lack of curtains, can be a somewhat disconcerting experience for the unaccustomed American traveler. That said, there a couple of thousand hotels spread about Paris proper – here’s our quick pick of some of the best high-end, moderate, and budget lodgings to call home for your stay.
Expect to pay a pretty penny for luxe lodgings, but rest assured that the perennial favorites mentioned here will provide an unforgettable experience in themselves. The Hôtel Ritz (www.ritzparis.com) overlooking the stunning Place Vendôme in the 1st, makes for such posh lodgings that it’s the actual namesake of the word “ritzy”; the property boasts several shops, gardens, and even a subterranean pool and spa. The swanky Four Seasons Hôtel George V (www.fourseasons.com/paris) in the 8th, has been the go-to hotel for Hollywood A-listers, royalty, and other elite since it opened in 1928 – expect superlative white-glove service and majestic public and private spaces flooded with glorious antiques and Louis XVI trimmings. We also recommend the Pavillon de la Reine (www.pavillon-de-la-reine.com), a regal and intimate property in the Marais that dates back to 1612; lovely gardened grounds and cobblestoned courtyards make for excellent views from the well-appointed guest rooms.
Moderate picks include the atmospheric Hôtel Langlois (www.hotel-langlois.com) in the 9th, where oversized guest rooms are decorated with period art and original tile fireplaces; request a room on the top floor for views over neighboring Parisian rooftops and the Sacré-Coeur basilica. The Hôtel des Deux-Iles (www.2iles.com) offers lodging in a charming townhouse on the picturesque Ile St-Louis; the rooms are a bit on the small side, but there’s no beating the superb location. Another good choice is the Hôtel Henri IV Rive Gauche (www.henri-paris-hotel.com) just steps from the Seine and Notre Dame, in the Latin Quarter; all of the charming, country-chic rooms here feature air-conditioning and WiFi.
There are a good amount of budget hotel choices in Paris, as well. Our recommendations include the historic Hôtel de la Place des Vosges (www.hotelplacedesvosges.com), situated on the majestic square in the 4th, and within walking distance to many of Paris’ top Right Bank attractions. We also like the Hôtel Résidence Monge (www.hotelmonge.com) in the heart of the Latin Quarter, for its simple, but tidy accommodations in provençal décor – it’s a veritable bargain for the location. Finally, the artsy, six-storey Le Petit Châtelet (011/33 (0)1 42 33 32 31; no website) is another good bet, situated on a busy 1st arrondissement street just steps from the Louvre and Beaubourg; the only caveat is the lack of elevators to access the upper rooms.
Food and fine dining are the delectable centerpiece of French culture, and as the nation’s capital and international center, Paris expectedly boasts a dignified assortment of dining establishments offering everything from French regional specialties to exotic international fare. Note that le fast-food is hard to come by, and that lunch can be just as big a three-course affair as dinner, so be prepared to set aside some extra time for your midday meal (although you can find some intermittent cafes serving soups and sandwiches). Breakfast is traditionally a simple meal involving croissants and pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissant) and café au lait (coffee with milk). Keep in mind that the chicest luxury restaurants command reservations weeks or even months in advance, so plan ahead. That said, you needn’t necessarily rule out dining at upper-tier establishments if you’re short on budget; many offer a reduced prix-fixe menu (fixed-price) comprising a set three-course meal (starter, main course, and dessert). Moreover, not all meals need be a sit-down affair: acquiring foodstuffs from open-air fruit and vegetable markets, fromageries (cheese shops), boulangeries (bakeries), and charcuteries (meat shops) is almost an essential aspect of a Parisian gastronomic tour.
The epitome of French haute cuisine can be sampled at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (25 avenue Montaigne; 011/33 (0)1 53 67 65 00; www.alain-ducasse.com) in the 8th, where the edible genius of superstar-chef Ducasse melds with stellar service, an opulent setting, and divine takes on modern and traditional French cuisine. Another top choice is Le Cinq (Four Seasons George V, 31 avenue George V; 011/33 (0)1 49 52 70 00) in the same neighborhood; voted by Zagat as having the top décor of all Parisian eateries, this French-dining stunner in the Four Season George V hotel offers a chance to savor culinary treats worthy of 3 Michelin stars. Finally, we’d be remiss not to list the ever-popular Taillevent (15 rue Lamennais; 011/33 (0)1 44 95 15 01; www.taillevent.com), another 8th arrondissement triumph; set in a lavish 19th-century townhouse, this fine restaurant is famed for its exquisite interpretations of contemporary and traditional French haute cuisine and white-glove service.
Gastronomical goodness can also be discovered in a number of excellent mid-range Parisian restaurants. Our top moderate picks include the family-run Le P’tit Troquet (28 rue de l’Exposition; 011/33 (0)1 47 05 80 39), a cozy Art Deco French bistro in the 7th, near the Eiffel Tower. We also like Aux Lyonnais (32 rue St-Marc; 011/33 (0)1 42 96 65 04), a terrific bistro in the 2nd, also with ties to chef Alain Ducasse, and offering superb market-fresh Lyonnais dishes. North African cuisine is also popular in Paris – our favorite spot to grab a bite is Le 404 (69 rue des Gravilliers; 011/33 (0)1 42 74 57 81), in the 3rd, where a Moroccan menu of couscous and tajines is served in a dramatic casbah-worthy interior.
For budget diners with haute-cuisine taste, discover the delicious sandwiches, pastries, and more at BE Boulangépicier (73 boulevard de Courcelles; 011/33 (0)1 46 22 20 20; www.boulangepicier.com), a bakery/grocery store in the 8th; it’s an ideal spot to indulge in gourmet lunches or to pick up picnic supplies for a foray into the nearby Parc Monceau. If you’re planning to shop to you drop on the Grands Boulevards, the lively Chartier (7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre; 011/33 (0)1 47 70 86 29), in the 9th, is just the place to refuel on classic French dishes at reasonable rates. Finally, whether you have a sweet or savory craving, you’ll be rewarded with a visit to La Crêperie de Josselin (67 rue du Montparnasse; 011/33 (0)1 43 20 93 50) in the 14th; it’s the place to sample delectable Breton crepes filled with everything from traditional eggs and ham to bananas and ice cream.
Parisians love a night on the town, so you can positively expect the City of Lights to show you the way to a memorable evening, whether you’re in search of a dance club, bar, cabaret, theater, or anything else. Do, however, bear in mind that the metro stops running between 12.30am and 1am – and doesn’t start up again until 5.30am. Taxis are available at designated stands in the interim, but expect to wait on long lines, especially on the weekends; there are also a few late-night Noctambus (night bus) that run sparingly through the wee hours of the night – look for the designated owl insignia on the bus stops signs.
The nightspots á la mode are forever changing – be sure to refer to Time Out: Paris (www.timeout.com/paris) or Pariscope (www.pariscope.com) for the most current evening destinations. You’ll also be able to point yourself to various neighborhoods known as nightime meccas, like Oberkampf, Bastille, the Marais, and Pigalle/Montmartre. The Champs-Elysées is also host to some high-brow and pricey clubs and cabarets.
While hotspots come and go, a long-standing favorite to see-and-be-seen is the stylish restaurant and lounge at Buddha Bar (8 rue Boissy d’Anglais; 011/33 (0)1 53 05 90 00; www.buddha-bar.com) in the 8th – just keep in mind that few other than the very beautiful or very rich (a combination of the two works best) manage to actually get inside, so dress accordingly. There are also a handful of imported American, British, and Australian bars where you can mingle with fellow travelers and ex-pats; younger party-going crowds flock to Café Oz (18 rue Saint-Denis; 011/33 (0)1 40 39 00 18) in the 1st, while Harry’s New York Bar (5 rue Daunou; 011/33 (0)1 42 61 71 14; www.harrys-bar.fr), a onetime haunt of Hemingway’s in the 2nd, tends to attract a more sophisticated clientele.
We also recommend taking in one of Paris’ legendary cabaret shows – you can’t go wrong at either the Moulin Rouge (82 boulevard de Clichy; 011/33 (0)1 53 09 82 82; two shows nightly at 9pm & 11pm; 87-97€; www.moulinrouge.fr) or Lido (116 bis avenue des Champs-Elysées; 011/33 (0)1 40 76 56 10; two shows nightly at 9.30pm & 11.30 pm; 80-100€; www.lido.fr). You should also check the schedule of performances at the stunning Opéra Garnier (Place de l’Opéra; www.opera-de-paris.fr), if for no other reason than to experience the sheer splendor of the venue.
The euro, sadly, isn’t showing much mercy for foreign visitors traveling with tight purse strings. That said, simply perusing the creative vitrines (window displays) of the one-off boutiques, chocolatiers, and high-fashion houses will let you truly appreciate the exquisite art of shopping in Paris. Shoppers should keep in mind that most stores are closed on Sundays and that US citizens are entitled to a sales-tax refund on more substantial purchases – be sure to request a “détaxe” form from the store and claim your refund through customs before leaving France. Bargain hunters might want to coordinate their visit with the soldes – major biannual sales usually held in January and July. We’ve rounded up some of the not-to-miss areas and shops to get you going.
The 8th arrondissement is a magnet for upscale shoppers on the prowl for international haute-couture and assorted fine wares. The two undisputed go-to spots for glamorous garb at gargantuan prices are the famed Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, the address of choice for designer houses from Dior to Hermès, and Avenue Montaigne. Nearby, the Champs-Elysées (www.champselysees.org) has, in recent years, lost much of its shopping appeal due to an onslaught of banks, fast-food chains, and cinemas, but shoppers still make a pilgrimage to the mammoth Virgin Megastore here, as well as to check out its mix of upscale boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, and more pocket-friendly chain establishments like Zara and Sephora.
The grand magasins (department stores) sell everything from home fashions to clothing – you can take in two side-by-side favorites on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement: Galeries Lafayette (40 boulevard Haussmann) and Printemps (64 boulevard Haussmann); the former often hosts fashion shows, so ask about daily schedules.
If there’s one neighborhood not to miss for trendy togs, it’s the Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements), a fantastic pedestrian-friendly shopping district, with a medieval maze of streets harboring trend-setting boutiques, and fine shops and galleries along the perimeter of the Place des Vosges.
Open-air markets are also plentiful in Paris, and usually prove to be the best bang for buck for bargain shoppers. One of the most popular produce markets is the Rue Montorgueil market, behind St-Eustache (Mon-Sat 9am-7pm) in the 1st. Additionally, flea markets on the outskirts of Paris are worth the trek for antique treasure hunters; the marché aux puces de (flea market of) Saint-Ouen (Porte de Clignancourt; Sat-Mon 9am-6pm; www.les-puces.com), in the 18th, is the best reputed.
When To Go
Paris is truly a city for all seasons, with definitive advantages and disadvantages to expect depending on the timing of your visit. High season is from mid-May to mid-September, when Paris overflows with backpacking students and hordes of vacationing families – the crowds and sultry weather will be a turn-off to some, while the long hours of daylight (the sun doesn’t set until around 10.30pm in late-June) to get all of that sight-seeing done will be a major draw for others. Note that while August is still considered high season as far as airfare and hotel rates go, it is also the month when many Parisians head off on holiday – anticipate some closed restaurants and short-staffed shops and hotels during that period. Traveling either before or after high season brings the best bang for your buck on transatlantic airfare and hotel rates; March and April can be balmy and damp but you’ll have fewer tourists to contend with; the wet weather usually dries out in time for May and June – two glorious months to visit when the city’s superlative gardens come into bloom. Early autumn, with its crisp air and sunny days is ideal; it’s also when vacationing Parisians return from their August holidays, and cultural life kicks off again with abundant festivals and performances. Low season is predictably during the colder, darker months from mid-October to mid-April – although the days can be quite brisk and the skies rather gray, there’s very little snow in Paris – so long as you bundle up, it’s still an enjoyable time to amble along and indulge in the city’s treasures.
Best bang for your buck
March–June & September–October
There are a multitude of options for flying into Paris from the US; most airlines touch down at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport (www.paris-airports.com), 16 miles northeast of Paris, while a few flights with connecting service from other European cities will come through the airport at Orly (ORY) (www.paris-airports.com), 10 miles south of the city. Major US carriers such as American Airlines (www.aa.com); Continental (www.continental.com); Delta (www.delta.com); Northwest (www.nwa.com); United (www.united.com); and US Airways (www.usairways.com) operate nonstop and connecting service to Paris. Additionally, international airlines like the French flag carrier, Air France (www.airfrance.com), as well as British Airways (www.britishairways.com) (via their hub in the UK) offer frequent service to the city. Factor in approximately 7 hours of flight time from New York, 8.5 hours from Chicago, and 10.5 hours from Los Angeles.
For travelers on multiple-city tours of Europe, efficient train service connects Paris’s major train stations to cities across the continent. Check with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) or Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) for schedule and fare information.
Booking air and hotel together (and other trip essentials such as airport transfers, car rentals, and even tours and activities) can save a bundle of cash – online travel discounters such as Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) are a good place to start your search. You may also wish to consult with any of our recommended European-specialized providers, including France Vacations (www.francevacations.net); Gate 1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com); Go-Today (www.go-today.com); and EuropeASAP (www.europeasap.com).
GETTING INTO PARIS
Getting into Paris from the city’s two airports is fairly straightforward. From Charles de Gaulle Airport, the quickest and least expensive means of transport is by train into the city. Free airport shuttle buses connect passengers with the RER train (line B), which heads into central Parisian stations like Gare du Nord and Châtelet (5am-12am; 8.10€). Another option is one of the two shuttle buses operated by Air France (www.cars-airfrance.com) that drop passengers off at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe (Line 2; daily 5.50am-11pm, 12€), the Gare de Lyon, or Gare Montparnasse (Line 4, daily 7am-9.30pm; 12€). A final option, the Roissybus, will bring you to the Place de l’Opéra (6am-11pm; 8.50€). Taxis run about 40€, with heavily increased fares for nighttime travel, and can take forever to reach their final destination. Indeed, aboveground travel times can average anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and be considerably longer if you get stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam.
From Orly Airport, Air France shuttle buses operate with stops at Montparnasse and Invalides (6am-11pm; 8€) or at Place Denfert-Rochereau (12€), while Orlybus provides bus service to the Place Denfert-Rochereau (every 15-20 minutes, 6am-11.30pm; 6€). Alternatively, you can hop on the monorail to the RER station, with connecting service into Paris itself (9.10€). Factor in about 20€ to 30€ should you decide to take a taxi; with higher nightly rates. Whatever method you take, be prepared for 30 to 45 minutes of travel time to reach downtown Paris from Orly.