A bossy, unconventional, probably way too wordy guide to paris
I know in my last post about London I said how nice it was to leave Paris and how this city actually really didn’t feel like home, etc, etc, but guys, I WAS WRONG. Thing is, my time here is really running out and the closer and closer I get to leaving the more attached to Paris I feel.
I realize that Paris is one of the most romanticized and lusted after cities in the world and that it is completely unoriginal to have “fallen in love” with it. It’s wrapped up in almost as many cliches of love and light as it is of bad rumors of rude waiters and grabby pickpocketers. None of those stereotypes really interest me, but the other stuff—how damn beautiful the city is, how much history there is on every street, how the city cares more about heritage and the right way to do things more than new trends and innovation, the food/art/fashion scenes—yeah, all of that grabs my attention.
(One of my favorite anecdotes of French history is when Henry of Naverre, a lifelong Protestant who had a claim to the French throne in the late 1500’s, chose to give up his religion and accept Roman Catholicism in order to secure himself a place in the Catholically-dominated region of Paris. While his move got him the Crown, we all know he really just wanted to come back home to Paris, as he’s apparently quoted with saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” — “Paris is well worth a mass.”)
So before I leave I thought I’d put together a “guide” (if you could call it that—I’m not really sure how these things are traditionally organized?) to the city, if for no other reason than to try and make sense of what’s all wrapped around in my head before I leave. So here goes—
// RANDOM, IMPORTANT ADVICE //
1. Acquaint yourself with the arrondissements before you go.
Arrondissements = districts of Paris. There are twenty of them, with the lowest numbers starting out in the center of the city and working their way out “like an escargot,” as the French like to say. Check out the map below to get a feeling on them. It’s a really great system, actually, and it makes it handy when getting your bearings. As a general rule, I would say that, with exception of the farther-out 16th and 18th distrcits, the more central arrondissements (1 through 9) are the ones you’ll want to focus your trip around.
And by this I am basically also trying to say: do your research before you go. There are a lot of cool neighborhoods of Paris to see, and some are better than others depending on what you want out of your trip—whether that’s more chic, more romantic, more private, more sight-seeing, whatever. Even more so than that, a lot of the areas flow into each other well and they can make for some really nice, seamless walks (which is better than wandering around from site to site without really getting a feel of the place, I’d say?). I’ve expanded a bit on some of my favorite “must-see” neighborhoods below, but don’t let that be your only source of information.
2. Don’t go to the Eiffel Tower.
You’ll see the monument from basically everywhere in the city, why waste time getting the ugliest view by going right underneath it? And in any case, the best view is from Trocadero, in the 16th arrondissement. The 16th is great to see anyway because it’s a really clean, really pretty area of Paris (I think this is what people imagine when they say they want to come to “Paris”). It was built later than the rest of the city and is basically now a bourgeoisie residential area, but there are many brasseries and cafes to take a break at too. It’s quieter and more calm than the rest of the city—a nice place to stay at, if that’s the type of thing you’re after. This was my parent’s favorite part of Paris, I think. And it’s a 25 minute walk (a really pretty walk past chic hotels and expensive cars lining the streets) from the Arc de Triomphe.
>>> The big exception to my whole “don’t go to the Eiffel Tower” thing is if it’s the summertime and you’re visiting the 7th arrondissement (métro Ecole Militaire or Motte Piquet). Then I would say it’s a really nice idea to buy a baguette, some cheese, grapes, wine, whatever, and have a picnic out on the Champs-de-Mars, the big park in front of the Eiffel Tower.
3. Skip the Louvre.
Really, I do not understand people’s obsession with this museum. I like it, I guess, but would I wait hours to see the Mona Lisa if I were only seeing Paris (A CITY WHERE THERE IS A LOT MORE COOL STUFF TO SEE) for a few days? You guessed it—no. Just like, pass by the big triangle thing after walking through the Jardins Tuileries before continuing on to Palais Royale or another part of Paris. There are way cooler and more enjoyable museums, if that’s what you’re after. Visit Musée D’Orsay for the best of French art, set in what was once the old train station of Paris right next to the Seine and Assemblée Nationale. This is where you’ll find the greats of Impressionism and the height of French art—Monet, Van Gough, Sisley, Caillebotte, Renoir, etc. Or the Centre Pompidou, in the Marais, if you like modern art from the twentieth century like Picasso, Rothko, Matisse, Braque and Derain. Or go see what exhibitions are showing in the Petit Palais or Grand Palais—beautiful buildings right by Place de la Concorde and the Seine that always have exhibits.
4. French boulangeries are a must.
I’m guessing if you’re on this blog, you have at least a slight interest in food. You’ve probably heard of the wonders of French boulangeries—and yeah, the hype is real and well-deserved. They’re on every corner, and the standards are pretty impressive. Nine times out of ten the boulangerie will have croissants, baguettes, and pastries that are x10 better than wherever you live back at home. I would just say don’t trek out to specific ones that are hyped up on the internet (Laduree, Angelina’s, etc) just because there are sooo many good ones, and the real best ones are probably names you haven’t heard of (this seems like a good list to me?).
Regarding eating out for regular meals, I’m not going to give specific recommendations but I would say just try walking around certain areas and neighborhoods and browsing the restaurants. There are so, so many in Paris (I’m guessing more than any other city in the world, per square meter), so just find one that you think looks good for your price range. Also, don’t be put off if they give you an English menu or even if the restaurant has an English name—doesn’t have any correlation with how “authentic” the place is or not, in my opinion.
5. Expect to walk a lot, and to enjoy it.
Paris has, hands down, the best public transport system in the world. The metro system goes everywhere and anywhere in the city, and it runs smoothly. There are also buses but they’re harder to figure out, especially if you’re just visiting. If you’ll have a phone with data on it, I’d suggest downloading the Paris RATP app. That being said, Paris is one of the best cities to walk around in and it’s actually really small—especially the parts worth seeing as a visitor. Depending on where you’re staying and if it’s nice enough weather, I’d always suggest seeing Paris by foot and just walking everywhere. But sometimes it’d be strategic to take the metro out to a specific, central spot (Montmartre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pere Lechaise Cemetary are all kind of out of the way), and walk around from there. The metro line 1 goes through all the main tourist things, starting on the west side with the Arc de Triomphe, going through the Champs-Elysees, Grand and Petit Palais, all along the Seine and the Jardin Tuileries, Palais Royale, Louvre, the Marais (and within walking distance of the Ile-de-Cite and Latin Quarter), and then the Bastille. But it is also the line that runs along the Seine, and it’s much more fun to at least walk along part of it rather zipping by underneath it underground. So yeah—if you can walk it, do it. It’s honestly my favorite way to enjoy Paris when it’s nice out.
In terms of figuring out where to stay in your time in Paris, I’d recommend the areas around Opéra and the 8th, or the Latin Quarter, Les Invalides, or the Marais. Anywhere central is really the best, but of course if you’re young and on a budget get anywhere where the hostels are cheap and figure out the metro system for yourself.
6. In the end, ignore the advice and do what will make you happiest.
I was going to expand on all the bossiness by making other rules, such as: 1) don’t even think of putting a lock on the pont des arts because it is stupid and useless and so cliché even by paris standards, or 2) don’t even think of standing in line at the famed Angelina’s unless you want to hang out with other American tourists while in line only to end up paying 8 euros for mediocre hot chocolate that isn’t as good as the kind I used to get in Seattle, or 3) the Champs-Elysées is a worthless and exhausting visit and if you really want the feeling of true Parisian luxury in window shopping head over to Rue Saint Honoré or Place Vendôme, or 4) please don’t go to Cafe Flore or Les Deux Magots because really, why do you want to pay more-than-average for less-than-average French food, especially when no one even really knows why the cafes are famous in the first place … BUT then I realized, you are not me, I am not you, so I should really try something new and not be so confidently self-righteous. I wrote out this guide as an attempt to help out people (anyone? really, no joke, is anyone even reading this) by giving an biased opinion of what’s worth one’s time and not in Paris—a city that I believe to be the best in terms of leisurely time and things-to-do. I’m proud of Paris, and want everyone to enjoy and appreciate it. But I’m not going to kid myself—one of the great things about this city is that it is perhaps the most commonly shared experience when it comes to travelling. It lives up to its clichés, perhaps more than any other city, in both good and bad ways. And to be possessive over these clichés and this city, as a foreigner living here temporarly for one year, would be ridiculous. So if it will make you happy to go home and said you had “the best,” “to-die for” croissants at “the most chic” cafe called Angelinas, go for it. This is your trip, experience Paris the way you want, and the way that makes it most worthwhile for you.
// PARIS BY NEIGHBORHOOD //
>>> Paris is kind of incredibly organized (thanks to some top-down, painful re-doing and urban planning of the city done by good old Napolean III and Haussman back in the 1800s). If you were to cut it into four pieces from north-south and west-east, you can get pretty distinct personalities. I would say, in general, the part south of the Seine (latin quarter, invalides, st germain) is the intellectual, more “old-school” part of Paris. The northwest chunk (opera, champs elysées, passy) is the richest, cleanest, most chic, and most business-like. The northeast chunk (top part of the marais, republique, oberkampf, up to bastille and parc buttes-chaumont) is younger, poorer, more hipster. As a young person who lives here, this is where I spend a lot of my time, both during the day and going out at night. If you’re young and travelling with other young people you might like this area a lot, but in general as a tourist who wants to see “Paris,” I’m not sure if it’s that intriguing. And, of course, the entire really central part of the city is touristy, but justifiably so (um, everything that makes Paris famous is there). <<<
The Marais (III & IV)
A very central, very old part of Paris. It’s home to the Jewish quarter (and the famed L’As du Falafel) and it’s really the most contemporary part of Paris—if you’re wondering where to find fro-yo or a gluten-free shop in the city of gluten-loving bread fiends, go to the Marais. It also has a lot of great boutiques, cafes, bars, the typical kind of stuff you want to come to Paris for. I’d say get off at Metro Saint Paul and walk in almost any direction. There’s the Musée Pompidou right near the Hotel de Ville, and if you keep walking up north you’ll hit the République area and the 10th arrondissement which leads into the Canal Saint-Martin area—a really cool, very young and very hipster area of Paris that is top on a nice day in the spring or summer. Otherwise, you can walk south from the Marais and onto the Île-de-Cite (that has Notre Dame and the Palais de la Justice) and then continue on to the other side to get to the Latin Quarter, or you can walk West from the Marais to get into the central part with the Louvre, Palais Royale, all of that.
The Latin Quarter (V)
A must if you are visiting Paris. It is touristy, always, but for good reason. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city, and that is reflected in the buildings—many boulevards and buildings are still pretty and follow typical Parisian architecture, but you’ll find more winding, irrational alleys and mismatched housing in the Latin Quarter. I would along Boulevard Saint Michel and past the Sorbonne, turn in to see the Panthéon, and the continue to walk on behind it and a little more north to find a really great area with uncrowded and very typical cafes shops. This is a good place to wander (almost all of Paris is, but especially here).
Opéra — Madeleine — Concorde (VIII, IX, II)
The prettiest, most typically Parisian part of Paris. I would recommend staying in a hotel or airbnb in this area, if you can—it’s a central location that is within walking distance of the best and most unmissable monuments. If you walk down from the Opéra, you hit the Madeleine (a huge church modeled after ancient rome) and then, right after, the Place de la Concorde (the place where Marie Antoinette’s head was chopped off, along with tens of thousands of others). Coming to the Place de la Concorde, you can see the Champs-Elysées and Petit and Grand Palais to your right, the Seine and Assemblée National straight across, and then the entrance to the Jardin Tuileries, Palais Royale and the Louvre to your left. I would recommend walking through Rue Saint Honoré and walking past Place Vendôme, which to me is Parisian luxe and elegance at its height, with chic, high-end stores lining the street. Rue Etienne Marcel is another great one, which just feels extremely Parisian old-school with nice shops, cafes, and brasseries all along the street. If you ever find yourself on this street, you must turn down Rue Montorgueil/Rue des Petits Carreaux because it has everything good (cafes, fromageries, chocolatiers) all packed into one walking street. All of this is very close to all the “essentials”—keep walking until you hit the Louvre area and then you’ll have the Île-de-Cite and Notre Dame on your right and the entrance of Le Marais straight in front and to your left.
St. Germain (VI)
The once-upon-a-time land of Hemingway and intellectual hang-out cafes, now currently the land of chic French designer shopping and over-priced cafes. I love this area, though, and it still has an incredible charm to it. This is where you can find the infamous Le Bon Marche (the most luxe and oldest department store in Paris) and Le Grand Epicierie. I recommend taking a tour through the district, starting near the Place Saint Sulpice, moving on to window shop chic French boutiques, then stopping at a terrace for an expresso before heading south into the Jardin Luxembourg and then out east into the Latin Quarter. Or, walk up to the Seine along Quai Voltaire and walk west until you hit Musee D’Orsay (if it’s nice out, there’s not much better you can do than walk along the Seine, especially on the south bank or the “rive guache“).
Invalides – La Tour Eiffel (VII)
I really like this area, although I’m not often here. But as a tourist, I think it’d be a really important part to go to, especially during the summertime. There’s Musee D’Orsay, and if you walk a bit left along the Seine, you’ll get to Les Invalides—which has Napolean’s tomb as well as a wicked sweet history museum on World War I & II. Crazy good, but I also like history a lot. Walk down south until you hit Ecole Militaire, which is opposite of the big park in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-de-Mars. This is a really old-school part of Paris, both historically and in practice. Things feel like the Paris cliche here, but in the best possible way. Rue Cler is filled with fruit stands, cafes, boulangeries, fromageries, everything great. There’s also Rue Saint Dominique which has a lot of great, classic French restaurants, including ones by the famous Chrisitan Constant (Cafe Constant, Les Cocottes, Maison Constant).
Land of Amélie and the most cliched place of all the cliches of Paris! But really, it’s great and worth a trip. I don’t even feel like there is much I can direct you to in this area, because it’s all pretty good and touristy (and I mean the term touristy in the best way possible). Head up to the Sacre Cœur, walk around the winding, hilly roads and check out art and typical cafes. Rue des Abbesses, to the left of the Sacre Coeur, is a nice street with boutiques, traiteurs, and cafes to walk on.
// OTHER RESOURCES //
> David Lebovitz – I mean, duh. For practical guide stuff and important information, restaurant/bar/cafe recommendations and reviews, and ummm everything else you could possiby need.
> Paris By Mouth – For restaurant recommendations and ideas.
> This New York Times article from 2006 about Parisian libraries makes me really happy. Whether you want to actually visit Paris’ really cool libraries and bookstores or not, it’s just a fun read and will probably make you happy in your decision to visit Paris.
> Cool list from a French journal about different ideas for how to spend 10 euros on a meal (or snack) around Paris. It’s in French, but c’mon, we have technology now so just zip the thing through google translate.
> The Hip Paris blog is a good resource for pretty much everything involving Paris, and it usually does a pretty good job of updating events and things to check out during the specific time you’ll be in the city.
(All photos by me or my twin sister Lindsey, save that one map of Paris’ arrondisements. That’s from here.)