Paris, the place I have been lucky enough to live for six months, comes with a sort of cultural aura. For many people, the city seems to occupy a significant place in their imagination whether or not they have actually walked its streets. In fact, it has captured so many imaginations that its identity is commonly appropriated as a cash cow. Shiny representations of Paris in popular culture, designed to be exported to and consumed by international audiences, are often stereotypical ones.
Admittedly my heart still quickens at the iconic sight of the Eiffel Tower ablaze above the jigsaw rootftops at night, with the glittering scales of the serpentine river Seine below. I also cannot deny the majesty of the emerald parks and gardens, legendary monuments, and tree-lined avenues.
But during my time here I have come to appreciate that the real life French capital is far more multi-faceted and unglamorous than the Woody Allens of this world would have us believe. It’s a melting-pot to be experienced by all the senses, an open mind, and perhaps a pinch of salt. To really know Paris, you need to get behind the veneer. I realize this doesn’t fully answer the question Why go? and that’s because, if you love mystery like all good readers of Travel sections on liberal blogs, then you already have your reason.
When to Go
This entirely depends on the kind of Paris you’d like to experience.
Peak season is May-September, when locals flee the hot city and tourists from around the world do the opposite. If you’re prepared to contend with larger crowds, you’ll encounter a relaxed, international atmosphere during this period. It’s the time to gorge on ice creams in the Jardin de Luxembourg, take boat trips on the Seine, while away balmy evenings on bar terraces, or attend free outside events, such as the Open-Air Cinema, and Paris Plages, when the beach comes to the city.
Low season, par contre, is reserved for those who seek a distinctively ‘Parisian’ getaway. The weather may be less hospitable, but there are countless indoor activities and festivities on offer (read on to find out just what).
The good news is, if you’re under 26 and from the European Union, then entry into the majority of main museums and attractions is either free or heavily subsidized (see ‘Things to do’). Just remember to bring a valid ID with you (driving licenses aren’t universally accepted but an ISIC card or passport will be fine).
For all other expenses, it’s my philosophy that if you buy into the stereotype that Paris is invariably expensive then you will end up paying higher prices because you see no other way around this predicament. In actual fact, you can stay chic on the cheap – I’ll explain how in the following sections.
Things to do
I think my brain’s about to explode. After almost four months here, my personal sightseeing agenda is still growing at an exponential rate.
Firstly, if you’re a Paris virgin, or if it’s been a while, it’s perhaps advisable to prioritise visiting the main attractions –Time Out magazine has up-to-date coverage of these. Also bear in mind that you can often avoid queuing by booking in advance through the relevant website. For the Eiffel Tower, you should buy your tickets at least two days in advance. Whereas the Louvre, the world’s largest and most-visited museum, is free for Under 26s, and if you enter via the metro stop Palais Royal Musée du Louvre, you can avoid the (occasionally) monstrous queues at street level.
Something I also strongly recommend is to go up as many tall monuments as possible (short of scaling buildings yourself) – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Nôtre Dame, the steps of Sacré-Coeur, etc. It’s the perfect way to come to terms with your geographical position and to reflect on your surroundings. Beyond the above, what you choose to see and do in Paris will be subject to your personal interests. So make sure you do your research!
As an art-lover, one of my personal favourite spots is the Musée Rodin (also free for Under 26s). At Rodin’s I could spend days on end marvelling to my heart’s content at the sculptor’s ability to capture fleeting human emotions in time, strolling through the sprawling gardens (an absolute haven), and hanging out in the mansion’s fabulous tea rooms.
Where to eat and drink
(This section is extremely important.)
You’ll need sustenance with all that sightseeing. But don’t fall in to the traveller’s trap of buying pseudo-French food from kiosks and other touristic eateries. Here are some spots I recommend:
– Le Brise Miche (10 rue Brisemiche) serves quality French cuisine for 20 to 30 Euros a head in the fourth arrondissement. Soak up the atmosphere in the bohemian hub of La Place Igor Stravinski whilst savouring possibly the best French onion soup on the planet. Nearby attractions include the Centre Pompidou.
– If you’re counting your centimes, try Les Pères Populaires in the 20th arrondissement (46 rue de Buzenval). A chilled-out bar/restaurant with wholesome harisa soup and other hearty dishes for four Euros, decent coffee for one, and shots for three, doled out by tattooed staff in beanie hats, Les Pères is in walking distance from Père Lachaise cemetry.
– As far as cafés go, I hands down recommend Café Le Coquelicot (24 rue des Abbesses) for when you’re in Montmartre (don’t forget to visit the serene Musée de Montmartre). Le Coquelicot serves a vast array of fragrant baguettes and sweet pastries from its scrubbed wooden interior, as well as light lunch options. It doesn’t get much better than dipping melt-in-your-mouth brioche de grandmère into a swirling bowl of café au lait, especially when your bill comes to under five Euros.
– Lastly, I must mention L’Institut Suedois in Le Marais (11 rue Payenne). Its incredible popularity, despite being barely visible from the street, is a testament to the scrumptious carrot cake, smoked salmon rye bread sandwiches (five Euros each), and the generous free refills of coffee, just ask. Here you are not far from Place des Vosges and the recently reopened Picasso Museum.
Café culture is an element of Parisian life that I particularly cherish. Cafés play such an important social role here that several have even become landmarks in themselves, having preserved their identities from golden ages when great literary and historical figures would deign to gather around their tables, if that tickles your fancy.
For further advice on eating out, Paris by Mouth is a go-to food blog which meticulously picks out the best cuisine the city has to offer. Prices are displayed alongside detailed reviews, enabling you to find quality food and drink to suit your taste and budget.
For your aperitifs and nights on the town, check out Les amis de l’apéro. Although comprehending entire blog-posts in French may be challenging for some, it certainly proves that you’ve come across insider information!
Look out for Part 2 of this Insider’s Guide for Where to stay, How to get around, and Advice on Keeping Safe.
My own photography.