Some people love Paris. Some really love Paris. Others “tour” Paris.
The difference is in how you experience the city, or really how you experience anything. You can’t approach Paris as a bucket-list item, with a checklist to mark off items you can say you’ve seen. That’s touring Paris. That picture of the Eiffel Tower you get from just sightseeing when the tour bus stopped? You can download it from any computer and save the airfare. (Trying sketching that bad boy, then you’ll really see it).
To truly experience Paris, or any city, you must BE in the city.
Wander around, smell the air, watch the people, and watch where you step (lots of little prancing dogs leaving big presents on the uneven sidewalks). For chics, wear flats. (Flats, not white sneakers.) The streets are so uneven, with cobbles aplenty, you’ll need every advantage you can get for the kilometers* around the city. As for those true Parisian women walking around in fashionable high heels? A cultural and engineering mystery. Like the fact that they’re thin while eating fresh baquettes with a pound of beurre every day.
Don’t hide behind your smartphone or camera looking for the perfect shot or reading your omnipresent emails, and don’t just put your head down and go from place to place. What you miss in between is the true experience.
A few basic tips
Learn to think in kilometers. They’re better (and shorter).
Know the left from the right, as in bank.
Don’t approach Paris as if it will be your only time there. Even if it’s true, if you do, it will ruin it for you in your attempt to see everything.
If you have been to Paris and go back, or are going again after many visits, always try a different neighborhood. Then stay in said neighborhood and actually live in the small area. Don’t try to just hit the high points.
For first timers, the first choice is whether to stay on the left bank or right. Left bank is more neighborhoody, and more eclectic. It’s littered with shops and restaurants and crazy confusing streets not found on any map anyone will give you. More and more brand name stores are popping up on the left, but there are still a lot of distinctly Parisien places that you could see an actual Parisien (not just tourists). Think Hemingway, ala Moveable Feast. For a true department store experience, and a food hall that actually inspires you to cook, check out Bon Marche for architecture, products and displays of overall great things (also near the Conran shop, the mother of all housewares stores). Pay attention to how they display products, especially on end caps. Tres cool.
The right bank is more big dog Paris with the Louvre, Tuileries, Arc de Triomphe, Place de Concorde,Vendome, Champs Elysee, the Madeleine (or as we call it “the food square” with Hediard, Maille, Fauchon,Patrick Roger, etc), the Opera, and every high end brand name known to man. It has shops and restaurants, too, but it feels somehow bigger and more finished. If you stay on the right bank, you can stay on main and main, or pick one of the cool neighborhoods (like Le Marais or Montmarte, near Sacre Couer).
We recommend the left bank for first timers.
Let’s start with where to stay, then where to eat, with a few sprinkles of things to do.
First rule: Localize. Chains and well-known brands are great, but you need to try a little harder and find something you haven’t seen or done before. Sorry.
On the left bank, here are three categories, in our own words:
Montalembert. Great central left bank location right off of St. Germain de Pres (a main directional avenue on the left bank). For a special treat for foodies, Joel Roubouchon Atelier is also in the hotel. Try for lunch (not dinner), and the concierge at the hotel can make the reservation if you’re staying there.
Relais Christine: Latin Quarter location that really can’t be beat, which puts this in the really nice category. It’s in a great left bank neighborhood just down from Pont Neuf, and very close to the Louvre and Notre Dame. Hidden away, quiet with great grounds. The common areas are a bit tired, but if you can get one of the 4-5 rooms on the backyard garden, it is one of the best spots in the city. (room 14/15 is our favorite.)
Pretty nice (but many rooms have barely-there bathrooms):
L’ Hotel: Central location, closer to the Seine, but still in St. Germain. Very unique, no two rooms are the same, and some have balconies.
Pont Royal. Right next door to Montalembert. Much bigger, more impersonal than Montalembert, but still a great location right on St. Germain de Pres. If you pay more to get a balcony, you can stretch out over the railing (no, don’t jump) and see the Eiffel Tower. A special treat at night with the lights. Most of the bathrooms are literally back in, meaning there’s only room for about half a butt, and you may be shaving or putting on your makeup with one leg outside of the bathroom.
Bel Ami: more simple, a bit contemporary, lively and small. Great location in the middle of St. Germain Des Pres
Bellechasse: The bold, crazy sister to Bel Ami, designed by Christian LaCroix. Incredible location with great access to left and right banks.
Cute and quirky:
Verneuil: Great location, close to the Seine and easy.
Le Beuve: very close to Luxembourg gardens, but a healthy walk to the right bank. In it’s own neighborhood.
Hotel duc de St. Simon: was a favorite of Lauren Bacall (so they say, and it you’re under 40 you probably don’t even know who she is). One of the best addresses on the left on a very quiet street. Feels tucked away, but still easy to walk almost everywhere
The big dogs:
If you want to spend a really healthy (aka stupid) amount of money, and see some incredible common areas, and have access to a concierge who can almost get you in anywhere, these are the ticket. Be prepared, a glass of my “everyday champagne” in the bar will be about $35 (when you can find the same thing for $15 somewhere else …all depending upon the exchange rate). If you stay in these places, you have to be prepared for sticker shock:
Le Meurice. Phillipe Starck did a major renovation about 10 years ago, but it’s still fresh and incredible. The ceilings and ornate details are photograph worthy
Plaza Athenee Hotel: A true landmark, and well-known. Now, Dorcester is rolling it out in several other cities, but this was the original. Also recently refurbished and brought back to glory.
Le Bristol Hotel: With an address on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, its main on main for luxury. Has great history, although restaurants and common areas aren’t as over the top as the two above. Very traditional room décor.
Hotel de Crillon: 1700’s hotel currently closed for renovation. When complete, it will be our first stop to check out how to reinvent one of the originals.
(An alternate to actually staying at the above is just going for a drink and admiring the beauty. Use it as a pit stop when touring the major sites.)
Still really nice:
Le Burgundy: Lush, and an incredible, central right bank location. Has a boutique feel, with still a higher level quality. Great location to walk to all the right bank highlights.
Le Pavillon de la Reine: (this is borderline more expensive category, especially since Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck were staying there). Exceptional location near Place des Vosges, in our favorite Le Marais neighborhood. Great outdoor courtyard, and uniquely designed. A great breakfast, although a little spendy.
Pavillon Des Lettres: a sister to de la Reine, but in the heart of the right bank. Unique architectural and design.
Hotel Daniel: near Champs de Elysee and the Madelaine (so a little further walk to left bank), but a great hotel. Itâ€™s like a cozy townhouse.
Hotel Vernet: Near Hotel Daniel and also a great choice.
Pretty nice, maybe a little quirky:
Hotel du Petit Moulin. If you want a great neighborhood hotel in Le Marais, this is it. It’s quirky, but very cool. The entrance is still the old boulangerie.
Hotel Georgette: Also in the Marais. If you’re looking for big time restaurants, spa and common area amenities, this is not it. But it’s well designed, quirky and pretty cool. And, fits nicely in a budget.
There are a lot of great hotels in other neighborhoods, including in the 7th, western side of the 8th, the 16th. We’ll save those for another entry.
A few rules of thumb. The more central the location (especially on major street corners) the worse the food. You can’t really go wrong with many of the great, quintessential neighborhood cafes in any number of neighborhoods. Try just plopping yourself on those great Parisien chairs at one of the ever present sidewalk cafes all looking out at the street and order a cafe or a glass of wine. Just watch and enjoy the street energy. If they’re hawking for customers, walk away. If you see the flag in the air beckoning the masses (and we’re walking) heading in the same direction, turn around.
If you even think of setting foot in a McDonald’s or Starbucks, it better be in the airport. Shame on you for even considering it. (No offense to two great brands we patronize in everyday life.)
Here’s a few categories and suggestions:
First, they’ll likely size you up immediately and hand you an English menu. Trust me on this one. I don’t care how good your college French classes were. They know.
Good for you to get something you can read. You won’t mistake mussels (moules) for bone marrow (moeles). But, challenge yourself and at least also ask for the French menu to learn and compare their descriptions for the food. It’s a great way to learn menu French (the language we’ve learned to speak well). They don’t mess around with their food and their local sources. It’s not a movement, it was and always has been a lifestyle.
Great restaurants, you’ll find in many magazines, and are worth checking out at some point (even if they are pretty touristy): You’ll find almost everyone speaks English, because all the customers are actually American.
Spring (great, small open kitchen. Chef from US, but very creative, great menu).
Bistro Paul Bert: (very old school French bistro, bright lights and all. They also just opened their wine bar at 6 Paul Bert that’s very cool, and a lot less traditional). The wait staff do seem a bit harried, with a little less personality than some others.
Le Ami Louis: They go for the old school French style of serving, (what do you want are their first words). Order the pommes frites. Even if you don’t like fries (who doesn’t like fries), order them. It’s like when you were a kid shoving the shoestring potatoes in your face as fast as you can. Only there are hot, and the pile is high. Not regarded highly as a great restaurant by the French, but can be fun (especially for a first timer).
More unique bistros:
Allard. It’s Alain Ducasse, and a great example of a classic French bistro. The wait staff are always incredible, even showing a sense of humor. (Note, the exact same champagne namesake here is $20 less per glass than at Le Meurice, one of his other restaurants.)
Le Terroir Parisien: Yannick Alleno’s (a well-known French chef), but a great quality casual. You can even eat at the bar (unusual in Paris, but one of our favorite places to eat anywhere int eh world.). He takes typical classics like a croque monsieur, and makes it into a small treasure you’ll always remember.
Maitre Albert: Guy Savoy’s rotisserie restaurant within a stone’s throw to Notre Dame. It’s just great. If you’re waiting for a reservation, or you’re early, there is a great little bar across the street that have some of the nicest people. Sit outside with a glass of wine and enjoy.
David Toutain: One incredibly talented chef. First had his food at Agape Substance, which was small plates incredible (not sure how it is since he left). This is a true foodie experience with one of the more incredible prix fixe experiences we’ve had for creativity. But, know what you’re getting into. It’s a dining experience, so don’t do it if you’re just in the mood for a simple meal. It’s long and many courses (we prefer at lunch).
Frenchie: If you can get in, go. Just go. There’s also a wine bar, and Frenchie to go (which is a great place for a great, quick lunch. In the Marais. Enough said. Best seats in the house (for two people) is at the chef’s counter. One of the coolest restaurant experiences we’ve ever had.
Les Bouquinistes (by Guy Savoy): The restaurant is left bank right on the Siene. It’s Guy Savoy’s more modern brasserie, and is worth the reservation. We, of course, sat at the bar and enjoyed watching the food be delivered from the basement kitchen by dumbwaiter.
Aux Lyonnais: Another well know Alain Ducasse, in a more Lyon style, modern bistro. Always a good choice.
Willi’s Wine Bar. Yes, really. Open 12-12, great place for glass of wine, or a very easy, tasty meal. One of the only places that actually has a bar to have a glass of wine. Use your college French to try to make sense of their dessert menu and the pot de creme “in the language of the cat” (aka a pot of mocha cream with a long cookie that apparently looks like a cat’s tongue. Really? Who uses a cat’s tongue as inspiration for anything?) The British owner is quite a trip, and he’s owned the place since 1980.
Literally right around the corner from Willi’s are two of our favorites in the city. Verjus is a small place on a short alley off of Rue de Richelieu. The menu is small with share plates, and the experience is just right. Casual and fun. The best part is a small cave like wine bar (that serves as the restaurant’s service bar) around the corner and down. It’s a hidden gem where you can go when Verjus is full (which it often is).
Down the street from Verjus is Ellsworth by the same owners. It has the same casual philosophy and an amazing share-able menu. We love sitting at the bar and eating and chatting with the bartenders as they cut fresh out of the oven bread.
Any of the restaurants in the aforementioned big dog hotels. Over the top (especially Alain Ducasse), stupid expensive. (Really, are you going to leave your money to your kids? They lived with you or will live with you until they’re 28. That should be enough).
And, the finale. Sweets
What to pay attention to:
Always look up. You never see anything at your feet. Don’t miss the mansard roof lines, the flower boxes, the laundry hanging out, the column capitals. Look into windows with their crazy curtains and catch a glimpse into people’s lives.
Paris is a thousand years old with some of the most magnificent buildings and details big and small in their architecture. They never tore it down, they kept it and treasured it. Appreciate that, and absorb it. Stop and actually look at the details of buildings and green walls. You don’t just have to go to the Eiffel Tower built in the 1800s. That’s not Paris. The winding streets and buildings and the people in the cafes looking out (not in) are Paris.
Other things to do:
Walk around the Louvre grounds at night when Ian Pei’s pyramid is lit. It’s quiet, not touristy for once, and serene.
If you can’t catch Paris at the end of the Tour de France where millions gather and celebrate, walk some of the cobbles around the Place de Concorde or Arc de Triomphe and imagine riding a bike on that. Better yet, rent a bike and try it.
Stop at a Nicolas (wine shop on every corner. Gotta love a country with wine, not coffee on literally every corner) buy a bottle of whatever you like, or think you’ll like, then stop at a boulangerie, patisserie, and get baquettes, ham and stinky cheese, or whatever strikes you. Go have a picnic along the Seine with a view of Notre Dame or on Pont des arts, a pedestrian bridge over the Seine (if they allow…sometimes the polizei get weird). Don’t forget to get plastic cups and utensils and a bouchon. There’s nothing worse than opening wine with your teeth and a pen, and drinking straight from the bottle. Well, maybe do it just once.
Hang out with a book or a journal for sketching or writing for a little while in either Jardin de Luxembourgor the Tuileries. Or on the prow of Ile de Cite, the football shaped semi island in the Seine that claims a view of Notre Dame and its famous flying buttresses. Notre Dame is more and more incredible if you absorb (something sketching allows for if you can draw) Just sit, absorb and be in Paris. And, watch the old men lining the Seine not catching fish.
Enjoy the breakfast at your hotel. There is nothing like a jambon fromage on a baquette for breakfast. (Ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast????? Yeeesssssssssss.)
Every time you walk past a chocolate shop or patisserie go in, even if you don’t buy anything (can’t even imagine not buying something). Just look at the incredible displays and take in the incredible smells. Work out when you get home. It takes longer to gain weight than lose it.
Eat a crepe. Almost doesn’t matter where you get it. Some are crappy, some are good. All are great. (just ask any flight attendant)