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City life: Paris

Turn your passion for Paris into an everlasting love affair by exploring its quirky attractions, from a ‘garden nightclub’ to a subterranean necropolis and the world’s biggest hot air balloon

City life: Paris
Montorgueil District in Paris, France. Image: Getty

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Je t’aime Paris’ read the T-shirts. Henry Mancini and Cole Porter, among others, wrote love songs eulogising ‘gay Paree’. Visiting the French capital can feel like a cliche before you’ve even bought your first baguette. And yet, she — Paris is oh-so assuredly female — never fails to seduce. First-timers will have no problem falling for Mona Lisa’s come-hither smile in the Louvre, scaling the lace-like Eiffel Tower, and looking for hunchbacks in Notre Dame Cathedral. But how do returning travellers prolong the passion?

All romantics know that true amour comes from discovering the quirks; that it’s the oddities that add character and make for a lasting love affair. With this in mind, snake away, now and then, from the central River Seine and explore the outer arrondissements. Get up high in a hot air balloon (more on that below), hang out in a garden ‘nightclub’, and explore beneath the streets. Spend a whole bohemian afternoon sitting at a pavement cafe, glass of wine in hand, watching the fray. Put down the city map and just wander — as Victor Hugo writes in Les Misérables, “To err is human, to stroll is Parisian.”

What to see & do

Explore the city from the bottom up, starting with a macabre tour beneath its famous boulevards. On Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy roundabout sits a benign-looking dark-green hut. It conceals the gateway to Les Catacombes de Paris — the world’s largest underground necropolis; home to six million souls and a lot of skulls. For 10 centuries, Parisians were buried in the Cimètiere des Innocents, which once stood in Les Halles district, but when it became overcrowded and started to spread disease, a solution had to be found. King Louis XVI decided to make use of the 186 miles of tunnels that had been quarried for Lutetian limestone (‘Paris stone’) since Roman times and reinterred the bodies here from 1786–1859. Visitors have been coming to gawk at the creepy corridors of bones since 1874. 

When the Catacombs were deemed full, new cemeteries were created on the outskirts of town. One of those was Cimetière du Père Lachaise — named after the confessor of King Louis XIV — in the 12th arrondissement. Oscar Wilde once said: “When good Americans die, they go to Paris” — and, although he’s Irish, he did just that. The writer and poet is buried in the cemetery, along with a veritable roll call of the great, good and very famous, including Jim Morrison, of the Doors, Edith Piaf, Molière, Chopin, and Gertrude Stein, to name a few. English-language tours are available to visitors and they offer fascinating insights. It also happens to be the city’s biggest park. On a sunny day, bring a book, pick a bench, and soak up the peace and quiet. Alternatively, have a wander and maybe pick out your plot: a 10-year lease costs €785 (£620) — just ensure you meet your maker on Parisian soil.

Next, escape the hustle and bustle of the streets and take to the sky. Forget the long queues to climb the Eiffel Tower. Instead, take the Métro to Parc André Citroën and ride the world’s largest hot air balloon. Open daily, it rises almost 500ft above the capital on a fixed line, allowing you to take envy-inducing aerial photos.

If windy weather puts paid to your airborne adventure, then head instead to the reinvented Berges de Seine quayside between Pont Royal and Pont d’Alma. Ideal for families, it’s a quirky terrace of tarmac with activity hubs: from tables painted with chessboards and sound showers — enabling you to log in via Bluetooth and play your tunes to strangers — to a ‘garden nightclub’ (in reality, a shipping container designed for chilling out inside; its walls lined with trailing plants) and kid-size tipis that can be hired out for picnics.

Finally, try to make time to visit the newly reopened Musée Picasso Paris. It houses the largest collection of his works in the world, including his own hoard of art with pieces by Matisse and Cézanne.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France. Image: Alamy

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France. Image: Alamy

Shopping

Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist, once wrote: “Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant.” And ladies, let’s face it, even the most confident of us crumble at the sight of Paris’s long-legged, nymph-waisted women. But the good news is that we can steal their effortless style. The designs of Parisian fashion heavyweight Isabel Marant have been over-worn, and locals are turning instead to the cosy cashmeres and rock ’n’ roll designs of Zadig & Voltaire, whose flagship store is on 35 Avenue des Champs-Élysées. If the price tags here make you wince, the brand’s outlet store, on 22 Rue du Bourg Tibourg, is great for cut-price garments.  

Just down the road is arty, multi-brand concept store Le 66, at — you guessed it — number 66. The racks here are filled with vintage and designer clothing. Alternatively, fashionistas who favour ethical clothing but don’t want to compromise on style should head to Mademoiselle Bambû, on 19 Rue La Vieuville, for a Fairtrade collection that’s trés chic.

To replicate the androgynous look, make a beeline for MM6, a semi-affordable offshoot label of Maison Martin Margiela, which is also famed for its timeless pieces of jewellery.

Alternatively, if you prefer having everything under one roof, travel to the brand-new Beaugrenelle shopping centre, a trio of malls located in the 15th arrondissement.

According to young local, Margaux Lindé, Paris on a Sunday can seem like “une ville de fantômes” (‘a city of ghosts’). Age-old religious regulations dictate that stores should remain closed, but these rules are being relaxed. Margaux recommends travellers stick to the hyper-trendy Le Marais and Montmartre districts for all-day shopping. In the latter, look out for new concept store Lekker, selling vintage designer rags and jewels.

Mademoiselle Bambu, Paris. Image: Mademoiselle Bambu

Mademoiselle Bambu, Paris. Image: Mademoiselle Bambu

Where to eat

With sights seen and shopping bags cutting into your palms, you’ll no doubt be famished. One of my favourite spots to rub shoulders with the locals is the Marché des Enfants Rouges, on Rue de Bretagne, at lunchtime. This covered market has been running since 1615 and scattered among the stands selling fruit, fish and cured hams are steaming open kitchens doling out bargain terracotta bowlfuls of Moroccan stew, plates of clam-bejewelled pasta, and savoury crêpes oozing cheese.

For more refined fare, book a table at La Gare, which once upon a time served as the Passy La Muette Métro station. Transformed into an elegant restaurant with an outdoor terrace, its gourmet menu is constantly changing: when I visited, it featured king crab with egg mimosa as a starter, a classic sole meunière, and gorgeous homemade almond-milk ice cream for dessert. The list of fine French wines is concise, but well chosen, and if all that doesn’t have you swooning, the large Belle Époque dining room, with reconstructed Ionic columns and watercolour murals, will. Quick tip: it’s kinder on the wallet to visit at lunchtimes, when three courses costs €29 (£22).

Also smart, and open for just a year, is Lazare Paris situated inside Gare Saint-Lazare. It was named Best Brasserie of 2014 by Guide Pudlo Paris, thanks to its faultless menu of good, honest French food, designed by three-Michelin-star chef Eric Frechon. I’d opt for the €19 (£15) plat du jour (‘dish of the day’).

Véronique Potelet, from the Paris tourist board, recommends trying “the ‘bistronomy’ trend — a savvy mix of bistro spirit and gastronomy”. Two kitchens leading the way are the rustic Buvette, offering gourmet tartines (open sandwiches) and French classics such as coq au vin, and Saturne, whose almost-clinical interior puts full focus on the food, which is prepared from artisanal, organic products.

Marché des Enfants Rouges. Image: Emma Thompson

Marché des Enfants Rouges. Image: Emma Thompson

Nightlife

Time to indulge in the great Parisian tradition of the apéritif. You could watch the sunset over the Seine from the deck of brand-new Rosa Bonheur sur Seine — a barge moored on Quai d’Orsay that’s part of the redeveloped Berges de Seine. Overnight, it became the hotspot to head to; either for conversation over drinks and tapas or a good old boogie come nightfall.

Boasting an equally impressive river view is the terrace at newcomer Faust. Housed in the restored boathouses of the Royal Guard under Pont Alexander III, its turn-of-the-century interior takes you back to the Paris of old (the occasional live music acts are a bonus).

In complete contrast is the gilded art deco interior of Les Heures bar inside the five-star Prince de Galles hotel. Gleaming after a full renovation, it serves a swish selection of grand cru wines, cocktails, and Champagnes.

If you’d prefer something off the beaten track, Spotted by Locals blogger Tamara Mesaric recommends L’Art Brut Bistro, at 78 Rue Quincampoix, as the ideal hangout to indulge your inner artist. It’s a bar-cum-art gallery, featuring paintings, photographs and sculptures produced by little-known local talent. She describes it as “cozy, inspiring and human — with a menu starring Balkan plum brandy and Montenegrin beer!”

In the same vein are Sunday nights at low-key Le Cinquante, on Rue de Lancry. Local guitarist Marcello pitches up at 5pm and hands out copies of song sheets containing the lyrics to numerous French classics, from Jacques Brel to Serge Gainsbourg, as well as a few English ditties. The crowd shouts out their selection, he plays, and the whole bar croons along, cheap beer in hand.

But if you’re after a true classic, head to La Java — Paris’s oldest nightclub — in the third arrondissement. Open since 1923, this underground and unpretentious venue, at the back of an art deco shopping arcade, saw the likes of Edith Piaf and Django Reinhardt perform in their early days. It’s best to arrive around 9pm when there’s usually live jazz, swing music, or a comedian on stage, and then slink away before the clock strikes midnight and the clubbers arrive.

Bar Les Heures, Prince de Galles hotel, Paris. Image: Starwood

Bar Les Heures, Prince de Galles hotel, Paris. Image: Starwood

Where to stay

Time to flop into bed. Three-star boutique Legend Hotel, punches well above its weight, with thoughtful extras such as on-loan umbrellas, an honesty cocktail bar, welcome macaroons, in-room massages and reflexology, as well as hand-delivered hampers for the peckish. It’s also the first hotel in France to use Tempur mattresses in all its high-design rooms.

New, conceptual Hôtel Félicien — in the fashionable 16th arrondissement — is causing a stir. Created by French clothing designer Olivier Lapidus, each floor has a theme, from the Black Floor to the Sky Floor. Quirky design elements include several of his sketches engraved into glass in the breakfast room and, in some of the rooms, glowing optical-fibre curtains. The two suites each have a private staircase leading to a rooftop garden with a whirlpool bath and tip-top views.

The line of birch trees opposite reception sets the tone for the eco-friendly, family-owned four-star Hôtel Chavanel. All its vibrant rooms are decorated with recycled materials and locally sourced linens; the bathroom products are eco-friendly and the breakfast organic.

Last but not least is Hotel 123 Sébastopol. Nominated for a 2014 World Luxury Hotel Award, it’s dedicated to the art of cinema, with each floor named after a screenwriter, producer, or film star, and its light-hearted pop art-style rooms are each decorated individually. Perks include a mixologist serving cocktails named after films (naturally), a top-of-the-range gym with the option of yoga and Pilates classes, and a basement playroom for children.

Essentials

Getting there
Eurostar runs up to 21 direct daily services from St Pancras International to Gare du Nord.
Air France, British Airways, City Jet, EasyJet, Flybe and Jet2.com all fly to Paris from the UK.
Average flight time: 1h20m.

 

Getting around
Paris’s 115-year-old Métro is the fastest way to travel around town. For occasional journeys, single T+ tickets cost €1.70 (£1.34). For frequent use, buy a Paris Visite travel card available for one, two, three or five consecutive days in zones 1-3 or 3-5. A two-day zones 1–3 adult pass, for example, costs €19.40 (£15.31).
You can use a credit card to rent a bike from the Vélib‘ stations dotted around town; a one-day ticket costs €1.70 (£1.26).
There’s also a self-service electric car hire scheme called Autolib’.
Taxis should be a last resort; they get stuck in traffic and rack up quite a bill.

 

When to go
Legend has it that springtime is the best time to visit (with temperatures around 15-20C) but summer — when most of Paris flees to Southern France — is much quieter, with lots of festivals, although hotels are pricier. Rates drop in autumn when the light is superb for photography, while the short, rainy days of winter mean no queues and lots of Christmas cheer.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.26.
International dial code: 00 33 1.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

More info
parisinfo.com
DK Eyewitness Pocket Map and Guide: Paris. RRP: £4.99.

 

How to do it
Cresta offers two nights at the four-star Hotel Le Six, B&B, and return Eurostar tickets from £388 per person. Alternatively, the same hotel with return Flybe flights from Manchester costs from £427 per person.    


Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)