Paris can be unwrapped in endless ways. The French capital is a broad-shouldered maze of a city, a lifetime’s labyrinth to lose yourself in. A visit here means different things to different people — be it bistros and cobbles or monuments and museums — but it’s the seething magnificence of the whole that really leaves an impression. The character of the place is unmistakable, in everything from the rumble of the Metro to the evening twinkle on the Seine. It remains somewhere truly, defiantly special. The City of Lights? The City of Love? The City of Life, perhaps, would be the most apt.
On the Place des Vosges there’s a smart tea emporium where the staff can tell you, to the minute, the optimum brewing period that each of its blends requires. Dammann Freres sells 370 different loose leaf teas, and when you step inside the floral swirl of smells is giddying. The shop is rich in atmosphere: it finds a natural home in the Marais.
Other quarters might have broader avenues and bigger monuments, but few carry as much cachet. A jostle of narrow streets and cafe terraces, it’s somewhere both accessible and exclusive: the kind of place where that cosy brasserie you’ve been recommended sits opposite a new Karl Lagerfeld boutique. When I wander along Rue des Francs Bourgeois, two tiny pugs are being carried in blankets and a septuagenarian tap dancer is busking on the pavement.
The high pink townhouses and clustered chestnut trees of Place des Vosges are the symbolic heart of the neighbourhood. The square is the oldest of its kind in Paris, having been constructed in the early 1600s. It helped turn what was once an area of marshland — literally, marais — into an address for the aristocracy. In the corner of the square, it’s still possible to visit the grandly furnished apartments where writer Victor Hugo once lived.
A short walk away, the focus falls onto another creative heavyweight; the excellent Picasso Museum reopened in 2014 after almost doubling in size. It occupies a renaissance mansion in the district’s heart. Picasso spent much of his life in Paris, drawn by the city’s easy ways.
In the fabulous, low-lit bar of Au Petit Fer à Cheval — all tarnished old mirrors and window-scrawled specials — the waistcoated barman casually gabbles half-a-dozen wine regions at me when I order a glass of red. I find a stool and settle in.
The Marais is famed too for its street food. The Jewish quarter on Rue des Rosiers has a series of competing falafel joints, while among the stalls of Marche des Enfants Rouge, the Chez Alain Miam Miam serves up titanic grilled sandwiches. In true Paris style, the queue can be similarly hefty.
“I’ve been playing Paris for 10, maybe 15 years,” announces American singer-songwriter Conor Oberst to the 500 people squeezed into the poster-plastered basement of La Maroquinerie. The statement meets with rowdy whooping.
The little Menilmontant theatre has a sunken floor and a balcony, meaning a close-up view for everyone present. It’s hot, dark and beery. “I only went to the Louvre for the first time yesterday.” Pause. Hand through hair. “Man, it was busy.” His guitar rings out again.
Away from its showpiece sights and famous boulevards, Paris has always had a more abandoned spirit. Artists and musicians have descended on its grittier suburbs for centuries. Two recent examples are the overlapping eastern neighbourhoods of Belleville and Menilmontant, only formally absorbed into the city in 1860. As working-class districts with low-rent accommodation, they have in recent years become fashionable, with new studios, bars, live venues and restaurants springing up.
To describe this as gentrification, however, might be pushing it. Centred very loosely on the axis of Boulevard de la Villette and Rue de la Menilmontant, the districts are also rambling, multicultural quarters of Chinese grocery stores, halal butchers and Tunisian bakeries. Street art is widespread, and in the comfy high-walled woodiness of Cafe Charbon they’re still dishing out strong, no-nonsense coffees as they have done for close to 120 years.
The area’s most celebrated daughter is Edith Piaf. A plaque above the door of 72 Rue de Belleville states that the singer was born right here, on the steps, and she famously sang at local cafes to earn a crust before her career took off. Today, the district’s young people express themselves differently. On the rainbow-coated walls of nearby Rue Denoyez, a teenage girl surrounded by spray cans is creating a mural of a huge female face. “This is my passion,” she tells me. “But it’s Belleville, so tomorrow another artist will paint something on top of it.” She smiles. “C’est comme ça.”
Time spent in this part of the city is absorbing, and you don’t have to travel far to find an excellent place to eat and drink. At the foot of the same street, Barbouquin is a warm, book-lined cafe with homemade soups and quiches, while in Menilmontant, the modish Co My Cantine draws in hip young things with its authentic Vietnamese menu. To get a sense of location, meanwhile, head to the top of Parc de Belleville, where the entire Paris skyline — Eiffel Tower, Pantheon and all — is laid out gloriously for your leisurely perusal.
Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the best known sights, not just in Paris, but in Europe as a whole. It took 185 years to build and has history in spades: it’s where Henry VI was crowned King of France, and where Napoleon became Emperor. The facade is exquisite, and its reliquary holds what purports to be the original Crown of Thorns.
The cathedral sits on Ile de la Cite, one of two adjacent islands in the middle of the Seine, both of which warrant wider exploration. Ile de la Cite was the genesis of today’s city, first settled around 300 BC by a tribe of Iron Age Celts known as the Parisii. The island later became the site of the royal palace. Visitors can view the remnants today, including the beautiful Saint-Chapelle.
By crossing the bridge to neighbouring Ile St Louis, you’ll feel the weight of mass tourism recede. There are no bucket list sights here, just riverside walkways and handsome streets. Two islets were joined in 1614 by Louis XIII to create a residential neighbourhood.
“I’ve lived on the island all my life,” says the host at Auberge de la Reine Blanche, a snug family bistro. The food here is home-style and comes in hearty portions. The wine, too, is poured generously. “It’s still really a village,” he continues, the bottle still glugging.
The bistro sits virtually next door to another of the island’s gifts — the Libraire Ulysse, a travel bookstore full of maps and second-hand titles — and is less than a minute’s walk from arguably the most famous spot on Ile St Louis, the original Berthillon ice-cream parlour. One vanilla cone later, I wander down to the toe of the island, where the Square Barye garden looks out across the water. The crowds of Notre-Dame may be just a stroll away, but here, there’s perfect calm.
The Rough Guide to Paris (2016). RRP £10.49
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Arrow). RRP: £6.99
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (Gallic Books). RRP: £8.99
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at the four-star deluxe Marais hotel Pavillon de la Reine from £749 per person, including return Eurostar tickets, transfers from station to hotel, accommodation with breakfast, a two-day Paris Museum Pass, Seine cruise, a carnet of Metro tickets, guide notes and a concierge service.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)