Occasionally I meet people who tell me they ‘don’t like’ Paris. What could have gone wrong for these poor souls? I’d have to guess they’ve been scarred by a youthful blunder (Paris is wasted on the very young) or by a highly pressured ‘romantic’ break, during which the ratio of money frittered to fun went all wrong.
The best way to have a brilliant time in Paris is to go often, and go lightly: form a casual, on-off relationship with the city, rather than rushing into an impassioned and disappointing fling, spending slightly more on a hotel than you hoped is essential. And if you want the city to open up and become friendlier, you have to explore, walk about a bit, get to know one or two areas a bit better. One great idea, as recently blogged by the food writer Fiona Beckett, is to visit Paris midweek, between Tuesday and Friday, avoiding the Sunday/Monday shutdown, and giving yourselves more of a chance to eat well without booking tables weeks in advance.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or an old hand, don’t start in the centre — it’s too easy to feel overwhelmed. Go easy: if you’re staying in the 1st or 8th arrondissement, you could go for a stroll up and down Rue Montorgueil, or around the calm, leafy 7th; otherwise, spend the afternoon enjoying the area around your hotel. The city is appealingly small, and Parisians think nothing of crossing town for drinks or shopping, but why spend time on the metro? You could be partaking in Paris’ emerging dining genre, cave à manger, which sees punters clinking glasses and devouring light bites in the city’s wine shops.
Unless you’ve come to Paris specifically to tick off the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre, you could consider swerving these giant art attractions altogether. Smaller museums can be more rewarding and less like hard work: among many gems are the Musée Jacquemart-André, set in a 19th-century mansion; the Musée Rodin with its wonderful gardens; and the amiably eccentric Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature.
Excellent commercial art galleries abound, especially around the 3rd/4th arrondissements, and (less cutting-edge) the Left Bank. I never miss an hour in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a quiet part of the Louvre rather akin to London’s V&A; another way of seeing this mighty museum without getting the tourist blues is to see if there’s a concert on in the Auditorium du Louvre, which you enter via the great glass pyramid.
Simply walking is my favourite part of any trip to Paris. From the Tuileries, through the Louvre and over the Pont des Arts; around the Parc des Buttes Chaumont with its crags and winding paths, or Montmartre Cemetery for peace and to pay one’s respects to romantic composer Hector Berlioz. Up and down the Canal St-Martin; and, by night, from the Latin Quarter over to the Marais via the Ile St-Louis — for the tremendous thrill of seeing Notre-Dame Cathedral, floodlit and immortal-looking.
Things to look out for this year are the reopening of the Institut du Monde Arabe following a year of renovations; and the new Islamic Art department in the Cour Visconti at the Louvre. The extended Palais de Tokyo is also due to be unveiled, a whopping three times bigger than its original size. Among big upcoming expos are Dali at the Pompidou Centre, 21 November to 25 March, and Impressionism and Fashion at the Musée d’Orsay, 25 September to 20 January.
There are scores of fantastic restaurants, bistrots and wine bars in Paris, so it’s a serious shame if you experience a mediocre mouthful. The places I like to recommend are the neo-bistrots: affordable, informal places with talented chefs, trained to develop costly tasting menus, but who have chosen instead to do something more immediate, accessible and personal. And also the new generation of wine bars, where simple, seasonal produce is deployed to delicious effect. Les Fines Gueules, a sleek but straight-up corner site near Palais-Royal, is one of these low-key, wine-led ventures punching above its weight, serving arguably the best steak tartare in town; and bread, butter, charcuterie and cheese from only the very best suppliers.
In the 6th, there’s a buzz around Agapé Substance, a tiny gastro-experiment. Diners perch at a long, high table, the far end of which becomes the kitchen where David Toutain does deft things with sea urchins, heritage vegetables, scallops, abalone (sea snails) and foie gras (not all at once). It’s fine dining without the starch. Chateaubriand in the 11th, and its younger sibling Le Dauphin, are the rock ‘n’ rollers of the bistronomique generation, serving imaginative, modish dishes at affordable prices, without a shred of the old deference or formality, though it can be hard to snag tables.
Spring in the 1st and Frenchie in the 2nd are very elusive, but both have mini-me’s: Spring Boutique, a wine shop where you can have a glass and a slice of ham; and Frenchie Bar à Vins, a sensational drop-in with a handful of tables and a concise, lip-smacking menu.
For something less breathlessly ‘now’, Chez Georges on the Rue du Mail is a true favourite. Its old-fashioned style and classic bourgeois menu of herring, rillettes (similar to pâté), sole meunière and grilled veal kidneys belie a busy, buzzy atmosphere. In the 7th, Chez L’Ami Jean is a cosy, rustic dining room where Stéphane Jégo cooks with enormous enthusiasm. His earthy yet refined menu changes virtually every service; the only thing he never tweaks is the rice pudding, the last word in creamy generosity. Another bistrot with a heart is Bertrand Auboyneau’s Le Bistro Paul Bert, in the 11th. Patrons cherish it as a rare example of an authentic bistrot, with perfect steak-frites, bustling service, and a top-drawer seafood restaurant next door.
For views, the Café de l’Homme dining room has reopened for summer, with its wonderful terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower; as has the Ciel de Paris panoramic restaurant on the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse.
For great weekend brunch, head up to Pigalle for Le Bal Café, an Anglo-French dining room attached to a photography gallery. As well as proper kedgeree and real bacon and eggs, Anna Trattles does fantastic venison shepherd’s pie in season, and rabbit offal on toast (she’s a former St John chef). Over in the 18th, there’s decent coffee at Kooka Boora Café Shop, a new, casual pitstop on Rue des Martyrs.
Shopping around Montmartre is fun, with boutiques such as Spree, combining fashion with design and books; No Good Store, a vintage/contemporary mix; and an APC factory outlet. The 10th and 11th are packed with art galleries, bistrots and fashion stores, somewhat edgier than in the megabucks territory of the 8th and 16th.
But my top area for shopping is the Marais and Haut-Marais (the 4th and 3rd) where the streets are charming and pre-Haussmannian, and chic brands such as Acne (the Swedish label so beloved in Paris) and Isabel Marant have outlets alongside curated boutiques such as L’Eclaireur. Established in 1980 by Armand Hadida, a fashion buyer who introduced designers such as Helmut Lang, Prada and John Galliano to Paris, the L’Eclaireur stores — there are now six — mix edgy style with art and design. The stores are creations in their own right, and showcase a hard-edged, sexy rock ‘n’ roll style that is very Parisian. Isabel Marant, a distinctly Parisian womenswear label, is set to open in London’s Mayfair this summer, but until it does, the store on Rue de Saintonge remains a magnet for fans of Marant’s nonchalantly cool collections.
Elsewhere, Rue Montorgueil is a pedestrianised shopping street in an unsung part of the city, the 2nd arrondissement. Lined with food shops, it’s pleasantly peaceful, considering it’s such a short walk from the Louvre and Palais-Royal. I habitually return to the same places here: Stohrer pâtisserie, the oldest in Paris; Le Café on Rue Tiquetonne to sit with a book; G Detou, next door, a culinary Aladdin’s cave; scruffy Le Tambour for late-night drinks. Here are wine shops, chocolatiers, fromageries and, round the corner at 92 rue Montmartre, my most recent discovery, the Librairie Gourmande or gourmet bookshop.
Equally rewarding for food-lovers (and likewise handy for the Gare du Nord for last-minute cheese and pain de campagne on your way home) is the Rue des Martyrs, climbing from the 9th to the 18th arrondissement. Don’t miss Sébastien Gaudard, a new, ultra-sophisticated pâtisserie, nor Libraire Vendredi, a bookshop with events and clientele as fascinating as its enticingly stocked shelves. Montmartre itself had a tourist-hell reputation when I first began to visit Paris but, under the wing of local friends, I’ve been spending a lot of time there, in its bars and boutiques; it’s lovely to walk up to the Place des Abbesses, stopping off to buy cannelés (pastries), flowers or to sip a glass of Saumur in the back room of a wine shop.
A good-value, four-star choice on the Left Bank near the Ile de la Cité, Villa d’Estrées is a stylish, discreet townhouse. It has 10 good-sized rooms, and a sister establishment over the road recommended for families, with kitchenettes in its suites. Owner Yann Chevance lives nearby and is very attached to his neighbourhood. “St-Germain is classic Paris,” he says. “Touristic, yes, but loved by locals and full of life. It has everything you need to live well, and it’s one of the most attractive parts of the city.” Walk along the Rue St André-des-Arts and the Rue de Buci at any time and you can’t help but agree. I found my room a little noisy at times, but otherwise charming, with particularly helpful staff.
Hidden in a private courtyard off the Place des Vosges, in the Marais, is the Pavillon de la Reine, perhaps my all-time favourite place to stay in Paris. It’s a little smarter, with a sense of privacy, authenticity and luxury that’s hard to beat, and gives excellent value relative to the serious grande dames. A junior suite or chambre de luxe is worth booking for a special occasion; otherwise the standard rooms are perfectly calm and comfortable. And I can’t get enough of the aristo-chic honesty bar.
Hôtel Daniel, just off the Champs-Elysées, looks exquisite, with its clever mingling of sea-green de Gournay wall-coverings, toiles de Jouy, chinoiserie and jewel-coloured silks. The rooms and suites, furnished individually with globe-trotting antiques, and names such as Kipling and Siam, are comfortable and quiet, so if you want to be over this side of town, it’s a good one to know. There’s no sceney bar but there is a gastronomic restaurant.
But the hottest new opening of the year is the W Hotel in the Opéra district, whose 91 rooms have plenty of slick touches, from iPod docks to its ‘Whatever/Whenever’ service.
Mama Shelter, meanwhile, in the 20th, is the go-to if you do need to watch the budget. It’s clever, both aesthetically and in terms of the tech-touches, from iMacs to free wi-fi, and its communal spaces are cool and creative.
Gone are the days when Paris nightlife meant choosing between jazz clubs, banging underground parties and tacky millionaire hang-outs. Good, non-flashy cocktail bars are beginning to emerge: Experimental Cocktail Club in the 2nd, and sister establishment Curio Parlor, whose location offers the aforementioned view of Notre-Dame, are dark, New York-style dens with friendly, savvy staff who know their sours from their sidecars. New last year, Candelaria is hidden behind a Mexican taqueria in the 3rd, with an excellent selection of tequilas and mezcals — cocktails include their own take on the margarita, and a potent Pisco Disco.
Molotov is a late-night bar with a Soviet theme — it was the brainchild of a Ukrainian fashion model — near Opéra, decked out with Goodbye Lenin-style bric-à-brac. Homesick Eastern Bloc expats can order borscht or pierogi (dumplings), and there are Russian and Polish vodkas to knock back. If you don’t mind the wall of blue smoke, there’s a little smoking room upstairs.
A short walk away, you’ll fall upon another charming superpower timewarp: the classic Harry’s New York Bar, where you wouldn’t feel out of place on your own with a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Its pennants and wood panelling are top-notch, the Negronis are spot-on, and there are often one or two of those tiny Parisian dogs in there, surveying the scene. There’s a piano bar downstairs, but the best spot is at the bar, where you can keep an amused eye on your fellow night owls as they stroll in and out.
Eurostar runs up to 18 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare du Nord. www.eurostar.com
Air France, BMIbaby, British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe and Jet2.com fly to Paris from across the UK.
www.airfrance.co.uk www.bmibaby.com www.ba.com www.easyjet.com www.flybe.com www.jet2.com
Average flight time: 1h15m.
The Paris Metro is reliable and easy to use. Buy a carnet of tickets or a one-day metro/bus pass — zones 1-3 from €14.91 (£9.31). You can use a credit card to rent the Vélib cycles. Taxis aren’t as easy to hail as in London; ask your hotel to call you one or look for a rank. www.parismetro.com
When to go
Spring and autumn see Paris at its best, while summer can be stifling. In August, residents escape and a lot of restaurants are closed, though there’s compensation in the form of Paris Plages, and an open-air cinema in the Parc de la Villette.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 33 1.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Les Fines Gueules: 43 rue Croix des Petits Champs, 1er. www.lesfinesgueules.fr
Agapé Substance: 66 rue Mazarine, 6ème. www.agapesubstance.com
Spring Boutique: 52 rue de l’Arbre Sec, 1er. www.springparis.fr
Frenchie Bar a Vins: 6 rue du Nil, 2ème. www.frenchie-restaurant.com
Le Chateaubriand: 129 avenue Parmentier, 11ème. T: 00 33 01 43 57 45 95.
Chez Georges: 1 rue du Mail, 2ème. T: 00 33 01 42 60 07 11.
Bistrot Paul Bert: 18 rue Paul Bert, 11ème. T: 00 33 01 43 72 24 01.
Chez L’Ami Jean: 27 rue Malar, 7ème. www.amijean.eu
Cafe de l’Homme: 17 Place du Trocadéro et 11 Novembre, 16ème. T: 00 33 01 44 05 30 15.
Ciel de Paris: 33 Avenue du Maine, 15ème. www.cieldeparis.com
Le Bal Cafe: 6 impasse de la Défense, 18ème. www.le-bal.fr
Kooka Boora Cafe Shop: 62 rue des Martyrs, 9ème. T: 00 33 01 56 92 12 41.
Spree: 16 rue la Vieuville, 18ème. www.spree.fr
No Good Store: 52 Rue des Martyrs, 9ème. T: 00 33 01 45 96 00 87.
APC: 112 rue Vieille du Temple, 3ème. www.apc.fr
Isabel Marant: 47, rue de Saintonge, 3ème.www.isabelmarant.tm.fr
L’Eclaireur: 40 rue de Sevigné, 3ème. www.leclaireur.com
Musée Jacquemart-André: 158 boulevard Haussmann, 8ème. www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com
Musée Rodin: 79 rue de Varenne, 7ème. www.musee-rodin.fr
Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature: 62 rue des Archives, 3ème. www.chassenature.org
Musée des Arts Decoratifs: 107 rue de Rivoli, 1er. www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr
Auditorium du Louvre: 34 quai François Mitterrand, 1er. www.louvre.fr
Villa d’Estrées: 17 rue Gît-le-Cœur, 6ème. From €205 (£170) for a double room B&B. www.villadestrees.com
Pavillon de la Reine: 28 Place des Vosges, 3ème. From €380 (£316) for a double room B&B. www.pavillon-de-la-reine.com
Hotel Daniel: 8 Rue Frédéric Bastiat, 8ème. Doubles from €385 (£320), breakfast from €24 (£20). www.hoteldanielparis.com
W Hotel Paris: 4 rue Meyerbeer, 9ème. Doubles from €340 (£274), breakfast from €8 (£6.50). www.starwoodhotels.com
Mama Shelter: 109 rue de Bagnolet, 20ème. From €79 (£65) for a double room, breakfast from €15 (£12). www.mamashelter.com
Experimental Cocktail Club: 37 rue Saint-Sauveur, 2ème. T: 00 33 01 45 08 88 09. Curio Parlor: 16 rue des Bernardins, 5ème. www.curioparlor.com
Molotov: 4 rue de Port Mahon, 2ème. T: 00 33 01 73 70 98 46
Harry’s New York Bar: 5 rue Daunou, 2ème. www.harrys-bar.fr
How to do it
Inntravel offers three nights’ B&B at Hotel St-Paul Rive Gauche, from £402 per person, including Eurostar returns. Arrive 1 July-30 Aug and stay a fourth night free. www.inntravel.co.uk www.hotelsaintpaulparis.fr
Abercrombie & Kent has three nights’ B&B at Le Meurice, from £1,230 per person, including Eurostar and transfers. www.abercrombiekent.co.uk www.lemeurice.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)