While other cities are frequently observed as having masculine characteristics, Paris is invariably described as being female. Sensuous, seductive, the unmistakeable city of light, love and romance, my affair with her began instantly as I first arrived off the train from Bordeaux in my early twenties. A frenzied and fertile breeding ground for the arts and novel ideas, Paris has at various times been the home of Gertrude Stein, Marie Curie, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Antoine Lavoisier, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Vincent Van Goph, Jean Cocteau, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Claude Monet, Coco Chanel, Jean-Baptiste Moliere, Frederic Chopin, Jim Morrison and Johnny Depp- indeed Honoré de Balzac went so far as to wildly proclaim “whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant”. Severely in want of elegance, I recently re-visited Paris and fell in love all over again. If you’re in the mood for a worldly romance, you’ll need this hit list.
1. Stroll along the Seine
I like to orient myself with water when visiting a new city, the water dictating the growth of the city around it, and Paris’s river-front is lovely. The Seine twists its way through Paris on its way to the English Channel, passing the Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower, and a glittering array of bridges. Some of the more beautiful are the Pont Alexandre III, the Pont des Artes, and the Pont Marie. Since the river snakes its way in different directions, orientation is usually denoted by “left bank” or “right bank”- these are the directions to the respective bank when you face downstream.
Paris at a Glance
The weather in Paris is generally pretty grim, except in the warmest months of the year (July and August) when it generally reaches into the mid 20s (mid 70s F), though you’ll still need to jacket up at night. In winter, around 6°C (43°F) in the middle of the day with frosty conditions at night. Snow is very rare, but transforms the city into a white fairytale.
Prices per day:
Big Mac Index: €3.62 (US$4.66), 2.3% dearer than a US Big Mac
Food: €7 – €30 (US$10 – US$42) depending on whether you’re munching on food from a patisserie, or you wine and dine at a nice brasserie. For high end brasseries or restaurants the sky’s the limit. Either way it’s possible to get great food.
Hotel: Hugely variable and expensive. For two star budget hotels, prices start around €80 (US$112) a night up to about €180 (US$250). For luxury and high end the sky’s the limit- expect €180+.
Hostel: €20 – €30 for a dorm bed, around €40 (US$52) for a bed in a private room.
Entertainment: Most museums are actually not too expensive- you should have quite a bit of change left over from €20. Nightclubbing or cabaret can set you back though.
Drink: Beer is expensive, around €6 or €7. Wine varies from cheap (€15 or $US20 for both good and bad quality) to ultra-expensive.
Transport: The Metro is cheap (around €2 single ticket), but go for a day ticket or carnet (a pack of 10 singles) which gives good discounts! The Paris Visite card is even better, especially if you are travelling greater distances, and even gives discounted museum entry! Taxis are fairly pricey as you would expect for a major capital city, but if there’s a small group of you then suddenly it’s good value.
The only way to travel in Paris is by train. Well, it’s not the only way, but with so many corners of the city covered (usually) pretty efficiently, if you have a carnet or pass you’ll normally be best off jumping on the Under- or Overground. Taxis are fairly pricey as you would expect for a major capital city, but if there’s a small group of you then suddenly it’s good value. Or hire a bike from one of the many points dotted around the city (see below) or just use your pegsies and hoof it!
2. Notre Dame and Île de la Cité
An island in the middle of the Seine, the Île de la Cité is the epicentre of Paris, being the place upon which she was first established, while the Notre Dame is her heart. When you first see it, it takes your breath away. One of the finest examples of Gothic architecture and among the first to utilise flying buttresses to hold up the external walls, construction began in 1163 during the reign of Louis VII, and didn’t finish until nearly 200 years later in 1345. Go to the Île de la Cité at night for added “oooh ahh” factor.
Metro: Cité, St Michel
3. Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars
The modern symbol of Paris, it’s hard to believe that the Tower, originally constructed for the 1889 World Exposition, was only supposed to last 20 years before being pulled down, and even that met fierce resistance from critics who lamented that the tower would dominate Paris and “humiliate” all the other more traditional Paris monuments. Indeed, legend has it that Guy de Maupassant dined every day in the tower’s restaurant because it was the only place in Paris the tower itself was not visible. Nowdays, the tower is universally admired and the Champs de Mars is one of the nicest places to sit with a bottle of vino and your lover in the shadow of the Tower as the afternoon light fades.
One guy I met at a hostel the first time I went to Paris made a trip to the Tower, and had a horrifying experience as a car drove into the pedestrian area under the Tower chased by a police car, the two playing a cat and mouse game that very nearly ended badly for my friend. But that won’t happen to you- it’ll be all romantic and stuff.
Metro: Trocadéro, Passy
4. Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe
The symbol of Paris (or was that the Eiffel Tower?) the Champs-Élysées is often described as the most beautiful avenue in the world. Whether or not you agree with that description, you’ll feel a million bucks as you walk it as it really brings home the glitz of Paris as a glamour destination. The Champs-Élysées is lined for miles by luxury stores and crowned by the Arc de Triomphe, a stupendous monument to French victory in various wars over the centuries. You can take the stairs to the top for a nice not-too-high view of Paris, but beware of the crowds- you’re not the only tourist in Paris you know!
Metro: George V
5. Musée d’Orsay
A wonderfully interesting place, the Musée d’Orsay began life as a railway station in the early 20th Century but soon fell into disuse, later being reborn as an art museum. The permanent collection houses the largest number of impressionist masterpieces in the world by artists such as Van Goph, Degas, Monet and Renoir. Go for the stunning architecture (not to mention its location on the Seine) and stay for the paintings.
Metro: Musée d’Orsay
Montmarte is a hillside to the north of the Paris city centre; a wonderful jumble of tattered charm, a mix of the bohemian, the charming and the sinister. As such, Montmartre has been the artistic heart of Paris for centuries, home to Van Goph, Monet, Mondigliano and Dali, among others. Ascend the many stairs from Place des Abbesses and you’ll arrive in the pretty Place du Tetre, where artists hock their wares and paint portraits of tourists. The lovely white domes of the Sacré-Cœur church crown the hilltop, and the stairs of the Sacré-Cœur are a great place to view Paris or take in the sunset. A word of warning- Montmartre’s proximity to lower socio-economic areas of Paris and popularity with tourists can make for a dangerous combination- watch out for pickpockets and avoid dark alleys after dark.
7. Start the Night at a Brasserie in St Germain
What Montmartre was to struggling artists, St Germain was to the existentialist thinkers of their age. Nowdays St Germain, on the Left Bank, is still somewhat arty but decidedly more upscale than its bohemian cousin to the north, with high end luxury retail and swish brasseries the speciality of the neighbourhood.
St Germain, as well as being a nice place to stroll around in, is home to some of the best brasseries in Paris. More than a restaurant or cafe, a brasserie is where Parisians go to drink libations, enjoy good food and converse. Probably the most famous (but pretty expensive) is Brasserie Lipp, with its mirrored walls and chic ambience. It was a hit with famed artists of old and the modern day Paris elite. There is personality everywhere you look, from the neon lights to the cartoons on the bill, to the waistcoated waiters who are almost as famous as the establishment they work for. Right across the road on Boulevard St Germain is Les Deux Magots (I’m reliably informed this does not translate to “the two maggots”) and the ultimate in Art Nouveau decor, you absolutely have to see Le Petit Zinc.
8. See 10,000 Skeletons at the Paris Catacombs
On the day that I saw my first real human skeleton, I saw another five million or so. This is the number of people buried in the Catacombs beneath the Paris city streets in a series of disused old tunnels stretching for some miles. As the story goes, in the 1700s the graveyards all over Paris were filled to the brim and were excavated, the bones filling the underground catacombs to make room for new burials on the surface. That doesn’t really explain why they made all these bizarre sculptures and heart shapes out of skulls in the process, I suppose they thought it was all a bit of macabre fun. You too can enjoy (or be repulsed) by this most unusual of sights.
Metro: Denfert Rochereau
9. Père Lachaise Cemetery
Almost as odd a suggestion as the previous, only in Paris would I be recommending you visit a cemetery, but such is the romance of Paris that the living and dead are forever intertwined. The largest in Paris, the list of people buried here reads like a who’s who of everything that ever was. In more recent times, the cemetery has been something of a pilgrimage spot for people visiting the grave of Jim Morrison.
Metro: Philippe Auguste (near the cemetery main entrance) or Père Lachaise (500 metres away near a side entrance). Many prefer the Gambetta station as it allows them to enter near the tomb of Oscar Wilde and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery.
10. Latin Quarter and St Michel
Evoking images of bohemian Paris, the Latin quarter is situated close to the Sorbonne and other Parisian educational institutes, giving it its lively student atmosphere. Its name derives not from any ethnic preponderance but from the proliferation of educated Latin speakers in centuries past. Untouched by the bulldozers and philsophies of Baron Haussman, the Latin Quarter and neighbouring St Michel are fantastic places to get lost, with their twisting streets and interesting bars.
Metro: Cluny-la-Sorbonne, St Michel
11. Le Marais
Like the Latin Quarter, Le Marais (across the Seine on the right bank) is another area untouched by Haussman’s renovations of Paris, and thus more closely representative of the Paris of old. With beautiful achitecture, boutique hotels, a rabbit’s warren of streets, and a lively Jewish community, it’s another fine area to explore on foot or by bicycle, stopping somewhere for a crepe, a drink, or some kosher fare.
Metro: St Paul
12. Shop for Antiques at the Marché aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt
It wouldn’t be an article about Paris if I didn’t mention shopping, and where better to shop for antiques and bric a brac than Paris? In the dodgy north of Paris, the Cligancourt Markets are gargantuan. If you’re a serious shopper you’ll want to spend half a day to a day here, and even if you’re just wanting a look you’ll need a couple of hours. You’ll find everything from junk to priceless treasure, with best results coming to those who know what they are doing, but hey maybe you’ll get lucky.
Metro: Porte de Clignancourt or Garibaldi
13. Lounge in the Luxembourg Gardens
It’s the afternoon, it’s time to take a chill pill and get away from the maddening crowds of the city. The beautifully laid out Luxembourg gardens, a public park attached to the Luxembourg Palace where the French Senate sits, is just the place. For best results, take along a significant other for kissing and cuddling.
Yet another area that used to be bohemian and home to penniless artists, Montparnasse retains some of its former tatty charm but is now more well known for its stylish shops, cafes, and brasseries. It’s also home to the grotesque Tour Montparnasse, from which you can catch a nice view of Paris.
15. Revolutionary Paris
With so many distractions in modern-day Paris, it’s easy to forget the bloody history that shaped this city. The Bastille, nowdays just a square with a large column, is the spot where the Bastille prison stood and was stormed in the early stages of the first revolution in 1789. The Conciergerie, on Île de la Cité, was one of the most gruesome prisons of the revolution. Meanwhile, Place de la Concorde, today a large intersection lit by many lovely lamps, with statues and fountains, was the home of the guillotine during the Terror. Such atrocity witnessed by cheering crowds saw the heads of more than 1000 people cut off in a single summer in 1794. King Louis the 16th was also guillotined in this spot in 1793. The square itself has been named various things over the years, first Place Louis 15th, then renamed Place de la Révolution during the Terror, then Place de la Concorde as a gesture of reconciliation after the turmoil of the Revolution. After the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, the name was changed back to Place Louis XV, and in 1826 the square was renamed Place Louis XVI. A plaque with this old name can still be seen on the corner of the Hôtel de Crillon. After the July Revolution of 1830 the name returned to Place de la Concorde and has remained since.
16. The Louvre, Tuileries and Musée des Arts Décoratifs
It might sound like a cliche but you really have to visit the Louvre, and not just for the Mona Lisa but also for the rest of the stunning collection, built up over centuries under the watchful eyes of kings, Napolean Bonaparte, and revolutionary figures. The Tuileries gardens, on the site of the original Tuileries Palace destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1871, are a great place to wander to get away from the crowds. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something a bit different and educational, try the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a very interesting museum in the Louvre’s western wing which teaches you all about the different artistic movements at various points in history and how you can tell them apart. Metro: Musée du Louvre, Tuileries
17. Catch a Cabaret at the Moulin Rouge
Alright you filthy devils, it’s night time and we’ve had enough of famous artworks and gardens, we want to drink away our troubles and have some bawdy fun. Luckily, Paris is a place where you can have your debauchery and still claim to be cultured. The famous Moulin Rouge is your place, with its rotating red neon windmill in the gritty red-light district Pigalle. Bring your euros however, but watch your wallet out on the street!
Metro: Blanche, Pigalle
18. Spend a Night at the Opera
Somewhat more romantic, more dramatic and just as fun is a night at the Opera Garnier. The building itself has been described as one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, and it was the setting for Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. You don’t need to understand French to enjoy the show, but it helps!
19. Rent a Bike and Smooch your Lover
If you’re sick of walking, you should know that Paris is another one of these amazing cities that have installed stations with rental bikes all over the city. Now I’m not going to lie, it took me a bit longer to work out how to rent one of these bikes, but once sorted they are a great way to get around. You can see a lot of the city this way, riding from site to site, and once you need a break you can just stop next to the Louvre or the Champ de Mars for a smooch with your lover. Don’t worry, PDAs are officially sanctioned by the state in Paris. (Disclaimer- not actually true.)
20. Take Part in a Protest
All of that romance and emotion can go to the head, and it’s no surprise that the French can be a passionate bunch. They’ve had more revolutions and upheaval than probably any nation on earth, and in modern times its no different- there’ll probably somebody protesting or on strike during your visit. If you’re looking for some danger and feel at one with the cause, or you’re just a rabble-rouser, you can join in- just refrain from throwing bricks at the priceless architecture.
What do you think? Do you agree with this list? Any other tips you might want to share or questions you need answered? Let me know below! And if you enjoy these tips and want more of them, why not subscribe. It’s FREE.