A friend recently asked for our top picks and tips for Paris. My starting block was a blog that I had written for Another Hapless Traveller a few years ago. Although some points were still valid, the original contents needed a bit of tjuzing. To kick start the creative juices on went sultry background music – France’s Carla Bruni of course. A heady a glass of fine vin rouge touched my lips and my creative juices soared. Fingers hit the keyboard and a refreshed list emerged…
Get your bearings: First things first, it’s important to understand the layout of a city you’re in. Jump on board a HopOn HopOff Bus and sight-see Paris without wearing out your shoes or, more importantly, depleting your level of energy on day one. Paris L’Open Tour and Big Bus Paris are the main open bus tour operators. Before deciding which one to book, go on line and check out their special offers, package deals, routes and maps. HopOn HopOff bus tours help you gain a fair overview and understanding of a city’s ‘footprint’, geography, history, culture and its people.
MontyandMe tip: Use the HopOn HopOff tour as your mode of transport – especially when it’s your first time in Paris (or any city for that matter). It’s easy to get confused in a new place. The Metro is great if you’ve been to Paris before but travelling underground means that you miss out on some of the best sites a city has to offer.
Start at the Heart: Head to the heart of Paris, the first arrondissement. Stroll through the Palais Royal and Tuileries Garden (a public garden located between the Louvre Museum and the Place de la Concorde) leading to the Pyramide du Louvre (in front of the Louvre Museum). Here, on the right bank, grab a Perrier water at Le Cafe Marly, a cafe outside on the left side of the pyramid. It’s beautiful. There’s also a nice restaurant called Le Fumoir which is at the back of the Louvre near the church.
MontyandMe tip: If you’re planning on visiting the Louvre go early to avoid the queues. If your budget is tight, admission is free every Friday from 6pm for under-26s (present valid ID) and from October to March it is free for all visitors on the first Sunday of each month. Remember security is tight so don’t lug along backpacks etc. that aren’t necessary. Also, do check the museum website to see what exhibitions are on, admission times etc. It will save you precious hours wandering aimlessly through the long halls. The Louvre is huge.
Art Buffs: The Louvre is always at the top of the tourist list but do visit the Musée Rodin on Rue de Varennes; on a rainy day go to the Musée d’Orsay on Rue de la Légion d’Honneur. In its former life, the d’Orsay was once a turn-of-the-century train station. Both museums are located on the Left Bank of the Seine.
MontyandMe tip: When you’re at Musée d’Orsay, take the stairs and glass walkway to the large clock. Take a photo of the people looking from in the inside out through the face of the clock. Wonderful!
Passion for Fashion – Haute couture vs Super cool boutiques vs Department Stores
Paris is bursting with fashion houses and boutiques, in fact, many argue that it’s the fashion capital of Europe (just don’t say that to the Milanese). Both the left and right banks offer something special.
Right Bank: The Faubourg -Saint-Honoré district is the beating heart of Paris fashion and design. Rue Saint Honore – Rue du Faubourg is one long street divided into two parts. The French fashion houses are in Faubourg; the upmarket boutiques in Saint Honore including flagship designer shops Hermes and Yves Saint Laurent.
MontyandMe tip: Close by is the 5-star L’Hotel Costes decked out in Napoleon III décor. The hotel has a beautiful small indoor garden as nice as the one at the Ritz or Georges V.
Department stores on the Right Bank which are a must go-to are the salubrious Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps on Bouvlevard Haussmann. If in Paris when the sales are in full force (December-January and mid-year) major bargains are to be had. While there, don’t just come for retail therapy; look beyond what these department stores sell and embrace the absolute magnificence of both buildings.
Galeries Lafayette is an architectural delight with its Art Nouveau Coupole and the view you get from the building’s terrace is spectacular.
Le Printemps also boasts the most incredible stained-glass cupola above its tearoom! You MUST indulge and have a coffee or glass of champagne while you’re there. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to paradise.
MontyandMe tip: Nearby is the best kept secret for bag lovers: La Maroquinerie at 30 Rue Tronchet. We stumbled upon this find in 2002 and have continued to shop there ever since. Specialising in several French brands including Longchamp, you can be assured you’ll find a bag that meets your heart’s desire and with a tidy discount too.
From La Maroquinerie you’re in easy walking distance to Palais Garnier (Opera National de Paris) in rue Scribe; luxury French baker and sweets maker Laduree at 64 boulevard Haussmann and equally irresistible cake and patisserie shop Fauchon at 24-26 place de la Madeleine.
Still on the Right Bank, Avenue Montaigne and Avenue de Champs-Elysées form one of the city’s most coveted fashion junctions. Avenue Montaigne boasts Chanel and Dior; along the Champs-Elysées you’ll find major international labels such as Louis Vuitton and global chains including Zara.
The Marais quarter also deserves a nod for its super cool fashion hot spots including Balenciaga, Celine, Chloe, Loewe, Emilio Pucci and Marc Jacobs.
On the Left Bank: Head to where the intellectually spirited gather in the St-Germain-des-Prés. OK so you’ll find the big international designer labels here too but there’s more of a down-to-earth aesthetic in this part of Paris, where clothes are more street-worthy chic rather than catwalk fashionista. Think affordable yet trendy.
At 24 Rue de Sèvres you’ll enter the famous department store Le Bon Marché. Arguably the consummate Left Bank address for sophisticated chic, the Bon Marché offers the same line-up of high-end designer fashion labels as the Right Bank stores but the interior of very New York City, sexy streamlined and visually fantastic.
MontyandMe tip: Pop into Le Bon Marché for the experience. Wealthy women browsing with their perfectly pampered pooches in tow…very Parisian. Also on this side of the river is the Latin Quarter (5th & 6th arrondissements) but it’s more likely you’ll find fresh produce rather than fashion. Rue Mouffetard and Rue Cler are two streets that deliver the goods.
Feel like a Parisian: Walk along the little pedestrian streets in the first and second districts (arrondissements) from Place des Victoires to La Bourse and rue Reaumur Sebastopol to the Halles district full of live music and concerts by the church.
MontyandMe tip: Forum des Halles shopping mall is underground. Located in the 1st arrondissement. Shops, shops and more shops. Great for the young and funky.
Best Views of Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou / Galeries Lafayette / Sacre Coeur /Eiffel Tower/Arc de Triomphe
View from the middle of Paris: Head to Centre Georges Pompidou (4th arrondissement) where you can have a serious drink or a light Perrier rondelle (with lemon) in the middle of Paris! The building isn’t typically French – in fact some say it’s ugly – but the good thing is when you access the cafe Georges (on the 5th floor) you don’t see the building but float above Paris – and it’s free.
Rooftop view: Galeries Lafayette’s top floor La Terrasse offers stunning views of the city’s rooftops and streets below. Take the lift to the 6th floor then take the stairs to the 7th floor. Remember access is available only when Galeries Lafayette is open. (Access to La Terrasse may have changed since Monty and Me were there. Ask at the Service Desk to ensure you don’t miss this experience.) Yes, it’s free too.
MontyandMe tip: Go to La Terrasse just before closing time to capture the skyline’s pink hue.
Panoramic view to beat them all: book a ticket online to visit the Tour Eiffel. Everyone must go to the top of the Eiffel Tower to truly comprehend the magnificence of Paris and the vision of Georges-Eugene Haussmann (the man responsible for ‘renovating’ the city through his design of a new Paris which meant the demolition of overcrowded, disease-ridden neighbourhoods and the building of wide avenues, park and squares).
MontyandMe tip: the Eiffel Tower’s designer, Gustave Eiffel, had a private apartment at the top of the tower. Visitors are now allowed access.
Panoramic view without a fear of heights: Le Basilica du Sacre-Coeur (Montmartre) is a big white church on top of Paris’s butte Montmartre. About 130 metres above ground, the location of this hilltop Roman-Byzantine church is home to one of the most wonderful panoramic views of Paris. If your head starts to spin at the thought dizzying heights, the Sacre Coeur is certainly your best destination for views with feet still planted firmly on the ground.
Arc de Triomphe with a spectacular view of old and new Paris.
Once a secret gem of Paris – The Marais: You won’t find anyone who will argue that the Marais isn’t beautiful. It is! All the way to La Place des Vosages and Rue des Franc Bourgeois you’ll find very cool shopping, galleries and hotels. Straddling the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, Le Marais is different to any other destination in Paris. The charm of this place is walking the streets, popping into the small shops, and of course, finding your own quiet time in what is the oldest planned square in Paris.
MontyandMe tip: Look for iconic fair-trade concept store Merci (in the Haut Marais which is the northern section of the Marais), spend some time in one of the city’s oldest department stores Le BHV, and discover beautiful perfume makers’ shops such as Annick Goutal and Fragonard.
Cool spot in Paris: Canal St Martin. From Place de la Bastille turn left away from the river and walk to the Canal St Martin – it is a total mix of a French and Northern African feel with great cafes and family meals.
MontyandMe tip: Want to see how the elderly pass the time of day? You’ll find them along the canal playing Petanque as they do in the south of France. Maybe they’ll let you try tossing a ball too?
Oldest coffee houses: maybe not the oldest but certainly one of the oldest in Paris, Café de Flore still attracts locals and tourists alike. It’s located on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Café Le Procope is also acknowledged as the first true coffee house and oldest café/restaurant in Paris. We’ll leave that to you to decide which is the oldest. You’ll find Le Procope in the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés on rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, not far from Boulevard Saint-Germain. Just remember, you won’t get much change, if any, once you’ve paid le carte (the account). A sucker for history? Well just stay in this neck of the neighbourhood and you’ll find Les Deux Maggots, another famous café in the Saint-Germain area.
MontyandMe tip: You’ll certainly get your fill of sitting in the same place as some of the literary and intellectual élite of Paris past. Wish-list: personal encounter with French philosophy. Tick!
Eat sorbet: Okay, touristy yes, but well worth the visit. On the Ile Saint-Louis (islands Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint-Louis sit side by side in the middle of the Seine) there’s one place where you’ll taste a sweet treat extraordinaire: Berthillon. It’s legendry and for all the right reasons. You will experience the very best ice cream and sorbet; in fact, it’s probably even better than your imagination could ever muster. The best place to enjoy your newfound culinary favourite is to sit on the river bank looking at the back of Notre Dame.
MontyandMe tip: After you’ve demolished your sorbet or ice cream, take a walk along the side and in the middle of the island – you’ll be transported back to the 15th century. Unforgettable.
On a hot day: Go to Le Jardin du Luxembourg. But remember, you don’t have to use the weather as an excuse. Even on a cold, winter’s day this garden-cum-park is superb. From the l’Odeon (theatre) you enter the park; it’s an immediate escape from noisy streets. Exit the park on the left side to explore the top of the 5th district two blocks at the back of the Pantheon (a pedestrian area and groovy at night) or exit on the right side to go down to St Sulpice (a church made famous in Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”) area by the Cafe de la Mairie. The back streets are charming.
MontyandMe tip: Take a short detour and visit the Pantheon and its crypts. You’ll be glad you did.
Sail down the Seine: Take a trip by boat (le Bateau Mouche) on the Seine. Time your departure just before sunset. Pure magic.
MontyandMe tip: Check with the tour operator regarding your route; they do change which means you may miss what you’ve been longing to see from the river.
Market of all markets: There are plenty of markets in full throttle on different days of the week and in different arrondissements, but the best is Marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen. Here you’ll find antiques, trash and treasures, and clothes, in stalls covering around 10 blocks. Access via Porte de Clignancourt metro but check the times when the market’s open. Some things are pricey, but you can still find good deals, just take your time. It’s not difficult to get there by Metro. Check the internet for the market’s open times and Metro timetables.