On a cool October night, my husband and I stood under the Eiffel Tower and gazed upward. It was a touristy thing to visit the landmark at night, when it’s set aglow by more than 300 spotlights. It was even more touristy to time our visit for the top of the hour, when 20,000 twinkling lights flicker on, turning it into a giant sparkler. But even touristy things in Paris feel exciting.
There are lots of reasons to visit the City of Light. Matisses and Picassos. Macarons and croissants. Cafes and couture. Paris is romantic—and in spring, abloom with new flowers. Little wonder that the city gets more foreign visitors than any other in the world.
Whether you’re a first-time or frequent visitor, you can’t see all of Paris in one trip. You likely know about the Eiffel Tower and other highlights. So, with the help of those who travel often between Washington and France, we’ve put together a list of experiences that also capture the flavor of Paris.
1. Wander About. Paris is a walker’s delight: You can stroll along the Seine or the Champs-Élysées, snapping postcard-worthy shots, or pick a neighborhood and just walk, getting lost on centuries-old streets. “There’s one street I love, Rue Mouffetard,” says Christine Ourmières, US vice president and general manager for Air France. “It’s a very interesting street with shops and restaurants. There are many old buildings. At the end of the street, there is a place, Octave, where you find the best dark-chocolate ice cream in Paris.” Aniela Vilgrain, a countess who divides her time between Washington and Paris, also recommends a walk through the Le Jardin de Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne on the west edge of Paris. In June, some 1,000 species of roses are in bloom.
2. Watch the world go by. As you wander, you’ll pass lots of cafes. Have a seat at one—it’s the best way to people-watch. Two of the city’s most famous are neighbors: Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint Germain des Prés; 01 45 48 55 25; lesdeuxmagots.fr) and Café de Flore (172 Boulevard St.-Germain; 01 45 48 55 26; cafedeflore.fr). If you’re after a view of more than passersby, Aniela Vilgrai also suggests the trendy Café de l’Esplanade (52 Rue Fabert; 01 47 05 38 80), overlooking Les Invalides, and Café Marly (93 Rue de Rivoli; 01 49 26 06 60), with its view of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid of the Louvre.
3. Enjoy a spot of tea. The French may love coffee, but tea drinkers are in luck, too. Another of Christine Ourmières’s favorite stops is Mariage Frères (mariagefreres.com), a chain of tea salons: “The one in central Paris (30 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg; 01 42 72 28 11) is on a small, old street. They have a fantastic brunch on Sundays.” Her favorite cup? Thé des Impressionnistes, a green tea.
4. Get intimate with art. If you’ve not been to the Louvre, the world’s largest museum, it’s well worth a visit. But Paris also has marvelous smaller museums. One gem is Musée d’Orsay, but its stunning fifth floor of Impressionist masters is closed for renovation until March 2011. Another favorite, Musée National Picasso, is closed until 2012. Two I’d recommend: Musée Rodin (79 Rue de Varenne; 01 44 18 61 10; musee-rodin.fr), whose building and gardens house some of the sculptor’s most famous works, including “The Thinker,” and Musée de l’Orangerie (Jardin des Tuileries; 01 44 77 80 07; musee-orangerie.fr), where hushed galleries immerse you in Monet’s lovely water-lily paintings.
5. Get intimate with history. From the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris doesn’t lack for monumental historic sites. Here, too, small museums can get overlooked. Interested in how the wealthy French lived in the 19th century? Then, says Leonard Silverstein of the French-American Cultural Foundation, check out Musée Jacquemart-André (158 Boulevard Haussmann; 01 45 62 11 59; musee-jacquemart-andre.com). Fan of French literature? Silverstein suggests a visit to Maison de Victor Hugo (6 Place des Vosges; 01 42 72 10 16; musee-hugo.paris.fr). Interested in other famous dead people? Head to Père-Lachaise Cemetery (pere-lachaise.com), where such notables as Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Caillebotte, Édith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison of the Doors are buried.
6. Have one over-the-top meal. You almost can’t get a bad meal in Paris, so there’s no reason to stick to Michelin-starred restaurants. Still, for some, a trip isn’t complete without one extravagant dinner, such as at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Taillevent, Carré des Feuillants, Le Grand Véfour, or Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, where prices are soaring but the view is très magnifique.
7. Leave room for dessert. Some of France’s culinary sweet spots are its sweets spots, or boulangeries. Make a beeline for—and then prepare to stand in line at—Pierre Hermé (72 Rue Bonaparte; 01 43 54 47 77; pierreherme.com) for creative and high-quality pastries, and chocolates. If it’s macarons you’re after, don’t miss one of the outposts of Ladurée (laduree.fr). There’s nothing more quintessentially Paris than a Ladurée raspberry or bitter-chocolate.
8. Go shopping. If you love fashion and you love to shop, you could spend your entire time in Paris doing nothing else. We can’t possibly list all of the city’s great boutiques, but our Washington-Paris frequent travelers have a few favorites. One shop that several praised is Colette (213 Rue Saint-Honoré; 01 55 35 33 90; colette.fr), which has won worldwide attention for presenting the very latest in cool—from cell phones to fashion to a water bar with 100 bottled waters from around the globe. Another avant-garde shopping experience for fashionistas is Montaigne Market (57 Avenue Montaigne; 01 42 56 58 58; montaigne-market.com), where you’re apt to see styles you won’t find anywhere else. Money no object? Set your sights on the area known as Le Triangle d’Or, or the Golden Triangle, which is also on Avenue Montaigne, between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. The area is home to such designers as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Dolce and Gabbana, and Prada. Interested in bringing back from Paris a slinky piece of lingerie? See our picks for top shops here.
If money is an object? Head to Marché aux Puces de St.-Ouen in Montmartre: Considered the largest flea market in Europe, with more than 2,000 stalls, it’s been around since 1885. Browse everything from antiques, records, and books to vintage Chanel bags. Head over heels for heels by Christian Louboutin? You can covet them for 30 percent less than prices in the United States at Louboutin’s two stores in Paris (christianlouboutin.com). June is a big month for sales in Paris, so why not do some one-stop shopping at a department store? Two good choices: Le Bon Marché (24 Rue de Sevres; 01 44 39 80 00; lebonmarche.com) and Galeries Lafayette (40 Blvd. Haussmann; 01 42 82 34 56; galerieslafayette.com).
9. Sleep well. Paris hotels all seem to have history
—whether the antique- and flower-filled Four Seasons Hotel George V (31 Avenue George V; 01 49 52 70 00; fourseasons.com/paris)—about which Art Buchwald once wrote, “Paris without the George V would be Cleveland”—to the charming L’Hôtel (13 Rue des Beaux-Arts; 01 44 41 99 00; l-hotel.com), where Oscar Wilde spent his final days. Aniela Vilgrain particularly recommends three: L’Hôtel, although she cautions that the rooms are small by American standards; Hôtel Duc de Saint Simon (14 Rue de Saint Simon; 01 44 39 20 20; hotelducdesaintsimon.com) for its luxury and serenity—you can take breakfast in a garden—and its location near the Musée d’Orsay; and Le Lancaster (7 Rue de Berri; 01 40 76 40 76; hotel-lancaster.fr), which she calls a sophisticated spot close to the Champs-Élysées.