Some friends of mine were in Paris in the fall – both for the first time – and I put together a list of things to do / things not to do on a first pass through the French capital. Another set of friends is headed there next month, so instead of continuing to mail this around, I thought I’d clean it up and post it for general consumption. Bon voyage tout le monde!!
First thing you do, go to any kiosk, newstand or little shop and buy a copy of Paris Practique. It’s a little booklet – 4.5″ x 7″ – with a navy cover. It’s a comprehensive, easy to read map of all the arrondissements (districts or regions) of Paris. It is the only map you will need and it is essential for getting around. Has all the metro stops, major landmarks, etc.
General advice: don’t try to do everything. You won’t get to it and you’ll exhaust yourself trying.
Also, pack your most streamlined and elegant clothing. Take cashmere. Take scarves. Wear beautiful shoes. Do not take fanny packs. (Actually, that’s good advice for all destinations. Come to think of it, take this opportunity to throw away anything you own that resembles a fanny pack.) Do not take trendy American clothes. Do not plan for complicated hairstyles. Do not rush while you are there and, if you do, pretend you do not perspire. It is likely that even if you follow this advice you will feel frumpy. Settle into it, buy clothes like their clothes and accessories like theirs and console yourself that once you’re back stateside you will definitely look better than everyone else here.
If you are booking a room with a double/full/queen bed, it’s worth it to confirm that it is actually a double bed and not two single beds locked together. The latter is extremely common in Europe and can make for uncomfortable nights if you’re sleeping with someone.
Also, for summer visitors, confirm that they have air-conditioning if you’re not happy in the heat. Paris can be New York-level stifling in mid-summer and a lot of boutique hotels have no AC.
When we are in Paris, we stay at Hotel Sainte Beuve in the 6th. It is small, on a quiet street, the breakfasts are ungodly good and the rooms actually have some character. Most importantly, it is near everything…well, the things we like anyway. And it’s not ludicrously expensive. It’s blocks from the Jardin du Luxembourg and pretty much right behind St. Sulpice. You can walk to the river and its bridges and excellent people-watching intersections and the neighborhood is interesting and eclectic.
They have a sister hotel which is a little lower on the scale and a tiny bit weirder but we’ve stayed there too and been perfectly happy – Hotel le Saint Gregoire also in the 6th.
Beyond that, I have no accommodations recommendations except to say, it sucks staying in the business districts or by the monuments in the 1st or 3rd. Lots of very expensive shops, lots of grey buildings and street life at a minimum. Stay on the Left Bank if at all possible.
Things Not To Be Missed
A recent discovery: the Musee Jacquemart Andre. It’s a private house, so you don’t see it – or I haven’t – in any of the guide books. It rocks. The couple who lived there was wildly rich and were excellent collectors. The house itself is stunning and the collection ranges from paintings to personal items, sculpture to musical instruments. It’s like the Parisian version of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or The Frick in New York. Plus, when we were there, their rotating gallery had this incredible photography collection from Paris Match of painters, writers, rock stars, film stars and anyone else important they’d taken pictures of in the last 40 years. The place is downright entertaining. Plus, their restaurant is excellent – but don’t plan on getting a seat for lunch at lunchtime. Go early, see the house and eat early. The place is overrun at noon with chic Parisian businesswomen.
The Musee Rodin. Go on a sunny day – the garden is fantastic. I love Rodin and I love this museum. It’s out of the way – annoyingly far really – but worth the trip. It rules. You must go. Have lunch in the garden – bring your own, even, since the cafeteria is small and expensive.
I haven’t been here, so I have no business recommending it, but I mean to go there as soon as possible, so I think that counts. If I’m mistaken, please do correct me after you go. Sainte Chapelle. Lovely church near Notre Dame (see below). And if you think it has anything to do with the Comedy Central show, don’t bother with a visit.
Other Things To See
The Louvre. Naturally. Long lines, long waits and the Mona Lisa is much smaller than you’d think. That said, it’s the Louvre. Standing on line for museums is the worst part about going. My advice would be to talk to your hotel concierge and get a museum pass – it lets you into all the big ones over a specific period of days and passholders can use accelerated queues at the museums, which is a timesaver worth paying for even if you don’t use the full value of the pass.
The Musee du quai Branly is new and controversial – opened last year to love it/hate it reviews. The building is bad ass and very peculiar. The collection is anthropological Asia/Africa. It’s been a huge source of conversation and the wait may be ungodly but the design is pretty out there. NYTimes review here.
Jardin du Luxembourg. Lovely. Huge. Usually has cool exhibits. Always has aloof French kids and games and lawns, etc. Good place to relax.
The Centre Pompidou is cool to walk by – you should see it, but don’t kill yourselves to get there. It’s weird, ’70’s cool, very benchmark but not a lot to do.
Notre Dame. Chances are you’ll walk over the Ile at some point anyway if you’re staying on the Left Bank. It’s a church and a big one. ‘Nuf said.
Eiffel Tower. I’m on the fence. If you’re there in the winter and they’ve flooded that one floor where you can iceskate, go. You will be super-cool. If not, I was fine with it at a distance unless you’re into looking at feats of engineering up close. It is the Eiffel Tower though…
Arc de Triomphe / Champs Elysee. The Champs Elysee is b*llshit. It’s all Chanel and McDonalds. Don’t bother. If you are set on going to the Arc, go. It’s impressive. Just make note that it is in the middle of a massive traffic circle and can be accessed by tunnels (safe, meant for human use) or by running through the traffic (not safe, nearly deadly, not recommended except for jackasses…like myself.)
Le Grande Arche in La Defense. The modern version of the Arc de Triomphe. If you like that sort of thing. More here. Part of Mitterand’s grand works project. It’s a hike to get there but it is definitely huge, modern and meaningful. The long esplanade running up to it has all kinds of huge artworks on either side as well. Really, the only thing to see in that part of town as far as I could tell. Don’t go on a gray day.
Things That Can Totally Be Missed
Versailles. It’s far, it’s packed, a lot of it is under construction and the rest of it has been mostly stripped of everything that’s not actually attached to the building – sold off to pay to keep the place open, so you don’t get the full impact of the place even if you do go. You’re basically looking at walls and ceilings with 9000 other people.
If you insist on going, go absolutely, totally without fail first thing
in the morning on a weekday. And allow for 15 minutes’ walk after the
train arrival time to actually get to the gate. Be at the gate first. No dawdling over your croissants that morning. Also, make sure you sort out the fountain schedule – it’s impressive to see them up and running but they only do it a few times a day. And I’d recommend visiting the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s fake farm. It’s a distance from the palace, so plan accordingly. But seriously, allow me to say again, it’s not worth it. I know people say it is, but they’re wrong. (R totally disagrees with me on this, as does my father, so take it with a grain of salt. If you’re determined to go, save it for a trip when you can go for the whole day, pack a large suitcase of patience, and plan only relaxing things for that evening. Also make sure I am not with you.)
Sacre Coeur. I shouldn’t say this, but I think you can strike this unless you’re in the neighborhood already or want to hang out in the bohemian ‘hood. It’s beautiful and it’s a hike of a walk if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s far to get there from a central hotel and unless you’re interested in checking out the surrounding neighborhood, it’s one schlep too many. (If you’re in town for a while, do go – it’s just far for a brief visit.)
Les Halles. Total, total waste. I don’t know why any guide writes about this. It’s basically a really nasty underground mall. It was a unique idea when they did it but it’s a bomb. Don’t bother.
If you buy anything big (over 175 euros total – doesn’t have to be on a single item), make sure you get your tax-free documents with your receipts. You’ll need to have your passport with you to get them. Worth it: 14% back or some such. The process seems daunting but isn’t. The store will give you the paperwork, you fill it out (or they will – budget an extra 5 minutes at checkout). When you get to the airport or train station, find the customs window – the check-in desk can point you in the right direction. You submit your forms and receipts, show them your passport, they stamp various things and they’ll usually just credit your account within a month. Fifteen minutes for substantial refund if you’re a shopper. General explanation/restrictions here.
Herve Chapelier. My first shopping stop in Paris. Their flagship is in the 6th at 1 bis rue du Vieux Colombier. (All Paris locations here.) The prices are literally half of what they are in the US because of import taxes and the bags are lightweight and virtually indestructible. I have everything from a pencil case up to a huge heavy canvas carry-on and I love them all. Buy buy buy!!! If you were to bring me a gift for all my excellent advice, this is where you should get it!
Gilbert Jeune in Place St. Michel is my favorite, favorite, favorite paper store in the entire world. I buy tablets there by the dozens. If you want French books or stationery supplies, this place is your place.
Muji. I love me some Muji. The first one I went to was in Paris even though they’re a Japanese chain. They only have neutral colors and they make everything out of them. Cashmere, T-shirts, bookbags, armchairs, pencils and the most satisfying Type A travel containers you could ever hope for. There are two separate stores on the same street by St. Sulpice – one has clothes, the other stationery. (Muji recently opened an outpost in New York, but the one in Paris is still bigger and better. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort. The one in SoHo is nice too. Don’t get offended.)
The sheltered arcades have been on my list for a while. Cool and photo-worthy. I haven’t made it there yet, but I will.
E. Dehillerin. Arguably, the best cooking supply store in the world. The inspiration for my current employer’s (Williams-Sonoma) founder. Remember the measuring items are metric. A good write-up (and a good food blog) here.
Le Bon Marche. Ultra-hip, beautiful store. Gorgeous. Expensive. They sell EVERYTHING, including chocolates.
Galeries Lafayette. If you want French clothes and don’t want to pay Bon Marche prices, go to Lafayette. It’s like Bloomingdales. I generally come home with something cool and angular. The one on Hausmann is the mother ship with the largest selection but it’s also the most crowded, so avoid lunchtime and post-5PM when the locals flood in.
The markets: flea, food and otherwise. This page is your friend.
Best sorbet in the entire world: Berthillon. I kid you not. The main shop is on the Ile Saint Louis (the other island in the Seine that doesn’t have Notre Dame on it). You should go and walk around the Ile anyway: it is some of the most expensive real estate in the world and it is completely charming and wonderful. And then have some more sorbet. It is obscenely expensive and worth it. It’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants in the city, but the flagship is the one with ALL the flavors.
Best bakery. Ever. Get the almond croissants. J. C. Gaulupeau, 12 Rue Mabillon in the 6th. (This place and Herve’s flagship are both among the tiny streets in Paris Practique grid L17 on the 6th pages.)
Laduree macaroons. I thought for years that macaroons were those coconut blob cookies. I am a stupid American in some respects. But I am justly punished by having missed out on the French version for most of my life. Make up for it here.
NYTimes rates the best steaks frites in Paris.
Any crepe place. I have limited recommendations because we eat wherever we end up and it’s usually good. Enjoy the carbs – they’re worth it. And the ham. And the yogurt.
Photo from DK Travel.