A long time ago my friend Eric asked me what to do in Paris. Since I live to serve I wrote a web page for him that contained some humble suggestions. Over the years whenever anyone asks me what to do in Paris I trot out that page, because we always do the same things.
Recently this happened again, when my friend Lesley asked for a list of things to do. So I went and looked at the old list, but found that it’s not quite what I would write now. Paris is not (quite) hermetically sealed in a glass bottle, so things come and go and stuff changes. Therefore, the old list now has some mistakes on it, so it’s time to do it over again.
The general ground rules still apply though. I am not much of a tourist. My idea of a good time on a trip is to eat a lot, walk around and stare at the natives, and take pictures of buildings when the light gets good. This list reflects this bias. Most of the major monuments are not here. Hopefully there are a few out of the way places that you might not have found on your own.
Before You Go
There are two books that you should get before you go. First, get a copy of The A-Z of French Food. This is a French to English food dictionary which will explain to you what all the flowery language on the French menus means. This will allow you to go to the good places (no English menus) and not have to guess what they are serving you. This books is now much more expensive than I remember it being. If you can buy it in France. It might be cheaper there.
Next, shortly after arriving you should go to any news stand and pick up the definitive Paris map book. Look for a little blue book with the title Paris Practique. The book has one or two maps per arrondissement (or neighborhood) all on individual pages. This is handy because everything in Paris is labeled with the number of the arrondissement in which it resides. There are 15-20 arrondissements in all organized in a spiral out from the center of the city. If you hear people saying things like “Oh that’s in the 8th”, this is what they mean.
These days everyone has a map in their phone, so this book is less needed. But it’s still handy to get your bearings and a general feel for where things are.
Now on to the list.
These are the places we go absolutely every time without fail.
Jardin du Luxembourg (6th)
This is my single favorite place to go in the entire city. A trip spent sitting in this garden every day for an entire week would not be a waste of your time. The people watching is on an awesome scale. The tourist density is a bit lower than at other gardens for some reason. There are many different areas on the grounds with different looks. There are the fountains, kids playing in the fountains with the little boats, a great building to stare at, and the ubiquitous young people in amorous poses. You also get a lot of super light through all the trees and over the walking paths at the right times of day:
If you go only one place while in Paris, go here.
Café de Flore (6th)
This is a tourist trap, but it’s the coolest tourist trap that I know of. The place has excellent coffee by any standard, even if it does cost $6. The hot chocolate is also beautiful. Go in the morning, sit on the terrace, order hot drinks, croissant, a small baguette with butter and jam (“tartine”), and maybe eggs. Then stare at the people going by. Do this every day at the same time for a week or two. Pretty soon, they’ll stop treating you like a tourist dog.
The area around the café is also fantastic for window and other sorts of shopping. Walk up and down Blvd. St. Germain and Blvd. St. Michel, or really in any other direction from the café to find dozens and dozens of places to spend your weak dollars.
The Marie-Anne Cantin Cheese Shop (7th)
Go here to buy cheese to smuggle back to the U.S. Get two wheels of raw milk Camembert (this is similar to Brie, but the wheels are a smaller size). This cheese is like nothing you have had in the states. It has a strong flavor, but not astringent. It has layers and layers of aftertaste that range from salty and cheesy to mellow and sweet. It is simply amazing.
Get two rounds of the St. Marcellin to eat on the way back to your hotel with some insanely fresh baguette from the bakery around the corner. This is like the soft goat cheeses you can get in the States, except that it actually has character and flavor instead of tasting like the white paste that is every single pasteurized piece of crap that is legally available in the U.S. (and mostly in Canada too).
Get some Epoisse, just because. You can’t buy real Epoisse here, so you have to get some. The Camembert is better, but you still have to get some anyway.
Finally, grab some of the nice aged goat or sheep milk cheese that they have. Whatever they recommend.
Wrap it all up in a vacuum sealed bag (they do this for you) and stuff it in your checked luggage.
You should get steak in France. It’s a different thing there, and the fries are also much better than here. Here are a few favorite places.
Chez George (2nd)
This is near the Opera in the Second. It’s a straight up great steak/frites place with a few other things on the menu if you want to explore.
Rotisserie du Beaujolais (5th)
This is another new favorite. Get the Côte de boeuf for 2 (or 3) for the ultimate rib steak blow out. They also have a nice chocolate cake with the soft center for dessert.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte (6th, elsewhere)
On the lower end this can be a fun time. This is as close as you get to a sort of sit down fast food experience in France. Get there early, there will be a line. They only serve one dish. The only ordering you do is a temperature, wine, and whether you want fries with that. It’s a cheaper cut of meat, but still great. And they have a nice ice cream dessert that the kids like:
Other food, Mostly Fancier
Alain Ducasse (8th)
When you want to blow the price of an iPod on lunch, this is the place to go to be sure you get your money’s worth. It’s probably the best restaurant experience that I’ve ever had. I had asparagus here that had five separate tastes all going on at once. The rest of the meal until the little chocolates is just a blur. They also hand you a loaf of bread on your way out of the place. Also, four years after my wife and I went, we still get a card from this place every Christmas.
Joséphine “Chez Dumonet” (6th)
A classic fancy bistro-style place. Go there and get these:
These are langoustine, which are like a large prawn. The picture from the market is also of these. They are great and hard to find in the U.S.
I also saw the single largest serving of steak tartare ever here. So keep that in mind too.
Cafe Constant (7th)
This place is near the cheese shop above in the 7th. It’s another no reservation place, so get there before lunch to have lunch. Great and creative small menu. Everything is always good. The owner runs two more places on the same street. Le Violon d’Ingres is even fancier, and Les Cocottes is a seafood oriented place which is more casual like the Cafe.
Opulent ice cream parlor on the Ile St. Louis (see below). Go here for this:
I could go on, but there is too much. We generally stick to French food in France, but you can do well with other things too. Turkish, Moroccan, and Vietnamese should be considered.
One of the joys of Paris as a city is the dozens of open air markets that move around the city at regular intervals. Find the location and schedule of a market close to where you are staying in town. Then get up in the morning and go. Here you will find access to some of the best food you will eat in the city without the overhead of dealing with the long, snooty and expensive service of your typical high end Parisian restaurant. Head over with your empty bag and pick up fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese that is illegal in the U.S., fresh fish, raw oysters, live langoustines, and loads of hot dishes ranging from quiche to kabobs to whole roast chicken. It’s a feast in a tent. Another bonus is that while tourist traffic exists in the markets, it’s fairly light compared to other attractions in the city.
Museums and Pretty Places
Maison Européenne de la Photographie (4th)
This gallery is in the Marais just a few blocks off the Seine. On my first trip to Paris we wandered in here and they were having a massive retrospective on Ralph Gibson. I found out later that Ralph Gibson is one of the most famous living photographers ever. It was a really good show. I go back every time now. It’s always good.
Musée Rodin (7th)
A bit out of the way in the 7th a couple of miles from the Eiffel Tower and a few blocks away from Invalides is this gorgeous historical mansion filled with exquisite light shining on exquisite sculpture of all kinds.
The grounds of the museum also hold a fantastic sculpture garden. The museum is admittedly narrow in scope compared to the Louvre or the Orsay, but I don’t think there is a prettier space in which to examine and contemplate works of art than the Rodin.
Museé D’Orsay (7th)
This is the one huge famous museum that we go to regularly. At the wrong time of year it can be really crowded. But you should go to see the polar bear and the Impressionists. Even if seeing the Impressionists is super stereotypical.
There is also this great view:
St. Chapelle (1st)
An astoundingly beautiful chapel near Notre Dame. Much smaller scale and more intimate. I like it better here than dealing with the throng at the big place.
Ile St. Louis (4th)
This is the small island just off of Notre Dame. While the big church is cool, the Ile is cooler. During the day, there are great cafes, Bertillon ice cream, the Au Gourmet de l’Isle restaurant for lunch, a nice toy store, and other things to gawk at. It’s also very pretty at night.
Around Le Louvre
I don’t recommend spending a lot of time in the Louvre. I think it’s more fun to walk around the places surrounding the museum.
The Palais Royal is great. There is the Jardin des Tuileries. And then if you walk back towards the river there are various bridges you must stand on. Really. Just stand there and look up and down the river. Bring a picnic to the Ponts Des Art. Eat your food, look at the river, stare at the amorous young people. This is good for about a whole day.
If you must go to the Louvre, dash quickly to the Venus de Milo, and then leave immediately and go back to the gardens or the bridges. That’s my opinion.
Two Big Touristy Things
Going up the Tower at night is fun. The Arc De Triomphe at night is also fun, but is a bit more work.
Things to Avoid
For god’s sake do not under any circumstances buy a hot dog from a street vendor.
Avoid the huge mall that is Les Halles.
Summer is not a great time to be in the city. It’s hot and ultra-crowded. Better to go in the early spring or in the fall.
Can’t really think of anything else.
Other Things I Missed
You have to just walk around and stare stupidly at everything. I like just looking at the old doors on buildings. They are astounding. Bring nice clothes. Leave the tennis shoes and baggy shorts at home. Even if you dress really really well by casual American standards you’ll stand out like a sore thumb. Meal service in France is at a much more relaxed pace than you are used to. Expect to spend a couple of hours eating the average meal in a good restaurant. Go to the Cafe Marly and get a really expensive burger. If you want to go to one of the really famous museums, try the Louvre, or the Pompidou, or the Picasso. The Pompidou is a particularly interesting experience. You can go an observe paintings that illustrate abstract computer science:
Everyone should also see Montmarte and Sacre Coeur at some point.
The list goes on and on. I could keep writing for months.