Words: Natalie Bannister
Paris is a city made for walking and the best way to immerse yourself in the sights and enjoy the full sensory experience is in bite-size pieces, so it’s best to do a different area every day.
Paris … Just saying the word gives me tingles. I fell in love in Paris. With the city – its streets, architecture, cafes, fashion, markets, food, cheese (yes even the cheese), history, art and the unforgettable monuments that are such an integral symbol of one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
Paris has been built on love. Throughout the ages, some of history’s greatest names have glorified her, the world’s most defining painters and artists, philosophers, writers, actors and musicians, political figures and designers have made her their muse. From passion to fashion, Paris has been the eternal romantic to a world of arts and culture. There really is no other place like it in the world.
Brushing off any lingering adolescent fantasies of living out a bohemian artist’s life in a shabby chic Parisian attic, we decided to splurge on renting a luxurious 15th-century apartment in the 2nd arrondissement on the Right Bank. Accessed by a tiny laneway, our top floor apartment was complete with the quintessential creaking, crooked staircase and no lift, but filled with stylish furnishings, antiques and art in every room. We also had a picture perfect view through French doors down into a courtyard brimming with flower pots. It was the epitome of French sophistication and elegance and the only way (I think) to really stay in Paris.
This is a city made for walking and the best way to immerse yourself in the sights and enjoy the full sensory experience is in bite-size pieces, so it’s best to do a different area every day.
A mere stone’s throw from our apartment we discovered the vibrant and hip pedestrian market lane of Rue Montorgueil, with its boutique cafes, wine shops, patisseries, fromageries and fresh food stalls. This bustling street became our favourite haunt each afternoon when we would wander from one divine shop to another, practicing our French by haggling over prices as we gathered our supplies, before plonking ourselves down at a cafe to people watch as we enjoyed a glass of vin and then happily stroll home to cook a meal in our own kitchen… or more commonly as the days wore on, just lather some crusty fresh baguette with the creamiest of goat’s cheese, and open another bottle of fine Beaujolais. Such is a Parisian lifestyle!
A short walk away we discovered the famed area of Le Marais, with its charming crooked medieval lanes lined with bars, boutiques, restaurants and cafes, designer shops and art galleries.This area has the feel of old-world Paris but the vibe of an urban centre where you can sit in the corner of an historic street-side cafe reading a book over an espresso. It’s the cornerstone of a Right Bank lifestyle which is so modern and yet so tied to the charms of yesteryear.
And it’s that nod to history that makes the Right Bank with its galleries and museums one of the most noted cultural areas in Paris. It’s this side of the Seine where you will find the great galleries like Le Louvre, and the modern, contemporary art space that is the Centre Georges Pompidou. Figuring we may as well jump in the deep end, we started our tour des arts at the Louvre where many happy hours were spent wandering the maze of galleries completely bewildered and overwhelmed in the very best sense at the sheer extent of the art collection on show.
Some of the world’s greatest sculptures, artefacts and paintings can be found in the grand, marbled halls of this former palace, including the exquisite ancient Greek sculpture of Aphrodite, known as the ‘Venus de Milo’, and the surprisingly tiny but enchantingly beautiful Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, she whose smile stays with you long after you leave her stare. It would literally take days if not weeks to see every single piece and do the magnificent Louvre justice. We had to suffice with two separate trips to ensure our favourite artists and periods were sufficiently covered.
Leaving the Louvre, you must seek out the nearby Tuileries Garden, a masterpiece created for the private enjoyment of Queen Catherine de Medici and the royals of the Tuileries Palace in 1564 and a public park and a popular place for rest and relaxation for locals and tourists alike. One of our happiest days in Paris was spent sipping espresso and nibbling on fresh lemon crepes under the shade of some giant trees, watching locals sunbathing and reading books by the banks of the central fountain, children playing around the impressive statues that line the pathways. It was simple perfection in Paris.
The walk from here up the grand Place de la Concord takes in a very quintessential Parisian view, including the Obelisk of Luxor, the Grand Palais and, across the river on the Left Bank, the Eiffel Tower, that architectural icon that is impressive by day, and breathtaking by night when thousands of twinkling lights bring the entire structure to life. If you can handle the madding crowds and the ever present queue take the elevator to the viewing deck to be rewarded by the best view of the city. Then do as we did and head to the local fromagerie and patisserie to pick up some fresh bread and cheese, drop by a cellar for a bottle of Champagne and unroll a blanket in the park at the base of the tower for a romantic picnic you won’t forget.
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All along the walk from the Tuileries are opportunities for visual pleasure, from the houseboats that find berth along the riverbanks to the beautiful bridges that cross the water, beckoning couples to come and share a kiss beside their grand arches. The walk culminates at the mammoth Arc de Triomphe in bustling avenue Champs-Élysées, once one of the most grand avenues in all of Paris but now a place where mass tourism and consumerism reign supreme.
If you consider yourself a fashionista, you should make the pilgrimage to the long stretch known as Rue du Fauborg Saint-Honoré, a short walk from the Champs-Élysées where all the biggest haute couture designers have their exclusive showrooms. I made do with gazing longingly through the windows at the latest Dior, Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana collections, but the walk was well worth it for the indulgent display of glamour and sophistication in a city that is considered one of the fashion temples of the world.
For a more realistic (but still glamorous) shopping experience, head instead to Galeries Lafayette, Paris’ most famous department store, where you are greeted with a heady dose of glitz, set over ten magnificent levels in a historic building on Boulevard Haussmann, in the 9th arrondissement (Metro stops: Chaussée d’Antin, Opéra,Trinité). With a soaring atrium-like ceiling, the sheer beauty of the architecture is enough to set you in the mood for some very serious shopping, and you won’t leave disappointed as here you’ll find semi-affordable high fashion (by Paris standards!) like you’ve never seen before. I defy you to find the willpower not to leave before many hours are up, exhausted and weighed down with bags of new shoes and designer duds.We certainly left laden, ready to roll out some new outfits!
Walking all over Paris is not difficult thanks to a fantastic metro system that bridges the different areas, so an entire day was devoted to the leisurely exploration of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, travelling by metro to Pigalle, the old red light district. From there we walked through the maze of narrow streets up a steep hill, away from the more bustling (some would say seedy) lower areas and up into the historical heart of this arty district, stopping along the way to look through vintage clothing shops and small boutiques with old world charm.
Montmartre remains today the timeless artist’s enclave – it is on these streets that a young Edith Piaf would wander from corner to corner to sing and earn a few coins, before being discovered and catapulted to eternal status as the defining French songstress (and the daily soundtrack to afternoons in our apartment!) Shadowed by the white-domed Sacré-Coeur Basilica – which is well worth the arduous climb for one of the best views of Paris – the village atmosphere around Montmartre has long provided inspiration for the avant garde.
Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet all created some of their finest works while living here (was there a magic juice in the water?) And yes, it’s also where you will find the famous cabaret clubs Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, but please, don’t come here just for that. There is so much more to Montmartre! It may not be obvious on the outside, but scratch beneath the surface, and you will find that this little corner of Paris has a very unique charm about it. Perhaps it’s the street buskers, or the casually funky locals who strut the streets and sit at every tiny round cafe table, just looking effortlessly fabulous. Or maybe just the pervading scent of bohemia that lingers in the shops and sidewalks, but Montmartre is well and truly doused in an atmosphere of modern-meets-old cool.
Another unforgettable morning was spent wandering the maze of paved alleys through the Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th arrondissement (Metro: Père-Lachaise, Gambetta Porte or Philippe Auguste), affectionately called la Cité des Morts – the city of the dead – by Parisians. And no, don’t go thinking we’re the morbid kind … this is a cemetery, yes, but it is an enchanting and beautiful one. And also the resting ground of some of the world’s greatest singers, actors, artists and even rock stars – this is where you will find the grave of Jim Morrison … though don’t be surprised to also find a rowdy group of inebriated fans lingering around him and playing rock music, as we did! It was at the suitably outrageous, lipstick and graffiti covered tombstone of Oscar Wilde where we held our vigil, laying a single stemmed flower for the wickedly eccentric Irish playwright, poet and author, and recalling, with a smirk, his famous last words on his death bed in 1900 in a poorly decorated room in a Left Bank hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go”.
The jewel in the heart of Paris is Île de la Cité, technically the very centre of France but, in a more obvious landscape, it is an island in the centre of the city that has, quite literally, been carved out by the river that runs through it like a vein to the past.With a complex and fascinating history that spans the original Parisi tribes of the Sequana River (now known as the Seine) to the Romans who set up here as far back as 50 A.D, Île de la Cité is truly sacred ground.This is the site of some of Paris’ most impressive cathedrals – the gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame which stands on a site that has seen worship from as far back to the Celts and now commands the attention of the city centre (and a famously long line of tourists daily!); and the breathtaking beauty of Sainte-Chapelle with its floor to ceiling stained glass windows, built by King Louis in the 13th century to house his (supposedly legit) Crown of Thorns and now taking pride of place within the confines of the grounds of the Palais de Justice. Sainte-Chapelle is possibly one of the city’s most glorious churches and, to us, one of the most enduring memories of our walks, sitting quietly in the chapel, losing time watching the sunlight dance across the coloured glass, deciphering the intricate tales of Christ that they depict.
And no trip to Paris is truly complete until you have explored La Rive Gauche, the Left Bank, where you will find the southern arrondissements and some of the city’s most fascinating historical monuments. Considered the artistic heart of the city, the Left Bank of today does not resemble the ‘cheap’ part of town that it once was, when frugal artistes were de rigeur. These days it is more high end, with luxury apartments, restaurants and popular bars.
The Latin Quarter is the traditional students’ area of Paris (thanks to the Sorbonne University here), and although it may have lost a bit of its beguiling ‘roughness’ to tourism, you can still come across some of the eccentric charm that made this place famous if you take the time to navigate the narrow meandering laneways. And it remains the place to come to find some great nightlife options, with jazz clubs and bars enticing every kind, from budget backpacker to the hipsters.
Nearby in the 6th arrondissement lies Saint Germain, a classy area with suitably higher priced accommodation and known as a more authentic area to choose if you want that très chic ambience that so many come to Paris for at its heart lies the Abbey of Saint Germain des Prés, one of the city’s oldest churches, while other notable attractions include the primarily French collection of art of the Musée d’Orsay; the famous Les Deux Magots Cafe (once the preferred rendezvous of literary figures like Hemingway and French intellectuals of the post-war years); and the equally favoured Cafe de Flore at the corner of Boulevard Saint Germain and Rue Saint Benoit. Bordering on the periphery of Saint Germain are the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens and Palace, while to the east lies the Tour Eiffel Quarter. So it’s pretty much sandwiched between the good, and the great of Paris living!
Left or Right Bank, a trip to Paris promises to be indulgent, intoxicating and romantic. No one leaves here untouched by some level of enchantment. Thinking of the days we spent in the City of Light last year, it remains the ultimate love affair – l’amour in Paris. And yet still, I am left yearning for more. It’s just that kind of place. Once is never enough.
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