* Update: New blog post on a more recent visit to Paris can be found here. It follows on from my top tips below and covers some lesser-visited spots in the city *
Paris is one of my favourite cities in the world. I love everything about it: the art, the food, the wine, the language, the people, the beautiful buildings… It has a sense of magic that is hard to find elsewhere. I am instantly at home here and happily spend hours wandering along the banks of the Seine, stopping only for a coffee or a glass of red. It is a perfect city for those who like to potter. My favourite area for said pottering is Le Marais in the 4th arrondissement with its winding medieval streets filled with bars and restaurants, boutiques, artisan shops, jewellers, galleries and museums. It’s also home to the Jewish quarter, the elegant Place des Vosges and the magnificent Hôtel de Ville. Here it is in all its glory at Christmas time:
Le Marais also happens to be home to one of my favourite restaurants: the wonderful Camille where I had one of the best and most romantic lunches of my life. More on that in the foodie section of my blogspot here.
What to do:
Explore the city on foot
They have a great transport system in Paris but to get a real feel for a city, I think it's best to explore on foot first. You miss so much going from point A to point B underground. The magic is usually found on the detours and the little side streets. But in saying that I never get tired of walking along the banks of the Seine, awestruck by the majestic buildings that line the river. I particularly love Paris in winter, and think it never looks more beautiful than on crisp, frosty days with a blue-sky backdrop. Its slightly unreal beauty sometimes makes me feel like I’m on the set of a Woody Allen movie, never more so than when browsing the booksellers stalls at the quay side, and picking up some of those quintessentially French-style posters.
My suggestion for a nice afternoon of pottering: take a detour from the quays at Pont de la Concorde and walk through the beautifully manicured Tuileries gardens, one of my favourite places in Paris, until you come to Musée du Louvre at the other end. It’s a really calm space within the city and I love how it looks in winter with the flat-topped bare trees lining the symmetrical walkways. It’s also gorgeous in summer when the trees are in full leaf, offering a welcome respite from the heat. Pretty green chairs are dotted everywhere so you can pull up a pew at one of the ponds, or sit beneath the trees and read a book. The Tuileries Gardens also houses the wonderful Musée de l’Orangerie (see more below) and leads nicely onto Musée du Louvre. But first for an apéritif at Hôtel du Louvre on Rue de Rivoli.
The Pyramid du Louvre looks particularly spectacular at night, lit up from within. I love this square, and how the steel and glass pyramid sits comfortably alongside the classical facades of the surrounding buildings, the earliest of which dates to the 16th century. Designed by I.M. Pei and officially opened in 1989 as the new grand entrance to the museum, this structure was extremely divisive, viewed by some as an abomination of modern architecture. I love it and think it really complements the surrounding buildings, reflecting the old in the new.
Nighttime in Paris is a pretty special experience. It’s stupidly beautiful. I still feel like a child when I get my first glimpse of the shimmering lights of the Eiffel Tower. The best viewing point is from the platform at the Trocadero. But be prepared to vie for space with the multitude of tourists looking for the perfect shot. Oh, and the constant hassle by hawkers trying to sell you light-up, plastic Eiffel Towers. Who wouldn’t want one of those, right?
Check out some of the greatest art on the planet
Paris has some of the best museums in the world, ones I keep coming back to again and again. There are the obvious stars: the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, though both are becoming more and more difficult to appreciate with the constant photography and selfie-stick action. But in saying that, if you’re interested in modern art, then you have to go to Musée d’Orsay.
Its collection of Van Goghs, Cézannes, Caillebottes, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrecs etc… (need I go on) is second to none. It is also home to the provocative ‘Origin of the World’ by Courbet and Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’. I remember my first time visiting when I was in my early twenties. My travelling companion didn't care so much for art so I headed for a solo trip to the Musée d'Orsay. I can still remember queuing to buy my ticket and then finally getting inside and being completely and utterly overawed. I'd pored over those paintings in books but actually getting to see them in real life was something else.. My memories of those few hours are still vivid, even though it was over twenty years ago.
On our most recent visit, the experience was marred somewhat by the constant photography. And as for the Louvre; the ridiculous behaviour in the Mona Lisa room has to be seen to be believed. The queue of people was about ten deep – with people taking selfies in front of the painting. Meanwhile Leonardo’s stunning Virgin of the Rocks is being completely ignored a few feet away, not to mention Titian's heartbreaking Ecce Homo. I owe these people a massive debt of gratitude though. If we hadn’t been forced to explore the lesser-visited rooms like the Pavillon des Sessions, we would never have seen this wonderful collection from the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, some dating back to several centuries BC and some contemporary.
Paris also has the wonderful Picasso Museum and the Rodin Museum. There are Picasso museums all over Europe, including Barcelona, Antibes and Malaga, but this is one of my favourites. It houses a really comprehensive collection of his work, covering all periods – it has over 5000 pieces in all media including painting, sculpture, engravings and drawings. Not only that, it has a wonderful collection of works from his contemporaries including my favourite painting by Matisse, ‘Marguerite’.
The Rodin Museum is housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion, close to Les Invalides, but what makes it extra-special is the sculpture garden where you can see his iconic The Thinker, among other masterpieces. I love seeing sculpture placed in a natural environment and it’s particularly effective here. Also, there’s a interesting little back story to this museum. In the early 20th century the mansion became home to the artist. He had initially rented four of the rooms to use as a studio, but had occupied the entire building by 1911. He particularly loved the garden and had placed some of his works amidst its greenery. The building was sold to the French government in 1911 but upon condition that he granted all his sculptures, drawings, as well as his collection of antiquities to the state, it was agreed that he would be allowed to reside there until his death. And in 1916, the house became known as the Musée Rodin.
However my two favourite museums in Paris are Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée Marmottan Monet. The latter is located near the Bois de Boulogne and houses one of the city’s largest collections of Impressionist paintings, with the largest collection of Monets anywhere in the world. In 1966 the artist’s son Michel bequeathed his collection of paintings inherited from his father to this museum and they are just breathtaking. There are scenes from Paris, London, and Norway; there are stunning images of water lilies and rose gardens with a number of exquisite snow scenes which I had to drag myself away from. No photography is allowed in this museum and it seems to attract a more appreciative visitor. The gallery spaces are beautiful and really calming. It’s a must-visit!
And then there’s the Musée de l’Orangerie – above. The curved walls hold what can only be described as Monet’s greatest masterpiece – his frieze of eight panels of the Nymphéas or Water Lilies cycle which took over the final three decades of his life. This is one of my all-time favourite museum experiences and I've included it in my blog Extraordinary Museums: a selection to stir your soul
Sainte Chapelle, 8, Boulevard du Palais
Metro: Cité or Châtelet
Of course Notre Dame is absolutely stunning and a must-visit but that’s stating the obvious. Its lesser-known sister Sainte Chapelle is a short walk away: situated on the Ile de la Cité, it’s totally worth the detour. Built in the mid 13th century, it’s a spectacular feat of Gothic architecture and of medieval engineering. Innocuous from the outside and hidden away in the grounds of the Palais de Justice, it’s truly spectacular on the interior with its soaring slender panels of stained-glass (1,113 to be exact) and its magnificent rose window. The whole effect is one of lightness and verticality. Your eyes are immediately drawn upwards, which I imagine was the religious intention. On a sunny day when the light is streaming through the windows, it’s almost a spiritual experience. They also hold concerts here, if you're lucky enough to catch one which coincides with your trip. We were lucky enough to see a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons here one evening before Christmas. It was a special evening though marred somewhat by the bitter cold temperatures outside which seemed to make their way inside and freeze us to our bones on the hard cathedral seats. But a takeaway mulled wine from a street-side stall soon sorted us out.
Where to stay:
Hotel le A, 4 Rue d’Artois:
This is a terrific hotel which ticked every box. We stayed here on a recent trip to Paris before Christmas and couldn't rate it more highly, from the warm and friendly staff to the welcome drink on arrival. The location is excellent – only five mins from Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe, and really close to two Metro stations and two lines.
The décor is modern Scandi-style. We stayed in a Junior Suite, which I would recommend if you can spend a bit extra as it is worth it for the extra space. The bed was so comfortable, the shower was a luxurious rain-shower, and the products are from l’Occitane. What’s not to like?
And finally the breakfast: one of my favourite parts of the day. It was a blissful experience every morning. The hotel provides a continental buffet with crusty bread, cheese, meats, yogurt, cereal and freshly squeezed juice, and the cafetiéres of coffee are a nice touch. In addition, hot food was available to order on request (I would highly recommend their omelettes). The waiter who served us each morning really made our day. He took such pride in his job, and was friendly and chatty.
Where to eat:
Camille: 24, rue des Francs Bourgeois
As I mentioned earlier, my favourite spot in Paris is Camille in the Marais, which warrants a little blurb all of its own here.
La Boussole: 12 rue Guisarde
This place has fantastic French food but with an Asian twist. Intrigued? We were too. And it really works. It’s located in the Marais area which is really vibey with loads of restaurants and cool bars. This arrondisement is where you want to go in Paris for nightlife. The atmosphere is cosy and intimate in La Boussole and the food is great, as was the wine. I ordered the seafood starter which was almost like an Asian chowder: creamy with loads of fresh seafood, but with coriander on top which made it taste really fresh. It was so good I almost licked the bowl. The seabass was also delicious. I would highly recommend this place for a twist on the usual French cuisine.
Don Giovanni: 19 rue Francois Miron
Need a break from rich French food? Then come here and stuff yourself to death with Italian food for a change. We had such a fun evening here. It’s the real Italian deal in a cosy and traditional setting (though they could dim the lights a little – it’s really bright), with great food and a convivial atmosphere. The two waiters were really friendly and chatty, one larger-than-life. A glass of champagne will set you back a mere €8.
My Caprese salad starter was out of this world with a particularly creamy mozzarella. Their ingredients across the board were really high quality. We followed with the spaghetti vongole and the tortelli, both of which we loved and told the waiters as much. The waiter was so enthusiastic about their food that he insisted on us trying one of their specials: penne in a vodka and tomato sauce which he gave us a full portion of for no charge. It was divine and we scoffed the lot. Needless to say I couldn’t quite fit in a dessert that evening.
They have a really nice Italian wine list too which we sampled and was also excellent. Such a great place: unpretentious good food at great prices in a great location. We loved it and would definitely come back next time in Paris.
Le Cercle Luxembourg: 1 rue Gay Lussac
Located just across the street from one of the entrances into Jardin de Luxembourg, this unpretentious little bar is a perfect spot to stop for a crêpe and a beer. On a particularly Baltic day in December, this was a welcome reprieve from the cold. The older gentleman who served us was really warm and friendly and the food was great. Simple and tasty.