The alternative wonders of Paris
Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Paris: a city which is always full of surprises, like this wonderful sculpture which can be found outside the Church of Sant' Eustache, close to the Les Halles Metro station. This was my fifth trip to Paris and one of my favourites to date. Having visited most of the great museums and the big sights on earlier trips (you can read my previous post here), this time around I had more time for aimless wandering and to explore the less touristy areas. I felt I got a better sense of the city as a living, breathing entity as this time my interactions were mostly with local residents as they went about their lives, going to work, having lunch or meeting for after-work drinks or dinner. And I'll keep saying it: ignore every stereotype you've heard about Parisians. I was blown away by the gorgeous people I met on this short trip: warm, friendly, unbelievably polite and unfailingly courteous. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
It's the small things that make me come back again and again to Paris like the picture-perfect jazz vinyl store on the corner, the friendly, knowledgeable staff in the natural wine store or the perfect espresso standing at the bar in a crowded café. Paris Jazz Corner is the place of dreams for jazz fans. Situated in the most quintessentially French building on the corner of Rue de Navarre and Place Émile Male (Metro Place Monge), the place is rammed from wall to wall with every jazz record known to man, crammed into their sections so it's almost impossible to flick from one to the next. If you're looking for something obscure, you will definitely find it here but equally they have all the classics as well. Staffed by two lovely older men, there's not even a hint of hipster attitude here. Easily somewhere to lose a few hours.
I spent a lot of time exploring the picturesque neighbourhoods and warrens of tiny streets close to Place Monge in the 5th Arrondissement, gawping at the beautifully ornate apartments with their Juliet balconies and wishing I lived in one of them. The one on the left appeared to be a 2-D building but closer inspection showed it just narrowed into a very sharp corner at one end. It made for a cool photo though. There are lots of independent wine shops in the city but I loved the one above on Rue Monge - link to their Facebook page here. They had a great selection of natural wines at very reasonable prices and the staff were friendly and helpful. If you like the look of this area, the hotel I stayed in (below) was about a ten minute' walk from Place Monge and there is also a direct Metro line.
WHERE TO STAY:
Trying to find a quirky and boutique-style hotel in Paris without breaking the bank will definitely be a test of your patience. So I'm going to save you hours of trawling online and tell you that I've found the most perfect hotel: Hotel Henriette on the utterly charming Rue des Gobelins near the famous Mouffetard district, not far from the Latin Quarter.
This will be my go-to place when I travel to Paris from now on. It's a small boutique hotel and it ticked every box for me. The staff were fabulous and supremely helpful, the decor is stunning, the location is perfect (1 minute from Les Gobelins Metro station), the bed was really comfortable and had the BEST pillows I've ever slept on and the bathroom products were Nuxe. And then there was the breakfast... oh my! Fresh crusty bread and croissants straight from the oven, a selection of cheese and meats, fresh fruit, eggs and even slices of avocado. Simply divine.
It's a 3 star hotel but feels like a 4 in every way. My room was by no means huge but this is normal in Paris. It was comfortable and had a lovely view out of the big sash windows of the charming street outside. It felt like a home away from home and I never wanted to leave. It was a fantastic little find and I look forward to staying here again on my next visit.
Handy tip: this hotel is also easily accessible from Charles de Gaulle Airport. Take the RER B from Terminal 2 and get off at Port Royal. It's about a kilometre walk from there. Alternatively get off at Chatelet and take the pink line to Les Gobelins which is less than a minutes' walk from the hotel. I'm allergic to the Chatelet Metro stop though - it's an enormous station and you spend so much time walking from one line to the next that you'd be quicker above ground.
What to do: some alternative recommendations
Enjoy an immersive art experience like never before at the Atelier des Lumières, 38 Rue Saint-Maur. Metro: Père Lachaise, Rue Saint-Maur, Voltaire or Saint-Ambroise
This gives you a glimpse of what to expect from the fantastic Atelier des Lumières where you can literally and metaphorically immerse yourself in art. During my recent visit, the exhibitions were of the work of Van Gogh and masterpieces of Japanese art. The work is projected digitally across the entire space, floor included, and has been incorporated into a visual and musical production that will fill your soul and your heart. Sounds gimmicky but it’s utterly wonderful.
It was like nothing I'd seen before and I was completely swept up in the spectacle as the great works of Van Gogh's life flashed and floated across the walls and then disappeared into the floor or the corners of the room, replaced by the next series. His ravens appeared from the side of the room and flew cawing over our heads. I almost ducked out of the way.
'Japan Dreamed, images of the floating world' was the second exhibition on offer and equally captivating as huge waves crash over your head, giant fans open and close from one wall to the next and cherry blossoms fall from digital trees and melt into the ground before your eyes.
The team responsible for putting these two shows together is the Danny Rose studio who I think are absolute geniuses. What a remarkable job they did. The visuals are stunning and the music was perfect. I wanted to stay all day and watch it on repeat. It completely consumed me. Amazing for kids too. They were fascinated and completely engrossed.
This is the utterly mesmeric finale: lanterns float up from the ground & circle around you in a night sky to the most beautiful piece of music by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Both shows run until 31st December so if you find yourself in Paris before then, this is unmissable.
Have a hipster lunch at Fringe, 106 Rue de Turenne
A short walk from the Atelier des Lumières is the wonderfully trendy Fringe where you can enjoy 'Coffee, Food and Photography', apparently. I was surprised to see so many new barista-style coffee houses springing up everywhere as you can pretty much get an excellent espresso anywhere for a pittance. But it seems a new coffee-culture scene is taking off in Paris too to cater for the soy, decaff, skinny latté brigade. I'd read good things about this place and knew it was close by so I decided to stop off for a bite. Bear in mind it's not exactly a cheap lunch: €14 for two tartines, though they did come with a little side-salad and were very tasty. One had smoked salmon on greens and the other was avocado and radish on hummus. There's only so much heavy French food I can eat so this was a healthy reprieve.
I'm happy to report that the coffee really was excellent. I had an allongé, or Americano which was smooth and flavoursome and at €2.50 has not quite reached Dublin prices. The place itself is really cool with Scandi-style wooden furniture, photography on the walls, quirky light fixtures and fresh flowers on the tables. It was managed by a French-speaking American who was very friendly and knew most of the customers so it had a nice neighbourhood vibe. It was good to be part of it, albeit for a short time. A groovy little spot.
Walk off your lunch with a stroll along the lush green banks of Canal St-Martin
It pays to wander off-grid a little in Paris. You'll be rewarded with sights like this. It looks like a scene from a Woody Allen movie. You won't find too many tourists up here, though it's just north of Republique and a gorgeous walk from Richard Lenoir Metro with trees, plants, street art & beautiful buildings to keep you company on the way.
The canal banks were full of Parisians chatting and enjoying their outdoor lunch and it was incredibly peaceful. On either side there were warrens of tiny streets with cool bars & cafes which were crying out to be explored further. Guess I'd better start planning my next return trip.
Take it down a notch in the tranquil Jardin des Plantes 57 Rue Cuvier. Metro: Jussieu
Paris is full of gorgeous green spaces. The obvious ones are the Tuileries and the Luxembourg Gardens which I wrote about in my last Paris blog here but this one was a new discovery for me, recommended by two very charming Parisian men I got chatting to in a restaurant the night before. The Jardin des Plantes is in the 5th Arrondissement, not far from the Sorbonne and the Pantheon, and is an absolute oasis of peace & tranquility. Tranquil yet also home to one of the truly creepiest sculptures I've ever seen. Look at his face.
The roses and plants hanging overhead gave off the most gorgeous scents and it's still not completely overrun with tourists like some of the more famous parks. There were lots of people sitting and reading, having lunch or catching up with friends so definitely more of a place for locals to hang out. If the weather hadn't been so crazy, I'd have stayed here all day.
Oh and that beautiful building is the Natural History Museum which looks seriously impressive but I didn't have time to check it out on this visit. Another one to add to the list for next time.
World class international exhibitions without the crowds, you say? Time to visit the Palais de Tokyo and the Musée National d'Art Moderne 2-14 Avenue de New York. Metro: Alma-Marceau
I spent a glorious few hours in the Musée National d'Art Moderne completely absorbed in the wonderful world of Thomas Houseago, the Leeds-born, LA-based artist, and his wild and monumental sculpture show Almost Human. It was one of the most jaw-droppingly fantastic shows I've ever seen with his huge figures completely occupying the gallery spaces. Despite the scale, there's a warmth and humanity to his work that draws you in and makes you keep returning to the same pieces again and again.
I really loved this museum, not least for the wonderful bright spaces but also the staff who were, without exception, extremely friendly and helpful and gave an excellent first impression to visitors. Even the security staff were cracking jokes. It was quite busy but it had a different sort of crowd than you find in the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, and by that I mean there were no selfies or video cameras. It seemed to me that visitors to this museum were there for the art and not to tick a box off the tourist agenda.
I haven't yet mentioned the location which, as you can see from the first pic above is right on the Seine, and just across the river is the Eiffel Tower. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows are definitely used to their best effect here. I also checked out their group show 'Rumeurs et Legendes' on the same visit which was super but was a little gutted to find out that some of their permanent collection rooms were closed for renovations at the time. This museum apparently has a world-class collection by Matisse and Dufy, but alas it was not to be this time.
The museum is part of a complex that also houses the Palais de Tokyo, a dedicated modern and contemporary art space with an entrance the other side, though the monumental columns, on 13 avenue President-Wilson. A huge pond links the two buildings and there's a wonderful contrast between the old and new at play here where the giant contemporary forms of Houseago's figures hold their own against the intricate sculptural relief work on the wall behind and the classical-inspired forms that greet you as you walk up the steps.
I didn't have time to visit any of the contemporary exhibitions on show at the Palais de Tokyo this time around but I have done so in the past. It's a huge industrial steel-and-concrete space, described on their website as 'the largest center for contemporary artistic creation in all of Europe'. There is a lot going on here, including a club and music venue, as well as an fantastic art bookshop but I popped in on this occasion for a quick pick-me-up after a day's exploring as I'd heard good things about their café.
There are a few different options on site when it comes to food and drink: Les Grands Verres which is the outdoor cocktail bar, Monsieur Bleu where you can enjoy a more high-end dining experience under the beautiful Art Deco ceiling, or The Readymade which is a casual café-style experience where you order and pay at the counter. I opted for the latter and joined art students, artists and locals alike as I nabbed myself a spot on the one of the raised tables and watched the Parisian evening come to life before my eyes.
The stripped-bare decor and the ultra-cool staff might lead you to expect a certain attitude but my preconceptions were completely unfounded. The guy who served me was friendly and smiley and the overall atmosphere was relaxed - somewhere you could easily spend a few hours. I ordered the vanilla flan (€3) and a glass of a natural red (€5) both of which were very good. They also have a nice selection of sandwiches, salads and quiches. A cool spot.
Spot the quirky architectural detail of Saint Sulpice, the second largest church in Paris Metro: Saint-Sulpice or Mabillon
Second only to Notre Dame in size, this majestic building stands proudly over Place and Fontaine St Sulpice. Most of what you see today dates from the 17th century, though it lacks much Baroque excess, and was built on foundations from the early middle ages.
On first glance the facade looks harmonious and classically symmetrical but look a little closer and you'll notice that the two towers are completely different in style. I love that cheeky detail. Inside you'll find frescoes by the 19th century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix (first chapel on the right), as well as some beautiful stained-glass windows. I particularly loved the sculpture below. His expression is so poignant, but I couldn't tell who it was by.
One last tidbit about Saint-Sulpice. Despite its location in the trendy (and touristy) Saint-Germain-des-Près area, it never quite reached the heights of Notre Dame in terms of visitors. Well that all changed briefly when it was immortalised in print by Dan Brown in the woeful Da Vinci Code as one of the locations of interest, though in reference to some spurious 'facts' about the giant sundial in the floor. Their request to film the even more woeful movie version in the church was turned down so they were forced to build a giant replica. Even so, it didn't stop tourists arriving in their droves at the time but thankfully everyone has now forgotten about Dan Brown and order has been restored to the world. Sorry fans.
And now for some food...
Canon des Gobelins, 25 Avenue des Gobelins Metro: Gobelins
There is nothing fancy about this place at all but it has fond memories for me. As I mentioned before, the weather was particularly crazy throughout this trip, with torrential showers appearing out of nowhere. I'd only just made it to the corner of the street from my hotel when the heavens opened so I wasn't being very discerning when I chose this place. It's very much a locals' spot with good hearty rustic food and it absolutely hit the spot. It was lunchtime so I ordered their 'omelette fromage' which of course came with a basket of crusty bread. Simple and tasty. Washed down with an espresso, the bill was less then €10.
Les Baux, 71 Rue Mouffetard Metro: Place Monge
Something about this place made me stop and take a picture as I was strolling up the famous Rue Mouffetard on my first morning. It looked cosy and inviting with a French-tapas vibe to the menu so I thought it was worth filing away for later consideration. As it turns out, it was fortunate that I did. Back in my hotel after walking the legs off myself for about eight hours, I was in no mood to start researching places for dinner so I decided to take a chance and try it out, mainly because it was less than ten minutes' walk from Hotel Henriette. I was so glad I did.
I was dining alone that first evening as I wasn't due to meet my friend from Canada until the day after so I was looking for somewhere casual to sit, eat and read my book. It was really busy but I was lucky enough to bag their last free table.
The staff were very welcoming and friendly and I had a pretty blissful evening here. I was pretty hungry and ordered a few different dishes: salmon tartare, patatas bravas and a salad, washed down with a half carafe of red and a coffee, all for the grand total of €29. Here's the evidence...
The food was really excellent, as was the wine. The salmon tartare was perfect and really fresh, the patatas bravas had just the right amount of spice and the salad was exceptional. That same meal would've cost at least double in Dublin. To top it all off, I got chatting to two extremely nice Parisian older men at the next table, my book was abandoned and we joined forces for the last part of our meal. A random end to a brilliant day and the perfect excuse to practice my French. I couldn't recommend this place more highly and will definitely return next time I'm in the city.
Culture Crêpes, 26 Rue Saint-André des Arts. Metro: Saint-Michel Notre Dame
Located in the heart of one of the most touristy areas of the Latin Quarter is this tiny little Breton crêperie which specialises in my favourite type: galettes. Made from buckwheat flour, they are much crispier than your regular crêpe and taste so much nicer. I opted for one filled with chives, mushrooms, cheese and ham (yep I fell off the veggie wagon again...) and it was utterly divine. They don't have wine available by the glass but they had a really nice French non-filtered beer called Brasserie La Baleine which I found out afterwards comes from a Parisian micro-brewery.
The place itself kind of looks pretty nondescript from the outside, almost like one of those hole-in-the-wall takeaway places but they do actually have a small number of seats down the back. The staff were really nice and the galette and beer cost €14.50 in total, which I thought was a pretty good deal.
Junkyard, 4 Rue Guisarde Metro: Mabillon
Nikki and I passed this place on our way for some food and made a mental note to drop in for a nightcap on the way home. It's a cool place in the 6th district, not far from the Jardins des Luxembourg. Decor is dark and moody but with some quirky furniture and objets d'arts hung liberally. Music was an eclectic mix from the 80s and 90s and the staff (and clientele actually...) were chatty and welcoming. It was €7 for a crisp glass of Rosé - a pleasant way to end the evening with an old friend.
That concludes my alternative guide to visiting Paris. I'm going to finish with some shots I took while out walking over the three days.
Beautiful clocks at the Church of Saint Ambroise
Oddities, the Latin Quarter
Large bird and Eiffel Tower
Ominous skies over Pont Alexandre III
Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre
Ornate Metro stops and beautiful buildings