Many people travel to Paris to see its many sights; La Tour Eiffel, Le Sacré-Coeur or Notre Dame. But it’s so easy to overlook the real Paris; the bistros on every corner, patisseries at the end of the road and the winding streets leading to nowhere.
So many people approach me to ask: What is best to see in Paris? Where is best to go? I always reply: If you want to experience the real Paris it’s best to stay off the beaten track and rub shoulders with the locals.
The reason being, when my husband and I go to Paris, we always avoid the touristy parts. Don’t get me wrong, I will walk through the centre and appreciate Le Notre Dame; that is a favourite of mine. But there are so many areas off the tourist path to be appreciated too.
Paris is split into 20 divisions/arrondissements that spiral clockwise starting from the middle of city. Many of these districts, particularly the outer ones in the East, South and West have a real community feel, yet are in close reach of the centre. For example, Alésia, in the 14me is a very characteristic quarter that Parisian’s describe as old Paris. It is a leafy area of Paris, very family orientated with street markets, bistros and fashion boutiques. Infact, so famous are it’s boutiques, that many a local Parisian flock to this district to frequent the shops and bag a bargain. They have an excellent flea market on the Paris périphé too, just 10 minutes away, this is my first hit on a Sunday morning every time I am in Paris.
My husband grew up in Alésia and we always make this our base whenever we visit. However, my all-time favourite arrondissement is La Marais; the old quarter with winding cobbled streets, trendy shops, beautiful courtyards, museums galore and traditional cafes and bistros. This area is a far cry from the crowd-riddled streets and commercialised areas of Paris such as the Champs Elysée and Trocadero. A trip to the stunning Place des Vosges is a must – it is the oldest planned square built for royalty in 17th century and is deemed one of the finest in the City.
If you’re visiting the City of Love for the weekend, venturing into the centre on a Saturday can be busy. However, tucked to the north of the city’s hotspots is a beautiful street bustling with life called Montorgueil. Lined with famous restaurants, quaint cafés, bakeries (including La Maison Stohrer), fish stores, cheese shops, wine shops, produce stands and flower shops, Rue Montorgueil has become recognised as one of the best places for hip Parisians to socialise while doing their daily shopping. Here you can witness the real Paris and while away your time in a café watching the fashionistas of the young and spirit of the old pass by.
Ofcourse, it would be a shame to go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, afterall it is one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, representing beauty, spontaneity and romance. But a lot of people choose accommodation in that area and there really isn’t anything there other than the Arc De Triomphe and ofcourse beautiful views of Le Tour Eiffel. So a trip to Le Tour Eiffel is a must – I always prefer to see it by boat, along with all the other beautiful sights along La Seine – it’s the best way to capture all the main tourist spots from an alternative perspective.
The area of Saint Michel is also very central with lovely shops situated just on the river opposite Le Notre Dame. Saint Michel is a mixture of holidaymakers and locals. Streets like Rue de Buci are lively offering shops for visitors and excellent florists, ice cream parlours, bars and boutiques for the locals too.
There is a beautiful passage called La Cour du Commerce Saint-André ~ opened in 1735. Inside, do not forget to visit the Café Procope, one of the world’s best known for having first served as a rendezvous for the troops of the French comedy when it was near. Notorious names such as Diderot, Voltaire and Rosseau were patrons here. As you’d expect it comes with a hefty price tag but take my word for it; it’s hard to have a bad meal in Paris.
The French really know how to cook. Best to steer clear from the tourist haunts and take a meal in a quiet bistro on a street corner. Most bistros and restaurants are surf and turf and you’ll find they all offer French traditions such as l’escargots and foie grois. Even some local bistros are acclaimed to be the best restaurants in their area.
Leaving Saint-Michel and walking westwards along La Seine, you will come across a beautiful footbridge – the Pont des Arts or Passerelle des Arts. This is a pedestrian bridge in Paris that links the Institut de France and the central square (Cour Carrée) of the Palais du Louvre. In recent years it has become “The Padlock Bridge” and a top spot for lovers to lock their love on the bridge and throw away the key.
On reaching the other side of the bridge walk straight ahead under the arch into La Cour Carrée. Some people have seen the Louvre museum a hundred times in their lives. But few people know the “cour carrée” as well. This magnificient courtyard is in the western wing of the Louvre. A short trip there is a must. You can sit on one of the few benches of the courtyard late at night and stare at the delicate lights on each façade. Bring a glass of wine if you can.
During the day, the old Renaissance architecture and its decorative sculptures are a pleasure for the eye as well as the spirit. And if you’re lucky enough, you’ll hear a lonely cellist playing Bach in the background, which makes it a moment of grace and serenity. This was where my husband proposed; it’s his favourite spot in Paris and now has a special place in our hearts.
Other small but wonderful adventures I would recommend is a picnic in Jardin Tuileries, the gardens by the Louvre. There are pretty ponds with ducks and boats that families adore. For snacks and light bites you will find plenty of eateries. Ladurée is a luxury cake and pastries brand originating from Paris. It is known as the inventor of the double-decker macaroon, fifteen thousand of which are sold every day. For on-the-go refreshments Amarino is an Italian ice-cream parlour to feast your eyes (and taste buds) on flavours never heard of. Here you can choose multiple scoops of exotic blends which are all shaped into a beautiful flower on the top of your cone.
Décor inside one of the many Ladurée boutiques dotted around Paris
If visiting in June and July, there are plenty of festivities so look out on billboards and railings for posters – you may find pop up festivals, stalls and soireés, which won’t disappoint. Each and every summer the riverbank of La Seine is transformed into a beach for four weeks, it’s called Paris Plages (Paris Beach). You can relax there will some wine, rest your eyes and dream of the med or take the kids and build sandcastles all day long. It runs from mid July to August each year.
During August, the city as Parisian’s know it, is dead. This is when all the locals take time off and vacate to their country houses down south. If you want to see the real Paris and have an offering of shops that aren’t closed, avoid visiting in August. August is very quiet and far from the true representation of Paris.
Waking up in Paris on the Sabbath day you will find all local shops closed as Paris is a city of old traditions. For tourist areas, this isn’t the case. Sunday is the perfect day to see the sights, walk around and absorb the romantic ambience that Paris exudes. It’s wise to devote at least half a day to exploring Montmartre. An officially designated historical district, Montmartre is one of the most colourful neighbourhoods in Paris so it’s no surprise that this area is a favourite among tourists.
There is something magical about the rooftops of Paris that makes them utterly romantic. High above the cobbled streets a view of chimney pots, secret windows and hidden terraces can be found – and best admired from one place – the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. This majestic church is located on top of the Montmartre hill and stands at 129 metres high. Infact it’s highest point is even higher than the top of the Eiffel Tower. Thanks to this prominent location the Sacré-Coeur Basilica is one of the most noticeable landmarks in Paris.
Definitely pay a visit to Place du Tertre. This cobbled square, tucked to the side of the basilica is a throw-back to the days when the world’s best artists lived here. Today it still breathes the energy of today’s artists, traders and performers. So rich in history, Montmartre was the setting of the film La Môme (La Vie En Rose) which elaborates on the life famous French singer Edith Piaf and her times in the slums of Paris, and Amélie, the story of a young Parisian woman determined to help the lives of others and find her love.
This area, is stunning. Do lose yourself away from the main path down cobbled streets and stairs to appreciate the Paris that became so familiar to Picasso, Edith Piaf, Hemingway, Van Gogh and many more. A lot of people try to stay in the north, near Gare de Nord for ease. But again for me, the north of Paris offers little beyond this beautiful church. However, for those travelling by Eurostar, you can conveniently leave bags in a locker for the day at Gare Du Nord and see the last of what the city has to offer by visiting close-by Montmartre before taking that express train home.
Where to stay
In terms of where to stay, we always opt for an AirBnB apartment. Staying in a hotel in Paris is a waste of money – you are never there. Staying in an apartment you experience Paris as a local. You can run to the local patisserie and grab some croissants (which will be amazing wherever you go), and bring them back to enjoy for breakfast on the balcony or at the window with a view, should you choose such accommodation.
Another word of warning – Paris can be very expensive in supermarkets, shops and restaurants. Whether you decide to opt for a hotel or an apartment Saint Michel or La Marais are good, central areas where you’ll be able to walk everywhere. Taxis are cheap there, if you get stuck. Much cheaper than in the UK. And ofcourse, the Parisians are the pioneers of the cycle hire scheme, so it may be worth hiring a Velib to get around, which is not only convenient, but really fun. As mentioned, we often make Alésia our base which is just a few stops on the Metro to the centre, less than 10 minutes.
These are just a few of my favourite places. There are lots more so if you want to pick my brains, just contact me. One thing is for sure…no matter where you go or what you do, you will fall in love with the city of light. Visit my Pinterest board for more inspiration…
Some places to stay in Paris via AirBnB:
For 4 guests: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/3636647?checkin=07-08-2015&checkout=10-08-2015&guests=2&s=HtkN
Something Different – Houseboat: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/3572368?checkin=07-08-2015&checkout=10-08-2015&guests=2&s=LvSp