Lots of people I know are about to head off to Paris for the first time for a whistle-stop trip. They want to see and experience as much as possible of the grandeur, romance and sheer exuberance which characterises the City of Light. But where to begin? I’ve put together my top tips…
From breathtaking views to romantic places, music, jaw-dropping art and shopping for everyone, here are some ideas for experiencing the City of Light – and to leave you gasping for more.
Although commanding views of Paris may be seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Buttes Montmartre and nearby Basilica of Sacre Coeur have fewer crowds, so finding a contemplative space in which to gaze out over the city is easier. A climb to the top of the Basilica’s dome provides an excellent view of Paris; at 271 feet above Montmartre it’s the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. At the rear of the Basilica are pretty gardens with a fountain. The Arc de Triomphe (the world’s largest triumphal arch) stands at the centre of 12 radiating avenues in a star-shaped pattern and offers spectacular views of Paris from the roof, down the Champs Elysées, toward the Louvre, Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Gardens.
To get a new perspective on the city and admire some of its most distinctive icons including the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides and the Louvre, take a trip on a Bateau Mouche along the Seine. A commentary is provided in several languages and is packed with information. Another option (and to discover a lesser-known Paris), is a canal trip along the newly-restored Canal St Martin, a newly-regenerated area and therefore (for visitors) a relatively undiscovered part of the city. Its bridges were used on location for scenes in the film Amelie.
The streets and architecture of Paris have provided inspiration for artists for centuries. Stroll among the hilly cobbled streets of Montmartre to get a feel for the tiny studios where the Impressionists spent time living and working. As well as the grand art museums of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, Paris is home to many smaller museums with superb collections and short (if any) queues. The often-overlooked Orangerie houses a breathtaking collection of Monet’s ‘Water Lily’ murals, while the Musee Marmottan owns the largest collection of Monet’s paintings in the world, along with other Impressionist works and provides a memorable artistic experience in an intimate setting. Most museums are closed on Mondays.
Take a stroll along the Seine, noting the bouquinistes selling their vintage books and posters and look out for ‘love locks’: locks of every kind from heavy duty bike locks to tiny padlocks, engraved with lovers’ names or initials. Once fastened to a bridge, the key is thrown into the Seine as a gesture of eternal love. Especially popular is the Pont de l’Archevêché, which crosses from Notre-Dame Cathedral to the Left Bank of the river. The Paris Opera House, Opera Garnier was the setting for Leroux’s passionate love story ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and is open for tours of its opulent interior. In Montmartre the Place des Abbesses is where you’ll find the small square Jehan Rictus, home to Le Mur des Je t’aime (The ‘I Love You’ Wall). Created by Frédéric Baron, the wall comprises over 600 glazed tiles each inscribed in calligraphic script with ‘I Love You’ in multiple languages and dialects.
Just behind Notre Dame Cathedral and often missed by visitors, the tiny and quaint Ile St Louis is perfect for strolling and browsing. It’s connected to the main island of Paris by the Pont Saint-Louis, where you’ll often find street performers and buskers. This is a perfect place to stop and savour your artisanal ice cream from nearby Berthillon, (or their delicious hot chocolate if the day is chilly!) Hardly changed over the centuries, the Ile St Louis has cafés, bakers, speciality boutiques, great restaurants and an easily-overlooked atmospheric church built in 1622.
Crossing from the Right Bank of the Seine to the Left via the bridges offers memorable views in each direction, especially from the Pont des Arts. The ornate and magnificent Pont Alexandre III which leads to Les Invalides (site of Napoloeon’s tomb) is a study in gilded figures and statues and is especially memorable at dusk as the ornate lamps lining both sides of the bridge are lit.
Paris’ parks and gardens are ideal places to leave the bustle of the city behind and enjoy quiet moments. One of the most unique is the Promenade Plantée (The Planted Promenade) which has been built above ground on an old railway line. A riot of colour, especially in Spring, there are fragrant flowers and cherry and chestnut trees, along with plenty of benches on which to relax, breathe in the heady scents and admire the views. The renaissance-style Luxembourg Gardens has a boating lake, statues and lots of iron chairs for lazing, reading or people-watching. The Tuileries Gardens is a piece of perfection in the city. Paris’ oldest garden (once part of Louis XIV’s palace) it has fountains, statues by Rodin and Maillol, lime and chestnut trees and is the start of a gorgeous walk from the Louvre to the Champs Elysees.
Music is everywhere in Paris: in the metro, in the street, in cafés and churches. From street buskers to world class concerts, there really is something for everyone. Classical concerts take place at a number of venues (look out especially for those held in ancient and historic churches), while jazz clubs cater to all tastes in lively or intimate venues depending on your preference. Lots of bars host live music evenings where you can grab a beer and enjoy the band and for a really different nightclub scene, head out to the 13th arrondissement and the Batofar, a converted lightship moored on the Seine.
The Champs-Élysées is renowned as the famous Parisian shopping street with its luxury speciality shopping, while quality department stores line the Grands Boulevards. If there’s time, a wander around the old Jewish quarter known as the Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements) will reveal independent and quirky shopping at its best. Les Passages are glass-covered passageways originally designed to keep the gentry dry as they shopped. Most are near the Grands Boulevards (especially Boulevard Haussmann), making it easy to slip into a different shopping experience. Here you’ll find more interesting and independent shops, perfect for finding that unusual memento. For something extra special, the Place Vendome is the home of expensive jewellery shops, the Parisian equivalent of London’s Hatton Garden.
So there it is – something for everyone and hopefully enough to whet your appetite to return….