I really like Paris. I love some parts of Paris, and some things about Paris. In the last 4 years, I have spent a total of almost 3 months there with my family and I finally feel like I know my way around. I have an enormous list of places to go, but here are a few things to try when you’re there.
I used the podcasts from this site to learn enough French to get around. I paid for the PDFs also, and found that they REALLY helped me by giving me a foundation written vocabulary. You may have observed that written and spoken French are only vaguely related, but after a few of these lessons with the corresponding PDFs, you’ll start to see the relationship more clearly.
The language and culture are very big on formality; sil vous plait means literally ‘if you please’. How long has that been out of fashion in English? That’s also a big hint about the culture. Being more formal that you would in a similar context at home will serve you well. I think this is where a lot of the ‘snooty Parisian’ stereotypes came from; we just aren’t formal enough and they are genuinely offended. Say bonjour to the proprietor when you walk into a store, and au revoir when you leave. Struggle with whatever French you’ve absorbed before asking them to speak english. I’ve met very few snooty Parisians since I changed my behavior in this way. Waiters are another story entirely, in general. They hate everyone.
By all means have a couple of French meals, but eat ethnic food to save money. People who work at the ethnic restaurants are generally friendlier than the ones at more traditional French restaurants. There is a Turkish restaurant that we LOVE called Yeliz at 41 rue de Clignancourt, near Metro Anvers. Great for lunch after hiking up to Sacre Cour for the most amazing views of the city.
Walking east from Les Halles on Rambuteau there are lots of little bistros and cafes with all kinds of food. Turn right when you get to Rue Vielle du Temple and you’re heading into the old Jewish quarter. Take a left on Passage des Singes (“monkey alley”) and you’ll soon see the best falafel place in Paris on the left. This is 15-20 minutes by foot from Les Halles, a major transit center for Metro and RER.
For French cuisine, I have a few places where I’m more comfortable. This is not to say these are the only places to eat, but be more cautious in the Marais, for example, because they tend to get more tourists who don’t know what to expect, and many restaurants make their money by providing less value than they should. Cafés are pretty much the same all over, I’m only talking about sit-down-and-be-served places.
The cafés and bistros at Rue de Bourg Tibourg and Rue de Rivoli are very attractive but I don’t know them well. Worth checking out. While you’re there, go to 30 Rue du Bourg Tibourg, a tea shop called Mariage Freres. If you like Earl Grey, try their French Blue. It is the best Earl Grey I’ve ever had.
If you walk past St. Eustache, just northwest of Les Halles, you’ll see a couple streets that are full of perfectly great restaurants. In fact, most of the restaurants to the immediate north of Les Halles are worth checking out. If you’re up for a longer Metro ride, go to the Juares Metro stop and eat at the Juares Café right at the Metro exit. Lunch, not dinner; the neighborhood is a little risky after dark.
A good French lunch will be about 12-14 Euro, and will include a drink (boisson), the main course (plat), and dessert (or some combination of three things). Entree means ‘appetizer’, the main dish is the plat. Dinner will get you about the same main course for 5-10 Euro more. We eat our big meals at lunch time.
Coffee, beer and wine are often cheaper inside than on the sidewalk; don’t be surprised by prices other
than what’s posted if you’re at a sidewalk table. If there’s a lot of foot traffic past your sidewalk table, or a great view, make sure you ask how much your coffee will cost at that table.
The Marmottan museum is amazing, and no one knows about it. Monet’s son donated Claude Monet’s art collection to them to start the museum. It’s in an incredible house in an incredible neighborhood, full of incredible art. Yes, you have to see the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay but then go see Marmottan. And then St. Chappelle. Some museums have metal detectors at the door. Leave your Bowie knife at the hotel and be polite, and you won’t have any problems.
Walking, driving, and taking the Metro give you VERY different views of the city. Buy ‘un carnet’ (block of 10) of Metro tickets to save a little and to be prepared for the inevitable next ride. While in the train station, stop at one of the many bookstores and get a small map book. Some have landmarks, street market schedules, Metro and RER stops, etc. Look at several before you choose. I have one that shows streets, Metro and busses as well as markets and landmarks. It’s a little fat, but very easy to navigate. Don’t bother looking for an english-language version. I haven’t found one that was worth the paper it’s printed on, and it won’t make any difference anyway. Because, y’know, the street names are all in French!
Go to Angelina for hot chocolate, across from Tuilerie (that’s also the name of the Metro stop) at 226 Rue de Rivoli. A couple blocks toward the Champs Elysee is an english bookstore, WH Smith. Tuilerie is a great park also. Visit the kids’ playground and imagine it in the US; I maintain that we’d have lawyers 6 deep around the fence waiting for kids to fall.
Super-touristy stuff: you can get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and the view from the Eiffel Tower is great. At 10 every night the lights on the Eiffel Tower flash. It’s really spectacular. There are often rallies at Place de la Bastille and Place de la Republique. You might want to find out what they’re about before you start taking pictures. French tourists go to these places for the history.
My French friends warned me about going to the Sacre Cour area on weekends because of the pickpockets. We did it anyway (hey, I never said I was clever), and there are clearly a lot more people looking for unsuspecting prey. If you enjoy crowds and people-watching and need some tourist junk for gifts, go to Rue de Steinkerque but make sure your valuables are secure. If you don’t need the junk, walk up to Sacre Cour for the exercize and the views. And keep your hand on your wallet.
Rue des Martyrs south of Boulevard de Clichy is very quaint and there are some excellent places to get a quick bite to eat. It has been called the ‘most authentic Paris street’ which I don’t really get, but it is a nice place to walk and browse.
You may note that I haven’t said anything about hotels. That because we don’t stay in hotels. We rent apartments, usually through NY Habitat. When you have an apartment you can stock up on food you like, such as canard mousse au porto. Mmmm. If you can cook, look for a Picard store. Really, trust me on this. We always get a place with an internet connection so I don’t have to schlep my laptop over to the Columbus Café on Rue Vielle du Temple for espresso and a muffin (try the jasmine banana muffin!) for their fast, free wireless internet.
This is far from comprehensive, and it fits the way my family likes to travel. If you want to shop on Faubourg St Honoré and eat only the best food, this won’t help you much.