Long considered the paragon of style, Paris is perhaps the most glamorous city in Europe. It is at once deeply traditional – a village-like metropolis whose inhabitants continue to be notorious for their hauteur – and famously cosmopolitan. The city’s reputation as a magnet for writers, artists and dissidents lives on, and it remains at the forefront of Western intellectual, artistic and literary life. The most tangible and immediate pleasures of Paris are found in its street life and along the banks and bridges of the River Seine. Cafés, bars and restaurants line every street and boulevard, and the city’s compactness makes it possible to experience the individual feel of the different quartiers.
In terms of where to go in Paris, you can move easily, even on foot, from the calm, almost small-town atmosphere of Montmartre and parts of the Quartier Latin to the busy commercial centres of the Bourse and Opéra-Garnier or the aristocratic mansions of the Marais. The city’s lack of open space is redeemed by unexpected havens like the Mosque and the place des Vosges, and courtyards and gardens of grand houses like the Hôtel de Soubise. The gravelled paths and formal beauty of the Tuileries create the backdrop for the ultimate Parisian Sunday promenade, while the islands and quaysides of the Left and Right Banks of the River Seine and the Quartier Latin’s two splendid parks, the Luxembourg and the Jardin des Plantes, make for a wonderful wander.
Paris’s architectural spirit resides in the elegant streets and boulevards begun in the nineteenth century under Baron Haussmann. The mansion blocks that line them are at once grand and perfectly human in scale, a triumph in city planning proved by the fact that so many remain residential to this day. Rising above these harmonious buildings are the more arrogant monuments that define the French capital. For centuries, an imposing Classical style prevailed with great set pieces such as the Louvre, Panthéon and Arc de Triomphe, but the last hundred years or so has seen the architectural mould repeatedly broken in a succession of ambitious structures, the industrial chic of the Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centre contrasting with the almost spiritual glasswork of the Louvre Pyramide and Institut du Monde Arabe. Paris is remarkable, too, for its museums – there are more than 150 of them, ranging from giants of the art world such as the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and Pompidou Centre to lesser-known gems such as the Picasso, Rodin and Jewish museums – and the diversity of entertainment, from cinema to jazz music, on offer.
Paris’s history has conspired to create a sense of being apart from, and even superior to, the rest of the country. To this day, everything beyond the capital is known quite ordinarily as province – the provinces. Appropriately, the city’s first inhabitants, the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that arrived in around the third century BC, had their settlement on an island: Lutetia, probably today’s Île de la Cité. The Romans conquered the city two centuries later, and preferred the more familiar hilly ground of the Left Bank. Their city, also called Lutetia, grew up around the hill where the Panthéon stands today.
This hill, now known as the Montagne Ste-Geneviève, gets its name from Paris’s first patron saint, who, as legend has it, saved the town from the marauding army of Attila in 451 through her exemplary holiness. Fifty years later Geneviève converted another invader to Christianity: Clovis the Frank, the leader of a group of Germanic tribes, went on to make the city the capital of his kingdom. His newly founded Merovingian dynasty promptly fell apart under his son Childéric II.
Power only returned to Paris under Hugues Capet, the Count of Paris. He was elected king of France in 987, although at the time his territory amounted to little more than the Île de France, the region immediately surrounding Paris. From this shaky start French monarchs gradually extended their control over their feudal rivals, centralizing administrative, legal, financial and political power as they did so, until anyone seeking influence, publicity or credibility, in whatever field, had to be in Paris – which is still the case today. The city’s cultural influence grew alongside its university, which was formally established in 1215 and swiftly became the great European centre for scholastic learning.
The wars and plagues of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries left Paris half in ruins and more than half abandoned, but with royal encouragement, the city steadily recovered. During the Wars of Religion the capital remained staunchly Catholic, but Parisians’ loyalty to the throne was tested during the mid-seventeenth-century rebellions known as the Frondes, in which the young Louis XIV was forced to flee the city. Perhaps this traumatic experience lay behind the king’s decision, in 1670, to move the court to his vast new palace at Versailles. Paris suffered in the court’s absence, even as grand Baroque buildings were thrown up in the capital.
Parisians, both as deputies to the Assembly and mobs of sans-culottes, were at the forefront of the Revolution, but many of the new citizens welcomed the return to order under Napoleon I. The emperor adorned the city with many of its signature monuments, Neoclassical almost-follies designed to amplify his majesty: the Arc de Triomphe, Arc du Carrousel and the Madeleine. He also instituted the Grandes Écoles, super-universities for the nation’s elite administrators, engineers and teachers. At the fall of the Empire, in 1814, Paris was saved from destruction by the arch-diplomat Talleyrand, who delivered the city to the Russians with hardly a shot fired. Nationalists grumbled that the occupation continued well into the Restoration regime, as the city once again became the playground of the rich of Europe, the ultimate tourist destination.
The greatest shocks to the fabric of the city came under Napoléon III. He finally completed the Louvre, rebuilding much of the facade in the process, but it was his Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, who truly transformed the city, smashing through the slums to create wide boulevards that could be easily controlled by rifle-toting troops – not that it succeeded in preventing the 1871 Commune, the most determined insurrection since 1789. It was down these large boulevards, lined with grey bourgeois residences, that Nazi troops paraded in June 1940, followed by the Allies, led by General Leclerc, in August 1944.
Although riotous street protests have been a feature of modern Parisian life – most famously in May 1968, when students burst onto the streets of the Quartier Latin – the traditional barricade-builders have long since been booted into the depressing satellite towns, known as la banlieue, alongside the under-served populations of immigrants and their descendants. Integrating these communities, riven with poverty, unemployment and discontent, is one of the greatest challenges facing the city. Meanwhile, the city’s Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, who has held the post since 2001, has been keen on promoting a greener, happier Paris. His vision has resulted in the introduction of Paris Plages, which sees a swathe of the Seine’s quais converted into a beach every summer, along with the inexpensive Velib’ bike rental and Autolib’ car rental schemes, the huge expansion of cycle and bus lanes and the building of tramways on the outskirts – all of which are having some success in easing traffic congestion.Read More
Most tourists are keen, rightly, to take a boat trip on the Seine. The faithful old Bateaux-Mouches is the best-known operator (April–Sept every 45min 10.15am–6.30pm, every 20min 7–11pm; fewer departures in winter; 1hr 10min; €11, €5.50 for children and over-65s; reservations and information t01 42 25 96 10, wbateaux-mouches.fr; M° Alma-Marceau). Leaving from the Embarcadère du Pont de l’Alma on the Right Bank in the 8e boats take you past the major Seine-side sights, such as Notre-Dame and the Louvre. The night-time cruises use lights to illuminate the streetscapes that are so bright they almost blind passers-by – much more fun on board than off – and at all times a narration in several languages blares out. The outrageously priced lunch and dinner trips, for which “correct” dress is mandatory, are probably best avoided. Bateaux-Mouches has many competitors, all much of a muchness and detailed in Pariscope under “Croisières” in the “Promenades et Loisirs” section.
Another option, which takes you past less-visited sights, is to take a canal boat trip run by Canauxrama (2hr 30min; €16, children €8.50; reservations advisable on weekends; t01 42 39 15 00; wcanauxrama.com) on the Canal St-Martin in the east of the city. They depart from the Port de l’Arsenal (opposite 50 bd de la Bastille; M° Bastille, exit Opéra; May–Sept daily 9.45am & 2.30pm), and from the Bassin de la Villette (M° Jaurés; May–Sept daily 9.45am & 2.45pm); trips run less frequently from October to April – email or phone for information and reservations during this period. Paris Canal (wpariscanal.com) also runs canal trips (mid-March to mid-Nov daily; 2hr 30min; €19, 12–25s and over-60s €16, 2–11s €12; reservations online) between the Musée d’Orsay (quai Anatole-France by the Pont Solférino, 7e; M° Solférino; departure 9.30am) and the Parc de la Villette (“La Folie des Visites du Parc”, on the canal by the bridge between the Grande Salle and the Cité des Sciences, 19e; M° Porte-de-Pantin; departure 2.30pm).
Paris for vegetarians
Paris for vegetarians
The chances of finding vegetarian main dishes on the menus of traditional French restaurants are not good, though these days some of the newer, more innovative establishments will often have one or two on offer. It’s also possible to put together a meal from vegetarian starters, omelettes and salads. Your other option is to go for a Middle Eastern or Indian restaurant or head for one of the city’s handful of proper vegetarian restaurants – they do tend to be based on a healthy diet principle rather than haute cuisine, but at least you get a choice.
Paris has an extraordinarily vibrant festival schedule; just a few are listed here. For details of the following and more, check at tourist offices or w parisinfo.com.
Festival de Films des Femmes
t 01 49 80 38 98, w filmsdefemmes.com. Held at the Maison des Arts in Créteil, just southeast of Paris (M° Créteil-Préfecture).
w maccreteil.com. International contemporary dance, performance and theatre, at the Créteil’s Maison des Arts.
w frederic-chopin.com. Held from mid-June to mid-July in the lovely setting of the Bois de Boulogne’s Orangerie.
Fête de la Musique
w fetedelamusique.culture.fr. Free concerts and street performers all over Paris to coincide with the summer solstice (June 21).
Held on the last Sat of June.
Festival du Cinéma en Plein Air
w cinema.arbo.com. Free films in the Parc de la Villette from July to mid-Aug.
July 14 is celebrated with official pomp in parades of tanks down the Champs-Élysées, followed by firework displays; the evening before there is dancing on the place de la Bastille.
Paris Quartier d’Été
w quartierdete.com. A programme of free music, theatre and cinema events around the city from mid-July to mid-Aug.
Tour de France
The race finishes along the Champs-Élysées on the third or fourth Sun of July.
For four weeks from the end of July, the quais are transformed into a sandy beach along the Seine.
w festival-automne.com. Traditional and experimental theatrical, musical, dance and multimedia productions from all over the world.
In early Oct, the “sleepless night” persuades Parisians to stay up all night for an energetic programme of arts events and parties all over the city.
Festival d’Art Sacré
w festivaldartsacre.new.fr. Concerts and recitals of early sacred music, from end Nov to mid-Dec.
Clothes shopping in Paris
Clothes shopping in Paris
If you’re looking for a one-stop hit of Paris fashion, the department stores are probably the place to go. For more picturesque browsing, make for the streets around St-Sulpice métro, on the Left Bank: you’ll find rich pickings if you wander down rues du Vieux Colombier, de Rennes, Madame and du Cherche-Midi – the last is particularly good for shoes. The home of couture and designer labels is the wealthy, manicured “golden triangle” off the Champs-Élysées, especially av François 1er, av Montaigne and rue du Faubourg-St-Honoré. Younger designers have colonized the lower reaches of the latter street, between rue Cambon and rue des Pyramides. On the eastern side of the city, around the Marais, Canal St Martin and Bastille, the clothes, like the residents, are younger, cooler and more relaxed. Chic boutiques cluster on rue Charlot, rue du Poitou and rue Saintonge in the Haut Marais, and young, trendy designers and hippy outfits congregate on Bastille streets rue de Charonne and rue Keller. There’s also a good concentration of one-off designer boutiques around the foot of Montmartre – try rue des Martyrs, and the streets around rue des Trois-Frères. For more streetwise clothing, the area surrounding the Forum des Halles is a good place to browse; Rue Etienne Marcel and (pedestrianized) rue Tiquetonne are good for clothes with a young, urban edge.
Many of Paris’s most historic market streets, such as rue Mouffetard (5e) and rue des Martyrs (9e) are lined with food shops, now, not stalls, but this is still one of the world’s great cities for outdoor food shopping. A few of the more classic or unusual markets are recommended here; for a full list, arranged by arrondissement, see the town hall site, wparis.fr, under “Marchés Parisiens”.
Hotels in the budget and mid-range category are less expensive than those in many other European capitals.By contrast, the city’s four- and five-star hotels are among Europe’s most expensive. Smaller two-star hotels typically charge between €75 and €150 for a double room, though for something with a bit of style you’ll probably have to pay in the region of €120–240. Bargains exist in the 10e, especially around place de la République, and you can also get good deals in quieter areas further out, in the 13e and 14e, south of Montparnasse.
If you want to secure a really good room it’s worth booking a couple of months or more ahead, as even the nicer hotels often leave their pokiest rooms at the back for last-minute reservations, and the best places will sell out well in advance in all but the coldest months. If you find yourself stuck on arrival, the main tourist office (see p.000) who will find you a room in a hotel or hostel free of charge. The tourist office also offers a free online reservation service (Wparis-info.com), with discounts on some hotels.
HostelsBook a hostel in Paris
Most hostels take advance bookings, including the hostel groups: FUAJ (wfuaj.fr), which is part of Hostelling International, and MIJE (wmije.com), which runs three excellent hostels in historic buildings in the Marais. (There is a third big hostel group, UCRIF, but it caters largely to groups; full details can be found online at wucrif.asso.fr.)
- Eating and drinking
Paris’s fame as the home of decadent, hedonistic nightlife has endured for centuries. That reputation is sustained today by a vibrant bar and club scene and a world-class live music programme. World music and jazz are particularly strong, but you’ll find everything from house and electro-lounge to home-grown rock and chanson. For listings, Pariscope is the traditional first port of call. For more detail, try Nova magazine (wnovaplanet.com), also available from newsstands, or specialist website wradiofg.com. To find the latest club nights seek out flyers – or word-of-mouth tips – in one of the city’s trendier bars. The best place to get tickets is FNAC – the main branch is in the Forum des Halles, 1–5 rue Pierre-Lescot, 1er (Mon–Sat 10am–8pm; t08 25 02 00 20, wfnac.com; M° Châtelet-Les Halles).
Gay and lesbian Paris
Gay and lesbian Paris
Paris is one of Europe’s great centres for gay men, with the scene’s focal point in the Marais, the “pink triangle” around rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie. Lesbians have fewer dedicated addresses, but the community is becoming more energetic and visible.
The high spots of the festival calendar are the annual Marche des Fiertés LGBT, or gay pride march, which normally takes place on the last Saturday in June, and the Bastille Day Ball – open to all – held on the quai de Tournelle, 5e (M° Pont-Marie) on July 13. For information, check Têtu (wtetu.com), France’s main gay monthly magazine.