All the clichés about Paris are true – stylish, romantic, glamorous and utterly compelling. Yet it retains surprises that continue to delight even the most seasoned visitors. The landscape of the city changes as you cross from quartier to quartier . From historic St-Germain to the vibrant Marais, Paris abuzz with bars and cafés. But where should you base yourself when you visit? Whatever kind of trip you’re planning, this guide will help you pick where to stay in Paris.
You’ll find some of the city’s most famous landmarks around the Champs-Elysées, including the place de la Concorde, Tuileries gardens and the Arc de Triomphe. It’s also one of the most exclusive parts of Paris, home to an array of luxury hotels and high-fashion shops.
At the lower end of the ChampsElysées is the Grand Palais — a grandiose Neoclassical building with a fine glass and ironwork cupola. It was created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The cupola forms the centrepiece of the nef (nave) — a huge, impressive exhibition space, used for large-scale installations, fashion shows and trade fairs.
In the north wing of the building is the Galeries nationales, Paris’s prime venue for major art retrospectives.
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Full of splendid old mansions, narrow lanes, designer boutiques and buzzing bars and restaurants, the Marais is one of Paris’s more striking quartiers. This chic district also holds a slew of sleek galleries, and the old Jewish quarter centred on rue des Rosiers. You'll also find here a number of excellent museums, not least the splendid Musée Picasso.
The Centre Pompidou’s radical “inside-out” architecture looks just as ground-breaking as it did when it first opened in the 1970s, and its modern art museum is a knockout.
The opening of the Centre Pompidou gave rise to some violent reactions. Since then, however, it has won over critics and public alike. Architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers freed up maximum space inside by placing all infrastructure outside. The transparent escalator on the front of the building, giving access to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, affords superb views over the city.
The Place des Vosges, at the eastern end of rue des Francs-Bourgeois, is a masterpiece of aristocratic elegance. It is a grand square of symmetrical pink brick and stone mansions built over arcades. It stands hidden by chestnut trees in the middle of the grass and gravel gardens at the square’s centre. The gardens are popular with families on weekends.
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The Quartier Latin has been associated with students ever since the Sorbonne was established in the thirteenth century. Many colleges remain in the area to this day, along with some fascinating vestiges of the medieval city. Some of the quarter’s student chic may have worn thin in recent years as rents have risen, but this is still one of the most relaxed areas of Paris.
Just off “La Mouff” — the city’s famed rue Mouffetard market has now mostly given over to classy food shops. This authentic market is set around the pretty Monge fountain and sells fabulous, pricey produce. Organic stalls on Sundays.
Sorbonne University is a public research university located in Paris. The institution's legacy reaches back to 1257 when Sorbonne College was established as one of the first universities in Europe. The Faculty of Arts and Humanities has its sites in the heart of the Latin Quarter and in the north of the city.
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St-Germain, the westernmost section of Paris’s Left Bank, has long been famous as the haunt of bohemians and intellectuals. A few famous cafés preserve a strong flavour of the old times, but the dominant spirit these days is elegant, relaxed and seriously upmarket.
Fronting onto rue de Vaugirard, the Jardin du Luxembourg is the chief green space of the Left Bank. Its atmosphere is a beguiling mixture of the formal and the relaxed. At the centre, the round pond and immaculate floral parterres are overlooked by the haughty Palais du Luxembourg, the seat of the French Senate.
Students sprawl on the garden’s famous metal chairs. Children sail toy yachts, watch the puppets at the Guignol, or run about in the playgrounds. Old men play boules or chess. The southwest corner is dotted with the works of famous sculptors.
The shady Fontaine de Médicis, in the northeast corner, is a pleasant place to sit, and there’s a delightful café nearby the central pond. The pond is overlooked by the Palais du Luxembourg, seat of the French Senate.
The western side of the park is the more active area, with tennis courts and a puppet theatre that has been in the same family for the best part of a century, and still puts on enthralling shows. The quieter, wooded southeast corner ends in a miniature orchard of elaborately espaliered pear trees.
One of Paris’s most romantic quarters, Montmartre is famed for its association with artists like Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. It long existed as a hilltop village outside the city walls, and today the steep streets around the Butte Montmartre, Paris’s highest point, preserve an attractively village-like atmosphere.
Though The Moulin Rouge's environs have lost the glamour they once had, you can’t help but be drawn towards the tatty red windmill. Its windows are filled with photos of beaming showgirls. When Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized the Moulin Rouge in his paintings, it was one of many such bawdy, populist cabarets in the area. Nowadays, it survives on its reputation, offering expensive Vegas-style dinner-and-show deals.
La Villette and the Canal St-Martin, in the northeast of the city, were for generations the centre of a densely populated working-class district. Since then, they have undergone extensive renovation. Today the quais have been made more appealing to cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians and the area is peppered with trendy cafés and bars. For those who like an up and coming vibe, this a where to stay in Paris.
Northeastern Paris, comprising the Canal St-Martin, Belleville, Ménilmontant and La Villette, is one of the most diverse and vibrant parts of the city. It is home to sizeable ethnic populations, as well as students and artists. You won't want to miss Père-Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of numerous famous artists and writers. Or worth seeing is the leafy Canal St-Martin, with its trendy cafés and bars.
Some of the city’s best nightlife is concentrated on rues Oberkampf and Jean-Pierre Timbaud. While two attractive parks, the Buttes-Chaumont and Parc de Belleville, reward visitors with fine views over the city.
The Louvre is one of the world’s truly great museums. Opened in 1793, during the Revolution, it soon acquired the largest art collection on earth, thanks to Napoleon’s conquests. Today, it houses paintings, sculptures and precious art objects, from Ancient Egyptian jewellery to the beginnings of Impressionism. Separate from the Louvre proper, but within the palace, is the museum Les Arts Décoratifs.
The largest of the museum’s collections is its paintings. The early Italians are perhaps the most interesting, among them Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. If you want to get near her, go during one of the evening openings, or first thing in the day. Other highlights of the Italian collection include two Botticelli frescoes and Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin.
The southern slopes of Montmartre are bordered by the boulevards de Clichy and Rochechouart. At the Barbès end of bd Rochechouart crowds teem around the cheap Tati department stores. African street vendors hawk textiles, watches and trinkets. The area where the two roads meet, around place Pigalle, has long been associated with sleaze, sex shops and shows.
The area is changing, however: the streets just south of place Pigalle have been rebranded SoPi (“South Pigalle”) and are now some of the city’s hippest. Most of the sleazy bars have closed and been replaced by trendy cocktail bars, bistros and organic grocers. Rues de Douai, Victor-Massé and Houdon sport a large number of electric guitar and hi-fi shops. Rue des Martyrs is one of Paris’s most enjoyable gastro-streets.
Big cities tend to have a good variety of cheap establishments. In small towns and rural areas, you may not be so lucky, particularly as the cheaper, family-run hotels find it increasingly hard to survive.
Swanky resorts, particularly those on the Côte d’Azur, have very high prices in July and August, but even these are still cheaper than Paris. If you’re staying for more than three nights in a hotel it’s sometimes possible to negotiate a lower price, particularly out of season.
Note that many family-run hotels close for two or three weeks a year in the low season. In smaller towns and villages they may also close for one or two nights a week, usually Sunday or Monday. Details are given where relevant in the text, but dates change from year to year; the best precaution is to phone ahead to be sure.
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