Paris has an awesome emotional gravity: Parisians rarely want to escape, while most visitors find themselves yearning to return. Its power derives from the city’s rare beauty, of course, and its celebrated style and romanticism, but also from its unique history as the beating cultural heart of Europe over much of the last thousand years.
As such, the best places to visit in Paris range from grand monuments to exquisite, secretive little nooks and defined communities revolving around the local boulangerie and café. There are nearly 150 art galleries and museums on offer, brasseries and restaurants line the streets, and after dark, the city’s theatres, concert halls and churches host world-leading productions of theatre, dance, cinema and classical music.
Lying in its shallow river basin, Paris is still confined within its historic city limits and divided into twenty arrondissements, centred on the royal palace and museum of the Louvre, which spiral outwards in a clockwise direction. At its widest point, the city is only about 12km across – roughly two hours’ walk.
At the hub of the circle, in the middle of the River Seine, is the island from which all the rest grew: the Ile de la Cité, defined by its Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame.
On the north or Right Bank (rive droite) of the Seine, which is the more bustling and urban of the city’s two halves, the longest and grandest vista of the city runs west from the Louvre: this is La Voie Triomphale – comprising the Tuileries gardens, the glamorous avenue of the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
North of the Louvre is the commercial and financial quarter, where you can shop in the department stores on the broad Grands Boulevards, in the little boutiques of the glass-roofed passages, or in the giant, underground mall of Les Halles.
East of the Louvre, the elegant Marais and Bastille quarters are alive with trendy shops, cafés and bars. Further east, the Canal St-Martin and Ménilmontant are good places to go for cutting-edge bars and nightlife.
The south bank of the river, or Left Bank (rive gauche), is quieter and less commercial. The Quartier Latin is the traditional domain of the intelligentsia – from artists to students – along with St-Germain, which becomes progressively more chichi until it hits the grand district of ministries and museums that surrounds the Eiffel Tower. As you move south towards Montparnasse and the southern swathe of the Left Bank, however, high-rise flats start to alternate with charming bourgeois neighbourhoods.
Back on the Right Bank, many of the outer arrondissements were once outlying villages. Hilly Montmartre, with its rich artistic associations and bohemian population, is the most picturesque, but Belleville and Passy, have also retained village-like identities – working-class in the east, wealthy in the west.
Central Paris has lots of wonderful gardens, notably the Jardin du Luxembourg, but the best big parks are the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne, at the eastern and western edges of the city, respectively.
The region surrounding the capital, beyond the boulevard périphérique ring road, is known as the Ile-de-France. It’s dotted with cathedrals and châteaux. Nearby sights, such as the Gothic cathedral at St-Denis and the astonishing royal palace at Versailles, out in the suburbs, are easy to get to, while full day-trip destinations include the stunning cathedral town of Chartres and Monet’s lovely garden at Giverny.
An equally accessible outing from the capital, and practically a must-see if you are travelling with children, is that most un-French of French attractions, Disneyland Paris.