This is the online version of “Violetta’s informal guide to Paris,” a document I put together for friends visiting the city after I’d left, and synthesized from all my favorite haunts and experiences in the time I lived there. I’ve been tweaking it since 2005, adding things and removing some after feedback. I can email you the PDF version or you can download it at the bottom of this page.
~Violetta’s informal guide to Paris~
This is something I put together for friends asking for tips when they visit Paris, and I’ve gotten pretty good feedback on it. It’s stream of consciousness of must-sees organized by “arrondissements.”
4 useful tidbits:
- Get a good Paris map or map “app” on your smartphone.
If you’re going with a map, don’t get the large foldable ones, get the “Paris A-Z” booklet-maps you can only buy in Paris (in the ubiquitous street newsstands). They are the most comprehensive maps (better than Google maps) because they show the pedestrian streets, private gardens, monuments, metro stops, post offices, banks, and they cover all the areas, not just the touristy areas like this map, that only shows you about 4 arrondissements.
Whatever map you get, make sure it indicates the metro stops clearly. I like the Paris A-Z booklet maps because it divides the arrondissements across pages. It takes a while to learn how to read and some people–like my father–hate it, but I really think it’s the best.
(that’s so nerdy of me to have a whole paragraph devoted to maps, but I love maps and well, I’m a nerd).
- Buy a Pariscope magazine for 30 or 40 cents, it’s all in French, but you can figure it out. It has movie listings for the revival cinemas, which are really fun. Again, available at any newsstand, along with the English Herald Tribune or any other English language paper you might want. Newsstands will be your best friend and always near a café, so quite the experience: pick up a paper, grab a coffee and blend in for an hour.
- The Paris guide by Lonely Planet is great and if you’re going to be there for a while, I recommend it. It’s what I had when I was there and is a great mix of advice, history and addresses.
- Learn French etiquette. French people are not rude so much as brusque. But they always, ALWAYS, always use polite words. So learn them and use them ad infinitum.
Hello : “Bonjour!” pronounced [bonjewr]
Goodbye : “Au revoir!” pronounced [o ruh-vwar]
Please : “S’il-vous-plaît” [seal-voo-pleh]
Thank You : “Merci” [mair-sea]
Excuse me : “Excusez-moi” [excuuusey-mwa]
Also, and this will make a difference for you, when you enter a store, say hello, and when you leave a store, say goodbye. When you approach a newsstand guy, say hello. Before you ask for directions, say hello, and excuse me. It’s considered the summit of rudeness not to greet and say goodbye to store keepers when entering or exiting stores. Random but true.
Where you can get a lot of useful stuff: tobacconists. Look for the diamond-shaped red sign that says “TABAC.” They’re usually attached to cafés where you can get a “serré” (single shot espresso) while standing at the bar.
1st-2nd-3rd Arrondissements (a.k.a. The center of Paris, the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, the Marais neighborhood, and Rive Droite, the North bank of the Seine river).
- Le Louvre.
I would really go to the Louvre first, if you’re planning on seeing the Musée d’Orsay and you have enough time, because they complement each other chronologically.
With the Louvre, you can actually see everything if you breeze through all the floors and rooms, but the best way to avoid being overwhelmed is to first sit down, when you walk underneath the pyramid, take a map and circle your own personal must-sees (most people want to see the Mona Lisa, The Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo. I’m a big fan of the Raft of the Medusa, personally, and the Grande Odalisque).
See your must-sees first, before you do anything else. That way, at least you know you’ll have done what you wanted to do most. I tend to eat dessert first, sometimes, too, for the same reason.
Once you’ve done that, you can try to see as much as you can before you feel like your feet are going to fall off. I’m a big fan of going through museums and finding that one piece that speaks to you, and taking it in for as long as you need, and then leaving. But if you’re passing through Paris and this is your one shot…you may not have leisurely time.
If you’re in Paris for a few days, you can buy a multi-day museum pass, which lets you in for a fraction of the price. The deal is you can go to a bunch of museums as much as you want for a few consecutive days. But only get the pass if you are the type of person who can spend 8 hours in museums for 4 days in a row. If not, abstain, it’s pricey and won’t be worth it to you. If that’s you, then you can purchase them at the metro station ticket windows.
- Le Marais.
Le Marais is in the 3rd arrondissement. Its popularly known as the Jewish and the gay and very trendy part of Paris, and you should absolutely make a stop there. It’s quite a small neighborhood, but it will blow you away.
You will immediately notice the difference with the rest of Paris, because it just doesn’t look like the rest of the city. It is one of the only parts of Paris that wasn’t rebuilt by Haussman the great civil engineer who gave Paris it’s “look” with the wide avenues and the six-story high buildings with grey slate rooftops.
- In the Marais, you’ll see small two or three-story buildings, stocky and leaning in. You will see enchanting fairy-like looking buildings with little Rapunzel towers for Rapunzel along Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and Rue Vieille du Temple.
- Get off the metro at Saint Paul and walk straight ahead into the neighborhood. You should see the outside of the Guimard Synagoguge, the world’s only art deco synagogue).
- If you have time, stop by Mariage Frères, on 30-32, Rue du Bourg Tibourg 75004 Paris. Tél. : 01 42 72 28 11, it’s at the Metro Hôtel de Ville. It’s the most wonderfully luxurious tea shop in the world. Their Yunnan d’or is incredibly delicate tea. Their Nagri d’automne leaves are so intact that when they’re steeped, you can unfold them and lay them out as they were on the tea bush. I love their perfumed teas too, like Montagne d’or. In any case, it’s worth the detour to see the “French way” of doing things. And the small bags make great Paris gifts to bring home, you can get 50 grams of tea (twenty cups) for about 5 Euros. Not bad for such high quality.
- Musée Picasso. In the Marais (and it really is only Picasso so only go if you are a die-hard fan).
- La Place des Vosges. Not to miss, la place des Vosges is the nicest plazza in Paris in the Marais area. Apparently this is where Johnny Depp has his Paris pad. :-) But the place is incredibly beautiful, the covered arches are gorgeous and the buildings are just lovely. There are benches and fountains all around, so it makes for a nice restful pit stop.
- L’Ile Saint Louis (where Camille Claudel sculpted and lived) is a must-see. It’s a tiny little man-made island behind Notre-Dame and it is definitely worth a walk through, a little stroll, a baguette and cheese on the benches facing West. The pedestrian bridge you take to cross over from behind the Cathedral usually has some wonderful music, and some great performers, and the island is generally very quiet, like a little village, an oasis of calm in the center of the busiest part of Paris. I always found it restful and charming. I recommend not going to any cafes on the island, they’re not great and they’re overpriced. There is a nice crêperie on the main street (Rue de Saint Louis en L’Ile) you shouldn’t miss it, it’s on the left, and it is yellow on the outside. If it’s open, walk into the gemstone shop nearby. The collection is so beautiful, it’s like a museum. It’s one my favorite store in Paris. I used to go there regularly, just for the beauty.
- La Cathédrale de Notre Dame. Not many people see the museum attached to the Cathedral with holy relics. I’ve heard it’s worth the stop. Usually there are masses throughout the day, so if you walk in, you have to be respectful and discreet. I prefer the Sainte Chapelle.
- La Sainte Chapelle. You must see the Sainte Chapelle, above the Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s on the Ile de la Cite. It’s a tiny, but absolutely gorgeous chapel. It is just one of the most amazing places you’ll ever see. Get off at Metro Cite and cross the street, it’s a little hard to find because it is right along a wall after you see the Palais de Justice (the courts), but once you see the guards along the gates, keep asking and you should find the entrance.
- The Chapel was completely restored, and there are stained glass windows 360 degrees all around. It’s where all the Kings of France were crowned. Imagine the floor used to be polished white marble so that it would reflect the stained glass and make people feel they were in Heaven! One last piece of advice: Go there on a sunny day, so you get the full effect of the stained glass!
- Across from the Sainte Chapelle at Métro Cité is the flower and bird market, very fun to stroll around in and quite original.
- Le Canal Saint Martin. This is a fun thing to do, it gives you a chance to see a side of Paris that is a little unusual. This is where Amélie skips stones in the movie. You get there by walking up from Rue du Faubourg du Temple (near the metro République area) and walk up about ten, fifteen minutes until you see really artsy stores, once you see these stores, you can walk south along the canal, all the way to the Seine and watch the locks in action. It’s pretty cool!
- L’Opéra Garnier. Beautiful, it is in 2nd arrondissement and near the place Vendôme. Also gorgeous, you can see all the beautiful original designer shops, like Chanel (Rue Cambon) and jewelry merchants, for some incredible displays (Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels)
- Galleries LaFayette/La Samaritaine. Gorgeous stores. See if you’re interested. However, if you are in Paris at Christmas time, you cannot, under any circumstance, miss the lit up store fronts of the Galleries La Fayette and La Samaritaine stores. People come from all over the world, just to see their Christmas displays. They are huge magical windows, of animated dolls, automated systems, choreographed with music and lights. It’s near Opéra Garnier in the second arrondissement. Also, the Champs Elysées will be lit up at night for Christmas, it’s really fairy-like. The whole city is magical at night at that time of year.
5th and 6th
The 5th and 6th arrondissements (a.k.a. Saint Germain des Pres, the “Latin Quarter”, “Rive Gauche”, the South bank of the Seine and the student side of Paris
- Le Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay starts chronologically where the Louvre collection leaves off. It’s an amazing experience to see the arrival of impressionism in the middle of a renewal of classicism. If you want to treat yourself, have lunch or a tea/coffee in the café on the rooftop, where Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertez, took historical photos. Take your time in this museum, it’s a real treat.
- Hot Chocolate from the Café Flore. So worthwhile, it gets a section of its own. Le Café de Flore is in the Quartier Latin in Saint Germain des Prés (6th arrondissement). It is my favorite café. And it has, hands-down, the best hot chocolate in the entire world, but if you prefer your hot chocolate milky and more watery rather than bitter-sweetly chocolate-y and as thick as melted chocolate, abstain.
Sit inside on the red seats or outside in the patio. There is an upstairs but it’s dead quiet. The authentic way to experience Flore is on the patio. The last time I was there before moving to LA, the server gave me souvenirs from the Café and a good-bye kiss on the cheek to wish me good luck in California! If you know famous French personalities, you will almost always see one there at any time of the day or night. It’s just a staple of the city. Next door is le Café des Deux Magots, just as famous as Café de Flore, and people usually like one or the other. The Café des Deux Magots reportedly still has a table on which Picasso traced the outline of Gala’s hand one night.
- Crêpes. They’re good anywhere, but I loved eating them in this neighborhood. My favorite place is at the Carrefour de l’Odéon (Metro stop “Odéon” on line 4). It’s an outdoor market atmosphere, and you can smell the candy, fried dough and crêpes for blocks. They’re also cheap because it’s a student neighborhood.
- Rue du Commerce Saint André. If you turn your back to the crepe place at Odeon, right in front of the main fountain-like structure in the middle of the plaza on the other side of the boulevard, you will see a little arch with written ” Rue du Commerce Saint Andre” under a stone arch. It’s a pedestrian heaven with lots of quaint and interesting shops. Go through it to Rue Saint André des Arts and get lost in the little art boutiques and world-class one-room art galleries.
- Nearby is the Café Procope, a famous hangout and said to be the very first café that ever opened in Paris.
- Rue Mouffetard in the Latin quarter. Lovely street, really fun and very quaint. It’s really narrow and cobblestoned, it’s the student neighborhood so there is a ton of really cheap food, greek cafes, etc.
- Revival Cinemas. While you’re in the Quartier Latin or Saint Germain des Prés, if you’re a movie fan, I would definitely see an old movie in the revival cinemas. Listings are in the same Pariscope magazine (30-40 cents) I mentioned earlier, and the the names of these theaters are: Accattone, Action Christine, Action Ecoles, Epée de Bois, Espace Saint-Michel, Grand Action. You can see a Spaghetti Western, Fellini or vintage Kurosawa any time of the day. It’s the only city left in the world that has so many revival theaters, more even than Los Angeles! It’s one of my favorite things about the city and something I used to treat myself to regularly.
- Les bouquinistes. That’s the name for the booksellers who sell postcards, books and posters all along the banks of the Seine out of the wooden green stands that are resting against the river wall. The antique postcards they sell make fantastic Paris souvenirs, FYI J
- Buskers. The musicians, singers, performers who play in this neighborhood for money are wonderful. I used to go listen to this one guy who played rag-time piano. In the street. He had a little car that he would hook the piano to, and drag it back home.
- Le Bon Marche. If you’re interested, le Bon Marche is the very first department store. It’s all art deco, it’s worth a stop for the inside architecture. It’s at metro Sevres-Babylone. They have nice free exhibits too.
- Le Jardin des Plantes. Right across from the Mosque of Paris, it’s an arboretum in the middle of the city. Gorgeous. You can also see animals, and it’s free. If you have time, stop at the café of the Mosque right across the street from the entrance to the Arboretum and have a sweet mint tea with baklava. You can sit under a fragrant fig tree if you go in the spring.
- Le Musée du Monde Arabe. Amazing museum of Arab culture and right across the street on the banks of the Seine is a free sculpture garden.
7th and 8th
The 7th and 8th arrondissements (a.k.a. The Eiffel Tower and its surroundings, the Champs Elysees and its surroundings):
- Les Champs Elysées: My favorite spot is having tea at La Durée (Metro George V on line 1). But only because macaroons are my favorite treat and I love their way of doing things. It’s totally skippable, and the lines are always very long. I’ve had good luck and gone when they’re not super busy and it’s a very pleasant experience. They are world-famous for their simple macaroons, macaroon-creations (more like edible sculptures) and flavored teas (rose, violet). Try to get a seat upstairs, although it’s quite hard to do. The decoration is beautiful. Tea starts at 4-5 PM.
- La Fermette Marbeuf: http://www.fermettemarbeuf.com/en/index.html this is probably the only place I’m recommending that I’ve never been to, but it’s just because I never had the occasion. It’s a hidden gem of Paris, a fancy restaurant that is also a historic site, preserved entirely in art nouveau style. I only heard good things about it when I lived in Paris, so if you have a chance to have a fancy dinner, I would reserve a long time ahead, maybe before you leave home.
- The Eiffel Tower. Must-see, especially at night. The best view is to get off the metro at Trocadéro, take the “musée de l’homme” exit and walk over the plaza next to the museum. It’s grandiose.
- Le Musée Rodin. The Rodin museum is in my top 3 museums in Paris, (Le Louvre and Le Musee d’Orsay are the other two). It’s an unforgettable experience. All that white marble, all that passion. I would not miss it…it’s in the seventh arrondissement.
- Le Musée du Quai Branly (seventh arrondissement, RIGHT next to the Eiffel tower, walking distance) is very much only ethnic art and pots and pans and jewelry and cloths, so if you don’t like that stuff, you can skip it and look at the gardens and the outside…(they have a really cool flower wall on the street) but they have a great aboriginal and pacific indigenous section so it’s pretty amazing. (my favorite was the Native American and South American sections…)
9th through 20th
Other areas outside of the first ten arrondissements or that lay in more than one arrondissement:
- Cemetery of the Père Lachaise. (19th or 20th arrondissement all the way on the East of Paris) This is my favorite spot in Paris. I went in late summer, when it was beautiful and sunny. In winter it might be miserable, so you’ll have to make that call. I highly recommend doing a guided tour if you have time. Check Pariscope to see if they have any English-speaking ones, because the cemetery is 44 acres, so it’s very daunting. It does seem like every famous person that ever lived in Paris is buried there, and the alleys are very green, so your stroll through this park will stay with you long after you leave Paris. It’s actually pleasant even in winter. I came through Paris on a cold January day and got a whole tour of the cemetery from an elderly man who moonlights as a guide for pocket money and it was really fun. At the Père Lachaise, it’s invariably story telling time and I love stories.
- Montmartre. Be prepared to be accosted very insistently by Senegalese bracelet weavers, who will start weaving the bracelets on your wrists and claim voodoo healing properties. It’s awful and annoying but it’s the only way to reach the basilica from the bottom of the hill. You can avoid the scenic route and the bracelet weavers by approaching the basilica through he side streets and neighborhood to the West. At the top are lovely winding streets and an artist plaza. Also, there is a small Dali gallery. To come down from the Montmartre, there is a little funicular train that takes a regular metro ticket; it’s on the right side when you’re facing the vista from the basilica and it’s called, rather obviously, ‘le funiculaire de Montmartre’.
- If you want to visit the café from the Amelie movie (where she worked as a waitress), it’s called les Deux Moulins, and you can get to it from metro station Blanche, or you can get to it as you walk down from Montmartre (with your handy street map).
- Le Moulin Rouge. Skip this unless you’re actually seeing a show there. If you want to see the outside, please skip it and leave it to your imagination or to Baz Luhrmann’s. The Moulin Rouge is in the Red Light district. It’s disgusting, ugly, full of trash, there are prostitutes soliciting at every hour of the day, and huge sex shop, XXX movie theaters. Trust me, you’re better off not seeing this. There is nothing to see, unless you want the picture everyone has of them in front of a tacky red windmill. The angle for the shot is even not good.
- Le Nôtre. If you want an amazing selection of French patisseries, try Le Nôtre. They have about 60 locations all over Paris…
- The bridges. Walk through the whole 1st arrondissement, spend time in the Louvre arcades, walk on the bridges, especially the pedestrian bridges, The best bridge is sunset on the Pont des Arts that goes from the Hôtel de la Monnaie or French academy to the Louvre, it is a pedestrian bridge and people play music and picnic on wine, bread and cheese late into the Fall. I also loved the Passage Solférino. There are 43 bridges in Paris, so you’re not going to get bored. Another nice one is the Pont Alexandre II, it’s grey and gold, near the Eiffel tower. By the way, there is a small replica of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the Seine, farther West than the Eiffel tower.
- The Parcs. Jardin du Luxembourg is the best one, and they have large photo installations all along their gates all summer. A couple of other ones are the Jardin des Tuileries, Parc Montsouris, Parc des Buttes Chaumont, if you ever notice a park, go.
Jardin des Batignolles (17th):
- Belleville/La Goutte d’Or. Cool African neighborhoods along the Boulevard Sebastopol and Belleville in the 10th arrondissement…awesome energy, very lively, very African VERY different from the rest of Paris, but super authentic. You can eat Mauritian, Senegalese, Cameroonian food there. It’s a bit gritty, though. And I would be very careful of pickpockets.
- Métro Ligne 6. Get on the metro line 6 at Etoile—it’s the last stop, and is right next to the Arc de Triomphe—and ride it all the way to Corvisart, you’ll be above ground most of the time, and get to see Paris from a unique standpoint: at the same height as the fourth or fifth stories of the buildings, it’s magical. You might miss taking it in, so take it on the way back too! I love this metro line, they call it an aerial line, because it spends so much of its time above ground. You’ll basically see the whole Southwest-South of Paris on this arc. You can either get off at Corvisart and take a hike up the hill to the student district (but it’s not a must see) or you can get back on the metro, and stop off at Trocadéro and get to the Eiffel Tower that way.
- La Butte Aux Cailles. If you decide you want to stop off at Metro Corvisart on Line 6, you can hike up the steep hill and visit the cute student district called La Butte aux Cailles. It’s sort of like a Southern Montmartre with cute winding streets, but it’s not a must-see.