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Paris: Charming City With Historical Beauty

The French capital lives up to its hype, with world-class museums, restaurants, shopping and historical sites. Check out our local expert’s recommended favorites.

 

Paris. Just the word alone evokes images, music, even an idea of life. It’s often referred to as the City of Love, sometimes as the City of Lights, but more than anything, it’s a city that is loved. What is it that brings people to Paris, sometimes over and over again?

Eiffel Tower 

As much as it’s adored today, the “Iron Lady” was apparently hated at the time of its construction. The Eiffel Tower was built for the Universal Exhibition in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel and stood for years as the tallest building in the world.

Many Parisians couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of such a large structure being erected on the Champ de Mars. Petitions were made to halt its building, and even after the tower was completed, some considered it an eyesore and clamored for it to be disassembled. The story goes that an excuse had to be found to justify keeping the structure, something that would make it essential to Parisian life. It became an enormous radio antenna and to this day serves as an integral part of French communication.

Religious Monuments

Right in the middle of the city is the Notre Dame. Since Paris went on a cleaning spree of its most famous facades and monuments, only the face of the Notre Dame has had its years of grime and grit completely stripped away. The sooty sides are great for kindling the imagination of younger visitors, where blackened gargoyles sneer out from the stonework, and Gothic details create a spidery yet beautiful cathedral. 

A tour of Paris’ religious monuments is not in the least achieved without a hike to the Sacré-Coeur, a basilica of white stone perched high above the cityscape. From the stairs that lead to the entrance are a sweeping view of Parisian rooftops and the imposing silhouette of Montparnasse Bienvenue (a big, black skyscraper). Unlike so many of the city’s other churches and cathedrals, the Sacré-Coeur was not built in the Gothic style, but rather a Romano-Byzantine architecture. Its domed tops, arched entrance and almost surprisingly gargoyle-free façade distinguish it as much as its location at the peak of Montmartre.

If you’ve never descended into the maze-like depths of a mass warehouse of bones, then the catacombs in Paris (1 Place Denfert Rochereau, metro Denfert Rochereau) will nicely fulfill this function. After widespread illness plagued the area of Les Halles, the nearby Cimetière des Innocents was pegged as the cause and the cemetery’s bones were lifted and resettled in the old quarries of Paris. As other cemeteries throughout the city began to overflow, more and more skeletons were marched down into the quarries.

There are 1.2 miles of bones neatly stacked, sometimes in patterns and designs, with the date of relocation and site of origin meticulously labeling each pile. It is a dark, moist and occasionally strange-smelling experience, with bizarre quotes (in French) illuminating the relationship between life and death carved into the walls.  

Jardin du Luxembourg 

If you’ve had enough of cathedrals, palaces and towers, the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) is also a favorite place to visit in Paris. Located on more than 55 acres of land, it is dotted with tennis courts, children’s playgrounds, statues, chess boards, fountains and flowers. Kids rent toy sailboats and chase them around the main fountain, adults recline in pale green lawn chairs, a paper or book in hand, and couples stroll along the gravel paths or lollygag in the grass near the southeast bend of the park. It’s a relaxing way to take a break from sightseeing, while still taking in the sights.

Arc de Triomphe

You can’t leave Paris without seeing the Arc de Triomphe. It was conceived when France was at its strongest under Napoléon I. Beneath it lies the tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, and the Germans marched through it into Paris during World War II. Now it serves as a bridge from the present to the past. Its very architecture tells a story of the values France once held, and the events it has seen relay how those values grew and changed over recent history.  

The Moulin Rouge 

Just as French as the Arc de Triomphe is the cancan. And where can the cancan be seen? At the Moulin Rouge of course! I’ll be honest, it’s not what it once was. Despite this, it strives to put on a class act, and there’s no lack of feathers and sequins to prove it. One can dine, take in a spectacle, or do both at the same time.

Museums

There are a few things Paris is known for, and its investment in and support of the arts is one of them. Such enthusiasm for creativity, regardless of form, has left the halls of countless museums hung, installed and overflowing with artistic work that spans centuries, not just styles. One of the larger museums is the Musée d’Orsay. It houses not only an impressive collection of paintings and sculpture, but also a permanent exhibit on decorative arts, with pieces from designers such as Antoni Gaudi and Hector Guimard.

A smaller and more charming museum to visit is Musée de la Vie Romantique, which, as its name indicates, celebrates the idea and expression of a romance in art and life.

The most famous museum in Paris is the Louvre. The Louvre is meant to be entered, but the view from the outside is worth taking in as well. A seemingly endless project of renewal and improvements, the Palais de Louvre first began its transformation in 1364 and was last added on to only 20 years ago, when the controversial glass pyramid opened. Situated in the heart of the Cour Napoléon, public opinion seems to have softened, much in the way it did toward the Eiffel Tower, and the structure even seems to have grown on locals and visitors. At dusk, it’s worth checking out the Cour Carrée, a perfectly square courtyard at the rear of the palace. It gives absolute justice to Paris’ reputation as the “city of lights,” as it glows with a golden warmth that leaves you feeling as though you’ve stepped into a fairy tale.   

Next to the Louvre are the Jardins des Tuileries. Now paved in white sand and manicured to a tee, the Tuileries were first sprouted under Catherine de Médici. Since then, like the palace itself, the gardens have evolved in function and appearance, but the area is currently used for strolling, lounging and general enjoyment. [Read more about Paris Museums.]

Shopping

The first visitor I had in Paris wasn’t bent on seeing all the sights, or taking in the museums or boating down the canal. She came to shop, and figured she’d catch glimpses of all that other stuff along the way. Oddly enough, it’s understandable. As artsy, romantic and beautiful as this city is known to be, it’s equally known for its shopping. Depending on what you’re looking for, vintage, haute couture or something in the middle, Paris offers an array of different boutiques, styles and options. [Read more about Paris Shopping.]

Activities

Picnicking is one of the most exploited warm-weather activities in Paris. With days that hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a lovely way to spend an evening or afternoon near the Seine, a canal or in a park. [Read more about Picnicking in Paris.]

Another fun thing to do, rain or shine, is to take a boat down the Seine. There is no shortage of services that tour the waterways of Paris, and it’s a good way of taking in the sites without wearing holes in the soles of your shoes.  

Neighborhoods

Like any metropolitan area, Paris is divided up into distinct neighborhoods, each characterized by the people and things found in it. Some of the tried and true quartiers offer a charm that is hard to resist.

One of the most popular places for tourists to take in a view of the Eiffel Tower, without having to reckon with the crowds there, is to visit Trocadero. Numerous cafés line the intersection, all with outdoor terraces where one can take a load off in plain sight of one of Paris’ most iconic structures.

The Avenue des Champs-Elysées is a long strip toward the west end of town that leads from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. An enormous boulevard studded with trees and lined with broad walkways, it is a pleasant place to stroll and absorb some of the grandeur of Paris.

Sweeping past the Louvre and Hôtel de Ville, lies the Marais. Cute boutiques are stacked one on top of the other, and outdoor cafés and restaurants offer ideal places to relax with a coffee or glass of wine. One side of the Marais boasts a mix of high-end men’s shops and openly gay culture, while the east end sells some of the best falafel you’ll ever taste and is a traditionally Jewish neighborhood.  

If Paris, in your mind, is a series of winding streets, small squares and quaint shops perched on a slope overlooking the city, go to Montmartre. Heavily touristy near the Sacré Coeur, rue des Abbesses is slightly less so. It’s got all of Paris’ charm, without all of Paris’ hassle.

Crossing over to the Left Bank, one of the more dynamic neighborhoods is Saint Germain des Prés. The streets and the people are beautiful. The area surrounding metro Odéon is laden with high-end boutiques, cafés, restaurants and art galleries.

There are neighborhoods of Paris that are tried and true, and then there are those that are emerging. One of the neighborhoods that young Parisians flock to on the weekend is the 10th arrondissement. Saint Martin’s Canal cuts right through it, a perfect perch for an early evening drink or picnic. Surrounding the canal are dozens of moderately priced, but delicious restaurants. The Pink Flamingo, a French-American-run pizza place (67 rue Bichat, metro Goncourt) a short walk from the canal, fires up creative pizza combinations and offers canal delivery (they give you a pink balloon, you go to the canal, they bring your pizza). Le Cambodge, a Cambodian restaurant (10 Avenue Richerand, metro Goncourt) has become so popular because of its cheap prices and tasty food, a line forms out the door before it even opens.    

About a stone’s throw from the canal is rue Oberkampf in the 11th arrondisement. It’s really a nightlife scene, with scores of cafés, bars, clubs and music venues. The Nouveau Casino (109 rue Oberkampf, metro Parmentier) features great live music shows, plus DJs in their concert hall. The Alimentation Générale (64 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, metro Parmentier) is a free, albeit crowded, place to dance to a mix of world and pop music.

A neighborhood that’s really just surfacing, even in Parisian circles, is Belleville. It is such a mix of people, cultures and backgrounds, that it’s hard to describe its allure. Perhaps it’s just that, a real people place. It has a smattering of bars, restaurants and cafés, one of the most well known venues being La Bellevilloise (19-21 rue Boyer, metro Gambetta), which holds a restaurant, community space and concert hall. What’s more, Belleville boasts two parks: Parc de Belleville, landscaped on a steep slope, but furnished with an amazing view of Paris, as well as an impressive (and free) tactile play structure for children; and Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a green and expansive place that is ideal for taking a break from the bustle.

Day Trips

It’s said that Louis XIV, the Sun King, was once invited by a member of the court to Vaux-le-Vicomte, a château southeast of Paris. The castle was so beautiful and lavish, the king became sick with envy. He had its owner thrown into a dungeon, banished the man’s wife and seized much of the décor as well as the chateau’s architects. Such was the birth of the Château de Versailles.

This popular telling of the story is a perversion of the real thing, but there are some elements of truth. Before Louis XIV lifted a finger to Versailles, little existed in the area other than a small village. Upon deciding to relocate his family and government to the area, the king brought in the architect Louis Le Vau, the very same man who had earlier designed Vaux-le-Vicomte. In the end, Louis XIV had built himself a palace that dwarfed its predecessor in size and beauty. Versailles is a short ways from Paris, and accessible by train (RER station Versailles-Rive Gauche), or car.


Destinations: Paris

Themes: Historical Vacations, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Shopping, Sightseeing


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