Paris, "The City of Light," has been written about, filmed and photographed countless times. Although it seems as if we all know Paris even before we see it, nothing compares to actually being there. Going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, walking along the Seine at dusk or sipping coffee at an elegant sidewalk cafe are quintessential Parisian experiences—and the wonder of it is that real life takes on an aura of magical make-believe, so that it seems just like being in the movies.
Whether you're in Paris for work or for fun, do as the Parisians do and enjoy yourself in this romantic city. For the art lover, the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre offer priceless collections, while the designer shops and chic boutiques of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, Boulevard Saint-Germain and Avenue Montaigne tempt the serious shopper.
And for anyone who enjoys good food, Paris' restaurants, from inexpensive neighborhood bistros to the most refined and elegant gourmet establishments, will provide delightful meals.
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements, or districts, which spiral outward clockwise from the center of the city. Knowing the arrondissements will help tremendously in navigating the city. For example, in an address with a Parisian postal code such as 75008 or 75018, the first numbers indicate Paris and the last two digits tell you the arrondissement (in this case, the 8th and 18th, respectively).
Along the Right Bank (Rive Droite)—that is, along the north bank of the Seine—lie the grand boulevards (such as the Champs-Elysees, in the 8th), stately facades featuring Haussmanian or art-nouveau architecture, the Arc de Triomphe, the Opera Garnier (9th) and the Louvre (1st).
Tucked away in the midst of all this grandeur are the trendy, winding streets of the Marais District (4th), where you can see several of Paris' oldest surviving buildings. Montmartre (18th), the northernmost area of the Right Bank, resembles a little village, with steep, cobblestoned streets, oft-photographed staircases and tiny, ivy-covered houses. The area around the Bastille (11th)—where the infamous prison once stood—has become one of the trendiest pockets of Paris, with numerous cafes and clubs, as well as barge restaurants on the refurbished Bassin de la Villette (19th).
Although the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) has the reputation for being slightly funkier than the Right, it is also very chic and home to some of the most expensive real estate in Paris. The Latin Quarter (5th) is always buzzing with activity, especially with students of Sorbonne University.
The cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Pres (6th) are experiencing renewed interest among followers of such philosophers as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who once gathered there to debate existentialism. Montparnasse (14th), formerly the home of Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and other artists, is a bustling neighborhood adjacent to Saint-Germain-des-Pres. It's crowded with cinemas and famous brasseries.
La Defense refers to the cluster of skyscrapers on the northwestern edge of Paris that makes up the modern business district. The landmark of this quarter is La Grande Arche—a massive, futuristic arch of glass, granite and marble that serves as a modern echo of Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe.
Note: In this guide, the ordinal number in parentheses following each street address indicates the arrondissement in which an address is located. For example, (7th) refers to the 7th arrondissement. The nearest metro stop is given after the arrondissement. Also, in an address, don't be confused by the word bis after a street number. If you see 10-bis, for instance, it indicates the door or building next to No. 10.
Paris started out as a little village inhabited by a tribe of people known as the Parisii. The original settlement was located on an island in the Seine River that later became the Roman island-city of Lutetia; today it is Ile de la Cite, the site of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Over the centuries, Paris expanded onto the right and left (north and south) banks of the river, and the city's defensive walls were pushed outward in ever-expanding concentric "circles" to accommodate the growing population; there are places in Paris where you can still see remnants of the first walls commissioned by Philippe Auguste in the 12th century. During the Middle Ages, Paris buzzed with the construction of Notre-Dame, and the swampland on the right bank was drained, creating the area now called the Marais, or "marsh."
The Middle Ages and Renaissance also brought to Paris some of France's most powerful kings, including Louis IX (or "St. Louis" as he was later known) and Henri IV, who was the first of the Bourbon kings to rule. Henri IV enacted the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which ended the religious wars in France between the Catholics and the Protestant minority.
In the 1660s, as France moved into the "Grand Century," Louis XIV—the Sun King—built Les Invalides in Paris as a home for aging and unwell soldiers, and the magnificent attached domed chapel called L'Eglise Saint-Louis des Invalides. He also ordered the expansion of the Palace of Versailles, which had been a relatively modest royal retreat, into a formidable palace. He moved the court from Paris to Versailles to escape rising unrest in the Paris streets.
Under Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, French subjects rose up and started the French Revolution in 1789 (by tearing down the infamous Bastille prison), which brought the executions of thousands of people by guillotine—the king and queen among them—in 1793.
After the fervor of the revolution died down, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France as emperor (after a coup d'etat in 1799) until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Under Napoleon's rule, Paris gained some impressive monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe, and France gained the Napoleonic Code of law. In 1861, Napoleon's body was transferred from St. Helena and laid to rest in a monumental tomb under the Dome of Les Invalides.
A series of short-lived empires followed the Napoleonic era, but they were replaced by the Third French Republic in 1870 (which remained in place until Hitler's army marched into Paris in 1940). The avenues and broad boulevards that have come to symbolize the city date from 19th-century urban planner Baron Haussmann, who carved them out of the winding medieval districts. (The wider streets not only looked impressive, but they also could support rapid troop deployment in case of civil rebellion.)
The late 19th century ushered in France's richest artistic period in centuries, with the impressionist and postimpressionist movements. The belle epoque, the period of fine and peaceful years before the outbreak of the First World War, also coincided with art nouveau, an art movement that spawned the famous Guimard metro entrances. Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec all lived or worked in the city during the late 19th century, and Gustave Eiffel oversaw the construction of what would become Paris' most-celebrated landmark, originally built as a temporary structure for the 1889 Universal Exposition.
The period of World War I cast a dark shadow over Paris and all of Europe, but the city rebounded in the 1920s and 1930s during the ebullient Jazz Age. Paris became home to such performers and writers as Josephine Baker and Ernest Hemingway, as well as many painters, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
During World War II, Paris was occupied by the German army, and resistance fighters working with the French government in exile were pitted against sympathizers of the so-called Vichy government.
Today, as throughout its history, Paris is one of Europe's most important artistic, political, cultural, educational and commercial centers. There are plenty of monumental contemporary landmarks in the city, too: the pyramid at the Louvre, the Pompidou Center and the stunning Bibliotheque Nationale are prominent examples.
Paris is a city in constant flux, with many new faces, styles, ethnic groups and different religious persuasions, but it is also a city firmly rooted in its traditions. It is this constant pull between old and new that makes it such a vibrant and endlessly fascinating place to visit.
Paris inspires grandeur. From Napoleon's imposing Arc de Triomphe to Eiffel's pioneering tower and even to the whimsical Centre Pompidou, every notable landmark seems to have monumental proportions. But Paris has delights of a smaller, quieter nature; manicured parks and flower gardens give a green backdrop and a serene beauty to the broad avenues, soaring cathedrals and marble monuments.
On the Left Bank, the 5th arrondissement neighborhood around the famed Sorbonne University, is the Latin Quarter. The Quarter has always had an intellectual, international, bohemian character because of the influx of students who go to study in Paris from all over the world. Its winding streets offer restaurants that cater to almost every budget, from student-friendly cafes to the trendier restaurants of Saint-Germain. Alternately, you can take a stroll in Ernest Hemingway's neighborhood on the popular Rue Mouffetard.
Also on the Left Bank are the city's most famous domes: the gilded Hotel des Invalides—a military museum that includes Napoleon's tomb—and the colonnaded Pantheon, the final resting place of many French notables. To the west is the Eiffel Tower, originally built as a "temporary" exhibit as part of the 1889 Universal Exposition to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution.
From the Left Bank, cross Pont Neuf to Ile de la Cite with its two Gothic masterpieces, Sainte-Chapelle (a church with extraordinary stained-glass windows) and Notre-Dame Cathedral (damaged in a fire in 2019, its once impressive facade is under ongoing renovation).
On the Right Bank, the Centre Georges Pompidou (also known as Beaubourg), is one of the world's most novel structures with its "inside-out" colorful architecture; it also houses the city's best collection of modern art. A short walk to the east brings you to the national museum of Paris' most famous artist-in-residence, Pablo Picasso. A bit farther to the north, set atop the hill of Montmartre, are the neighborhood's lovely cemetery and the white-domed splendor of Sacre-Coeur.
In the very center of the Right Bank, along the river, is the Louvre, once the residence of French kings (until Louis XIV moved the royal court to his splendid new palace at Versailles). The Louvre is a massive museum housing many of the greatest works of art from ancient times through the 19th century—including three famous women: Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Leonardo da Vinci's mysterious Mona Lisa—and is impossible to digest in one visit.
The Place de la Concorde, site of beheadings by guillotine during the French Revolution and tank duels during World War II, is at the opposite end of the Tuileries Gardens from the Louvre. The 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Luxor at its center was a gift from Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali to Louis Philippe in 1829; it has dominated the square ever since. Connecting the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates the victories of Napoleon, is the magnificent Avenue des Champs-Elysees, lined with shops, showrooms, sidewalk cafes and cinemas.
When you tire of monuments, visit the Rodin Museum, the dazzling Musee d'Orsay (19th-century and impressionist art) and the Cluny Museum (from Roman baths to medieval art, including the 15th-century tapestry series The Lady and the Unicorn). And when you're ready to relax, take an unabashedly touristy trip down the Seine on the bateaux mouches (sightseeing boats), have a seat on the terrasse of any nearby cafe while you enjoy an espresso or apero, or just pull up a chair and people-watch like a real Parisian in the beautifully manicured Luxembourg or Tuileries gardens.
Night owls are in their element in Paris—not only because the city is beautifully illuminated and generally safe, but also because it offers so much after-hours entertainment. Most clubs close around 2 am, but some of the hottest after-hours spots keep the party going until dawn.
The Strasbourg Saint-Denis district in the 10th arrondissement has become gentrified in recent years with many new cafes, bars and restaurants. The formerly seedy area now known as SoPi (south of Pigalle) is also revamping its image with many new cocktail bars. East Paris nightlife still bustles around the 11th, from Bastille down to Faubourg Saint-Antoine, although the hipster crowds have generally moved north to the Oberkampf and Canal Saint-Martin districts for a laid-back atmosphere.
Those who prefer the Gucci- and-Versace-clad club scene will find their bliss around the exclusive clubs (known as boites de nuit) off Champs-Elysees and Palais-Royal. The best way to get past the bouncers in these venues is to make reservations for the club's restaurant—and dress to the nines.
The gay neighborhood in the Marais' 4th arrondissement is popular with both the gay and heterosexual crowds. For casual barflies and pub crawlers, the student-friendly Latin Quarter offers plenty of options. Haunts for the seriously trendy crowd are found all along the Metro line 8, between Filles du Calvaire and Faidherbe-Chaligny.
In summer, the club-barges moored at the foot of the Bibliotheque Nationale Mitterrand attract huge crowds with everything from techno and rock to reggae and salsa.
Most of the city's jazz venues are found around Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain or across the Seine at Chatelet. Call ahead, because prices and offerings change.
After years of being seen as rather cheesy and tacky, cabaret has made a comeback in Paris. Places such as Le Lido, Crazy Horse Paris and Moulin Rouge have dedicated huge budgets to producing new shows with extravagant effects. The Vegas-style shows are big and glitzy and may not appeal to everyone, but the international atmosphere and cancan dance routines are impressive. Check online for availability of tickets and current prices.
After the show, take a ride on the famed bateaux mouches (glass-enclosed boats) on the Seine. You can take them during the day, but it's much more romantic at night. The boats dock at Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower. Dinner cruises begin at 6:15 pm.
Wonderful, rich food is one of France's gifts to the world, and the French take cooking very seriously. A slice of quiche from a small bistro will taste better than any you've had at home. This is a city where good chefs attain celebrity status and even become household names.
There are thousands of restaurants in Paris, from French to Peruvian to Vietnamese to Senegalese, so choosing a few of the best is difficult. Although it's a good idea to try as many different cuisines as possible, French cuisine is what really shines in Paris. You will find a lot of variety in the national cuisine: Authentic French cooking can be refined or hearty.
Wherever you go, be sure to try the wine, butter, chocolate, coffee, baguettes, croissants, pastries, jams, cheeses (more than 350 kinds), oysters and truffles. Most restaurants have a menu du jour (menu of the day). Try to order from this menu if you can: The food will likely be the freshest, the most seasonal and the the most reasonably priced.
When you tire of walking, sit down at the nearest sidewalk cafe, not only for refreshment but also to people-watch. The simple act of enjoying drinks on the terrace is a Parisian way of life. Just remember that in some restaurants and cafes, you're charged more if you sit out on the terrace than if you stand at the bar or sit at a table inside. The terrace is also where smokers sit, so keep this in mind if cigarette smoke bothers you.
Parisians seldom eat breakfast in restaurants. Patisseries (pastry shops) and boulangeries (bakeries) sell croissants and other breads and pastries, or you can buy coffee and a croissant in a cafe. Brunch has become increasingly popular and is being served at more and more restaurants, but it is still overpriced. Lunch, which is the main meal for many of the French, is generally served between noon and 2 pm. If you wait any later, you may well go hungry. If you miss the lunch seating, buy a sandwich or hot panini from the nearest bakery, or meats and cheeses from a deli or fromagerie, and have an impromptu picnic on a park bench.
Dinner is served from 7 pm on, but Parisians eat late, often sitting down to dinner at 9 pm or even later. If you like to dine early, seek out a brasserie, which offers continuous service. Another thing to consider is that many restaurants close during August, the month when many Parisians take their vacations. If you are planning a special meal at that time of year, be sure to call ahead.
Drinking well with your meals is considered not only a privilege but a right. Consequently, good wines are not always expensive (although you can certainly pay a fortune for a rare or exceptional bottle if you are so inclined). Restaurant proprietors take pride in choosing their house wines, often serving them in unlabeled carafes, so those tend to be good choices if you're looking for modest wines to accompany your meals.
If, on the other hand, you want to indulge in something special, you'll be happy to know that the best wines on the menu are often the best bargains, as well. French restaurateurs tend to triple the price of their table wines, or vins ordinaires, and double the price of their midrange grands ordinaires. For their best vintages and grands crus, restaurants often content themselves with as little as a 20% markup.
In a really fine restaurant, you'll want to follow the national practice of choosing a different wine to accompany each dish, saving the best red wine for the cheese course. Because of the popularity of this practice, many restaurants offer excellent wines by the glass or the half bottle.
Many of the wines on Parisian menus will be from the country's two legendary wine-growing regions, Burgundy (known in France as Bourgogne) and Bordeaux. Burgundies, which tend to be made from pinot noir (red) or chardonnay (white) grapes, tend to be full and rich if red, and full-bodied and round if white. Wines from Bordeaux are usually blends of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot grapes (both red), making them fruitier than their burgundy counterparts.
Keep in mind that most haute-cuisine restaurants require a jacket for men, and in general, Parisians tend to dress up for dinner. Ask when making a reservation, if you're not sure what to wear.
Smoking is now banned everywhere indoors in France, but smokers are still allowed to light up on the outdoor terraces.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, including tax and service charge but not including drinks: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-49 euros; $$$ = 50 euros-89 euros; $$$$ = 90 euros-149 euros; and $$$$$ = more than 150 euros.
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