There are two ways to do Paris – the tourist way and the Parisian way – and they’re both equally worth doing.
There’s a good reason why crowds flock to the same old tourist spots – they’re awe-inspiring. A quarter of a billion people have been drawn to the Eiffel Tower since 1889 (current visitors number 7 million a year) simply because it’s such an astonishing feat of engineering. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world, standing at 324 metres tall and weighing 10,000 tonnes.
The Arc de Triomphe is a similarly breathtaking masterpiece and one that hits you right between the eyes the second you step out of the Charles de Gaulle Étoile Metro station. The world’s most magnificent monument to irony, it was built to celebrate the glorious homecoming of Napoleon’s Grande Armée – who were, at the time of commissioning, veterans of 128 victories. Unfortunately, Napoleon missed the grand unveiling in 1836, on the grounds that he had been defeated by Wellington in 1815 and was long dead.
And as for Notre Dame – well, you can’t go to Paris and not see it. A hand-carved Gothic Olympus, 182 years in the building, 21 hectares of forest went into creating the beams, while more than 1,300 lead tiles comprise its roof. Add to that its 1,840 organ pipes and its booming call-to-prayer courtesy of Quasimodo’s famous 13-tonne bell, it’s small wonder it attracts 13 million people a year.
Such is the city’s aura and history that even non-tourist Paris has become distinctly touristified. The alternative Left Bank dives in St Germain, the area where the impressionists and existentialists met for coffee and cheap meals, as well as the nicotine-encrusted Montmartre jazz bars where Hemingway et al ate and drank between the wars, have all become part of the gilded establishment and charge accordingly.
The former stomping ground of the penniless Picasso, Sartre and De Beauvoir, St Germain-des-Prés (along with the rest of the Rive Gauche) is now thoroughly gentrified. These famous old cafés charge as much as they dare from the many culture-hungry sightseers who want to sit on the same banquettes and look down the same boulevard as the classic artists of yesteryear.
Take a few turns down the quieter backstreets of St Germain and you’ll find Le Petit St Benoit, said to be one of the last reasonably–priced eateries in Paris. Reassuringly, it’s an elbows-in-the-ashtray, bill-scribbled-on-the-tablecloth, cash-only kind of place. Authentic pavement dining and as French as a camionneur (truck driver) strike, it happily – and with little discernible irony – serves frogs’ legs and éscargots, along with a range of homely French bistro classics, such as duck confit, unctuous, salted roast marrowbones and hearty stews. A whole meal – including wine – will cost you less than a sniff from the waiter at La Coupole.
For those who really want to do some serious damage to their wallet, the latter is regarded by some as the best restaurant in Paris (it’s not – Bofinger is), but even putting the food aside, it’s well worth a visit to this art deco temple for its remarkable interior décor. A coupole is a stained-glass dome and the restaurant that takes its name boasts a particularly splendid example, along with its famously mural-covered columns (painted by such notables as Chagall and Brancusi). Its oak panelling and soft lighting have barely changed since the days when it was the dining destination of choice for Camus, Man Ray, Matisse and co.
If you want a truly authentic place to eat, however, a genuinely elegant hidey-hole packed to the gills with pucker Parisians, take a walk along the Seine from the Grand Palais, pausing only for pre-prandial drinks in the betented terrace bar of the Palais de Tokyo – Monsieur Bleu – then walk round the corner to the Rue de la Manutention in the Trocadero region.
Next morning, take the Metro to Île de la Cité, the site of Notre Dame Cathedral. The queues are understandably long, with many keen to see its magnificent frescoed ceilings and kaleidoscopic windows, but it’s well worth the wait. To be honest, the longer you queue, the more time you have to admire its stupendous flying buttresses (built as an afterthought to stop the walls bursting out under the weight of the roof), not to mention the carved gargoyles and chimaeras, hugely decorative, but whose primary function is to aid water run-off.
From the Eastern tail of the Île de la Cité, stroll across the bridge to the Île de la St Louis, then wander down its central street of cafés and shops, all packed with gifts and crafty gewgaws. It’s a truly pleasant place to potter, even more so because, halfway down on the right, you’ll come across the finest ice cream shop in the world – Berthillon.
From the bottom of Ile de la Cite, hop over the bridge onto the Rive Droite (right bank) and take a stroll past Les Bouqinistes – the famous book stalls of the Seine. Although these second hand bookstalls have been here since the invention of printing back in the Middle Ages, business really took off during the French Revolution, a time when the mansions and châteaux of the Bourgeoisie were demolished and stripped of anything valuable. The political revolution became a cultural one as the books, which had once graced the shelves of the rich and powerful, arrived in the hands of the Proletariat.
As for where to stay, well, there are three real choices depending on your budget. For those who only want the best, it’s hard to beat the George V on Avenue George V, just off the Champs-Élysées. It’s ideally situated for those looking to take in the Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Palais and the Chaillot museums – the Palais de Tokyo, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Guimet, Musée de l’Homme, Cité d’Architecture. Here you will also find the avenue’s most famous shops – Louis Vuitton, Guerlain and Sephora.
Treat yourself and stay in true Louis XV-style luxury, attended to by a discrete army of staff, who all seem to appear just as it crosses your mind quite what you want. You pay for this privilege, of course – the simplest room here will set you back 1,000 a night, while a cold buffet breakfast for two costs 200. For those that can afford it, though, there’s nowhere better to stay.
For the more Bohemian types, without quite so much cash to burn, there’s the Hotel Artus on the Rue de Buci. Originally the Hotel Buci Latin, it’s slap bang in the funkiest furlong of St Germain, amid the lovely 6th arrondissement and surrounded by an embarrassment of beguiling markets, cool cafés, bars, boutiques and art galleries.
The hotel is of the designer boutique sort, complete with dark wood floors, marble bathrooms, designer furniture and walls painted in deep, bold colours. Each room features one different art object, each with its own unique back story. At one time, the door to each room had been painted by a different local artist, with a replica design on each key fob, allowing you to easily identify your room. Prices per night are around the 300 mark and it’s worth staying here just for the chance of encountering Sanjay, its unique concierge.
Finally, when it comes to getting around, do as the locals do and take the Metro or RER overland line. The trains are so fast, clean and efficient that – even from the airport – it’s really not worth taking a taxi, something that will take twice as long and cost you many times as much. Taking the Metro, you can travel from one end of Paris to the other in just half an hour for only three Euros. So save your money and treat yourself to one of the other delights that are so uniquely Parisian.