Paris is a city whose mere mention conjures up a list of stereotypes – good and bad. Romantic and snooty are two that quickly come to mind.
For me, the word that best describes Paris is elegant. Or maybe it's gamorous. Sophisticated? That's the thing with Paris. Every person has a different response because it has so many sides.
It’s an open-air museum filled with fanciful architecture, stunning art, and interesting people who are proud of their city and country. Sure, pride can sometimes come across as snobbery, but we rarely saw it in our encounters.
Pont Alexander III
I felt the closest to Parisian culture during our long – and sometimes directionally challenged – walks through its neighborhoods. That’s the heart of Paris. It's also where you’re more likely to build a relationship with the city that’s more than skin deep.
If you're visiting in the summer, you'll want to dive into the neighborhoods to get away from the flock of tourists at the main attractions. Despite the crowds, near-perfect weather and longs days make June a great month to visit.
Because this wasn’t our first trip to Paris, we decided to be more footloose and fancy free, except where dinner was concerned. Chance and food are dice we rarely roll on our trips.
Here’s a look at the highlights that made our trip picture perfect.
Where to park it
We stumbled across Parc Monceau during a Sunday stroll in the 8th arrondissement near our home base at the Hotel Lancaster. On Friday, the streets were congested and loud. What a difference a weekend makes as the streets slumber and parks come alive.
I never knew the city had such a strong running community until we entered the park. Hundreds of runners circled the perimeter as picnickers laid out blankets and kicked soccer balls around its interior.
The park is filled with stone columns and statues, a beautiful bridge, an old-fashioned carousel and swing sets. As we sat on a bench, a bundle of hand-led ponies carrying children passed a park street near us. I immediately wished I was 8 years old again so I could climb aboard.
These columns surrounding the pond are just a few of the monuments reflecting the park's long history, which dates back to the 17th century.
Runners circle the park's perimeter.
Luxembourg Gardens offers another option for taking in Paris’ great outdoors. Now home to the French Senate and a museum promoting France’s heritage, the grounds cover 60 acres. Marie de Medici, regent of France at the time, created the palace and grounds in the early 1600s. The layout includes traditional French as well as English-style gardens. Yes, there are crowds, but it’s a great place for people-watching.
A walkable ground map depicting the battlefields of World War I rests at the foot of the Senate building. I squinted my eyes through the sunlight's glare reflecting off its white surface to get my bearings. I oriented myself by following the River Seine to get a feel for the expansive war I know much less about than World War II. On a lighter note, we eavesdropped on a young American girl proudly and confidently reciting the letters on a fountain's plaque as we left the grounds.
What better place than a park to reflect on our freedoms and be grateful for our ability to enjoy them at any age.
Senate building in Luxembourg Gardens
View overlooking part of the gardens
Marie de Medici, widow of King Henry IV of France, first constructed this fountain in 1630. The Medici Fountain was rebuilt and relocated to Luxembourg Gardens between 1864 and 1866.
Memorable neighborhood walks
The Marais and Saint Germain are my favorite neighborhoods to walk and instantly feel Parisian. They are more intimate and contained than other areas. In both neighborhoods you’ll find plenty of upscale boutiques, easy-going cafes and art galleries.
Look close and through open doorways. You'll find some nice courtyards, too.
Street in The Marais
Contemplation in St.-Paul-St.-Louis Church
The July Column commemorates the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. It towers above the modern Bastille Opera House.
In the Marais, don’t miss the Museum Carnavalet to get an understanding of Paris’ history. In fact, start there.
Statue in the courtyard of Museum Carnavalet
Gardens of the museum
The museum includes portraits and refurbished rooms of famous Parisians like Paul Leautaud, a writer and theater critic.
Touted as one museum in two townhouses, each room tells a story.
Some exhibits might be closed due to staffing limitations or renovations. Unfortunately, we missed the one we came to see covering the French Revolution. That ended up being just fine because we got to experience France’s post-revolution transition.
A special exhibit showcasing photographs and videos of France’s liberation at the end of World War II captivated us. Marking its 70-year anniversary since liberation, "Paris Freed, Paris Photographed, Paris Exhibited" shows and tells us how images were created – and editorialized – in wartime. The collection was first displayed months following Paris' liberation in 1944.
In Saint Germain, stop by the Saint Sulpice Church and peruse the adjacent market in its square to see a variety of decor and household items for sale. We were lucky enough to find this gem late in the afternoon and almost empty with a small service in session.
Visiting this sparsly lit church ended up being one of our favorite moments of the trip. The scent of burning candles, methodical chant of the priest, and light streaming from its windows to illuminate sections of the church while leaving others in darkness created a scence of calm and appreciation.
Exterior view of Saint Sulpice Church shows the work in progress of its restoration.
We've heard planning a visit during an organ performance is the thing to do here.
Side alter of the church
Looking for househould knickknacks? You can find them at this antiques and flea market at Place Saint Sulpice in June.
You could spend a lot of time checking out the merchandise at this market.
Le Petit Vendome, 8 Rue des Capucines, is filled with locals eating substantial meals of steak frites and sausages in its dining room. Others belly up to its bar or takeout counter for sandwiches. We were early enough and the waitress was nice enough to let us have a side table while we scarfed down our sandwiches and frites.
Ham, cantal cheese and butter on a chewy baguette. It’s what I dream of when it comes to a simple meal in France. Get your fix at Le Petit Vendome.
Chewy-good baguette sandwich, anyone?
My choice: A ham and cantal cheese baguette slathered with butter.
Not surprisingly, ice cream makes my favorite snack list – but not just any cold, creamy concoction. You must try a scoop (or two) from one of the Berthillon stores on the Ile Saint-Louis. It really is something special.
Don't be afraid of the lines at a Berthillon shop. They move fast.
Mmmm ... chocolate and coconut make a nice combo. The scoops are small, but rich and rewarding.
It’s always risky going back to the same restaurant where you had a magical dining experience. We threw caution to the wind and returned four years later to Josephine Chez Dumonet, 117 Rue du Cherche Midi, to see if we could recreate the perfect bistro experience.
It delivered again, making us two very happy customers.
Our reintroduction started with a plate of delicate smoked salmon and a dish of white asparagus with hollandaise sauce. We followed that with two classics, beef bourguignon and duck confit, topping them off with the millie feuille dessert. Yes, it was a massive meal – and we finished it.
Duck confit with perfectly crisp potatoes and a nice salad
Beef bourguignon (skip the noodles and soak up the sauce with potatoes from the duck confit dish or order as a side dish)
We didn't leave a bite of the millie feuille dessert recommended by the neighboring table.
Admittedly, the service by one of the waiters was a bit standoffish, but the others’ jovial attitude made up for it. The chef even came out to check on our food. Nice touch.
The evening came full circle for us as we struck up a conversation with a couple at the table next to us. Just like the last time we visited, getting to know our neighbors ended up being part of the fun.
Favorite fancy-schmancy meal
We ate at Guy Savoy, which we thought would be our favorite meal of the trip. It certainly was our most expensive.
Instead, we’d trade that three-Michelin-star meal anytime for our one-Michelin-star experience at L’Arome. While the service may be just a notch below Guy Savoy's, its inventive cuisine puts it on top.
It’s one of those meals I can remember every course from start to finish without photos to jog my memory.
At L'Arome, the meal's preparation takes center stage.
Special delivery of an appetizer of smoked buffalo mozzarela, tomatoes, artichokes and slivers of truffle made our favorite dish list at L'Arome.
Best cultural experience
Parisian banker Moise de Camondo built an impressive mansion during the Belle Epoque era to house his growing collection of French furniture and art from the 18th century. He bequeathed his home and its contents to the French government to create the Nissim de Camondo Museum, named after his son who died in World War I. The rest of his sad family story can be discovered at the museum.
Walking through its rooms is a fascinating step back in time over several centuries to experience the life of the well-to-do in Paris.
One of Moise de Camondo's living rooms
Art collection over the mantle in the library
Spiral staircase connecting each beautiful level of the mansion
Most surprising find
Surrounded by a flower market near Notre Dame, we found something fowl. On Sundays at Marche aux Fleurs, more than flowers are sold. Vendors also gather to sell a variety of chickens, parakeets, finches and other colorful birds. Along with the friendly fowl were bags of seeds, toys and cages to fully outfit anyone’s birding passion.
What a fun surprise to stumble across this alley for bird enthusiasts as we were trying to find a Metro subway stop. By the way, the Cite Metro stop will get you to the market.
Finches at the bird market
So many varieties of bird seed
Colorful cages for any taste and decor
Architectural high point
The Sacre Coeur Basilica towers above the city at its highest point of approximately 420 feet. The travertine-covered, Byzantine church is gorgeous to behold. Equally stunning is the city it overlooks. There will be crowds, but it’s worth the hike up the hill to take in all the views.
Sacre Coeur Basilica stands like a jewel above Paris.
City view from Sacre Coeur
Best way to get around
The Metro is one of my favorite subway systems. While we haven’t used the bus system, sun-filled days in Paris make it a tempting option. We’ll investigate that the next time we’re there.
Forget taxis. The easy-to-navigate Metro is the way to go.
Navigation on the Metro is a snap.
Favorite art museum
The Louvre is big and grand, but it’s also overwhelming. And frustrating when trying to navigate with its video and audio guide. I didn't think we were that technology challenged, but apparently we are. We were in a constant state of being lost as the GPS system tried to re-route our moves to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.
Sure, check those pieces of art off your list, but then head to relative calm to witness Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Not only is the painting's scale impressive, but I love the contrast of colors and emotions on the canvas. Kudos to the Louvre for letting me take photos while we were there.
We were ready to throw the Louvre's video and audio guide in the Seine within a few of minutes use.
Crowds jockeyed for position to see the Mona Lisa.
A class got a lesson about Delacroix's famous painting, Liberty Leading the People. Wish we understood French.
To get more than your fill of beautiful art in a grand setting, go to the Museum d’Orsay. In addition to this fine museum, there are many others to visit and you could easily fill months exporing them.
Take your time and focus first on the area that interests you most. There’s no way you’ll get through all of the d'Orsay in one visit, so prioritize and take it easy.
Thank goodness the French government didn't tear down this train depot. Now as the Museum d'Orsay, it houses art as beautiful as the building itself.
Passing time in the museum cafe
We were lucky to experience World Cup mania while we visited Paris. After wins by France and Algeria, which has a large population in Paris, fans celebrated along the Champs-Elysees. With horns blaring, flags flying and people yelling, there’s no other spectacle quite like it.
Early in the day, police began lining the street in anticipation of a potential win. We can just imagine the party that will follow each successive win.
Algerians celebrate a World Cup win along the Champs-Elysees.
Police line the streets of the Champs-Elysees
Best way to see the River Seine
To fully appreciate the River Seine, cruise it. Forget the boats with massive amounts of people crammed atop. Instead, dress up in your finest and join a Yachts de Paris dinner cruise.
The evening starts with champagne and canapés on top of the yacht, and follows with a five-course dinner served in the dining cabin below.
A champagne toast before our dinner cruise on the Yachts de Paris
Getting ready for our five-course dinner
One of many great courses, lobster and vegetables served with a honey lemon sauce
During the cruise, you’ll have the opportunity to see many of Paris’ main attractions, as well as the many beautiful and unique bridges connecting its Right and Left Banks.
The cruise gave us a better appreciation and view of the many elegant bridges along the Seine.
A smaller version of the statue of liberty
This party space reminded me of hamster tunnels.
Even more impressive is witnessing the number of Parisians who turn out on the banks of the Seine to enjoy the summer evening, wining and dining with loved ones. Next time, we’re inspired to trade an evening at a restaurant for a picnic along the Seine like the locals.
Something for everyone
While our highlights reel features a few of our favorite experiences, Paris is a city that offers something for everyone.
My advice: Let go of your stereotypes. Slow down. Explore the different neighborhoods. Watch for the unexpected. Soak in the environment from a cozy cafe, or on the banks of the Seine, and watch Parisian life unfold before you. It’s the best show in town.
One thing is sure. Count on finding your own beautiful surprises along the way.