Bienvenue a Paris
Some personal must-sees in the greatest must-see of them all.
Posted March 16, 2011
For many, Paris is about museums and monuments; for others, it’s about wining and dining; for still others, it’s about shopping (even if only gazing through the windows). As a frequent visitor to Paris, I usually try to do a bit of everything, but truth be told, unless there’s a special exhibition I want to see, I generally skip the major sights such as the Louvre. You don’t need me to tell you what the must-sees are in Paris—especially on your first trip—any guidebook can do that for you. So here instead is a list of some of my personal favorites—some I return to every visit, some were new to me but will be on the must-see/do/eat list in the future. I hope they become some of your favorites too.
OK, it may be kind of touristy, but when the weather obliges, one of the first (or sometimes last) things I do in Paris is almost always take a boat ride on the Seine. When the weather’s warm enough, I sit outside; if not, the big glass windows offer an ideal view. I’ve done this ride during the day and at night, when the City of Light truly is a sparkling display. There are guides who offer commentary on what you’re seeing, but the idea is just to enjoy the ride. There are several companies providing these tours, including Bateaux-Mouches and Bateau Parisiens.
A French institution, Laduree, on the Champs Elysees (no, 75), was Paris’ first tearoom. In the 1950s, the pastry chef there invented the French macaron—two lighter-than-air cookies filled with a flavored cream (chocolate, lemon, pistachio, green tea…the flavors defy imagination). This was one of my favorite mid-afternoon breaks…order a small plate of cookies along with Laduree’s chocolat chaud, served in a silver pitcher, and get your energy back for the next round of sightseeing. When you want ice cream in Paris, Berthillon is where you head. Once only available at its original location on the Ile St. Louis, you can now find Berthillon glaces et sorbets throughout the city (including the Champs Elysees). A small boule of glace au chocolat is rich and deeply chocolatey. French scoops of ice cream are much smaller than what we find here, but you won’t mind in the least because the flavor is that intense. One of my other favorite flavors here is gianduja, a somewhat lighter chocolate flavored with orange, containing slivers of orange peel.
I’d been wanting to go to the Musee Jacquemart Andre (158 blvd. Haussmann) for several years and finally made it on this visit. This 19th century mansion was once the home of business magnate Edouard Andrew and his wife Nellie Jacquemart. The museum houses a truly stunning collection of furniture and art, including works by Italian artists Mantegna, Uccello, and Botticelli. There’s also a wonderful gift shop where you can find reasonably priced souvenirs for yourself or to bring home.
Near the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (also a must if you’ve never been there before) on the Square de l’Ile de France, is a small, somber site I return to every year—the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation. This tribute to the 200,000 Jews, Communists, homosexuals, and Resistants who were deported to concentration camps from France during World War II, which opened in 1962, never fails to move me. Descend the staircase to the river level, where simple chambers are lined with tiny lights and the walls are inscribed with thoughtful quotations as well as the names of the concentration camps. A stark iron gate looks out onto the Seine while all you can see above you is the sky.
When walking down the Champs Elysees toward the Rond Point (the opposite end from the Arc de Triomphe), I came across Artcurial (7 Rond Point du Champs Elysees). This gallery/café/art bookstore is a treasure trove for those, like myself, who love books on art, photography, and design.
You don’t have to love opera to love the Palais Garnier (Place de l’Opera), the Paris Opera House. Both the interior and exterior are brimming with opulence, with colored marble, molded stucco, gilt, red satin and velvet boxes, and a false ceiling painted by Chagall. You can take in an opera or ballet here, or you can just spring for the 6 Euros and tour the magnificent building. There’s a small, but well-stocked, gift shop to the right of the entrance (you can go to the gift shop without paying the entrance fee).
Just across the square from the Opera Garnier is the Café de la Paix (12 boulevard des Capucines). When the weather’s frosty outside, you can sit in the heated, glass-enclosed terrace and watch the world go by while you indulge in one of the cafes legendary pastries. (Try the millefeuille.).
As a writer, one of the things I love most about Paris is that it’s a city of readers—which means it’s a city of bookstores. From the bouquinistes along the Seine, with their used books (and increasingly, souvenirs and chatchkes) to the bookshops that seem to appear at every other corner, there’s no shortage of reading material in this city. If you want to stick to English-language books, walk along the rue de Rivoli and stop in at both Gallignani (no. 224) and W.H. Smith (no. 248). Gallignani specializes in art and design books and literature in both French and English; the books are stacked high on mahogany shelves that make you think you’re in an old-world library. W.H. Smith is a branch of the British chain and in addition to two floors of books, offers an extensive magazine selection. Best of all, it’s open on Sundays. One of my other favorite bookstores is on the other side of the Seine, on the Rive Gauche (or Left Bank). The Village Voice (6, rue de Princesse) has a great selection of the latest English-language fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and literary magazines. The store also hosts book signings/readings and is a great place to meet both French and American/British booklovers too.
I just discovered this intimate, and extremely attractive, new museum in the St. Germain area of Paris. The Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits (Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, 8 rue de Nesle) provides a glimpse of history traced through more than 2,000 documents and letters from such notables as Mozart, Freud, Napoleon, and Einstein. There are both permanent and special exhibitions and a small gift area.
Finally (I could go on and on but let’s save some suggestions for another visit), Paris is a city of breathtaking views. Most people make their way to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a view of the city. There’s only one problem with that—once you’re at the top, you can’t see the most recognizable landmark in Paris…the Eiffel Tower itself! Instead, take a trip to the top of the Tour Montparnasse (33 ave. du Maine). In just 38 seconds, the high-speed elevator will take you to the 56th floor where you can visit the panoramic café-lounge and also find orientational diagrams that let you in on what you’re seeing. For a completely unobstructed view, however, climb up two more flights of stairs, stand in the white target painted at the center, and marvel at the sight of Paris spread out before you. My favorite time to go—at dusk when you can not only watch the sun set but see the lights come on all over the city.
Carol Sorgen is a nationally recognized writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Her articles have been published by WebMD, Today’s Diet & Nutrition, CNN.com, Men’sFitness.com, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Home, and Maryland Life, to name but a few. She is the executive editor of the travel site JustSayGo.com, and works as a writer, editor, and public relations consultant through her own site, CarolSorgen.com.