Make Paris Yours

A guide to experiences you need to have in the city

eiffel towerParis is a tricky, slippery little city. It can be like a grandmother: gorgeous,  bedecked in jewels and richness. Or it can be like a punk-ass teenager: dirty, assuming attitudes, out until dawn. It can be a scholarly middle-aged man, going to the same cafes and perpetually reading the same books; it can be a distant but chicly beautiful thirty-something woman, clacking her heels through the metro.

The thing is that Paris is so many things that everyone’s experience of the city, though built of the same elements (the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Shakespeare and Company), adds up to so many different sums. I was in Paris over the weekend and I want to share my favorite places and things and people with you — but there’s too much there, depending on who you feel like being.

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So, without further ado, here’s what I decided to do instead of giving you generic travel tips: tell you the kinds of things that will make your Parisian experience absolutely perfect.


tartine merci

Find a new kind of cafe
Sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris is basically the best thing ever (when it’s warm out. When it’s pouring down icy rain, it’s a necessary evil for smokers and best avoided for the rest of us). And there are a million of them in the city – one per block, two per block, you’ll never suffer from a lack of choice.  After you’ve done the normal cafe once or twice, branch out. Merci is an often-cited new kind of cafe/bookstore in the Marais, with gorgeous lighting and furnishings (and tartines) to make you feel connected to Paris and France, and they do a great lunch, too.

Cocoliquot, in Montmartre, will serve you an almond croissant like you’ve never seen before with its warm, yellow interior. Go nuts. You’re in Paris. You’re eating an almond croissant. There is nothing better in this world. But remember: the early bird gets the croissant. Croissants are strictly a breakfast food in Paris and if you go looking for one at 4pm, you will go hungry.

If you do end up at the tourist favorite,  Cafe de Flore, request to sit upstairs, where you’ll be unable to see out the windows for all the beautiful, dense foliage. Order a new combination of dishes; make conversation with your waiter. Take a look at the place mats on the table and you’ll see that this place was just as crowded a century ago.

Re-think romance
If you’re a Singleton searching for love (and perhaps a little bitter about not finding it in the City of Light? Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything), you will see approximately 2,543,323 couples kissing on every park bench and in every Metro station. You will walk out of your apartment or hotel and onto the cobbled streets and there they will be: the most perfect, beautiful couple blocking your way – lip-locked and so stylish, too. If you’re attached, you’ll glance at these couples with a knowing squeeze of your paramour’s hand. Or feel like a super-frumpy version of them. These are both normal responses.

If you’re single, do not kick these people (the French are not afraid to kick back). Do not walk sadly through the rain-soaked streets writing poetry in your head. No! Well, you can do that a few times, but not the whole time. Instead, you must do this one thing. Are you ready for it? You must go dancing! The 19th and 11th arrondissements  are good for going out, but the exact place where you shall find your dancing sweet spot is for you to decide. Meet somebody wildly inappropriate, far too young or too old for you. Kiss them. Just kidding. You don’t have to kiss them. I’m not going to make you kiss anyone, but you are in a city where you can kiss anyone, anywhere, unabashedly. That’s a good feeling. (And hold on tightly to your purse and wallet. Pickpockets are as common as lovers in Paris).

If you are coupled, you display your love along with everyone else with a very old tradition in Paris. Lovers buy a lock, clip it on to the Pont des Arts bridge (see below), and then throw the key into the Seine to symbolize their everlasting love. Do not be disheartened when I tell you that the locks get cut off every few weeks.

locks paris

photo by Ian Bristow

This is your chance to be Amelie
Spend your time here making your own personal homage to movies set here. Find a Photomaton in a Metro station and make Amelie-like faces for the camera. Re-enact Audrey Hepburn from Sabrina and Funny Face. Have big fights like the couple in 2 Days in Paris. It does not matter if the locals are rolling their eyes. We’ve all done it. Don’t just sit around the Seine making kissy noises. It’s not only annoying, but it’s a waste of Paris!

Dog watch
The English may love their dogs, but the French venerate theirs.  Here is a guide: the dogs will be smaller than elsewhere (small Parisian apartments demand that dogs be tiny and women be no more than a size 4), so they often ride in handbags. Don’t ask if you can pet a handbag dog; they are spoiled and you will seem like a pickpocket.

paris dog 1Dogs who are tied up on their own should be avoided, unless they seem to REALLY want to be petted. And, finally, it’s always best to ask the owner, “puis-je. . . ?” (“can I. . .”) before petting the dog. You may not understand the answer but a look of panic on the the owner means that the dog will eat your face. Otherwise, go ahead! Pet the French puppy.

Make a silly purchase
Depending on your budget, of course. Paris is my favorite place for luxurious but unnecessary purchases, from delicious bath gels at the pharmacy on Rue Jacob to a tiny little medal from Merci (which also has a shop) on a piece of red string, simply saying “merci.” There is no point to this item, but it is excellent nonetheless. There are gorgeous jam shops down rue Vieille du Temple, and a specialty olive oil shop around the corner from them. Whatever your silly purchase is, make sure you can afford it, because returning it will be a nightmare. You do not want to have to try to navigate that in French.

paris waterTalk to strangers
But not strangers who approach you (especially you, ladies). Cafes are a great place to do this — the bistro Les Philosophes (28 Rue Vieille du Temple) has an especially chatty atmosphere, but so do lots of other places: the quais of the Seine after dark (uh, please bring a friend), the steps of Sacre Coeur in summer (ditto), quiet neighborhood wine bars (check out the one on Rue du Mont Cenis in the 18th). You’ll meet people from all around the world. Also, it will make you hate tourists far less (or reduce your self-loathing as a tourist, if you’re me).

See a movie
Sitting in a dark theatre watching classic films is one of the best ways to spend days that are unbearably wet or hot. The 5th near the Sorbonne has an amazing number of revival movie theaters, most of which show classic Hollywood films (as well as classic French films, if you can understand them). Look at AlloCine’s website to find cinemas in your area, and search for VO, rather than VF (the first will be in English subtitled in French, the second dubbed into French — just make sure the original film was in English!) If there’s nothing showing, head down to the 12th to the Cinematheque Francaise for an amazing trek: they often do retrospectives on famous directors and actors.

Go to a smaller x, y, or z
Any time you find yourself heading towards something known, switch it out for something more interesting and niche. Been to the Louvre? Try a smaller museum, like the Musée Rodin or the hunting museum in the 3rd (for taxidermy fans ONLY). Tired of the Tuileries? Who can blame you? Head over to the Parc Monceau in the 17th to check out the tiny waterfalls and faux-ruins. Paris is full of such niche spots and items that limiting yourself to the beaten track is missing out on its magic. Dig a little deeper: that’s where the fun and beauty really is.

It’s such a magical city, no matter what you do. I live in London now, which may be for the better, because when I lived in Paris, sometimes I grew immune to its beauty. Now, Paris is only a two-hour train ride away on the Eurostar — very close, but far enough to still feel special.

Now, when shall we go again?