“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” -Ernest Hemingway
Paris is the kind of city that fills every visitor with the burning desire to be an artist, a temporary madness for some, a life changing discovery and unspeakable gift for others. Once you fall in love with Paris, you stop caring that you are in love with a cliché, that you are just another insignificant, breathless fan there to soak up the city of Hugo, Proust, and Hemingway. Being a foreigner in Paris is often like having a conversation with an elegant, polished and interesting person who is dressed for a party when you have just woken up and are still in your pajamas; it will leave you feeling scruffy and inadequate, and completely enchanted.
One of the fascinating things about the City of Light is how it has retained its aesthetic purity and architectural coherence to such an extent over the years. The answer is relatively simple – a lot of Paris was rebuilt by Baron Haussman in the Nineteenth Century, accounting for the trademark Paris buildings with their movie-set beauty and uniformity in which every cornice, balcony and sloping roof is pleasing to the eye. Unlike London (or other major European cities) Paris was occupied during the Second World War, meaning that much of its centre was preserved from bombing.
Everybody knows that there is a fantastic view from the Eiffel Tower, that the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are stuffed full of wonderful art, and that it is a lot of fun to relive scenes from Amélie on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur. If you ever find yourself in this most beautiful city in search of some slightly less well-known gems, here is a little dose of inspiration to help you on your way. All of these treasures are within walking distance of each other, and are the ingredients for a perfect day in Paris.
Musée National du Moyen Age (metro: Cluny La Sorbonne/Saint Michel)
Opening hours: 9am – 5:45pm every day, except for Tuesdays
Price: €8 (€6 concession, free for European passport holders aged 25 and under)
This national museum of the Middle Ages will give you a glimpse of the lost medieval Paris. It is worth visiting for the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries alone; kept in a darkened room to protect the naturally dyed silk and wool, these six late Fifteenth Century tapestries depict the five senses. There is an air of fairytale mystery to these richly embroidered beauties that won’t fail to capture any Romantic’s imagination.
When you leave the museum you will find yourself close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is a lovely place to take a baguette and have lunch while watching children float little sail boats on the pond and pigeons bobbing and flaring their tails over a scrap of bread in the shade of the neatly clipped trees.
Place des Vosges, Le Marais (metro: Saint Paul)
This magnificent square is one of the finest examples of Parisian architecture (it is said to have been the model for all subsequent European residential squares), with it’s rose colored brick and fantastical curled lamp posts, and is a wonderful place to take a stroll.
Have a citron-pressé or a crème brûlée in Café Hugo, tucked away in one of the far corners of the square where you can sit and people watch under the beautiful arches. It gets very crowded in the evenings, but is an incredibly atmospheric (and relatively tourist free) place to sample a classic steak and frites with a glass of house red. They have regular live music events in the evenings.
If you would like a break from browsing in the little boutiques and galleries that this area of Paris is famous for, Carette Vosges (also tucked away in the arcade in the main square) is an elegant Salon de Thé with enough pretty pastries and mounds of colorful macarons to keep your inner Marie-Antoinette blissfully happy.
In a neighboring smaller square nearby, Place du Marché Sainte Catherine, the restaurant Bistrot de la Place offers a quiet, pretty, and reasonably priced place to have dinner (two courses from the set menu for €18.50).
Shakespeare & Company (metro: Saint Michel)
Opening hours: 10am – 11pm, Monday – Friday, 11am – 11pm, Saturday and Sunday
Instantly recognizable from the opening scene of the romantic drama, Before Sunset, this quirky English language bookshop is a favorite spot for expatriates, disheveled philosophers, and aspiring writers. Opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, an American from New Jersey, it featured in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as a home from home for many modern American authors in the twenties. On its new premises right across from Notre-Dame cathedral, Shakespeare & Company continues its tradition of fostering up and coming talent with regular poetry readings, literary festivals, and the Paris Literary Prize.
Books lining the walls from floor to ceiling, stacked precariously, make this place a literary lover’s paradise. There is an air of possibility and romance to the little typewriter, ready to be tapped away on as soon as inspiration hits. The low murmur of voices mingles with the occasional sound of a piano, and visitors leave scrawled notes, photographs, and metro tickets on a big mirror upstairs, a crowded communal collage that stands testament to so many different adventures, hopes, and dreams.
Travelers flock to this little corner of Paris hungry for a glimpse of the city that they have read and dreamed about, the city of little winding staircases, peeling paint, and type writers in attics overlooking the Seine. A fantasy, perhaps, projected onto the city by eager expatriates, but a fantasy that can be fulfilled in this bookshop. It is eccentric, it is rather self aware, and it is definitely more American than French. But it is no less interesting or charming for all of that, and you are bound to have a memorable encounter or two if you spend long enough browsing through the modernist classics.
Sainte Chapelle (metro: Cité/Saint Michel)
Opening hours: open every day (apart from public holidays) from the 1 March – 31 October, 9:30am – 6pm, and 1 November – 28 February, 9am – 5pm. It is also open until 9pm during the summer months (15 May – 15 September).
Price: €8.50 (€5.50 concession, free for European passport holders aged 25 and under)
Built between 1239 and 1248 by King Louis IX of France to house some of the most important relics of medieval Christendom, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns, this is the most beautiful religious building in Paris – perhaps even in Europe. The starry ceiling seems to float on rich jewel colored stained glass windows that completely enshrine the nave on all sides. Each window depicts a story from the Old Testament like a giant medieval cartoon strip, a miracle of craftsmanship and storytelling. Catch Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day as the light streams through the windows, and your breath will catch in your throat as your heart feels like it is expanding.
Bring some letters or a diary to write, take a seat, and linger a while to soak up this otherworldly place. Later in life, when you are stressed and tired back in the rush and the grey concrete, you will have it stored up, a reserve of beauty to draw on and give you strength. Treasure this moment, darling, so that “wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you.”