What to do, where to stay and, most importantly, where to eat in Paris
I have two favourite quotes about Paris. From Thomas Jefferson that: "a walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life," and from Audrey Hepburn’s character in the movie Sabrina: "Paris is always a good idea." Both sum it up perfectly. It really doesn’t matter what time of year you go, because the city of light never fails to dazzle.
I was lucky enough to live in Paris for a few months back in 2012, and it’s still one of my absolute favourite places in the world. The architecture is stunning, the food delicious, and I am always charmed by the fussiness of French society, and its many, many rules: always say ‘Bonjour madame/monsieur before saying anything else, never be seen in gym clothes apart from at the gym, always faire les yeux and meet eyes when clinking glasses (to fail to do so condemns all present to seven years bad sex) and so on, and on, and on.
Here are some of my favourite things to do whenever I’m lucky enough to get back to Paris...
1. Arrive by train
Nikki BayleyI arrived in Paris via the high-speed train from Barcelona (another of my absolute favourite culinary cities. Take a look at the story I wrote last year on where to go, eat and drink there). It’s easy to combine a two-city vacation, and it makes for the most blissful day after a late, crazy night in Barcelona to watch the world unfold past your window on the train which crosses most of the country in just seven hours and nine minutes. The views are just gorgeous: salt marshes and pristine beaches, soft sloping hills and farmlands, cities and eventually the jumble of suburbs leading into Paris. Pack a picnic of Serrano ham, some cheese, bread and perhaps a mini bottle of cava or two, as well as some plump, juicy olives and make the journey one of the most fun parts of your trip.
2. Stay in an apartment
Perfectly ParisI love the 18th arrondissement, with the touristy buzz of the Sacré-Cœur, the cobbled winding streets of Montmartre, and the saucy fun of Pigalle with its Moulin Rouge cabaret and sex shops. It’s where I lived when I first moved to the city and I miss that apartment so much!
Forget staying in a hotel! Make like a local and rent through Perfectly Paris to enjoy la vie en rose in the Lamarck-Caulaincourt ‘hood: a hotbed of tiny tempting cheesemongers, patisseries, gift shops, and oh! so many gorgeous little charcuterie, traiteurs and bakeries. Full disclosure, my friend Gail (a transplanted Toronto gal) owns the company, but it is pretty awesome: there’s a reason she has won ‘Paris Villa Rental Specialist’ each year from Conde Nast Traveller since 2008.
I stayed in the Caulaincourt Charm apartment, scoring instant Facebook envy after I posted photos—so cozy, so very Parisian, and just the perfect location right in the heart of everything, with a view over those iconic Paris rooftops. On my first night, I cruised the stores, filling a shopping bag with delicious treats and enjoyed them all back in the apartment, which comes with a handy insider’s guide on everything from the best local wine bar and the best spot for croissants to tips on how to get around the city and what to see and do.
3. Drink cocktails over lunch at Carbon
Nikki BayleyAlthough it is tempting to just drink French wine the whole time you’re in Paris, the cocktail scene there is gearing up and making some super fun concoctions. Take a look at the 52 Martinis blog and download the app to make your boozing time in Paris a breeze. I loved the menu at Carbon, a newly opened spot in Le Marias, with its own speakeasy style bar, La Mina, in the basement. I stopped by for lunch and was crazy about the smoked burrata, and the Querida Mia with fino sherry, vermouth, white peach and thyme.
4. Dive into duck confit at Chez Dumonet Josephine
Nikki BayleyGet the quintessential Parisian bistro experience at Chez Dumonet Josephine on a small street off Blvd. Montparnasse, complete with lace curtains, old-school waiters and probably some of the finest examples of classic bistro dishes in the city. I’m obsessed with the duck confit here: crunchy light skin, juicy flesh and the best, best roast potatoes. Don’t dig duck? The boeuf bourguignon, which comes served in an oven-scorched orange Le Creuset pan, is also famously the best in Paris. Go with a friend so you can have both! It’s not cheap, (Face it: with the Canadian dollar as it is, nothing is) but portions are huge, it’s insanely delicious, and there are plenty of little extras too, from the little pâté at the start to petits fours at the end.
5. Eat Crêpes on the street
Flickr/Stu SpivackMore than almost anything, I wish Vancouver had Parisian crêpe sellers because—trust me—there is no more delicious snack than cramming one of these Gruyère cheese and ham bad boys in your mouth and savouring the buttery, fatty heaven of melted cheese against the meaty joy of French ham, and the delicate crunch of the lacy edges of crêpe. For maximum gluttony, go for the double: the ham and cheese, and then a caramel beurre salé (oh god, am actually drooling now just thinking about it): a hot pocket of salted caramel that may have you whinnying with pleasure it is so darn good.
6. Slurp oysters and drink wine at the market
Nikki BayleyYes, because France believes that adults are grown-ups, capable of enjoying a nice glass of wine without running amok, you can head to a market and enjoy an adult beverage. My favourite spot to do this is at the covered Marche Saint Quentin on Boulevard de Magenta, a local’s favourite since 1866. It’s closed (as are so many places!) on Monday but the rest of the week, you can visit to cruise the aisles snapping pictures of the great produce (and buying some to take home to enjoy in your funky Paris apartment) and then head to the fish stall Quai 85, order up a half dozen oysters and sit at the rickety table and slurp, swirl, sniff and sip some lush Muscadet and ocean-fresh bivalves for around $10.
7. Hammam at La Mosquee
Nikki BayleyLeave your prudish British Columbian ways at the door and embrace the nudity, and somewhat basic facilities, of the all-women Mosquée hammam, a terrific cultural bathing spot on the Left Bank by the Natural History Museum and Jardin des Plantes. It’s incredibly cheap and offers up an amazing authentic hammam experience at the beautiful Paris mosque. It’s a wonderfully egalitarian and quite liberating experience all in an exotic space with beautiful tiled walls. There are bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages here and it’s quite wonderful, as a woman, to be in wholly judgement-free space just to relax, steam, hop in a cold tub, and get the most thorough body scrub you will ever have. Get the ‘gommage’ (scrub) and a massage too; your skin will be like satin for a week. Afterwards, nibble on pistachio-and-honey flaky pastry and sip sweet mint tea. Heaven.
8. Do the arty double
Nikki BayleyThe Louvre is a wonderful museum but for me, it’s too damn big. I get overwhelmed! There are so many rooms, so much to see and oh my, there are so many groups trawling around. No, I cannot be caught up in the transcendent beauty of art while dodging a gang of bored English schoolkids picking their noses and sniggering at nudity on display.
L’Orangerie is where you’ll see the blazing beauty of Monet’s vast curved Water Lilies paintings. It’s quite something to see them in person, along with other excellent artists such as cubist Marie Laurencin, Picasso and Modigliani.
The Orsay is housed in the old train station (just the Beaux-Arts architecture is a treat) and inside is a treasure trove of the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works from artists,including Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Van Gogh. It's open late on Thursdays till 9:45 p.m. Go, stay late and soak up the magic in this wonderful space.