Skip the usual hotspots of Paris and visit these instead

  • by Nishat Fatima, photos by Sameer Saran
  • Updated: May 02, 2016 13:13 IST
The Musée d’Orsay building was once an old train station. (© Sameer Saran)

The first time I came to Paris, I did as all tourists do. I saw the Mona Lisa. I went to the Moulin Rouge. I spent a lot of time in Shakespeare and Company. I walked along the Seine from the Musee d’Orsay to Notre Dame (particularly to Maoz falafel). I climbed the steps (two at a time, to help me tone my glutes) to the Sacre Coeur, and wandered around the Place du Tertre. I even went to the Champs-Élysées at Christmas time. Thank god I was a poor student or I would have returned with ‘I love Paris’ T-shirts and Eiffel tower aprons. I still wistfully remember a compact mirror with Monet’s lilies.

More than a decade on, I’m back in Paris as a student. But I’ve been here more than six months, much of it spent exploring and wandering its streets. Paris and I have developed a close acquaintance. Have I repeated any of the things I did from my first visit and have I recommended them to visitors? No – except the walk along the Seine.

Don’t take a selfie in front of IM Pei’s glass pyramid…

I went to the Louvre every month when I first visited. Each time, I emerged overwhelmed and dissatisfied. There was too much to cover, and the Mona Lisa was much smaller and much further away than I expected. There were also too many people. I loved the courtyard, I was happy to take pictures at the glass pyramids, but the very thought of going in again is intimidating. But how can you go to Paris and not visit the Louvre?

...Visit the Centre Georges Pompidou instead

The Centre Georges Pompidou is also the National Museum of Modern Art. Think Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Warhol, Kandinsky. It’s modern art but not so modern as to be inaccessible. And it’s housed in a building that befits the collection. Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, it’s all pipes and glass. Spend some time staring at it. Or, well, Instagramming it. Then there’s the escalator ride inside a glass tunnel to take you to the galleries. Plus, it has one of the best views of the city – one from which you can see both the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur. Even better, you can go through it in a couple of hours and when you come out, you’re in the heart of the shopping area.


Don’t have tea at Ladurée…

(© Sameer Saran)

Tea is not a Parisian thing. Ladurée and macarons and sweet-as-sugar tea rooms will lure you but do not get taken in. Yes, the décor is lovely but Pierre Hermé has better macarons. Hot chocolate is equally good at Angelina’s and at Carette, but the best is at Caféothèque and Jeff de Bruges. Ask for the intense hot chocolate. You’re welcome.

…Get Sunday brunch at Le Fumoir instead

Brunch is a Parisian thing. That’s what you do on Sunday, 11am onwards. This doesn’t mean that you expect the never-ending-ness of the American or Indian brunch. No, no. Choice and portions are Parisian, but there’s an excitement that’s infectious. It’s the chance to do as Parisians do. And there are a plethora of places to choose from. Two of my favourites are Le Fumoir, in front of the Louvre, and reminiscent of a plantation house, and the oh-so-pretty La Chambre aux Oiseaux located near the romantic (also hipster central) Canal Saint-Martin. Always book ahead.


Don’t celebrity watch…

Yes, you could spot Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid at a table near you (or as they leave). Yes, you’re across the street from the Dior flagship at Avenue Montaigne. And yes, Jean-Louis Costes knows all about legendary restaurants. And yet… you might feel something missing. What if no celebrity appears that day? And all you saw were bored Arab shoppers and Russian richies? Would the (fairly good) food and the attractive wait staff be enough?

…Rub elbows with Parisians instead

I give you an option. Celebrity chef Yves Camdeborde’s sliver of a tapas bar just off Boulevard Saint-Germain, an area indisputably more alive than Avenue Montaigne. L’Avant Comptoir is next to Camdeborde’s popular bistro Le Comptoir de Saint-Germain. It’s packed noon to midnight so wedge yourself into whatever space you can find. And it’s standing room only. Outstanding food. The crowd leaves you no choice but to talk to the people around you. The staff is friendly and the wines are excellent. It’s like going to a fun, fun party. Rub elbows with Parisians. This is the place.


Don’t get stuck in memories of Montmartre

Fête des vendanges de Montmartre (the Grape Harvest Festival) has been celebrated in Montmartre since 1934 to celebrate the grape harvest. People gather on the steps in front of the Basilica Sacré-Cœur, while musicians serenade them (© Sameer Saran)

You saw it in Amélie. You saw it in Moulin Rouge. You saw it in Midnight in Paris. If you like vintage movies, you also saw it in An American in Paris. Montmartre was home to the impressionists in their garrets, to authors and to bohemians. It was the hub of artistic life till the early twentieth century: absinthe, dance halls. There were vineyards. And steep, winding streets. The last two haven’t changed but Montmartre is more seedy than artistic, and more middle class than bohemian. You can’t skip the Sacré-Cœur, it’s pretty. Sunset is nice. You can book into Moulin Rouge. But unless a local takes you around, it’s just another item on your list.

…Live the Marais instead

(© Sameer Saran)

Far more alive is the Marais – every day, including Sunday, when all of Paris sleeps. It’s got narrow little streets lined with boutiques. It’s full of restaurants and cafés, food markets and takeaway falafel. It’s home to some of the city’s oldest buildings. There are vintage stores and outlet shops. Museums including the Picasso museum, the quirky Musée de la Chasse et de la Natur (museum of hunting and nature) and my favourite, Maison Européenne de la Photographie. It’s got its fair share of tourists but no Eiffel tower souvenirs. It’s an experience. You’ll come back for more.


Don’t stop at the department stores…

The convenience of department stores is undeniable: everything under one roof. Or in the case of Galeries Lafayette: everything under a beautiful stained glass dome – and a rooftop with an enviable view of Paris. Plus an art gallery, just in case you want to get the complete Paris experience without stepping out. But like a casino, time holds no meaning as you go from stall to stall and floor to floor. At the end of the day, this isn’t very different from being at Harrods or Saks.

…Go to Paris’s most fashionable street instead

Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is a street with every luxury brand: from Moynat, where designer Ramesh Nair is making some super desirable bags, to concept store Colette, to Chanel, Lanvin and Roger Vivier. Lest you worry about the prices, it’s also peppered with high street brands. When you get tired you can stop for a drink at the bar at Costes. You can lunch at the Four Seasons. You can street style watch. Or you can duck into the gardens of the Palais Royale and get some (mild summer) sun. It’s always a good idea in Paris.

From HT Brunch, May 1, 2016

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