That incredible Paris light in the Place des Vosges. All photos by me (or Mr. SMC).
Where does a person even begin when writing a Paris travel guide? I mean, there are entire books about this. How can I possibly sum it up in one story? So, I’ve taken a different approach. I’m assuming you can find the Eiffel Tower without my help, and that you know a day trip to Versailles is a must if you haven’t done it before. Instead, I’m taking you on a tour of my Paris. The restaurants I love, the shops I go back to again and again, the sites that are maybe just a bit off the path. Even if Paris isn’t on your horizon, I hope this will give you just the ‘virtual vacation’ you need today. And when you finally book that dream trip, I’m hoping perhaps you’ll take this list along and we can be travel buddies. Enjoy!
St. Germain de Pres Metro | Artus Hotel | Pavillon de la Reine
Here’s the story. Every time I go to Paris, I stay in St. Germain (which you might know as the Left Bank or the 6th). It’s the perfect home base – bustling and full of cafes and shops to explore, but relatively quiet at night, with Metro stops on every block. Also, you’re within sprinting distance of a Laduree, several creperies and all of Hemingway’s favorite bars, all of which is key for me.
This time, we branched out a bit and spent the first week in St. Germain and the last few days in Le Marais (across the river in the 3rd). And friends, it was perfect. St. Germain has changed so much since I was there last…more hustle and bustle, less leisurely cocktail-sipping at the Cafe de Flore, more shops, less patisseries. But it’s still incredibly central, fantastic for shopping, and it’s home to the Artus Hotel, which is one of my new favorite spots in Paris. The rooms are small (as they’re supposed to be in Paris), but they’re freshly renovated, and the location is phenomenal – it’s two blocks or less to 3 different Metro stops. But if I’m honest, the very best thing about the Artus is their amazing concierge, Sanjay. In all my hotel stays, I have never seen someone work harder to make sure I had a perfect trip. He made reservations, booked advance tickets, confirmed reservations I’d made myself (“Just to make sure”, he said), mapped, translated, never made me feel bad about my awful French, joked, served cappuccino…I truly could not have felt more at home.
But after a week, St. Germain was feeling a little too “in the thick of things”, and we were ready to try something new. I’d been hearing raves about the Marais from so many people, I knew we had to check it out. In general, I’m a big believer in upgrading your hotel for the last couple of nights on a long trip like this. It puts you back in relaxation mode, helps you decompress…it’s sort of the “vacation” at the end of the trip. So, we planned to spend our last three nights at the Pavillon de la Reine, and friends – that may have been the best stroke of genius I had the entire trip.
Moving to the Marais felt almost like going to an entirely different city. Intimate, charming and incredibly walkable – the Marais was the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the 6th. And our hotel was flat out amazing, friends. Tucked away off the Place des Vosges (the central square in the Marais) and covered in vines, the Pavillon de la Reine was the perfect antidote to that harried, squished sensation you can often get in the busier parts of Paris. Huge, luxurious rooms (with a king bed!), a spa, a gorgeous courtyard for breakfast or afternoon cocktails, and a perfect home base for exploring the fantastic shopping scene in the 3rd (see below). I couldn’t have been happier.
The Épice store and a very cool Parisian in the Palais Royal Arcade
This is, of course, what you’re all wondering about, right? Where did I shop and what did I buy? The answer…everywhere (and everything). Honestly, I couldn’t believe how much more shopping there was than I remembered from previous trips. It was actually pretty overwhelming, even for a retail-phile like me. But I powered through (I know, dirty job), and I think I’ve culled a list of some of the best Paris has to offer. I’ll assume you can find Galeries Lafayette on your own (but do skip the mobs on the Champs Elysées – it’s nothing but chain stores these days), and we’ll stick to more off-the-path finds.
- High (street) style: My hands-down favorite “high street” French designer is Gerard Darel (and their new diffusion line, Pablo – to shop stateside, go here or here). Classic pieces, impeccable fits (I am obsessed with their pants), and scores of those impossibly chic jackets we’ve talked about. I also love COS for neutral French basics with a modern edge, and Loft Design By for classic, relaxed knits in natural fibers. (I bought a blazer there on my last trip that got compliments every time I wore it; this time, I picked up a very Isabel Marant-looking sweater for a steal.)
- St. Germain: The 6th is the best place to be for getting your “high street” fix. Walk the Rue de Grenelle, which is peppered with wonderful shops. Stop at COS and Tara Jarmon, pick up some lovely French underpinnings at Princesse Tam Tam, and maybe a pair of ballets at Repetto on nearby Rue du Four. Then, head for Rue Jacob, where you’ll find Jerome Dreyfuss and Isabel Marant, for starters…and Ladurée is just around the corner on Rue Bonaparte. Last, be sure to duck down Rue des Saint-Peres for a stop at the tiniest little jewelry store I’ve ever seen – Stone Paris. I’m still dreaming about the baubles I tried on there (and dearly regretting not bringing some home).
- Le Marais: When you’ve tired of the high street stores, the Marais is my new favorite shopping spot in Paris. Think of it as Brooklyn to the rest of the city’s Manhattan – hip, unassuming shops you’ve never heard of, with wares that can be much more affordable than other corners of the city. Wander endlessly through the Marais – start on Rue de Turenne and just work your way up and down the streets, along Rue de Sévigné and Rue des Rosiers. Don’t miss: the Sandro stock store on Rue de Sévigné (‘stock’ is French code for ‘outlet’), Heschung for shoes, 11 sévigné for bags, and Delphine Pariente for charming (and cheap!) Parisian baubles. Merci in the 3rd was one of my favorite finds this trip. It’s a concept store, so expect plenty of innovative displays and impossibly hip picks from designers you probably haven’t heard of (yet). Visit the heritage chickens pecking around the courtyard, ogle the jewelry collection and the indoor garden store, and don’t miss the home goods downstairs.
- Palais Royal: Truly, this was my favorite experience of the entire trip. The Palais Royal shops are an 18th-century open-air arcade expertly hidden from the masses (you’ll have to duck into a little passageway off the Rue de Richelieu to find the entrance). Inside, you’ll find antiques and artisans (handmade gloves, a shop that’s been making war medals for two hundred years), mixed in with Stella McCartney and Kitsuné. Famed vintage clothier Didier Ludot is here, and…oh, did I forget to mention the best part? An Épice store. Boxes upon boxes of scarves stacked floor to ceiling, friends. My poor, poor Hubs. And all of this surrounds the beautiful Palais Royal gardens, where you can sit on a bench and watch cranky French men playing boules, or catch a couple of students playing classical cello in an alcove. It is, quite simply, everything you want from a day in Paris.
- Beauty: And of course, don’t forget to stop at a Parisian pharmacie while you’re in town. Stock up on Embryolisse, Bioderma and Homeoplasmine…and whatever other goodies catch your eye. A friend tipped me off that it’s better to find a parapharmacie if you can – they specialize in beauty goods, so they’re more likely to have the fun lotions and potions you’re after.
Dessert at Benoit | Tea at Ladurée | Dinner at Verjus | Miles of éclairs at L’Éclair de Genie
(We did eat actual meals too, I swear.)
It’s no secret that I ate awfully well in Paris. And while it’s true that it’s hard to go wrong in a city renowned for food, classic French bistro fare can get a little tiring (not to mention rich) after a while. Luckily, Parisians are really getting into more modern interpretations of the classics these days. So, have a cocktail at Café de Flore or Deux Magots (I tend to love the latter), but when it comes to seeking out the best French food, save your pennies for splurges at one (or all) of my favorite new spots.
- Verjus offers up a phenomenal (but not at all stuffy) set menu experience that will change how you think about French cuisine – fresh flavors, and bright and unexpected ingredient pairings that come together head-shakingly well, and an atmosphere so cozy and comforting, it’s a bit like settling in for the best meal of your life in a dear friend’s kitchen.
- Pouic Pouic was a Sanjay find, and while I’m sometimes wary of concierge recs, this was an incredible dinner for a pretty remarkable price. Pouic Pouic is churning out modern spins on traditional French fare (the best beef cheeks I’ve ever tasted), plus a few surprises (a fusion-inspired Ahi, beet ravioli), all in a tiny little café setting that was coo.
- And for the most wonderful, authentic bistro experience you’ll ever have, Benoit is an absolute must. Every menu item evokes those traditional French dishes you expect to see, and every one is executed absolutely flawlessly. I’d expected no less from an Alain Ducasse restaurant, but I was still floored by the food. From a starter of fois gras to paté campagne, cassoulet and the most wonderful rhum cake (when dessert arrives with two bottles of rum, you know it’s going to be good), every bite evoked such a feeling of warmth and tradition, but still felt modern and fresh. And the decor…well, it’s like stepping into a scene from Amelie – quintessentially Parisian, in the best possible way. Don’t judge traditional French fare until you’ve tasted Ducasse’s take.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of dessert. And while I was shocked to find many of my favorite patisseries and boulangeries had been edged out of the 6th by the retail takeover, rest assured, you’ll still find your fill.
- Macarons at Ladurée for tradition, and at Pierre Hermé for innovation.
- The poire glacé (pear ice cream) at Berthillon is life-alteringly good, particularly when paired with cassis.
- L’Éclair de Genie is a patisserie entirely dedicated to éclairs, and I can tell you from experience that the salted caramel will ruin you for all others versions.
- As for croissants, the only thing to do is visit each boulangerie you come across and sample a croissant from each one until you find your favorite. Because one morning, you’ll wander into a tiny bakery where no one speaks English, and they’ll hand you your pain au chocolat, still warm from the oven, and just like that, you’ll understand why people come to Paris and never leave.
Lunch at the Georges V | Dries exhibit, Musée des Arts Decoratifs | Tour Saint-Jacques | Obligatory Eiffel Tower selfie
Of course, I can’t possibly begin to give you a list of all the things you should do in Paris…you have Frommer’s for that. Though to be honest, I’d throw most of those “must do” lists out the window. For me, Paris isn’t about the Louvre and the view from the Eiffel Tower (though both are extraordinary). It’s about finding your own Paris. Getting lost, wandering down a side street into a little café you’ll never find again, spending an afternoon on a bench in a tiny public garden that doesn’t show up on your map. But until you find yours, I’m happy to share a little of my Paris magic with you:
- While everyone else is at the Louvre, go to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. They have the most marvelous special exhibits, plus a permanent collection filled with jewels and furnishings that will make your heart skip a beat (and maybe the best museum gift shop ever). I was lucky enough to see their Dries van Noten exhibit, which was truly one of the most beautiful special exhibits I’ve ever seen (if you can’t go, treat yourself to the catalog – it’s stunning).
- Pack a picnic, and take it anywhere. The Champ de Mars for Eiffel Tower views, the banks of the Seine, the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Tour Saint-Jacques. Parisians are experts when it comes to creating beautiful outdoor spaces to relax and recharge, so just pick a park, grab a baguette and let go of the tourist agenda for an hour (or two).
- Visit the Musée Rodin, but skip the museum in favor of a stroll through the gardens, which are peppered with Rodin sculptures.
- Have champagne, foie gras and fresh strawberries at the stunning La Galerie in the landmark Georges V Hotel. Be prepared not to worry about the price, and just revel in the sheer Parisian glamour of the experience.
- When your feet ache and you can’t take another step, head for the Bateaux Mouches for a boat ride along the Seine. Corny, maybe, but once you see the views, you won’t care. I think it’s still the very best way to see Paris.
There you have it, friends! I can’t promise this covers everything, but I can tell you that if you were to hit all of these spots, you’d have had a pretty perfect week in Paris. I know I did.
Before I wrap up, I have to give a huge thank you to the teams at Atout France and ParisInfo. Truly, they could not have been more helpful as I planned this trip. Their online content is amazing (I spent a lot of time with ParisInfo’s amazing shopping guide), and their staff is incredibly helpful. If you’re planning a trip and aren’t sure where to begin, they’ll get you off on the right foot.
(And stay tuned…I’ll have my Florence travel guide for you soon!)