HG2 A hedonist's guide to... The UK's best-selling luxury city guide.
Everything we love in Paris
Explore the city by district:
Champs-Élysées & Trocadéro
Louvre & Palais Royal
Marais, Bastille & Oberkampf
The Left Bank & Latin Quarter
It's just not fair. Like a friend who's talented and good-looking and charming, Paris has it all: not only heavyweight artistic credentials, world-beating restaurants and luxury brands, and a supreme heritage of beautiful streets, houses, monuments and parks, but also the full whack of contemporary life, from street style (whom else do fashion editors emulate but Paris girls?) to dance music.
Paris' tremendous past lives – glorious, bloody, influential – are written all over its face. Yet day-to-day in the modern city doesn't necessarily correspond to all the old clichés, and you'll have more fun, arguably, if you abandon them. That's not to say you shouldn't read Balzac, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin and Hemingway on the train, nor that the odd night listening to Edith Piaf isn't good for the soul. Anyway, living-museum status is a no-no, thanks to the city's bold architectural, artistic and gastronomic innovators (and premiers with an eye on immortality).
Is the City of Lights is supremely romantic? That depends on who you're with and where you stay. In other words, a capital that's a byword for diminutive hotel bedrooms cannot be the definitive city for lovers. Having said that, hedonism is alive and well and wearing six-inch spike heels – even swingers' clubs are hip here, rather than shamefully hidden in the banlieue. If food is your big thing, you're laughing: not only does Paris come top for refined classical cuisine and extravagance on a plate, but there's also a new guard of bistronomique chefs, who think smaller, more seasonal and more relaxed, but still provide serious gastronomic bang for your euro. And culturally, the city never disappoints: Chirac and Mitterand's big projects are as impressive as intended; arts funding is healthy; and multicultural creativity bubbles up both where you'd expect it and where you might not.
These densely populated streets are where Charles Baudelaire formulated flânerie – the knack of experiencing a city by immersing yourself unrestrainedly. The first-time visitor might have to be patient, though, since you've got to start at the beginning. That means the Louvre, the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré, Hôtel Costes, the Eiffel Tower (perhaps the best of the world's ridiculously obvious tourist attractions), the Pompidou Centre, Brasserie Lipp, even Sacré Coeur and its hordes. Once you've 'done' these, once you've bar-hopped around St Germain, picnicked in the Tuileries Gardens and trotted up and down the Champs-Elysées, then you can start to find your own favourite bits. You might start around the Canal St Martin, on Rue Montorgueil with its wonderful food shops, up and down gritty Rue du Faubourg St Denis, the revived Montmartre around Place des Abbesses, and points north and east, such as Châteaurouge and Belleville.
To orient yourself, get a nifty arrondissement map, like a London A-Z, only cuter. Paris is divided into 20 administrative zones, from 1 to 20, which spiral out from the 1er (Palais Royal, Louvre, Place Vendôme) to the 20th, out east. They correspond/overlap with the districts known by name as the Marais (3ème, 4ème), Montmartre (9ème, 18ème), St Germain (5ème, 6ème) and so on. Quick history lesson: the Roman settlement on the River Seine was called Lutetia. The Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris. Molière was the French Shakespeare, and his theatre, the Comédie Française, is still going strong. The French Revolution of 1789 was the biggest and bloodiest and transformed Paris, but there were three more in 1830, 1848 and 1871 (and, just maybe, in 1968). Paris owes its looks to Napoleon III and to Baron Haussman, who designed the broad avenues and the six-storey townhouses. The Belle Epoque was only beautiful for the upper classes. Quick croissant lesson: you can't go wrong with pastries from Au Levain du Marais, Pierre Hermé, Arnaud Delmontel or Stohrer.
As well as immersing yourself unrestrainedly in food and fashion, electro parties and elegant hotels, watch and learn from Parisians, who give the distinct impression that they work to live, that they enjoy eating, drinking and socialising gracefully (just ignore the Rue de Lappe on a Saturday night), and that smoking cigarettes is still cool and sexy. Dear, sexy, glamorous, slightly vain Paris, we know you were the birthplace of the 20th century, and we're so glad you're still incredibly good fun as you charge headlong into the 21st.
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