The Very Best of Paris

I spent my birthday doing what I love to do most: travelling, eating delicious food, discovering interesting places, and learning new things.

I learned that travelling solo is actually quite fun and liberating – you get to do what you want to do, when you want, and how you want. And eating alone in restaurants is delightfully entertaining and not scary at all, especially in little French bistros, where the tiny tables are perfect for one and their close proximity allows for spontaneous conversations with strangers. A facet that I uncovered about myself is that I am not as timid as I thought I was; maybe it has something to do with aging and losing a bit of vergüenza along the way. My grandmother used to say that as we grow older, we divest ourselves of our shyness… and I’ll admit I’m thoroughly enjoying embracing a more brazen and bolder me.

I became frustratingly aware that there are limitations as a single, woman traveller, such as renting an apartment-sight-unseen, which can be a crummy idea (specifically without a recommendation and in an unfamiliar area). Yet, I realised that pushing my boundaries and getting out of my comfort zone is immensely gratifying and makes one more resilient and resourceful.

I acquired a new skill, as I played apprentice to a French pastry chef, learning how to make French croissants (and how gluten affects baking – croissant flour should always have less gluten content!).

And I discovered that Paris in September is utterly delightful, even in the rain – or maybe as a consequence of the rain and the soft, delicate beauty that is a result of the grey skies. And that the visual poetry that emerges after a rain shower is spectacular. The streets shimmer with a freshness that makes everything smell new and clean, the green leaves of the trees sparkle brightly with a golden tinge creating an allure reminiscent of holiday glimmer, the gilded statues on the Pont Alexandre III blazingly come to life, and the Eiffel Tower twinkles and gleams. The sun, ever so elusive in Paris, beams down on the city warming up even the most bleak of passersby. September may be just the best time of year to be in the city of lights (and if we talk about tourists.. there are less of them – an added bonus!).

As you may have guessed (or maybe because you follow me on Instagram, you already know), I spent my birthday in Paris. In September. And mostly alone (albeit not lonely). And it wasn’t just any birthday, but a big one. A big one in numbers. And a big one because I wanted to celebrate it in a special way, doing what I love most. Just because. Because life is beautiful. And because two of my favourite persons, with whom I would’ve liked to have spent my birthday – the two that gave me life – are no longer here. And this is the first birthday without the two of them.

Birthdays are joyful events. We celebrate life; and as my brother says, it beats the alternative!

And thus as my birthday gift to you, I would like to share some recommendations and tips of things you can see and do (in five days) in Paris…. actually, I would argue it’s the Best of Paris!

Where I Stayed

Experiences are personal, of course. But I cannot recommend enough where I, by a turn of fate, by serendipitous fortuity, ended up staying.

Hôtel de Lutèce. 65 Rue Saint-Louis en Île. More ‘centrally’ located is almost impossible. It’s on the littler of the two islands on the Seine, with shops and restaurants all around. (In fact, the famous Berthillon ice cream store is a couple of blocks down the same street.) Housed in a picturesque 17th century building, the hotel is cozy and quaint, with beautifully appointed and elegant rooms, and very clean. The staff are very friendly and helpful, and the service is superb. I met a number of returning customers who shared with me that they’ve been coming to Paris every year and only stay in this hotel. I see why, and with its reasonable rates, I’ll be joining their ranks.

Also, the island itself is a gem, peaceful, not overly crowded with tourists, within walking distance of many iconic sights, and safe both day and night.

Where to Eat 

Le Saint Régis. 6 Rue Jean du Bellay, on the corner of Rue Saint-Louis en Île. Overlooking the Pont St. Louis and with stunning views of the backside of Nôtre de Dame de Paris from the sidewalk, this café is delightfully Parisian. With white, subway tiled walls, wooden booths lining the walls, and enticing displays of French baguettes, this small bistrot serves meals all day, from breakfast to dinner. The waitstaff are friendly and bilingual. And the food is organic and delicious. It’s also a great location to see and be seen. I enjoyed breakfast (eggs included) here two of the days I was in Paris.

Cafe Restaurant Louis Philippe. 66 Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. Situated just across the Pont Louis Philippe from the Île Saint Louis, on the corner with Rue des Barres (just the beginning of the Marais district), this pretty café-resto has decoration dating from 1810.  It’s pre-Belle Epoque atmosphere with traditional French cuisine with dishes like boeuf bourguignon, duck confit, frog legs Provençal style, and its lovely glass-covered terrace are worth a reprieve from the pavement. But if that doesn’t convince you, maybe you want to dine here after knowing that one of the scenes of The Ninth Gate (a Johnny Depp movie) was filmed in this enchanting location.

Aux Anysetiers du Roy. 61 Rue Saint-Louis en Île. When I asked at my hotel for dining recommendations, I was quite literally told to simply walk down the street that I would find plenty from which to choose. My first thought was how dismissive the receptionist had been. But I quickly learned that on the contrary, he was actually trying to be helpful, for the abundance of choices on Île Saint Louis are properly savoured by discovering them on one’s own.

Aux Anysetiers du Roy is one of my findings. It’s a charming little restaurant in a building dating from the 17th century and offers lunches, dinners, and even take-out! It has traditional French cuisine, a good wine list (including a Médoc which I had with dinner), and cozy medieval decor. The name, a rather curious one, means literally ‘at the house of the anise experts to the king’. In 1263, the Guild of Anysetiers was registered in Châtelet. I’m unsure why the restaurant is called like this, but Châtelet is not too far away …

Berthillon. 29-32 Rue Saint-Louis en Île. David Lebovitz did a post about this famous, iconic ice cream shop in Paris. And when I had read it, I had put it on my ‘must do’ list for my next time in the city. Yet, I had completely forgotten about it; but when I learned it was on the little island and only a couple of blocks from my hotel, I figured I would be sinning if I didn’t stop by.

Oh my! I first came by for a decadent tartelette de pommes breakfast in the café next to the ice cream parlor. And then the same day, I went back for noisette ice cream. The hazelnut ice cream is lusciously creamy, with an intense yet delicate flavour. I felt guilty eating so much sugar in one morning. But I’ll admit, I happily savoured every bite and drip as my ice cream melted down the cone! And by the way, they make vegan ice creams!

Page 35. 4 Rue du Parc Royal. I stumbled on this restaurant as I was walking through the Marais district. What attracted me were the little tables set up on a quiet street alongside a park, all of them with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the many people engaged in jovial conversations, and the pretty music playing in the background. I was not disappointed. The waitstaff are mostly Asian, with one particular gentleman – he seemed to be the maitre d’ – complementing the eccentric and artsy look of the restaurant.  He kept everyone on their toes, made sure all of the guests were promptly attended to, and carried his efficiency as artistically as he wore his dangling scarf, with a tiny bit around his neck, the middle tucked through his belt, and the rest flowing in the wind as he moved quickly from table to table and inside the restaurant. (Coincidentally, I spotted him near the little island one of the other days I was in Paris. As my Parisian friend says, Paris is small…) The food is traditional French, with 2- and 3-course menus reasonably priced.

L’Ilot Vache. 35 Rue Saint-Louis en Île. Yet another discovery on Île Saint Louis. Eclectic and modern, with huge flower bouquets dominating the table decor, and cow figurines and farm utensils adorning the walls, this restaurant is slightly pricier and boasts a more exclusive wine list (the most expensive bottle is a Médoc at €680!). The food is delicious. I enjoyed a 3-course menu (6 escargots, côtes d’agneau, and crème brulée) and a glass of Languedoc red wine for €50. It is here that I met a charming Italian couple seated at the table ‘next door’. We were so close, we shared my bread basket (and I was given a tour of the Foundation Louis Vuitton on their iPad)!

Les Ombres. 27 Quai Branly. I tried to reserve a table for my birthday, which was on the Sunday I was there, but there was no availability. Thus, I ended up eating there on my last day in town. I went for the panoramic views of Paris, pointedly that of the Tour Eiffel. Les Ombres is situated in the ‘shadow’ (l’ombre) of the Eiffel Tower on top of the Musée du Quai Branly.

The restaurant, at the hands of Chef Frédéric Claudel, offers a modern, gourmand gastronomic experience based on quality products. And the service is exquisite. I ordered à la carte, as what I wanted was not all offered in the menus (plus, it was my birthday lunch!). I enjoyed a hummus with extra virgen olive oil as an amuse-bouche (a little extra touch), a terrine of duck foie-gras with cherry coulis and pistachios as my entrée, and the ‘steamed sea bass in the leaf of lime with artichokes barigoules, chanterelles, fresh almonds, and beef consommé’ as my plat principal. For dessert, I indulged in a sweet and savoury treat of Chevriou from Madame Cantin (organic goat cheese) served with a honey, lemon, and rose ginger topping. I accompanied my lunch with a glass of smooth, luscious Médoc.  Must I emphasise that I came for the view, but would repeat for the food? It was a sublime.

Odette. 77 Rue Galande / 18 Rue Montorgueil. Tired of the French macaron obsession? Try one of Odette’s creme-filled choux pastries for a different French treat. They are surprisingly scrumptious.

***

On my last day in Paris, I had a quick dinner on the corner of the street of my hotel. The meal was ‘correct’, but nothing too special to mention. I must, however, say that I ran into my co-apprentice, croissant-making friend and her partner. I will repeat what my Parisian friend says, Paris is indeed small… what are the chances that I had no plans to eat dinner, I was walking to my hotel, and on a spur-of-the-moment decide that going to bed without some sort of nourishment was not a good idea, and selecting one place, then immediately switching my mind to another and finding this lady there? … yeah… he might just be right.

What to Do

Book a Croissant Making Class at La Cuisine Paris. Easily accessible and located at 80 Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, with English-speaking staff, La Cuisine Paris offers all sorts of cooking classes and food tours.

Go to a concert inside a church. There are many churches, even Nôtre Dame de Paris, that offer concerts. I found a piano concert at one of Paris’ oldest churches, Église Saint Julien-le-Pauvre, on the Left Bank on 79 Rue Galande. They regularly host concerts at great prices. No need to reserve; just show up a few hours before to purchase your ticket.

Book a tour of Montmartre with City Wonders. There are many tour offerings. But I will recommend City Wonders because my experience was positive. The tour guide, Daniel “the Irish guy” was a charm. He is a history mayor, speaks multiple languages, and provides an informative and educational tour. Montmartre is an area of town that I would highly recommend seeing with a guide. The area comes to life when one learns about the quirky history behind the sights. (Plus, if you want to go inside the Clos de Montmartre (Paris’ only city vineyard and winery), only City Wonders will get you in, as it’s otherwise closed to the public.)

Check out an outdoor market. For example, there’s one at Place de Baudoyer, in the Marais, on Saturdays. At this one, there are stands for fresh, wild caught seafood, organic duck and poultry products, organic charcuterie, other foodstuffs, and flowers. But there are many more throughout the city.

Buy French cheeses, pâtés, and other goodies to take home with you! Cheeses can be vacuumed packed. Ask the shopkeeper if this is possible. Pâtés are tinned, so that shouldn’t be a problem for packing in one’s suitcase. And there are many other goodies one can bring home, such as olive oils, truffle salt, herbs … I can recommend the shop across from my hotel, where the cheesemonger was very helpful and knowledgable, the selection of goodies is extensive, and the prices are quite good, La Ferme de Saint Aubin on 76 Rue Saint-Louis en Île.

Shop at a typical Parisian paper store. Don’t miss out on exploring a typical Parisian paper store. It’s a magical world, notably the little shop on 5 Rue des Deux Ponts, Papeterie Marie-Tournelle.

Hang out, maybe buy a book, listen to a musician play the piano, or participate in a lecture at Shakespeare & Co. 37 Rue de la Bûcherie. This iconic English-language bookstore selling both used and new books is housed in an old building right across the Seine from Nôtre Dame de Paris. It may seem rather touristy; and the crowds of people lining up to go inside and upstairs may deter you from joining them. But believe me, it’s worth bracing yourself with a little bit of patience to go inside and have a look. The selection of books is amazing. The staff are very nice and friendly. And if you make it upstairs, you’ll be delighted by a jammed-packed library of old English books, a cozy, little reading room with a stand-up piano included (local musicians play for free), the resident cat, and students hanging around reading. At night, the upstairs apparently turns into an impromptu free sleeping lodge for those who in turn work for free for a few hours a day in the shop downstairs.

Buy original art at Place du Tertre. The artists may not yet be famous. But there’s a 10-year waiting list to be able to set up ‘shop’ at Place du Tertre in Montmartre. All of the art displayed and for sale is original. Some paintings are very inexpensive, whilst others are handsomely priced. You choose!

Indulge in a marron glacé at Paris’ oldest pastry shop, Stroher. 51 Rue Montorgueil. Just for kicks and to say you’ve been in Paris’ oldest pastry shop, go there and try one of their very sugary treats. Rue Montorgueil is filled with lovely little sidewalk cafes and shops. So your trip there won’t be totally in vain if you don’t like sweets. (Stroher is not a café and offers no seating area.)

Visit some covered passages. There are plenty from which to select. I discovered a beautiful, art-deco passage called La Galerie Vivienne, built in 1823. (In 1974, it was included in the list of historical monuments.) It can be entered from two streets, with the principal entrance on 4 Rue des Petits Champs.

Take a round-trip tour on a bateau-mouche. Round-trip tours (without getting off) take about two hours. You can also hop-on and hop-off and use them as transport in the city. Either way, it’s worth getting a different view of Paris (and its bridges from below!) and taking a leisurely, refreshing boat ride on the Seine. The tour I took went from Le Jardin des Plantes to the mini Statue of Liberty, passing by all the iconic sights, for only €17 (valid for 24 hours) with no prior reservation required. There are also dinner or lunch cruises available (for which I assume reservations are required/preferred).

Attend a Gregorian Mass at Nôtre Dame de Paris. It’s free. And even if you’re not religious, it’s a peaceful and inspirational experience in a cathedral that is over eight centuries old. Sundays at 10:00 only. (Other mass services are available throughout the week.)

Visit an antique shop. On Île de la Cité, there’s a small antique shop, which had many interesting kitchen items the day I visited.  The owner, an elegant Frenchman, is very friendly.  Raphaël Bedos. But there are many more around Paris.

What to See on the Islands

Nôtre Dame de Paris. You can’t be in Paris and not visit its cathedral. Best of all, it’s free, as are all churches in Paris. The Towers of the Cathedral. One can go up the towers to the belfry for a bird’s-eye view of the city. Go around the corner of the cathedral on Rue du Clôitre-Nôtre-Dame. There are two ticket machines. Select a visit time and come back a few minutes before the scheduled time to stand in line in the same area. You pay once you go inside. It’s €10 per person. If I properly recall, it’s over 400 steps to the top.

La Conciergerie. For €15 you get a combined ticket and can also visit Sainte-Chapelle. La Conciergerie is where Marie Antoinette spent her last 76 days before being beheaded. From a royal residence to a palace of justice to a prison, this imposing building on the banks of the River Seine dates back to the 6th century, with additions and renovations taking place during the 13th and 14th centuries. Entrance on 2 Boulevard du Palais.

Sainte-Chapelle. This beautiful building is best enjoyed when the sun is shining. But that’s not something we can ring up and reserve. In any case, first-time visitors, and even repeat visitors such as myself, are sure to be impressed and left in awe. Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248 to house the relics of the Passion of Christ, more specifically the famous Crown of Thorns. In the lower chapel, there’s a fresco depicting the Annunciation. This is the oldest wall painting in Paris. But it is the upper chapel that is the crowning glory. There are 15 stained glass windows, with 1,113 scenes depicted on them. And as I said, when the sun is shining through, it is simply glorious. On a grey day, though, it is still a very beautiful sight. Entrance on 4 Boulevard du Palais.

Both the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle are now part of the Palace of Justice buildings, so visitors must go through a strict security check.

Église Saint-Louis en Île. The bells were tolling when I walked by this church, announcing 12 o’clock mass; otherwise, I would’ve almost missed it and not because it’s small, but rather because it blends into the rest of the grey-stone façades so typical of Paris. It’s quite large and pretty inside. For those of you into Saint Anthony – he found me in every church I visited on this trip – he’s on the right-hand side of the nave (when facing the altar).

Bird and Flower Market on Île de la Cité. Marché aux Fleurs, Place Louis Lépine. You might miss it, but shouldn’t. It’s on the block just before La Conciergerie/Sainte-Chapelle buildings. It’s a colourful market with many flower shops and gardening knick-knacks. On Sundays, it also turns into a bird market.

What to See in Le Marais

Le Marais District. It’s the new ‘it’ place in town. Many of my acquaintances were raving about Le Marais district and I almost wasn’t going to go. If it hadn’t been for my curiosity to see a 16th-century half-timbered house (and later Victor Hugo’s apartments), I would have entirely missed this lovely part of Paris. Go, please do, it is beautiful. It’s full of Medieval buildings, lots of cool shops, street musicians, and great cafés and bistros. There are also many Kosher shops, as this is where most of Paris’ Jewish community resides.

16th century house on Rue François Miron. There’s some sort of business on the ground floor, but the rest seems to still be used for private residences. This is what the really old Paris would’ve looked like … not all the grey-stone, elegant buildings that today we associate with this beautiful city.

Église de Saint Gervais. This church is dark and imposing. But the streets around it are very pretty and it’s just behind the Hôtel de Ville.

Hôtel de Ville. I’ve yet to go inside. There are always some sort of popular exhibitions taking place here, but this will be a ‘for next time’ for me. However, the building on the outside is really pretty and just around the side of it, facing the river, is a little gem of a garden worth visiting (especially if you have young children):

Jardin des Combattants de la Neuve. The garden and children’s playground ‘attached’ to the Hôtel de Ville. It’s a beautiful place for a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Place Vosges. I would recommend putting this on your ‘must see’ list, if you’ve not been there yet. It’s not only very pretty, with its collection of symmetrical, elegant red-brick houses surrounding the large, verdant square full of chestnut trees, but it’s also a great place to take a ‘seat’ on the grass and relax like a true Parisian. And why not have a croissant and coffee whilst people watching, while you’re at it? If you’re history buff, you may be interested to know that it’s Paris oldest square.

There are various ways to enter the square, but the most picturesque is via Rue de Birague.

Victor Hugo’s House. What I learned at the museum is that Victor Hugo spent part of his childhood in Spain and considered himself a Spaniard. He said about himself, that he if he would’ve stayed in Spain, he would’ve been a Spanish novelist and poet, instead of a French one….but then maybe he would have never written Les Misérables… in any case, the apartment at Place Vosges is where he spent 16 years of his life, right after the publication of Nôtre Dame de Paris. None of the rooms are as they would’ve been when the family lived there, but many of the pieces are from other Hugo family homes, including the kitchen from the house in Guernsey. It’s worth a visit. When I was there, there was also a special exhibit on regional costumes from Spain – for me an eye-opener, as some of which I had never seen!

Bibliothèque Forney & Jardin de l’Hôtel de Sens. It pays to ‘get lost’ or take a different turn in Paris. I discovered this renovated Medieval building on my way to Place Vosges. It’s now a library and the gardens in front are bursting with colourful flowers.

Paroisse Saint-Paul Saint-Louis. It’s on Rue Saint-Antoine. And it also has a Saint Anthony. 🙂 It has an interesting circular altar area.

What to See in Montmartre

Montmartre. Most people love it since it’s so picturesque and quaint with its cobbled, winding streets. It used to be a village outside of the city limits, but now it’s the 18th Arrondissement.

Basilica of Sacré Coeur. The church on top of the hill of Paris; it can be seen from kilometers away. And from its dome, you can see all of Paris, including up to 30 kilometers in the distance! It’s truly a magnificent view. The exterior is built with a special stone, called travertine, which exudes calcite when it comes in contact with rainwater, thus cleaning it and making it white (and also visible from all of the city).

The decoration and the mosaics inside are stunning, and walking through the nave is free. It’s also a place of perpetual worship or adoration, with at least one person always praying. For a small fee, one can spend the night at the guesthouse in exchange for an hour of prayer in the Basilica. According to Daniel, the-Irish-guy tour guide, it’s the second cheapest place in which to stay in Paris (after Shakespeare & Co.). But as I learned in business school: ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’…

The Dome of the Basilica. It’s an arduous 300+ steps to go up, but definitely worth the exercise and the €6 entrance fee. The views from above are mesmerizing.

Clos Montmartre. It’s the only vineyard in Paris and it’s closed to the public. The only way to get inside is by booking a tour with City Wonders.

There’s much more to see in Montmartre… such as Place du Tertre, Le Lapin Agile, various artists’ houses and museums, the Montmartre cemetery… by the way, the name Mont-Martre comes from ‘hill of the martyr’, the martyr being Saint Dénis.

Other Sites and Things to Do

Musée d’Orsay. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist museum par excellence. I can say I finally went inside after years of ‘leaving it for the next time’. It’s a must see if you love Van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse Lautrec, Sisley, and many others.

Les Tuileries. Walking – no, strolling – through this park is a requisite to fully enjoying Paris. Any time of year, it’s relaxing and beautiful.

Palais Royal. It’s a historical monument, housing antique and clothing shops, a tree-lined promenade, a flowered garden, a circular fountain in the middle, and cool exhibits, including the permanent black-and-white circular columns created by Daniel Buren. It’s always a joy to stroll through here, as well. At the far end of the Palais is a restaurant Le Grand Véfour, whose owner and chef, Guy Martin, has two Michelin stars. It ranks amongst the top 20 best restaurants in the world. This one for me is ‘for next time’, since it was closed when I visited.

Le Petit Palais. A free painting and sculpture permanent exhibit housed in an enchanting building. Le Grand Palais is across the street.

Église de Saint Eustache. Walk in to be wowed! It’s right next to Les Halles and doesn’t look too impressive at first, but take a walk around it to see just how grand it is. And definitely go inside. It’s not only huge and filled with splendid artwork, but the immense, double-columned nave is a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. Concerts are also held here.

Église de Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. Facing the Panthéon, this is another beautiful church with very interesting and surprising architecture. Sainte Geneviève’s relics are kept here.

Opéra Garnier. Oh my! I knew this would be impressive, as I have seen it often from the outside, but I was not ready for its magnificence. This is more than an opera house; it’s palatial, striking, grandiose, and lavish all rolled into one. Yet, also very elegant. The Avant-Foyer is covered in polychromatic mosaics that glitter on a golden background; the staircase built in various, coloured marbles opens the way to the view of the fresco paintings on the ceiling; and the crystal chandeliers add the touch of opulence that completes the scene. It is made for poetry and music and spectacular evening gowns.

Rue Mouffetard. If the Palais Garnier is all glitter and glamour of the once upper-crust, Rue Mouffetard is where the cooks and staff would’ve hung out. Today, it’s one of the funnest streets for anyone who considers him- or herself a foodie. It’s lined with food and wine shops, little restaurants, and replete with outdoor market stands. At the end of the street, before reaching the fountain, there’s a little church, Église de Saint-Médard that’s rather cute.

Mosquée de Paris. Ready to be transported to Andalusian Spain or Morocco? If it weren’t for the grey clouds and some of the buildings that peak above the patio of the mosque, one could get completely confused with one’s location whilst inside this beautiful complex. It’s not free to enter, contrary to all the churches in Paris, but the fee is small. Some parts are off limits (and I dared not photograph them either) for they are prayer rooms. But the areas open to the public are lavishly decorated with tiles and Islamic art. It’s one of the prettiest Moorish buildings I’ve ever seen outside of Spain.

Take a Day Trip

Giverny. Do you love Monet? If you do, and want to see where he painted all those water lily scenes, go to Giverny. It’s an hour train ride from the Gare St.-Lazare in Paris. I met friends who were also in France for a few days; so they picked me up at the train station in Vernon. But there are busses that take you to Giverny. Monet’s house and gardens are picturesque and a cornucopia of colourful flowers and grasses. It’s like walking straight into his paintings.

Vernon is also worth a stroll. It has an interesting church and a number of Medieval half-timbered houses in the center of town.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my particular tour of Paris and find all these tips useful, as you plan your first or next visit to this incredibly beautiful and romantic city. Go and make memories of your own. And Happy Birthday to me and you!