Despite its status as a huge tourist destination, a visit to Paris – no matter how short – can be a unique and personal experience.
I’m sitting at a table at the trendy L’Atelier Renault restaurant overlooking the Champs Elysees when a waiter making small talk asks if I’m liking the city. I can’t help but laugh. “Of course,” I answer, a bit puzzled. “It’s impossible not to like Paris.”
My answer seems to please the waiter, but millions of tourists would also agree. France is the world’s most visited destination, pulling in some 84 million tourists in 2015 according to the World Tourism Organization. And Paris, the City of Lights, is the nation’s crowning glory with its chic cafes and the iconic Eiffel Tower — recognized anywhere, synonymous with romance and glamour.
But Paris, because it is so well known, can also be a bit puzzling. If you’re a first-time visitor, the urge to hit up all the touristy landmarks is overwhelming. The Eiffel Tower or the Louvre are simply not to be missed. But you may ask yourself: am I really getting to know the city, or am I just collecting photo opps?
If you’re a return visitor, you may wonder how you can dive further into the Paris that the locals know. If you fear getting lost in the tourist crowd, then a small, cozy hotel with an original look and personable service can do wonders to make your Paris experience feel unique.
At the Hotel Plaza Elysees, a decadent reception area is complete with golden puma statues, framed paintings of opulent aristocrats and vases overflowing with flowers. All of this, with its playful take on rococo, lets you loudly know that this isn’t your standard beige chain hotel. The receptionist will give you directions, advise you on the nearby Champs Elysees shopping and make you feel you’re not a stranger in this big city.
I only had two days in Paris and knew it would be impossible to see it all. After checking in at Hotel Plaza Elysees, I walked to the Arc de Triomphe – the closest landmark, a few minutes from the hotel.
Then wandered through side streets until I reached the Eiffel Tower. Photographing it from every angle, I felt that indescribable delight when you arrive at a spot you’ve dreamed of for years. Although this was my second trip to Paris, it felt no less magical than my first.
I walked alongside the Seine until I reached the Place de la Concorde, hopeful to spot some monuments of the French Revolution. It was here that the statue of Louis XV was torn down, and where the guillotine was erected that executed Louis XVI in 1793. But there were few reminders of the period that eventually helped take Europe into democracy. I changed plans quickly – as you often must when travelling – and decided to have a Nutella crepe instead and take a walk down the Champs Elysees.
Nothing helps you get to know a city as quickly and closely as a long and loosely planned wander. But walking for hours will also leave you exhausted. I take a break back at my hotel for a few hours, then head out to the Champs Elysees for dinner.
L’Atelier Renault is part restaurant, part bar and part exhibition space where the carmaker showcases its latest technology and its classic models. It is a bright, airy and colorful space with dazzling views of the Champs Elysees that are great for people-watching. I order fish and fries, which come with a creamy and tangy white dipping sauce, and finish off the filling meal with some perfect creme brulee topped with a crispy layer of hard caramel.
I get up early the next morning to catch the BigBus Paris sightseeing tour. For about EUR 30, you get an all-day ticket for a double-decker bus that goes to all the major landmarks and gives you recorded commentary in 11 languages. You hop on and off anytime, exploring at your own pace. Touristy? Yes, but also extremely convenient. What I love is how the bus doesn’t really make you feel like a tourist. French rap plays on my earphones as I wait on the top deck for the bus to start. During our ride down the Champs Elysees, the recorded guide gives funny anecdotes about French personalities and politics, snippets from daily life as well as some history.
After a ride past the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde, I get off at the Palais Garnier, home of the legendary Paris Opera and the origin of classical ballet. Sadly, it’s closed on Sunday and there’s a poster advertising an exhibit of painter Leon Bakst that also pains me to know I’m missing.
I decide on a whim to walk to Montmartre, a large hill in the 18th arrondissement topped by the beautiful Basilica of the Sacre Coeur and home to artists and bohemians since the early twentieth century. The winding and narrow streets, uphill climbs, cozy cafes and paintings are so old-world and charming that I’d consider this my favorite part of Paris, even if artists today cannot afford to live here anymore. If I had a third day in Paris, I would return to Montmartre and explore it further.
But with evening approaching, I catch the BigBus at the Palais Garnier once again and head for a brief stop at Notre Dame before returning to the Champs Elysees for dinner. On my last night in Paris, I make my way to L’Alsace, a traditional brasserie (a French restaurant with a relaxed setting) specializing in Alsatian dishes from eastern France. I order a soft-boiled egg for a starter with mushroom fricassee and Munster cream, which is topped with a pile of herbs and richly decadent to eat. My entree of salmon steak with potatoes floats in creamy butter. The incredible food, plus the atmosphere of relaxed elegance, make this my favorite meal in Paris.
Although my time there was short, the two days in Paris convince me that despite the city’s mythical status as a huge tourist attraction, it’s also fairly easy to connect with its culture and have a more personalized experience. And the city is hardly a collection of its most iconic landmarks. The more you explore the smaller Parisian streets, the more you will long to return.
Hotel Plaza Elysees • 177 Boulevard Haussmann, 75008 Paris • Tel: +33 1 45 63 93 83 • plazaelysees.com
L’Atelier Renault • 53 Avenue des Champs Elysees • Tel: 01 76 84 14 14 • atelier.renault.com
BigBus Paris • bigbustours.com
Brasserie l’Alsace • 39 Av. des Champs Elysees • Tel: +33 1 53 93 97 00 • restaurantalsace.com
Paris Tourist Office (official website) • en.parisinfo.com