As you will likely know from reading this blog, I am a lover of cities. I grew up in a relatively small city (one that is known for its natural beauty and ethnic diversity vs grand urban gestures) and as such I didn’t develop an appreciation for city-life until I enrolled at architecture school. Many of our theoretical lectures revolved around urban analysis and I am convinced that this is where my metropolitan passion took root. My lecturers introduced me to the romance of Isfahan and the energy of Lagos and presented their planning theories and cultural discoveries. We were also exposed to a range of guest lecturers who would flip through slides (remember those?) of evocative and cosmopolitan cities in West Africa, Central America and the Far East. I would literally drool over my notebook when I wasn’t jotting down fanciful travel itineraries. Since then, I’ve also become intrigued with “neighbourhoods”, “locals” and cultural gastronomy. From a planning and cultural point of view, Rome, Paris and New York top my “modern urban” bill. I recently spent a few days in Paris and it has everything that a city-lover could ask for. Masterful urban layout, architecture to rival anything in Europe and unique and buzzing neighbourhoods that are constantly evolving. After my visit, I penned (and photographed) a mini city guide for Passport Magazine, highlighting my favourite things to see and do in the French capital. The piece was designed for first time viewers but I added a few off-the-beaten-track tidbits for regular visitors.
CLICK HERE to read the published piece.
Viva la Paris!
Paris – the mere mention of the word evokes romantic imagery and poetic sentiment. And for good reason. Some of the world’s most distinguished literary geniuses, poets and radical designers have left indelible impressions on the city, leaving behind a rich and enduring legacy. The well trodden tourist sites are as picture-perfect as you imagine, the cuisine as rich and garlic-infused, the architecture as grand and the riverside views as majestic.. But Paris isn’t restricted to its iconic sites. The locals’ Paris, the Paris of arrondissements and side streets, of quiet public squares and leafy parks, unfolds and reveals itself when you explore beyond its well known addresses. The city layout – wide boulevards, Seine-side walkways and easy-to-navigate neighbourhoods make it ideal territory for exploration. Much of this urban planning can be attributed to Georges Eugène Haussman’s modernisation programme under Napoleon III, which resulted in grand boulevards and open public spaces that cut through the dense medieval alleyways of the city. Aside from walking, Paris is also a city that requires a healthy dose of people watching – best achieved at one of the city’s many cafes. It’s a Parisian pastime and an activity that takes me back to the capital city time and again.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Despite its size, Paris is fairly easy to navigate and most of the tourist hotspots are located near the Seine, which acts as a perfect navigational tool. It neatly divides the city into the Left Bank on the South and the Right bank on the North. You will reap the rewards of exploring the city on foot but the Metro provides an easy way to get around, as does the city’s affordable and convenient self-service bicycle system. You can pick up one of 20,000 bikes stationed around the city and return it to any other location. Another pleasurable way to view the city is by boat. Admittedly, a Seine river cruise is the ultimate tourist cliché, but it truly provides a fresh perspective on the architecture that lines the Seine. (Tip: Avoid those that offer on-board catering, which is almost always less than mediocre).
LE PAiN DE QUOTIDIEN
Start your day in traditional Parisian spirit at one of the city’s many sidewalk cafes. You’ll recognise them by their ubiquitous rattan chairs, gold-edged glass tables and deep awnings. Parisians typically start their day with le petit déjeuner usually comprising a fresh croissant, a tartine – flat long bread – butter, jam and a café au lait. The city’s two most prominent cafes are Les Deux Magots and Le Café de Flore both in the upscale Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They evoke the city’s rich literary history in the form of the illustrious patrons (Sartre and Hemingway among them) who once dined there. A more budget friendly alternative is a fresh pastry or baguette from one of the city’s many bakeries and an espresso at the zinc (the counter) where you’ll rub shoulders with the locals.
A good place to start your day is Le Marais, home to a number of religious and royal institutions and historically the French nobility’s neighbourhood of choice. Most impressive is the 17th century square Place de Vosges, a beautifully manicured square lined by vaulted galleries and urban mansions. At the end of the 19th century it became home to the city’s Jewish immigrants, whose institutions still maintain a presence here. Their eateries, located around Rue de Rosières, offer authentic, traditional delicacies. Le Marais is also the city’s gay district, its many bars, clubs and restaurants located around Rue des Archives. As if the neighbourhood didn’t have enough going for it, in the last decade or so it has also developed into a boutique shopping area. If you’re feeling a little underdressed in the company of the sartorially advanced Parisians, this is where to head for some of Paris’s most cutting edge fashion.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Continue southwards. Halfway down the Seine, sandwiched between the left and right banks, you’ll find Ile de cite and Ile St Louis, 2 semi-islands accessed via four bridges from the mainland. In 250 BC, a tribe called the Parissi settled on Ile de Cite, marking the birthplace of Paris. The adjacent Ile St Louis area is now best known for the imposing French Gothic cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris. Completed in 1345, it is famed for its majestic stained glass windows, grotesque gargoyles and flying buttresses. You can also attend free choral and organ concerts, which provide a perfect way to wind down after a day of sightseeing. Continue to wander along the surrounding 17th century streets where the area’s roots are still evident in some of the shops, restaurants, fromageries and bakeries. It’s a romantic part of Paris that feels largely untouched, providing an urban oasis in the heart of the city. Before you leave, be sure to sample the luxurious Berthillon ice cream – its taste and quality unrivalled in all of Paris.
ART DE JOUR
Head back across Pont Notre Dame and work northwards to one of the city’s most contemporary edifices – the much loved (and equally disliked) Centre Georges Pompidou, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s inside-outside exhibition hall that shocked Parisians when it was unveiled in 1997. Its brazen design is the perfect context to see some of the world’s contemporary design. Then board one of the glass enclosed escalators to the top floor for lunch at George’s Restaurant, which boasts panoramic city views and an interior to match the centre’s no-holds barred approach to design.
MONA LISA SMILE
Hopefully satiated and well oriented, make your way along Rue de Rivoli towards the Musée de Louvre or alternatively, to the Musée d’Orsay if a more contemporary collection of heavyweights is your bag. (Admittedly, there are a host of other options in this department including entire museums devoted to Picasso and Rodin.) The Louvre is Paris’s number one attraction for good reason, so pre-book online and enter via one of the rear entrances rather than through the glass pyramid designed by architect IM Pei. The Louvre precinct is particularly majestic at night and worth visiting for the ambience alone. If you have time during the day, wander through the adjacent Tuileries Gardens and then indulge in some macaroons in the Salon de The at Laduree Royale. After your fill, wander down to the Seine for sheer romantic overload as the city’s night-lit architecture and bridges come alive.
LE SOIR UN NUIT
The evening is in my view, the best time to view the Eiffel Tower, Gustav Eiffels’s contribution to the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. Intended as a temporary entrance arch to the fair, the intricate 300m high steel lattice tower was never dismantled and provides astonishing views from the observation decks views. (You can also view this structure in it’s entirety from the Trocadero which is adjacent to the urban-oriented museum Cité de l’Architecture.) Undoubtedly exhausted, head to St Germain for dinner at L’ Atelier Joel de Robuchon for the multi-Michelin starred chef’s gastronomically pioneering fare. (Other highly recommended dinner options include Chez Robert & Louise and Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecote where the only thing you’ll be asked is “How you would you like it cooked.” This refers to steak, the only item on the menu. ) If enough energy remains, head to Hotel Costes for a cocktail in a decadent setting. The soundtrack is likely to be from one of their hugely popular self-compiled lounge collections.
RELAXER – VOUS
There are a myriad places to stay in Paris. And there is bound to be a hotel that fits the bill. Budget options include Hotel Le Manufacture and Hotel Duo. On the site of an old bakery, Hotel du Petit Moulin is a well located, boutique option. All the suites have been designed by Christian Lacroix, resulting in unique, almost witty interiors. Lovers of zen and clean-lined design (as well as partying) will appreciate Murano Urban Resort. Finally, if money is no object, check into the recently completed Le Royal Monceau Raffles, which was recently unveiled after a two year transformation by the king of hotel interiors – Phillipe Starck.
OTHER PARISIAN HOTSPOTS:
Sacré Coeur Basilica – A beautiful church at the foot of Monmartre with expansive views across Paris. Monmartre was home to amongst others Dali, Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Musée de Quai Branly – A museum dedicated to objects from African, Asian, Oceanian and American civilisations. Designed by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel.
Parisian markets – Essential to Parisian life, there are a variety of markets in the city. Try Les Puces for antiques and Les Enfants Rouges for fresh produce.
Canal St Martin – A spring or summertime location for picnicking, grazing and general lazing about.
Ronchamp – There are many Le Corbusier designed buildings in Paris but the most famous of them all, Notre Dame du Haut, a chapel, is the one architecture fundis drool over.
Chateau de Versailles – The ultimate symbol of Royal over-indulgence and a tribute to the best of 18th century French art.