Paris Guide: Insider Tips
Contributor Bio: Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Five years ago she left the straightforward grid of Manhattan to wander the French capital’s winding streets. She still takes a wrong turn sometimes - but delights in what she discovers that way. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris, and Travel by the Books, among other venues. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her stories have been published in Smokelong Quarterly and the anthology Strangers in Paris. She’s working on her first novel and blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at paris (im)perfect. parisimperfect.wordpress.com
- Describe a perfect day in Paris
Wake up and get a buttery pain au chocolat at my local bakery. If it’s market day, bring a shopping basket and stock up on fresh produce and cheeses straight from the farm. With goodies in tow, grab a Vélib (the city’s bike rental system) and head to one of my favourite parks, Buttes Chaumont, for a picnic on the green.
After basking in the great outdoors for awhile, it’s time to get my art on. As I’m already in the nineteenth *arrondissement* (district), I could cross the Canal de l’Ourcq and check out what’s on the programme at Le Centquatre, the former funeral parlour turned eclectic artistic space.
Or, I may head to the city centre and see what free exhibition is featured at the town hall (the beautiful Hôtel de Ville).
From there I’ll cross the Seine – making sure to stop on the Île-St-Louis for some Berthillon ice cream – and do a little book browsing at one of the many English-language shops. I’ll stay for a reading in the early evening (Mondays at Shakespeare and Company; various days at Village Voice Bookshop and the American Library of Paris).
Time for an apéritif! I’ll try my luck in the Marais. Walk the cobblestone streets until I spot a cute outdoor terrace or a good happy hour (hopefully both!)
All this art, culture, and, well, drinking, now calls for dinner. I could splurge since I’ve been hitting the free events, but I’ll keep within my budget and go to Breizh Café for crêpes that taste luxurious nonetheless.
Afterward, I might be in the mood for some music. Why not head to Rue Boyer in the twentieth? Two concert venues (-cum café/restaurant/performing arts spaces) sit side by side so I have a choice: La Maroquinerie and La Bellevilloise.
This will bring me up to at least midnight. It’s been a perfect day…and maybe the night’s just begun.
- What is your insider tip to discover the real Paris?
Even Parisians carry a Plan de Paris, the detailed pocket guide containing maps of each of the city’s twenty spiraling arrondissements. However, the places you’ll remember most will be ones you discovered by allowing yourself to get lost. Don’t stick to only central Paris – each neighborhood has its own special flair. Wander around Belleville and stumble across amazing street art. Head to the Buttes aux Cailles for a cozy, neighborhood feel. Eat in Chinatown. Drink mint tea in the Grand Mosque. Look for windmills in Montmartre. Watch the runners in Parc Monceau. Keep your map handy…but get off the beaten track.
- What should I try in the restaurants in Paris?
French food has a fancy reputation; the country’s cuisine is officially part of UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. One person’s delicacy, though, can be another’s disaster. I’m all for trying new things, but I would recommend checking a glossary of dining terms if you have trouble stomaching certain items. There are connoisseurs of andouillette, for example. But do you like tripe sausage? Steak tartare is tasty – but know that it’s raw beef ahead of time. My favored form of duck is confit de canard. Coq au vin is cockeral in red wine. Escargots (snails), foie gras (fattened goose or duck liver) and moules (mussels) are other dishes one’s often exhorted to try. But there are plenty of quiches and salads should you prefer; “safer” options can be simply scrumptious, too! For vegetarians, traditional restaurants and bistros can leave little choice as the French really do like their meat, but dedicated veggie restaurants continue to appear on the scene. As for dessert, what shouldn’t you try? I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I’m a fan of it all.
- Where do you go for the best nightlife in Paris?
For clubbing on a boat? Le Batofar
Classy cocktails where Bizet once composed? Le Carmen
Indie/electro music in a converted train station? La Flèche d’Or
Tango and salsa dancing under the stars? Quai Saint Bernard along the River Seine
There’s also this to consider: Paris is the City of Light for a reason. A walk along her storied streets when the sun’s gone down is a lovely way to find the “night life” that most calls to you. Could be that seeing famed monuments and beautiful buildings illuminated at night is excitement enough…or stealing kisses in one of Paris’ many secret nooks?
Paris is an expensive city, but there are plenty of ways to do it on the cheap. For meals, favor lunch in restaurants over dinner. Same great food, but at more reasonable prices. A plat du jour is a daily special and is often a good deal. What about dinner? A trip to the market or grocery store will fix you up for a nice picnic along the canal. You’ll be partaking in a favorite Parisian pastime. If you’re here for the summer, there are free events galore, from several outdoor movie series (including Cinéma en Plein Air at Parc de la Villette) to an ongoing jazz festival in the Bois de Vincennes. Free museums are open year-round, including one tracing the history of Paris (Musée Carnavalet) and the Musée de la Vie Romantique (Romantic Life!)
- When should I go to Paris?
“April in Paris.” A famous song, yes, but Paris can delight at any time of year. Summer sees the highest number of visitors – which can make it kind of crazy. Be prepared for lines at major tourist sites. If you want to live like a local, though, there are plenty of free activities that make summer a great time to come (movies in the park! music festivals! a “beach” along the Seine!) In September, the tourist frenzy is traded for a buzz created by Parisians themselves. La rentrée sees inhabitants returning from long vacations and getting into gear. Classes start, art openings are at full swing. The fall is more manageable in terms of crowds, but a good time to see Paris in motion.
Winter is often grey and rainy, but there’s a stark beauty that can’t be denied. The off-season is also the best time to avoid the queues. For those who want to linger over hot chocolates in cafés, visit museums in peace, and take in Paris at a more tranquil pace, winter could be the winner. Paris comes alive in the spring; the first hopeful brushes with warmer weather changes the face of the city. Outdoor seating opens again, Parisians might even crack a smile. Really, you’ll find something to love whenever you make it here. I’m a warm weather lover yet my first trip to Paris was during a cold, grey November when it rained the entire time. Guess what? I still thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.
- How much is a beer in Paris (or a glass of wine)?
As with a lot of things in Paris, price depends on placement. Restaurants, bars, and cafés in the more touristy areas often charge significantly more for something as simple as a pint. Note that you pay less for drinks consumed at the comptoir (counter), so if you really want to save money, don’t grab a seat. Get used to standing with the locals. Prices on the terrace are the highest; you’re paying for the ambiance. Tip: order a demi for a half-pint draft beer. In a regular bar this can cost as little as 2.50 euros. (Expect to pay triple that if you’re on the Champs-Élysées!) France is more a country of wine-drinkers, though. A glass of the house wine can rival the demi. With likely more choices of wine, the cost goes upwards from there.
For a large city, Paris is relatively safe. Violent crime is rare. The biggest problem is pickpocketing, which has been on the rise of late, particularly on the metro. Use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and protect your valuables and you’ll be just fine!
- What shall I wear in Paris?
The elegance! The sophistication! You can try to imitate the French style, but after five years of living here, I still can’t tie a scarf like they do. The French are generally reserved in their clothing. Classic cuts, subdued colors; these will help you fit in. But little secret: you’re not Parisian. So it’s about your comfort level. Do you feel better looking less like a tourist? Well, it’s true: sneakers and shorts will make you stand out. But if you’re ok with that, wear what you like. France is a free country after all.
- Can you drink the water in Paris?
Yes! The water in Paris is completely safe for drinking. To save money (and the environment!) ask for a carafe d’eau in restaurants; the free tap water will come in a nice glass bottle. When you’re out and about the city, look for the whimsical Wallace fountains which offer cool, refreshing drinking water and are beautiful to boot. There’s even a fountain in the Jardin de Reuilly in the twelfth arrondissement that offers free sparkling water – oh la la!
- What’s the weather like in Paris?
Paris is lucky in that it really is romantic in the rain. Good thing, because for long stretches at a time, one wonders if the sun will ever appear again. It’s not as dire as all that, of course. People talk about the amazing light in Paris and they’re right. On a gorgeous Parisian day you’ll be forgiven for waxing poetic. But back to practicalities: Temperatures don’t reach extremes. Not much snow, few blisteringly hot days. It’s all about the unpredictable in between - whether you’ll need your umbrella or to put on a layer of sunscreen. Don’t worry about the changeable weather, though: you’ll fall in love with Paris no matter the season.
Read more about Paris from Sion Dayson at parisimperfect.wordpress.com