Perhaps the biggest cliché used in relation to Paris is that the city is never the same twice and is constantly changing. However, it’s a cliché that rings as true as the bells of Notre Dame.
I have been visiting the city on-and-off since 1987 when I was present to see Irish cycling hero Stephen Roche win the Tour de France. My longest period in the city was a month, when I attended secondary school there as a less-than studious teenager.
Since then I have dropped in on the City of Light countless times, experiencing a slightly different aspect of this captivating metropolis each time.
So, what are these off-the-beaten-track experiences that I proclaim? I hope to show you.
A weekend is certainly enough to taste the delights of Paris and appreciate the diversity of the French capital. I aim to guide you through a possible weekend in the city.
First off, I usually arrive into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is in close proximity to the city. I recommend booking in advance and flying Aer Lingus to this airport. Ryanair fly to Beauvais; which is a long bus journey to the heart of Paris.
A good place to locate yourself for the duration of your stay is Pigalle. The area is a fascinating and much maligned quartier of Paris. It’s famous for its role as the sex district of Paris; allied soldiers during World War II coined the area ‘Pig Alley’, such is the prominence of sex shops etc.
But, don’t be put off by this. The area is close to everything; located on a very busy metro line; and is also bustling with activity. There are bars, restaurants and hotels for every budget and taste and it is a very handy place to acclimatise to Paris, as it is half-touristic and half-Francophone in atmosphere and language – a big plus if you happen to need some brushing up on your French skills. One major thing to remember is to book ahead. Paris is always busy no matter what time of year you book. The internet will list plenty of hotels in the Pigalle are, merely find one that suits your price range – they are all catered for.
There is also a wonderful artistic history in the area. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec did much of his work in a studio here, while Vincent van Gogh also lived here for a period. If you want to sample some of this arty vibe you can view works by the legendary Salvador Dalí at the nearby Espace Dalí.
Arriving into the city on Friday, a great way to start your stay after checking in to your hotel is to head to the Moulin Rouge, the world famous cabaret. It’s located slap-bang in the heart of Pigalle and everyone should go once; dinner, drinks and entertainment are all provided.
After a good night’s sleep you need to begin exploring the city. Not far from Pigalle, and on the metro line, is the African area of Paris called Château Rouge; it’s an area worth seeing. From Pigalle it can be reached on foot, all one has to do is follow the Boulevard de Rochechouart - the main street in Pigalle - down to Barbès-Rochechouart. This is the Moore Street of Paris. Dodgy sim-card shops and people cooking corn on the cob on fires in supermarket trolleys are all around.
From there one can stroll up Boulevard Barbès until one hits Château Rouge. You can’t miss it, the area is more Africa than France with Rue Dejean dedicated to African produce, including African women selling fruit from huge baskets.
Last time I was there I met a Cameroonian businessman who bought me a selection of fruit originating from his native Cameroon and explained the history of Cameroonians in Paris. If you fancy a bite to eat there are great restaurants in the area, check out the link at the bottom.
After a good African lunch and some coffee, you’ll probably feel like returning to a more typically French-feeling part of the city. Hop on the nearby metro, which is literally right in the heart of Château Rouge, and head to the centre of town. Rue de Rivoli is the stop you’re looking for, it’s right in the middle of Paris and near the Hôtel de Ville.
Rue de Rivoli is one of the most upmarket streets in the city; one of those Parisian streets where the ‘see and be seen’ phrase is most apt.
If you want to do some shopping this a great spot for picking up some high-class French clobber.
Halfway down the Rue de Rivoli is a foodie treat, a large open-air market on Place Baudoyer. There are three or four tents here with a wide selection of farm produce which is hard to resist sampling. If you have room after your African lunch then this a fine place to stop for a quick snack.
Next, hop back on the metro and make you way to Passy. This is another of the more upwardly-mobile districts of Paris and an area one needs to see to get a true feel for the glamour of the city. Brigitte Bardot has an apartment here and can still be seen swanning around the local streets - if you’re lucky.
Depending on what interests you most you can either go to the museum of wine up here (La Musée du Vin) or instead stroll down Rue de Passy and soak up the ambience of the area over a coffee.
From here a short walk down Rue Benjamin Franklin will bring you to the best view of the Eiffel Tower, from Place du Trocadéro. It’s a cool square with breakdancers, street performers and Parisians and tourists alike hanging out. The view of the Eiffel Tower from here is something else – you need to see it.
After all that eating and looking around I would head back to Pigalle and settle in for the night. From here you have two options.
Firstly, there is a very good quality and reasonably priced sushi bar on Rue Rodier in Pigalle. If you want to do a bit of socialising after dinner you can head on a pub crawl which leaves outside Starbucks at Metro Blanche at 9pm.
Secondly, if you want to pretend to be French and not a tourist, scrap the pub crawl and head to Montmartre for dinner, another area within walking distance of Pigalle.
The Montmartre most tourists are aware of is the area around Sacre Couer Basilica on the hill overlooking the city. This is a truly beautuful building and gives a great view of Paris. It’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it before and there are lots of restuarants around.
However, if you want to find something a little different then head to A La Pomponette, it’s down the backstreets of Montmartre and away from the hubbub of the main tourist section.
Here you’ll be amongst only French and can eat in a superb restaurant with a fine wine list. The sea trout with seafood mousse is my recommendation here.
Le Café de La Paix in Place de l’Opéra is a good choice outside Pigalle, although it’s very well known and more of a brasserie. If you want to do things in style head there.
If you fancy a drink after dinner walk around until you find a place that takes your fancy. For something less well known to tourists Le Jean Gabin and La Fourmi offer chic Parisian drinking options. Sit outside and watch Paris go by.
After two days following that itinerary you’ll have accomplished a lot and seen a good cross section of Paris.
I suggest taking it easy on your last day. Many of the cafés on Boulevard de Clichy - which runs right through Pigalle - serve very good omelettes or pastries for breakfast.
These are a great place to chill out before getting the metro back to Charles de Gaulle Airport; the train for which one can get just down the road at Barbès.
If you do have a little extra time on Sunday I suggest heading out to Père Lachaise Cemetery. Not an obvious choice but this is more of a park filled with beautiful tombstones. The cemetery contains the graves of many celebrated artists and public figures, not least our own Oscar Wilde, and the legendary The Doors frontman Jim Morrison. You can buy a cheap tourist-guide brochure at the entrance.
That should take up your Sunday afternoon and leave you plenty of time to get an afternoon flight home.
Paris is a gem, that with a quick dusting-off can shine anew with a different glint - find out for yourself.
WHERE TO STAY: Simply look up Pigalle hotels on the internet and pick one that suits your tastes and budget.
WHAT TO DO/SEE: The Espace Dalí is the place to see Salvador Dalí’s magnificence in all its glory. The museum is located very close to Pigalle.
Moulin Rouge is a cabaret experience worth doing once - at least.
Château Rouge is the African area of Paris. The sights and sounds make it worth a visit. This link will give you some ideas on what to do there.
The wine museum of Paris, or, Musée du Vin Paris, is the place to stock up on knowledge of that fine liquid.
If you’re up for some socializing, then how about going on an organized pub crawl? They leave nightly at 9pm from Starbucks in Pigalle.
Père Lachaise Cemetery is a great place to unwind and go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon.
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK: A la Pomponette is a reasonably priced, well known and top-class restaurant in the heart of Montmartre. I would put this right at the top of places to eat over the course of a weekend in the city.
As for bars, there are so many all over Paris, two I would recommend are Le Jean Gabin and La Fourmi.
Other great spots to eat are the open-air market on Place Baudoyer, Rue de Rivoli; Chez Aida, Rue Polonceau, for African food; and Boulevard de Clichy for snacks and cafés to chill out.
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