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Discover Hidden Charms in the City of Light

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Oct 18, 2021

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Photo by Charissa Fay

There is wonder everywhere you look in Paris. Go beyond the iconic sights to see this classic destination’s unsung sides and experience its delights in unexpected ways.

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Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your current—and future—adventures.

As tempting as it is to “do” the capital of France, it’s equally and perhaps more rewarding to enjoy the city as Parisians do. Seeking out off-the-radar Gallic gems, from modern art to macarons, yields a deeper (and oftentimes less crowded) experience. Instead of shopping the retail temples of Avenue Montaigne as millions do, venture beyond to channel how the spirit of true French style transcends haute heritage. Skip the usual sight-seeing and you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous churches, sprawling parks, and elegant museums. Explore the many international influences on the metropolis and its storied cuisine for a deliciously immersive experience that, like all of these lesser-known delights, reveals a refreshing side of Parisian culture, history, and more.

An historic stay

The Art Deco architecture of Le Patio at the Prince de Galles, including exquisite mosaic floors, is protected as a historic monument.

Book a hotel fit for a king—specifically, England’s George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth—and named in His Majesty’s honor, the Prince de Galles (French for Prince of Wales). Located on the Avenue George V, the splendid interiors of this hospitality landmark in the 8th arrondissement (also home to the U.S. Embassy) make a welcoming refuge. After checking in, go for a stroll along the world’s most beautiful avenue, the Champs Elysees.

If your trip happens to coincide with the first Sunday of any month, you’ll experience the Champs as famous poets and painters did in pre-automotive days. Cars are banished on that one day, so that citizens and visitors may get some fresh air. Merci to Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, for the genial initiative. 

Swoon-worthy finds in the fashion capital of the world

Speaking of Merci, it’s the name of a concept store that’s so chic you may want to put down roots right there on the sales floor. Housed in a nineteenth-century fabric factory in the fashionable Marais, the retailer is a design lover’s dream come true. Merci showcases beautiful vignettes, including clothes you’ll want to reorganize your closets for, mouthwatering table settings, dreamy bedrooms, and glam garden décor. With proceeds benefitting children in Madagacar, the more you buy, the better you feel.

For more shopping as cultural education, check out a label founded in 2009 by a fashion-industry veteran who previously worked at Rochas and Martin Margiela: Valentine Gauthier. Fashion enthusiasts around the globe adore Gauthier’s chic designs made with natural or recycled materials that are ethically produced. Now that you’re on her home turf, head to the style source, her eponymous boutique in the 3rd arrondisement.

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Find more great design nearby in the same arrondissement at Ogata, chef Shinichiro Ogata’s 17th-century building that’s an altar to the Japanese art of living. The space houses a restaurant, tea shop and tea salon, pastry shop, bar, art gallery, and home design store. You can also drink in the Japanese lifestyle at the more low-key Bistrot Kinzo, also in the 3rd.

Top it all off with a champagne toast. Ma Cave Fleury in the 2nd arrondissement is a Champagne bar pouring forth—as its sign says—“Champagnes et Vins en Biodynamie” (natural bubbles and wines) curated by owner Morgane, a member of the celebrated Fleury Champagne family. 

Lesser-known historic churches, parks, and museums

Parc des Buttes Chaumont // Photo by Unsplash/Yannis Sommera

Of the many churches in Paris, one not to miss is Église de la Madeleine, a breathtaking example of classical architecture with 28 monumental steps leading up to 52 giant Corinthian columns. Equally marvelous is the interior and its glorious fresco depicting “The History of Christianity” (look for Napoleon Bonaparte’s image at the composition’s center) and the church organ, the very instrument played at Frederic Chopin’s 1849 funeral here. 

The Bois de Boulogne gets all the ballyhoo, but Paris’s fifth-largest park, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, is a monument to repurposing and reinvention. Once a gypsum and limestone quarry, mined for buildings in Paris and America (among them the aforementioned Église), its supply was exhausted by the end of the 1850s. Today, this public space in the 19th arrondissement offers Parisians and visitors 60+ acres for their roaming pleasure.

The Parc’s most famous feature is the Temple de la Sybille, situated 50 meters above a manmade lake that surrounds the Île du Belvédère, the old gypsum quarry. Now transformed into a rocky island, its 173 steps lead down through the grotto to the edge of the lake, plus it has a manmade waterfall.

Before or after your scenic hike, find a spot for a picnic or try Rosa Bonheur, a restaurant within Buttes-Chaumont. For picnic provisions, carb-load with bread and apple tarts from the city’s oldest (since 1932) and best-beloved boulangerie, Poilâne, that has several locations, including one just minutes from the Parc. 

Another underrated destination, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature is also squarely situated on the axis of natural and artificial. Bringing the outdoors in, this museum offers unexpected aesthetic pairings—wildlife taxidermy alongside dazzling displays of furniture and other decorative arts—that suggest the close links of the human-animal connection. The cherry on top is curated exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary masters, such as La Valise d’Orphée, fantastical paintings of animals by artist Damien Deroubaix, and a post-punk William Blake, on view through 31 October. 

A (tourist-free) culinary tour

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For gourmands, mere mention of the word Paris is enough to set mouths watering—and culinary adventurers will be pleased to discover that authentic French fare need not be predictable. Ingenuity is the key to a quintessentially Parisian experience, and you’ll find it in spades at Café des Anges, a coffee bar (vegan latte with house-made plant milk, anyone?) and neo-bistro. The eclectic menu ranges from French classic fare to Asian-inflected entrees, always with a gracious nod to vegetarians and vegans. A godsend for night owls, the place is open seven days a week until 2 a.m. 

The Left Bank is the top-tier destination for Vietnamese cuisine thanks to the superb eatery Tan Dinh, which is so old-school that they have no website (60 Rue de Verneuil). A mango fritter’s throw from the magnifique Musée d’Orsay, this place is a destination in its own right. You could also savor the afterglow of the Musée’s visual banquet of Manets and Van Goghs with a steaming pot of jasmine tea. Or select from the wine list, one of the most impressive—and comprehensive—at any restaurant, anywhere in the world.  

Get a side of culture with your meal when you visit a restaurant inspired by the salon of Juliette Recamier, muse to painter Francois Gerard, where leading figures from the political, intellectual, and artistic worlds flocked during the 19th century. Today, their contemporary counterparts flock to Le Récamier, the eatery named in Recamier’s honor and chef Gerard Idoux’s ode to the soufflé, which cleverly sidesteps cliché. Here, an A-list international clientele that’s straight out of a Graham Greene novel enjoys soufflés both savory (button mushroom) and sweet (gingerbread)—there are also vegetarian and gluten-free options. 

If meat and more meat is your thing, Le Bon Georges—a favorite of David Lebovitz, renowned American-in-Paris and cookbook author—creatively layers a seasonal, farm-to-table sensibility atop traditional French bistro fare. Here, steak tartare is a popular house specialty, and frites are addictively crispy potatoes of renown. Seafood lovers, meanwhile, will enjoy the fish with steamed spinach, served with crusty brown bread (from the famed bakery Maison Landemaine) to catch the last drops of citrusy-spinachy-sea-salty juices. 

A totally authentic Parisian culinary experience doesn’t have to be totally unhealthy–when you put an unconventional spin on a whirlwind trip to the City of Light, now home to scrumptious vegan treats. Masterful plant-based delicacies include Impronta’s gelato (in a gluten-free cone, even!) or croissants, macarons, and bûche de noël from Cloud Cakes. As for chocolate, no trip to Paris can properly conclude without a killer cacao fix. À La Mère de Famille has been the cacao connoisseur’s choice since 1761; modern-day chocoholics hold Maison Bonnat in equally high regard. Bon Appetit!

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