City of Light Highlights

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City of Light Highlights
Paris earned its nickname, the City of Light, for its intellectual enlightenment in the 17th century. Today, the French are still proud of L’Exception Française which ensures French culture thrives against modern globalization.
By Sylvia Sabes, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    Paris through the Ages
    Strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter and up to the Musée de Cluny instantly evokes medieval Paris. Today, kids run wild in the footsteps of the young Louis XIV who played in the ornamental gardens, fountains, and covered arcades of the classically beautiful Palais Royal. The wide, bustling Champs Elysées was where 18th century society would meet before Napoleon built the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate his military success. The Eiffel Tower is a monument to the belle époque's creative energy; sweeping views from the upper decks highlight the buildings of modern Paris.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    Café Culture
    Parisian cafés have been places to while away the hours, meet friends, and discuss the issues of the day since Le Procope, the very first café, opened in 1686. Known for having served such luminaries as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, it still welcomes visitors daily. Oscar Wilde, Jean Paul Sarte, Fitzgerald, and Picasso sipped on petit café espresso at such legendary establishments as Le Café de la Paix at Opéra, Le Selecte and La Rotonde in Montparnasse, and Les Deux Magots in Saint Germain des Près. At any hour of the day, duck into the nearest neighborhood café to see butchers and janitors share riotous gossip with philosophers and socialites over a 2€ expresso or a shot of something stronger.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Iconic Museums
    The Louvre is the world’s largest museum and Europe’s largest palace, with Imperial apartments, Islamic and Egyptian wings, and the best of European art. Home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, it faces the Musée d'Orsay, an elegantly converted turn-of-the-century train station, where Degas’ ballerina stands surrounded by masterpieces produced between 1848 and 1914. Nearby, Monet designed bright, round-walled rooms to show off his water lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie. The manicured, floral gardens of the Rodin Museum are the ideal spot to see The Thinker or The Gates of Hell. The nation’s collection of modern art is exhibited at the Centre Pompidou with its escalators that gradually reveal unforgettable views of the rooftops of Paris.
    Photo by Martin Ruegner/age fotostock
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    Art beyond the Museums
    Art is an integral part of life in Paris. From ornate doors to astonishing sculptures, Parisians know a masterpiece may be just around the corner. When they tire of traditional museums, locals support dynamic, contemporary art spaces, filling the colossal Palais de Tokyo, the former city morgue that is now le Centquatre, and the new Fondation Louis Vuitton. Galleries welcome visitors with a concentration of traditional art near Saint Germain des Près and contemporary collections in the Upper Marais. The street artist Space Invader sells maps featuring the arcade-game-character mosaics he has put up across the city. Street art is encouraged on the rue Desnoyez in the 19th arrondissement, attracting international graffiti artists.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    A Gargoyle's Eye View of Paris
    Notre Dame Cathedral, with her flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings, is Paris' finest example of Gothic architecture, a style first known as “French work.” A spectacular view of the city awaits those brave enough to climb her towers. Another Gothic highlight, La Sainte Chapelle, has beautiful stained glass windows and is a fitting venue for the regularly-held concerts. For a different style, the Saint-Eustache church boasts modern art including a triptych by Keith Herring. Built of white stones that self-clean with every rain, Sacré Coeur crowns the city, a constant reminder of France’s glory. The Basilica of St. Denis is worth a visit for the hauntingly peaceful sculptures marking the burial sites of the kings of France.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    The River Seine
    Les bateaux mouches boat rides introduce visitors to Paris and its monuments as they cruise the Seine from west to east. The bouquinistes, used book dealers, line the quais above, while on the banks below fishermen cast their lines next to picnickers. From the Musée d’Orsay to the Musée du Quai Branly, the Berges de Seine open space features water gardens, cafés, and cultural activities. To the east, the Outdoor Sculpture Museum transforms into a dance hall on warm summer nights with areas for tango, salsa, and folk dancing. Flowing from the Seine, the Canal Saint-Martin is lined with cafés overlooking picture-perfect bridges and working locks in a vibrant quartier evoking the Paris of Edith Piaf.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    To Market, to Market
    Provenance is important to the French. As you walk through a market, you will see Roussillon apricots, Provençal figs, and Ardèche chestnuts labelled with pride. Cheesemongers limit their selection to a specific region or type of cheese. In the fall, wild game hangs from the butcher’s stall, side-by-side with chickens sold with their heads intact. Vendors cry out daily specials while admonishing customers who try to select their own produce. This is true at street markets like Motte Picquet or rue Monge, and on market streets like Marché d’Aligre or rue Montorgeuil. Most food merchants close Sunday at noon and only reopen Tuesday morning. Until then, grocery stores become the last resort for desperate shoppers.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    From Cabaret to Jazz
    Josephine Baker and Toulouse-Lautrec are familiar names irrevocably linked to the cabarets of the belle époque. Going to the Moulin Rouge or the Folies Bergère today is decidedly less risqué than it was 100 years ago, but cabarets continue to bring in large crowds. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis played jazz at Le Caveau de la Huchette and Le Petit Journal, which still hosts performances weekly. Jazz developed a gypsy rhythm under the talented fingers of Django Reinhardt, whose tunes are played weekly at La Chope des Puces. For a more classical experience, the Théâtre de Chatelet stages comedy musicals in English. You can also attend the ballet, performed under the vibrant colors of Chagall’s masterpiece ceiling at the Opéra Garnier.
    Photo by Rainer Martini/age fotostock
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    Sundays in Paris
    On Sundays, Paris rolls to a slower rhythm. Shops are closed, cars stay parked, and the city sleeps late. Church bells chime as locals do their weekly shopping at Richard Lenoir or one of the other food markets that open until 1:00 p.m. After lunch the museums are packed and parks overflow. Parisians of every age flock outdoors to run, cycle, or stroll the Canal Saint-Martin and les Berges de Seine. The dedicated paths of the Promenade Plantée, Coulée Verte, and Canal de l’Ourcq continue kilometers beyond the city limits, protecting adventurers on a unique urban discovery. After 2:00 p.m. the fashion set streams out to the flea market and clogs the streets of the Marais, some of the few areas where shops can legally open on the day of rest.
    Photo by Tara Donne
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    Paris Goes Green
    From neighborhood squares to small forests, Parisian life revolves around its parks and gardens. The Tuileries Garden, Champ de Mars, and Luxembourg Gardens have trampolines, sail boats, puppet shows, pony rides, and go-carts for kids, with tennis, pétanque, and basketball courts for adults. Belleville, Parc Montsouris, and Parc des Buttes Chaumont are sprawling parks with restaurants boasting panoramic views. The expansive Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes attract visitors with lakes, museums, and a zoo. Even the cemeteries bring in a crowd, with locals strolling leisurely by as visitors make pilgrimages to Edith Piaf’s grave at Père Lachaise or to see Brancusi’s sculpture of The Kiss at the Montparnasse cemetery.
    Photo by Jose Fuste Raga/age fotostock