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Paris: Best of the City of Light

Paris Through the Ages
Paris: Best of the City of Light
Paris earned its nickname, the City of Light, for the period of intellectual enlightenment here 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
    Paris Through the Ages
    Strolling the narrow, cobblestoned 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-Élysées 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
    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 Sartre, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso sipped on petit café espresso at such legendary establishments as Café de la Paix at l'Opéra, Le Select and La Rotonde in Montparnasse, and Les Deux Magots in St.-Germain-des-Prés. 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 espresso or a shot of something stronger.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Iconic Museums
    Iconic Museums
    The Louvre is the world’s largest museum and Europe’s largest palace, with imperial apartments, Islamic and Egyptian wings, and the greatest hits of European art. Home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, the Louvre faces the Musée d'Orsay, an elegantly converted turn-of-the-century train station, where Degas’s ballerina stands surrounded by impressionist masterpieces produced between 1848 and 1914. Nearby, Monet designed curved-wall galleries 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. France’s extraordinary collection of modern art is exhibited at the Centre Pompidou; also on show are unforgettable views of Paris, gradually revealed as you ride the escalators up.
    Photo by Martin Ruegner/age fotostock
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    Art Beyond the Museums
    Art Beyond the Museums
    Art is an integral part of life in Paris. From ornate doors to astonishing sculptures, 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 St.-Germain-des-Prés 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 Denoyez in the 19th arrondissement, attracting international graffiti artists.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    A Gargoyle's-Eye View of Paris
    A Gargoyle's-Eye View of Paris
    Notre Dame Cathedral, with her flying buttresses and magnificent vaulted ceilings, is Paris's finest example of Gothic architecture, a style first known as Opus Francigenum, or "French work." A spectacular view of the city awaits those brave enough to climb her towers. Another Gothic highlight, Sainte-Chapelle, has beautiful stained-glass windows and regularly holds concerts, allowing you to take in the visual glory to a soundtrack. Saint-Eustache church, though built in the 16th century, champions modern art, notably in a triptych, Life of Christ, by Keith Haring. Up on Montmartre, Sacré-Coeur looks over the city, a constant reminder of France’s glory. The Basilica of St. Denis is worth a visit to see the lovely sculptures that mark the burial sites of the kings of France.
    Photo by Jose Fuste Raga/age fotostock
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    The River Seine
    The River Seine
    The 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. Running from the Musée d’Orsay to the Musée du Quai Branly, the Berges de Seine, a pedestrianized stretch along the banks of the river, features water gardens, cafés, and cultural activities. To the east, the Musée de la Sculpture en Plein Air transforms into a dance hall on warm summer nights with areas for tango, salsa, and folk dancing. Flowing from the Seine, the Canal St.-Martin is lined with cafés overlooking picture-perfect bridges and working locks in a vibrant quartier evoking the Paris of Edith Piaf.
    Photo Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay/Sophie Boegly
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    To Market, to Market
    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 labeled with pride. Cheesemongers limit their selection to a specific region or type of cheese. The shops along Rue des Martyrs specialize in ways that seem impossible to consumers used to supermarkets: Entire stores are dedicated to olive oils or jams or candy or even honey. In the fall, wild game hangs from the butcher stalls, alongside chickens sold with their heads intact. Vendors cry out daily specials and admonish 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 Montorgueil. Most food merchants close Sunday at noon and don't reopen again until Tuesday morning. Until then, grocery stores become the sole respite for desperate shoppers.
    Photo by Courtesy of ParisTourist Office/Amelie Dupont
  • 8 / 10
    From Cabaret to Jazz
    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 a hundred 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, two Latin Quarter stalwarts that still host performances. Jazz developed a gypsy rhythm in the 1930s under the talented fingers of guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose groundbreaking tunes are still played weekly at La Chope des Puces. For a more classical experience, the Théâtre de Châtelet stages comedy musicals in English. You can also attend the ballet, performed beneath Chagall’s vibrantly painted masterpiece ceiling at the Opéra Garnier.
    Photo Courtesy of La Chope des Puces
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    Sundays in Paris
    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 are open until 1 p.m. After lunch, the museums are packed and parks overflow. Parisians of every age head outdoors to run, cycle, or stroll along the Canal St.-Martin and the Berges de Seine, the parklike promenade along the riverbanks. The dedicated paths of the Promenade Plantée (aka Coulée Verte) and Canal de l’Ourcq continue miles beyond the city limits, protecting adventurers on a unique urban discovery. After 2 p.m. the fashion set streams out to the flea market and clogs the streets of the Marais, among the few areas where shops can legally open on the day of rest.
    Photo by Bertrand Gardel/age fotostock
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    Paris Goes Green
    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 Garden have trampolines, sailboats, 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 The Kiss at Montparnasse Cemetery.
    Photo by Tara Donne