Paris: famed for romance, embedded in history, and a tourist favorite. The real Paris is just a few streets past the tourist shops with all of their signs in English and shiny rows of miniature Eiffel Towers. Streets of every size and angle shoot off in every direction under beige limestone façades, every window lined with a black wrought iron balcony. The further you get from the main streets, the easier it is to get lost.
The royal palace of Versailles is breathtaking, with its painted ceilings, ornate furniture, and thrilling history. The art is incredible, everything is gilded in gold, and you can walk through rooms that have seen kings and assassins, princes and spies. The gardens are like another palace unto themselves, stretching away for acres and studded with marble gods that eternally smile, frown, or engage in epic battle.
And missing the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, or the fantastic Sacre Cœur church on the top of the hill of Montmartre would be a crime. These three form a triangle of icons across both banks of the Seine River; when standing at one, you can see the other two. Paris’s legislated lack of skyscrapers sees to that.
But when you only visit to see the sites, you run a real risk of missing the sights. Getting lost in Paris is fun, especially because you can always, always find your way back. Métro subway stops are around every bend, some literally in sight of one another, and all of the lines connect in a webbed myriad. One little purple ticket can get you from one side of the city to the other. But before you descend those curiously clean steps to catch a train that runs every two minutes (Parisians get grouchy if they find they have to wait more than four minutes), take a look around the streets.
Try a Saturday. If it’s still morning, don’t expect much to be open except the bakeries, at least one on every street, with the buttery aroma of baguettes and croissants shifting through the mist like a cloud of deliciousness. All of the shops will be open by noon, but it would be a good idea to decide what your budget is before you step into a store. The closer you get to the bustling Gallerie de Lafayette on the right bank, the more attractive your credit card will look. For lunch, the best place to go would be a little hole-in-the-wall café with tables outside and only two waiters. The bigger restaurants are crowded with noise and crammed with tables from eleven o’clock on, but the smaller ones go by the natural flow of pedestrian hunger. If you find one early enough, and order crêpes and a glass of red wine, they’ll let you sit for an hour, just savoring, and savoring.
Keep walking around after lunch—French food may be delectable, but it is also heavy. Open air markets sell everything: Champagne grapes, fresh fish, handbags, hats, and more, while solicitors lie in wait around national monuments to pounce on unsuspecting tourists, declaiming in English of cheap trinkets, roasted chestnuts, and caricatures until you walk out of sight.
Late starts on weekends mean late ends. Everything is thrumming at night on Paris streets. Restaurants do swift business at eleven pm, record stores close their doors past midnight, and the traffic is even crazier than in the daylight hours. A beignet off a street vendor, a club pounding with music, and don’t go to bed before three am.
Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License