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Paris For Beginners

Paris For Beginners
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Paris is magic. I have fond memories of the city from different stages in my life. With my parents, as a young child, we lived in luxury, at the Ritz. I took on an Eloise persona and used to ride the elevators up and down, up and down. In my twenties – on a budget – I stayed in youth hostels. And most recently, with my teenaged kids and my husband, we stayed on the Left Bank in a sweet hotel with a view of the Pont Royal, one of the bridges that span the River Seine. (For this trip we had a “cheat sheet” from the mom of one of daughter’s friends who goes to Paris several times a year. It was indispensible and I have used some of it here).

The city of lights: It is so aptly named. When you gaze out at night from the Eiffel Tower carpet of twinkling stars, you can see why. Paris is so chock full of activities — cultural, artistic, materialistic, hedonistic – that I could never do it justice in a small space, but here, for you, is Paris 101. If you just do these few things on your first trip, trust me – you will be busy and happy.

The sights

Of course you have to visit the Eiffel Tower (, and even though there are always crowds, it is totally worth it.  The feat of ingenuity that it represents, the way it can be seen from so many places in the city, the way the lights on it sparkle at night … it is just beautiful. The Tower was built the 1889 by Gustave Eiffel for the Exposition Universelle, which was to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the French Revolution. Its construction in 2 years, 2 months and 5 days was a technical and architectural achievement. “Utopia achieved”; at the end of the 19th Century, it was a demonstration of French engineering. Only intended to last 20 years, it was saved by the scientific experiments that Eiffel encouraged, and in particular by the first radio transmissions. I suggest visiting the tower in the late afternoon; it is stunning with the sun setting around it. You can either take the elevator up – and there is always a line – or you can walk up if you feel so inclined. The views of Paris are amazing! If you want to spend some more money and not have to wait in line, book a meal ahead of time at the Jules Verne restaurant.

Another spectacular architectural feat, the Arc de Triomphe (, is also rather crowded and full of tourists (especially in the summer), but – again – worth seeing, especially for the views from the top. The arc, which sits at the end of the Champs-Élysées, symbolizes the people who fought and died for the French on the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Underneath is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. And – to show how well designed Paris is – the arc is also the middle of a historic of sequence of monuments and grand thoroughfares on a route which goes from the courtyard of the Louvre, to the Grande Arche de la Défense.

I have the most vivid memories of going to the Catacombs ( with my parents when I was a kid. Dark and dank underground caverns with remains of bodies. This underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1874. Upon entering down a narrow stone stairwell spirals down to the darkness and silence broken only by the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct channeling local springs away from the area. Then there are halls and walls of caverns with carefully arranged bones. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other unvisitable parts of the catacombs – many of these are either unrenovated or too un-navigable for regular tours. There are many tour companies that offers visits, one good pick is viatour (

If you listen closely, you may still hear the people talking about John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rant in Paris’ Marais district last year. The drunken tirade got Galliano fired from Dior and it also brought some attention to the wonderful – often forgotten – area of Paris. Spread across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements (the city is divided into parts – similar to boroughs in New York) on the Right Bank of the Seine, Le Marais is the heart of Paris’s oldest Jewish quarter with gay bars, falafel cafés, kosher restaurants, synagogues and prayer rooms. Its labyrinthine streets have been home to Jews on and off since the 13th century. This is also one of the trendiest places in the city for clothing and housewares. It is worth a whole day visit.

Another great attraction in this area  is the Musée National Picasso ( Unfortunately, it is undergoing renovation until the summer 0f 2013). This museum is less famous than its counterpart in Barcelona, but boasts one of the most extensive collections of works from the Spanish-born Cubist artist: over 250 paintings, 1,700 drawings, 300 sculptures and works in diverse other mediums make up the permanent collection.

The best way to orient yourself to Paris when you first arrive is to take a boat tour on the Seine. There is nothing like being in the middle of the city, watching the buildings go by from a boat, and these boats have been in integral part of Paris for more than 60 years. The Bateau Mouche ( offers a boat route along the Seine from which you can visit most of the major sights. There are also lunch and dinner cruises available. And while we are on the subject of transportation, Paris is known for its Metro; it is clean, on time, and goes everywhere. Use it. (

The Left Bank, or Rive Gauche is the legendary place where the artists met. This is where, in the the Paris of an earlier era, writers and philosophers flourished, including Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Satre, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and many more. Some of its famous streets are the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Rue de Rennes.The Latin Quarter is a Left Bank area in the 5th arrondissement, so named because originally Latin was widely spoken by students in the vicinity of the University of Paris. Today the area still has an artistic feel with lots of art galleries and some of the best shopping in the city.

There are so many museums in Paris, that going into detail about each would – again – be a book. Here is a quick list of a few of the more than 150 museums in Paris: Le Louvre. Most famous as the home of the famous Mona Lisa, the museum also has a huge permanent collection of Islamic art, Greek antiquities, decorative arts and so much more. It really takes a day or two to see the whole museum. Centre Pompidou as the brainchild of President Georges Pompidou who wanted to create an original cultural institution in the heart of Paris completely focused on modern and contemporary creation. Think the MOMA of Paris. The Musée D‘Orsay is known for its superb collection of paintings by: Monet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh and more. Musée De Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages; Musée De L’Armée, military history museum.

A little bit of shopping


If you do buy anything in Paris’ wonderful shops, make sure to get detax forms. France has a 15 percent value added tax and you can get it refunded when you leave the country. When you make the purchase, just have them fill out the forms and then have them stamped by the customs officials at the airport.

The first department store in the world, and definitely the most beautiful that I have seen, Bon Marché, has all the “names,” such as Dior, Tod’s, Comme des Garçons, Issey Pleats Please, and much more.  It also has a very chic lunchroom with a terrace which serves teeny portions of very well made pastries and sandwiches.

The Sephora on the Champs-Élysées is the largest beauty store in the world and is always a mad house.

Perfume: You can buy “retired” perfumes unavailable in the U.S. in the main stores of of Caron (Blvd Montaigne), Guerlain (rue de Rivoli). Chanel (rue Cambon).

Rue Du Faubourg St.-Honoré is is the longest street in Paris. The great French stores are from the Place Royale down to the Palais Matignon (where the French President resides). Look for such iconic stores as: Goyard, Collette, Cucci, Prada, Hermes and lots more


Paris is full of Michelin four-and five-starred restaurants, and even though you may want to try one (to the tune of $800 or more for two people), there are lots of great, and more approachable restaurants. Here are a few:

Flunch This restaurant has several locations in the city. It a cafeteria frequented by office workers and others. In the summer they have a salad bar with an array of fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and bread as well as extremely good French fries, all dirt cheap.

Restaurant Georges Located at the very top of the Pompidou museum, this is very trendy restaurant with a fabulous terrace and a wonderful view of Paris. The food “fusion” and there are several vegetarian options. Be sure to walk around and check out the interior. But try to eat outside on the terrace if it is warm enough. The view at night is spectacular.

Ladurée Ladurée is officially a “tea room” but they serve meals. There are several throughout the city. The decor is always about the same. The macaroons are the big attraction here. They are the best in the world and include strange flavors like black tea, ainse, caramel, pepper, pistachio etc.

Leon de Bruxelles Another small chain, the specialty is is moules/frites — steamed mussels and French fries and beer. It is inexpensive, basic and delicious, Belgian cooking.

Harry’s New York Bar, 5 Rue Daunou, 7500,  Advertised as The Oldest Cocktail Bar in Europe, this bar originally opened in 1911 as just “New York Bar,” An old haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other literary luminaries through the years, the atmosphere is old dark wood and Paris memorabilia.  The lunch food is good and basic – chili, club sandwiches, chef salad. The drinks are excellent, too – they claim to have invented the Bloody Mary!


I am showing my bias here. I think that St. Germain des Prés, on the Left Bank, is the best area of Paris in which to stay; it is beautiful, always busy and conveniently located in the city. So here are three good picks in this area.

Pont Royal, 5-7 rue de Montalembert, 75007,

This hotel is perfectly located a few steps from it’s namesake bridge across the Seine, about five minutes to the Louvre, and walking distance to all of the great shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. The décor is all red velvet and old wood and it makes you feel as if you have gone back to Paris in the 20s.

La Villa St. Germain des Prés, 29, rue Jacob 75006,

This trendy hotel, on a beautiful, tree-lined street, is pristine with crisp white and boldly colored walls and refined modern furnishings.  This small boutique hotel is also very well located. The staff are all knowledgeable about Paris and extremely friendly.

Hôtel Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 36, rue Bonaparte, 75006,

Built in the 18th century as a gracious townhouse, the hotel retains many period details and original architectural features. It is resplendent, yet comfortable and feels like staying at a wealthy friend’s house.  The hotel staff are friendly and pleasant and this hotel is known to be child-friendly.



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