19 February 2016

A French adventure for the Paris first-timer


There’s something about Paris. Immortalised in countless films, novels and songs, it even plays a supporting role in several historical events. The City of Lights, the City of Love, it is the birthplace of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

My first memories of Paris are as a child, rooted in front of the TV mesmerised by the exploits of twelve little girls in two straight lines (especially the smallest one, Madeline). I followed them all around Paris, past the Eiffel Tower, around the River Seine, up and down cobbled streets and even on the metro, on a whirlwind trip of their beautiful city. And I dreamt that one day I would get to have a French adventure of my own.

And so on a whim I decided to spend a far-too-short weekend in Paris. Here is my guide for the Paris first-timer.

Start with breakfast at Café Saint-Honoré. They will provide fluffy croissants and crusty baguettes with butter and jam, to be washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and a piping hot café crème. I think I nearly cried one morning; the croissant was melt-in-your-mouth soft and flaky. Nearby is the world-famous Louvre, home to the must-see Mona Lisa and hundreds of other stunning masterpieces. But equally unmissable (and far less crowded) is the sculpture garden in the Richelieu wing, on the same level as the Pyramid entrance.

The Louvre is perfectly located on the banks of the Seine. Cross the Seine and you will find yourself in the old, historical Saint-Germain-Des-Près, where artistic and intellectual giants like Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Picasso and Camus would gather to write, debate and have a relaxing coffee and people-watch. At least that’s what I imagine. It’s the perfect place to do so. Choose a café, pick your poison, and just watch the world go by. Les Deux Magots is perfect for the literary or history buff. Merveilleuse.

Of course you will want to visit the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly for something so prominent in public consciousness, it was actually even bigger than I’d imagined. The views are spectacular, especially if you are lucky enough to go all the way to the highest viewing platform. But if you don’t want to brave the crowds to go up it, just enjoy the gorgeous surrounding garden – there’s lots of space for picnicking, and I even saw some kite-flying.

It’s approximately 390 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe but you will be rewarded with another gorgeous view of Paris, and the journey to the top is broken up by carefully curated exhibits and memorials of the First World War.

And that will bring you to arguably one of the most well-known streets in the world. The Avenue des Champs-Elysées is quintessentially French. It’s another prime spot for a bit of people-watching or window-shopping. High street brands rub shoulders with couture houses alongside cafes and bars; a veritable shopper’s paradise.

Take a walk down to the other end of the Champs-Elysées is the Place de la Concorde, which itself borders the Jardin des Tuileries. (To get your bearings, keep in mind that on the other side of the gardens is the Louvre.) Alternatively, you can head away from the river and instead find the Palais Garnier, the inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Once you catch a glimpse of the opera house, it is no stretch of the imagination to understand why it stirred Leroux to write his tragic love story.

For something a little more unusual, make your way down to Denfert-Rochereau to visit the Paris Catacombs. In the 18th century, old limestone quarries were converted to become the world’s largest underground necropolis.

Locals always know best. A hot tip from a local is to try the macarons and pastries from Pierre Hermè. You will have no regrets. Le Chat Noir is an institution and rightly so. Try the popular restaurant Cinq Mars and choose the ‘unlimited’ chocolate mousse for dessert – basically 2 kilograms of chocolate mousse for €10.

If you look past the stereotypes and their ridiculous ability to look chic while taking the trash out, you will find warm, funny, welcoming people living in Paris. Parisians have a bad rep sometimes, coming across as cool, aloof and haughty but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. If you are ever in need of help, I recommend asking métro station staff for directions; they were efficient and friendly. Just try to at least be able to greet them in their own language.

Two days is far too short to explore everything Paris has to offer, but try anyway. Soak up the 19th century architecture and absorb that distinctly French je ne sais quoi attitude. On or off the beaten track, Paris reveals itself to be charming and calm. It was easy to fall in love with the City of Love – Paris je t’aime.

Wei Tien Sng is a CapX contributor.