This feature first appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2015

Follow our insider itineraries and explore four very different Parisian neighbourhoods on foot, by bike and by boat, taking in gourmet markets and secret bars, little-known galleries and knockout views


Entering Sainte-Chapelle feels like climbing into a kaleidoscope. From all directions, light pours in through the 15-metre-high stained-glass windows in glorious technicolor. The floor, too, is a riot of red, green and blue, and 12 larger- than-life apostles glare down from the gilded pillars. Often overlooked in favour of Notre Dame, this 13th-century chapel is a good starting point for a stroll through Paris’s history.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie both stand on the Île de la Cité, the island where Paris first began, and together they make up the remains of France’s oldest palace. It was in the Conciergerie that Marie Antoinette was imprisoned.

Following the path her cart took as it trundled towards the guillotine leads through the Louvre, past queues
snaking into its glass pyramid, and into the Renaissance orderliness of the Jardin des Tuileries. On her lunch break, with a colleague from the Ministry of Education, Véra Massias is strolling along the garden’s wide avenues, past the faultlessly symmetrical lawns and hedges. ‘I never get blasé about this,’ she says. ‘Here you really get a sense of the history and romance of the city.’

A short detour away from the Tuileries, other office workers are sharing a bottle of red in Juveniles, a burgundy-walled bistro where the baby-faced chef, Romain Roudeau, serves dishes ‘like his grandfather used to make’. As the sweet smell of caramelising balsamic and garlic diffuses across the room, customers pause conversations with anticipatory glances at the open kitchen.

Back at the Tuileries, sunlight floods through the enormous conservatory of the Musée de l’Orangerie. Inside, a couple holding hands lose themselves in Monet’s Water Lilies. His 12-metre-long canvases wrap round the walls, enveloping the viewer in an entrancing widescreen vision. ‘These were his last works. He wanted them displayed here and gave them to the people of France,’ a curator explains. ‘It was his last testament.’

Just beyond the Tuileries is where Marie Antoinette met her end – the present-day Place de la Concorde. Instead of a guillotine, this traffic-encircled square today holds at its centre a 3,300-year-old obelisk from Egypt. From here, the mother of all vistas looms. To the north, south and west are the Neoclassical edifices of the Napoleonic era: the Grecian Madeleine Church, the Palais Bourbon (parliament) and the Arc de Triomphe; to the southwest, the Eiffel Tower pierces the sky, marking the late 19th-century in all its metallic modernity.

Across the Seine, a squat Batobus departs from the quay in front of the Musée d’Orsay. As the boat chugs downstream, everyone on board cranes their necks to ogle the architectural hit parade passing by.

After alighting by the Louvre, another nearby institution beckons: Le Fumoir, a leather and lacquer restaurant where Parisiens sporting smoking jackets are joined by glossy-haired Parisiennes, seeing out their day with martinis, olives and cigarettes on the heated terrace.


Paris’s intellectual centre of gravity has long been the Left Bank. Today the area’s expensive apartments no longer house students and struggling creatives, but the many universities and publishing houses mean they still crowd the streets and cafés.

La Palette, a café frequented by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Jim Morrison, remains in a bohemian time warp. Art Deco murals share the walls with smoke-stained mirrors. A waiter in a black waistcoat sweeps out of the kitchen with a tray bearing a croissant. He places it in front of a professorial-looking man on the terrace, who pauses his breakfast ritual to nod a quick bonjour to a passer-by he recognises.

‘The café culture here is special,’ says Michael Wolf, a student originally from Berlin, who’s lived in Paris for three years. ‘I appreciate the long meals, the chance to watch people go by. You have this interesting mix between international students from all the universities and the old Parisian families that live here.’

Equally good for people-watching are the quayside bouquinistes, where used books have been sold since the 16th century. Many of the bottle-green quayside stalls now deal mainly in mini Eiffel Towers, but a dedicated few, especially those grouped on Quai Malaquais, continue to hawk the written word.

A teenager flits between yellowed Charlie Hebdo magazines and 1950s Disney comics. Meanwhile, a bearded vendor relinquishes a play by Racine, France’s Shakespeare, to a man wearing a lemon-yellow scarf, for a few euros.

It costs a lot more to buy the rare editions sold around Saint-Germain. Here leather-bound tomes are exhibited in shop windows like museum pieces. At one of these antique bookstores, Librairie Camille Sourget, an assistant carefully places a volume by the Roman historian Tacitus next to a letter signed by the 19th-century French novelist Émile Zola.

With just as much precision, a red-bow-tied waiter is arranging cutlery on the marble tables at the nearby restaurant Germain. Another server dashes past with a bowl of cascading French fries. The service here is traditional but the décor is anything but: flashes of neon colour are everywhere and the legs of a giant, bright-yellow statue appear to have crashed through the ceiling.

Paris has always drawn artists who liked making statements. Just south of Saint-Germain, Montparnasse is where the likes of Picasso first flung Modernism in the faces of the art establishment. On the border of Montparnasse, at Musée Zadkine, it’s possible to get a feel for the spirit of that time. This quiet little museum was once the studio of a Russian émigré sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, and is now a light-filled space dedicated to his works. In the garden, a lone visitor admires an abstract bronze sculpture that hints at a female form.

A few hundreds metres away, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a Classical marble statue looks on imperviously as a bespectacled student sits underneath it, leafing self-consciously through a novel by the 19th-century pioneer of realism, Honoré de Balzac.

Near the other side of the gardens, Les Papilles bistro is opening its doors to customers. Outside, rain is falling hard, but the bright mosaic floor and the hearty set menu, which includes an ossobuco braised shank that’s taken all day to cook, provide a bright respite.


Pride in locally grown, from-scratch produce isn’t some hipster fad in Paris – it’s a culinary tradition. In the working-class Bastille district, just as clubbers are stumbling to bed, Fabrice Le Bourdat forces himself awake each day at 2.30am, to bake at the Blé Sucré boulangerie. His madeleines were named the best in Paris by newspaper Le Figaro, but this morning, customers have come for the croissants. Their warm buttery scent hangs tantalisingly outside the shop.

Down the road, a stroll around the Marché d’Aligre covered food market becomes an olfactory safari. Moving from stall to stall, the zingy aroma of olive tapenade is replaced by roasted chicken with thyme, then fresh flowers, warm dough, and a punch to the nose from Fromagerie Langlet-Hardouin. Monsieur Hardouin’s hundred-odd varieties of cheeses, from plum-sized chèvre to enormous holey Swiss Emmental, draws a crowd. Old men and women, pulling shopping bags on wheels, jostle for Monsieur Hardouin’s attention.

From artisanal food to hand-made crafts, it’s a short hop on Paris’s easy-to-rent Vélib’ bikes to the Viaduc des Arts, where the arches under a disused railway have been converted into modern, glass-fronted workshops. Through the window of Atelier Stéphane Guilbaud, Martin Renucci can be seen working on a set of prints. An unlit cigarette hangs from his mouth; behind him stands a gargantuan lithograph printing press dating back to 1900. ‘Lots of countries got rid of them, but France kept these machines,’ says Martin. ‘It used to print newspapers. Now we’re working with artists from all over the world.’

Continuing by bike, it’s a quick ride to the Place des Vosges in Le Marais – an ideal picnic spot for bread, cheese and cold cuts bought earlier at Blé Sucré and Marché d’Aligre. Across this landscaped square, La Vie en Rose plays out on a saxophone, accompanied by tweeting birds.

While much of Paris is intersected with grand avenues and boulevards built in the 19th century, Le Marais is still a maze of narrow medieval lanes, now populated with galleries and upmarket boutiques. Round the corner from Place des Vosges, concept store L’êtreANGE appears like a naturalist’s study: plants dangle from the ceiling, cups are kept under bell jars and anthropomorphic prints hang next to a deer bust wearing a bow-tie.

In the Haut Marais, as the end furthest from the river is known, exquisite specimens of another kind are on display: at Jacques Genin, assistants carefully handle the heavenly chocolates, nougats and caramels with white gloves.

By the evening, Le Marais pulses with restaurant- and bar-hoppers. The most popular joints are the hardest to find. Tucked down an alleyway, Au Passage is a shoebox-sized restaurant where the chalkboard menu takes up half the back wall. Tapas-sized portions rush out of a kitchen so small that the head chef has to stand outside, barking orders through the serving window. Yet the food – consisting of simple but nuanced dishes, such as citrusy grey mullet ceviche and earthy terrine en croute, all accompanied by homemade bread and house-churned butter – ensures a steady stream of customers. No doubt, the tattooed owner behind the bar keeping everyone well liquored helps too.


If the storybook Paris depicted in the whimsical film Amélie actually exists, it’s not to be found in Montmartre, with its gauntlet of hawkers. Instead, for authentic Parisian village life, take the subway to Danube. Around a trio of streets, Rue de la Liberté, Rue de l’Egalité and Rue de la Fraternité, a crisscross of pedestrianised alleys, with names beginning with ‘Villa’, are lined with Belle Époque cottages. Wandering here, it’s all pastel walls, potted plants and Art Nouveau ironwork.

Following the trail of these quiet roads leads to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where a father races his son up a set of stairs. It’s worth the steep climb to the Corinthian temple folly at the top of the park. From here, Sacré-Coeur’s white domes gleam in the distance and, immediately below, park life unfolds on an ant-like scale. Prams and bicycles wheel round paths, while sunbathers stretch out on vertiginous grass banks, like Seurat’s famous painting of bathers by the Seine.

A short ride on the 75 bus reveals an altogether different scene in the area east of Canal Saint-Martin. The word ‘Liberté’ is doused on a wall on Rue Jacques Louvel-Tessier. Doves, painted in orange and red, fly above the giant letters and, in a space inside the letter ‘B’, someone has written ‘Je suis Charlie. Libre’ (I am Charlie. Free). In this gentrifying area, street art, graffiti tags and workers’ cafés now neighbour gluten-free bakeries and stylish international restaurants. Outside Le Petit Cambodge, a duo capped in trilbies wait for a friend; inside this Cambodian canteen, benches of customers wolf down delicate rice noodles laced with prawns, chillies, peanuts and lemongrass.

Nearby, a barely noticeable sign marks the entrance to Le Comptoir Général, a self-styled ‘temple to ghetto culture’. A red-carpeted hallway opens into a sprawling space with vintage clothes and record stalls, and a bar manned by a man with a ’fro and Homer Simpson T-shirt. Working the rooms is a Senegalese musician, who strums a kora (lute), soliciting laughs with risqué wordplay. ‘This is a unique cultural space centred around French Africa,’ explains regular visitor Stéphane Ranaivoson, a Parisian with Madagascan roots, who’s come today with his friend Alexie. ‘This is the real Paris,’ he says, ‘not the Eiffel Tower.’

Crossing one of Canal Saint-Martin’s footbridges leads to another, once seedy, now evolving neighbourhood. The area around Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est is experiencing a gastro revolution, and at the forefront is 52 Faubourg Saint-Denis, a bistro serving dishes as stripped back and simple as its exposed walls. Despite not taking bookings and having no website or telephone number, the place is full by 7pm.

Hard-to-get-into places are a motif in this area. Luckily, a friendly assistant in the deli next door to 52 Faubourg has a tip: just opposite, at number 51, behind a faux façade of a postered-over shop, is the speakeasy Le Syndicat. Behind thick golden curtains, a blond in a leather jacket nurses a ‘Pomme Sourde’ cocktail, made with calvados. American hip-hop plays over the sound system, but the drink menu uses French spirits only. The bar is a microcosm of Paris: glamorous, not gaudy; multicultural, and proud of its traditions.

First appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2015.