Google a weekend in Paris and you’ll get page after page of itineraries, top-10s, must-see’s and do-not-leave-Paris-without’s. Scrap those. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to see and do it all with a million other tourists for company. Go to Paris just to be there. Stroll its streets, sit in its cafes and soak up its atmosphere. You’ll be amazed by how many of the must-do’s you will experience simply by exploring the city on foot without the help of that printed checklist. Here’s some advice on how to have ultimate Paris weekend minus the crowds, queues and tourist traps:
Parisians eat late and so if you arrive on an after-work flight around 9, you’re just in time for dinner. Normally we don’t book a table for Friday night; we just try to find a window seat or a spot on a nearby terrace for a simple supper of cheese, charcuterie and a carafe of wine. One that we choose more often than not is La Fronde. This neighbourhood bar close to our flat in the Marais does excellent planches, sardines from the tin and a simple menu of burgers, salads and nibbles. If we’re in the mood for something heartier, just around the corner L’Amuse Geulle has a great-value entrecôte or magret de canard and a drinks happy hour until 10.30. Both places have friendly service and a bustling terrace, providing the perfect welcome to Paris.
Saturday Morning – Get up Early!
It feels great to wake up in Paris with the whole weekend ahead. A typical Saturday starts with breakfast on the terrace or at our little table for two in the apartment. We pick up a freshly baked baguette from Huré, along with some butter, jambon cuit and freshly squeezed orange juice from Franprix. If we go out for breakfast, le Café du Marché does the best croissants we’ve found close by (they just about compensate for the surly service, which some would argue is a Parisian experience in itself). If you had one too many glasses of Côtes du Rhône the night before, they do a set menu breakfast including bacon and eggs to help mop up the excess for just €12. Le Pain Quotidian is a popular cafe chain that serves up a wider variety of breakfast options including muesli, fruit, yoghurt, whole-grain breads and eggs how you like them.
Mid-Morning – Hit the Streets
After breakfast it’s time to start exploring. A great place to start and get your bearings is down by the River Seine. If you begin in the Marais, you can cross through the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, over the bridge and come directly onto Notre Dame. Once you have taken in the beautiful facade, ditch the crowds and make your way to the back of the church and onto Ile St Louis. The ‘little island’ is picture-perfect Paris with cobbled streets, little restaurants and the river lapping at its shores. Walking back in the direction from which you came will take you to the wonderful flower market, Marché aux Fleurs. Stop and smell the roses, jasmine, lavender and other flowers that thrive here in the bustling centre of Paris. Keep strolling along the river and you’ll eventually come to the Louvre. The best time to be here is early morning before the crowds start to gather or in the evening when the sun is low and the former royal palace is bathed in pink light. The museum itself is not for the faint hearted. I would say that if you only have one weekend in Paris, unless you’re there specifically for the art, don’t bother going in. It is huge, crowded and for me, too overwhelming to really enjoy. I love walking along the East side of the building in the evening and glimpsing the paintings and sculptures through the lit-up windows from outside once the crowds have gone back to their airbnbs.
Lunch Time – Traditional or Modern?
If you carry on your walk through the Louvre courtyard the next place you come to is Le Jardin des Tuileries. Stroll through and take a seat by the pond to rest but don’t be tempted to stop at one of the cafés in the grounds. Instead, head out to the left and dive into the old quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Here, you’ll find elegant bistros and boutiques, vintage jewellery and a real feel of old-school glamour. You can take your pick from the restaurants and cafés. Although there are cheaper options elsewhere in the city, you will seldom go wrong lunching in this part of Paris.
If you’re in the mood for something less traditional, jump on the subway back towards the Marais and get off in the Oberkampf area. This is a great spot for nightlife but the reason we’re here is for lunch in Clown Bar. Right next door to the Cirque D’hiver on Rue Amelot, this little French / Japanese fusion bar decorated with belle époque clown tiles plates up creative dishes to share. You can order a little or a lot depending on how many hours you want to while away in this quirky little eatery.
Walk Off That Lunch
Ready for more? From Rue Amelot you can walk through Place de la Republique and into the Canal St Martin area. You’ll find very few tourists in this laid-back quartier of Paris, but lots to see and do. This is where many of the scenes from the film Amélie were shot. Stroll along the canal, browse the boutiques and look out for bobo bars and restaurants you might want to return to later in the evening. If you haven’t already overdosed on cheese and charcuterie, Chez Prune is a bit of an institution, serving up great planches in a buzzing location by the water.
By now you will have seen the City Hall, Notre Dame, the River Seine, the Louvre, the Tuilerie Gardens and Place de La Republique without even trying. Why not head back to the Marais, join the Parisians on the terrace for an early-evening apero, rest your feet and look back at the day you’ve had? Le Haut Marais is a good place to be come dinner time with plenty of bars dishing up snacks and restaurants for those hungry from a day of pounding the pavements. Try Biondi, Cafe Philippe or Tappo.
Sacre Coeur and Montmartre can be hell on earth if you get there in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday in July. But if you manage to get up early and hop on the subway before 10 o’clock, you can experience it at its magical best. Instead of approaching from the front, with the snaking lines of tour groups and hawkers trying to thwart their ascent, start around Jules Joffrin, a gorgeous area of Paris that many never see. You could stop for breakfast in one of the typically Parisian cafés and gather energy for the steep hike up to the church. I love Montmartre before the crowds get too much. If you’re there early in the morning you can watch the shop owners opening up, the painters pitching their easels and imagine this artist’s corner of the city as it once was.
If you were sensible enough to wear your walking shoes, walk from Montmartre back into town. First you’ll come to the shabby Pigalle area—don’t forget to look out for the Moulin Rouge and Chat Noir (now a boutique hotel). If you carry on south you’ll find yourself on the Grands Boulevards. It’s far nicer to be here on a Sunday when the shops are shut and the traffic quiet, freeing up the view of the seemingly endless streets. Tucked away in the smaller streets between boulevards you’ll find the grand brasseries that Paris is famous for and what better way to spend a Sunday than by taking part in the time-honoured French tradition of a long and indulgent lunch? Bofinger boasts the title of the oldest brasserie in Paris. Le Brebant has a beautiful zinc bar and eccentric decor. Le Veaudeville is another good option.
If you didn’t manage to get up before the crowds to see Sacre Coeur and have been enjoying a more leisurely start to the day, you could do worse than heading over to Place d’Aligre in the 11th Arrondissement. For those looking for an authentic Parisian food market experience, this bustling market place has it all. The busy street stalls display fresh produce from the farms surrounding Paris. Behind the sprawl of stands the covered Marché Beauvau houses butchers, fishmongers, cheese shops and merchants selling home-made pasta, pastries and patés. All around there are little restaurants and bars frequented by locals and stall owners alike. Le Charolais is an solid choice for lunch or dinner with good-value meals, an excellent choice of wines by the glass and the feeling of being in a local bar in a Provencal village.
Sunday Afternoon Culture
You could visit a different museum in Paris every day and it would take months to see them all: I’m working my way through but have merely scratched the surface. Ones I have recently enjoyed are the Rodin Museum in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its beautiful sculptures and gardens, The Musée des Arts et Métiers and the Maison de Victor Hugo – make sure to stop in the bookshop and pick up your copy of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Place des Vosges is lovely to stroll through, lined with 17th and 18th century homes, art galleries and arched walkways.
Everyone hangs out in the Marais on Sundays because all the shops are open. Wander around, window shop (or as they say in French, ‘faire du lèche-vitrines’, which means to lick the windows) and wind up your weekend in Paris where you started: on a terrace; glass of wine in hand; watching the world go by and soaking up the atmosphere of one of the world’s most memorable cities.