Go for the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge photo-op, the Notre Dame tour and a stomp down the Champs-Élysées; but don’t dare miss some of the city’s diverse and lesser-known offerings. If you are a culture-seeker, start here; and as you round the end of the Promenade Plantée, unpick a side of Paris that some will miss on their first trip.
An urban sanctuary in the 12th Arrondissement, the Promenade Plantée stretches from the Bastille three miles east. A world’s first, the disused viaduct was turned into a long, elevated park, offering a rather unique perspective onto the streets below. At its beginning – or end, depending on where you start – the Viaduc des Arts shelters artisan showrooms under its imposing archways before you climb the stairs to this rather magical garden route atop the Parisian streets.
Sainte Chapelle is quite possibly the finest Gothic structure in Europe. Hidden amongst grand municipal buildings, this 13th-century chapel was initially built to house the crown of thorns, a relic that would promote Paris as a European force to be reckoned with; any serious superpower needs a relic, of course. The lower floor, dark and mysterious, is where the relic and reliquary originally sat. But follow the narrow, winding staircase up a floor, and the light begins to flood in. The scene is breathtaking, beguiling, dizzying; the towering ceiling is supported by vast columns of stained glass, windows made up of thousands of carefully crafted, technicolour pieces that dazzle visitors into an odd spiritual humility. It’s a scene that captures a moment in time, a time of wealth, grandeur and the quest for medieval salvation.
A wash of formica, neon and irresistible simplicity, Chez Aline is the only spot to sink yourself into the classic French sandwich – the glorious jambon beurre. Prince de Paris ham and Borniambuc butter, fresh bread – it sits in its little yellow basket, it has cost barely a thing, and it’s the perfect midday pick-me-up. Add a few simple salads to the side for grazing, and enjoy a wonderfully simple flavour of France.
Couscous, couscous, and more glorious couscous. Chez Omar is a stalwart North African brasserie, a kind of old-world confusion of Parisian sensibility and rustic Algerian-Moroccan eats. Grand wooden booths and a wooden bar, crisp white tablecloths and old-fashioned service. Choose your meat and from the steaming kitchen will arrive a pot of vegetables in a rich sauce, your meat grilled or roasted to fall-off-the-bone perfection, and a silver platter piled high with couscous – couscous with a texture like snow, that magically refills if empty. For all the grandeur of this stalwart brasserie, all the remarkable flavours that come from generations of tradition, it’s also really, satisfyingly cheap.
In the gritty, vibrant heart of Belleville is a Parisian institution, a beatnik mecca of red neon and irresistible charm. Aux Folies is packed day and night, from coffee-slurping students to a little-too-early aperitif to glass after glass of cheap, delicious wine. The bohemian atmosphere accelerates the busier the place gets, spilling young and old into the street and down the alley. It’s in this atmosphere that the little sparrow Edith Piaf first sang, a regular at Aux Folies. Though it was local; she was born in a doorway just up the road from this ‘20s treasure.
La Mosquée Salon De Thé
Head for the grand mosque of Paris, fashioned in Algerian style with crisp whites and delicate blues and greens, ornate carving and intricate tiling. A visit to the mosque and its remarkable interiors is a must, but a true gem lies on the corner – an Algerian cafe with a series of courtyards dressed in refined Islamic styling. Take a seat in this oasis of North African calm, as fresh and sweet mint tea is dropped in front of you. They keep coming, so don’t rush; instead let this little Algeria wash over you, rescuing you, for a moment, from the hustle and bustle of the Parisian streets.
Shakespeare and Company
A literary landmark on the left bank of the Seine, Shakespeare and Company is a bookshop filled with nooks, hidden spaces, socialist manifestos, literary masterpieces and creaky living room comfort hiding in a narrow maze of age-old eccentricity. It’s here that Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in full, where Hemingway, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin and more stayed, even slept, and where a generation of so-called Tumbleweeds – visitors who give up two hours of work in exchange for a night’s stay – leave one-page autobiographies typed on the first-floor typewriter. Go in; buy a book.
A sweet patisserie near the gothic towers of Notre Dame makes for a perfect pit-stop along the charming streets of the 5th. There’s one reason to stop by Odette, and that would be the rows upon rows of colourful cream puffs that invite you inside. They’re some of the best in the city; small, bite-size, rich yet delicate. It’s the typical style of Parisian luxury that makes the city so irresistible. Pick your flavour, pick more than one if you have to, don’t dare miss out on the coffee, and sit outside gazing down the cobbled lane toward the Seine and the imposing Notre Dame.