Three days in Paris

A visit to Paris is not complete without visits to the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, but visitors usually miss some of the city’s most interesting galleries, neighborhoods and attractions while trying to pack in all the “must-see” sights. Whether it’s your first visit or you’re just looking to see something off the beaten path, here are a few suggestions that will give you another glimpse of Paris beyond the guidebooks.

Riding on the Métro
At first glance, Paris’ subway system – Métropolitain or the Métro, as it’s commonly known – looks confusing with its 16 lines and 300 stations. However, the Métro is the most efficient, convenient and economical way to see Paris and its environs. If you know the number or color of the line you want to take and the terminus station at each end, it’s actually quite easy. Follow the signs inside each station, making sure to look at the terminus listed, as this will let you know you’re going in the right direction. You’ll also see the list of stops.

Running in tandem with the Metro is the RER (translation: Regional Express Network), which are commuter trains that run further into the suburbs and makes less frequent stops. However, many RER trains stop at well-known spots (like Notre-Dame), so consult your map and remember the RER lines are lettered A to E. You can purchase a Paris Visite travel card for one to five days (a three day card for central Paris is €20, approximately $26 at current conversion rates) or simply buy a carnet, a stack of 10 individual tickets (€12) that is good for one trip with transfers on the Metro, zone 1 of the RER (central Paris) and even the buses. For more information visit

An Afternoon in the Garden
Paris’ botanical gardens, Jardin des Plantes, is one of the city’s most beautiful spaces, but it’s not a huge tourist draw like the more famous Tuileries or Luxembourg Gardens. That’s a shame, because Jardin des Plantes is worth an afternoon visit, even if it’s just to sit on a bench and people-watch along the tree-lined walkways. However, there is much to do in the gardens, including a visit to the zoo, Le Menagerie (created in 1795 from animals formerly housed at Versailles Palace), four natural history museums, or one of the giant greenhouses.

There are also beautiful maintained flowerbeds and art, including Dupaty’s famed Venus Genetrix. There is no admission charge to Jardin des Plantes, but it’s €5 for the green houses and €8 or €6 for children to Le Menagerie. More information is available at Jardin des Plantes is a short walk from a number of Metro stations including Jussieu, Censier Daubenton or Gare d’Austerlitz.

An Evening Along the Seine
Strolling along the Seine on a beautiful summer evening is like no other experience in the world. The light is different in Paris and the way it plays over the gently flowing river is why so many visitors and locals alike pause along the bridges and quays. To get the full experience, here’s a way to spend an evening.

Start with dinner at Café Panis (21 Quai de Montebello) and grab a table right on the street with a commanding view of Notre-Dame and the Seine. Café Panis has an extensive menu (try an omelet frommage and salad, €10), a big wine and beer selection, a good selection of desserts and coffees. The food is delicious and the view across the river to the spires and flying buttresses of Notre-Dame are like a postcard.

After dinner stroll just down the street to Shakespeare and Company bookstore. A landmark of the Left Bank since 1951, it was founded by American ex-pat George Whitman. It’s tiny, but full of new and used books – in English – with special attention to the classics and poetry. The shop is famed for its reading series and authors sometimes sleep upstairs.

After you’ve purchased a book or two, stroll across Pont du Double to Île de la Cité, the island that sits in the middle of the Seine and is the heart of Paris. Wander through the side garden of the cathedral and cross Pont Saint-Louis to Île de Saint-Louis for ice cream at Le Flore en L’Ile (42 Quai d’Orleans). This little place along the Seine serves Berthillon ice cream and sorbet, considered some of the finest in the world. Made only from milk, sugar, cream, eggs and natural flavoring, it’s the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. The counter is set up right on the street for easy access to customers. I had a scoop of the chocolate noir and it made me want to snap into a diabetic coma. You can sit at one of the outdoor café tables or take the steps down to the river walk and enjoy watching the bateaux sail along the river as the sun begins to set.

Rodin and Claudel
While Auguste Rodin’s genius as a sculptor is without question, one of the main reasons to visit the Musée Rodin is to see the work of Camille Claudel. From 1893 to the early 20th Century, Claudel was mentored by Rodin (and later became his model and lover) and was a headstrong and talented woman in an era that did not appreciate or welcome female artists. Many considered her mentally ill, and her outbursts of anger often lead to the destruction of her own work. Only about 100 pieces survive and 15 of them are at the Musée Rodin.

While Rodin’s influence is noticeable in her early work, Claudel’s later sculptures in marble and onyx are so fluid and finely detailed that she often upstages her mentor. The star power at the museum, of course, are iconic statues like Rodin’s The Thinker and The Kiss, but take a moment to study Claudel’s work in context. The museum’s ornamental garden with its fountains, sculptures and stone pathways (and there’s even an outdoor cafeteria) is a perfect place to soak up the sun surrounded by the art of two masters. Admission to the museum and special exhibitions is €10, while if you just want to wander around the garden it’s only €1.

A Picnic in Place des Vosges
This beautiful park is just a short walk from the Bastille Metro station on the Right Bank. The oldest planned square in Paris (started in 1605), the homes, shops, restaurants and luxury hotels that ring the perimeter of the park were once home to some of France’s most important figures, including Victor Hugo and Cardinale Richelieu. The beautiful park itself is a perfect place to stretch out on the grass and have a picnic.

Or, you might want to sit under the arcades at Café Hugo (22 Place des Vosges) across from the park for brunch or just to have coffee. Gurgling fountains and the sound of children playing make it a perfect spot to sit and soak up Paris life. You can even bring your laptop, since Place des Vosges is one of the public areas of the city that has free wi-fi.

Collin Kelley just returned from Europe, where he traveled and guest lectured on social media at Worcester College at Oxford University. He is the author of the novel Conquering Venus and three collections of poetry. Read his blog on Red Room. The photos above are all courtesy Collin Kelley. The above photos are all copyright Collin Kelley.

Eternal returns in springtime Paris

Natives will tell you that Paris has everything necessary for the pursuit of happiness, including songbirds. The intensity and frequency of birdsong signals the end of winter, if not the arrival of spring. Spring comes and goes, hesitating on the threshold. That’s why accordions are Paris’ reliable bellweather. Their wheezing is a sure sign people are back outdoors filling cafés, or draping themselves over the double-backed park benches, staring at buds.

The other day the usual spring suspects began squeezing their red-and-white accordions in the square under our bedroom windows. Listening to them, I just happened to open an email and click a link to the biggest panoramic photo ever taken, “Paris 26 Giga Pixels“, composed of 2,346 individual shots stitched together.

Up came Paris, from the belltower of Saint Sulpice. And up came the accordion waltz from the cult movie “Amélie Poulain.” I closed my eyes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of nostalgia. Baguettes and berets, Edith Piaf’s raucous croonings, and Robert Doisneau’s black-and-white photos floated above Montmartre painted by Utrillo and Modigliani, the merry-go-round spinning below Sacré Coeur.

The music distills the bittersweet essence of a certain Paris. It’s a Paris much of the world — and many Parisians — desire, a magical city of dreams and memories and merry-go-rounds, abstracted from the globalized, recessionary nitty-gritty of today.I opened my eyes. On screen were the domes and Gothic towers, the neoclassical palaces, the gardens and 19th-Century merry-go-rounds of my home of the last quarter-century. The digital technology is state-of-the-art, the definition astonishingly high. But the high tech didn’t diminish the nostalgic punch.

Carouseling on Amélie’s waltz, clicking, dragging or scrolling, the merry-go-round of images sped up, zooming in and out, unapologetically plucking at heart-strings. The effect was instantaneous and systemic. I reconsidered Paris from a rooftop perspective, eager to see what had changed. I flew to the places I’ve lived and worked in. So much seemed the same, at least outwardly. Better, the panoramic view pushed me out to climb a real tower, revisit Paris, and be an aimless wanderer in spring all over again.

Because the belltower of Saint-Sulpice isn’t accessible, I headed to the Panthéon. En route at arcaded Place des Vosges, the Internauts used free WiFi, blissfully oblivious to the 17th-century bricks and stones. Across the Seine, a carousel spun near giant sycamores in the Jardin des Plantes, Louis XIII’s lush botanical garden. To synthesized calliope music, shrieking todlers rode back in time to the days of their grandparents.

The Panthéon rises atop Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, an awkward imitation of the real Pantheon in Rome . A toothy guard from a former French colony informed me gleefully that the panoramic terrace wouldn’t reopen for another week. In the meantime, there was Foucault’s famous pendulum, and the tombs of France ‘s great and good.

Directly beneath the dome, the pendulum dangled from a wire over 200 feet long. Back and forth it swung in the damp gloom, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, marking the seconds, minutes, hours and days. It was not the pendulum moving forward, but we the public, the church, the city, the Earth, moving around it.

Mesmerized, it seemed to me that the pendulum’s bob was Paris, marking timelessness, while the rest of the universe spun around. Paris was as eternal as Rome, the Eternal City. The real Paris, of the mind, did not exist and could never age.

By comparison, the vaulted tombs of the country’s great men — and one woman, Marie Curie — left me chilled, an exercise in mildewy propaganda. Rome’s Pantheon, dedicated to the pagan gods, was saved by being consecrated as a church. In Paris, a church was saved from Revolutionary vandalism by becoming a temple to the Republic.

The cult of the Republic may once have been a fine thing. It seems less so now, when France’s anti-immigrant policies and reactionary reinterpretations of liberty, equality and fraternity clash with a spinning Earth of many hues and infinite diversity. In the gift shop a visitor wondered why French patriot Léon Gambetta’s heart was in an urn. The attendant replied that a body part was needed. Clearly the cult of relics had not ended with the Revolution, the visitor remarked, buying a mug emblazoned with “Vive la République.”

Down the street in the Luxembourg Gardens, the merry-go-round turned dreamily. Nearby, children rode ponies. Gaggles of pimply teens fiddled with hand-held devices as others devoured obsolete printed matter. Everyone smoked, even the tennis players.

The pendulum swings, the Earth and the merry-go-rounds spin. Paris stays the same.

Skipping Montparnasse, I aimed for the Eiffel Tower, last experienced by me in 1976. Bookstores in the notoriously literate 6th and 7th arrondissements displayed the sensation of late-winter, La Paresse et l’oubli, a novel by 29-year-old David Rochefort. The title means “sloth and oblivion” or perhaps “laziness and forgetfulness.” The cover is wrapped by a banner promising “Les battailes perdues de la vie” — life’s lost battles.

How someone not yet 30 could know such things, be compared to Flaubert and Balzac, dead for 150 years, and how such a clear-eyed and pessimistic oeuvre could be published and embraced by all in a world of corporate sameness, seem unanswerable questions to non-Parisians. The other big literary noise, this one written with tongue firmly in cheek: Mai 1958: Le Retour du Général de Gaulle. Did he ever go away?

At the Eiffel Tower’s base the requisite merry-go-round wheezed. Accordionists serenaded the waiting lines. Why not hang Foucault’s Pendulum here, I wondered?

Riding up, I calculated the number of merry-go-rounds in Paris. There are dozens. Dozens. But there are many more bookstores selling difficult novels. Both are subsidized, like public transit, health care, and much else. Culture is propped up at both ends of the spectrum. French movies are too. And the Eiffel Tower.

Might that help explain Paris’ abiding popularity even among lovers of free enterprise?

Amélie’s waltz replayed in my mind’s ear as I gazed down at 17 centuries’ worth of cityscape, from the Roman baths at Cluny, to the National Library and other remarkable monstrosities of the 1980s and ’90s. The messy reality of Paris glimpsed from above seemed immeasurably more satisfying than Paris 26 Giga Pixels.

Amid the jumble below I spied two more merry-go-rounds, one in the Tuileries and one in front of City Hall, my next destinations. As I walked through the Tuileries, the same children rode the same ponies. Had they trotted over from the Luxembourg or was I hallucinating?

Beyond the merry-go-round fronting City Hall’s neo-Renaissance façade, the line to enter “Izis: Paris des Rêves,” a photo exhibition, was as long as the lines at the Eiffel Tower. ” Paris through a Dreamer’s Lens” is the French Dream, the European Paradise as dreamed by Izraël Biderman, better known as Izis. A Lithuanian Jew determined to escape persecution, Izis wound up in the City of Light, soon dimmed and Occupied. Like other Jews and undesirables, Izis was hunted by Nazis aided by zealous Frenchmen. But he kept loving Paris. It belonged to him and the world, not his persecutors.

Like those of Doisneau or Brassai or Cartier-Bresson, Izis’s black-and-white photos capture the allure, the sleaze, the enchantingly bleak Paris of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Everyone smokes, especially the Résistance fighters. Everyone dresses in the shades of gray that are fashionable again today. One haunting, wall-sized image shows a merry-go-round in the Tuileries, its battered horses standing out against the snow.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall an outdoor exhibition currently hails 150 years of immigration to Paris. As I walked home past it I thought of Izis, Brassai, Chagall, Picasso, Piaf, Yves Montand and others. Many others. I thought of Chopin, a Pole, and how Paris is celebrating his 200th birthday, as if he were a native son. The cafés I looked into were staffed by immigrants. The restaurants, museums, monuments and City Hall were too. Even the accordionists in the square beneath our windows are immigrants. And so am I.

The pendulum swings, the accordions play, people, politicians and recessions come and go on an ever-spinning merry-go-round. Paris remains.

David Downie is an American writer and journalist based in Paris. He is the author of nine books, including Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light and Paris City of Night. He has written for Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Town & Country Travel, Departures, Travel + Leisure,, and His website is