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 www.ratp.info.
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 www.mnhn.fr. 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.