Jennifer and I visited Paris and other parts of France in the springs of 2004, 2005, and 2007 (click the dates for photo galleries). This article captures our favorite parts of Paris and gives hints on photographing them. In particular, it’s one person’s opinion, and you should research other points of view. I’ve tried to hit on some of the little things that make Paris so special and are overlooked by commercial guides.
6th arrondissement: This is by far our favorite neighborhood in Paris, and we stayed there all three times. Find a place in the northern part for easy walks to the Seine, museums, Gérard Mulot, grocery shops, open-air markets, wonderful restaurants, and all sorts of eclectic shops. It’s a lively neighborhood with activity on the streets at all hours.
VRBO: This is the place for finding short-term rental apartments. You deal directly with the owner and bypass apartment brokers, which knocks about 30% off the bill. For less than a hotel room, you can get an apartment with far more space and a kitchen. You can then cook many of your own meals, with lets you both better experience Parisian life and save a few dollars.
Louvre: They have everything here, and you don’t have time to see it all.
Musée d'Orsay: The building, a converted railway station, is as interesting as the spectacular collection of Cezanne, Degas, Monet, and Renoir masterpieces. It’s also packed with gorgeous art nouveau furniture and artwork.
Maison de Victor Hugo: This is a wonderful house museum dedicated to this legendary writer. Its at the equally fascinating Place des Vosges, the oldest planned town square in Paris.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs: This museum contains a delightful collection of furniture, glassware, ceramics, toys, ceramics, wallpaper, and objects d’art that span the Middle Ages to the present day. They also have some outrageous costumes on display.
Musée national du Moyen Age: This museum includes a wealth of medieval artifacts along with the six tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.
The French are serious about the quality of their food and its importance in living enjoyable life. It’s not about vast quantities of sugar, salt, and fat, but about fresh ingredients, nuances of taste, and finishing the meal satiated but not bloated. The French have refined eating into an art form.
Any brasserie: You’ll get excellent food and wine, and lunch is a great value if purchased off the menu. In France, the menu consists of a fixed-price combination that usually includes a wine, an appetizer, main course, and dessert. You’ll have less leeway than if ordering à la carte, but life is all about trade-offs.
Les Caves Taillevent: Pick up a bottle of their house armagnac if you like that kind of thing. They stock wine, cordials, and spirits to suit all budgets.
Gérard Mulot: They make the best pastries in all of Paris, and therefore the world. Their tarte à l'orange cannot be described, only experienced. When searching for a rental apartment, I excluded everything that wasn’t within an easy walk of this place, because I wanted to be able to go there in the morning to pick up pastries for breakfast.
La Maison Kayser: We’re not big bread eaters given Jennifer’s celiac, but everyone says that they bake the best baguettes in the city.
Monoprix: Think of it as the French version of Super Target, but with tastier produce, meats, and fish than you’ll find at a Whole Foods or American farmer’s market. In particular, I’ve never found stateside leeks like the ones I could buy here any day of the week. They also sell a variety of delicious pre-prepared dishes that you can easily combine into a meal.
Marché rue de Buci: A daily open-air market on the street of the same name.
Marché Saint-Germain: This market houses a variety of merchants and municipal services such as a swimming pool, gym, school, day-care center, and theatre. The grocers sell all manner of cheese, wine, produce, meat, and fish. The fish in particular was mind blowing: it’s so fresh that you can’t tell the place houses a fish market. There’s a wine store facing the street that sells several excellent Pineau des Charentes.
Mariage Frères: They have several locations in the city. You’ve never tasted tea like this.
Nos Ancetre Les Gaulois: I haven’t eaten there myself, but a friend recommends it as a true Astérix & Obélix experience.
Any street: You never know what the next store will be: antique books and prints, chocolate, clothing, pastries, home furnishings in all manner of styles, the list goes on. Build in time when walking and enjoy the window shopping opportunities.
BHV: You can buy nearly anything at this grand magasin, from a new toilet to fine spices. The epicerie on the ground floor is first rate.
Deyrolle: This is an amazing taxidermy shop that features a dizzying array of specimens on display. If you want a taxidermy two-headed pig, they can hook you up.
FNAC: This is where the average Pierre shops for electronics, books, movies, and music. If you loose your iPod, you can find a replacement here. There are locations all over Paris.
Galeries LaFayette: If you only visit one of the grand magasins in Paris, make it this one, and don’t miss the amazing Tiffany dome. We’ve never actually purchased anything here.
Marché aux Puces: You can buy anything you can think of, and many things you couldn’t. Notable things we’ve seen here include shrunken heads, dugout canoes, spectacular Art Deco furniture, last night’s smash-and-grab, original Rococo furniture, flintlock dueling pistols, the list goes on…
Muji: A Japanese store that sells all manner of domestic goods and clothing. They have a strong emphasis on minimalism and recycling.
Les passages couverts: A series of covered streets in the 2nd arrondissement housing all manner of shops.
Arc de Triomphe: This war memorial is pretty neat, and it sits in the middle of a roundabout that’s perhaps even more interesting. Don’t walk across the street—there are tunnels that take you underneath. Spend some time watching the people driving the roundabout. There are no lane markers, and it’s quite the free for all. You’ll see people weaving through traffic with a cell phone in one hand, a Gitane in the other, and they’re still mashing the horn.
Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie: The largest science museum in Europe, we happened to walk by on a Monday, when it’s closed, and could therefore only admire the architecture. It’s a wild, futuristic building that looks like something out of Buck Rogers. The Omnimax theatre is a silver sphere 36 meters in diameter.
Eiffel Tower: You can walk up to the second observation deck for a spectacular view of the city. The best time to go is at twilight or at night.
Les Invalides: Napoleon is buried here in spectacular fashion, and it also houses a fantastic military museum filled with implements used by people to kill each other throughout the ages.
Jardin du Luxembourg: This is the largest public park in Paris and features the beautiful French Senate building. It’s a wonderful place to relax by the fountains with a book and a latte.
Palais Garnier (a.k.a. the Paris Opera House): We’ve never been inside, but the gilded statues around the roofline are worth a trip.
Panthéon: This beautifully architected mausoleum in the 5th serves as the final resting place of many distinguished French citizens. Be sure to take the rooftop tour.
Parc de la Villette: This large park contains the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie and a variety of other interesting buildings.
Père Lachaise Cemetery: This is the canonical Paris cemetery, and it’s filled with spectacular mausoleums where famous artists, scientists, and statesmen are buried.
Canal Saint-Martin: This canal runs a few km through Paris, and descends under street level for some of that distance. It’s a beautiful area for a stroll with picturesque gardens and bridges crossing the canal.
Trocadéro: This metro stop is across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and is a fantastic vantage point for photographing it. We spent an evening here with my 4x5 camera watching the sun set and making pictures. A 40”x50” print of one of those images hangs in our condo.
Musée Rodin: This includes both a museum and an outdoor sculpture garden that features The Thinker and other notable works. It’s right by Les Invalides.
Pétanque: You’ll often see people playing this game in parks.
Versailles: This is an all-day trip from Paris and an amazing experience. Do it. Particularly now that the Hall of Mirrors has been restored.
You’ll find numerous concerts every day in Paris if you’re a fan of classical music. Most are no charge, although tipping the ensemble is encouraged. Pick up a copy of Pariscope at any newsstand and see what strikes your fancy. Many of the cathedrals offer organ recitals and host chamber music. Saint-Eustache and Saint-Sulpice both have world-class organs.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres: We haven’t visited this cathedral, which is located 50 miles from Paris and built centuries before Columbus discovered the New World, but friends that have tell us its even more impressive than Notre Dame, but without the crowds.
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris: Don’t miss the fantastic gargoyles on the roof. Get there early if you want to walk up there and see them up close. The line builds quickly. There’s also a beautiful park behind the cathedral and a Holocaust memorial.
Église Saint-Eustache: Beautiful, great organ. Check out the nearby shops and Centre Pompidou, which looks like a building turned inside out.
Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés: This is the oldest church in Paris and has a beautiful ceiling.
Église Saint-Sulpice: This church was across the street from our apartment on two of our trips and a few blocks a way on the third. It’s beautiful and has a fantastic organ. Watch out for the Opus Dei enforcers ;-)
Sacré-Cœur: This one is fairly bland, actually; don’t go out of your way to see it. Photography is not permitted inside the church, which is okay since it isn’t that interesting. Montmartre, the neighborhood in which is located, if a giant tourist trap filled with pushy urchins.
Saint-Chapelle: Incredible, and not to be missed. Get there before it opens to minimize time spent standing in line. No tripods, but otherwise photograph the interior to your heart’s content!
France doesn't encumber its citizens with drinking ages or open container laws. It's perfectly acceptable to toss a bottle of wine, a baguette, and cheese into a backpack, walk down to the Seine, and kick back on the quay to enjoy the sun, scenery, and contents of your backpack. You'll often see people doing this on the Pont des Arts.
Speaking of wine, the French keep all their best wine to themselves and send us crap. You simply cannot buy a bad bottle of wine in France, and we sure tried by ratcheting our way down the price scale until we were paying under €3 per bottle.
We found Parisians to be an extremely courteous and friendly bunch. When you walk into a store, make eye contact with the proprietor or clerk and say “bonjour!” (morning/afternoon) or “bonsoir” (evening). On your way out, say “au revoir!” It’s amazing how far this goes to making a good impression. Try to learn a bit of French as well. You can open the conversation in French, and the person will generally respond in English. People talk about rude Parisians, but we didn’t meet any of them. Perhaps it’s because we weren’t ugly Americans.
Protests and strikes are deeply ingrained in the French culture, if not DNA. Don’t be surprised if you turn a corner and see people picketing or if a group of workers goes on strike during your visit. When the French get pissed off, they take to the streets in protest, go on strike, or both. Things often change as a result. It’s probably healthier than the typical American response of therapeutic shopping for crap they don’t need with money they don’t have.
The only place we found that was off limits to photography was Sacré-Cœur. Other than that, you’re free to photograph art treasures in the Louvre and the interior of Notre Dame. Full-sized tripods are generally not permitted indoors because of all the space they take up, but you should be fine using one in a cathedral during off hours and move quickly and quietly. I’m not sure about monopods. I’ve often used a tabletop tripod when shooting indoors. They’re great for shooting inside churches since you can sit down in one of the pews, set up the tripod and camera next to you, and get your shots without disturbing anyone. Be sure to know how to operate your camera’s self timer for doing this sort of thing. The same thing applies for shooting cityscapes at twilight and night.
You can take great pictures in Paris with any camera. If you’re shooting a P&S camera, check out my tips on getting the best results from it. You’ll miss few if any photographic opportunities with an APS-C DSLR and a stabilized 18–200 (Nikon) (Canon) or a full-frame one with the Nikkor 28–300 VR or similar. You’ll spend less time switching lenses and more time enjoying the city and making pictures. You’re not leaving a whole lot on the table with a lens than only zooms out to the equivalent of 28 mm. A lens that zooms to the equivalent of 300 mm is very useful for shooting architectural details, such as the statues on top of the Paris Opera or gargoyles on Notre Dame, from the ground. A wider lens would be fun for shots of the Eiffel Tower.
If I were going to Paris tomorrow, I’d always have my Nikon D700 and Nikkor 28–300 VR with me but wouldn’t feel like I was missing out with just my Panasonic LX-5. But on many occasions, I’d bring my Domke satchel and Sigma 12–24 for interiors. There’s no reason to bring a f/2.8 telephoto unless you’re planning a fashion shoot.
Paris has a world-class public transit system. You’re never more than a ten-minute walk from a metro station, and busses stop at practically every street corner. One ticket, which costs €1.50, will takes you anywhere in the system with unlimited transfers between metros and busses. Be sure to hold on to the ticket until you’re at your destination, as you need to swipe it to get out of the metro station. You can also buy a carnet (10 tickets) for €11.10. Trips outside the city (e.g., Versailles) require using the RER, which is a separate, more expensive ticket.
Paris is extremely pedestrian friendly. We’d often plan a day that started at our apartment and visited sites progressively farther away until we’d hop on a metro for the ride home, stopping at a grocery and pastry shop if needed. As a result, we’d either loose or at least maintain weight on our trips despite denying ourselves nothing in the food and drink departments. Many Parisians own their own small shopping carts to take groceries home. A rental apartment should come with one. Monoprix also delivers groceries for a small charge, so you could lay in supplies (e.g., a case or two of wine) your first day in town and not have to worry about schlepping it home.
There’s no reason to drive anywhere in Paris.
You can withdraw Euros from your American bank account via the ATM at any bank. You’ll get hit with a small (~2%) exchange fee, but c'est la vie. The same holds true with using Visa or MasterCard, which everyone takes. Good luck finding anyone that takes AmEx. Most vendors won’t bother with traveler’s checks, so you shouldn’t either.
Last edit: 24 May 2012