My husband Nowell and I just returned from a month-long trip to Europe and this is the first of a series of blog posts about Paris, Antwerp, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Vienna. The other cities were new destinations for us, but Nowell and I have visited Paris many times together. My first trip to Paris was a high school class trip when I was 16 in 1988, and I instantly fell in love with the romance and beauty of this incredible city. Later, I lived in Paris for 6 months in 1992, and since then I have returned many times, often for several weeks at a time.
I am thrilled to share with you all my current favorite secret and off-the-beaten track spots and recommendations!
If you have already been to the two largest museums in Paris, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, or if you just want to avoid their long lines and crowds, I highly recommend these two smaller museums instead, for shorter and less exhausting artistic experiences in Paris. They both have beautiful cafés as well. I believe museum visits should be relaxing and enjoyable, with plenty of breaks, so a good café is important!
This museum presenting the history of Paris has recently been renovated and now has placards in English as well as French, making it a lot more accessible and fascinating for English-speakers. I toured the whole museum in under two hours. It also has a beautiful courtyard café where I drew a caryatid I could observe from a comfortable couch!
This gorgeous neoclassical building built for the 1900 world fair is worth visiting just to experience the space itself, but then it also has a stunning collection of sculptures and paintings. You can see everything in about an hour. It’s also not very busy, so it’s easy to stand and sketch without crowds bumping you. The café is in the beautiful interior circular courtyard garden where you can admire the architecture.
This is a fun little treasure to find: A sundial created by Salvador Dalí! In all my years visiting Paris I’d never heard of it, but we read about it somewhere and made a special expedition to go see it. This is my husband Nowell making a very Dalí face, the sundial is on the wall above his head. On a sunny day it’s even accurate!
Rue du Chat qui Pèche (“street of the cat who fishes”)
Another mini-landmark to discover is this shadowy passage flanked by slanted medieval walls: The Rue du Chat qui Pèche is known as the narrowest street in Paris. Before the stone quays of the Seine were built, the street ended at its earthen banks, and its name came from a long-gone bait shop’s sign. But there is also an unsettling legend involving an alchemist’s black cat who was killed but was later seen fishing in the Seine again. Even without the story, this narrow street and its evocative name ignites one’s imagination for Old Paris, when all the streets were tiny and crooked medieval lanes.
Le Pure Café
I first found this beautiful café years ago by tracking down all the scene locations for the 2004 movie Before Sunset with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and Nowell and I returned on this visit for an excellent lunch. All three times I’ve been there it’s been busy but I have been the only foreign tourist as far as I can tell, although I imagine they get at least one dreamy American GenX Francophile every day.
Le Village Saint-Paul
Another spot I only know of because of the movie Before Sunset! The movie is filmed like a 2-hour, real-time walk and conversation between reunited lovers Jesse and Celine. Their stroll takes an impossible route through Paris with jump-cuts to different streets at the turn of nearly every corner. From the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the Left Bank they stroll down Rue St-Julien le Pauvre and turn onto Rue Galande, and then in a blink they have crossed the Seine to the Right Bank and are wandering through narrow covered alleyways with defunct carved wall fountains and ancient shopfronts… I was thrilled to discover this little hidden network of alleys within a large city block in the Marais a few years ago. And now there is a new café there that serves an incredible chocolate mousse, it’s so new it’s not even yet on Google maps so you’ll have to poke around to find it!
Passage de l’Ancre
One more charming alleyway you’ll never find on your own! I didn’t visit it on this trip, but many years ago (well before Airbnb even existed!) we rented an apartment on this tiny secret pedestrian-only street lined with colorful wooden 19th-century storefronts and decked with flowering vines. You can only walk through it on a weekday during regular business hours, otherwise the passage is closed on both ends by locked gates. Enter Passage de l’Ancre from Rue St Martin, directly across the street from the entrance to Rue Chapon. Look for the blue door that looks like the entrance to a building, it’s actually the entrance to the alley. You’ll see “Passage de l’Ancre” lettered across the top.
Studio Escalier: Atelier art school in Paris
In 2008 I studied classical drawing in Paris for three weeks with Studio Escalier in Paris. American Founders Tim Stotz and Michelle Tully run a drawing atelier in Paris, it’s an incredible opportunity to draw with instruction inside the Louvre and also study classical drawing from the live figure model in their Montmartre studio. They also offer an atelier painting program in their other studio in the French countryside. Adult students can attend for a few weeks or several months at a time. I highly recommend studying with them, I have enormous respect for them as both artists and teachers. (Here we are last week at Tim and Michelle’s favorite place to get good coffee in Montmartre, a beautiful corner spot called Cafe Tabac at 1bis Rue Ravignan).
Crepes and a Flea Market
Crêperie Le Goéland d’Aligre
Puces d’ Aligre Flea Market:
I found this charming and yummy creperie painted cheery yellow where locals perch on the outdoor stools over tiny espressos and the owner chats with every neighbor who stops by. In a city full of creperies, this was the best savory crepe I’ve ever tasted. I’ll be back for a sweet one on my next trip!
Afterwards I strolled through the flea market just outside, there were at least a dozen tables and booths piled high with flotsam. I didn’t intend to buy anything, but I’m a sucker for a silver antique cup. Be sure and check the website for the flea market hours, it seems to be on every morning except Mondays.
Ballu Restaurant, Montmartre
You can get a great meal wandering into just about any café and I could recommend a dozen specific places I like to eat, but on this trip my husband and I stumbled upon this hidden gem I’ll share here. The restaurant is in a quiet garden courtyard inside a small hotel, protected from the elements with a clear-sided tent, where you eat surrounded by plants and fairy lights. At night the scene was magical. The servers were especially kind and accommodating. We almost had the place to ourselves, when just a couple blocks up the hill of Montmartre every cafe was crowded. The wines-by-the-glass menu includes an incredible Côtes du Rhône at a very affordable price. I rarely drink red wine in the US because it gives me a headache, but strangely I can drink a glass or two in Europe with no ill effects.
Ivy Cocktail Bar
52 Rue Greneta
The décor, drinks and small plates are just as cutting-edge as anything in NYC, but this tiny, quirky underground-feeling space is definitely Parisian. The entrance and signage is currently nearly hidden by scaffolding on the building, so don’t walk by and miss it! You’ll enter past the potted palms and walk through a narrow black corridor striped with LEDs to find a dark-walled, completely windowless space made cozy by warm lights illuminating the wall of glass bottles behind the bar. The cocktails are works of art: My first one had a spring of thyme garnish that was dramatically LIT ON FIRE as it was served, and my second cocktail was a delightful foamy whiskey concoction that went down almost like a dessert. I went there alone a few days before my husband arrived in Paris and the host and bartender made me feel welcome and completely comfortable.
Art Nouveau Walking Tour
This 2-hour tour was a major highlight of our visit this year in Paris! Focused on the life and works of art nouveau architect Hector Guimard, tour guide Thierry is passionately knowledgeable about both Art Nouveau and the history of Paris – we plan to take all his French history tours on future trips. Even after 30+ years of visiting Paris I saw buildings that stunned me and learned things about Paris I’ve never come across before. The meeting spot is in the 16th arrondissement at the edge of the city, so give yourself a good 45 minutes or more to get there by Metro.
Amelie-Style Film Photobooth
Av. Darcel in Parc dec Buttes-Chaumont,
near the Pavillon Puebla
If you have seen the 2001 movie Amelie you’ll know of the old film photobooths of Paris, which used to be everywhere, as everyone needed identity-photos for their monthly Metro card and other forms of I.D. There are still a lot of photobooths in Paris, mostly in the Metro stations, but most of them have been replaced with digital printing. I happened to stumble upon an older photobooth that prints the black-and-white strips on film in the Parc de Buttes-Chaumont. The booth seems and antique but it has been updated with the newest card reader so it’s very easy to pay for your vintage photo strips with a quick tap of your credit card or debit card. The park is also well-worth visiting for its dramatic 19th-century design complete with faux Roman temple at the top of a manmade peak within a manmade lake. Access to the temple was unfortunately closed on this visit, which is a shame because it has a great view. Be sure to also visit the very fancy café in the park called Le Pavillon Du Lac.
Cinematic Walks Photographer
Nowell and I saw a listing for “Cinematic photoshoot by a filmmaker at Parisian movie spots” so of course we had to book him! Panos is a filmmaker and he creates beautiful shots. He directed us with scenes and stories that kept us moving and laughing. The whole experience was enjoyable and romantic, and we were obviously thrilled with the photos. He emailed us a link to a couple hundred edited images just a few days after the shoot, including both black and white and color versions of each shot. I highly recommend booking him! You can find him on Airbnb Experiences or connect with him directly through his website at the link.
The newest and greatest thing I enjoyed about this most recent trip to Paris was the ability to grab an electric scooter and zip all around the city on its network of protected bike paths! Lime scooters are cheap and easy, and I was able to download the app and rent myself a scooter for the first time within 5 minutes. Nowell and I spent several entire blissful afternoons riding easily across the city from sight to sight.
You can also rent Lime bicycles with the same app, but since no one in Paris wears helmets and I didn’t see a way to rent one, I felt much safer on the scooter. The other nice thing about riding a scooter instead of a bike is if traffic feels too intense or you need to make a left turn across busy car lanes, you can just step off and instantly merge with pedestrians by walking the scooter on the sidewalk or crosswalk.
Paris has invested heavily in bike paths over the last 15 years, and the network laces through every neighborhood, making it easy to cross the whole city. Most of the bike paths are completely protected from car traffic, either by running the paths within the boulevards’ medians or separating the bike paths from car lanes with a curb or the parking lane.
The scooters have an easy rubber mount for securing any size phone on the handlebars, and so we could just plot a bike route on Google maps and take off. Google Maps prioritizes bike paths if you choose the bike option for your directions. I found that the scooter’s batteries far outlasted my phone battery, so I turned off unused apps on my phone and slightly dimmed the screen to conserve my battery on longer rides.
The only slightly complicated part can be parking the scooter when you are done, because you’ll pay a fine if you don’t park them in designated scooter parking spaces. The scooter parking spaces are generally within a 10-minute walk, but when you reach your destination and click End Ride on the Lime app, it strangely always suggests a parking spot you just passed a couple blocks back, instead of one ahead of you. We learned to pull over well before reaching our destination and searching the app for parking spaces near our destination.
Medici Fountain, Luxembourg Gardens
My all-time favorite spot in all of Paris! From the first time I saw it when I was 16 in 1988, I have loved this spot and have returned to enjoy it every time I have visited Paris. It’s beautiful in every season.
More travel posts about our recent trip to Europe: Antwerp, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Vienna, including my favorite highlights from the major world-class museums in each city! Sign up for my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss the rest of my Europe 2022 posts.
More photos from our Paris trip: