Adventures in Paris for the beauty-seekers
I’ve loved Paris for as long as I can remember; my mother’s godmother lived there when I was little, so we would visit regularly, and I got a taste for it from a young age.
I have a theory that everyone has a particular affinity with one city in the world, the city where you have an extra bounce in your step and a special sparkle in your eyes. You’ll put up with little inconveniences and oddities with extra patience and optimism; something that might deeply irritate someone else about a city will be written off as an understandable quirk when you’re in your city. (Case in point: Yes, I know the Metro stinks of urine. I don’t care—part of its charm, non?) You look at it with the indulgent eyes of a lover, forgiving of faults and hyper aware of the magic and charm. For one dear friend of mine this place is Venice, for my older sister it’s New York, and for me it’s always been Paris.
“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”
As a teenager I used to day-dream about living as a writer in Paris in a tiny attic apartment at the top of a building with a spiral staircase and peeling paint on the walls, and I got to live out that dream for a few months in between finishing school and starting university. It was during that time, improving my French and living alone for the first time in my life, that my relationship with Paris was firmly cemented.
I felt a little lonely, discovering that more often than not my jokes got lost in translation in the tentative new friendships I was forming with my peers, but also experienced the thrill of young adult independence in the most beautiful of cities, wandering by the Seine, people-watching in cafés and park squares. I spent hours every week in the Musée D’Orsay and sketching the Greek marbles in the Louvre long after the tourists had left for the day, on special evenings when they kept the museums open late with free entry for young people and students.
It was in Paris that I first learned to be at peace in my own company for long stretches of time, as well as learning the practicalities of how to look after myself in a big city, so I suppose it’s not surprising that I feel most in touch with the independent, carefree, fun, and wide-eyed parts of myself when I’m there.
Now, many years later I’m married to a medieval historian who specialises in French baronial power and needs to use the libraries and archives in Paris regularly. He asked me to marry him in my favourite café in the Marais, and these days we spend a month or so in Paris together as a family every summer so that we can be together while he does the bulk of his research. He spends his days in the Bibliothèque Nationale and the archives, while our girls and I wander in parks and museums, sit in the café around the corner from where I lived when I was nineteen sharing sips of an ice-cold drink citron pressé, and then we meet up at the end of the day for deliciously simple picnic suppers of baguette and cheese.
Because we usually stay with friends when we go to Paris and are more often than not on a tight budget, I’m no expert on Michelin starred restaurants or luxurious places to stay, but as a Paris lover and avid beauty-seeker with a fierce sweet tooth who has a lot of experience hanging out with kids in the city, I do have a lot of recommendations for affordable and beautiful places to go and things to see.
While there are so many Paris city guides out there already, I always get asked by friends and Instagram followers for my personal recommendations, so I figured it would save me some time to write everything down in once place, if nothing else. I’ll keep adding to this blog post over the years as I discover new wonderful places, so be sure to bookmark it so you can come back to it when you’re planning your next trip to the loveliest city in the world.
Beautiful cultural spots in Paris (museums, churches, and areas to wander)
You know the classics already: the Louvre if you want to see the Mona Lisa (overrated in my opinion), Greek marbles and the like, Musée d’Orsay for the Impressionists (my favourite of the big and famous museums), Notre-Dame (currently closed for renovations after the fire of 2019), the steps of the Sacre-Coeur for beautiful panoramic views of the city… But here are some of my favourite (slightly) lesser-known cultural gems in Paris.
The Left Bank
Saint-Chapelle: Located on the Île de la Cité in the Palais de la Cité (the medieval residence of the Kings of France), this gorgeous Gothic chapel used to house King Louis IX’s relics, including the Crown of Thorns (which were later moved to Notre-Dame Cathedral). Walking into this gorgeous space is like walking into a jewel box, surrounded by the most beautiful stained-glass windows you’ll likely ever see. It’s a small space, but make sure to take your time to soak in all the beauty (there are chairs around the edge so you can sit and stare).
Shakespeare & Company: Shakespeare & Company is an English language bookshop within sights of Notre-Dame founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and famous for being a creative hub for the likes of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist cliché, swarming with pretentious literati-types, but I can’t help it, I love it, and it would be obnoxiously hipster of me to try and deny it. I love that there are beds nestled in amongst the books upstairs for the writers and artists who come to stay and work there (known as “tumbleweeds”). I worked here briefly during my stay in Paris when I was nineteen, mostly to experience the joys of people-watching, and a drunk French man told me I looked like Nicole Kidman, so there you go. That’s the kind of magic (or bullshit) that happens when you visit Shakespeare & Co.
Musée de Cluny (Musée National du Moyen Âge): This museum of the Middle-Ages is located on the Left Bank, not too far from the Île de la Cité and Shakespeare & Co if you’re wandering over from that direction. It will give you a good glimpse of an older Paris, the one that pre-dates the Paris of Haussmann and his grand sweeping boulevards. My mother has always had a fascination with the famous unicorn tapestries that are housed in this museum, and so I have core childhood memories of standing in the dimly-lit tapestries room, asking questions in hushed tones, and marvelling at the details of wild strawberries and wildflowers on these magical tapestries.
L’église Saint-Etienne-du-Mont: My all-time favourite church in Paris, tucked away behind the grand Panthéon in the Latin Quarter. I love the delicate white stonework, which is carved to look like lace. This church dates from the late 15th century, and contains a shrine to the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève; it was in prayer here as a teenager that I decided to take Genevieve as my confirmation name. A peaceful place to stop and linger a while.
Jardin du Luxembourg: The boats, the carrousel, the playground, the puppet theatre… bring your kids or enjoy reading in the shade on one of their civilised little green chairs. (Just don’t move them, or you might get told off by the scary park officials. I’ve never figured out what the rules about the chairs are, truthfully, but I know there are rules that I’ve accidentally broken many a time.)
The Right Bank
Place des Vosges and the Marais district…
Musée de l’Orangerie: Just across the river from the Musée d’Orsay, nestled at the bottom of the Jardin des Tuileries, the Musée de l’Orangerie makes a lovely add-on to a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. There’s not much to this museum, so maybe one to skip if you’re not a hardcore Monet or modern art fan, but the main light-filled upper room with the large Monet waterlilies is worth the entry fee for those who are. I could stand and stare at those canvases for ages; it’s the perfect space in which to see these beautiful paintings.
Petit Palais: A short walk onwards along the river from the Musée de l’Orangerie you’ll find the Petit Palais, opposite the impressive Grand Palais (I think the Petit Palais is much prettier). I love this beautiful little museum mostly just because the architecture of the place is such a dream and worth a look in its own right regardless of the artwork in this museum, but also because there’s a gorgeous museum café in the interior courtyard garden. The Petit Palais is a lovely place to wander, and permanent collections are free.
Musée de la Vie Romantique: At the foot of Montmartre there’s a lovely house with pale green shutters and climbing roses. It’s been converted into a little museum (entry to the permanent collection is free), with a garden and a romantic café in an old-fashioned glass and wrought iron greenhouse.
Musée de Montmartre: While you’re in the area, a short walk away from the busy tourist-filled Place du Tertre up on Montmartre hill is the Musée de Montmartre, an interesting place to visit to explore some of the history of the Montmartre area and the many artists who have lived and worked there. There’s a lovely garden dedicated to Renoir, complete with the swing that inspired his famous painting (the artist had a studio in the building complex).
My favourite places for tasty treats (pâtisseries, chocolatiers, and the best sorbet you’ll ever taste)
Berthillon ice cream: If you only taste one thing in Paris, make it the wild strawberry sorbet from the best glacier in town. It’s a total dream—it takes a lot to persuade me away from chocolate, but I’m serious about this. If they’re out of wild strawberry (“la fraise des bois”), just try any of their other fruit sorbets—as the Parisian friend who introduced me to Berthillon said, “It tastes like the fruit itself.” You’ll find the Berthillon headquarters on the main road that runs through Saint Louis en l’île (near Notre-Dame Cathedral), but there are also plenty of cafés and hole-in-the-wall ice cream sellers on Saint Louis en l’île who also sell Berthillon ice cream (just look for their name and logo or if in doubt, ask the seller if it’s Berthillon). Only in Paris would you find an ice cream-maker who takes the whole month of August off, so be aware they are closed for much of this month and you’ll need to source the sorbet from another seller on Saint Louis en l’île.
Du Pain et des Idées: Amazing “escargots” pastries of all different flavours (salted caramel, pistachio, summer fruits…) up near Porte Saint-Denis and the Canal St Martin (towards Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est).
Sébastien Gaudard: The best pâtisserie and lovely salon de thé with a branch near the Louvre, Rue de Rivoli. (Don’t fall for the more touristy Angelina’s around the corner, this one is much better!)
Carette: Another lovely salon de thé with macarons and delicious bite-size cakes with a café in the Place des Vosges. My girls and I like to buy a few cakes to take away and eat in the park.
The Food Hall in Le Bon Marché…
Lovely Parisian restaurants, cafés, and bars
Café Hugo: Enjoy a croque madame and citron pressé (and some jazz in the evenings) looking out over the Place des Vosges… This is the café around the corner from where I used to live in Paris, where my husband proposed.
Le Mary Celeste: Lovely craft cocktails in the Marais…
Le Train Bleu: An old-school gourmet restaurant in the Gare de Lyon which is as much a feast for the eyes as anything else…
La Maison Rose: This sweet pink-walled restaurant in Montmartre is teeny tiny and I would say that it’s not worth all the Instagrammers who crowd around to take pictures, but truthfully it is. The menu is limited, using local seasonal ingredients, and everything I’ve ever eaten here has been utterly delicious. My husband gets frustrated with the aloof and tourist-weary table service (I’ve been multiple times and I have to admit that they’re always quite rude, even when I was with Parisians speaking word-perfect French in politely quiet tones), and the small portion size, but I love it and now just take my daintier friends there instead of trying to make a date-night of it (Le Train Bleu is much more his style). I’m still day-dreaming about the divine honey-apricot-chili-chicken dish I had there a few summers ago… It’s worth booking (you can do this online via their website) because there aren’t many tables and it can take the edge off the staffs’ suspicions that you’re only there to take photos.
Bobance bar & cave à manger near Metro Pernety in the Montparnasse area – great for wine lovers, you describe what kind of wine you like and they match you with something new to try.
Second-hand and vintage clothing shops in Paris
Free’p’Star Saint Antoine is just across the road from the Baroque-style church, Saint-Paul in the Marais, just around the corner from the Place des Vosges and Bastille Metro. It’s tiny and a bit shambolic and easy to miss with an unassuming beige frontage and scruffy-looking piles of clothes in the windows, but is the kind of place where you’ll find pure Italian silk vintage skirts with the tags still on, and other gems, for 5-10 euros. When you’re looking for this place, it’s worth noting that there are lots of other, fancier Free’p’Star shops around Paris… I don’t know why this one is so different to the others in price and style when it goes under the same brand name, but it’s the best and most unassuming vintage clothing shop I’ve found in Paris to date.
Then walk on from Saint Paul in the Marais down towards Hôtel de Ville, lots of vintage shops along the route.
Chinemachine and others on Montmartre…
A hidden gem for a few nights away or Sunday brunch in the countryside near Paris
l’Hôtel Abbaye des Vaux Cernay (closed for renovations until late 2023) – Sunday brunch!
Places to go and other tips for visiting Paris with kids
Jardin du Luxembourg
Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle