Ah Paris…The very word conjures up images of romantic walks by the Seine, magical views of the Eiffel tower, decadent designer wear and luxurious food and wine. As one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world, there is no shortage of guide books and itineraries of every genre and flavour. But if you care to take a more laid-back and local approach to discovering the city and believe that the best things in life are indeed free, then read on for a list of things to enjoy if you have a free week in Paris.
Sunday morning in Montmartre
One of my favourite things to do in Paris is to start Sunday morning in lazy, bohemian Montmartre. It is a lovely walk to this neighbourhood if you live in the Opera area, near Place de Clichy or near Notre-Dame de Lorette – consider the endless stair-climbing to the top as saving you an hour of yoga! Visit the old Sacre Coeur cathedral and soak in the spectacular morning view of the city from the top of the hill. I then typically like to grab some brunch or coffee (Marcel and Le Pain Quotidien are my favourites or a little bit further away, Hotel Amour’s garden terrace is a perfect oasis) and stroll through the hilly district, poking my head into the quaint antique shops and quiet leafy streets with their pretty, chic houses (Villa Léandre is a delightful tiny street).
While Parisians are at work, you can take the opportunity to catch the Marais district free of the usual crowds. The district has many quaint and arty antique stores and shops and cafés (Yogurt Factory, serving delicious yogurt with fruits, chocolate and other exotic add-ons is worth checking out). Centre Pompidou is a wonderful exhibition centre for contemporary art and you can get great vista views of Paris from the top (although you will need to buy a ticket to an exhibition to enter the centre). The square around the centre is quite lively too. You can walk from here right on past the majestic Hotel de Ville (or city hall) to the famous Notre Dame cathedral with its wistful stained glass. I like to then browse the book stalls on Quai de Tournelle, picking up a cheesy Paris poster or two and walk on to Ile Saint Louis or as I like to call it, ‘ice-cream island’ (you’ll see why when you’re there). A lovely way to spend the afternoon is to walk around the island, taking in the views of the Seine and every now and then looking out for the name plates on the houses to catch the erstwhile residences of Victor Hugo and the like.
Tuileries Tuesday plus secret garden
The Tuileries gardens are a must-see on a trip to Paris. When you’re there, don’t forget to observe the perfect alignment of the Concorde obelisk and Louvre museum through an arc in the gardens (if you look in the distance, you can even spot La Defence, the financial district) – such architectural perfection! If you’re feeling peckish, Angelina’s is a lovely little cake and coffee shop in the area and if you walk a bit further to Place du Marché Saint Honore, you’ll find a cute little square with some cafés (there’s even a flea market on Sunday mornings if that excites you). Aside: this was my go-to place for some porridge and croissants after a 7 a.m. Sunday morning yoga session in near-by Madeleine!
Not too far away from here is a what I call a secret garden because not many people know about it. It’s the garden at the Palais Royale and is just a joy to be in the evenings. If you’re up for even more walking, the district offers so much more: (1) walk up to Palais Garnier or the opera house and marvel at the gorgeous building (insider’s tip: it looks even more beautiful around sunset), (2) stroll through the Japanese and Korean district centered around Rue Saint-Anne or (3) explore the many covered passages (like Galerie Vivienne or if you want to venture further north, Passage Choiseul, Passage des Panoramas etc) with their Harry Potter-esque ambience, quaint antique and book stores and cafés.
Super walking Wednesday through the 6th and 7th
One of my favourite walks around Paris begins at Pont Neuf where you get amazing views across the Seine. Then going down for a brief peek at the Pont des Arts (or the bridge of locks) before turning in towards the 6th arrondissement (or district), through cute little streets like Rue Bonaparte with its quaint shops and on towards Odeon and Mabillion and up to the swanky St Germain with its designer shops, classy restaurants and gorgeous boulevards. I then walk towards the 7th arrondissement, past the Saint Suplice Church and on and on along quiet Rue de Grenelle, with its classy houses. It is a long walk but making it all the way to the Invalides with its expanse of green and even upto the Pont Alexander III with its magnificent gold tipped sculptures, feels really worth it in the end.
Thursday at the Luxembourg gardens and university district
The Luxembourg gardens are arguably the most beautiful gardens in Paris. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a musical band practicing during your visit. I like to start at the Saint Michel fountain and walk past the Sorbonne university, browsing through the book stalls along Boulevard Saint-Michel, walking past the impressive Pantheon and finally reaching the Luxembourg gardens for a nice picnic and lazy afternoon. There are also little known Roman and medieval ruins around the Luxembourg gardens (including an ancient amphitheatre) that you could explore if you felt ‘historically’ inclined.
Friday night at the Eiffel
One thing you cannot miss when you visit Paris is the twinkling of the Eiffel tower at night. It is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world to walk under the Eiffel tower when it is brightly lit up. If it’s summertime, then grab a picnic basket and head for dinner to the part of the Champs de Mars at the Ecole Militaire side where it’s less in the way of tourists. By the time you finish your dinner, the Eiffel tower should light up on cue. Summer picnics usually carry on until 11pm and beyond in Paris. If it is winter time, then grab a cozy spot at the Trocadero and take in the majestic image of the twinkling Eiffel tower against the city backdrop. If you’re up for a long walk, you can begin your afternoon at the Arc de Triomphe, walk down the Champs Elysees and slowly make your way to the Eiffel tower by the time the sun goes down- it’s a lovely though long walk.
Escape to the parks on Saturday
Paris has some wonderful parks and gardens at a short distance from the city centre. You can avoid the high-priced ticket for Chateau de Versailles and still get a fill of all things green and natural. My favourite park in Paris is Parc de Sceaux, in the south. A short train ride away from the city, this park is truly peaceful (because most tourists don’t know about it!) and even has cherry blossoms in the spring! Other alternatives are the forests at Bois de Vincennes in the east of the city where you can even bike around or the wonderfully landscaped Parc des Buttes-Chaumont which is in the city itself. In the summer, look out for the free outdoor movie screenings around Paris. One of my most unforgettable experiences in Paris was watching the movie Midnight in Paris, sitting on top of the hill outside the Sacre Coeur with hundreds of other people, with the whole city laid out before us as a backdrop. It’s moments like this that truly deserve an ‘Oh la la’!
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