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Wednesday 20 July 2016

A lifelong love affair with Paris

Paris is one of the most beautiful places on the planet – a city of history and culture, romance and excitement, and a melting pot of colours and ideas.

The French capital is a magnet for tourists from around the world; including myself, who lived briefly in a damp tent in the Bois de Boulogne when I was 21 and vowed to one day base myself in this most alluring of cities.

The five years my wife and I spent living here were quite magical, largely because Paris has something to offer everyone.

Many come to the City of Lights to admire its exceptional architecture; gems like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe and the grand Champs-Elysées, the basilica of Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.

Others visit for the artworks to be found in The Louvre, including, of course, the Mona Lisa, and in museums like the Musée d'Orsay and Musée Quai Branly.

But Paris is also a global capital of gastronomy, fashion and shopping and hosts some of the biggest sporting events in the world, ranging from the French Open tennis to the final stage of the Tour de France cycling race.

The French Tourism people say that “innovative, audacious and vibrant, Paris is multi-faceted, magical, mythical, always exciting.”

Nothing symbolises Paris better than Notre Dame de Paris on the Ile de la Cité in the middle of River Seine.

Notre Dame, designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, was built from 1160 in the flamboyant Gothic style – and tours offer visitors close-up views of its flying buttresses, spires and roofs.

The upper gallery provides magnificent views of Paris, the Seine and the succession of beautiful bridges across the river.

Just as magnificent is the Palais Garnier; the latest theatre to house the Paris Opera since it was founded by Louis XIV in 1669.

The Opera building was constructed on the orders of Napoleon III as part of the great Parisian reconstruction project carried out by Baron Haussmann – who was responsible for the city's marvellous symmetry.

Building work lasted from 1860 to 1875 and in 2000 the main façade was completely renovated. The sumptuous red and gold auditorium, which seats almost 2,000 people, is lit by an immense crystal chandelier hanging below a brightly-coloured ceiling painted by Marc Chagall.

No one can visit France without taking a stroll through the Champs de Mars gardens on the banks of the river and gazing at the remarkable Eiffel Tower, built in 1889 as a temporary structure for a Global Expo, but still standing 300 metres tall as the symbol of the city – and probably its most famous landmark.

The French poet, Jean Cocteau, called it “the beautiful giraffe in lace” - and it is the most-visited paying monument in the world.

The brave can climb 1665 steps to the top viewing platform, while glass lifts elevate the more sedentary among us. The Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant, at 125 metres, offers spectacular views.

Then there is the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. Sitting 130 metres above the city at the top of the bohemian Montmartre district, it towers above the city and is a meeting place for locals and visitors alike.

Arguably the most famous art gallery in the world, The Louvre, was also the most visited in 2015, attracting almost 10 million art lovers including those interested only in seeing the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

The museum is part of the Louvre Palace, originally built in the late 12th-century and extended many times over the centuries. It was a favourite of Napoleon.

Outside the museum, you will find the remarkable glass and steel pyramid crafted by I.M. Pei – the perfect juxtaposition of old and new. Reviled when it was finished in 1988, it is now much-loved by Parisians.

The remarkable Musée d'Orsay is an old train station converted into a building dedicated to 19th-century art and features works of French painters such as Manet, Degas, Monet and Renoir among 5000 paintings and sculptures dating from 1848 to 1914.

Five years ago, the museum underwent a makeover with a new space dedicated to Vincent van Gogh, with 24 of his paintings on display. Make sure, however, to go up to the fifth floor and visit the Gallery of Impressionism.

Lovers of modern art and culture should head to The Centre Pompidou, which houses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe with more than 70,000 works – and is a fascinating place to people watch.

Then there are the Grand Palais galleries, The Arab World Institute, the Pantheon, the Rodin Museum, Père-Lachaise Cemetery and the wonderful Luxembourg Gardens. So many choices.

But there is much more to Paris than its many grand buildings, parks and artworks. It is a living, breathing city that is best explored on foot. Every one of the 20 arrondisements, or districts, has its own charm; from the rough-hewn charm of migrant areas like the 20th, to the elegance of the 5th on the left bank and bourgeois 6th and 16th.

There is Montmarte for shopping and strolling, the Jewish/gay quarter of the Marais for finding the latest fashionable goods, the golden triangle near the Avenue George V and Avenue Montaigne for classic haute couture and luxury goods, and upwardly mobile Pigalle for nightlife with a touch of naughtiness.

And, then, of course, there is the food. From street markets in just about every quartier, to neighbourhood bistros, cheese shops and chocolatiers to haute cuisine from some of the greatest chefs in the world, Paris is a gastronome's delight. There are over 70 Michelin-starred eateries from which to choose.

Try to get to at least one of the great Parisian gourmet landmarks like Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee; L'Arpege; new star Ledoyen; Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire, where you can easily spend $1,000 on lunch for two.

Also try out a classic in Le Grand Vefour or Le Taillevent; or traditional brasseries like Bofinger, Brasserie Flo and Le Vaudeville to indulge in delights from magret de canard to macarons.

Alternatively try some of the restaurants which specialise in one regional cuisine, like La Cigale Récamier, which focuses on the cheese soufflé; Pascade, which produces myriad crepes from the Aveyron; or meat-lovers paradise La Maison de l'Aubrac.

Every Parisian has their own favourite restaurant so it pays to ask around to get the best tips – and Paris is an easy city to get around.

The public transport here is excellent. Both the Metro and the buses are clean and efficient, although, as in any big city, it pays to stay alert. Should you choose, you can cross the entire city on foot in just a few hours.

Some of my personal favourite Paris experiences include a stroll in the magnificent Palais Royal gardens, an ice cream from Berthillon on the peaceful Île St-Louis, a glass of wine in Willi's, Juveniles or Le Baron Rouge, people watching on the Place Vosges, gourmet shopping on the Rue Mouffetard, a moment of quiet contemplation on one of those romantic bridges over the Seine, oh, and the world's best roast chicken at Guy Savoy, or maybe a night-time cruise on the Seine or a calvados at one of the cafés along the Canal St Martin.

From low-key style to high-rev excitement, Paris delivers. From the achingly hip style of fashion week to the volatility and excitement of a Paris St Germain soccer game, it is a city of light and shade.

Whatever you choose to do, France's brightest star seldom fails to shine.

#This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Quest Kudos magazine, the in-room magazine of the Quest Apartments group, which has a wide range of Citadines properties in Paris.


  1. Spot on article Winsor. Paris is easily my favourite city in the world too. Great memories. Going out for dinner at 10PM and all the places are full, so different to here.

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