Classic. Sophisticated. Beautiful. Elegant. What do you inevitably think of? For me, two things instantly come to mind – Audrey Hepburn and Paris. Combine them and the effect is magical. This was my seventh visit to Paris and certainly my longest. Sadly I was too young to remember my first visit and my second only lasted a day, but even after the subsequent five, Paris has still not lost its appeal.
After several weeks in the amazing city, I finally got a small taste of what it would be like to live in the city of lights – to be Parisian. Surprisingly, it wasn’t easy – at first. Parisians are famously unfriendly. This is true but also overemphasised. There is after all, a difference between being rude and simply unfriendly. The Parisians are not all that different from many Londoners in that sense. Like in many big cities, there is a lack of community. People keep to themselves and generally don’t stray beyond their individual circles. Parisians are polite, but uninterested. In a city of over two million people, it is easy to disappear almost entirely from the world. Despite growing up in London, I was unprepared for how lonely it would be. It took a while to get used to and to find my rhythm but once I did, I didn’t want to leave.
Where there is seemingly endless beauty, there is almost never a dull moment. Paris is a treasure trove that could easily take a decade to sift through. Picking my favourite spot would be a monumental task though, surprisingly, my least favourite spot comes instantly to mind. The Eiffel Tower and I have never gotten along very well. I do not think it is particularly beautiful. To me, it is a steel monstrosity that looms over the Seine like a giant radio tower. It’s difficult for me to understand why this has become the city’s most iconic feature. To add to the pleasure of the visit, sightseers are forced to queue for hours to get up to the top. But now that I’m done bitching, here is where you should go in Paris – the Paris that I love best.
Paris is a chameleon. You could even say it is a city that suffers from multiple personality disorder. Like every city, it has its seedy underbelly. Personally, I’d avoid the area around the Gare du Nord, especially late at night. But most of the rest of the city I would divide into two categories – the classic and the artistic. These have been the defining characteristics of Paris for about two hundred years. The city underwent a remodelling under Napoleon III giving it its renowned uniformity. Georges Eugene Haussmann was the grand architect and Paris has him to thank for its wide avenues lined with pearly white stones houses complete with iconic French balconies. Walking up the Avenue de l’Opera from the Louvre with Charles Garnier’s magnificently opulent Palais Garnier rising before you at the end of the street, you can’t help but be astounded by the city’s grandeur and elegance.
In contrast, walking up through Montmartre is a colourful experience. Stepping onto the Boulevard de Clichy, I was almost overwhelmed by the bright neon signs and gaudy windows full of lingerie and sex toys. I had a moment where I felt like I was back in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, though at least this time, prostitution was not quite so glaringly apparent. Note to solo female travellers: be prepared for a few crude comments and sultry stares after dark. The Moulin Rouge stands at the heart of this colourful den of debauchery. With prices averaging above 100 euros a ticket, the cabaret will empty your wallet quicker than any of the pickpockets roaming the street. Walking up behind the Moulin Rouge towards the Sacré Coeur, Paris transforms itself again. The city becomes almost quaint, shedding its splendour and exchanging its monuments for cute boulangeries and cafes scattered across a sprawling network of smaller, winding cobbled streets. Here is where some of the city’s most famous artists like Picasso and Renoir spent many days and nights. Unfortunately Montmartre has become quite an expensive area to live in so you might not find many struggling writers shouting words of love from the rooftops like Ewan Macgregor in Moulin Rouge, but the area still has a distinctly artistic ambiance.
The city also boasts some of the most incredible art collections in the world. The Louvre is unrivalled as a museum. It is a maze of masterpieces. It is also very easy to get completely turned around. Even after visiting several times, I still sometimes get lost to the point where it takes me around half an hour to find my way out. At this point I am not going to devote more to the Louvre – it certainly deserves its own post. Despite this, when someone asks me what my favourite museum is, the Louvre is not the first to come to mind. It is on such an entirely different level to the rest of Paris’s art museums (and other world class art museums for that matter) that it does not even seem right to compare them. Instead, I always say my favourite is the Musée d’Orsay. Housed in an old train station, the museum is light and airy and has been ingeniously organised over several levels while preserving the architecture and beauty of the original station. The museum is best known for its impressive collection of impressionist paintings. Some of Monet’s, Renoir’s and Van Gogh’s most famous paintings can be found there. The Musée de I’Orangerie is small but is another wonderful impressionist museum. The beauty of Monet’s famous Water Lilies astonished me and there are several unmissable paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne.
Paris is a city with secret surprises around every corner, from Patrick Blanc’s wall garden on the Rue d’Aboukir to the Wall of Love in Montmartre. One of my favourite things was stumbling upon Paris’s eighteenth century glass covered passages like the Passage Jouffroy or the Galerie Vivienne full of quaint shops and restaurants. Most of the time, I discovered some of my favourite spots in the city by accident. Strolling the banks of the Seine, browsing though antique books and postcards at the bouquinistes’ stalls, stopping off in cafes – there is nothing quite like it. Paris is a city of intense culture and beauty. It’s no wonder that everyone wants to run away to Paris.
Top: Eiffel Tower
Middle: Musée d'Orsay
Bottom: Passage Jouffroy
Photography by Savannah Hayes