A first visit to the city almost has to follow a script: the iconic sites, the terrasses de café, the Latin Quarter and so on. It’s an itinerary that comes freighted with expectations, and not just your own. It has to live up to the idealisation of thousands of writers and filmmakers, everything from Hemingway’s memoirs, to Beckett on the boulevards, to Ratatouille and, just this year, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
It’s a lot to ask of any place, and maybe that’s why a Tripadvisor survey found that Paris was the most over-rated tourist city in Europe. And yes, the real Paris is surprisingly dirty, surprisingly easy to get bad food in, and for good coffee you’d be better off in Italy.
But it is the most beautiful city in the world — monotonously so — and maybe the way to enjoy it is to look for alternatives to the tried, tested and glorified. Maybe then you’re not setting yourself up for a disappointment.
There’s zinc all round, the lights burn bright, the tables are packed, the waiters are hurtling round in black tie. What could possibly go wrong? Well, unfortunately these days, a lot. Most Parisian brasseries are parodies of their former selves. People went to places like the Flo, Julien, Bofinger and Balzar daily for decades, not because the food was extra special, but because it was always the same. Repetition is a virtue. But nowadays these famous names are owned by a single chain and they have all that makes some of the finest dining rooms in the city feel stale and unloved.
So what’s to be done? In the less touristy parts of town young chefs who have trained under a galaxy of Michelin stars are using the slightly lower rents to pass the savings onto their customers. Le Chateaubriand and Septime, two of the city’s trendiest restaurants, respect the traditions of France just enough so that you feel you’re in Paris, but with verve and novelty so that they come as a relief when you weary at the prospect of another magret de canard aux pommes.
Both are low on choice, high on surprises, offering five take-it-or-leave-it courses for €55, or, in the case of Septime, a stunningly good value three-course lunch for €26.
Calling the Eiffel Tower ‘disappointing’ is pushing it, but what is disappointing is showing up what you think is early to find several thousand Chinese people thought the same thing, but just had more discipline than you. Besides, there’s a funny feeling about seeing Paris from the Eiffel Tower. There’s something missing from the skyline. Oh yeah — you’re on it.
A much better plan is to go to the Tour Montparnasse, and avoid the queues for the same views. Except it’s better. The more adventurous can opt for the giant helium balloon at Parc Andre-Citroen, which rises to 150 metres.
Parisian cuisine might be conservative, but the city’s diners do like a fad. And the current craze is for the cave á manger: a high-end food shop that also has tables and a kitchen. Nothing too fancy usually, just good cuisine du marché. Les Papilles is somewhat expensive as a shop, but great value food: a four-course daily menu is available for €36. La Verre Vole specialises in another Paris fad: “natural” wines (organic and then some). They knock up a wide range of French and Italian classics in a tiny kitchen. Nearby, Cantine de Quentin has a ridiculously good value, always reliable €14 lunch menu and a wide range of products. Probably the most special experience requires planning: book months ahead and you can have dinner or lunch for five at La Tete dans les Olives a Sicilian olive oil specialists.
After hours, they put one table in the middle of the shop, and serve a tour de force of fresh food: the best olives you’ll find, carrots stuffed with mint, oranges and anchovies, and of course pasta. All surrounded by shelves of goodies. You can bring your own wine, and it’s a mere €150 for five people.
The French are a market-obsessed people. But in Paris, it can be hard to find a bargain, and having no change from a tenner for a scoop of olives can leave you with the unlikely feeling that, actually, we’re a bit hard on the prices at our farmers’ markets. But there are still plenty of bustling, untouristy markets, of which Marché Joinville on the north side of the city is one of the biggest. If you take an apartment instead of a hotel, a day spent shopping and cooking is a must. And the raw ingredients are good value, with olives €4 a kilo, quails €1 each — that sort of cheap.
If Hemingway were around today, there’s no way he’d be drinking in La Closerie des Lilas, or Le Select. These Left Bank institutions exist primarily nowadays to charge tourists €9 for a beer. But if you want a real bar scene, head for Canal St Martin, a once working-class neighbourhood that’s now bobo (Parisian for bourgeois bohemian) central. A good quayside pub crawl could start at Bar Ourcq, with prices that’ll have you disbelieving you’re in Paris. A glass of wine? €2. Charcuterie, cheese, olives, bread, anchovies? Free. From there, head south to Le Chaland, a true neighbourhood bar/bistro. Further south on the canal, La Patache is what an Irish pub would look like if it was designed by a Frenchman: all dark wood and clutter, but of a Gallic variety. This is the place for quality soakage: €20 will get you a nice bottle of wine, great bread and a pot of terrine or rillette. Chez Prune is where the young folk drink their demis and cheap cocktails. And if there’s still wind in your sails, Paris’s best Guinness can be had at The Cork and Cavan, while Le Comptoir General (88 Quai de Jemmapes) is the hipster hangout du moment: a kind of quasi-post-industrial, former school, old hotel, meets warehouse and art gallery.
They say the film Amelie is to blame for making Montmartre perpetually more crowded than a St Stephen’s night pub. For a sense of what the place might have been like in the days of Van Gogh, it’s best to head for the hills of Belleville and Menilmontant. These immigrant communities have the haphazard, off-the-cuff feel that Montmartre would have had 100 years ago. And some real artists too. La Forge is an old metalworks transformed into a hive of artistic creativity, with 25 studios and workshops. However, the city of Paris has plans to relocate them.
Maybe those at La Miroiterie could tell La Forge how to digs its heels in. This old mirror factory has been a squat since 1999, and in the evenings it becomes a lively, safely edgy arts and music venue. La Bellevilloise combines a real community spirit with its two concert halls, terrace bar, gallery and restaurant. It’s not surprising, since its roots go back to the fall of the Paris Commune, when it emerged as the city’s first co-operative building, where workers could come to read books, experience culture and left-wing politics. If you want to feel like you’ve had a diverse night out (experimental art, live jazz, outdoor aperitifs, tapas, a steak) without trekking all over the city, this is the place to be.
Aer Lingus has daily flights to Paris Charles de Gaulle from Cork and Dublin, and three times a week from Shannon from March to October. The RER B local train takes you to the city centre in about 30 minutes. Ryanair has daily flights from Dublin to Paris Beauvais. A shuttle bus goes from the airport to Porte Maillot on the western edge of Paris. It costs €15 and takes about an hour and a quarter.
Take in Monet’s giant Water Lillies on the curved walls of the Musée de l’Orangerie, a more tranquil alternative to the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay. Another offbeat treat for art fans is the Musée Gustave-Moreau. The chief treat is that the museum is in Moreau’s home, a real insight into how life was in the mansion houses of Paris in 19th century. If in Belleville, be sure to visit the Buttes Chaumont, a old quarry turned into a fantastical Romantic landscape by Haussmann, complete with follies, rocky peaks and shaky old bridges. Everyone knows Shakespeare & Co, the most famous bookshop, but nearby at 29 Rue de la Parcheminerie is the Abbey Bookshop, a tiny, impossibly narrow Aladdin’s cave.