Any trip is better with good planning.
But as it turns out, that goes double for Paris.
Since we were kids we were fed the Paris stereotype, bit by bit, book by book, movie by movie. Even if you discard the obvious things, like how the Eiffel tower surely can’t be visible from every single bedroom window in the city, other things still remain that you think are true until you get there. This “Ideal Paris” somehow manages to unite cutting edge glamour with a rustic and alternative small town vibe.
Some of that is there, sure. But in reality, Paris is a very big city with some districts that are hip and modern, and others that are outdated, neglected and some even scary. Paris is not the town where you can randomly wander in anywhere without risking disappointment, but with enough planning, you can make it a great and unique experience.
When visiting anywhere in the world, I always aim to get a feel of the local culture beyond the basic tourist experience, while eating healthy and getting some great coffee along the way. With that in mind, below you’ll find my comprehensive Indie Guide to Paris with the result of my recent “field test” of places to visit and things to try if you want an experience past the Eiffel Tower and the Notre-Dame.
Paris as a long weekend getaway
Months ago a friend alerted us that Joe Hisaishi, legendary composer of the Studio Ghibli films, will conduct a symphonic concert in Paris. That’s something that happens once every five years and thousands of people line up to buy tickets online, so we had about 15 minutes to decide whether we can make it or not.
In these cases, the fact that I have my life and business planned way in advance comes in real handy. We took one quick look at our short-term and mid-term projects to decide whether we have the time and the funds to make this a long summer weekend, and in a couple of minutes, we reached a resounding YES and our tickets were booked (just in time – they sold out a couple minutes later).
It’s been 16 years since we’ve last been to Paris, so while it wasn’t totally new to us, much has changed. We only had a few days in town, so our plan was to get a laid-back Paris experience less about the big touristy milestones and more about getting the vibe of the place with lots of walks and exploration. With a bit of planning and a lot left to chance.
So we sat down and brainstormed a Paris must-dos list (similar to our summer top 10 list, but much more focused). Cliché or not, I wanted to get up close to the Eiffel Tower, and to recreate the photo we originally took at the Notre-Dame 16 years ago as a budding teenage couple. But other than these must-dos, I was not really interested in tourist hotspots, macarons or big name design houses – I wanted to explore the alternative side of Paris – what the new generation is doing around town to innovate and keep that artsy subculture thing going (Parisians were hipsters before hipsters were cool). So Shakespeare and Company landed on the very top of that list, and you’ll soon see why.
Since it was just a long weekend, we knew that we won’t have time for big museum trips, the Louvre or the Orsay (each would take us a full day to explore properly), and we also knew we wanted to eat well and get great coffee. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the hardest bit, which I’ll get into in a second. :)
Beyond the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame
Midsummer in Paris means a combination of two things: sweltering hot, and very late sunsets. This means that once the heat subsides, the sun doesn’t go down until after 10pm, enabling great opportunities for evening walks.
Two out of our four evenings we ended up in the Trocadero district, which is an ideal vantage point from which to look out at the Eiffel Tower as the sky behind it slowly turns purple and the evening lights on the tower go up. Cliché? Probably. Beautiful? Definitely.
As usual, we booked our stay at an AirBNB – at about one third of hotel prices, with the chance of exploring the inside of 100+ year-old buildings and seeing what apartments built that time actually looked and are used by residents today.
Pros: huge ceilings and classical wall art in an atmospheric old building in downtown Paris, with three cats and a French bulldog (of course), and a window overlooking the Arc de Triomphe and even a bit of the Eiffel Tower.
Cons: huge amount of noise at night from a city that never sleeps. (Mental note: next time, bring earplugs.)
Booking in the room downtown has its upsides, though. The subway system is quite sophisticated, fast, and cheap: buy tickets in packs of 10 for for €1,40 apiece, each giving you 60 minutes of travel on buses, and subway lines, with unlimited changes. That said, if you’re not travelling far, walking is the best form of transportation enabling you to marvel at the architecture (a lot of which was built around the time and by the same people as downtown Budapest which adds a bit of nostalgia for me). All in all, we stacked up 50 kilometres of walking in five days. :)
Walking also lets you bump into things you otherwise would have never noticed they’re there. One such place was the Guimet Museum of Asian Art, where the seasonal kimono exhibition had just ended, but we could still marvel at various ancient statues and artifacts from India, Japan, Thailand, China, Korea and Vietnam.
Shakespeare and Company
And with that I’ll get to one of the best parts of our journey, which is a place of pilgrimage to bibliophiles like me. Shakespeare and Company has cult status in book lover circles, and for good reason: this shop quickly became one of my favourite places in Paris. This English-language bookshop has multiple floors of stacks and stacks of hand-curated books (with a separate rare book store beside the main one), with regular book clubs, author meetups, and even free accommodation (inside the actual bookstore!).
It’s a real pilgrimage to venture inside and explore. The place has such a unique and inspiring atmosphere that moving in and living there does not seem like a stretch. I love how there’s everything from high literature to pulp fiction, from hard science through sci-fi to the history of witchcraft. And most importantly, it’s not pretentious at all, they have a very down-to-earth and friendly approach to all of this.
If you buy a book there, it will get a stamp proving you got it there. The first time we went in, we sat on one of the beds on the top floor, and while I knew I wanted to get a book from here, I had no idea what. So I let the book choose me. :) We noticed we were sitting in the Poetry section, so I soon thought of Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey, a small stack of which I then noticed is sitting right beside me on a shelf. IT’S A SIGN.
Before that, I kept noticing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but didn’t buy it. Since I spent the rest of the day thinking I should really get a copy of Walden and where else if not here and now, the next day, when we happened to be in the same district, I decided to go back. But as I did, I noticed there was none left of the Pocket Penguin edition that I found the day before. I ran to the staff and they got me a copy from storage. While I probably won’t go and build a hut in the woods, I’m super excited to find out about all the philosophy-mixed-with-stats that this book has to offer.
If you make Shakespeare & Company a part of your Paris trip, do know they also have a café two doors down, which serves properly good coffee (important, see below), and a variety of vegetarian and even vegan dishes (rare in this part of town). We had a very nice quiche with salad and lattes. Yum yum.
Restaurants worth the trek
It’s Paris, so it’s full of patisseries, cheese shops and places to buy macarons. But you can’t live on these without massive spikes in your blood sugar levels, so I didn’t even try (I have IR so I have to watch my carbs). Instead, before the trip, we researched places to find good quality, healthy food. (And for us, that means meat-free, varied, tasty, and not margherita pizza or mac and cheese).
Barcelona was full of places like that (still dreaming of it years later), but in Paris it’s a challenge to find a restaurant which serves good quality food without the meal costing the monthly rent.
The thing is, Paris is a brand – its name guarantees a constant influx of new tourists. Since most people are there for just a limited time, owners aren’t forced to focus on keeping customers on in the long term. Whatever they do, a new batch of customers arrives in a few days. And in many places, this leads to plain laziness. So Paris is not the place to randomly pick a restaurant, sit in, and eat something good at a reasonable price.
Overall we’ve found that while it’s always good to do a bit of research before visiting a city, this goes double for Paris, since it’s abundant in entry-level groceries and high-priced restaurants, but scarce in the middle ground.
While it always helps to check the menu before walking in somewhere (to gauge prices and whether they have anything other than dishes from the 90’s), and steering clear of the densely touristy areas (where there’s less chance of a good restaurant), having roaming data really helps (now free when using phones from another EU country, yay!), because you can just jump up on TripAdvisor and/or Google Maps for two minutes to check recommendations and reviews around the area so you know where to go and what tourist traps to avoid. Doing a search for “restaurants near me” ended up finding us one of the best eats of the trip. (On that note, we also added our own reviews and pictures to help tourists that come after us. Do the same if you have the chance, it’s immensely helpful!)
That said, here’s our favourite places to eat in Paris:
1. Braisenville – the top of the pack
Finding this place was almost a complete accident. At the end of a long day we collapsed on a park bench with Adam, who loaded up Google Maps and looked for basically anything with a rating above 2 stars.
As it turned out, we were an easy two-minute walk from Braisenville, a modern, Michelin recommended restaurant with friendly prices matching the surprisingly filling portions. They had opened just a few minutes beforehand so we had our dinner there and weren’t disappointed.
They operate on a tapas system, so you split medium-sized dishes. They recommended 6 plates for 2 people, but our server recommended that we get 3 plates, well enough for people who aren’t physically starving. (This cost us a total of twentysomething euros, which is good for anywhere in Paris, let alone downtown.)
Our food was a cold oyster mushroom and walnut cream soup, a burrata salad and a plate of charcoal-grilled vegetables with homemade bread. (A burrata is a creamy cheese you get when you think of the best mozzarella you’ve ever had and multiply that by a hundred.) Not a drop was wasted, and our love affair with burrata started here.
2. Le Poutch – vegan paradise
Leaving the noise and bustle of the Gare du Nord towards the South, between the Jacques Bonsergent and Republique stops of subway line 4, you can witness the ongoing awakening of the newest Parisian hipster district (the other being the more established Belleville to the East).
I’ve heard about this place and picked out the highly recommended Holybelly for our lunch. Sadly when we got there it turned out they were moving, with their old place shut and their new place not yet ready. If you go now, they should be open.
So our luck led us to Le Poutch, a hip vegan bistro with great lunch menus (soup with salad and smoothie for €9) and a great spot for people-watching. The staple of the dessert menu is the chocolate ganache, which is heavenly, sells out every day, and the young woman who runs the place told us that she protects the recipe so fiercely that not even her own mother could get it out of her for years. :)
3. Maoz – Middle Eastern Street Food
Maoz is a chain of tiny falafel shops with all-you-can-fit-on-your-pita salad bars that we fell in love with in Barcelona and couldn’t wait to try again, especially after their London branch proved critically underwhelming (with much lower quality falafel, no salad bar and much higher price range). Thankfully, Maoz has two shops near the Notre Dame, so we took our chance and didn’t regret it.
4. Noodle Panda
The Arc de Triomphe is one of the hardest areas to find something that’s both edible (according to our high veggie standards) and not through the roof in terms of pricing, so it was our blind luck that Avenue Mac-Mahon had one of the best mid-range East Asian restaurant in the city, run by a family right opposite our AirBNB. The food was fresh, tasty, and at a very friendly price level. Try the noodle soup or the rice dishes!
5. Mokus l’Écureuil
One evening, walking towards the Trocadero we were reminiscing about a bistro in the old Buda district of Budapest called Mókus, pronounced moe-kush, a word meaning squirrel in Hungarian (and no other language). Minutes later we spotted a sign with the letters MOKUS on it, leading to a restaurant with taxidermied squirrels decorating the main entrance.
In terms of coincidences, this is really high up there.
So of course we had to go in to what turned out to be a hipster pizza place where we spent a pleasant one and a half hours to try interesting local pizza varieties (like one with burrata! Can’t have enough of that burrata.)
In the end, no one from the staff was able to tell us why the place is called what it’s called and where the squirrel decor comes from. Our server got as far as
“It’s called this because this ‘Moküsz’ [they pronounced it in a French accent, rhymes with Bocuse] means squirrel in some language… Um, which language was it? I don’t remember“.
We even talked to that night’s manager, who only got as far as remembering the squirrels coming from somewhere between Arkansas and Bulgaria (which is a 5700-mile distance, thankyouverymuch). So we thanked the staff and left the name remain a mystery. :)
Breakfast – small shops win the day
There’s no real point to eating out in the morning when you can enjoy a lovely breakfast of fresh bread, cheese and veggies at home. The most basic place to get your groceries is Carrefour which is a middle-of-the-road grocery chain, worth mentioning mostly as its shops are spread around town and some of them are open up to eleven at night, with fresh fruit, a nice array of cheeses and not-quite-stale bread – which was a lifesaver when we arrived in the evening. One quality level higher is Franprix with more organic stuff and a better cheese and dairy selection.
After the first day we weren’t forced to buy based on the “whatever is open” principle, so we started exploring to find various bakeries and cheese shops which are, thankfully, scattered throughout town and many of them are age-old family enterprises.
On a related note, the city’s drinking water is clean and there are a lot of drinking fountains everywhere, so if you have a reusable water bottle on you, you’ll get a good milage out of it. I love drinking tap water when it’s clean, and I hate paying for bottled water, so this was a win-win. Throwing together quick omelettes or pasta dishes are also an option, one we use quite a lot when we travel (just to enjoy local food or cut the budget), but unfortunately, this time we couldn’t use the kitchen.
Coffee shops – only the best will do
I drink coffee for the taste and not for the caffeine content so I’m quite particular about the kind of coffee I get. In a lot of places in Europe, coffee roughly equates to “burnt hot water with sugar”, and many cities have yet to undergo the transformation into the new era beyond.
So while in Budapest or Brighton you can easily find quality coffee (hooray!), to get the same in Paris requires taking a more strategic route. Fortunately, I don’t rely on caffeine to wake up, so this wasn’t a big issue.
My top 3 Paris cafés
1. Malongo (15 minutes walk from the Notre-Dame)
2. KB CaféShop (in the Sacré-Cœur district, near the Anvers stop of Metro line 2)
3. Le Poutch (the same as in the vegan section above)
Malongo needs special mention as it’s a real exotic coffee haven. The coffee of the season is regularly updated, you can get specialty coffee making appliances (I was happy – and smug – to notice the same coffee grinder we have on the shelf), and not only can you buy beans, but they’ll even roast them to your taste. If that’s not hipster, I don’t know what is. I wonder how long this trend will take to get to Brighton… :D
As for the Hisaishi Jo symphonic concert, it was beyond words. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we cried the whole way through (especially when it came to the soundtrack for The Wind Rises). It was a concert of a lifetime, so if nothing else had come together on this trip, seeing the master composer-conductor in person would have been enough on its own.
And beyond my favourite parts – the concert and the bookshop – the best bit really was just to wander around Paris aimlessly, marvel at the architecture (and make comparisons to similar Budapest districts), wave at tourists passing on boats, or enjoy an ice cream in the park.
And it was good to come back home – thankfully, Eurostar trains have more legroom than budget airlines, so it wasn’t that uncomfortable. :)
Know someone visiting Paris soon? Send them the link to this guide! They’ll thank you for it. And I will too :)
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