Everyone wants to be a Parisian in Paris: to sip an espresso at the local café, to stroll along the Seine at dusk, to have an afternoon picnic with a bottle of wine and a baguette.
Doing all those things is easy. Feeling like a true local, however, can be a little more daunting. Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, and finding where the local crowds (not the tourists) hang is a difficult task.
For those of you looking for a more off-the-beaten-path adventure, take these tips as an insider’s guide of where (and where not) to go:
1) Don’t: Have a picnic on the Champ de Mars. Do: Have a picnic in Parc Monceau.
The Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tour is a beautiful place to enjoy views of Paris’ most memorable monument. However the time-old tradition of tourists picnic-ing on the Champ lawns has become a little too popular. The crowds of foreigners, in addition to the ever-present “street vendors,” can be overwhelming for someone looking to relax and enjoy the Paris atmosphere.
So, where to go for a picnic among fellow Parisians?
Answer: Parc Monceau. While it doesn’t boast views of the Eiffel Tour, this beautiful park is a popular local hangout for couples, groups of friends, or singles looking to settle in with a good book. Situated in the stylish 8th arrondisement, the park is a quick 15 min. walk from the Arc de Triomphe. Think rolling green hills, bright full-blooming trees, and beautiful landscape and architectural follies. You can enjoy the beauty and serenity of a picnic in Paris while feeling like a true local.
2) Don’t: Go to Notre Dame. Do: Go to St. Denis
Notre Dame never fails to make the list of top Paris sites to visit. The 12th century Gothic cathedral has an incredible history, and is worth strolling by if you have a leisurely afternoon to spare.
What many guidebooks fail to emphasize, however, is that an even more impressive cathedral lies just a 20 minute metro ride north of Paris: Le Basilique de St. Denis. And if your time or energy allows you only one grand cathedral visit, then St. Denis should be your choice.
The St. Denis Cathedral was the first major building designed and built primarily in the Gothic style. Older than Notre Dame, St. Denis’ towering Gothic spires, eerie gargoyles and enthralling rosetta windows will more than impress you. But St. Denis has something even more extraordinary that Notre Dame does not: the mausoleum of the French kings. Beneath the cathedral lie the crypts of nearly every King in French history, beginning with Clovis I (465-511) and ending with Louis XVIII (1755-1824). Other French nobles are also buried there, including dukes, duchesses, and children of the crown.
Most Parisian visitors have no idea what they are missing.
3) Don’t: Visit Musee D’Orsay. Do: Visit Musee Marmottan
Many people think of Musee D’Orsay as the quintessential impressionist museum. Housed in a former beaux-arts train station (Gare D’Orsay), the museum is remarkable both for its architecture and its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Their collection is considered the largest in the world.
But the lines and crowds at Musee D’Orsay are claustrophobic and fatiguing. Another top spot on the tourism lists, the Musee is packed nearly every day of the week.
To see a similarly impressive collection without the crowds, head to Musee Marmottan, a little museum in the 16th arrondisement housing the world’s largest collection of Monet masterpieces.
Tucked away on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, the Musee Marmottan is frequented primarily by Parisian locals. It houses all of Monet’s final works, as well as works by artists Morisot, Degas, Manet, Gauguin, Renoir, and others.
The lower level of the museum is the primary location of Monet paintings, and the display is stunning. Take a seat on a bench in the rotunda room and breath it all in.
4) Don’t: Explore Montmartre. Do: Explore the Marais.
The neighborhood of Montmartre is famous for many things: Sacre Coeur, the Artists’ Square, les Deux Moulins, etc. But what once made Montmartre a classic and authentic Parisian experience is now more or less a tourist trap. Climbing the hill to see the beautiful Sacre Coeur may be on the top of visitors’ lists, but the neighborhood is too conjested and the street vendors are too aggressive for someone wishing to have a more laid-back vacation.
Instead head to the Marais, a neighborhood once considered Paris’ most fashionable and wealthy. Located on the right bank of the Seine, it is a short walk from monuments like the Musee du Louvre and the Hotel de Ville. There will still be plenty of tourists milling about, but the Marais has such a history and connection to modern Paris that it is still a popular place for locals.
The Marais is a neighborhood you can explore for hours and never get bored. It continues to house an impressive collection of Hotels Particuliers- ancient mansions owned by wealthy 18th and 19th century Parisians complete with beautiful facades and French gardens. Today housing various other museums or national bureaus, the hotel gardens (and occasionally the interiors) are still open to the public. Traverse from one mansion to the other and feel like you are living among royalty.
Must-see locations in the Marais:
L’hotel de Soubise (now the National Archives)
L’hotel de Rohan (also National Archives)
L’hotel Guenegaud (now Musee de Chasse et de la Nature)
L’hotel de Sully
Place des Vosges (oldest planned public square in Paris, 1605-1612)
5) Don’t: Go to Versailles. Do: Go to Vaux le Vicomte
The palace of Versailles is a popular day trip outside Paris city center. Thousands of tourists flock daily to this former seat of French royal power. If luxury and opulence strike your fancy, Versailles is a wonderful place to get your fill of them.
Versailles is an easy travel. But for the more adventurous among us, there is a little-known secret hiding in plain sight: Vaux le Vicomte, a chateau rivaling Versailles in both beauty and prestige, located just a short trek (45 min) from Paris.
Vaux le Vicomte, created by architect Louis le Vau, artist Charles le Brun and landscape designer Andre le Notre in 1658-1661, was the original inspiration for Versailles. It was built for Nicolas Fouquet, then superintendent of finances for Louis XIV.
While the chateau and gardens are a little smaller in size, they are both magnificently kept to historical standards and boast less than half the crowds of the royal palace. You can enjoy the grounds (interior and exterior) at your leisure, without the hustle and stress of being hoarded around in a group.
Louis XIV was so jealous of Fouquet’s chateau that he imprisoned Fouquet shortly after it was built. That should give you an idea of just how much this place is worth seeing.