There’s so much more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. If you want to get under the skin of the city, skip out on a day’s sightseeing and go in search of unforgettable experiences instead.
Paris might have the best museums and galleries in the world, but that doesn’t mean you should spend your whole trip hanging out with Monet, Picasso and Degas. Old masters are no match for the cuisine and creative scene of one of Europe’s coolest capitals. We’ve picked the experiences you’ll remember long after you’ve returned home, from cruising the Canal Saint-Martin and baking the perfect croissants, to searching out street art and spending late nights at the city’s most daring cabaret club.
Retrace the footsteps of French literary and artistic masters
The années folles (crazy years) shaped the world as we know it today. The ’20s in Paris were an iconic decade for creativity, where the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel, to name a few, resided. Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris (2011) encapsulates this sizzling pot of French literary and artistic masters, and so does this Parisian walking tour. Meander through cobbled streets, revisit the places where heroes hung out, and listen to your hand-picked host tell the tales of a period of time that visitors can only dream of visiting. You won’t get closer to the Parisian ’20s than this.
Made up of 14 individual markets, the Puces de Saint-Ouen, on the city’s northern fringes, is the largest antiques market in Europe. Its traders are world renowned, with designers coming here in search of pieces for the most chic Parisian boutique hotels and private homes. These days bargains are hard to come by (for those you need to head to the Puces de Vanves in the south of Paris) but a morning browsing here is unforgettable. Prints, vintage maps and records are among the more affordable souvenirs to take home.
There’s no doubt that Paris is a food-lover’s dream; freshly baked baguettes, flaky buttery croissants, just-caught oysters, the sweetest macaroons, and more cheese than you can ever imagine are just a bite of what’s on offer in the city, but knowing where to pick up the best snacks is the real challenge. This food tour, led by enthusiastic locals, takes you to the best places so that you can sample award-winning dishes, sip on the highest-quality French wines and soak up the Parisian way of life.
There’s no more quintessentially French car than the Citroen 2CV. Once the workhorse of the countryside, it’s now an icon of late 1930s design. There are several pastel-painted 2CV fleets in Paris, which rattle around the narrowest backstreets on routes that open-topped buses simply can’t match. Buckle up to zigzag around the Butte Montmartre’s secret winding lanes on the way to the Sacré-Cœur or zip around the illuminated Arc de Triomphe and cruise down the Champs-Élysées at night.
An afternoon tea à la française is the perfect excuse to check out the city’s five-star hotels without forking out for a night in a suite. Order a pot of tea plus a glass (or two) of Champagne and settle in for at least three hours. Expect delicate finger sandwiches and English-style scones with jam to start, but the pâtisserie is – of course – the highlight. Each pastry chef has their signatures, from macarons and madeleines to tartelettes and florentines. The Ritz and Le Bristol are among the most classic spots for “le tea time”, as Parisians say, while the Shangri-La even has an all-vegan option.
Forget about crowded cruises on the Seine and see a more laid back side of Paris by floating down the Canal Saint-Martin instead. Passing through myriad locks and past some of the city’s fastest changing neighbourhoods, this gentle journey takes around two and a half hours, and passes by many top sights. See the Musée du Louvre, the Tuileries Garden and the Notre-Dame, away from the crowds! Given the canal was built by Napoleon I some 150 years ago, expect plenty of historical insight from onboard guides along the way.
Think of the Crazy Horse as the Moulin Rouge’s more risqué sibling. Costumes are barely there, the “Crazy Girls” are instead clad in little more than elaborate lighting projections during their glamorous twice-nightly sets. Each set has ten or so numbers including collaborations like Dita Von Teese’s ‘Undress to Kill’ and the cheeky ‘God Save our Bareskin’. The artistry here is serious, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Book one of the plush red booths at the late show to make the most of the atmosphere.
The craft beer scene in Paris was slow to take off, but brewers are now making up for lost time. It’s never been easier to find a Parisian-made hoppy IPA or a fruity saison, and plenty of local-led tours will take you from bars to microbreweries, delving into cheese and beer pairings along the way. If you want to go one step further, you can even take an “amateur brewer” workshop, where you’ll leave with a few bottles of your own signature brew.
Did you know that the best croissants have up to eighty butter-soaked layers? You can discover this – and more about lamination (the process of folding and rolling by which croissant dough is made), at a specialised baking class. Pick a hands-on experience rather than a chef-y demo, and expect to get messy perfecting the ultimate flaky bake. Most classes take around three hours, with shaping croissants into their distinctive crescent shape being the final flourish. It’s trickier than you might think.
France’s most famous regions tend to dominate wine lists. That’s not to say that the finest bottles aren’t produced in Bordeaux and Burgundy, just that there’s lots more to discover. Book a varied tasting session to get introduced to the Loire’s fresh, mineral whites or perhaps light and fruity styles from Beaujolais. French labels are notoriously hard to decode, so you’ll also leave with an understanding of cru (growth), appellations and cépages(percentage of each varietal) that’ll stand you in good stead for fancy dinners both in Paris and back home.
Even if you’re travelling solo in Paris, book a ticket to Olivier Giraud’s celebrated comedy show for a hilarious introduction to Parisian cultural clichés. As nights at the theatre go, it’s light-hearted and heavy on audience participation. Those who’ve visited Paris a few times will crack up at “lessons” such as “how to be Parisian in a shop”, while first-timers will love his dark survival guides to taking taxis and ordering in restaurants. Even though up to half the audience can be French, the show is in English, so you needn’t worry about your language skills.
Street art thrives in Paris. Some pieces are even commissioned by the mairie (city government). You’ll spot Invader’s signature pixelated tiles on almost every street corner, as well as Kraken’s signature octopus designs. To find projects by lesser-known artists, take a tour. Many neighbourhoods have interesting urban art scenes and must-see murals, ranging from the political to the purely beautiful. Don’t miss the outdoor canvases that showcase a rotating roster of artists; the latest project to grace Le Mur Oberkampf is always worth checking out.
Ground Control used to be a rail depot; it's now a thriving music and food spot in the city | Courtesy of Ground Control Paris
If you want to explore a more socially conscious side to contemporary Parisian culture, head to one of the new clutch of multidisciplinary community spaces. Ground Control (featuring one of our favourite independent boutiques, Objets Trouvés) is the most popular. In an enormous warehouse space in the 12th arrondissement you’ll find street food, bars, yoga classes, workshops and more. Les Grands Voisins, in the 14th arrondissement also has a great restaurant as well as a bolder mission offering support, accommodation and studio spaces to artists and refugees as well as campaigning again the gentrification of the neighbourhood.
There’s no better way to while away an evening than with a game of pétanque. On warm summer nights, you’ll spot players on every spot of grass or sand from the banks of La Villette to the lawns in front of the Louvre. Don’t have your own set of balls? Book a lesson with a pétanque pro, likely including a few glasses of wine as well as tips for hitting the cochonnet (jack ball). Even if you’re visiting in winter, there’s no reason to miss out. Head to one of Chez Bouboule’s three pétanque bars to play inside.
At Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, you can experience climbing an actual mountain right in the heart of Paris. This park has everything you could need for a day with the family or by yourself outdoors; walking trails, playgrounds, a lake, water fountains and restaurants, plus lots of benches and places to relax and take in the scenery. The view from the mountain top is stunning, with Sacré-Coeur visible in the distance among the rooftops of Paris.
In France, pâtisserie and savoury cuisine are two separate disciplines. Even if you’ve taken a macaron workshop or learned how to make eclairs, tackling classics such as boeuf bourguignon, cheese soufflé or coq au vin is a totally different experience. In true French style, the best classes start with a market visit to pick up ingredients before hitting the kitchen. You might be surprised at the simplicity of some recipes: Parisian kitchens are notoriously tiny and low-tech. Complex flavours don’t always mean complicated techniques.
For any avid foodie, Paris is considered a playground. Not only is it jam-packed with romantic cafés and exquisite wine bars, but it’s also home to its fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants. This tour, led by knowledgable locals, takes you to three of the best Michelin-star restaurants in Paris where you’ll be able to sample some of the best food and wine in the city and get an insider perspective all about this side of the culinary scene.