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Eric's Month in France Part 1: What to See and Eat in Paris

May 17, 2012
8 min read
Eric's Month in France Part 1: What to See and Eat in Paris
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TPG Managing Editor Eric has spent most of May so far living la vie boheme in Paris. Here are his top picks of what he’s done so far.

Crossing one of Paris's 37 bridges.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris in the past and done most of the normal first-visit tourist stuff, so I figured it would be fun to spend a month in the city living like a normal Parisian—working during the day, meeting friends, trying new restaurants and wandering the neighborhoods.

L’Appartement et L’Arrondisement
For the first 10 days of my visit, I’ve been staying in a pretty good-sized (for Paris) studio apartment just off rue Montorgueil that I rented from a nice young couple on Airbnb. While no, I’m not earning any points or elite status on my stay, I did put the payment on my new British Airways Visa, so I’m getting closer to the minimum-spend requirements for the full 100,000 Avios bonus.

The area, which is in the 2nd arrondisement, right in the heart of Paris, is near the huge metro station and mall at Chatelet Les Halles (where I could just take the RER directly from Charles de Gaulle), and used to be quite seedy. Now, however, the city has cleaned up the area (no more prostitutes!) and made many of the small streets including Montorgueil pedestrian-access only, so it feels like a cute little village in the heart of the city.

As I said, I’ve spent time in Paris before so I’ve eschewed the normal touristy experiences so far in favor of more day-to-day things, and here is what I’ve enjoyed so far.

La Cuisine
The new big movement in Parisian culinary culture is “bistronomy.” Basically, tiny restaurants (some with fewer than a dozen seats!) who serve high-end gourmet prix-fixe menus of just a few dishes that change almost daily depending on what’s available at the local markets, at relatively inexpensive prices, like between 30-40 euros a person. One of the best-known of these new bistros is Frenchie, which was just a couple blocks from the apartment. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get a reservation without calling weeks if not months in advance. However, the restaurant opened up a minuscule wine bar just across the street that is first-come-first-served, that you can amble up to at about 7pm and have a good chance at finding a seat. The wine list is eclectic and inexpensive, and the small plates are still quite gourmet—I had a mousse of foie gras with caramelized gelee and microgreens, for instance, as well as smoked mackerel over a bed of creamy cauliflower puree. Magnifique!

Pork belly, seafood risotto and monkfish at Semilla.

Rue Tiquetonne is also a great little street for restaurants with options ranging from Italian and Thai to Indian and market-fare French. I went to a little place called L’Apibo where I had sea bass cooked on a bed of sea salt with sticky black rice, Asian pepper cream, sesame paste and eggplant caviar. A couple blocks north, rue Saint-Sauveur also had a lot of great little wine and cocktail bars and was quite busy in the evening.

Dusk at the Place des Vosges where you'll find Ma Bourgogne and Le Petit Marche nearby.

Over in the fifth arrondisement, just in the shadow of the Pantheon on rue Lanneau, I went to one of my favorite long-running restaurants called Le Petit Prince which is in a very old building and feels quite atmospheric and romantic as I dined under a wood-beamed ceiling on specialties like goat cheese croutons with ratatouille and enjoyed a biodynamic wine from the Loire Valley.

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A little appetizer and red wine from the Loire at Le Petit Prince.

Two of my other top restaurant picks so far have been Semilla in the 6th arrondisement on rue de Seine, and Le Petit Marché near the Place des Vosges in the 4th. Yes, you have to wade through the hordes of tourists and students on rue St. Andre des Arts, but once you’re in this tiny hole-in-the-wall, you’ll be mesmerized by the frenetic yet hushed activity in the open kitchen and dishes like a tartare of beef, veal and herring (much better than it sounds), and a juicy piece of monkfish with fresh tomato and tiny fregola pasta. Another small but great wine list.

Le Petit Marché is another tiny, bustling little restaurant where you won’t hear much English spoken. Yes, they’re rather tight on space and whom they give a table to, but it’s worth it and the cuisine is a delicious mix of Asian ingredients and flavors as well as more Parisian traditional dishes. For instance, we had a salmon tartare with mango and avocado as well as a parmentier (shepherd’s pie) of potato, duck and Provençal tomato. Plus the house wine is only 3 euros a glass—deal!

Le Shopping
I’m not in the market to buy much this trip, though I do like the casual French fashions (give me Celio over Old Navy any day!). One store that seems very France-meets-Nantucket apparel is Scotch & Soda, with locations all over, while Comptoir des Cotonniers seemed to have very chic preppy clothes as well. For men’s apparel, there was a great store a block from the apartment on rue Marie-Stuart called Isotéry, and I also liked the whimsical tchotchkes at Les Touristes in the Marais.

The famous Stohrer patisserie on rue Montorgueil.

For food and wine, the shops of rue Montorgueil were magnifique. There were three different cheese shops with fromages from all over France, several butchers, a few florists, and for wine, there was a Nicolas wine shop, a Caviste Independant, and a darling little store called Le Repaire de Bacchus, plus several chocolate shops, and a legendary patisserie called Stohrer founded in 1730 by the former chef to Louis XV.

The Passage du Grand Cerf is one of a few surviving shopping galleries in the 2nd arrondisement with delightful little shops.

Finally, Paris used to have tons of covered "galeries" filled with shops where the well-to-do would buy various wares and goods. Few survived Haussman's drastic city planning campaign in the 19th century, however, two of these delightful spaces still exist in the 2nd arrondisement. The most famous is the Galerie Vivienne, where you'll find a tea salon, some book and toy shops and the famous wine store Lucien Legrand Filles et Fils. The second, and in my opinion the more charming these days with lots of bright little shops filled with all kinds of odds and ends including designer jewelry and bespoke clothiers, is the Passage du Grand Cerf right off rue St. Denis. Have a walk through it and see if you can resist the call of vieux Paris.

Autres Choses à Faire
There are a few special exhibits going on that I know of so far, including a collection of nudes by Degas at the Musee d’Orsay, an exhibition of Helmut Newton’s photography at the Grand Palais, and a Matisse exhibit at the Centre Pompidou, as well as one on graphic/comic artist Art Spiegelman. I’m looking forward to checking those out.

The Musee d'Orsay recently underwent a massive restoration and looks amazing.

Other than that, I went to a concert at Sainte Chapelle on Friday night, which was just amazing. A string section played pieces by Saint Saens, Massenet and Vivaldi at dusk and they were fantastic. I spent Sunday morning wandering the hilly lanes of Montmartre, stopped by the Place des Vosges for a pre-dinner aperitif at Ma Bourgogne, traversed 11 of the 37 bridges over the Seine, and took a stroll with friend through the Tuileries on Sunday afternoon.

Sacre Coeur on a Sunday morning.

I have a couple more weeks here, so what are some of your favorite things to do in Paris?