A different side of the French capital reveals smaller museums, under-the-radar spots in Montmartre and a diverse performance scene.<
By Laura Cappelle Photographs by Joann Pai June 22, 2023 Laura Cappelle is a theater critic for The New York Times and a freelance arts writer based in Paris.
There is a reason Paris remains among the most visited cities in the world. Its scenic, walkable neighborhoods have been shaped by centuries of cultural and political history, and any short visit will involve tough decisions. Monuments like Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower need no introduction. Instead, this guide presents a different side of the French capital: under-the-radar spots in the popular Montmartre hilltop neighborhood, smaller museums without crowds and a taste of Paris’s diverse performance scene. And it’s easier to get around: As the city gears up for the Summer 2024 Olympics, the first it is hosting in a century, the venerable subway (the métro) is undergoing a makeover, with extensions to several lines. Spot the layers of urban transformation underway — while staying alert to the millefeuille of art and architecture you’ll encounter everywhere.
The Gustave Moreau Museum is an under-the-radar house-museum that opens the doors to the studio of the 19th-century painter with a visionary flair for mythological subjects.
Madame Arthur has become the cancan-free cabaret of choice for many Parisians, and a symbol of France’s thriving drag scene with its resident troupe of singers and musicians.
The Petit Palais, an underrated gem on the Paris museum circuit, takes visitors on a delightfully random tour of centuries of French art history.
The Hôtel des Saints-Pères exudes old-world sophistication, and has a long history of welcoming artists to St.-Germain-des-Prés: The painter Francis Bacon was once a regular. Each room (from 220 euros, or $240) has personalized decor with paintings, drawings and sculptures. Guests in the Junior Suite Signature (from €400) sleep under a rediscovered 17th-century fresco that stretches across the ceiling.
Hôtel Mademoiselle is a cozy, stylish three-star hotel with a cute courtyard for breakfast, conveniently located within walking distance of Gare du Nord (Paris’s Eurostar terminal, with good connections to the airports) as well as Montmartre. Rooms from €150.
With four central locations, the People is a budget-friendly option for travelers, with bright, welcoming lobbies, on-site restaurants and rooftop cafés in select hostels. Its flagship in the Marais will take you close to the historical city center. Dorm beds from €50, with private rooms also available.
Paris has stringent regulations to curb short-term rentals on websites like Airbnb, and landlords can only rent residential properties for a maximum of 120 days a year, otherwise they have to be converted into furnished tourist accommodations. Locals will appreciate it if you stay at professionally run hotels and hostels.
Paris’s neighborhoods are highly walkable, and strolling from attraction to attraction is the best way to encounter unexpected slices of history. The local subway (the métro) is a generally reliable option, and will take you to many destinations more quickly than taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber, which often run into traffic. Paris’s bicycle-sharing system, Vélib’, has grown more convenient since new bike lanes have been installed in recent years.
Friday 2:30 p.m. Savor coffee under a glass roof
Ease into Parisian life in La Verrière, a light-filled and typically quiet cafe with plush armchairs and a stunning glass roof inside the 19th-century InterContinental Paris le Grand Hotel in the 9th arrondissement. On the back of each armchair is a different pastoral scene in mint green, the color matching the frame of the glass roof and the surrounding greenery. The prices are high end, but the “gourmand” tea or coffee option (16 euros, or about $17.50) comes with three small pastries. Down the street from the hotel, pause to look at the many sculptures adorning the Palais Garnier, Paris’s most opulent opera house, inaugurated in 1875. At the very top, notice the sculpture of Apollo (by Aimé Millet) holding forth his lyre for all to see in the boulevards below.
3:30 p.m. Climb the stairs to a painter’s workshop
There are well over 100 museums in Paris, and smaller ones can be more rewarding than shuffling along with the crowds at the Louvre. The Gustave Moreau Museum (entry €7), a house-museum south of Montmartre, was conceived by the 19th-century painter Gustave Moreau, an early exponent of Symbolism with a visionary flair for mythological subjects, before his death. The first-floor rooms were Moreau’s apartment, and are covered from floor to ceiling with his art collection and expensive knick-knacks. Most spectacular is the large, magnificent studio on the second and third floors, connected by a winding, wrought-iron staircase, that shows Moreau’s mysterious depictions of the Jewish princess Salomé, as well as some stunning unfinished paintings, like “The Three Magi.” Another small-but-mighty collection nearby is the Musée de la Vie Romantique (free except for exhibitions), which offers a taste of Paris’s Romantic-era artistic salons.
5 p.m. Wander among the graves 5 p.m. Drink cocktails above the Moulin Rouge
While visitors flock to Montmartre for its artistic history and quaint sights, few know about the bar tucked behind the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge, the famous cabaret. Le Bar à Bulles, which opened in 2015 and has a separate entrance via a small pedestrian street to the left of the Moulin Rouge, is a refreshingly quirky alternative to the area’s tourist magnets. Sip on Anaë gin, produced in southwestern France, with tonic (€11.50) and enjoy a cheese plate (€18) on the leafy rooftop or in the colorful indoor space, full of mismatched furniture and lampshades hanging from the ceiling. Some nights, concerts and events add to the warm, busy atmosphere.
8 p.m. Get a taste of bistronomie
Bistronomie describes the cross between homely bistro food and high-end gastronomy, without the stiffness of fine dining. Many restaurants around Montmartre are pushing the cuisine forward by embracing seasonal ingredients, while maintaining prices that can weather the rising cost of living in France. To the north of the Montmartre Cemetery, the bright, newly opened Le 975 offers smart twists on French cuisine, led by the Japanese-born chef Taiki Tamao, and unusually warm service by Parisian standards (four-course tasting menu, non-vegetarian, €49). Another option is Polissons, on a busier street, which goes bigger with six mystery courses (standard, €65; or vegetarian, €45). You can also order off the menu: You won’t regret the oysters with umami lemon as a starter, if they are available.
10 p.m. Sashay into musical drag
Don’t expect any lip syncs at Madame Arthur, a Montmartre drag cabaret, whose history goes back to 1946 and that reopened in 2015: Its resident troupe is composed of singers and musicians who perform live nightly, and have helped push drag’s recent renaissance in France. Skip the 8 p.m. main-stage show for the more intimate 11 p.m. “recital,” in which performers sing whatever they like, from opera to American pop translated into French (€15 at the door only, arrive early). There are few tables, but stand right by the piano to see stars like the wry Charly Voodoo up close. This summer, Madame Arthur is trying out a new 10 p.m. English-language show (€20, Thursday to Saturday, on the main stage). Afterward, dance the night away in one of the club spaces, with shorter drag performances at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and 2:50 a.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. Dart through centuries of art history
Near the quieter south portion of the Champs-Élysées, the Petit Palais is an underrated gem on the Paris museum circuit. This ornate, domed venue was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, the world’s fair, following a design competition won by Charles Girault; today it is the official Museum of Fine Arts of the city of Paris (others are state-run). It offers a short, delightfully random tour through French art history, with some European detours. One minute, you’re looking at Orthodox icons and medieval artworks; the next, a painting by Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet or Berthe Morisot — all while steps from an 18th-century sedan chair and a sculpture gallery. Gorgeously high ceilings rise above the main floor, while a mosaic-adorned peristyle surrounds palm trees in the inner courtyard. (Permanent collections, free; ticketed exhibitions, €15.)
12 p.m. Lunch in the Japanese-Korean district
From the Petit Palais, walk through the Tuileries gardens, a French formal park adjoining the Louvre, to reach the Japanese-Korean food district, loosely organized around Rue Sainte-Anne. Bistrot Mee, where Korean dishes are presented with neat visual flair, is consistently excellent. Get a mix of starters (all €6), which include great vegetarian options like the leek pancake and vegetable fritters. For a little sweetness after, Aki Boulangerie, a local institution, offers fusion French-Japanese sweets, like an azuki-bean-based Paris-Brest (a choux-and-praline pastry dessert) and yuzu- or matcha-flavored éclairs (around €3 to 5). Get a selection to go and enjoy them in the nearby garden of the Palais-Royal.
2 p.m. Shop French vintage fashion
You can find the biggest French couture brands all around the world these days, so instead of Chanel, look to vintage specialists. In the historical Marais district, start with Mam’zelle Swing, a brightly colored shop that stocks 1920s to 1960s women’s fashion, including bold, oversized earrings and cinched-waist dresses. Walk north, past Rue des Rosiers (part of the historical Jewish quarter) and the Picasso Museum, to the hip Oberkampf area to find Clara Vintage, which specializes in luxury women’s fashion (with a selection of men’s accessories), and Lapin Boutique Vintage, founded in 2021 by a former English teacher with a great eye for shape and colors. Stop for a scoop (around €4) of strawberry-hibiscus or even squash ice-cream at the experimental, award-winning Une Glace à Paris. Or if you favor macarons, Pierre Hermé is considered by many in Paris to be superior to the more famous Ladurée.
4:30 p.m. Go from a royal garden to the mosque
Cross to the city’s left bank via Sully Bridge, taking in views from the small triangular garden at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, the quieter of the two islands on the Seine. From Oberkampf, this half-hour walk will take you to the Jardin des Plantes, a vast botanical park that started as a royal medicinal garden in the 17th century. Stroll through, with the National Museum of Natural History in the background, and visit the gardens’ four oversize greenhouses (€7). Exit via the west gates to find the Grand Mosque of Paris. Inaugurated in the wake of World War I, in part to commemorate the sacrifices of colonized Muslims who fought for France, it features a patio with a hand-sculpted cedar wood door adorned with Quran verses in calligraphy, built by highly skilled North African craftsmen (visit, €3). Pause for a glass of mint tea (€2) in the courtyard or get a good scrubbing or massage at the ornate, sizeable hammam (from €30, women only).
8 p.m. See contemporary theater (followed by live music in a former prison)
The Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe, one of Paris’s most prestigious theaters, offers the option of English surtitles for its Saturday shows during its September-to-June season. For a pretty cheap price (€14 to €40), you might see experimental French theater, a star vehicle with the likes of Isabelle Huppert onstage, or a hotly anticipated production by a top European director. As you enter the red-and-gold Italian-style auditorium, try to picture it during the revolutionary events of May 1968, when students, artists and workers occupied the Odéon and turned it into a forum for debate. For a post-show dinner, the nearby Bouillon Racine, a mirror-filled Art Nouveau brasserie, knows its French classics, like snails (€12.50) and blood sausages with foie gras (€11); book ahead. For late-night music afterward, the St.-Germain-des-Prés quarter is famous for its jazz clubs like the Caveau des Oubliettes, where musicians perform under the arched stone ceiling of a former medieval prison.
Sunday 10 a.m. Explore a sprawling urban park
On the northern edge of Paris, the 136-acre Parc de la Villette, with its gardens, canals and cultural spaces, isn’t a tourist magnet, but its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years as the area has gentrified and new venues brought more events. The park is dotted with distinctive, sharply drawn red structures designed by the deconstructivist architect Bernard Tschumi in the 1980s. See the futuristic silver architecture of the Paris Philharmonic, inaugurated in 2015, and stop by the large dance floor installed under the arches of the Grande Halle: Hip-hop dancers frequently train there and relish an audience. Funky thematic playgrounds include the Garden of Childhood Fears, a mysterious forest with strange sounds, and the Garden of the Dragon, whose tongue is a slide. In summer, dive into the designated outdoor swimming space in the nearby Bassin de la Villette, or on a rainy day, the Cité des Sciences (€13 for adults) hosts family-friendly science exhibits.
12 p.m. Lunch sustainably
At the intersection of the Ourcq and St.-Denis canals, you’ll find a curved wooden structure. That is Ventrus, a portable restaurant that will be staying at La Villette through at least the 2024 Paris Olympics. Guest chefs rotate every few weeks or months to create short, seasonal menus (€40 to €50 for an a la carte, three-course lunch), and the restaurant has programs to recycle its waste and water. Its terrace is also perfect to people-watch by the water. For a more relaxed bite, walk east along the Ourcq canal to Jardin 21 (open May to September), a formerly vacant lot that has been transformed into a community and cultural space, complete with a large vegetable garden that visitors are welcome to visit. Order a craft beer and mingle with locals enjoying a lazy Sunday.
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