by Josalin Saffer
illustration by Bruno Mangyoku
Paris has long been crowned the world’s most romantic city. There’s no denying the amorous ambience of the Eiffel Tower aglow at night, the thrill of seeing original masterpieces up close at the Louvre, or the splendor of Gothic architecture at the Notre Dame Cathedral. But the city’s charm extends far beyond the famous landmarks, and indeed can be found in the freedom and satisfaction granted by a quintessential Parisian pastime: enjoying simple pleasures. So take a lazy stroll along the Seine and spend the day as what the French call a flâneur — someone who ambles slowly through a city observing society and the surroundings. It’s the best way to fall head over heels with the City of Love.
Start your day well-rested at the Maison Boutet — a historic building in the heart of the lively Bastille district. Once an exotic wood supplier and a chocolate factory, the maison now plays host to the ① Hotel Paris Bastille Boutet, which has carefully preserved the spirit and authenticity of the building’s former glory. Details such as the chocolate box wallpaper in the elevators, vintage photos of woodworking tools hanging on the walls, and a mosaic art-deco façade that appears as it did in 1926 all pay homage to the maison’s storied past and make staying here an experience steeped in French history.
Begin your stroll for breakfast fuel down Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, one of the oldest streets in Paris. Stop off at the iconic yet modest ② Blé Sucré, where acclaimed Chef Fabrice Le Bourdat has perfected the flaky puff pastry known as pain au chocolat — a French favorite. Order the chef’s specialty or take your pick from a glass case full of freshly baked viennoiserie, along with a rich, life-giving espresso. Choose a bench across the street in the shady Square Armand Trousseau to eat and rouse leisurely while watching passers-by.
Awaken your senses while browsing the nearby ③ Marché Aligre — a neighborhood market best enjoyed early in the day before the crowds arrive. Here you’ll find some of the city’s freshest and most diverse selection of foods, from truffles and flavorful salad greens, to wild game and even horse meat. The often gregarious vendors are liberal with their samples, making the marché a great place to taste local fare while also procuring some picnic snacks for later. In the adjoining market hall, try shops like Marilou for a range of charcuteries, pâtés and terrines, or Sur les Quais for apéro-ready spreads that pair well with a warm baguette.
Venture on with a 10-minute walk to ④ Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest in Paris. While a cemetery may seem like an odd choice for a morning saunter, the lush gardens, intricate stone-carved tombs, and quiet setting make for peaceful wandering. Pay your respects by visiting notable graves of the famed deceased such as Jim Morrison, Chopin, Édith Piaf, Colette, Oscar Wilde, Molière and Proust.
Wander farther to the medieval Marais district, where charming, narrow streets lead you through a motley mesh of communities. The historic Jewish quarter and buzzing arts, fashion, Chinese and LGBTQ communities all coexist in this once aristocratic neighborhood.
For a bit of visual history, visit one of the Marais’ many museums, the most popular of which are the ⑤ Musée Picasso (the artist lived and honed his craft in Paris) and the ⑥ Centre Pompidou, the six-floor national modern art museum easily recognizable by its striking avant-garde design. Next, venture down Rue des Rosiers to ⑦ L’As du Fallafel and grab a fried chickpea sandwich — a Marais classic — to supplement your picnic provisions.
Retrace your steps down Rue des Rosiers to picnic with locals on the well-manicured lawns of the ⑧ Place de Vosges. Claim a grassy spot next to a misty fountain and unwind in true Parisian fashion. After you’re relaxed and full, stop by ⑨ Maison de Victor Hugo, which overlooks the park, to get a glimpse of where the literary giant wrote his magnum opus, Les Miserables.
Continue your promenade en plein air (outdoor walk) to the place where urban life ebbs and flows: the Seine River, which curves from southeast to southwest and cuts an arc through central Paris. Start at Pont Marie (Marie Bridge) and head westward along the river to find les bouquinistes selling used and antiquarian books along the banks of the Seine. With identical metal green boxes displaying their wares, the booksellers also offer old magazines, newspapers, postcards and other secondhand treasures — making it an ideal place for bibliophiles to dig for souvenirs. The more than 200 bouquinistes line three kilometers of the Seine, past Pont Neuf (the oldest bridge in Paris) and just before the Louvre, so continue on or cut across to the left bank at the Notre Dame Bridge and get a glimpse of the renowned cathedral along the way.
Walk eastward along the Seine until you reach ⑩ Jardin Tino-Rossi, an open-air sculpture garden displaying works by some of the greatest modern sculptors such as Brâncuși, César and Rougemont. During the summer months, dancers spontaneously gather here for salsa, tango and traditional Breton dancing on the waterfront. Grab a seat on the surrounding stone steps to watch this captivating and atmospheric scene unfold.
Venture back across to the right bank for dinner at ⑪ Bistrot de l’Oulette, a small, red-painted bistro down a little side street just steps away from the Place des Vosges. The dishes here are inspired by the rich and hearty cuisine typical of the Southwest region of France. Relax with a glass of red wine, and then order the escargots (pan-fried snails with artichokes in a parsley sauce) to start. Later, choose between a crispy confit de canard (duck confit) or salmis de pintade(guinea fowl stewed in a rich red-wine sauce).
Head to ⑫ Cave du 38 Riv for live jazz in an underground setting reminiscent of a medieval wine cellar. Enjoy the intimate, convivial atmosphere created by the cavern’s superb acoustics and the skilled musicians who play on the floor quite close to the audience. The music usually lasts until late, so toe-tap the night away and then head back to your hotel via Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, beeline to the lobby bar for the hotel’s signature hot chocolate, a nod to its former life as a chocolatier. Prop your feet up to rest from your busy day as a flâneur, and look forward to soaking them at the hotel’s hammam (steam bath) the next morning.
Josalin Saffer is an American travel writer currently based in New Zealand. While living in Europe, she visited Paris many times as both a destination and her favorite place to spend a long layover.