Time to explore Paris is the ultimate luxury. But deciding how to spend that precious time is always the challenge. You can visit the iconic monuments, Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame, wade through the crowds and click them off your list. Or you can take a slightly different road map and experience the history of this great city through some less visited, yet equally ( in some cases more so) impressive sites.
The list below is highly subjective but has been honed during my 25 visits in the past 15 years. These are the sites I return to time and time again and still find I am awed, inspired and enlightened on each visit. I would love to hear your favorite, non-top-10-sites that you return to in Paris. I know it will help me go even further afield when I return in March!
1. Vaux le Vicomte
The model for Versailles and so much more tasteful. Vaux is a short 45 minute drive from Paris so a good one-half day side trip. Built from 1658 to 1661 by Nicolas Fouquet, Minister of Finance to Louis XIV, but its perfection was Fouquet’s downfall. Upon completion, Fouquet threw a lavish party for the King to see his treasure. Louis loved it but was seething that his Minister should have something so much nicer than his own Versailles. Fouquet was thrown into prison and the fabulous trio of designers who had created Vaux, architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect Andre le Notre and painter and designer Charles Le Brun were quickly requisitioned to work on Versailles. But many agree, they never again found the perfection in design that can be found at Vaux le Vicomte. Be sure to visit on a clear day so you can spend time in the magnificent gardens.
2. Musée Carnavalet
While most tourists flock to the Louvre or the Musée D’Orsay, hidden in the Marais, close to the Place des Vosges is my favorite Paris museum. The Musée Carnavalet showcases the history of Paris from prehistory to the present in two adjoining medieval mansions. Many of the rooms recreate private homes from different periods, including the rooms occupied by Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their family in the Temple Prison. Seeing history through the period furniture and day to day objects presents a very different perspective than that often seen in museum displays. Also not to be missed is Fouquet’s art nouveau jewelry shop, relocated here from Rue Royale.
A former royal palace and prison that has beautiful medieval vaulted ceilings, but is most noted as the place from where nearly 3,000 people were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. This included Marie Antoinette and you can see the cell she occupied here which is much more barren than the earlier rooms at Temple Prison as shown at the Musée Carnavalet.
4. Le Grand Véfour
This historic restaurant near the Louvre is the oldest restaurant in Paris still operating on its original site. If you are looking to splurge on a fine meal, this should be your choice. Both for the food and the history. You could sit in the same seats once occupied by Napoleon and Josephine or Victor Hugo. Both are marked with brass plaques.
5. Napoleon III Apartments
At the Louvre, Richelieu Wing, 1st floor, but be sure to ask directions as they are very confusing to find. These rooms recreate the most extravagant, exuberant examples of royal and aristocratic living in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III (1852 to 1870) who was “the” Napoleon’s nephew, also the grandson of Josephine. Less crowded than Versailles but every bit as opulent.
6. Galeries Lafayette
Right behind the Opera Garnier is this magnificent large department store which was completed in 1912. The exquisite stained glass dome and art nouveau staircase belong in a museum. Shopping here is great for everything from designer goods, to cutting edge fashion to food halls (gourmet shop) that I like better than Harrods. They make it all so easy with an efficient tax refund department downstairs. For superb views of Paris go to the rooftop and enjoy a cafe or ice cream cone while looking over all of Paris.
7. Café de Flore and LesDeux Magots
Return to 19th Century, bohemian Paris on the Left Bank by spending an afternoon over coffee at either or both of these iconic cafes. Present day writers and artists still frequent these favorite spots for Picasso, Hugo and Sartre.
8. Grand Palais
A classic Beaux-Arts building, the Grand Palais is worth seeing for the impressive glass vault with iron and steel framing. But beyond the building, you usually can find extraordinary contemporary art exhibitions in this space. Contemporary art in Paris is prevalent in almost every public space, but the exhibitions in the Grand Palais are always two steps beyond the cutting edge.
By Jean Newman Glock, Director of Global Relations of Connoisseur Travel Ltd.