I love Paris, and I was thrilled finally to be able to set a book in my favorite city in the world. And now I would love to share some of my favorite tips for falling in love with the City of Light.
1. Try to speak French
When in Rome….I am a big believer of leaving behind my Americanisms and fully immersing myself in the rhythms and customs of a different culture. When I’m in Paris, I try to speak a bit of French…nothing more than a few common phrases, but I feel it’s a courtesy, and indeed in Paris, these polite phrases are very much part of the culture. You don’t enter any establishment without saying “Bonjour!” “Merci” goes a long way. And when you leave, take the time to say either “Au revoir!” or if it’s evening, “Bonsoir!” You will find that almost all Parisians speak English and will be happy to do so with you, but being courteous in the native tongue is important. Also, when dining, do so as a Parisian does. Dine later—8:00 PM is about right—and do so slowly. I’ve never found French waiters to be rude if you adjust to the more leisurely pace of dining. Paris restaurants are smaller than American restaurants, and have fewer wait staff, who have to take care of a larger number of tables, then. This is why service is different. But no one hurries through a meal in Paris; dining is meant to last a couple of hours as you savor each course, enjoy the wine, enjoy the atmosphere. Slow your pace down and don’t be rude, and you will find most Parisians happy to help you.
2. Take a boat ride on the Seine
It’s such a touristy thing to do, but everyone has to take a Bateau Rouge trip up and down the Seine at night, ideally on the first evening there. To see Notre Dame lit up, the Eiffel Tower get all sparkly—and also to spy on young lovers hanging out along the banks – it’s such a great way to get the feel of Paris right away. Plus, I love to look at all the colorful house boats that are docked along the Seine.
Museums, museums, museums! To tell the truth, I’ve yet to tour the Louvre; every time I’m there it seems I just don’t have enough time to do it right. If I did do it, I would definitely book a private tour, based on the advice of others. But I’ve visited plenty of museums in Paris—the Musée Carnavalet (devoted to the history of Paris) in the Marais (one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris, and the former Jewish Quarter), the Shoah Memorial (also in the Marais), the Musée d’Orsay. I have to say one of my favorites is the Musée de l’Armée, which also houses Napoleon’s tomb.
4. Galleries Lafayette
The most beautiful department store in the world. Not affordable for most of us, but worth going to and gaping at all the designer fashions (once you make your way up from the first floor, which is just a horde of tourists). Have some tea and a macaron and gape up at the beautiful domed ceiling. And don’t miss the top floor, which is the book section.
5. Flower Markets
The flower markets, particularly on the Ile St. Louis, are charming. Not only are they full of blossoms, but they are also full of songbirds for sale.
6. Take a bike tour!
I once was skeptical of this kind of thing—again, too touristy—but now I’m a convert. They really are great fun, and you learn a lot, and meet interesting people. We took the Fat Tire tour of Giverny, leaving from the St. Lazare train station in Paris. Once we got to Giverny, we went shopping for lunch – bread, cheese, pastries—and hopped aboard bicycles. We rode to the Seine and had a picnic lunch before riding our bikes to Monet’s house and the little village surrounding it, where we spent the afternoon at our leisure. Our guide was charming and full of information but we were also able to break off and be on our own in the famous gardens. It was a terrific afternoon in the countryside.
7. Visit the Left Bank.
This is where I’ve done most of my shopping over the years, including at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. There are great shops and cafes, and the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens are here, as well, with the charming bandstands. Also, if you must visit Ladurée – and you must! – skip the one on the Champs Élysées and go to the one on the Left Bank. It’s much less crowded. (Just skip the Champs all together, really; it’s far too touristy, full of garish lights and American department stores and hustlers.)
8. Explore, but be careful!
There are so many wonderful neighborhoods to visit, make sure you branch out from the main tourist traps. In fact, I’ve never been to the Eiffel Tower; it’s so visible throughout the city, you don’t need to go to it, and again, it’s full of tourists and scam artists. (Scam artists are part of Paris, as are pickpockets; in fact, my husband almost had his wallet lifted at a Métro station. If you’re prepared and aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine. Just read up about the situation before you go, and don’t let fear get in the way of adventure! I’ve witnessed far more scary situations here in the United States than I ever have in Paris.)
Paris is a highly walkable city, and to me, that’s the main reason to visit – walking along the streets, soaking up the atmosphere of the city, occasionally stopping to sit at a café and have a glass of wine or a pastry. The Métro is easy to navigate and certainly the way to get to some of the suburbs and neighborhoods away from the center of the city. But walking is the best way to see Paris. Don’t try to fit everything in on your first visit; take your time to wander the city at your own pace and discover your own treasures.
10. The Ritz
The Ritz—how could I not mention the most iconic hotel in all the world? Most mortals can’t afford to stay there, but you can certainly have tea in Salon Proust, or a drink in one of the three Ritz bars. The Bar Hemingway is the best known, but it’s also the smallest; there most likely will be a wait to get inside. But once you are, you’ll be rewarded; my favorite, the champagne cocktail, is served with a fresh rose. And take the chance to wander through the beautiful Hall of Dreams, the hallway connecting the two buildings that make up the hotel. Gape at the luxury goods displayed—Montblanc pens and Chanel scarves and Limoges china, Gucci shoes, Van Cleef and Arpels necklaces. The entire neighborhood surrounding the Ritz is home to luxury brands; the original house of Chanel is right around the corner.
Don’t forget to enter our competition for a chance to win signed copies of all of Melanie Benjamin’s novels Including ‘Mistress of the Ritz’, plus amazing Parisian prizes!
MELANIE BENJAMIN is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife. Previous historical novels include national bestseller Alice I Have Been, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Girls in the Picture. Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. Her latest novel is Mistress of the Ritz. Melanie lives in Chicago with her husband, where she is at work on her next historical novel.