Things to Do in Paris
Paris is full of art and antiquities – Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Modernist, painting, sculpture – after a while it can all become a bit overwhelming. The Musee du Quai Branly offers an alternative.
For starters, MQB as it’s known is a relative newcomer to the museum-scene of Paris. It opened in 2006 in a newly designed building by award-winning architect Jean Nouvel, alongside the River Seine and close to the Eiffel Tower. Its other point of difference is that its focus is on indigenous cultures, their arts, cultures and civilizations: Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, bringing together several collections under one roof and with an emphasis on education and cultural understanding. The museum has around 300,000 items and at any one time displays around 3500 of them in changing displays and themed exhibitions. With rotating exhibitions and temporary installments there is always something interesting.
Fontaine Saint-Michel was sculpted by Gabriel Davioud in 1860 and gives its name to the square where it’s located, Place Saint-Michel. The monumental fountain, located between boulevard Saint-Michel and Place Saint-Andres-des-Arts was commissioned by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann as part of Napoleon III’s plans to bring more light and air to the city of Paris.
The fountain depicts the archangel Michael vanquishing Satan, a controversial political symbol at the time hinting at Napoleon vanquishing the revolutionary fervor of the neighborhood. Unlike many of Paris’s fountains, Fontaine Saint-Michel was made from various colors of materials, including red and green marble, blue and yellow stone, and bronze. Place Saint-Michel is a popular meeting spot among both the city’s youth and foreign visitors.
Fashioned from the blueprint of London's world famous Madame Tussauds, Paris's own waxwork museum, the Musée Grévin (Grevin Museum), has been sculpting famous faces since it was founded back in 1882. A collection of some 500 waxwork figures are on display, alongside an exhibition on the making of the waxworks and the renowned 'Hall of Mirrors,' where deforming mirrors and a bizarre lightshow add to the curiosities.
The waxworks feature an array of famous faces, with American film stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, political figures like Barack Obama and legendary singers like Celine Dion and Michael Jackson, posed alongside homegrown heroes like French rally driver Sebastian Loeb. There are plenty of unique celebrity photo opportunities, too: cuddle up to Bridget Bardott's sultry statuette, pick Albert Einstein's brains or compare your moves with Elvis Presley (though his might seem a little stiff).
One of Paris’s most beloved cabarets, Au Lapin Agile has been delighting audiences in Montmartre for decades. The title translates to “The Nimble Rabbit” from French, originating from a painting of a rabbit jumping out of a hot frying pan. The small theater was once a hotspot for bohemian Parisian artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Toulouse-Latrec, and Utrillo. Picasso helped to make the space famous with his 1905 painting of “At the Lapin Agile.”
The iconic pink cottage cabaret drew in some of Paris’s most eccentric characters, many of which carved their names into the original wooden tables that still remain today. Having opened in 1860, the Paris institution has long been a source of evening revelry, good food and drink, and French song and dance performance. It continues to be an authentic venue for all three today.
Laid out along the River Seine in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, the 14-hectare Parc de Bercy is one of the city’s newest parks, laid out in 1994–97 as part of an urban rejuvenation project on the site of former wine warehouses. The park has three themed zones: the fountain-filled Grande Prairie is shaded by mature trees and is overlooked to the northeast by the Cinémathèque Française, designed by Frank Gehry of Guggenheim Bilbao fame; Les Parterres are laid out in formal style, with vegetable and flower gardens as well as an orchard and vineyard; the Jardin Romantique (Romantic Garden) is adorned with lily ponds and bizarre statuary.
The Bercy Arena, one of Paris’s biggest cultural and sporting venues, stands at the northwest side of the park. Opposite is the cute BercyVillage, built in the remnants of the Bercy wine cellars, which now house a shopping mall with bars and restaurants.
If you were just walking by Clos Montmartre on a trip to the Sacre-Couer, you might assume it was just a particularly lovely community garden dotted with peach trees and vines. Actually, the Clos is the oldest working vineyard in Paris, and on clear days, from here you can see all the way out to the Eiffel Tower.
The best time to visit Clos Montmartre is during Fête des Vendanges — the harvest festival — when the grapes from the Clos are taken over to Montmartre town hall to be fermented and turned into around 1,500 bottles of gamay and pinot noir.
La Madeleine church in Paris is one of the most striking building in the entire Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Rumour has it that it was built in order to mirror the Palais Bourbon – which houses the French National Assembly - on the opposite bank of the Seine river in order to create harmony between the clergy and the republic.
But in reality, La Madeleine was designed as a temple to Napoleon’s army and its glorious victories back in the early 1800s – which would certainly help explain why the church doesn’t actually look like a church (it doesn’t have a spire or bell-tower) but rather a lavish Greek temple. It was completed in 1828 and built in the Neo-Classical style and was inspired by an exceptionally well preserved Roman temple named Maison carrée in Nîmes; it now dominates the entire Faubourg Saint-Honoré, with its 52 20-meters high Corinthian columns.
More Things to Do in Paris
Place Dauphine is an iconic public square wedged between lavish townhouses on the western tip of Ile de la Cité in Paris. The square was the second project of the “royal squares program” instigated by Henri IV – the first one being what is now known as Place des Vosges – and was named after his son, soon-to-be Dauphin of France Louis XIII. To this day, it remains one of the most prestigious areas in the city.
The square’s – which is actually triangular in shape – westernmost corner connects to Pont Neuf, linking the right and left banks of the Seine River. Although the houses surrounding Place Dauphine were built in the early 1600s, only two have preserved their original features, i.e., the two located on either side of the narrow entrance leading to Pont Neuf. Nowadays, the oddly three-sided square is popular with both locals enjoying apéro and photographers searching for a quintessential Paris atmosphere.
The Grand Rex is a Parisian shrine to the Golden Age of cinema and the largest film theater in Europe. Famous for its Art Deco design, the main auditorium features a starred ceiling, water displays and whimsical decorations surrounding a huge 55-foot-wide screen. The theater holds nearly 3,000 seats.
Built by French film producer Jacques Haïk in 1932, the Rex was designed by architects Auguste Bluysen and John Eberson, the latter of whom worked his magic on more than 300 cinemas in the United States. The goal for the Rex, however, was to create the most beautiful movie theater in Paris, a place where audience members could feel like they were watching a film in the open air. For its iconic decor, the theater was declared a national monument by the French government in 1981. Since the 1950s, the Grand Rex has specialized in major Hollywood films, especially Disney productions, as well as big-name concerts and film premieres.
The Centre Pompidou is a museum dedicated to European contemporary and modern art. Featuring a music hall with live performances, films, theatre, literature, spoken word, and visual art, the Centre Pompidou is one of the most culturally significant and visited attractions in Paris.A brilliant piece of post-modern architecture, the Centre Pompidou was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and the British designer Richard Rogers. The design of the museum has an ‘open-approach’ with all of its functional systems (plumbing, electrical, circulation, and climate control) visible and color coded from the outside.
Featuring the artwork of legends like Matisse, Duchamp, Jackson, and Picasso, the museum provides a thorough history of modern art. With the New Media Collection and Film Center, the Centre Pompidou also showcases the talents of Europe’s fines installation, film, video, and sound artists.
The striking edifice presiding over Paris' 5th arrondissement Latin Quarter, the historic La Sorbonne is renowned as one of the first European centers of higher education, housing the prestigious Collège de Sorbonne since its founding in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon.
It’s the building itself that garners the most attention, a sprawling campus rebuilt in 1653 by Cardinal de Richelieu to the designs of architect Jacques Lemercier. A blend of Baroque and Renaissance styles replaced the original medieval structure, but the last remaining building from this period is the iconic domed Romanesque Chapelle de la Sorbonne (the Chapel of La Sorbonne), where the sculpted tomb of Cardinal de Richelieu is housed. A wander through the Sorbonne courtyard and café-lined plaza offers views of the amphitheaters, library and observatory (which was reconstructed by Henri Paul Nénot in the late 19th-century), showcasing a picturesque variety of architectural styles.
Paris’ most famous independent bookstore, dating back to 1919, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is renowned as the one-time haunt of literary icons like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford.
The legendary Shakespeare and Company store was opened by American ingénue Sylvia Beach, who fashioned the shop into a creative haven where penniless writers congregated to share ideas, borrow books and even crash down on the shop floors. Sylvia even made history by publishing James Joyce's 1922 Ulysses when every other publisher refused. Situated in the art district of Paris' Left Bank, the original bookstore was located on Rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises on Rue de l’Odeon in 1922, then finally shutting its doors in 1941 during WWII German occupation.
The Musée National du Moyen Age - Thermes et Hote de Cluny is widely known as Musée de Cluny, after its home in the Gothic Hôtel de Cluny in the fifth arrondissement. Its two buildings house the Thermes de Cluny, cold-water pools dating back to Roman times; there is also the “Column of the Boatman,” originally discovered underneath Notre Dame and is the oldest-known sculpture in Paris.
The actual museum includes the iconic “The Lady and the Unicorn” that is the iconic example of medieval tapestry work. Also of note are the “illuminated manuscripts,” intricately decorated documents laden with gold and silver paints that make them appear as if they are lit from within.
A sea of high-rise office towers and modern skyscrapers encompassing 1.6 square kilometers at the western tip of the city, La Défense is Paris' purpose-built business district -- a modernist showcase of Paris in the 20th century.
La Défense was developed back in the 1960s by then President Charles de Gaulle, in an effort to minimize the detrimental effect of office blocks taking over downtown Paris. Restricting building heights across the city center, the business district was pushed to the western end of the city’s 10km-long Historical Axis, which stretches between the Louvre, the Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe.
A towering district of glass and steel structures and the largest dedicated business district in Europe, La Défense boasts a number of striking buildings, including the GAN Tower -- Paris' tallest skyscraper at 179 meters -- and one of Europe’s largest shopping malls, Les Quatre Temps.
Located in the center of Paris in the 2nd arrondissement, Rue Montorgueil is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where, within a three block radius, you’ll find some of Paris’s best bites. The market street was once the home of the iconic Les Halles wholesale market, and while that was disbanded in the 1970s, its foodie culture remains in the form of fish and meat markets, restaurants, bistros, food shops, chocolatiers, pastry shops and kitchen supply stores.
For many a traveling foodie, the crowning jewel of the Rue Montorgueil neighborhood is La Maison Stohrer, a patisserie that opened in 1730, making it the oldest still-standing pastry shop in the city.
In a city filled with beautiful churches and cathedrals the likes of Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, St Etienne du Mont remains one of the prettiest ecclesiastical buildings in Paris. Built between 1492 and 1655, the Gothic and Renaissance-style church in the city’s Latin Quarter houses the lone rood screen remaining in Paris, dating back to 1535.
Ste Genevieve, the patron of the city, was interred in the church’s southeastern corner before French revolutionaries destroyed her remains. Today, her ornate tomb includes a reliquary housing all that was left, a sole finger bone. Jean Racine and Blaise Pascal, two of the city’s most famous intellectuals, are also buried within the church.
Other items of note include the oldest pipe organ case in Paris (carved in 1631 by Jehan Buron), a baroque pulpit from 1651 and a series of stained glass windows dating from the early sixteenth century through the first part of the seventeenth century.
Opened in 2005, the Shoah Memorial, or Memorial de la Shoah, is a museum located in the Marais, Paris’ 4th arrondissement, dedicated to the 76,000 French Jews deported from France to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Honoring their memory through a series of poignant monuments and focusing on educating the public about the harrowing truths of the Holocaust, the museum is one of the country’s most moving tributes to its Jewish population.
Exhibits are centered around a number of memorials including the moving Wall of Names, a series of tall stone plinths listing the names and dates of French Jews lost in the war. The Crypt, a huge Star of David carved out of black marble, is a symbolic tomb for the millions of unburied Jews, containing ashes recovered from the concentration camps, and the heartrending Children’s Memorial showcases eerily lit photographs of some of the 11,000 children murdered.
One of the oldest streets in Paris, running from Maubert place to the Saint Medard Square in Paris' Latin Quarter, Rue Mouffetard is built along the route of an ancient Roman Road. Today, the pedestrianized street is the lifeline of one of Paris' most atmospheric areas, with tourists flocking to visit its lively street market (open every day except Monday) and soak up the quaint Parisian feel.
The Rue Mouffetard market, close by the apartment where Ernest Hemingway once resided, has roots stretching back to as early as 1350AD and remains one of Paris’ most famous street markets. Stretching along the southern half of the street, the colorful market is characteristic of a medieval marketplace with a medley of stalls lining the cobblestones and cabaret singers often busking on the sidewalks to earn a few extra euros. Food is the main produce on offer and there’s an excellent array of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood.
Built by King Louis XIII in 1615, Le Marche des Enfants Rouges (the ‘Market of the Red Children') is Paris’ oldest covered food market, taking its name from a 16th-century orphanage nearby, where the kids were dressed in red. Today, the historic market remains among the top attractions of the Marais district and it’s a lively introduction to Parisian life, with stalls heaped with seasonal produce and a steady stream of locals passing through its doors.
As well as picking up fresh flowers, fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, the market is a top spot to sample regional produce like cheese, saucisson, foie gras and wine. There are also several street food stalls and food counters to eat lunch, serving a range of different cuisine, from Moroccan couscous to Japanese sushi or fresh oysters.
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