Help me find where I can spend some downtime between touristy activities while in Paris for a week!
February 15, 2012 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Help me enjoy Paris as a local!

My boyfriend and I are going to Paris from March 13th to March 21st. It will be the first time for both of us, and while I’m extremely excited, he’s probably about ten times more excited than I am because he’s been dreaming about going there since he was a child. While I’m sure I will enjoy fulfilling his desire to see the Eiffel Tower (actually going up the tower), the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pere Lachaise cemetery, the catacombs and other famous must-see landmarks, I’m actually less of a touristy kind of gal and generally prefer to experience the places I visit as a local might. It’s not that I don’t want to see these places -- I’m super excited to take it all in -- however we only have a week, and I’m concerned that if we don’t have a few places to have a little downtime to recharge after being amongst so many tourists, I might just go crazy. He seems to think that we can suck up our fatigue for a week and just be on the go for the entire week to be able to see as much as we can, and I’m willing to try, but I already know myself well enough to know that I’m not built for that kind of itinerary. I’m not looking for solitude exactly, just a way to be around regular locals who are just living their lives, versus tourists.
So, I ask you, what kind of hidden gems have you found in Paris that are not tourist heavy, where we can experience Paris as a local might? I’m not necessarily interested in see-and-be-seen types of places, however, we are both relatively young (late twenties/early thirties) and enjoy being around youngish people. We like little cafes, simple and non –pretentious restaurants with an emphasis on good food, artsy stores, stores full of oddities, taking walks, lying in the grass (although I know it’ll be too cold for that!), etc. We’ll be staying in the 16th arrondissement, but are willing to travel. My boyfriend is a native French speaker, and I am fluent as well, so we are not afraid of going way off the beaten path into places or situations where no English would be spoken.
Thank you!
posted by CristinaT to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
First, for the touristy things, save yourself a lot of grief with the Museum Pass (skips lines, lowers entrance fees) and by booking online (e.g. Eiffel Tower for immediate entry, or waiting 2-3 hours inline; Versailles one long line versus two, etc. Do it early and be able to print your tickets). Make your life extra easy by showing up first thing in the morning for the most in-demand sights (and particularly the Catacombs; I recommend 30 minutes before opening, with your breakfast in hand, to be one of the first in. They do great crowd control but it means a long long wait outside).

For me, I find the neighborhood around the Catacombs to be very nice for getting a classical Parisian atmosphere but without tooo many tourists. From the Catacombs it is a 10 minute walk to the Luxembourg Gardens (north) or a few minutes south to rue Daguerre (lots of cute local specialty food shops on a pedestrian street, open Sunday but closed Monday. If you are staying somewhere with a kitchen I highly recommend the fresh pasta). A little further south you can go to the tree-ful and tourist-free Parc Montsouris, which is adjacent to the big open parks at Cite Universitaire. Or, from Montsouris, you can head further east to enter Chinatown.

I find the cafes here to be over-rated and over-priced, and none of my favorite restaurants are French, so I will let someone else cover those topics more favorably!
posted by whatzit at 2:02 PM on February 15, 2012

Thank you, whazit. We already have two museum passes... and when I hear everything about skipping lines I think "wow, what a relief!".

Anyway, just a note about food: we're both from Quebec and French cuisine pretty much dominates the restaurant scene here (although I'm sure we can't compare to Paris' top French restaurants), so while we enjoy French food, we're also open to trying out foods from different origins.
posted by CristinaT at 2:10 PM on February 15, 2012

Mid March isn't exactly Tourist high season, so you're not going to be standing around with lots of people from tour buses. Eventful has some interesting events in March.
Dégagements... la Tunisie un an après at INSTITUT DU MONDE ARABE sounded interesting to me.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:15 PM on February 15, 2012

Guide Routard Paris. A few hours reading this will be more useful than dozens of comments here.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:26 PM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Check out the Rue Cler market. Lots of locals there (and lots of tourists too).
posted by cnc at 3:04 PM on February 15, 2012

I should add that Rue Cler is a daily street market in the general area of the Eiffel Tower.
posted by cnc at 3:04 PM on February 15, 2012

Paris is great and very easy to enjoy if you just slow down and take it at a reasonable pace. I envy your French language skills. Be sure to get comfortable with the Metro very early on, it's essential for getting around without exhausting yourself and very easy once you figure out tickets.

By far my favorite thing to do in Paris is just to walk. All you need is an excuse to go on a particular path; for me it was looking for street art, particularly work by Space Invader. Then you keep your eyes out for interesting shops, cafés, etc.

The 16th is an unusual part of France for tourists; other than Trocadéro I don't think many visitors get there. I remember enjoying walking around the Place d'Mexico and taking a guided architecture tour of Ranelaigh. I can't think of anything to recommend either area, really, but they were pleasant and definitely quiet.

The best areas for a visitor to enjoy walking around neighborhoods are the Marais and left bank around Saint-Michel. Both are touristy and very busy, but in a good way. They are popular because they are lovely neighborhoods. OTOH there's a lot of lousy restaurants there, if you're serious about food do a little research with Gault-Millau or Michelin or the like.
posted by Nelson at 3:59 PM on February 15, 2012

When you go to Pere Lachaise be sure to spend some time in the 19th and 20th. Just a block or two away from the cemetery is Paris's newest public library, the médiathèque Marguerite Duras, which has a ton of videos, comic books/graphic novels, and an art gallery on the ground floor. I was there a few weeks ago and they had an exhibit of pop-up books. On the top floor they also have a lot of books and other documents relating to the history of the area (Belleville and the 20th in general) along with some comfy chairs. It would be a great place to relax and find out more about Belleville after doing some walking in the cemetery. Belleville in general is a great neighborhood and not at all touristy. Check out La Bellevilleoise, too.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:14 PM on February 15, 2012

OK, things to build on based on others' comments and your reply:

cemeteries - Pere Lachaise is the go-to because of all of the famous people, but if you are interested in the cemetery for its art and architecture aspect (the tombs are pretty awesome!) you can also get your peace/piece at the cemetery near Montparnasse, at Avenue de Maine. Fewer tourists, because there are fewer Jim Morrisons, but same idea.

I agree with ideefixe that this is not peak tourist season, but disagree that you will not be waiting in line. There are lines ALL YEAR in Paris. (I live near the Catacombs and frequently pass the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower). I also agree on the suggestion of Institute du Monde Arabe.

Some favorite restaurants:
- I love the Ethiopian at Le Negus, 52, rue de Montreuil. The plat decouvert has a little bit of everything, and the plat decouvert vegetarien has even more things to try. The owner is really smiley and very happy to explain anything about the food, his country, the culture... and it is rarely super busy (seems to do a lot of take-out). The main dishes run 12-15EUR.
- Coming from Canada maybe you have good Japanese already, but I like to recommend a couple things on rue Ste Anne if you need a fix here. My favorite ramen is the tan-tanmen (slightly spicy sesame based soup) at Kadoya. On the other sides of that corner you have aki the Japanese panya (boulangerie) and aki the restaurant. At the panya, be sure to try to the azuki beignet, the melon bread (no melons involved), and the katsusando (fried pork cutlet sandwich). At the restaurant, the okonomiyaki is the specialty, and one of only a few restaurants in Paris to have it. These places get busy, but are delicious and moderately priced. Do NOT eat at the "restaurant japonais" or "traiteur japonais" along every street; they will leave you disappointed if you have ever had a good Japanese meal.
- OK it's kind of French and it may be in your guidebook but Angelina does a really, really worthwhile hot chocolate (226 rue de Rivoli, among other locations, but this one is a 150-year-old teahouse) and some beautiful pastries. I recommend coming before 10:00 am, otherwise you will, you guessed it, wait in line.
- OK the last one is really French but if you need a raclette with one of the big 60-cm diameter cheeses and heaters, unlimited cheese bread and potatoes and onions and cornichons, you cannot go wrong with Le Chalet Savoyard, 58 rue de Charonne. It is set back from the street so you can eat in the courtyard, and has a good selection of raclette, fondue, tartiflette, etc., which will still be good for cold mid-March. Don't bother with the places in the Latin Quarter, come here for better service, better looks, and better value.
posted by whatzit at 3:17 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

better looks → better views.
Sorry about my English...
posted by whatzit at 3:17 AM on February 16, 2012

Check out L'Officiel des spectacles for concerts, walking tours, galleries, and other things that will be more likely to appeal to regular Parisians, or French tourists, than the big museums and galleries. L'Officiel lists them too, but you can choose your section. I've seen a few acts at the little Comédie Nation theater near my apartment; they're a lot more low-key than the big theater productions.

Visiting the markets can be fun. The weekend used book market at the Parc Georges Brassens, in the 15th, isn't too far from where you'll be staying.

On Sundays, some neighborhoods have streets that are closed to motorized traffic as part of the Paris respire campaign. It's fun just to stroll around one or two of them. I like walking along the Canal St. Martin (almost any day, actually, not only Sundays).

A short excursion that is a lot less stressful (though also less magnificent) than Versailles is a trip to the Parc de Sceaux, a short ride south of Paris on the RER B. Another lovely destination is Rambuteau, a 30-60 minute ride southwest of Paris (depending on whether you take a Transilien train or a TER regional train). If you like cycling, you can rent bikes in Paris (my wife has had good luck at Paris à Vélo C'est Sympa, in the 11th), take them on the train, and explore the countryside; if you'd like to do that, memail me for some route ideas.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:47 AM on February 16, 2012

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