The Eiffel Tower by night © Mark Pullinger
The Eiffel Tower by night
© Mark Pullinger
“Paris is always a good idea,” says Audrey Hepburn’s character in the 1954 film Sabrina. She’s not wrong. Recently I visited twice, yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Primarily, my visits were for opera and concerts. In an article about why London needs a new concert hall, I extolled the acoustic virtues of both the Philharmonie and the Maison de la radio, but felt a brief guide to the city itself – a postcard, if you will – could be useful.  

Compared with London, Paris is a lot smaller, so walking between sites is a reasonable option. However, if you wish to use public transport, navigating the underground system – the Métro – is simplicity itself. If you plan on travelling a lot in the city, then the Paris Visite card is good, valid for 1,2,3 or 5 consecutive days. 

Concert halls/opera houses

The two Opéra de Paris houses are chalk and cheese. The Palais Garnier is exquisite, its marble staircase, glittering foyers and gilded auditorium dazzling the eye. The colourful Marc Chagall ceiling depicts scenes from operas by fourteen different composers. Seating is comfortable, but finding your seats – in any Parisian theatre – can be an entertaining challenge. Seat numbers go up in twos… even numbered seats to the right of the house, odd numbered seats to the left. In the Stalls (Orchestre) at the Garnier, there are no row numbers, just numbered seats. Bonne chance!

The Chagall ceiling at the Palais Garnier © Mark Pullinger
The Chagall ceiling at the Palais Garnier
© Mark Pullinger

The Opéra Bastille is much larger, therefore its increased capacity means it should be easier to get hold of tickets. However, it’s an ugly building – inside and out – with a cold atmosphere and a cloudy acoustic. Do try and get to the Garnier for a performance; if not, book a tour of the house during the day (I strongly recommend the audio guide).

The Philharmonie and Maison de la radio are superb concert halls, both circular with vineyard seating layout. Acoustics are wonderful in both. My preference for the Maison is down to preferring the warm wooden interior and the fact that seating in the Philharmonie – for a tall person like myself – is cramped, with the back of the seat in front rising to pin you in when the patron in front of you sits down. That you have to tip the usher guiding you to your seat is a modern myth – I know that ushers at the Philharmonie are forbidden from accepting tips.

Le Jardin des Plantes © Mark Pullinger
Le Jardin des Plantes
© Mark Pullinger
Jungles in Paris

Parisian gardens are formally laid out but not as colourful or lavish as English public gardens. However, head to the tropical house in the Jardin des Plantes (a small entrance fee) to take a step into the steamy jungle. It was here that Henri Rousseau studied the plantlife which he featured in his exotic paintings. “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” There's something rather wonderful about spending a half-hour here, wandering through the hothouse, imagining Rousseau drawing inspiration for his naïve paintings. 

Churches

Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur are de rigueur, of course, but likely to be extremely crowded. The views from Sacre Coeur are wonderful, and as good as I'll experience (love nor money would get me up the Eiffel Tower). I found Notre Dame by night very beautiful, but you need to visit during daylight to appreciate the rose windows. St Sulpice, in the Luxembourg Quarter, is the second largest church in Paris and contains some beautiful stained glass windows. Opera fans will also recognise it as the church where Manon tempts des Grieux to run away with her... I had Massenet swimming around my head as I strolled along the aisles!

Galleries and Museums

Inside the Louvre © Mark Pullinger
Inside the Louvre
© Mark Pullinger
Music aside, there are plenty of other cultural activities in which to indulge. If art galleries and museums appeal, then you are spoilt for choice. If you plan on visiting the more celebrated venues – the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay – my advice would be to head there early in the day. It is possible to pre-purchase your Louvre ticket, but you’ll still need to get through security, so you could turn up – smugly confident of whisking past everyone else – only to find you still need to queue. I turned up around 8:30 one morning, found myself second in the queue and was into the museum on the dot of 9 o'clock. 

The Louvre itself is truly awesome – but don’t attempt to do it all in one go. If you feel compelled to see the Mona Lisa, head there (first floor of the Denon wing) at the start of the day to beat the crowds that flock there to get a view. Otherwise, pick your favourite periods and visit those sections at leisure. I loved the Egyptian sections and seeing the Venus de Milo, as well as the famous Marly horses. 

However, I much preferred the d’Orsay which was less crowded, but has a stunning art collection, particularly its Impressionist gallery on the top floor, with amazing views across Paris through its clockface windows. Almost every room contained a painting I knew or fell in love with. 

Café Jacquemart-André © Mark Pullinger
Café Jacquemart-André
© Mark Pullinger
Smaller galleries worthy of your time include the Musée Marmottan Monet (the nearest Métro is La Muette) which houses the world’s largest collection of Monet paintings, but is still compact. The Musée Gustave Moreau (9th arrondissement is packed with fascinating paintings and sketches) and the Musée de l’Orangerie, in the Tuileries Gardens next to the Place de la Concorde, contains eight huge Monet waterlily canvases, set in a peaceful atmosphere. 

The Musée Jacquemart-André (Boulevard Haussmann in the 8th arrondissement) is a gem – a fine private collection of works in a series of apartments. It also boasts the most exquisite café which is on the pricey side, but is like stepping back in time by a century. The pâtisserie there are to die for! 

Eating out

A few other words on my culinary experiences in Paris. I was advised, logically enough, to avoid bistrots and brasseries near the big tourist destinations – they’re expensive and the quality is not always great. Parisians tend to eat late – after a show rather than beforehand – but you might want to factor in that most concerts start at 8:30pm. If eating near the Philharmonie, my tip is to avoid the expensive Café des Concerts where service is speedy but unfriendly and nip down to Chez Arnaud (16 Rue Eugène Jumin) for a pizza – it’s small, but you’re assured of a warm welcome and good food.

Le Bistrot des Vignes © Mark Pullinger
Le Bistrot des Vignes
© Mark Pullinger
If you’re looking for somewhere post-performance near the Opéra Bastille, then Café Rey – just off the Place de la Bastille – fits the bill. Head upstairs and ask for a window seat for fine views while you dine. I also recommend a very fine restaurant near La Sorbonne: Aux Amis (9 Rue de l'École de Médecine, nearest Métro is Odéon) offers excellent fixed price menus that vary daily. A good friend and I enjoyed a splendid lunch there.

Perhaps I shouldn’t reveal my favourite little restaurant, but the Bistrot des Vignes in Rue des Dames is a treasure. It opened just over two years ago, when I first discovered it (17th arrondissement). The food is excellent – it’s a popular venue for locals at lunchtime. The fixed price menu at its most expensive (a weekend evening) is just 27€. A two – or three! – course late lunch, plus a carafe of wine, won’t break the bank… leaving you more to treat yourself in Paris’ splendid pâtisseries!

Foie de veau at Le Bistrot des Vignes © Mark Pullinger
Foie de veau at Le Bistrot des Vignes
© Mark Pullinger
Brioche perdu at Le Bistrot des Vignes © Mark Pullinger
Brioche perdu at Le Bistrot des Vignes
© Mark Pullinger