Go Ahead’s tours to the City of Light include not only guided tours of your favorite landmarks, but also free time for you to explore on your own. Paris’ museums, cafes, shops, gardens, bookstores, theaters and restaurants provide a plethora of options for the curious traveler, but if you need help planning your leisure time in the French capital, we’re here to help. Here are ten of our staff’s favorite ways to pass the time in Paris:
1. Cafe Procope: This Parisian landmark has been in operation since 1686 and is a must-see for both history buffs and food enthusiasts. Founded by a Sicilian chef, Procope helped popularize gelato, served as the first literary coffeehouse and attracted such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maximilien Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte, who left one of his trademark hats as a souvenir. Today, Procope’s red walls, oil paintings and crystal chandeliers recall France’s glory days. The cuisine’s outstanding as well, and like many Parisian restaurants, the prix fixe menu will offer you the best value. If you just want to drop by the cafe and forgo food, the Cafe will be happy to accommodate you between the hours of 3-7pm.
2. Luxembourg Gardens: During France’s ancien regime, Marie de Medici had come to Paris to serve as King Henry IV’s queen consort. Despite her luxurious surroundings, she longed for the gardens of her native Italy. So, in 1611, she commissioned the construction of what was then a small park, modeled on the formal Italian gardens of her youth. Notably, she also commissioned a fountain which today bears her family’s name. By 1630, Marie was France’s queen regent, and she greatly expanded the Gardens. Over the next 150 years, the Gardens fell into disrepair only to be revived and further expanded following the French Revolution. Today, the Luxembourg Gardens abut the French Senate and host a diverse collection of statues, including the model for New York’s Statue of Liberty.
3. Les Deux Magots: When a young Ernest Hemingway needed a break from writing, he would often make his way to Les Deux Magots, a famous cafe named for the two magots, or Chinese customs officials, adorning one of the cafe’s pillars. Located at the intersection of Rue Bonaparte and Boulevard Saint-Germain, Les Deux Magots offers a quintessential Parisian cafe experience. With a long list of famous patrons including Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus along with an eponymous annual literary award, Les Deux Magots provides a glimpse into Paris’ unique blend of high art and casual dining.
4. Musee Rodin: Rodin used the Hotel Biron as his personal workshop from 1908 until he passed away nine years later; in his will, he bequeathed his sculptures along with his private art collection (including works by van Gogh and Renoir) to the French government provided they convert the Hotel Biron to a museum. Visitors to the Musee Rodin have the rare opportunity to explore an artist’s workspace and watch the artist progress from sketch to study to sculpture. The highlight here is the garden, where you’ll find a number of Rodin’s most famous works such as The Thinker, The Kiss and The Gates of Hell. After perusing Rodin’s works, you might wander around the small lake at the back of the property or enjoy a meal at the adjacent restaurant.
5. Jardin du Palais Royal: Located just a short walk from the world-famous Louvre, the Jardin du Palais Royal was once the exclusive enclave of the French court. During the French Revolution, the Duke of Orleans opened the gardens to the masses in an attempt to demonstrate his solidarity with the revolutionary concept of egalite. The gesture proved fruitless—the Duke was hanged during the Reign of Terror—but the gardens have remained open ever since. Modern art enthusiasts will also find the site-specific installation Les Deux Plateaux here.
6. Cafe de Flore: If Les Deux Magots seems crowded when you arrive, don’t despair—just walk one block to Rue St. Benoit and grab a table at the Cafe de Flore. Cafe de Flore’s Art Deco interior hasn’t changed much since its post-World War II heyday, when intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would meet here to discuss existentialist philosophy. Like Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore also presents an annual French-language literary prize. The winner of the Prix de Flore enjoys a free glass of Loire Valley white wine from the cafe’s bar every day of her year-long reign.
7. Musee Marmottan Monet: The largest collection of Impressionist works by Claude Monet is found not in his studio in Giverny but rather at the Musee Marmottan Monet on the edge of the leafy Bois du Boulogne. You’ll also find works by Degas, Gaugin and Renoir here, along with an extensive gallery of illuminated manuscripts. Monet’s Impression, Sunrise—the work that lends its name to the Impressionist movement—is once again on permanent exhibition here after being recovered following an infamous 1985 art heist.
8. Place Dauphin & Place Jean XXIII on Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint-Louis: The front entrance of Notre-Dame is perennially thronged by tourists; worse, the nearly 800-year-old edifice requires constant care and scaffolds are a common sight. But not far from the madding crowds, you’ll find sanctuaries where you can bask in the afternoon sun and watch boats cruise down the Seine. Notre-Dame dominates Ile de la Cite, a small island in the Seine, but at the edges of Ile de la Cite, you’ll find two small parks: Place Dauphin and Place Jean XXIII. Both offer outstanding views of Paris’ cathedral and secluded escapes from the bustle of the city. To get off the beaten path, walk over the bridge from Ile de la Cite to the nearby Ile Saint-Louis. With no bus or Metro stops and small one-way streets, a visit to Ile Saint-Louis is the perfect way to step outside modern Paris and into the past.
9. Musee de Cluny: Once the private domain of the Abbots of Cluny, the Musee de Cluny is now Paris’ premier showcase for medieval art. Built on the ruins of Roman thermal baths, the former abbey became a museum in 1843 and should be on any history buff’s short list of things to do in Paris. In 1882, a series of tapestries dating to the Middle Ages was rediscovered and moved to Cluny. That series of tapestries, known as The Lady and the Unicorn, forms the backbone of the museum’s collection.
10. Champs de Mars: There are countless places in Paris to spread a blanket and enjoy a picnic, but the dramatic Champs de Mars is our favorite. Sandwiched between the impressive columns of the Ecole Militaire and the soaring spire of the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Mars is among the most romantic public spaces in a city known for romance. Unlike many of Paris’ other formal gardens, there are no “Keep off the grass” signs on the Champs de Mars. Pick up a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of wine, catch the Metro to the Champs de Mars Tour Eiffel stop, and prepare for a simple meal you’ll cherish forever.
What’s your favorite way to pass the time in Paris?