Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn knew what she was talking about when she said, “Paris is always a good idea” while American writer Henry Miller was more specific with the seasons: “When spring comes to Paris, the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.”
Known universally as the City of Love, it’s a rare “World’s Most Romantic Destination” poll that doesn’t have Paris sitting seductively at the summit. And Miller was right; now is the time to go. Winter weather is waning; parks and gardens are exploding with colour, streets are springing back to life and pavement cafe proprietors are positioning their chairs and tables to maximise people-watching possibilities. And if you enjoy coffee shop hopping and munching on the crumbliest of croissants, you’ve definitely come to the right town.
The City of Light is best explored at a leisurely pace. Old Paris hands recommend taking in one signature sight each day, then packing away the map and improvising. It’s only after becoming completely lost that you stumble on a modestly priced neighbourhood bistro, a market piled high with seasonal produce or an art gallery that merits a lingering visit.
That’s not to say the world-renowned sightseeing attractions should be neglected, however. Buy tickets in advance for the Eiffel Tower; line up outside the Louvre at opening time or stop by on a Wednesday or Friday evening, when you can inspect the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other unmissable works of art until 9.45pm.
Alternatively, if you’re around on May 19, 2018, admission is free. The Night of Museums event is aimed at making culture accessible to all and many establishments stay open until 11pm.
Admire the Arc de Triomphe as you window shop your way along the glitzy Champs-Élysées. The iconic structure was commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz and although North Korea built an imitation arc in 1982, the anticipated rush of tourists eager to experience Pyongyang in springtime has yet to materialise.
On the outskirts of the city, the Palace of Versailles is a gardener’s nirvana of fountains, flower beds and canals and there’s no better season to savour the sights and scents of the Louis XIV-inspired grounds than spring. Next, hop on the Metro to Notre-Dame Cathedral, aka Point Zero, from where all distances in Paris (and France) are measured. Climb the 387 steps to the towers then get your breath back as Paris unfurls like a 3D map below. Appetite piqued, it’s time for a spot of lunch.
Paris has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world but dining out doesn’t have to break the bank. Prix fixe multicourse meals needn’t cost more than €30 (HK$290) and often include an excellent house wine. Alternatively, all that’s needed for a Parisian picnic is a freshly baked baguette, some ham, cheese and a bottle of wine. Find somewhere off the beaten track to devour your frugal feast or tuck in at a high-profile alfresco location such as the banks of the River Seine, or the Jardin des Tuileries.
Finally, you might expect that with its incomparable art and architecture, sensuous elegance and an indefinable je ne sais quoi, finding a place to stay would be a challenge. Fear not, Paris has upwards of 40,000 Airbnb listings, which makes it the world’s biggest home-sharing city.
It turns out Audrey Hepburn never uttered the immortal words, “Paris is always a good idea.” The line comes from the 1995 remake of romantic comedy-drama Sabrina, starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond. Still, no point letting the truth get in the way of a lucrative merchandising opportunity. And while we’re on the subject of urban untruths; Paris in springtime might sound delightful but April can be cold and wet. If possible, hold on until June, when the weather is more reliable and the high-season sightseeing crowds have yet to swamp the city.
For every survey endorsing the French capital as the world’s most romantic city there’s another bestowing it with the dubious honour of rudest place on the planet. Mind you, it wouldn’t be Paris if sightseers weren’t on the receiving end of the odd Gallic sneer.
In 2013, the tourist office attempted to address the problem by distributing a manual instructing service industry workers how to be nice to visitors – an initiative guaranteed to put overworked and underpaid employees’ backs up. The cheat sheet pointed out that Americans expect dinner at 6pm and as for the easy-going Chinese, “a simple smile and hello in their language will fully satisfy them.” However, if you receive a surly shrug from a disdainful waiter, it might not be because of his stand-offish demeanour. He could be about to lose his job.
An inability to move with the times, compounded by a nationwide smoking ban has led to a decline in the number of Parisian coffee shops, although the city has weathered the storm better than the rest of France. Airbnb is also under fire after recent regulatory changes that have resulted in rentals in the centre of Paris being capped at 120 days a year. But at least holidaymakers can afford a bed.
In July 2017, police cleared more than 2,000 migrants and refugees who were living on the streets. They were back again by December and residents, tired of seeing falls in property prices, threatened to go on hunger strike if the problem wasn’t addressed.
With upwards of seven million visitors a year, buying advance tickets for the Eiffel Tower is essential to avoid lengthy lines. And, when you finally get to the top observation deck, there might not be much to see. Pollution levels in the City of Light Soot are at a 10-year high, prompting Mayor Anne Hidalgo to promise an end to diesel vehicles by 2020 and cash incentives for taxi and van drivers who switch to electric. There’s even talk of a pioneering plan to provide free public transport to encourage commuters out of their cars. Well, if you’re going to try it anywhere, Paris is always a good idea.