My first time in Paris was three summers ago, and it’s no secret that I had not been impressed. We’d just left my favorite place in the world (Positano), and after almost two weeks in vibrant, colorful Italy, Paris felt drab. The buildings looked too uniform, everyone wore black, the skies were almost always overcast, and not all of our meals were life-changing like they had been in Italy. Moreover, I’d made the wrong decision by booking us an Airbnb in the très hip neighborhood of République. I should have enjoyed République, as it has some of the best restaurants in Paris and we were surrounded by cool locals, but for a first-timer, the neighborhood felt a little too far from the touristy sites, and we felt out of place as we had to squeeze past crowds of bobos to get through our front door.
But Paris deserved a second chance.
We wanted to travel during Thanksgiving break this year and figured we should visit a place we’ve already been since it would be such a short trip. I was willing to redo Paris, while Anthony, who had fallen in love with it last time (despite traveling with such a bummer of a partner), was eager to return. So we booked our flights and made sure we did Paris properly this time.
First off, Paris in the fall is a hundred times better than Paris in the summer. To me, Paris isn’t true Paris in the summer — too many of the locals are away on vacation, and herds of tourists have taken their place. But in the fall, the crisp air accentuates the architecture, and Parisians’ commitment to wearing only neutral colors finally makes sense.
Second of all, our apartment was perfect this time. I found us a charming penthouse studio located in the 4th arrondissement, just a block away from Notre-Dame. It came with a small kitchen, a washing machine, lots of light, and, most importantly, a tiny balcony overlooking Parisian rooftops. We even woke up to church bells every morning! The location was centrally located — walking distance to some of my favorite places, and just a few blocks from both the Metro station and the RER.
Thirdly, Anthony actually planned out one of our days to celebrate my birthday again — because why have one birthday when you can have another in Paris? He decided where to pick up pastries early in the morning, booked a professional photography session with Flytographer, paid for a wine & cheese pairing class, and made reservations for a fancy dinner. He was so certain that he’d never be able to top my birthday gift to him (a surprise trip to Morocco earlier this year), but I have to say, this was probably one of the best days of my life.
I can’t recommend our Flytographer photographer enough. Olga met us early on a Saturday morning and took stunning photos of us around my favorite neighborhood, Le Marais. She gave us clear directions, made us laugh throughout the shoot, and took us to lavish gardens and quaint courtyards we didn’t even know existed. Over the years, we’ve hired a handful of other professional photographers, but Olga was by far the best. Anthony only paid for 30 photos but she ended up sending us 66!
Here are some of our photos from the shoot; for more, click here.
After the photo shoot, we had a wine & cheese pairing class at La Cuisine, just a few minutes from our apartment. We started at a fromagerie called La Ferme Saint-Aubin on the island of Île Saint-Louis, where our teacher is a regular and ordered some samples for us to try. I learned that my favorite cheese is Comté, while Anthony learned that he will eat any cheese, even the incredibly smelly one that was aged for two years. After getting enough samples, our teacher, who is also a private chef and journalist, bought some cheese for us to take back to the school. There, we sat around a dining table and paired the five cheeses with five glasses of French wine. Our classmates were incredibly interesting — one was an American living in Amsterdam, another was a Navy pilot living in Italy with his wife, and another was from India but has been living in Paris for the past few months. They were ideal classmates, with a fairly impressive knowledge of wine and cheese (so they could ask all the intelligent questions that Anthony and I couldn’t), but still eager to learn more. By the end of class, I was full and tipsy, and utterly enchanted by Paris.
My birthday dinner was at a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant called Le Clarence, housed in a grand 18th-century mansion, and was probably the best meal of my life. It was definitely the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to; it easily surpassed the only three-star restaurant I’ve been to (Jean Georges in New York). When we arrived, the doorman confirmed our names and led us inside. After coat check, we walked up a gorgeous marble staircase to the second floor, which comprised three intimate dining rooms decorated in slightly different styles, each with only four tables generously spread out. Our dining room was a plush, wood-paneled library, with a fireplace and walls lined with shelves stuffed with books — some of which are secretly menus.
We began with some amuse-bouches of breaded clams, bite-size puff pastries, and fried langoustine, then shared three varieties of bread, and continued onto sea scallops served two ways. After that, we had the best fresh brioche of my life. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat another brioche ever again. Our next course was squid, gnocchi, and langoustine. After that, our server brought over a beautiful baked puff pastry for us to admire before he returned to the kitchen to divide and plate it for us. The pastry was filled with pigeon and foie gras, served with an oyster consommé and lettuce with marinated duck heart. Perhaps my favorite part of dinner was when a man wheeled over an entire cart of cheese to us — because why not have more cheese after our wine & cheese class? This is France! He asked about our cheese preferences and gave recommendations. When I told him about my favorite cheese, he essentially said the French equivalent of “Comté is too basic for us” — in the most unpretentious way possible, of course — and gave me three alternatives. (Apparently Comté is the most highly produced French cheese in the world.) Meanwhile, adventurous Anthony was given his own assortment of cheese. Anthony particularly enjoyed one of them and asked the cheese man if he could have the name of it; at the end of our meal Anthony was handed a thick envelope containing an official note card from the restaurant with the name of the cheese. After the cheese course, we were served petit fours, followed by vanilla macarons and chocolate truffles. Three hours and nine courses later, I was in heaven.
Despite being stuffed, I pretty much floated back home — wearing my ballgown on the Metro — and cried in bed about how much I love Paris. Typical.
Paris is one of those places you need to visit multiple times to really appreciate. There are so many characteristic neighborhoods to explore and layers of history to uncover. Paris rewards those who do their research. Because we’d been there before, we felt comfortable as soon as we landed, and we didn’t have to waste time doing some of the things we did last time, like waiting in line for Notre-Dame, trekking up to Montmartre, or wandering around the Louvre. We got to see some of the things that we hadn’t seen three summers ago, like the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle, the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower from Bir-Hakeim bridge, and the stunning Palais Garnier theater. And then we got to return to our favorites, like the black-and-white columned courtyard at Palais-Royal and the excessive dome at Galeries Lafayette, which is even more ostentatious with the Christmas decorations.
I finally get it. Paris, you deserve all the hype.
Tips for future travelers:
As with all major cities, I try to stay at apartments instead of hotels because they allow you to feel more like a local and give you more privacy. I didn’t find good options on Airbnb so I eventually used HomeAway, which is a more legitimate source for apartment rentals. Here’s a link to our exact apartment. Patrix was a wonderful host!
We booked a dinner with a local French couple through Meeting the French. Sharing a meal with locals is usually one of my favorite parts of traveling, but the couple we were assigned to was a little strange (and may have been conservative — yikes!). They didn’t speak perfect English (and we Americans spoke little to no French, of course), so conversation was stifled. Nevertheless, we did learn a lot from each other, and it’s an experience I would still recommend.
Take the Metro. The subway system in Paris is fantastic; it’s clean, organized, and efficient. The 10-pack of tickets saved us a lot of money because it’s slightly discounted, and we could share the ten tickets between the two of us.
Some of the best things we ate (besides everything at Le Clarence): île flottante (soft meringue floating on crème anglaise) at Les Philosophes, turmeric latte at Cafe Kitsuné, chocolate cramique (breakfast pastry) from Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and chocolate mousse at Le Royal.
How to dress like a local Parisian in the fall: Black or camel coat, flat boots or loafers, thick scarf, and a baguette in your tote (seriously!). It’s true, Parisians don’t wear color. Also, you can tell who the tourists are because they’re the only ones wearing three-inch heels.
Make sure your apartment or hotel room has a balcony. You’ll thank me immediately.