Paris is a city of dreams. Its name calls up a parade of images and associations: the Eiffel Tower, the moonlit quais of the Seine, artists, accordions, and clouds of cigarette smoke. What's surprising is how well the city lives up to its mythic reputation. Though you won't see Gene Kelly dancing in the streets or run into Leslie Caron at the supermarket, you may actually hear an accordion playing as you stroll through a quiet market square, or see a rainbow arching over Parisian rooftops. The splendid Belle Epoque architecture still surrounds you; around every corner there seems to be yet another photo to be taken or poem to write. Yet, Paris is not a museum. Underneath its velvet gown, it is a vibrant, modern city with its share of problems and annoyances. Still, if you squint your eyes on a rainy night, you might catch a glimpse of the Paris Brassaï photographed decades ago--a mysterious and lovely realm of the imagination.
Fortunately, this particular dream is not limited to pashas with bulging bank accounts. Though Paris is notoriously expensive, a little digging will reveal a healthy supply of reasonable hotels and restaurants--particularly for those with U.S. dollars. At press time, the exchange rate was extremely favorable and the cost of many a good meal was quite affordable. If you are willing to venture into street markets and public transportation, you can cut costs dramatically while getting a little closer to the Parisian's everyday life.
Many of the most impressive sights are free: the majestic sweep of the Champs-Elysées, the quiet grandeur of the place des Vosges, or the leisurely charm of the Jardin du Luxembourg. The city's magnificent churches are all free; it won't cost you a centime to spend an hour beneath the vaulted arches of Notre-Dame. Paris has dozens of affordable museums, from the mighty Louvre to the tiny doll museum, Musée de la Poupée. Choose your itinerary according to your interests. There's so much to see, don't try to do it all. Who cares if you see 35 museums or 13? Take time to sip an espresso or a glass of red wine at an outdoor cafe under the Parisian sky, and allow yourself to get lost down some ancient street where you'll find the ghost of Balzac, the flash of Yves St-Laurent, and cuisine of Alain Ducasse sharing the same sidewalk view.
Paris seduces. Her charm is effusive, yet she wields her power with an iron determination. From the place de la Concorde to the Opera Garnier to the basilica of Sacré-Coeur, she is a living work of art, and like all artists, can be decidedly temperamental. But you won't mind--you'll even understand--when you sip from her cup, break bread, and fall in love all over again.
Frommer's Favorite Affordable Experiences
Taking an Evening Cruise on the Seine. Touristy, but it doesn't matter. The monuments that are impressive by day are floodlit at night, and Paris becomes both glittering and romantically shadowy. Gliding down the river under softly glowing bridges, with the towers of Notre-Dame against a dark sky and the Eiffel Tower transformed into a golden web of light, is a magical experience. Until, that is, some visitors decide that shouting and doing the wave under each bridge is the best way to assert one's nationality. Word of advice: Save the displays for sporting events.
Spending a Day at the Musée d'Orsay. It's less overwhelming than the Louvre. It holds the world's most comprehensive collection of Impressionist art, in addition to Preimpressionists, Postimpressionists, and Neoimpressionists. See the sculptures on the ground floor, then head upstairs for a look at the spectacular collection of van Goghs, some little-known Gauguins, and a roomful of Toulouse-Lautrec pastels. You'll leave refreshed and energized.
Whiling Away a Weekend Afternoon in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Enjoy the sun on your face while you lean back in an iron chair and watch neatly dressed, perfectly mannered Parisians of all ages sail toy boats, play tennis, ride ponies, and take beekeeping classes. Don't miss the working orchards, where fruit is carefully cultivated for the table of the French Senate and for local charities.
Walking Through the Marais. Sprawling manors built by 17th-century nobles and narrow streets of fairy-tale quaintness coexist with artists and artisans who bring unique and sometimes whimsical style to the historic district. Stroll down rue des Rosiers in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, browse the antiques shops at Village St-Paul, and take a break in the tranquil place des Vosges. The bars and cafes on the main streets are lively at night and during the annual Fierté (gay pride) celebration; the side streets are so quiet you can hear your footsteps echo in the dark.
Tomb-Hopping in Père-Lachaise. From Chopin to Jim Morrison to Maria Callas, this lush necropolis is a Who's Who of famous Parisians (or at least famous people who happened to die in Paris), and there's no wrong season or weather to visit. The bare trees of winter lend it a haunting quality; on rainy days the cemetery is brooding and melancholy; on a summer day it's the ideal place for a contemplative stroll. Best time to visit? November 1, All Saints' Day, when flowers decorate the tombs.
Food Shopping, Parisian Style. In an outdoor neighborhood market, you can observe the French indulging their passion for meat, dairy, fruit, fish, fowl, paté, cheese, sausage, rabbit, and unusual animal parts: brains, kidneys, veal's head, tongue, and tripe. The merchants know their products and are happy to offer advice and even cooking tips. The markets on rue Mouffetard and rue de Buci are the best known; the ones on rue Montorgueil and rue Cler have an equally tempting array of produce and are less touristy.
Touring the Arcades. You'll feel shopping has been elevated to high art when you wander the iron- and glass-covered passages that weave through the 2e arrondissement. Designed to shelter 19th-century shoppers from nasty weather, they now hold shops that sell stamps, old books, and discount clothing, designer boutiques, tea salons, homey brasseries, and even a wax museum (Grevin). Exploring these picturesque passages is a delightful way to while away a rainy afternoon.
Watching the Sunset from the Pont des Arts. Behind you are the spires of Notre-Dame; ahead is the river, with its bridges stretching toward the setting sun. On the bridge with you just may be a mime or someone dressed as a Louvre statue.
Arriving in August. It's a month when the city is shunned by tourists, abandoned by its residents. Even parking meters are free. The air begins to smell like air again, nightlife takes it down a notch, and parks and gardens are in full bloom. Although many restaurants close, enough remain open to give you a healthy sampling of the local diet. And there are the museums, the banks of the Seine, and the old neighborhoods. Without the bustle, what's left are beauty, art, and nature.
Strolling, Inline Skating, or Biking Along the Canal St-Martin. Immortalized in the Marcel Carné film Hôtel du Nord, the canal runs through eastern Paris, a part of the city tourists rarely visit, which is a pity. The area closes to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and you can bike, faire le roller (skate), or scooter past footbridges connecting the tree-lined promenades on either side of the water. You'll see elderly men dozing in the sun as mothers watch their toddlers play. You may even take in a "spectacle" such as costumed actors evoking a Venetian scene on a line of boats floating past the quartier. The whole area relives the low-key tranquillity of prewar, working-class Paris.
Dancing in the Streets. On June 21, the day of the summer solstice, everyone pours into the streets to celebrate the Fête de la Musique, and musicians are everywhere. Although the quality varies from don't-give-up-your-day-job to top-rung, it's exhilarating to join the parties in progress in every park, garden, and square.