The Best Paris Cafes: Where to Go, What to Know

Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris Pixabay

It would be a crime to come to Paris and not stop for a coffee (or other drink) in a cafe. Cafe life is an integral part of the Parisian scene, and it simply won’t do to visit the capital without at least participating once. Cafes are where people come to sip a drink, take a break, read a book, or simply watch the world go by—in other words, to just be. Perhaps that’s why the great Existentialist himself, Jean-Paul Sartre, spent so many of his waking hours in cafes.

There must be thousands of them in Paris, and a thorough rundown would fill a book thicker than Sartre’s collected works. Though you could probably have a quintessential cafe experience in just about any corner operation, we’ve collected a few surefire options to choose from—as well as some rules to follow when you get there. 

And for more tips on exploring the city, pick up Frommer's EasyGuide to Paris

 
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Sidewalk cafe tables in Paris Pixabay

First, a few words on etiquette. At most cafes, you can seat yourself, whether indoors or, for one of the world’s preeminent people-watching experiences, out on the sidewalk (although those who stay standing at the counter rather than sitting at a table usually end up paying substantially less). It's possible that you won't receive a menu because the options in most cafés are identical: coffee, tea, salads, savory snacks such as tartines, and sandwiches like the croque-monsieur. Alcohol is often served, too. Your bill will probably arrive with your order, but you're not expected to pay until you leave. Service compris means the tip is included in your bill. If, however, you feel inclined to tip extra, by all means leave an additional euro or two to show your gratitude. 

Most cafes stay open from early in the morning to late in the evening. This differs from the strictly enforced eating hours at brasseries (pub restaurants), bistros (casual, family-run places) and restaurants (where you’ll want to make reservations for the sort of five-course meals that can change your life). Each of those dining options has its own set of rules—after all, this is France, where food is taken très seriously. In the roundup of eateries that follows, we've included a couple noteworthy brasseries and bistros; keep in mind that they might have expanded menus and limited hours compared to cafes. 

 
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Coffee at a cafe in Paris Ren Kuo / Flickr

Ordering a cup of coffee in Paris is not quite as simple as it sounds. There’s a multitude of delightful caffeinated (and decaffeinated) possibilities. Cappuccinos, by the way, are rare in Parisian cafes, and when you do get one, chances are it won’t resemble anything you’d get in Italy. Some terms to help you out: 

  • Café (ka-fay): Coffee. This is pure, black espresso, albeit lighter than the Italian version, served in a small demitasse cup. The equivalent of a “long shot,” in Starbucks-speak.
  • Décaf (day-ka): Decaf. An unleaded version of the above.
  • Café serré (ka-fay sehr-ay): Smaller in volume, but packs a bigger punch. Resembles an Italian espresso.
  • Noisette (nwa-zet): A café with a dash of steamed milk.
  • Café crème (crem): A café with an equal amount of steamed milk, served in a larger cup.
  • Café au lait (ka-fay oh lay): Virtually identical to the above, sometimes with a bit more milk. The biggest difference is the time of day; in the morning, they call it a café au lait, in the afternoon a crème.

Now let's find a place to try out what we've learned . . . 

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Wine at Cafe de Flore in Paris Pixabay

A monument to the St-Germain quarter’s intellectual past, Café de Flore (172 bd. St-Germain, 6th arrond.) is a must-sip on the cafe tour circuit. Seemingly every great French intellectual and artist had his or her moment here: Poets Apollinaire and André Breton wrote here; artists Zadkine, Picasso, and Giacometti came to take refuge from Montparnasse; literary and theatrical stars came to preen; and, of course, philosophers gathered to figure out the meaning (or nonmeaning) of life. During the war, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre more or less moved in, and Sartre is said to have written his trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) here. The atmosphere now is less thoughtful and more showbiz, but it still may be worth an overpriced cup of coffee just to come in and soak it up.

 

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Grand Hotel and Cafe de la Paix in Paris d4nyl0 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A Parisian institution ever since it was inaugurated by Empress Eugenie in 1862, Café de la Paix (located at the corner of Place de l'Opéra and Boulevard des Capucines) is the home of what is quite possibly the most expensive cup of coffee in the city (€6 the last time we checked). Everyone from Emile Zola to Yves Montand has done time at this Second Empire marvel, whose gold leaf and curlicues have recently been meticulously renovated. The outdoor terrace offers a magnificent view of the Palais Garnier—the perfect place for a drink before a night at the Opéra. It won’t be cheap, but it will be memorable.

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La Coupole in Paris Clive Sawyer

The artistic legacy of La Coupole (102 bd. du Montparnasse, 14th arrond.) is almost as vast as its square footage. Marc Chagall, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Salvador Dalí, and Ernest Hemingway are just some of the stars who lit up this converted charcoal depot. One of the largest restaurants in France, this Art Deco mastodon first opened in 1927 and has been hopping ever since. Thirty-three immense painted pillars hold up the ceiling; huge murals and paintings cover the walls. Though the food is decent (the lamb curry is the signature dish), it’s best to just come here for a drink or a snack, grab a table by the windows, and watch the world go by. It’s also a fun place to have breakfast.

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Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris roger.salz

After the war, de Beauvoir and Sartre moved from Café de Flore to this nearby artists’ haunt (6 place St-Germain-des-Prés, 6th arrond.), where they continued to write and think and entertain their friends for a good chunk of the rest of their lives. The literary pedigree here is at least as impressive as that of its neighbor: Poets Verlaine and Rimbaud camped out here, as did François Mauriac, André Gide, Paul Eluard, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway. Since 1933, Les Deux Magots has been handing out a literary prize (in 1994, the Flore came up with its own). The outdoor terrace is particularly pleasant early in the morning before the crowds wake up.

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Le Bistrot du Peintre in Paris Ted Drake / Flickr

Artists, hipsters, and other fauna from the bustling rue de Charonne area crowd into this popular spot (116 ave. Ledru-Rollin, 11th arrond.), which sports an authentic Art Nouveau interior with the original peeling paint. Lean up against the zinc bar and admire yourself and others in the vast mirror behind the barman, or simply slouch at one of the tiny tables that tumble onto the sidewalk.

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Le Zeyer in Paris Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After a hard day of shopping in the discount stores on rue d’Alesia, nothing could be nicer than a steaming café crème at this gorgeous Art Deco brasserie (62 rue d’Alesia, 14th arrond.). One of the last of its kind that hasn’t been turned into a tourist trap, Le Zeyer remains a local hangout with a spacious covered terrace—the perfect spot for a rainy afternoon.

 

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Sacre Coeur towers over Montmartre in Paris. Grace Courbis / Flickr

On a delightful corner facing the tranquil eastern side of Sacré Coeur (peeking through the leaves in the picture above), this colorful cafe (23 rue Muller, 18th arrond.) features a lovely sidewalk terrace where you can relax away from the tourist hordes. Don’t bother with the food here, which is fair to middling; just order a café or a nice cool beer, look out on the greenery, and watch people huffing and puffing up the stairs to the basilica. You’ll have to huff and puff a little yourself to get here.

 

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Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris Pixabay

Le Rostand (6 place Edmond Rostand, 6th arrond.) is a quintessentially Parisian cafe with a swell terrace directly opposite the entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg (pictured above). Despite the cafe's touristy location, it draws oodles of chic locals. It’s the ideal spot for a before- or after-promenade drink, a book-reading session, or just taking a load off after a visit to the park or the Panthéon.

For more expert advice on exploring Paris, check out Frommer's EasyGuide to Paris in our online store.

 

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