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People Watching, Lit Legends and More of the Best of Paris Cafe Culture

There must be thousands of cafes in Paris, and a thorough run down would easily fill a book. Though you could probably have a primal cafe experience in just about any corner operation, here are a few ideas for your own personal cafe tour.

It would be a crime to come to Paris and not stop to have 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.

If you have any interest in discovering what real Parisians are like, cafes are a great place to watch them in their natural habitat. Naturally, for authenticity's sake, you should stay away from those right next to tourist hotspots (the high prices and the multi-language menu should be your first tip-off); cafes in "uninteresting" residential neighborhoods are best. By the way, most cafes (and all those listed) are open until around 2am.

There must be thousands of cafes in Paris, and a thorough run down would easily fill a book. Though you could probably have a primal cafe experience in just about any corner operation, here are a few ideas for your own personal cafe tour.

Important note: cafes are not bars, in the North American sense -- though they generally serve alcohol, they are not places where people come to get smashed. They are places where people come to just "be," to sip a drink, to take a break, to read a book, or to simply watch the world go by. Perhaps that's why the great Existentialist himself, Jean-Paul Sartre, spent so many of his waking hours in cafes.

Cafes with History

A monument to the St-Germain quarter's intellectual past, Café de Flore 55 (172 blvd. St-Germain, 6th arrond.; tel. 01 45 48 55 26;; Métro: St-Germain-des-Prés; AE, DC, MC, V) is a must-sip on the cafe tour circuit. Seemingly every great French intellectual and artist seems to had their moment here: Poets Apollinaire and André Breton cooked up Dadaism; 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.

After the war, de Beauvoir and Sartre picked up and moved to Les Deux Magots 55 (6 place St-Germain-des-Prés, 6th arrond.; tel. 01 45 48 55 25;; Métro: St-Germain-des-Prés; AE, DC, MC, V), 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.

The artistic legacy of La Coupole 5 (102 blvd. Montparnasse, 14th arrond.; tel. 01 43 20 14 20;; Métro: Vavin; MC, V) is almost as vast as this enormous brasserie's square footage: Soutine, Chagal, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Salvador Dalí, and Ernest Hemingway are just some of the stars that 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 good (the lamb curry is the signature dish), you can also just come here for a drink, grab a table by the windows, and watch the world go by. The downstairs dance hall is still in operation: Tuesday and Friday are salsa nights, Saturday hip-hop and R&B.

Cafes with a View

Few experiences are as delicious as having a drink on the terrace of the Café Marly 5 (93 rue de Rivoli, 1st arrond.; tel. 01 49 26 06 60; Métro: Palais RoyaleÂ?Musée du Louvre; AE, DC, MC, V) after a long day at the Louvre. Tucked into the Richelieu wing, you can sip your pricey espresso while gazing out on I.M. Pei's glass pyramid and the Denon wing on the opposite side of the vast courtyard. Don't be in a hurry; though the tall, perfect waiters bustle about with great purpose, they seem to ignore all but the most glamorous customers.

Surely one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower is to be had from the terrace of the Café de l'Homme (Palais de Chaillot, 17 place du Trocadero, 16th arrond.; tel. 01 44 05 30 15;; Métro: Trocadero; AE, DC, MC, V). If you can stomach the price of a cocktail (12 €), this is the place to come to see and be seen, lesser mortals can sip a cup of coffee (4 €) and enjoy the same view. Service is distinctly snobby; be prepared to be ejected at mealtimes when the restaurant takes precedence.

Cafes in Which to See & Be Seen

An old cafe that's had a modern makeover, La Fourmi 5 (74 rue des Martyrs, 18th arrond.; tel. 01 42 64 70 35; Métro: Abbesses or Pigalle; MC, V) is now a neighborhood nerve-center in lower Montmartre and is generally bubbling with bobos (bourgeois bohemians) and other customers from the cool crowd. Not only does the clientele make good people watching, but the cafe's proximity to place Pigalle means you're bound to see something interesting through the floor-to-ceiling windows as well.

A cool, modern cafe under the vaulting arches of the Viaduc des Arts (a length of arts and crafts galleries) Viaduc Café (43 av. Daumensil, 12th arrond.; tel. 01 44 74 70 70;, Métro: Gare de Lyon; AE, DC, MC, V) is a great spot to take a break from window shopping. In good weather, sit at one of the many tables on the vast sidewalk and watch the world go by, if it's raining, then sink in to a plush velour chair indoors. Salsa nights every Friday.

Cafes for People Watching

An old fashioned cafe complete with antique ceiling cornices and a huge mirror behind the bar, La Palette 5 (43 rue de Seine, 6th arrond.; tel. 01 43 26 68 15; Métro: Mabillon; closed Sunday; MC, V) gets a heavy art-world clientele -- it's that kind of a neighborhood. Gallery owners, would-be artists, and more or less regular folk come here to chat and look at each other; in nice weather tables clutter the entire corner -- a great place to hang on a summer's evening.

What could be nicer than sitting in a wicker chair at a sidewalk table at the Café de la Mairie 5 (8 place St-Sulpice, 6th arrond.; tel. 01 43 26 67 82; Métro: Mabillon or St-Sulpice; no credit cards) on the place St-Sulpice? Relatively car-exhaust free (there is one lane of traffic between you and the place), in good weather tables on the wide sidewalk are much in demand; you may have to hover a while to get one. Indoors, it's a 1970s archetype: Formica bar, boxy chairs, too much smoke, and an odd assortment of pensioners, fashion victims, students, and would-be novelists. In short, it's perfect.

A Note on Coffee Talk

Ordering a cup of coffee in Paris is not quite as simple as it sounds. There is a multitude of delightful caffeinated (and decaffeinated) java possibilities at most any cafe. Here is a miniglossary to help you navigate once your waiter makes it over to your table.

  • Café -- (ka-FAY) coffee. This is pure, black espresso, albeit lighter than the Italian version, served in a small demi-tasse cup. Always served with sugar on the side.
  • Décaf -- (DAY-ka) decaf, or decaffeinated coffee. An unleaded version of the above.
  • Noisette -- (NWA-zet) a café with a dash of steamed milk (my favorite).
  • 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.

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. Important tip: drinks at the bar (coffee or otherwise) can cost half what you will pay sitting down at a table.

This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Paris, 1st Edition, available in our online bookstore now.

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