Paris became the capital of France in 508 with the arrival of Clovis, King of the Franks, since when a succession of kings, emperors and now the politicians have stamped their authority on the city through architecture. Francois I demolished Philippe-Auguste’s Louvre fortress and built a Renaissance palace; Henri IV founded the aristocratic Marais district; Louis XIV added Les Invalides; Napoleon congratulated himself with the Arc de Triomphe; and Louis-Philippe employed Baron Haussmann to remodel the cramped old town with broad boulevards. (These were more practical than aesthetic, designed to facilitate troop movements in the event of a civil uprising.) Towards the end of the 19thC, the era of the great exhibitions inspired the Tour Eiffel, Palais de Chaillot, and Gare d’Orsay (now a spectacular museum), and the latest billion-franc projects include the revamping of the Louvre, the futuristic Cité des Sciences at La Villette, and Grande Arche at La Defense which completes the Voie Triomphale (Triumphal Way) linking the Louvre to the modern business district. To muse on the best places to visit in both old and new Paris, why not visit the Parc Andre Citroen on rue Balard, near quai Citroen. Replacing the old Citroen factory, this post-modern park has glasshouses, computer-controlled fountains, and hot-air balloon rides giving city views from 150 m.
Beneath the monumental facade, there is another Paris, a collection of villages with parish churches, markets, cafes and bars where poets and painters, travellers and thinkers have traditionally found refuge. This is the Left Bank, where the students of the Sorbonne once spoke Latin; it is also picturesque Montmartre, and quietly prosperous Passy where Balzac hid from his creditors. To understand Paris you have to explore both sides of the coin – forgive her airs and celebrate her graces.
Using this section
Bisected by the Seine, the close-knit centre of Paris is comprised of 20 arrondissements, or administrative districts, caught in a noose by the peripherique ring road. The 1er arrondissement is at the heart of the Right Bank, the rest peel off clockwise in a concentric wheel. The five-figure Paris postcodes are broken down into the 750 prefix for Paris followed by the arrondissement number, i.e. the lle de la Cite in the 4e is 75004.
An old political maxim claims that a Frenchman keeps his heart on the left and his wallet on the right. This is largely true of Paris. The Right Bank (Rive Droite) is all about power and money, the grandest buildings, most expensive shops and well-heeled western residential districts. The Left Bank (Rive Gauche) is the head and heart: the Sorbonne, cafes, book-shops and winding streets. Most of the main sights are found in the 1er to 9e districts. However, the 11e around Bastille is becoming trendy; the 16e has the Bois de Boulogne and a rich haul of museums; the 18e is ever-popular Montmartre; and the recently developed Pare de la Villette in the 19e is an excellent reason to venture further afield.
True to this site’s formula of maximum flexibility and choice, this website covers city is covered by a mixture of walking routes and gazetteer entries. The walks (Marais, Montmartre and the Ile de la Cite) introduce you to the delights of three very different, self-contained, parts of Paris, and are an ideal way to get to grips with its flavour. The gazetteer entries cover the rest of the important sights. As usual, you don’t have to follow the routes: the information is there to be used as and when needed – even from an armchair.
It is a truism that walking is the best way to experience the life and character of a city, and not least because Paris is not a pleasant place to drive in, city-centre parking is limited and expensive, tow-away trucks are remorseless. Many areas are pedestrianized, temporarily or permanently, and to get close to the finest monuments, churches and fountains you have to be on foot. Our three walks explore three areas that the first-time visitor cannot afford to ignore, but for those who already know the main attractions, they offer opportunities for looking behind the scenes.
The second explores the Marais, the city’s graceful, aristocratic quarter and includes place des Vosges, one of the city’s finbest corners.
The third covers Montmartre, once Bohemian, now full of street artists and trendy restaurants.
Do the walks in either direction. For some they will be too much if it is a hot day – do them in part or allow two days. You will never be more than a few minutes from a bus stop or Metro station.
The additional sections cover all the key sights of interest to a visitor.
The bird’s-eye-view mapping on which the walking routes are shown was created by Duncan Petersen from a helicopter survey of the capital. A delightful and useful walking guide featuring the whole of central Paris with this mapping is published by Duncan Petersen – On Foot Guides/Paris Walks.
There are few no-go areas in central Paris (the depressed suburbs lie beyond the peripherique). Avoid the Bois de Boulogne after dark, and the Champ-de-Mars around the Tour Eiffel. The Beaubourg, Gare Saint-Lazare and Pigalle are notorious for prostitutes and drug dealers.
One of the great advantages of Paris is the range of accommodation available in the city centre. The smartest districts are 1er and 8e; the generally more-affordable Left Bank (6e and 7e) is popular and attractive, as is the Marais (4e). Space is at a premium so rooms tend to be small, but I trust the listed Hotels will make up for this with character.
From an airport: see www.parisbytrain.com Train services link Roissy/Charles-de-Gaulle airport (23 km NE). There are also buses and taxis.
By long-distance train: Trains from the north and the U.K. arrive at Gare du Nord, or Gare de Saint-Lazare; from the north-west, at Gare de Montparnasse; from the south-west, at Gare d’Austerlitz; from the south and Alps, at Gare de Lyon; and from the east, at Gare d’Est. All stations are served by the Métro.
By car: If possible avoid the rush-hour periods and follow the peripherique round to the nearest porte (entry point) to your destination. Parking is a problem in Paris. The best advice for a stay of several days is to leave the car in a main car park and travel around by foot or public transport. Meters run 9 am-7 pm. Zones bleues (look for blue parking signs) require a parking disc obtainable from Hotels and garages.
The three main public transport systems, the RER (suburban train services), Metro and buses all come under the authority of RATP. Services are fast, frequent and cheap – even better value if you buy a carnet (book of ten tickets) available from stations and some tabacs. Tickets are valid for one Métro ride (any distance), two fare stages on the bus, and the RER within the area covered by the Metro. Tickets must be validated (composter) before travel by the ticket punch machines. Roving inspectors extract on-the-spot fines.
Various special RATP ticket deals (available from all stations and the tourist office) make life easy. They work up from the Formule 1 day pass and Paris-visite two- to five-day day ticket to the weekly or monthly Carte Orange.
The Metro is the simplest way to get around. Free maps are widely available. The numbered lines are also colour-coded and marked with the destination at the end of the line, i.e. if you want to head south on Line 4 follow signs for Direction Porte d’Orleans.
For further Paris transport information, including times of first and last services in the day, see www.ratp.fr
Useful addresses and telephone numbers
If you are planning a full-frontal assault on the sights of Paris do not miss the savings offered by the Carte Musee et Monuments. See www.parismuseumpass.com