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Destination: Paris

Aug 15th, 2013 Destination Guides, Europe

Paris has always ventured on the cutting edge of ideas, design, culture and cuisine. The sheer volume of its imaginative creations inspires our urban wanderlust. Join us as we head to the City of Light to explore its illustrious color and artistry in the passageways of fashion, jewelry, perfume and design.

Place Vendôme (1st arrondissement) – Enter the World of Jewelry

Fine art and fashion are well-known French creations, but France also has a long line of master jewelers that can trace their roots to the days of the royal courts. The house of Boucheron has been crafting jewelry for more than 150 years, while Chaumet dates back to 1780. Other glamorous French names in jewel design include Dior, Cartier, Chanel and Van Cleef & Arpels. Famous for its Alhambra clovers and diamond Zip necklaces, Van Cleef & Arpels is discreetly located in the exclusive Place Vendôme boutique area of Paris. Revealing a bit of the secret fascinating world of French jewelry and watchmaking, the company offers a hands-on course at the Van Cleef & Arpels Jewel School. Rich in the traditions of jewelry, craftsmanship and high-end Parisian innovation, seven classes are divided into three sections geared for “enlightened amateurs” who want to better appreciate the jewelry-making process:

  • Universe of Gemstones: Aesthetics & interpreting gemstones
  • History of Art / Jewelry: History & craftsmanship
  • Le Savior-Faire: Visiting the atelier, talking with designers & staff

Opéra District (9th arrondissement) – Capturing the Scent of Paris

In the 17th century, perfume enjoyed great success in Europe. As scented gloves became popular in France, they sparked the long-standing French love of perfume. When Louis XV stepped to the throne in the 18th century, he held sway over what became known as “le cour parfumée” (the perfumed court). On a daily basis, fragrances were applied not only to the skin and clothing, but to the furniture, fans and rooms in the court of Versailles. The king himself demanded a different scent for his apartment every 24 hours. Napoleon was rumored to require 60 bottles of jasmine every month. To discover the fascinating history and production of perfume, schedule a trip to the Musée du Parfum. In this romantic mansion (built in 1860), perfume maker Fragonard offers free guided tours so visitors can learn how perfume is made and packed, how scents last and the differences between products. If you’re interested, you can purchase perfume at the onsite factory outlet. Just one block away, you can view more beautiful perfume bottles and packaging at Fragonard’s Théâtre musée des Capucines.

If vintage perfume is your passion, be sure to visit Osmothèque —the only place in the world that re-creates and preserves scents. A famous perfumery school is housed within this Versailles complex, but visitors can participate in lectures and tour sessions. Check the website calendar for detailed information about programs and events. (You’ll need to employ an online translator if you don’t read French. Visit Fragrantica for more information in English.) If you’re interested in specific scents, you can book an appointment with a perfumer. Appointments start at €100 per hour (approx. $130 U.S.) and can be conducted in English.

Eiffel Tower (7th arrondissement) – Backstage Pass to an Icon

Sky View

Everyone is familiar with the Eiffel Tower, but many people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of this massive Paris icon. Instead of just going up the elevator next time you’re there, take the opportunity to visit with an expert guide. Heading down instead of up, you’ll see a bunker room below the Champs de Mars (an expansive public green space between the Eiffel Tower and the nearby military school) that provides an up-close view of the underground communications tunnels formerly used by the military. Then, head beneath a tower pillar to the machine room that operates the elevators’ hydraulic system. Running on the system engineered by Gustave Eiffel, two of the four tower elevators are still lifted by the weight of water drawn from the Seine River. Learn fascinating tidbits about the tower’s mechanisms, history and trivia before being whisked straight up the tower to a special VIP terrace on the second level. Other benefits of the tour include bypassing hours of lines to go up the tower and getting a glimpse of Paris most people never see.

Montmartre (18th arrondissement) – A Hidden Escape

Former stomping ground of Renoir, Picasso and van Gogh, the district of Montmartre has art and ambience in its veins. If you visit this area of town, be sure to have brunch, dinner or a drink at the Hotel Particulier. Ensconced behind an iron gate at the top of a secret stairway, this serene 19th-century mansion is what hidden Paris is all about. Ring the doorbell to gain access to a soothing, verdant oasis where young VIPs, hip fashionistas, jetsetters and bohemians come to relax and experience “l’art de vivre” (the art of living). After 5 p.m., the hotel’s private bar, Le Très Particulier, serves cocktails to its discerning clientele. If it’s sunny and warm, you can pass through the intimate salon and bar to a courtyard terrace, where hidden garden nooks are populated with wrought-iron tables and chairs amidst leafy greenery. Order a curaçao cocktail and listen to the peaceful birdsong. In colder months, you can settle in the intimate salon for a round of backgammon or relax with the newspaper. If you’re interested in a meal, you can choose between weekend brunch or dinner in the drawing rooms. Reservations are mandatory for entry into this semi-secret world.

Romainville & Montmartre – Art Deco Detours

People often think about Parisian design in terms of fashion, but interior design has long held stature in this city of epic architecture. For a unique outing, head toward Charles de Gaulle Airport to the eastern suburbs of Paris. In the commune of Romainville, you’ll find a giant warehouse filled with a vast array of art deco pieces that capture the whims of the stylists, photographers and filmmakers who frequent it. Three design dealers founded this wonderland in 1998 and named it XXO, an acronym for Xtra Xtra Original. XXO specializes in unique and avant-garde pieces from the 1950s to the 1980s—some right from movie sets—by a long list of famous designers. Everything you see is for sale or lease. A sale held twice a year beckons collectors and design devotees to find vintage and second-hand furniture, period pieces, discontinued lines, new stock and bargain bounties.

Deco lovers should also plan to visit Populettes in the artsy district of Montmartre. Established in 2012 by three ladies with a passion for vintage, this cheerful café features tables, chairs, fixtures, décor and tableware dating back to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. All of the items are for sale—from your cup to your chair. Always searching for new treasures, the spritely owners store their finds in a warehouse across the street so they can quickly replace anything they sell in the café.

Rue Saint-Honoré (1st arrondissement) – A Walk through the Halls of Fashion

The French emperor Napoleon believed a world power should act as an influence on many levels, including fashion. A promoter of both fine attire and the textile industry, he forbade women from appearing in the same dress more than twice at the royal court, beginning the march toward the fashion world’s ever-changing styles. Fashion and design rose to new heights of innovation in Paris during La Belle Époque (the Beautiful Era, 1871–1914) when exotic furs and feathers debuted along with the invention of haute couture (high fashion).

Those who enjoy fashion will find heaven in Paris. Shops, runways and window dressings filled with haute couture, vintage and trend-setting styles can keep visitors occupied for days. For true fashionistas, Paris Walks offers a chance to follow knowledgeable fashion guides on one of two routes. Both include an informative and entertaining history of the fashion world, insight into French culture and a trip down Rue Saint-Honoré, where the first fashion boutiques got started in the 19th century. This famous medieval street that once served as the link between outlying forest villages and the city is now home to upscale boutiques and designer flagships. Chic stores, vintage boutiques, world-famous designer labels and shopping are all part of the walks.

City Wide – Pull an All-Nighter in Paris

Once a year in October, the streets of Paris host an extraordinary nocturnal art experience. Meaning “all-nighter”—and literally translated as “White Night”—La Nuit Blanche festival began in 2002 with the noble goal of making art accessible to all. Since then, the event has been helmed by different artistic directors who oversee the themes and creations. Artists are encouraged to propose projects for the event, and new institutions participate annually to make this a fluid, ever-changing contemporary scene. If you’re in Paris in early October (in 2013, it falls on Saturday, October 5), make plans to walk round town on this special night to see elaborate light installations, concerts, performances, social gatherings, dazzling panoramas from viewpoints above the city and conceptual art in interesting places. You can look up the schedule of events to find what interests you, but the best way to experience this wonderful night is to simply wander to different areas of the city where events are concentrated. You won’t need tickets since everything is free, and metro lines stay open until the wee hours (the festival lasts until dawn). Even if you don’t speak French, you can view photos and video of previous years on the Paris Information website to get an idea of what’s in store.

Boulevard Haussman (9th arrondissement) – The Magical Window Displays

If you want to experience the sparkle and excitement of Paris at its finest, plan to be in the city for the unveiling of the Vitrines de Noël (Christmas window displays). This grand spectacle takes place at the end of autumn on Boulevard Haussmann, home of France’s two major department stores: Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps. The annual tradition of their animated windows brings people from all over the metropolitan area to experience the flavor of the season. Top stylists and designers such as Chanel, Vuitton and Dior are invited to participate in the set design and create the accompanying displays and figurines. Many would agree that the best window show happens at Le Printemps Haussman. In 2011, master designer Karl Lagerfeld attended their Hollywood-style reveal ceremony for “Christmas with Chanel.” The 2012 event featured Academy Award-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, who helped unveil a magical Christmas scene of 74 animated dolls whose iconic outfits were all designed and meticulously crafted by the House of Dior. Seeing the exquisite and imaginative creations in these amazing tableau vivant (living pictures) warms even the coldest of days.

Windows are usually revealed in early to mid-November. Displays continue through December 31 of each year. Visit the Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps websites for more information.


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Travel Tips: Paris

Paris is a vast city full of history, art, architecture, food and fashion, with intrigue waiting around almost every corner. Read these tips to find great ways to see the sights and look like a local as you stroll the streets.

Live Like a Local

One way to avoid high costs in the City of Light is to rent an apartment, rather than book a hotel. In addition to friendlier rates, you’ll get a kitchen so you can buy food at neighborhood bakeries and markets, and save on dining out. Paris by Heart leases city apartments owned by Americans, Brits, Australians and New Zealanders, and allows you to search for the perfect pad by district or metro stop. Another option is Haven in Paris, which provides a manager to meet and orient you at the rental unit. The company also offers neighborhood tips for markets, pharmacies and bakeries, as well as 24/7 on-call help.

Walk ’Til You Drop

Paris is a city meant for strolling—as evidenced by the many splendid parks, boulevards, markets, museums, shops, cathedrals and riverside walking paths. Guided walking tours provide historical context as you amble the cobbled streets. Alternatively, you can follow one of two footpaths that cross the entirety of Paris as part of the French Grande Randonnée (or Great Adventure) long-distance footpath system. Whichever way you go, you’ll need a good pair of walking shoes to navigate the cobblestones. Shoppers and museum-goers should consider chic yet comfortable flats. Don’t forget to pack a pair of boots or waterproof shoes for autumn rain.

Free Ways to Have Fun

You don’t need to be among the super-wealthy to enjoy the magic of Paris. Plenty of fabulous sights and activities do not require entry fees:

  • Champs-Elysees: Window-shop at the flagship stores along the top Parisian shopping boulevard
  • City Free Tour: Independent local tour guides offer free walking tours in some of the best areas of Paris
  • Montmartre: Wander the area where Renoir, Picasso, Monet & van Gogh once lived
  • Open street markets: Visit food, flea & flower markets chock-full of products
  • Pere-Lachaise Cemetery: Take a peaceful stroll among the resting places of France’s finest luminaries—including authors, writers, musicians & scientists
  • Place des Vosges: The oldest square in Paris (1612) was once home to Victor Hugo; the picturesque plaza features benches, arched buildings and passageways
  • Street performances: Also known as “busking,” this is a common sight around town; check out the scene near Notre Dame at night for great live music & performance art

Watch Your Bags

Like all major cities, Paris has its fair share of opportunists who will be happy to relieve you of your handbag or wallet. Foil their plans by exercising extra vigilance on crowded buses and metros, the airport RER train and busy tourist spots. To further outwit the perpetrators:

  • Travel with a secure handbag or money belt
  • Don’t leave handbags on the floor, on the seat next to you or hanging on the back of your chair
  • Avoid placing luggage near exit doors on buses & metros
  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Watch for distractions or staged “accidents” (jostling in crowds and subways, children asking you to sign petitions, people falling or stumbling)
  • Keep your hands & eyes on your belongings at all times

What to Wear

In the fashion capital of the world, it’s a good idea to pack your travel best. Parisians are elegant and fashionable—and they appreciate visitors who leave the white sneakers, fanny packs and sweats at home. On warm, sunny September days (up to 70°F/21°C), you’ll be all set with a basic dress or flattering jeans, pants and skirts paired with chic tops. Accessorize your outfits with scarves and handbags to create a stylish ensemble. Pack a sweater and light jacket in your tote if you’re going from sightseeing to an evening out. Be prepared with a coat and umbrella for cooler temperatures and rain in October (46°F to 59°F/7°C to 15°C). Evenings are crisp and chilly, and things get downright cold in November (39°F to 48°F/3°C to 8°C). At night, choose nice, dark-colored attire; sport coats and ties for men are generally only needed in Michelin-starred restaurants. Cobblestones and uneven pavements call for shoes or boots with low heels.

Go with a Parisian

Navigating Paris with a guidebook and a list of sights to see is one way to go, but experiencing it through the eyes of a Parisian is even better. In the nonprofit Paris Greeters program, local volunteers take you to their favorite places in their neighborhoods. From markets, special vistas and cafés, to boulangeries and creperies, you’ll get to see Paris with a small group while befriending a local. Walks occur in all districts of the city, but have no pre-set destinations.

Runway Ready

Twice a year, the world flocks to Paris for Fashion Week, where designer lines are unveiled on runways all over the city. Spring shows reveal the autumn/winter ready-to-wear collections, while fall runways showcase the spring/summer designs. During this time, accommodations become hard to find and prices shoot up, so plan accordingly. Unless you are a celebrity or an industry insider, runway tickets are almost impossible to get—although some have reported standing outside a show and getting an invite. Free weekly fashion shows on Fridays at Galeries Lafayette (Paris’ top department store) make a fine substitute. Reservations are mandatory and are best booked via email. Plan to arrive at the store 30 minutes early to score a good seat.

Treasure Hunt at the Louvre

There’s more to the Louvre than the Mona Lisa. This masterpiece museum contains approx. 35,000 pieces of art that draw millions to its doors every year. You can choose an audio guide or go on a guided tour at the museum. Or you can opt for a themed tour, which makes the experience more enticing. Paris Muse has designed creative tours like “Cracking The Da Vinci Code”andinteractive challenges like “Louvre Quest” to pique your interest as you wander through the museum. “Paris Muse Clues” is designed for young treasure hunters and provides a great way to expose kids to art. You can also book your own private group or join others on a public hunt with THATLou, which offers custom-tailored Louvre treasure hunts.

Ready to Go?

Don’t forget to consult our free packing guides and destination guides before you pack your bags.