Meet Ellen,(@ohlookitsellen), a French and Politics student at the University of Exeter she was lucky enough to spend a year in Paris whilst interning in PR and public affairs as part of her degree. Staying a 10-minute walk away from the Eiffel Tower in her little rented apartment, Ellen got to see past the typical tourist traps and delve deep into the true Parian culture – complete with plenty of pastries and wine.
Ellen gave us the insider knowledge every person needs before a trip to Paris so you can soak up the best views, best food and live your best French fantasy.
What is a typical breakfast and where would you go?
On Friday mornings, one of my colleagues would bring in chouquettes for us all – you tend to buy these little round choux pastries sprinkled with pearl sugar from a boulangerie (bakery) by the 100g, and they’re a perfect little pick-me-up for me and ideal light breakfast for others!
However, at the weekend I almost always strolled down the street from my apartment for pâtisserie from my local boulangerie, the brilliant Le Moulin de la Croix Nivert on rue de la Croix Nivert. The ladies behind the counter were always so friendly, and the produce was amazing for such reasonable prices. My favourites were the chocolat pistache and chausson aux pommes, although you can never go wrong with a classic croissant or pain au chocolat – an authentic one from a local bakery is unbeatable!
I’d sometimes head out for breakfast by strolling a couple of streets over to Le Commerce Café for their classic offering of a fruit juice, coffee, croissant and tartine (a piece of baguette with butter and jam) to sit out on the terrace facing the well-kept gardens of Place du Commerce. I loved sitting and people-watching as the city woke up; my neighbourhood had a very villagey feel, and rue du Commerce was its main hub. As a family-orientated area, there was often a pleasant buzz but peaceful feel with families strolling with their children or walking their dogs – a perfect spot to read a book over breakfast or just watch the world go by.
Where is your favourite place to grab lunch?
During the week, Bravo Pasta is totally unrivalled. They make amazing fresh pasta by hand and do a choice of six delicious sauces which changes each week, as well as homemade desserts like panna cotta and tiramisu – perfect to take back to the office or grab on the go.
Passage Choiseul is also a real hidden gem, with a wealth of food spots and is a gorgeous spot in itself, a stone’s throw from Opéra. I especially love Casa Capasa: run by two Italian brothers, it lovingly serves authentic Italian food. Their lasagne was always a highlight of mine! The Greek traiteur Agapī does amazing street food, including generously filled pitta breads with halloumi, spiced potatoes, tzatiki, salad, and a sweet & spicy tomato sauce.
At the weekend, I really recommend La Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis. La Brasserie’s friendly waiters are always happy to help – I loved sitting on their terrace overlooking Notre-Dame on the neighbouring island and La Rive Gauche across the river. It’s an excellent lunch spot, with perfectly-done classics from rich French onion soup topped with lashings of gruyère cheese to generous slices of quiche with sharply sweet house dressing.
What is an ideal afternoon activity in your city?
The Latin Quarter is ideal for an afternoon balade. Au Sauvignon on rue des Saints-Pères is a fantastic family-run wine bar; always very popular, it’s perfect for proper French wine. It’s in an ideal location to stroll down to Place Saint-Sulpice and take a moment to enjoy the stunning symmetrical towers of Saint-Sulpice church and its ornate fountain in the centre of the leafy square. From there, you can head towards the river and go for cocktails at the highly-instagrammable Maison Sauvage. La Maison Sauvage‘s frontage is very distinctive, exploding in a cascading cornucopia of pink and purple flowering plants; its location at the heart of the Latin Quarter brings you to the animated rue de Buci. You can easily bar-hop from here, or walk a couple of minutes north towards the river and enjoy a stroll along the bank.
Favourite place/ best place/s for dinner?
My unparalleled favourite for dinner is Le Café du Commerce: I recommend it to anyone who’ll listen! Booking is essential as it’s very popular with locals and visitors alike – the waiters speak excellent English and are impeccably friendly. Whenever I’ve taken a guest there for dinner, Paris native or no, it’s been a roaring success. Established in 1921, this classic Parisian brasserie is the holy grail of French dining: authentic yet not try-hard, impressive yet not over-priced, in beautiful setting yet without compromising on the food’s quality. Set over three floors, the roof opens in summer for a truly unique experience. I adore the magret de canard, but they also do fantastic seafood platters, skate wings and Limousin beef. I beg you to go there, I really do.
Another favourite is the cosy yet animated La Petite Perigourdine on rue des Écoles in the 5th arrondissement. I love the decadence of the perfectly cooked pavé de bœuf accompanied by the theatrical culinary event of aligot: served at the table from a copper pan in golden ribbons, aligot is creamy mashed potatoes with garlic and cheese.
I also adore the friendly and popular family-run La Crêperie de Josselin on rue de Montparnasse. This classic Breton crêperie’s dark timber interior and traditional pitchers of cider create the homely atmosphere which helps generate the sometimes sizeable queues – bear in mind that they only accept cash and do not take reservations, but the turn-around is usually pretty quick since the crêpes are speedily-served. The crêpes are unparalleled, and given the reasonable prices, it’s a very budget-friendly yet great quality choice.
It’s no secret that French food isn’t traditionally especially vegetarian-friendly, let alone easy for vegans. However, Janine Loves Sunday on rue Montmartre boasts a fantastic vegan menu. Their bestselling pad thai is second to none, and their “steak” kebab served in a wrap with fries and a rich house white sauce is also a fabulous choice. The café gourmand (an espresso served with three different miniature desserts) is the perfect way to round off your meal.
In the evening what is the city like and where do you usually find yourself?
Like many cities, Paris has great nightlife but to discover the real gems, recommendations are best. While traditionally associated with the sex shops and cabarets of Boulevard de Clichy, areas of Pigalle and Montmartre in the north of the city have become trendy and popular with Paris millennials. La Machine du Moulin Rouge is a focal point of Place Blanche, a popular nightclub hosting a range of acts, including Ross From Friends and Detroit Swindle. On a small side street, away from the clamour of Boulevard de Clichy is the fantastically quirky little bar Marlusse et Lapin. It’s easy to miss from the outside, but inside is a hidden gem boasting some of the area’s cheapest cocktails (around 5-6 euros) and pints (around 3-4 euros). At the back is a little nook reminiscent of your grandma’s living room, with kitsch floral wallpaper and heavy velvet lamp shades, where you can sip your drink from the comfort of a double bed, a bathtub, or a church pew.
The Canal Saint-Martin area towards the east of the city is also a popular spot for vibrant bars and evening hang-outs. One of my favourites is Le Comptoir Général on the canal’s east bank. Again, it can be easy to miss from the outside as this sizeable bar is set back from the street, but the bouncer outside 80 Quai de Jemmapes is your giveaway. Le Comptoir comprises two large rooms, one slightly larger and more minimalist (except the fish tanks behind the bar), and one more tiki/nautical themed. Both offer fabulous cocktails and sharing platters in an animated spot that’s perfect for groups of pals. As the night goes on, the groovy tunes get ramped up a little more in the second room to become un bar dansant – where you can progress from chattering over your drinks to throwing a few shapes if the mood takes you.
In a busy city, Is there anywhere to chill?
Paris doesn’t really do big open green parks: instead, it offers elegant public gardens. Situated between Place de la Concorde and the Louvre, the Tuileries are a great spot to take a breather from the city’s busy centre; you can take a seat around one of the opulent fountains, or enjoy the shady trees and take in the well-kept flower beds. The Jardins du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement are also lovely, but their most peaceful spot is tucked away in its north-east corner by the Medici Fountain.
In the south-east of the city is the Jardins des Plantes, a perfect spot for a soothing stroll. Containing a small zoo and the Natural History Museum (which are attractions in themselves), it also contains an alpine garden, rockery, kitchen garden, and glasshouses.
One of the less obvious spots to chill is contained within the criminally underrated Petit Palais. The Petit Palais is a stunning building, let alone the beautiful works housed within it as the location of the City of Paris’ Art Museum. Despite its proximity to tourist traps like the Louvre and Champs-Elysées, Le Petit Palais is relatively quiet and perfect to take your time to stroll around and enjoy the art. However, if you’re flagging, go through security at the main entrance and head straight out of the double glass doors on the ground floor, following signs for the café, and you find yourself in an oasis-like calm of its courtyard garden.
Is there anything a little bit fun and different in your city to do/see?
Strolling along the banks of the Seine is by no means a groundbreaking idea. However, on the Rive Gauche, are the unusual Gardens of the Seine, Niki-de-Saint-Phalle. This little barge is essentially a micro-nature reserve, featuring wildflowers and a little glasshouse. It’s a great spot for a picnic or just to watch the world go by.
If you’re feeling peckish, check out the Marché des Enfants Rouges. This is Paris’ oldest food market, with stalls offering fresh produce and flowers as well as authentic street food, from Lebanon to Japan, to Italy and Sri Lanka. Once you’ve chosen from the incredible array of food stalls, you can take your finds over the road to sit in the Square du Temple – Elie Wiesel and properly dig in.
The Coulée Verte, starting in the 12th arrondissement, is similar to New York’s High Line: an elevated linear park atop a disused railway, beginning behind the Bastille Opera House and leading to the Porte Dorée to the east of the city. The walkway itself is planted with lavender, rosebushes, and hazelnut trees, as well as featuring small pools and archways, and offers amazing views of the city.
Equally, La Butte Aux Cailles is a great idea for somewhere off the beaten tourist track. This hilltop neighbourhood maintains its village feel, and is lively in the evenings with popular bars and restaurants, but quiet and peaceful by day. Like Montmartre, la Butte aux Cailles was an important part of the uprising against the government in the Paris Commune of 1871, as memorialised by its Place de la Commune de Paris. You can enjoy the area’s abundant street art, pretty cobbled streets, peaceful squares, and classic timber-framed houses, as well as lovely spots for a coffee or a drink to take it all in – I especially like Le Mêlécasse and Square Henri-Rousselle.
Where is the best area to stay/sleep for young travellers?
I’m afraid I’ve got very little experience on this, but based on what I know about trendy areas, I’d imagine that Canal Saint-Martin, Montmartre, and Belleville are worth researching. It’s no surprise that AirBnB is very popular in Paris – its growth is certainly controversial. I’ve been really pleased with these AirBnB listings near Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter, as they were great properties with lovely hosts. Equally, I really like these areas and they’re some of safest, which can be especially important to consider for solo female guests.
This isn’t really related to staying and sleeping, but as a piece of general advice for young travellers: ensure you carry euros (especially coins). Paris is less card-reliant than many cities, and more places than you might expect only accept cash. This can make things much smoother when paying for drinks or coffee. It’ll allow you to spend less time waiting for the card machine, or scampering off to find the nearest cash point, and more time enjoying the city!
What season would you recommend to visit?
Personally, I love Paris in the spring and the autumn! Aside from the city looking especially gorgeous (with either sunshine and blossom or rich autumn colours), prices should be more reasonable outside of peak seasons around Christmas and the summer. Having said that, the locals tend to empty out of Paris in August for the grandes vacances only to be replaced by tourists – but if you know where to go, you can avoid the masses and enjoy a more peaceful version of the city without its usual busy residents and commuters.
Is your city best for family holiday / friends holiday / couple holiday ?
I know it’s a cliché, but I do think Paris is a fabulous couple’s holiday – after all, it is the city of love! Aside from the usual Eiffel Tower and Louvre visits, you can discover some great spots together and really feel like you’ve got your own little version of Paris. Equally, I’d say this applies to a holiday for you and your best mate: the city lends itself well to going two-by-two, romantic or platonic!
With this said, I strongly feel Paris is an equally excellent spot for a solo visit. I think solo travel is underrated, and as a relatively small city that lends itself so well to strolling and exploring, Paris is brilliant to discover yourself. Given the cultural prevalence of café culture and dining out, settling onto a terrace with a book (or without, just to people-watch) on your own is not at all perceived as out of the ordinary; on the contrary, you often see people enjoying dinner or a glass of wine perfectly contentedly in their own company. One of the simplest pleasures is strolling through the city and seeing what you come across – company is great, but by no means essential to truly enjoy Paris!