“Mom, this place is terrible,” I whined into the Skype microphone. “This place” was Paris. It is perhaps the most romantic and adored place in the world. Yet, here I was, a college sophomore studying abroad and begging to come home. I found the city to be too foreign. (Keep in mind I was a naive 19-year-old who had never been to Europe.) Nevertheless, it took about two full days and one trip to Luxembourg Gardens for me to fall in love with my surroundings. A few weeks ago, and seven years after I made that call to my mom, I touched down at Charles de Gaulle. This time, Paris had me from hello.
How I Got Around
My transportation of choice is always two wheels. But unlike most visitors, I didn’t rely on the Velib public bike sharing system. Instead, Paris Bike Company rented me a stylish 21-speed Cervelo. Whereas the Velib bikes are clunky and you’re never sure if they’re going to be available, this ride was comfortable, gender specific, reliable, lightweight (I carried mine up two flights of stairs every day to store it in my hotel room) and fast. Some shops even let me bring it in stores so I wouldn’t have to worry about locking it up while I browsed. The price, 60 Euro/day or cheaper if you rent for multiple days, was significantly more than the cost of a Velib, but there’s a reason a Ferrari costs more than a Ford Focus. The extremely likeable American expat owner, Sam Weaver, also offers a variety of tours and arranges custom itineraries on demand. He’ll even deliver your bike to your door for a small fee or you can pick it up in person and get fitted at his shop—a 5-minute walk from the Port de Vanves Metro stop.
The Paris Metro is incredibly user friendly and it goes almost anywhere a taxi can. Just don’t forget to hang on to your ticket stub because you’ll need it to exit some stations that have kiosks. Also, buy a city map or ask your hotel for a complimentary map which they usually offer. Accept, and embrace, the fact that you’ll get lost on a daily basis. That’s the best way to discover hole-in-the-wall hangouts and unexpected shopping gems. Simply factor in 15 extra minutes if you need to go somewhere new. If you don’t want to look like a tourist and have your nose in a map, take screenshots of Google Maps while you have WiFi and save them to your phone.
Where I Crepe’d
I’m not a huge fan of croissants and for me escargot is escar-no, but when it comes to these paper-thin pancakes, I’m defenseless. Crepes seem to be available on every street corner in Paris. Still, when I succumbed to my cravings, I sought out the timeless narrow streets of the Latin Quarter to visit the same creperie I frequented when I was studying for finals in 2009. Creperie Oroyana may be a blink-and-you-miss-it joint, but it does offer something 99 percent of creperies don’t: indoor seating. And the décor—every inch of wall space is covered with magazine cutouts—makes you feel like you’re sitting in a yearbook full of famous faces.
Even if they don’t speak the best English, the staff are passionate about what they do and that spills over into their product and service. In fact, the same young Argentinean man who was working there seven years ago was still singing to himself at the window. He kept humming while he made me my savory crepe—a gluten-free custom-made ensemble topped with ratatouille and salmon. He insisted the prices (about 3 Euro for a basic crepe) and menu haven’t changed in the last eight years he’s worked there. Why mess with near perfection and affordable prices?
What I Bought in Paris
I normally hate shopping. But just thinking about the quality, and more importantly, original, fashion in Paris makes me want to open my wallet and whip out my credit card. Most tourists shop on Rue de Rivoli—a chain store-lined street stretching through the heart of downtown Paris. I definitely did my time there and dropped 70 Euro on a coral-colored fleece pullover at Jack Wolfskin. I also took advantage of the discount stubs available at the front desk of where I was staying, Hotel Bellevue. One of the coupons was for 10 percent off any purchase at Les Halls—best described as Saks Fifth Avenue in mall format. But unless you’re really in the market for luxury goods, i.e. you don’t mind fighting over a Fendi bag with the other shoppers who show up in busloads, avoid Les Halls.
For most of my shopping, I stick to the outer arrondissements or even the suburbs. In Saint-Germain-des-Prés, not a Times Square like Rue de Rivoli but more of a SoHo, I bought a pair of Ba*sh pants at Brand Bazaar for 180 Euro. Expensive? Yes. But I can guarantee none of my friends back home will be wearing the same pair. Nearby, I also scored some high performance cycling shorts for 70 Euro at Au Vieux Campeur—a chain of 30 specialty stores all within a five-block radius. Of course in the outer arrondissements you also have your big chain stores like Zara and H&M. They have the same clothes and prices you find downtown, but there’s less competition for the fitting rooms. Here is also where you’ll find the flea markets Paris is famous for. Finally, the country’s largest outdoor luxury outlet mall, One Nation Outlet Mall, is about 30 minutes from downtown Paris. It’s also only 10 minutes by car from Versailles, so it’s easy to do both in the same day.
When I Got Tips from Insiders
With his bi-weekly flights to shoot videos for L’Oreal, NYC-based Brian Choy of BCFILM practically lives in Paris. So naturally, he was my go-to source when I needed to know things like where should I eat when I get tired of French food (answer: Il Caratello) and where should I get dessert (answer: try the sorbet at Berthillon). Brian also recommended a retail discovery that most tourists would miss. While shopping for contemporary menswear at Kiliwatch (a recommendation he got from a friend) he noticed a few shoppers making their way to the back of the store. He followed and eventually found himself in a huge room with racks and racks of amazing vintage clothing.
But one can only spend so much time (and money) shopping, so when I needed to know where I could relax and get my fix of fresh air, I started asking locals where they go in their downtime. One popular answer was Bois de Boulogne, the former royal hunting grounds. Today, it’s one of the best places to see resident Parisians in their element, enjoying their well-manicured, beautiful backyard. Almost three times the size of Central Park, Bois de Boulogne has plenty of space for pretty much any outdoor activity including overnight camping. While I was tempted to arrange for a horseback tour, I spent the bulk of my time being lapped by local cyclists at the historic Hippodrome de Longchamp.
Why I Can’t Wait to Return
Even though I had three full days, and I’d already had the pleasure of living in Paris, I still didn’t get to see and do everything I had in mind. Paris is definitely not a one-and-done place. It’s the kind of bucket list item you can’t seem to cross off, no matter how many times you do it.