By Rick Steves, Steve Smith, and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about Paris past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City (DeJean) describes Paris’ emergence from the Dark Ages into the world’s grandest city. For a better understanding of French politics, culture, and people, check out Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Nadeau and Barlow), Culture Shock: France (Taylor), French or Foe, and Savoir-Flair! (both by Polly Platt). The Course of French History (Goubert) provides a basic summary of French history, while The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (Jones) comes with coffee-table-book pictures and illustrations. La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Sciolino) explains how seduction has long been used in all aspects of French life, from small villages to the halls of government, providing a surprisingly helpful cultural primer.
A Moveable Feast is Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir of 1920s Paris. In I’ll Always Have Paris, Art Buchwald meets Hemingway, among others. Suite Française (Nemirovsky) is by a Jewish writer who eloquently describes how life changed after the Nazi occupation. Is Paris Burning? (Collins) brings late-WWII Paris to life on its pages. Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation is a fascinating read (Glass). Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (Stovall) explains why African Americans found Paris so freeing in the first half of the 20th century.
Paris to the Moon is Adam Gopnik’s charming collection of stories about life as a New Yorker in Paris (his literary anthology, Americans in Paris, is also recommended). A Corner in the Marais (Karmel) is a detailed account of one Parisian neighborhood; Diane Johnson’s Into a Paris Quartier tells tales about the sixth arrondissement. The memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Carhart) captures Paris’ sentimental appeal. Almost French (Turnbull) is a funny take on living as a Parisian native. Reading The Flaneur is like wandering with author Edmund White through his favorite finds. A mix of writers explores Parisian culture in Travelers Tales: Paris (O’Reilly).
The Authentic Bistros of Paris (Thomazeau), a pretty picture book, will have you longing for a croque monsieur. The Sweet Life in Paris (Lebovitz) is funny and articulate, and delivers oodles of food suggestions for travelers in Paris. Foodies seek out the most complete (and priciest) menu reader around: A to Z of French Food, a French to English Dictionary of Culinary Terms (G. de Temmerman).
Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities shows the pathos and horror of the French Revolution, as does Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (his The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is also set in Paris).
The anthology A Place in the World Called Paris (Barclay) includes essays by literary greats from Truman Capote to Franz Kafka. The characters in Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light storm the Bastille. And though it relies on some stereotypes, A Year in the Merde (Clarke) is a lighthearted look at life as a faux Parisian.
Georges Simenon was a Belgian, but he often set his Inspector Maigret detective series in Paris; The Hotel Majestic is particularly good. Mystery fans should also consider Murder in Montparnasse (Engel), Murder in the Marais (Black), and Sandman (Janes), set in Vichy-era Paris. Alan Furst writes gripping novels about WWII espionage that put you right into the action in Paris.
For children, there’s the beloved Madeline series (Bemelmans), where “in an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Kids of all ages enjoy the whimsical and colorful impressions of the city in Miroslav Sasek’s classic picture-book This Is Paris.
Children of Paradise (1946), a melancholy romance, was filmed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In The Red Balloon (1956), a small boy chases his balloon through the city streets, showing how beauty can be found even in the simplest toy. The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962) are both classics of French New Wave cinema by director François Truffaut. Charade (1963) combines a romance between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant with a crime story.
Blue/White/Red (1990s) is a stylish trilogy of films, each featuring a famous French actress as the lead (Blue, with Juliette Binoche, is the best of the three). Ridicule (1996), set in the opulent court of Louis XVI, shows that survival depended on a quick wit and an acid tongue. In the crime caper Ronin (1998), Robert De Niro and Jean Reno lead a car chase through the city.
Moulin Rouge! (2001) is a fanciful musical set in the legendary Montmartre night club. Amélie (2001), a crowd-pleasing romance, features a charming young waitress searching for love and the meaning of life. La Vie en Rose (2007) covers the glamorous and turbulent life of singer Edith Piaf, who famously regretted nothing (many scenes were shot in Paris). No Disney flick, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) is a surreal-yet-heartwarming animated film that begins in a very Parisian fictional city.
For over-the-top, schlocky fun, watch The Phantom of the Opera (2004), about a disfigured musical genius hiding in the Paris Opera House, and The Da Vinci Code (2006), a blockbuster murder mystery partly filmed inside the Louvre.
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is a sharp comedy that shifts between today’s Paris and the 1920s mecca of Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. If you’ll be heading to Versailles, try Marie Antoinette (2006), a delicate little bonbon of a film about the misunderstood queen.
Steve Smith and Gene Openshaw are the co-authors of the Rick Steves Paris guidebook.