Paris: Regal and Intimate

In Paris, amidst all of its grandeur, the little joys of life are still embraced. In this first of two episodes on Paris, we'll cruise the Seine River, visit Napoleon's tomb, and take in the Louvre. Then we'll feel the pulse of Paris — shopping in village-like neighborhoods, attending church in a grand pipe organ loft, and celebrating the mother of all revolutions with a big, patriotic Bastille Day bang.

Travel Details

Rue Cler

Jewish Art and History Museum
This fine museum, located in a beautifully restored Marais mansion, tells the story of Judaism throughout Europe, from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem to the theft of famous artworks during World War II. Displays illustrate the cultural unity maintained by this continually dispersed population. You'll learn about the history of Jewish traditions from bar mitzvahs to menorahs, and see the exquisite traditional costumes and objects central to daily life. Don't miss the explanation of "the Dreyfus affair," a major event in early 1900s French politics. You'll also see photographs of and paintings by famous Jewish artists, including Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine. A small but moving section is devoted to the deportation of Jews from Paris during World War II (71 rue du Temple, Mo: Rambuteau or Hôtel de Ville a few blocks farther away, tel. 01 53 01 86 60).

The Louvre
Europe's oldest, biggest, greatest, and second-most-crowded museum (after the Vatican). Housed in a U-shaped, 16th-century palace (accentuated by a 20th-century glass pyramid), the Louvre is Paris' top museum and one of its key landmarks. It's home to Mona LisaVenus de Milo, and hall after hall of Greek and Roman masterpieces, medieval jewels, Michelangelo statues, and paintings by the greatest artists from the Renaissance to the Romantics (at Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre Métro stop — the old Louvre Métro stop, called "Louvre-Rivoli," is farther from the entrance; tel. 01 40 20 51 51, recorded info tel. 01 40 20 53 17).

St. Sulpice
Since it was featured in The Da Vinci Code, this grand church has become a trendy stop for the book and movies' many fans. But the real reason to visit is to see and hear its intimately accessible organ. For pipe-organ enthusiasts, this is one of Europe's great musical treats. The Grand Orgue at St. Sulpice Church has a rich history, with a succession of 12 world-class organists — including Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré — that goes back 300 years. Widor started the tradition of opening the loft to visitors after the 10:30 service on Sundays. Daniel Roth (or his understudy) continues to welcome guests in three languages while playing five keyboards. (See for his exact dates and concert plans.) The 10:30–11:30 Sunday Mass (come appropriately dressed) is followed by a high-powered 25-minute recital. Then, just after noon, the small, unmarked door is opened (left of entry as you face the rear). Visitors scamper like sixteenth notes up spiral stairs, past the 19th-century Stairmasters that five men once pumped to fill the bellows, into a world of 7,000 pipes. You can see the organ and visit with Daniel (or his substitute, who might not speak English). Space is tight; only a few can gather around him at a time, and you need to be quick to allow others a chance to meet him. You'll generally have 20–30 minutes to kill (church views are great and there's a small lounge) before watching the master play during the next Mass; you can leave at any time. If you're late or rushed, show up around 12:30 and wait at the little door. As someone leaves, you can slip in, climb up, and catch the rest of the performance (Mo: St. Sulpice or Mabillon).


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. And this one of about a million reasons that this place is called the city of lights. You got it...we're in Paris. Thanks for joining us.

As we return for another visit to Paris, we're enjoying an intimate look at Europe's grandest city. One of the great things about Paris is how, amidst all its grandeur, the little joys of life are still embraced.

We'll feel the pulse of Paris...from village-like neighborhoods to a magnificent pipe organ loft. We'll visit a megalomaniac's tomb, tour the world's biggest art gallery, and celebrate the mother of all revolutions with a big patriotic Bastille Day bang.

Paris was born — over 2000 years ago — on this island in the River Seine. And many of its highlights can be seen from popular sightseeing boats. There's the Notre Dame...and the Louvre museum. And of course the Eiffel Tower, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Paris glitters with history. Even the bridges — bestowed on the city by kings and emperors — tell a story.

Beyond its glorious monuments and buildings, Paris is a city simply in love with life. Delightful parks let commoners luxuriate like aristocrats. Here in Luxembourg Gardens there's a tranquility, and refined orderliness — enjoyed by young and old. The gardens are impeccably tended. And for generations, children have launched dreams on this pond.

To establish a foothold in Paris, I like to choose a neighborhood and make it home. Strolling market streets like this, Paris has a small town charm. For those learning the fine art of living Parisian-style, market streets like Rue Cler are ideal.

With the help of my local friend Delphine Prigent, each shop provides an insight into Parisian life. Delphine's planning a dinner party and she’s taking us along.

Rick: Shopping on a street like this is just a delight, isn’t it?

Delphine: It’s very nice. We are very lucky to be able to walk on the street and have all this very different shops which are very good for shopping.

Rick: Because in America there’s one-stop shopping. We go to one big place.

Delphine: We have one-street shopping here.

Rick: One-street shopping, it’s like a market street.

Delphine: It’s a market street, it is…I think for the first course it would be nice to put some shrimps and mayonnaise. And so you see you have different types of shrimps. You have like different colors, different sizes as well. So I think we’ll go for the moyenne, for the medium ones, which is very flavorful.

Rick: It looks very fresh.

Delphine: So we’ll have some meat tonight, as a main course. And we knew the neighborhood butcher. You know my mom used to come here.

Rick: So you can trust the quality.

Delphine: You can trust the quality. You know that they give you advice as well. So I’m going to have roti beuf and I’m going to ask the man for tips.

[Conversation in French with butcher]

Rick: So what did he say?

Delphine: He said like 25 minutes and for six people 1,200 grams.

Rick: 1,200 grams. For six. Big people!

Delphine: The dinner without the cheese course is not complete. So we have to go and pick some cheese. Before dessert, after main course and we’ll have some, an assortment of different cheeses.

Rick: So you create a variety.

Delphine: Yes. I create a small plate with different cheese. So we’ll have some, this one looks good, some good cheese and some bleu, some camembert and some hard cheese.

Rick: Good socially, I think.

Delphine: It is very good because you have more wine.

Rick: More wine, more cheese, more wine, more cheese.

Delphine: So once we know what we are eating we are going to choose the wine.

Rick: Beautiful shop.

Delphine: Yes, it’s really nice. Bonjour, bonjour. We are going to talk with the expert and we are going to tell him what I’m going to have for dinner and he’s going to pick the wines for us.

In France with so many wines to choose from expert advice is welcome. He recommends a white for the shrimp, a full bodied red from the Rhone valley for the beef and another white, this time from the Loire Valley, for the cheese plate.

In France any good meal comes with fresh bread. And that requires a visit to the local boulangerie.

Delphine: So we’ll have some bread for dinner. No meal without today’s bread.

Rick: Today’s bread. No bread, no party!

Delphine: No fresh, no party! So we’ll have some baguettes and we will have some special bread as well, for the cheese.

Rick: Oh, so a variety of bread with the cheese course. Okay.

And the final touch? Flowers for the table.

Delphine: It’s very bright. And they’re going to be beautiful on my table. It’s great.

We're hopping the Métro to visit another neighborhood. Paris has the most extensive subway system on the Continent and it's clearly the fastest and most economic way to get around town. Trains come frequently and the system is easy to use.

The Marais is another distinct Parisian neighborhood. I'm always impressed by how you can just sit and savor Parisian street scenes like this. Once a mucky slum — Marais means swamp — it was gentrified in the 17th century by King Henry IV.

With Henry’s vision, Place des Vosges became the centerpiece of the finest neighborhood in town. Stroll along its elegant, gallery lined arcade. The park-like square is a reminder that Paris is not just a collection of world class museums. For millions of people, it's home — a place to meet a lover, enjoy a relaxed retirement, or raise a family.

In the 18th century as Paris’ high society moved elsewhere, immigrating Jews gradually settled in the Marias. In the historic heart of this neighborhood you’ll find Paris' Jewish Quarter — with kosher eateries and falafel joints that draw an enthusiastic crowd.

Strolling its characteristic lanes, pause and observe. It’s a celebration of cultural diversity.

The Marais is also the city's gay district — much enjoyed for its lively cafes and clubs. And — straight or gay — trendy Marais boutiques make for fun window shopping.

Paris’ original neighborhood, the Île de la Cité, is well worth exploring. A church has stood on this island since ancient times. But, the iconic Gothic cathedral we see today — dedicated to Notre Dame, or “Our Lady” — is “only” 700 years old.

You can brave the line for a look at its interior and climb to the top of its bell tower. But the church I like to visit in Paris, especially on Sunday mornings is Saint-Sulpice — to enjoy its magnificent pipe organ — arguably the greatest in Europe.

For organ lovers, a visit here is a pilgrimage. After Mass, enthusiasts from around the world scamper like 16th notes up the spiral stairs into a world of 7000 pipes.

Before electricity, it took three men, working out on these 18th century stairmasters, to fill the bellows, which powered the organ. The current organist, Daniel Roth, carries on the tradition of welcoming guests into the loft to see the organ in action.

As his apprentices pull and push the many stops that engage the symphony of pipes, a commotion of music lovers crowd around a tower of keyboards and watch the master at work.

Saint-Sulpice has a rich history with a line of 12 world-class organists going back over 300 years. Like kings or presidents, the lineage is charted on the wall. And overseeing all this: Johann Sebastian Bach.

This sacred music continues to fill the spiritual sails of Saint-Sulpice as it has for centuries.

The good life in Paris — music, culture, an appreciation of its rich heritage and fine architecture — is easy to take for granted. But today's freedoms and a government that seems passionate about its people's needs didn't come to France without a struggle. And the pinnacle of that struggle — an epic event that reverberates in the spirit of its people to this day — was the French Revolution.

The symbolic launch pad of the French Revolution was a notorious prison called the Bastille which stood on this square. In 1789 angry Parisians stormed it, released its prisoners, and tore it down. It's one of Europe's great non-sights. There's nothing left to see.

While Parisian back lanes feel peaceful and content today, during times of revolution they hid hotbeds of discontent. Before French political leaders learned the wisdom of subsidizing the cost of baguettes, hungry peasant mobs would set up barricades in narrow lanes like these.

Generals, like Napoleon, were fond of quieting the streets by loading chains and nails into cannon and giving the malcontents what they called "a whiff of grapeshot."

Later, the government commissioned Baron Haussmann to modernize the city. He ripped up most of medieval Paris and created the city's grand boulevards.

Great city planning...but really it was great military planning. Heavy artillery and grand armies work better with long broad streets as battlefields. Paris was made easier to rule...and more elegant.

Today, like a citywide game of "connect the dots," wide Parisian boulevards lead to famous landmarks: like the Pantheon...the old opera...the Arc de Triomphe...and the Hôtel des Invalides.

Built by Louis XIV in the 1600s as a veterans' hospital, this massive building now houses Europe's greatest military museum. And, at its center, under a grand dome — which glitters with 26 pounds of thinly pounded gold leaf — lies the tomb of Napoleon.

It’s hard to imagine a building dedicated to a mortal that's more impressive. Gazing at Napoleon's tomb, I love to ponder the story of the charismatic leader who took France from revolutionary chaos to near total dominance of Europe and then, catastrophically, to near ruins.

Just a humble kid from Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte went to military school here in Paris. He rose quickly through the ranks during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. By 1799 he was the ruler of France. After that, within five years, France had conquered most of Europe and Napoleon declared himself emperor of it all.

As the head of France's grand million-man army, he blitzed Europe. His personal charisma on the battlefield was said to be worth 10,000 additional men.

Imagine Napoleon the emperor — all of Europe at his feet. The laurel wreath, the robes, and the Roman eagles proclaim him equal to Caesar.

As Emperor he worked feverishly to implement the ideals of the revolution into a well-designed and modern society. Probably no single individual destroyed so much and yet built so much. To this day, the French remember Napoleon for his legacy: infrastructure, education system, and legal code.

But, ultimately, his megalomania got the best of him. Napoleon invaded Russia with the greatest army ever assembled and returned to Paris with a frostbitten fraction of what he started with. Two years later, the Russians marched into Paris, and Napoleon was deposed.

After a brief exile on the isle of Elba, in 1815 Napoleon skipped parole and returned to France, where he bared his breast and declared, “Strike me down or follow me!” For 100 days, the people of France followed him until finally, in Belgium, Napoleon was defeated once and for all by the British at Waterloo. Exiled again, Napoleon spent his final years on a remote island in the South Atlantic until he died in 1821.

The Arch de Triomphe was finished just in time for the funeral procession that welcomed Napoleon's body home from exile in 1840. The arch is a memorial to France's many military campaigns, and is particularly stirring on national holidays when it flies the French flag.

It crowns the city's main drag. Europe's grandest boulevard is the Champs-Élysées. Built for the queen in the 1600s, it originated as a carriageway leading away from the palace gardens

The population of France is becoming increasingly diverse and this is particularly true here in its cosmopolitan capital. The largest immigrant group is from its former colonies in Africa, especially Muslims from North Africa.

Paris' mosque is a reminder that, even though its colonial empire is long gone, cultural connections remain strong. The challenge for both France and its immigrants is to assimilate comfortably into an ever more multi-ethnic society. Welcoming visitors, the mosque's tranquil courtyard provides a calm and meditative oasis in the midst of the hubub of Paris.

The adjacent Café de la Mosquée provides an alternative to French cuisine. Parisians and North Africans alike enjoy couscous, tagine, and a characteristic glass of sweet mint chai with the ambiance of a Moroccan teahouse.

Nearby, stands the home of the Arab World Institute, a partnership between France and 22 Arab countries. With a museum, art galleries, and library, its mission is to build understanding between the Arab world and France. And from its rooftop terrace, the rest of the city beckons.

The Palais du Louvre was once the palace of the ultimate king and the biggest building in the entire world. Today the vast horseshoe-shaped palace, built in stages over eight centuries with its striking 20th century pyramid entry, houses the world's grandest collection of art treasures.

These people are waiting not to get into the Louvre, but to buy a ticket to get into the Louvre. With a city museum pass, I save money and, more importantly, lots of time. Anyone with this pass can walk right in.

Once inside, take a moment to enjoy the modern pyramid entry — a work of art in itself. It leads to three wings. We'll limit our visit to the Denon wing. The huge Louvre collection covers art history from ancient times to about 1850. It can be overwhelming. A key to enjoying your visit: don't even try to cover it all. Enjoy an excuse to return.

Remember to look up for a sense of how, long before it was a museum, this was Europe's ultimate palace and home of its mightiest kings. In fact, the collection includes royal French regalia — such as the crown of Louis XV and the crown Napoleon wore on his coronation.

This museum is one of the world's oldest — opened to the public during the French Revolution in 1793. I guess it just makes sense. You behead the king, inherit his palace and a vast royal collection of art, open the doors, and — voilà! — a people's museum.

The statue of Winged Victory seems to declare that the Louvre's ancient collection is Europe's finest. Two centuries before Christ, this wind-whipped masterpiece of Hellenistic Greek art stood on a bluff celebrating a great naval victory.

And just past her, stands an entourage of twisting and striding statues, each modeling the ideal human form. Venus de Milo has struck her pose — like a reigning beauty queen — for 2500 years now.

There must be more famous paintings here than in any other museum. The crowded Grand Gallery — while a quarter mile long — displays only a small part of the Louvre's collection.

We'll feature a few paintings representative of three styles: Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic.

François I, who ruled through the early 1500s, was France's Renaissance king. His private paintings became the core of the Louvre's collection.

It was trendy for kings to have a Renaissance genius in their court. And one of Europe's greatest kings, François I, got Europe's top genius: Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo’s work epitomized the esthetics of the Renaissance and the Louvre’s collection of his paintings demonstrates his lasting influence.

His “Virgin of the Rocks” illustrates his trademark sfumato technique — the subtle modeling of his faces, and, in landscapes, how he shows distance by making it hazier and hazier.

And this portrait, Mona Lisa — believed to be of the wife of a Florentine merchant — is Leonardo's most crowd pleasing masterpiece. With her enigmatic smile, she seems to enjoy all the attention. Her body is solid and statue-like, a perfectly balanced pyramid angled back so we can appreciate its mass. Her arm — level with the frame — adds stability and realism. And again, Leonardo creates depth in Mona's dreamy backyard.

For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence and humanism — the age when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.

Like the museum, Napoleon was a product of the Revolution. One of the Louvre's largest canvases shows Europe's grandest coronation: Napoleon's. The pope traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Europe's most famous megalomaniac, crown confidently in hand, pretty much ran the coronation show himself. The pope looks a little neglected.

The French Revolution was all about ending Napoleon crowned himself emperor. The politically correct art style of the time was Neoclassical.

Napoleon would approve of everything in this room. Greek, Roman, heroic, or patriotic themes; clean, simple and logical — it's pure Neoclassical. This Parisian woman, wearing ancient garb and a Pompeii hairdo, reclines on a Roman-style couch — perfectly in vogue.

Neoclassicism was an intellectual movement. After all, during the Revolution, everything was subjected to the "test of reason." Nothing was sacred. If it wasn't logical, it was rejected. The reaction to Neoclassicism? A Romantic Movement: Romanticism.

Romanticism meant putting feeling over intellect, passion over restrained judgment. Logic and reason were replaced by a spirit that encouraged artists to be emotional and create not merely what the eyes saw but also what the heart felt.

What better setting for an emotional work than the story of an actual shipwreck? In Gericault's “Raft of the Medusa,” we see a human pyramid ranging from death and despair at its base to a pinnacle of hope as one of the survivors spots a ship — which ultimately comes to their rescue. If art controls your heartbeat...this is a masterpiece.

The Romantic Movement championed nationalistic causes of the 19th century. Delacroix's “Liberty Leading the People” shows the citizens in 1830, once again asserting their power and raising the French flag at a barricade in those troublesome back streets of Paris. This painting and that struggle reverberate with the French people to this day

France's national holiday is July 14...Bastille Day. That's today and that means a big party as all of France indulges in a patriotic bash. In Paris that means lots of flags and lots of parties. Everyone's welcome to join in.

Like towns and villages all over the country, each neighborhood here hosts parties until late into the night. The local fire department’s putting on this I guess it doesn't matter if the fire marshal drops by.

Traditionally, crowds pack the bridges and line the river for a grand fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower.

Traveling here I realize I could come back to this city for the rest of my life and never get enough of what to me, is the cultural capital of Europe — Paris. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Au revoir!