Highlights of Paris: Eiffel and Monet to Crème Brûlée
Packing the best of Paris into one episode, we scale the Eiffel Tower, bask in medieval majesty at Notre-Dame Cathedral, stroll Montmartre and its Sacré Cœur church, study the Latin Quarter, remember the Revolution at Place de la Concorde, saunter the Champs-Elysées, get impressed by the Orsay Museum, bone up on Paris's past at the Carnavalet Museum — and in the catacombs, and sample the artistic high life at the Jacquemart-André Museum.
It’s crowded, expensive, and there are probably better views in Paris, but visiting this 1,000-foot-tall ornament is worth the trouble. Visitors to Paris may find Mona Lisa to be less than expected, but the Eiffel Tower rarely disappoints, even in an era of skyscrapers. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, I’ve-been-there experience. Making the trip gives you membership in the exclusive society of the quarter of a billion other humans who have made the Eiffel Tower the most visited monument in the modern world.
Crowds overwhelm this place much of the year, with one- to two-hour waits to get in (unless it’s rainy, when lines can evaporate). Weekends and holidays are worst, but prepare for ridiculous crowds almost any time. To skip the initial entry line, book an entry time at no extra cost. Time slots can fill up months in advance (especially for visits from April through September). Online ticket sales open up about three months before any given date and can sell out for that day within hours. Be sure of your date, as reservations are nonrefundable. If there are no reservation slots available, try the website again about a week before your visit — last-minute spots occasionally open up, especially for tickets up to the second level only. See any my guidebooks that cover Paris for more tips on avoiding lines and crowds at the Eiffel Tower.
For the best of all worlds, arrive with enough light to see the views, then stay as it gets dark to see the lights. The views are grand whether you ascend or not. At the top of the hour, a five-minute display features thousands of sparkling lights (best viewed from Place du Trocadéro or the grassy park below).
Place du Trocadéro
This is the place to see the Eiffel Tower. Come for a look at Monsieur Eiffel’s festive creation day or night (when the tower is lit up). Consider starting or ending your Eiffel Tower visit by having a drink or snack outside at Café Carlu (within the Architecture and Monuments Museum but open to the public). With its privileged spot on Place du Trocadéro, this café offers dramatic views of the Eiffel Tower from its terrace tables.
Rollerblading with Parisians
Inline skaters take to the streets most Sunday afternoons and Friday evenings. It’s serious skaters only on Fridays (they meet on Place Raoul Dautry at 21:30 and are ready to roll at 22:00), but anyone can join in on Sundays (at 14:30; skaters leave from the south side of Place de la Bastille). Police close off different routes each week to keep locals engaged, but the starting points are always the same. You can rent skates near Sunday’s starting point at Nomades.
This 850-year-old cathedral is packed with history and tourists. With a pair of 200-foot-tall bell towers, a facade studded with ornate statuary, beautiful stained-glass rose windows, famous gargoyles, a picture-perfect Seine-side location, and textbook flying buttresses, there’s a good reason that this cathedral of “Our Lady” is France’s most famous church.
Ile St. Louis
The residential island behind Notre-Dame is known for its restaurants, great ice cream, and shops (along Rue St. Louis-en-l’Ile).
For many, Paris merits hiring a Parisian as your personal guide. Arnaud Servignat is a fine guide who has taught me much about Paris.
The Musée d’Orsay houses French art of the 1800s and early 1900s (specifically, 1848–1914), picking up where the Louvre’s art collection leaves off. For us, that means Impressionism, the art of sun-dappled fields, bright colors, and crowded Parisian cafés. The Orsay houses the best general collection anywhere of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin. If you like Impressionism, visit this museum. If you don’t like Impressionism, visit this museum. I find it a more enjoyable and rewarding place than the Louvre. Sure, ya gotta see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but after you get your gottas out of the way, enjoy the Orsay.
You’ll spot Sacré-Cœur, the Byzantine-looking, onion-domed, bleached-bone basilica atop Montmartre, from most viewpoints in Paris. Though only 130 years old, it’s impressive and iconic, with a mosaic-filled interior and a climbable dome.
This state-capitol-style Neoclassical monument celebrates France’s illustrious history and people, balances Foucault’s pendulum, and is the final home of many French VIPs. In 1744, an ailing King Louis XV was miraculously healed by St. Geneviève, the city’s patron saint, and he thanked her by replacing her ruined church with a more fitting tribute. But by the time the church was completed the secular-minded Revolution was in full swing, and the church was converted into a nonreligious mausoleum honoring the “Champions of French liberty”: Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, and others.
For decades, priests led ceremonial processions of black-veiled, bone-laden carts into these former limestone quarries, where the bones of six million Parisians were eventually stacked in piles five feet high and as much as 80 feet deep. Shuffle through passageways of skull-studded tibiae, admire 300-year-old sculptures cut into the walls of the catacombs, then climb 86 steps to emerge far from where you entered, with white-limestone-covered toes, telling everyone you’ve been underground gawking at bones.
The tumultuous history of Paris — starring the Revolutionary years — is well portrayed in this converted Marais mansion. Explanations are in French only, but many displays are self-explanatory. You’ll see models of medieval Paris, maps of the city over the centuries, paintings of Parisian scenes, French Revolution paraphernalia — including a small guillotine — and fully furnished rooms re-creating life in Paris in different eras.
Don’t leave Paris without a stroll along Avenue des Champs-Elysées. This is Paris at its most Parisian: monumental sidewalks, stylish shops, elegant cafés, glimmering showrooms, and proud Parisians on parade. The whole world seems to gather here to strut along the boulevard. It’s a great walk by day, and even better at night, allowing you to tap into the city’s increasingly global scene.
The foot of this magnificent arch is a stage on which the last two centuries of Parisian history have played out — from the funeral of Napoleon to the goose-stepping arrival of the Nazis to the triumphant return of Charles de Gaulle after the Allied liberation. Examine the carvings on the pillars, featuring a mighty Napoleon and excitable Lady Liberty. Pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then climb the 284 steps to the observation deck up top, with sweeping skyline panoramas and a mesmerizing view down onto the traffic that swirls around the arch.
This gleaming theater is huge — though the auditorium itself seats only 2,000. The building’s massive foundations straddle an underground lake (inspiring the mysterious world of the Phantom of the Opera). From Avenue de l’Opéra, once lined with Paris’ most fashionable haunts, its facade suggests “all power to the wealthy.” And a shimmering Apollo, holding his lyre high above the building, seems to declare, “This is a temple of the highest arts.” But the real show was before and after the performance, when the elite of Paris — out to see and be seen — strutted their elegant stuff in the extravagant lobbies. The elitism of this place prompted former President François Mitterrand to have an opera house built for the people in the 1980s, situated symbolically on Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution started in 1789. This left the Opéra Garnier home only to ballet and occasional concerts.
This thoroughly enjoyable museum-mansion (with an elegant café) showcases the lavish home of a wealthy, art-loving, 19th-century Parisian couple. What makes the visit so rewarding is the excellent audioguide tour (in English, included with admission). The place is strewn with paintings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Uccello, Mantegna, Bellini, Boucher, and Fragonard — enough to make a painting gallery famous.
One of Europe’s greatest collections of far-out modern art is housed in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, on the fourth and fifth floors of this colorful exoskeletal building. The Pompidou Center and the square that fronts it are lively, with lots of people, street theater, and activity inside and out — a perpetual street fair. Ride the escalator for a great city view from the top (ticket or Museum Pass required), and consider eating at the good café.
Promenade Plantée Park
This two-mile-long, narrow garden walk on an elevated viaduct was once used for train tracks and is now a pleasing place for a refreshing stroll or run. Botanists appreciate the well-maintained and varying vegetation. From west to east, the first half of the path is elevated until the midway point, the pleasant Jardin de Reuilly (a good stopping point for most), then it continues on street level out to Paris’ ring road, the périphérique.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves — back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re exploring the wonders of Paris — magnificent — and, thanks to Monsieur Eiffel — riveting!
To me, Paris is the capital of Europe. It’s the city I can return to more than any other, with grand monuments that need no introduction. And it hides a lifetime of cultural delights.
Everything in this episode is within easy reach by foot or metro. We’ll see some icons of this great city, the industrial age iron of the Eiffel Tower, and the medieval stonework of Notre-Dame. Then we’ll see stark realism and dreamy Impressionism in the Orsay Gallery.
We’ll join a friend, dining on French favorites.
Rick: So you stab it?
And after lurking with bones in the catacombs we’ll see how the French Revolution helped create this grand city.
The Seine River splits the city into the Right Bank and the Left Bank. Its two islands mark the center of the old town. Most of the essential sights lie near the Notre Dame, between the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, and Montmartre — the city’s highest point.
The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 — to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and to show off at a World’s Fair. It was a muscular symbol of the Industrial Age.
To a generation hooked on technology, it was the marvel of its day…trumpeting progress and man’s ingenuity. This 900-foot-tall tower has three observation levels; the higher you go the more you pay. For me, the middle level is plenty high. Thousands of iron bars and millions of rivets, all assembled in just over two years. Today, it stands tall, an exclamation point, symbolizing the proud, independent spirit of the French.
The Trocadéro Square, across the river, is the place to view the tower…and to check out a colorful scene. Parisians own their city. In fact, twice a week streets are closed and thousands turn out to roll through their city in an exuberant celebration of life.
Paris was born centuries before Christ right here on the Ile de la Cité — an island in the middle of the Seine River. The Romans conquered the local fishing tribe and set up camp. Today the Notre-Dame Cathedral marks the place where a Roman temple once stood.
The city’s first bishop, St. Denis, holds his head in his hands. When Christianity began making converts here, the pagan Romans beheaded him. But, according to legend, Denis just picked up his head and kept on going.
Inspired by this miracle, Christianity flourished and the temple was replaced by a church. Imagine the faith of the people who built this — breaking ground in 1163 on a building which wouldn’t be finished for 200 years. Gothic architects incorporated the latest technology — flying buttresses — to support the heavy rooftop. Its ghoulish gargoyles multi-task: They serve as fancy rainspouts and scare away the evil spirits.
The church is dedicated to “our lady” (or notre dame). Mary cradles the baby Jesus; the rose window provides a majestic halo.
The Virgin Mary was highly revered throughout the Middle Ages. The faithful petitioned her in times of trouble for both comfort and, through her intervention, God’s mercy.
As worshippers headed for Mass they’d walk under a relief of Judgment Day. Christ sits on his throne, the trumpet sounds, all are judged: peasants, knights, nobles, royals…even bishops. An angel weighs cute little souls while cheating demons yank on the scales. The saved stand happily at Christ’s right hand. The damned — a sorry chain gang — are on his left.
Carvings like that, and like this scene of Eve tempting Adam with an apple, remind us that this art was more than decoration. These images reinforced the stories people learned in church.
While the church is dedicated to Mary, the rest of Paris seems dedicated to regular Parisians. The old center, with its two islands in the middle of the Seine, retains a charming elegance. The Ile de la Cité is laden with historic sights. But the little Ile St. Louis, connected by a pedestrian bridge, is laden only with the delights of good living.
Arnaud: Oh, Rick.
Rick: Ça va?
Arnaud: Ça va bien, oui
I’m rendezvousing with my Parisian friend and fellow tour guide, Arnaud Servignat.
Rick: Great island…
Arnaud: Yeah, this is Ile St. Louis, Rick. I love this place. You know, all around is this really uniform architecture, everything dating from the 17th century and the beautiful apartments — very expensive, some the most expensive in town. I wish I could have an apartment here if I could afford it.
Rick: This is very trendy to live here?
Arnaud: Oh my God, wonderful…all along the streets you’ve got some galleries, quaint, you know, little boutiques and restaurants, and just down the street there, there’s a place, Berthillon, where you have the best sorbets in Paris.
Arnaud: Yeah, the island is charming. But the whole city of Paris is charming. In fact, it faces the River Seine, and the River Seine has been called by Parisians “the mirror of the city.”
Rick: Ah, it’s a great people zone.
Arnaud: Yeah, you know, people strolling…
Rick: Yeah, it’s a promenade…
Arnaud: …wandering around…
Rick: Festivals here?
Arnaud: Yes, indeed. On the Bastille Day we have a big party here. Big dancing, organized.
Arnaud: Dancing all around the place.
Rick: And today it’s just so relaxed.
Rick: So, what is the French word for these little stalls?
Arnaud: Bouquinistes, we call them. It comes from the name “bouquin,” which means it’s old French.
Rick: So, “old books” in old French?
Arnaud: Old books, yes, and they sell prints, you know…magazines…
Rick: And it goes back a long time?
Arnaud: Oh, back to the 1600s, yes indeed. They were all, you know, very wild vendors which were all along the River Seine like that. They all had to be regulated in the 19th century because they were so wild.
Rick: It’s just a classic Parisian scene…
Arnaud: It has a, you know, bohemian lifestyle.
I’m taking Arnaud to lunch. Against his advice, I’m eating all the Parisian cuisine clichés — in one meal.
Arnaud: Santé, Rick.
Arnaud: This is a kir, you know? A good, civilized way to start the meal.
Rick: So that’s an aperitif? Tell me about the aperitif.
Arnaud: Aperitif is to open your appetite.
Arnaud: Oh Rick, look that. It looks fabulous.
Rick: This looks very nice.
Arnaud: Merci…soupe d’oignon.
Rick: So, this is the first course?
Arnaud: Yes, this is the entrée, and actually you guys call the “entrée” the main course, when the entrée is the starter in France.
Rick: That makes sense actually. Okay, I have my escargot, and I just use this.
Arnaud: Allors, yes.
Rick: So, you stab it and you twist it out? Oh look at that!
Arnaud: It comes out eventually. It’s very chewy you might say.
Rick: Oh that’s good.
Arnaud: It’s good eh? Garlic, parsley…
Rick: You know, a lot of tourists don’t want the escargot, but I love it.
Rick: What is the history of the onion soup?
Arnaud: Ah, the onion soup is something you eat more in the wintertime. Because, you know, it was to warm up the employees of the central market.
Rick: I eat the onion soup all the year.
Arnaud: I love it! You guys, Americans are eating everything all year round!
Rick: Merci, I think.
Arnaud: This is the main course: plat principal in French.
Rick: Plat principal…
Arnaud: Plat principal.
Rick: OK, the “principle plate.”
Arnaud: Absolutely yes.
Rick: Steak tartare — very famous.
Arnaud: Steak tartare yes. Do you know what it is of?
Arnaud: It’s fresh raw beef.
Rick: This is raw beef?
Arnaud: Raw beef, but very fresh. The spice comes from the Worcestershire sauce, the ketchup, the mustard, the Tabasco, salt and pepper and the yolk of an egg and then you just mix that altogether with the beef.
Rick: Do you like it?
Arnaud: Yes, I love it.
Rick: You’ve introduced me to something new.
Arnaud: This was so good.
Rick: I can’t believe I’m eating raw beef and it tastes good.
Arnaud: It is good, eh?
Rick: Wow, especially with some red wine.
Arnaud: Mmm-hmm! So, we are, you know, having now the cheese course, which is very important. You don’t end up a meal without some cheese. And basically, you know, you order cheese to finish the wine and then you order more wine to finish the cheese!
Rick: It’s a nice cycle.
Arnaud: Oh, it’s vicious circle.
Rick: A vicious cycle!
Arnaud: Ah, this is dessert time, Rick. You’re having crème brûlée and I have a fondant au chocolat. This is sacred, you know, for lunchtime — to stop for at least an hour. We don’t work. Look at these people; they’ve been here forever. Yes, it’s sacred. Enjoy.
Rick: So the coffee always comes after all of the food?
Arnaud: After the dessert…always.
Rick: What if you ask for your coffee with the meal?
Arnaud: They’d say “Yes, sure,”…but it would come after the meal. They don’t want to be rude.
Rick: What a meal!
Arnaud: Excellent, wasn’t it?
Rick: I’m heading for the Orsay Gallery.
Arnaud: Go ahead; I’m finishing my cognac.
Rick: Au revoir.
Arnaud: Bye-bye Rick!
Getting around Paris is easy on the Métro. The original stations were Art Nouveau. This new one celebrates the system’s 100th birthday. And the latest generation shows Europe’s commitment to ever more efficient public transit. The train is completely automated, allowing passengers to watch the tunnel coming at them. Faster than a taxi can take us, we hurtle beneath the city to our next stop.
The Orsay Gallery, famous for its much-loved collection of Impressionist masterpieces, fills an old train station. The building itself is magnificent. Train tracks used to go right down the middle.
The art of the Orsay takes you from 1848 to 1914. This is the time when the Old World meets the modern world. It’s conservative and revolutionary, side by side.
Before the Impressionists, 19th-century artists painted idealized beauty. This was conservative art, popular throughout the 1800s because it was, simply, beautiful.
Cabanel’s Birth of Venus is the quintessence of beauty. The love queen reclines seductively — just born from the foam of a wave. At the time, sex was considered dirty, and could be exalted only in a more pure and divine form.
But while mainstream artists cranked out these ideal beauties, a revolutionary new breed of artists was painting a harsher reality.
Cross the tracks and you find the Realists. In The Painter’s Studio, Gustave Courbet takes us behind the scene at the painting of a goddess. The model — not a goddess, but a real woman — takes a break from posing to watch Courbet at work. Ordinary people mill about. The little boy seems to admire the artist — already notorious for his nonconformity.
No one would show Courbet’s work, so he put on his own art show. He built a little shack in the center of town and hung his paintings — basically thumbing his nose at the shocked public and his conservative critics.
Edouard Manet rubbed realism in the public’s face. And they hated it. Manet’s nude doesn’t gloss over anything. The pose is classic, but the sharp outlines and harsh colors are new and shocking. Her hand is a clamp. Her stare…defiant. Ignoring the flowers her servant brings from her last customer, this prostitute looks out as if to say, “Next…”
It’s about 1880 and Manet and his rat pack of conservatively dressed radicals gathered in Paris, pushing the creative envelope. It’s time for the revolution of Impressionism to begin.
Impressionism initiated the greatest change in art since the Renaissance. Now, artists were freed to delve into the world of colors, light, and fleeting impressions. They featured easygoing open-air scenes, candid spontaneity, and always…the play of light.
Impressionists made their canvases shimmer by an innovative technique. Rather than mixing colors together on a palate, they applied the colors in dabs, side-by-side on the canvas, and let these mix as they traveled to your eye. Up close it doesn’t work. But move back…and voilà!
Claude Monet is called the father of Impressionism. For him, the physical subject was now only the rack upon which to hang the light, shadows, and colors.
Auguste Renoir caught Parisians living and loving in the afternoon sun. Dappled light was his specialty. In this painting you can almost feel the sun’s warmth and smell the powder on the women’s faces. Even the shadows are caught up in the mood — everything’s dancing. Renoir paints a waltzing blur to capture not the physical details, but the intangible charm of a restaurant on Paris’ Montmartre.
Montmartre — a Parisian hill crowned by the dramatic neo-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur church — was famous for the ambience captured by the Impressionists.
A block away, the Place du Tertre is jumbled with artists — and tourists. If you really try, you can almost imagine Renoir, Van Gogh, and Picasso who came here a century ago — poor, carefree, and seeking inspiration.
Back then, life here on Montmartre was a working-class commotion of cafés, bistros, and dance halls. Painters came here for the low rent and ruddy joie de vivre. To get away from all the tourists, simply walk the back streets, where a bit of Montmartre’s village charm survives.
Ah, the steps of Sacré-Cœur. This is a place where locals and travelers alike congregate to marvel at Paris, or each other. From here the “City of Light” fans out at your feet.
Your Parisian experience is a blend of great museums, fine food, and characteristic neighborhoods.
The Latin Quarter is the core of the Left Bank — as the south side of the Seine River is known. This has long been the city’s university district. In fact, the University of Paris, a leading university in medieval Europe, was founded here in the 13th century.
Back then the vernacular languages, like French and German, were crude…good enough to handle your basic needs. But for higher learning, academics — like this guy — spoke and corresponded in Latin. Until the 1800s, from Sicily to Sweden, Latin was the language of Europe’s educated elite. And Parisians called this university district “the Latin Quarter” because that’s the language they heard on the streets.
Today, any remnant of that Latin is buried by a touristy tabouli of ethnic restaurants. Still, it remains a great place to get a feel for the tangled city before the narrow lanes were replaced by wide modern boulevards in the 19th century.
The scholarly and artsy people of this quarter brewed up a new rage: Paris’ café scene. By the time of the Revolution, the city’s countless cafes were the haunt of politicians and philosophers, who plotted a better future as they sipped their coffee.
And the café society really took off in the early 1900s, as the world’s literary and artistic avant-garde converged on Paris. In now-famous cafés along Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard St. Michel, free thinkers like Hemmingway, Lenin, and Jean-Paul Sartre enjoyed the creative freedom these hangouts engendered.
With its café and university scene, Paris had long been a launch pad for bold new ideas. In the 18th century, ground-breaking political and social thinking by French philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau ushered in the “Age of Enlightenment.” Later, this Enlightenment provided the French Revolution with a philosophical basis, and it gave the American constitution many of its basic principles.
Paris honors its intellectual and cultural heroes with tombs and memorials in its Neoclassical Panthéon. It looks like an ancient temple, but it’s only about 250 years old — from the time of the Enlightenment.
During the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolution which followed, everything was subjected to what was called the “test of reason”: if it wasn’t logical, it was tossed out. Nothing was sacred. The very notion of royalty was challenged, and churches were turned into temples of Reason.
Even the use of city land for cemeteries — as you learn at the catacombs of Paris — was rejected. The sign reads: “Halt! This is the empire of death.” It kicks off a one-mile hike you won’t soon forget. The anonymous bones of 6 million permanent Parisians line former limestone quarries deep under the streets. In 1785, Paris decided to make its congested city more spacious and sanitary by emptying the cemeteries — which traditionally surrounded churches — into this labyrinthine ossuary.
For decades, priests led ceremonial processions of black-veiled, bone-laden carts into the quarries, where the bones were carefully and artistically stacked — as much as 80 feet deep. Each transfer was finished with a plaque identifying from which church the bones came, and the date they arrived.
While there is history in dem bones, the Carnavalet Museum — filling a lavish old aristocratic mansion — is the best place to sort through the story of Paris.
Pre-Revolutionary France had a government by, for, and of the wealthy. And as the rich got richer and richer, people who lived in fabulous mansions like this became blind to the growing gap between the haves and have nots in their country.
Louis XIV — a.k.a. “the Sun King” — was the ultimate king back when people accepted the notion that a few were born to rule and be rich, while most were born to be ruled and taken advantage of.
Room after room shows the opulence of the upper classes in the age leading up to the Revolution. Louis XIV, who enjoyed the luxury but anticipated trouble, said, “Après moi, le deluge” (after me, the flood).
The heart of the museum features that deluge, which hit when this man, Louis XVI, was king. The French Revolution was kicked off with the storming of the Bastille prison. Supporting the angry masses, the liberal wing of the government took matters into its own hands, declaring it wouldn’t quit until the people had a constitution. It was vive la Nation — liberté, égalité, and fraternité — until the people literally beheaded the king and queen.
The Place de la Révolution (or “Revolution Square”): It was here that the new-fangled guillotine, considered a humane form of execution in its day, was set up. And it was here that Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and over 2,000 others were made “a foot shorter at the top.”
According to this painting, it took three to run the guillotine: one to manage the blade, one to catch the blood, and one to hold the head — in this case, of Marie Antoinette — up to the crowd.
Today, Paris’ vast Revolution Square is called Place de la Concorde — “place of harmony.” The guillotine is long gone, and its centerpiece is an Egyptian obelisk.
The king and queen were beheaded by a stark and egalitarian government. But the French love of fine living couldn’t be kept down. The 19th century was a boom time for Paris. The entire city was beautified with grand new boulevards and fancy architecture. It was an exuberant age of money — if you had it, you flaunted it.
From the Place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysées — once a royal carriageway, now Europe’s grandest boulevard — leads to the Arc de Triomphe. The arch was dedicated to the victory of the people and their republic…the triumph of French Nationalism.
A glimpse of the decadence of Paris’ “beautiful age” (or belle époque) is enjoyed along the Champs-Elysées.
Paris’ old opera house — the grand palace of this gilded age — was finished in 1875. The real show was before and after, when the elite of Paris — out to see and be seen — strutted their elegant stuff in the extravagant lobbies. Think of the grand marble stairway as a theater itself, filled with Paris’ beautiful people.
The actual theater is a palace of plush and ornate seating. Above it all, a delightful ceiling — painted by Marc Chagall in the 1960s — frolics around an eight-ton chandelier.
Nearby, the Jacquemart-André Museum fills a 19th-century mansion offering the public a rare aristocratic open house. Edouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, spent their lives and fortune designing, building, and decorating this incredible mansion.
I’m enjoying tour by one of the museums fine guides, Ciara.
Ciara: Because, you know, they had no children, they had a lot of money and they used to travel a lot, and then they’d bring many souvenirs.
Rick: So, these are souvenirs?
Rick: What’s this?
Ciara: That’s the music room.
You can almost imagine the clatter of jewelry mixing with the chamber music as Edouard and Nélie threw a party.
Rick: This is the Italian room.
Ciara: Exactly, because they traveled in Italy. They loved Italian arts and they brought paintings of Bellini, Botticelli, Mantegna, Caravaggio…
…And Tiepolo, whose fresco graces the mansion’s lobby.
Ciara: And this is the bedroom.
Rick: So the monsieur and madame lived here?
Ciara: Yes, but this was the room of madame, chambre of madame.
Rick: So they had two different bedrooms?
Ciara: Exactly. That’s Nélie Jacquemart.
…And this was Edouard’s bedroom, complete with a deluxe bathroom.
For more of the decadence of that age check out the ritzy shops. It’s Ritzy in the true sense, since they cluster around the original Ritz Hotel.
Enjoy the luxury of this neighborhood by window-shopping, or as the French say, faire du lèche-vitrines — window licking.
Actually, today’s Paris thrives with ordinary people. The good life feels accessible to all. And, in the spirit of France’s revolution, the government truly seems to work for the people. While the stunning George Pompidou Center holds one of the world’s top modern art collections, most Parisians are happy just to hang out in front.
And apart from all its world-class attractions, millions of people call this city simply “home.” Neighborhoods enjoy first class public transit…and, if a train line’s decommissioned, it’s put to good use with its arches housing colorful shops and the elevated track made into a long, skinny park. The Promenade Plantée is popular for jogging or strolling, or just a peaceful break from the city.
There’s a time-honored finesse to Parisian life — a comfortable rhythm with kisses on the cheek, neighborhood street markets, and familiar faces at the corner café.
Whether you visit for its blockbuster monuments, its captivating history, or the simple delights of a café, Paris just might steal your heart. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Au revoir.
Rick: How do you like the onion soup?
Arnaud: I love it. You know it’s layered of cheese on top; it’s wonderful.
Rick: Oh come on, tell me the honest truth.
Arnaud: I just don’t like it!
Hey want to buy it? Hey you want to buy it? [snort]