This summer, I stayed in the City of Lights with a friend who has lived there for about five years. It was my fourth trip to Paris (which, yes, #extremelyprivileged), and I was blown away by how different this experience was from earlier visits, when I arrived with a guidebook and dutifully trotted to the Louvre, the Champs-Élysées, and the Eiffel Tower.
Yes, the biggies are on every itinerary ever for good reason. But when you slip away from the hordes of tourists and hang at the haunts of actual Parisians, you see a side of the city that’s more laid-back, more affable, and, in many ways, more beautiful. So by all means, follow your Fodor’s, your Frommer’s, and your trusty Rick Steves. But after you’ve checked off all those boxes, try these escapes for a little bit of that joie de vivre you keep hearing about.
Picnic at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, not the Luxembourg Gardens.
Sure, Luxembourg’s pristine gardens and manicured lawns make a classy backdrop to an al fresco meal of wine, cheese and baguette, but Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is the kind of public park you can get lost in (mentally, and also, sort of, physically): There are rolling hills, cool bridges, epic boulders and waterfalls and grottos — and the kind of people-watching you won’t find within a half-mile radius of any tourist trap. (When I was there, red-nosed clowns implored us in French to join them for a group sing. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Day-trip to Chateau Fontainebleau, not Versailles.
Versailles’ famed castle is gorgeous — so gorgeous, in fact, that three million tourists visit it every year. If you’re one of them, you’ll have to enjoy your views of its elegant façade, over-the-top decor and immaculate gardens while smushed against a sea of people. May I offer up another option for all the agoraphobes out there? Chateau Fontainebleau, located an hour outside the city via train and bus, features a sprawling palace showcasing French architecture that dates back to the 12th century, massive courtyards and forests and minimal crowds. You’re welcome.
Visit Sainte-Chapelle, not Notre-Dame.
I’m not telling you not to pause and take photos in front of the super-famous Gothic church’s façade, but the inside of Cathedrale Notre-Dame looks, well, about like you’d expect. (Pro tip: I showed up on a weekday at 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before visiting hours ended, and waltzed right in — a self-guided tour takes 10 minutes, tops.) When you’re done taking selfies on the courtyard out front, walk five minutes west to the Cathedrale Saint-Chapelle. There’ll be another line of tourists, but this one is worth the wait. Inside, marvel at the 13th century church’s elaborate stained glass windows and swooping lines. Helpful English guides hanging to the right of the door walk you through the biblical theme of each panel, so you can spend some time staring at the scriptures in colorful, crafted glass.