Paris is the jewel in France's crown. The proud, glorious capital has inspired thousands to creating poems and songs. But no one succeeds in capturing the city's spirit in words. And in fact, it would be impossible, as there is just not one single Paris. Each neighborhood has its own character. Pigalle is not Montmartre and the Quartier Latin is not St.-Germain-des-Prés. Paris has medieval grandeur and ultramodern buildings, exclusive residential districts and vibrant working-class neighborhoods, large avenues and intimate alleyways, noisy marketplaces and quiet parks.
Which is Paris' most beautiful avenue? The Champs-Elysées you say? Certainly not, it is the Seine, the lifeline that runs straight through the city and that is spanned by no less than thirty-four bridges. Did Napoleon III not already call it 'the main road between Paris, Rouen and Le Havre'? The river runs around two islets and on one of them – la Cité – the Romans decided to build the city of Lutetia. These days, the rather bulky silhouette of the Notre Dame predominates. The other island, St-Louis, is pedestrianized and an oasis of tranquility in the heart of Paris. Only the very well-to-do can afford an apartment here.
The longstanding distinction between the Seine's left bank (commercial, maybe even a bit coarse) and the right bank (intellectual, artistic) still applies. On the right bank you'll find the Louvre Museum, the stately Champs-Elysées with the Arc de Triomphe, and the Opéra. As well as the Centre Pompidou (ugly as sin according to some, beautifully modern according to others) and the Forum des Halles, just as controversial and with an underground shopping center. Oh well, initially the Parisians didn't like the Eiffel Tower either. On the left bank lies the cozy Quartier Latin – where more tourists than students walk around these days – and the very popular Jardin du Luxembourg.
East of the Centre Pompidou lies the neighborhood of Le Marais. In the 1970s this district was quite run-down, but as is the case in many other cities, private individuals and later contractors saw an opportunity. Old houses were refurbished and these days Le Marais is one of Paris' more expensive neighborhoods, including the trendy cafés that come with it. Fortunately the Jewish bakers are still around.
North of the inner city, the white Sacré-Coeur catches the eye, on top of Montmartre. At the foot lies the Place du Tertre, the realm of daubers who sell their 'art' for a lot of money to tourists. The district with its cobblestone streets has a unique charm that can really only be experienced on a cold winter day when those daubers sit close to the fireplace and there are barely any tourists ...
Just east of Montmartre, the ambiance is quite different. Many African immigrants live in this area. While the suburbs (banlieus) with immigrants are downright disconsolate and unsafe, this is a colorful neighborhood with stores and restaurants that radiate the nationality of their owners: Moroccan and Algerian, but also Senegalese and other nationalities from the former French colonies in Africa.
More immigrants from former colonies, but in this case from India, are concentrated in and around the Passage Brady between the Boulevard de Strasbourg and the Rue du Faubourg St-Denis. But India was British, you may think. Not entirely, on the east coast some parts were owned by the French. For those who love Indian food, Passage Brady is the place to go.
Traditionally, Place Pigalle is one of Paris' entertainment areas. A bit raunchy with many sex and peepshows, but that is not all there is. This neighborhood also houses large discotheques unrelated to the sex industry. However, if you prefer to go to a 'regular' entertainment area, we recommend the area of the Bastille. Here there are no mega discotheques, but there are cozy cafés and nightclubs, especially on and around Rue de Lappe and Rue de la Roquette.
In and around Paris
The Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in the Parc de la Villette is a very popular science museum. Great fun for kids as almost everything is interactive. Also for young children, as there is a special section with experiments and activities geared towards children in the ages of two to twelve years old.
More fun for children: East of Paris – near Marne la Vallée – lies Disneyland. Actually they are two attraction parks, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. Where the little ones will enjoy Mickey and Minnie Mouse walking around, the older ones will enjoy attractions such as Honey I shrunk the audience and Big Thunder Mountain.
The French have responded to the 'American Disney business' with a park on their national comic-strip hero Astérix. In Plailly – just north of Paris – lies the Parc Astérix, where they have recreated the courageous Gallic village, including a Roman army camp with incompetent soldiers. The dolphins and sea lions are another attraction in this park.
The village of Giverny is located eighty kilometers outside of Paris on the Seine's right bank. The surroundings are beautiful and have inspired many painters. Claude Monet lived here and his house and studio have now been converted into a museum.
You can park your rental car out on the streets, but generally you can only pay with a so-called Paris Card, a sort of chip card. In the center (districts 1 through 7) you pay the highest rate. The French capital also has many underground garages, but they are sometimes hard to find. You can usually find these garages in busy shopping streets, in the business districts and near tourist attractions.
Paris has two airports. The largest one is Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport, 23 kilometers northeast of the French capital. The airport is located along the A1 freeway. You can reach the airport via the A3 from Porte de Bagnolet.
Paris Orly Airport is located 14 kilometers south of Paris. There are different roads from the airport to Paris, depending on your destination. To Porte d'Orléans: freeway A6a; to Porte de Gentilly: freeway A6b; to Porte d'Italie: national road A7; to Porte de Bagnolet: freeway A3.