Published May 24, 2010
Whether it’s your first visit to Paris or your tenth, you ought to try something that may seem fiendishly simple, because it is: Living like a Parisian. This simply means taking advantage of all of the reasons people love living and playing in this city. When your trip is done, and if you’ve done it properly, you’ll see why Parisians have fought so hard to retain their 35-hour work week: they want to both have their cake as well as eat it. As a visitor, you can too.
Rent an apartment. Why? Because it typically costs less than a hotel, both upfront and because you can make more meals at “home.” Start your search on Paris Craigslist, where lots of English natives and speakers advertise. Don’t expect something palatial or over-equipped -- think small kitchen, decaying parquet, bathroom with a shower, small bedrooms and Euro-shabby-chic Ikea of a certain era (just not the same one) throughout. But you’ll also get great views and oftentimes, glorious Haussmann architecture and hidden courtyards.
Paris apartments are small by American standards. But Parisians, like many urban dwellers, live much of their lives outside their homes, and the array of external offerings reflects the reality of a highly literate and ambulatory workforce that places a high premium on excellent food and wine, green spaces for strolling, rollerblading and playing children, bookshops, easy-to-rent bikes, and a million other reasons to always find something to do while out and about.
4…Cultivate a café, or three
Consuming coffee in France is structured and civilized -- a microcosm of what it means to be French. There’s a café for every requirement or budget, from the brasserie (low) to the true café (high, but relatively still inexpensive). Some fill with a younger, arty crowd in the late afternoon and evening, such as Malongo (50 Rue Saint-André des Arts, 01 43 26 47 10) -- a few rungs up the chic scale -- which features a special espresso of the month. Others, such as Bar de l'Entracte (47 Rue de Montpensier, 01 42 97 57 76) have to-die-for pain perdu (French toast) for dessert.
But the full democracy is found in the brasserie. Stand at the counter for instant socializing or a quick espresso. Pay a bit more and sit down to browse the newspaper or local magazine Pariscope to plan your day. Or pay even more to sit on the outdoor terrace for a romantic rendezvous, or to play flâneur (loafer) and watch the strata of Parisian life streaming by, all locals and tourists and joggers and couples and dogs watching dogs in a never-ending glory of urban momentum.
3…Have a picnic, or dinner at "home"
The dirty little secret of eating in Paris is that unless you're going to really splurge on a nice restaurant, you can spend less and eat better if you don’t mind doing a little cooking or gathering, owing to the incredibly fresh ingredients on hand.
To eat like a Parisian (at least one at a dinner party), have a kir (white wine and cassis), then wine, a starter-- perhaps smoked salt cod eggs and with blinis from a local epicerie, a main course of duck breast (magret) grilled rare with mashed potatoes and side salad, followed by a few cheeses -- ripe époisse or aged chèvre wrapped in a banana leaf, then pastries, an espresso, and as much Armagnac as you dare.
Source the meal -- or just a good picnic to be enjoyed in one of Paris’s many parks -- from your neighborhood’s twice-weekly morning market, such as the Bastille market (Tuesdays and Sundays, from 7am). Also visit your neighborhood shops -- the cheese-seller, terrine-maker, foie gras specialist, butcher, wine merchant, pastry-maker, and of course any of the five or more boulangeries sure to be within a 10-minute walk. (Sample them all.) For staples or easy meals, don’t forget the local supermarkets (Champion, Franprix, Monoprix).
2…Master the language of the local brasserie
Locals do dine out and, of course, you’ll want to as well, but forget the guidebooks, three-star hot spots, and endless lines. "Eating like a local" means trying the neighborhood brasserie on the corner, serving correct -- fresh, traditional -- French food. Order a formule (fixed price starter, main, dessert), a carafe of the house wine, some bottled water, then sit back, take your time, and finish it all off with an espresso.
A traditional meal might mean steak frites, salade composée (often mixing greens, cheese, meat), fish, confit de canard (preserved duck legs) or entrecôte (steak). But don’t limit yourself to the traditional. A worthy night out might find you at Ganesh Corner (16 rue Perdonnet, 01 46 07 35 32) for inexpensive Indian food and ample people-watching opportunities -- the Paris Hell’s Angels branch is across the street from here.
When you do want to splurge, look for something small, intimate and obsessed with fresh ingredients, such as Le Timbre (3 Rue Sainte-Beuve, 01 45 49 10 40). While the menu (€30 for three courses at dinner) varies, try cassoulet of escargot and chorizo with a parsley-olive oil drizzle; crunchy, grilled boudin noir (blood sausage) over lardons and onions; and a sinful millefeuille, interspersing homemade puff pastry and sinful, Frangelico-infused pastry cream. Reservations required.
1…Shop like a Parisian
Want to shop like a local? Time your visit to coincide with the annual sales (soldes), a French institution that -- due to government restrictions -- happen only twice per year, around January and July. (For 2010, next up is June 30 to August 3). While discounts are greatest by the end, most Parisians hit the sales on the first day to snap up the best selections.
Start in the morning with a fortifying espresso, then attack the Grands Magasins -- Printemps and Galeries Lafayette (Blvd Haussmann). Also BHV, H&M and numerous shoe shops (Rue de Rivoli). For the department stores -- cue funky layouts, goods sometimes arranged by function, other times by label, with random sale items hiding in the basement . Be ready to browse, and with your appetite sharpened by shopping, there’s yet one more place you’ll want to eat: head south to the gas-lamp ambience of Café de la Tournelle (5 rue Hautefeuille, 01 46 33 12 47), a bistro favored by Sorbonne professors. For €15 order a glass of wine and a main course, such as the bœuf tartare (steak tartare studded with minced parsley) with side salad and still-sizzling grilled potatoes eliminating all remaining white space on the plate. Then order cake.