After about the fifth or tenth hour of cobbling together this post, I realized that writing this post was kind of dumb. Because a ginormous roundup of my favorite things from a city I only lived in for four months over four years ago when I had sub-minimal grasp of the native language doesn't make for trustworthy advice.
Yet I continued anyway, because people keep visiting Paris and sometimes these people ask for my advice or I feel compelled to foist it upon them, despite that my advice is sorely outdated. I did once write a very incomplete guide to Paris (indeed, its title was, "A very incomplete guide to Paris") back in 2007, but when I read it last week I realized not only was it incomplete, it was written so poorly that it sounded like I had poo-brain. IT HAD TO BE DESTROYED. So destroyed it, I did (and by that I mean I switched its status from "published" to "unpublished"), although I retained a few bits and incorporated them into this post.
But first, to dissuade you from reading further since I'm all about giving people low expectations, remember that stuff I said two paragraphs ago? Yeeeah, I'm writing this post based on experiences that are about four years old, from a paltry four-month stay in Paris (erm, while living with an American family, learning hardly any French along the way...guys, this family had Wi-Fi, precious Wi-Fi) while spending a semester at The American University of Paris. Also, I mostly focused on eating baked goods, desserts, and other inexpensive foodstuffs* (I don't drink alcohol and I failed to delve into cheese for some reason, gasp), which leaves out a whole lot of potential foodstuffs. But...um...what...ever...
For some trustworthy sources on where to eat in Paris not-four-years-ago from people who live and breathe Paris, check out the sites of food writers Dorie Greenspan, David Lebovitz, and Clothilde Dusoulier, who've all written recipe books about French food and/or guides on where to eat in Paris. I would blindly follow them with mouth wide open. Because they would lead me to something delicious/fatty/sweet and I want it to go right in here [points to mouth].
Please leave comments about anything here that needs updated info or is factually incorrect—I'm no expert on French food by any means, but would love to learn more. Recommendations are welcome as well! And if you have any related questions, feel free to ask—I can tack on more info to this post.
AAAAAND now it is mega-photosplodge time.
Pierre Hermé: Yeah, how cliché of me to start with Pierre. Well. HIS PASTRIES ARE SO GODDAMN GOOD. Those macarons. Those chocolates. Those tarts. Those croissants. That lychee-raspberry-rose ispahan (which for some reason I didn't like the first time I ate it; the second time I realized it was sort of perfect). The...the flavors, the ones you think you've eaten before, but then you eat them in Pierre Hermé-form and they form something new. That sounds corny—I don't care.
So yes, you should go there. Head to my "Pierre Hermé overload" post for...well, just that. You'll find more gushing in "Patisseries in Paris, Part II." (I don't want to make it seem like every dessert is a revelatory experience. Some stuff I've eaten there I barely remember aside from being good, while other things I can't forget. So to me the scale goes from, "Mm, this is good in the moment," to "THIS IS GOOD FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVER." Okay I sound nuts.)
Ladurée: Ladurée is the king/queen/something-or-other of macarons in Paris and is credited with inventing the two-cookie-cream-filled French macaron as we see it today. They're great, but they're my second favorite to Pierre Hermé's. I also prefer Pierre Hermé's aesthetic, not that there's anything wrong with Ladurée's. It's very...luxurious, almost overbearingly so. Check out some photos of the Champs Elysées location on their website. So why would I go to Ladurée if I like Pierre Hermé so much? So I can sit down, perhaps with a chandelier hanging over my head, while eating their pastries and OD-ing on stomach coating-ly thick hot chocolate. The few non-macaron pastries I tried were awesome—everything I ate in this post I'd want to eat again. I didn't think I liked millefeuille, but at Ladurée, I do. I didn't think I was that into tarte tatin either, until I ate Ladurée's, which was the best I had ever eaten (not that I've eaten that many, but I keep trying in case I eventually find one that's as good). Those desserts had the good fortune of being eaten on site; I don't think they'd taste as good if taken to go.
Another plus for Ladurée is that they have a colorful selection of sturdy, elegant boxes that make cross-continental gift giving easy; when I left Paris at the end of 2006 I came home with a whole stash of slender Ladurée macaron-filled boxes of to give to some friends (along with small boxes of Pierre Hermé chocolates, among other things).
Pozzetto: Even though Berthillon is the most renown glacier in Paris, my heart belongs to gelato. And my favorite place for gelato is Pozzetto. (On retrospect, I should've tried Berthillon more often, but I kept going to Pozzetto! I COULDN'T HELP IT, OK.) They have two locations, but I've only been to the one in the Marais. Don't be swayed by Amorino (although it's fine for a chain; I went there a few times) when you can go to Pozzetto and sit down with a tall cup piled high with gelato slabs. Read more about it here and here.
Stéphane Secco Boulangerie/Patisserie: I went to this bakery more than any other...because it was right by my school. Erm. But also because I loved it. God knows there are plenty of other bakeries in that area (well, there are plenty of bakeries in every area), but Secco is the one I'd make a beeline for. Baguettes, croissants (and other viennoiserie), cheesecake, tarts, everything...well, not the macarons, but most other things. Read more about it in "Patisseries in Paris, Part III."
If you look in my old posts you'll notice that I also call it Poujauran. The awning used to say Poujauran, a holdover of Secco taking over the space from its previous owner, famed boulanger Jean-Luc Poujauran. Looks like they changed the sign since then, a good idea since it was sort of confusing.
La Boulangerie Julien: This is also filed under "places I went to a bunch of times because it was near my school," the draw being their sandwiches on great baguettes. Their website lists a few locations, but for some reason not the one I went to at 85 Rue Saint-Dominique (er, I hope it's still there!). Read more in "Patisseries in Paris, Part I."
Le Relais Gascon: This place pretty much ruined any other salad for me from the first time I went there. I mean, I can still enjoy a well crafted salad, but deep down I just want Le Relais Gascon's extreme version topped with fried potatoes, foie gras paté, and smoked duck. That's roughly 500% awesome and -100% healthy. God oh god oh god I love it so much.
Mi-Va-Mi: Perhaps calling this a favorite is a stretch since I only went there once, but it tasted much better than the city's most famous falafel joint, L'as du Fallafel. I'd be happy to go back the next time I visit Paris.
Chez Omar: This is also a stretch since I only ate there once, but it was one of the most memorable meals I ate in Paris. Aside from the good food, this place got loads of points for the old school French interior, severely cramped (but charmingly so) tables, friendly waiters, and boisterous diners. Why didn't I go back? Dammit. Moroccan food, you're damn good.
I made this section to highlight foodstuffs that I loved but didn't have to get from a certain place. Not to say that all versions of these things are good everywhere in Paris, but they're common. You could find this stuff outside of Paris too, of course, but it all tastes better in Paris because 1) Some stuff is better in Paris, and 2) Even if it's not actually better, it'll taste better there because YOU ARE IN PARIS, IT IS A MAGICAL LAND? Ok.
Baguettes: I became a bit obsessed with finding good baguettes after reading Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything in which he shares a list of the best baguettes in Paris. Could those ubiquitous rods of crusty, chewy leavened wheat change my life? YESSSSSSSSSSSS. I mostly ate mine from Secco and Julien since they were near my school, but you may be better off checking out the top scoring bakeries in 2010's "Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris" along with this map of the top scorers from 2008-2010 made by Meg Zimbeck. Go for a baguette de tradition as opposed to a regular baguette. I was also a big fan of the baguette monge from Maison Kayser.
Croissants: You don't need me to tell you to eat croissants, but I'm telling you anyway: Eat them. You're surrounded by those flaky buttery things. They're good. ...Ok, they're not all good, as I found out when I once ate a super cheap one from a bakery case outside of a grocery store (learned my lesson there), but I think that was an exception in a city of awesome bakeries. If you have a choice between a regular croissant and a croissant au beuerre (with butter), go for the butter. That's sort of a no-brainer, but if it were really a no-brainer I feel like those regular croissants wouldn't exist.
Anyhoo, Google around for the best croissants in Paris and you'll get lots of results. In 2006 French newspaper Le Figaro did a huge croissant taste test between 32 croissants. Pierre Herme was number one. And while, yes, their croissant is awesome, you don't have to go out of your way for theirs to attain croissant happiness.
Croissant aux amandes: Old croissants aren't doomed to die in stale loneliness; they get reborn as croissant aux amandes. And what a glorious rebirth it is: coated in light syrup, stuffed with almond cream, and topped with slivered almonds before being rebaked (check out Chocolate and Zucchini for a recipe). Hell yeeeaah I ate a crapload of these. You should too.
Pain aux raisins: Croissant dough that's rolled up with raisins and cream filling. Freakin' sweet. Shove them all into my mouth.
Palmier: It's a bagaillion thin, shatteringly crisp layers of buttery puff pastry rolled up into a sort-of-palm-tree shape. This is one of the first things I bought in Paris on a whim while roaming around for food. And thus the seed of palmier love was planted.
Canelés: On the outside, canelés have a crisp, golden/deeply brown outer crust, while their cream-colored innards are sort of like a slightly chewy rum and vanilla custard. I loved the one I tried from Pierre Herme, but Baillardran, based in the canelé homemade of Bordeaux, is a good bet too since that's their specialty. (Unfortunately, I didn't try these—argh! Also, despite what Ballairdran's site says, Chocolate and Zucchini says the locations at Gare Montparnasse have closed in lieu of the shop at 12 Boulevard des Capucines.) Another canelé maker from Bordeaux is Lemoine at 74 Rue Saint Dominique—which I embarrassingly passed all the time during school yet never tried. [internally swears a lot] Not all canelés are good; seems like I didn't like the one from Secco (er, back in 2006) and this other one I tried was too chewy. But when they're good, they're really good.
Macarons: I wouldn't feel that compelled to get macarons from anywhere besides Pierre Hermé, but they're certainly not the only place that makes good ones. There's also the aforementioned Ladurée, Lenôtre, Dalloyau, Gerard Mulot, Fauchon, and...oh god, there are so many places, I'm not going to bother listing them all. You'll find macarons in pretty much every patisserie, but like anything else, not all places make them well. There is (or there was) actually a competition for the best macaron in Paris, Le Meilleur Macaron de Paris, but it looks like someone fell asleep at the domain-name-registration wheel and now their site is full of brainfart written in English. On the upside, Waybackmachine.org has it archived—ah, thank ye Internet gods. Looks like the contest was last held in 2007.
For more about macarons, check out my lil' macarons series on Serious Eats.
- Garlic-topped confit de canard on top of fried potatoes...with some salad to balance it out. From Cafe du Marche.
Confit de canard: One of my most favorite dishes in the world: garlicky salt-cured duck leg poached in its own fat for meltingly tender meat, then roasted to crispify the skin. The first time I ate it was at Café du Marché near my school. Hooked for life. I should make it at home.
Gyros stuffed with meat and french fries: I only ate this once during my semester in Paris and I have no idea why I would limit myself to a single visit. ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH. I've never been into gyros (or rather, just never gave them a chance) until I ate one stuffed with burning hot fries fresh from the oil pit (I'm not sure what the meat was; lamb, beef, both?). Unfortunately, while my first taste at Maison de Gyros in Saint-Michel made me want to cry pita-wrapped tears of happiness, my second taste during my trip to Paris three months later was far less satisfying—more like sad and dry. But I still carry a torch for this kind of gyro, and if I went back to Paris, I'd try it again.
Cassoulet: Beans, duck, sausages, and more in various forms, slow cooked together to form the heartiest of stews. Embrace the meat explosion. The restaurant I ate it at in 2006 seems to have closed since then, but keep your eyes open for the dish elsewhere.
- Steak tartare from Le Trumilou.
Steak tartare: I'll admit that I only like eating steak tartare if it comes with fries or some other fried potato matter, but I could say the same about other meat dishes I like—that they need the appropriate starch accompaniment. Spiced minced raw beef + whole lot of golden potato sticks = HAPPINESS.
- from Le Trumilou.
Poire belle-hélène: An ice cream sundae-esque dessert of poached pear, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream sprinkled with sliced almonds. The version I ate at Le Trumilou came with two Gavottes, a light rolled-up cookie with fine crispy layers, which made me realize that I HAD TO EAT MORE GAVOTTES. I bought a box the next day.
Brandade de morue: Salt cod + oil oil + garlic + potato (maybe) + breadcrumb topping = YAY. Brandade de morue is a cod fish-based dip, not necessarily made with potatoes, but the versions I ate in Paris at Chez Janou and Le Comptoir du Relais were served au gratin, baked fish pies with a crispy breadcrumb topping harboring creamy garlic-laden cod innards.
Guimauves maison: What I see when I think of an American marshmallow: fat little cylindrical blobs best used as an ingredient in other desserts or in a cup of hot chocolate. What I see when I think of a French guimauve: long marshmallow rods in all different colors and flavors best chomped on straight out of the bakery. Not that they don't also have regular mass-produced ones; guimauves maison are the homemade ones you may spot through bakery windows. The last time I went to Paris I bought a whole bunch at Boulangerie Malineau, but lots of places make them, not necessarily in rods. I wanted to try the ones from Pain de Sucre but didn't get to before I left (yeah, I know I had four months—what the heck).
La Fermière yogurt: I'm not much of a yogurt fan, but French people love the stuff. Because their yogurt is better than ours (or maybe I only say that because I'm bored with the stuff here, whatever). I ate more yogurt during those four months of Paris than I have over the last four years of living in New York, mostly due to the existence of La Fermière's vanilla yogurt. The texture is nothing like other yogurts I've had—not runny, but firm, and not dense like Greek yogurt or Skyr (although I do like both of those)—and the mildly sweet, tangy vanilla flavor made it seem like a sort of acceptably snack-able-anytime vanilla pudding. Oh, and they come in adorable terra cotta cups. I collected them over the course of the semester (I can't believe I didn't take a photo of this; I had built a fort of yogurt cups on my desk), but only brought a few back to the US.
You can't eat all day, right? ...Okay maybe you can, but here are some of my favorite non-food-related places in Paris, which are mostly places you'd probably visit anyway.
The Louvre: I'm not much of an art lover, so why did I go to the Louvre so much? Mostly because I had to buy a one-year student membership card for school, so I may as well have gotten the most out of it. (A one-day ticket costs €10. Depending on how many times you plan on visiting in a year, those under 30 could save money with a Carte Jeunes: €15 if you're 18-25, €30 if you're 26-30. It's nice that you can get a discount even if you're not a student, although sort of sucks if you're older and just don't have much money.) But I genuinely enjoyed it—the building itself, the Palais de Louvre. So I mostly loved walking in and around the building, finding new things all the time, although seeing art along the way didn't hurt.
Montmartre: It's got pockets crowded with tourists and tacky shops, but also quiet spots, beautiful little streets and steeps staircases, and views from the highest point in Paris. (I actually look forward to climbing the stairs. Yes, I enjoyed something involving physical exertion. This may never happen again.) After you visit the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur you should roam around and eat this giant salad.
The Marais: Sooo Wikipedia tells me that the Marais is one of the major neighborhoods for art galleries, fashion houses, and gay-friendly businesses, but I mostly went there to gawk at bakeries, chocolate shops, and restaurants. Probably because I didn't notice much beyond bakeries, chocolate shops, and restaurants. Check out these walking tours from National Geographic and Paris 48 for more useful suggestions on where to get your fill of beautiful historical landmarks. Other stuff near there that isn't food: Centre Pompidou (the largest modern art museum in Europe), Forum des Halles (a huge mall, in case you want to go to one of those), and BHV (a huge department store that was a bit of a lifesaver when I needed a large storage container to stuff food in for my trip back to NYC). The Louvre isn't too far if you head west, and Notre Dame is close too, if you head south, along with Saint-Michel, full of gyros and other foodstuffs. THERE IS A LOT IN THAT AREA, it'll make your brain will explode.
The Seine: As much as I love New York City, I would love it a crapload more if it had a river running through it. It's respite from the city in the middle of the city. Walk over it on bridges, walk by it on below-street-level paths, sit next to it and watch the boats go by...awwyeaaahhuuhhhhnngggmuuhhh[enthusiasm dissolves into sobs of longing].
- Clockwise from top left: Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin des Plantes, Parc du Champs de Mars.
Parks: Yeah, that's a vague one. I did not take advantage of the mega-parks (Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries, etc; just look for the big green blocks) as much as I should've. They're beautiful open spaces. ...Actually, whether you think they're beautiful depends on how you like your parks—the parks I saw seemed to be perfectly manicured, whcih could be tiresome after a while. It's not wild nature, but I'm down with that.
The 6 Line Over the Seine: The 6 line runs above ground part of its route. Living off the 6, I grew fond of the view between Bir-Hakiem and Passy where you can catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur out the window.
Pont des Arts: This pedestrian bridge in the center of the city isn't just for walking—you can also sit along the edges in groups, break out a bottle of wine, some snacks, and a guitar, and have a contained party. I would go for that in a heartbeat—bearing cake and milk tea. It's also laden with "lovelocks" along the metal fences that line the bridge (see more in this flickr pool), yet I didn't look closely enough to notice them.
Any cafe: Even though I didn't go to cafes that often, I loved that they existed. Everywhere. You can stop in for a cup of coffee, sit back at a sidewalk table, and just...sit and relax. They were great for when I wanted to hang out with a friend before or after a meal in a comfortable setting, or if didn't have a specific place in mind to grab a meal, but wanted something casual and French.
Things I Wish I Had Done
Go up the Eiffel Tower: File this under "It's really touristy, but you should probably do it at least once." I lived pretty close to the Eiffel Tower, walked right by it a few times, and saw it every morning I left for school, but didn't actually...go up it. Fail. Granted, I had gone up it once during a family trip to France when I was seven, but I don't recall much besides that it was, ye know, really high up.
Visit the Palace of Versailles: Versailles isn't far from Paris. Don't know why I didn't make a day trip out of that. The closest I got was when my friend Yann drove us by there one night.
Eat more chocolate: I'm more smitted by baked goods than chocolate, but man, I should've eaten more chocolate. I'll never have so many excellent chocolatiers at my fingertips ever agaaaain.
Get a loaf of bread from Poilâne: The over 70-year-old Poilâne is one of the most famous bakeries in Paris—they ship their bread around the world, recently came out with a recipe book, have a location in London, and sell a selection of their products in major supermarkets. I've walked by both of their shops in Paris, aware of their reputation, so I really have no excuse for not having actually gone inside either of those shops. I tried some of their famous Poilâne loaf and punitions at my nearby Casino, but that's not the same as going to the source.
Visit Square du Vert-Galant: I only came across this tiny park at the tip of l'île de la Cité at night when it was closed. I was all like, "Yeah, I'm totally going to come back in the daytime!" and then I totally didn't.
Visit more outdoor markets: Paris has loads of outdoor markets, biut I can't tell you anything about them because I barely visited any. :C
Visit the Catacombs: Because I don't get many opportunities to be surrounded by carefully stacked skeletal remains from the 18th century in an underground ossuary. Next time, I'll get my chance.
...Oh hell, I could keep going and going. I'd have to live in Paris for ages to see everything I want to see.
So. That's it.