Illustration by Jocelyn Kao.
I could write you a list of the latest, hottest “hidden-treasure” bars and restaurants in Paris, but in an ever-changing capital such as it is, these places will be passé as soon as the ink dries. Instead of chasing the latest “authentic” spot, the best way to really experience Paris like a local is to adopt certain Parisian attitudes and habits, which remain the same no matter where you are. Here are my top recommendations:
Despite its modern appeal, Paris is very old. In some respects, it’s still a medieval city, oriented around humans, not cars. The different neighborhoods of the city are designed to be self-contained, with everything (or almost everything) a person could need within a 20-minute walk of their home. Therefore, it’s really rewarding to dig in and get to know your neighborhood. No matter where you are in Paris, you’re probably only a short walk from a bakery, butcher, greengrocer, pharmacy, fishmonger, café, bar and restaurant. Now it’s just up to you to make them your own!
Have 2 Favorite Boulangeries
When apprentice bakers (or patissiers) study their trade in France, they have to decide whether to specialize in bread or pastries and will focus their time accordingly. Therefore, individual boulangeries (bakeries) either produce excellent bread, or pastries — but not both. I personally recommend testing out a variety in your area before settling on your favorites.
Pro tip: Pay close attention to the names of the stores. If it’s called “Mr. Dupont Patisserie,” that means that Mr. Dupont sells pastries. If it’s called “Mr. Dupont: Patissier,” that means that Mr. Dupont is actually a master pastry maker. The difference here is Patisserie versus patissier. The same goes for boulangerie and boulanger.
Trust The Experts
French wine and cuisine can appear intimidating, but the key to unlocking excellent gastronomic experiences is handing the reins over to the experts. Some of my favorite conversations in Paris go like this:
- Me: “I need a bottle of red wine for tonight. I’m going to a dinner party. I think they’re serving pork but it could also be fish. It’s going to be pretty casual.”
- My local caviste: “Okay, how much do you want to spend?”
- Me: “About 10€.”
- Caviste, confidently rummaging through the shelves: “Here are three different options.”
- Me, under my breath: “Marry me.”
It’s so easy, and you can do this practically anywhere: at the cheese store, the butcher, the fishmonger, the bakery and the restaurant.
Have you ever noticed how the tables and chairs outside Parisian cafés face outwards, onto the street? This is no accident. Parisians love to linger over a coffee or glass of wine on the terrace and people-watch, observing the never-ending theater that is the outside world. The minute you step out your doorway, you automatically become part of this oeuvre, which is also perhaps why Parisians have a reputation for dressing very well. Paris is a beautiful city and they are just holding up their end of the bargain! So sit down, order a glass, and feast your eyes on passersby.
Switch To Espresso
The coffee scene in Paris is evolving at a rapid pace, with trendy roasters and hip single-origin Ethiopian-bean-serving cafés popping up left and right. Yet the standard Parisian coffee is still the humble espresso (probably made at a giant chrome Café Richard machine). It’s scalding hot, bitter, and frankly not great, but for better or worse, it’s what fuels the city. For extra authenticity points, order it standing at the zinc (bar) and knock it back quickly.
Order The Specials
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you’re probably aware that eating seasonally is good for your wallet, the environment and local business. While Parisians certainly didn’t invent this concept, they are good at upholding it, and the city is crammed with good restaurants and cafés whose menus change on a daily basis according to what is fresh. Make it a habit to eat in places like these, or even take it a step further and shop at the markets yourself. Not sure what to buy? Ask your greengrocer, they’ll tell you what’s good!
Skip The Queues
The mighty Louvre Museum, home to the Mona Lisa (La Joconde), Venus de Milo and over 35,000 other invaluable works of art is deservedly famous, but most Parisians actually avoid it during the long summer months because it gets so busy.
Meanwhile, there are over 100 other museums in the capital, many of which you’ve probably never heard of. A few that come to mind are the fabulous Musée des Lunettes et Lorgnettes Pierre Marly (history of eyewear, 1st arrondissement), Musée de la Contrefaçon (the museum of counterfeiting and forgery, 16th arrondissement), Musée du Service des Objets Trouvés ( the museum of lost-and-found objects, 15th arrondissement), and Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (the museum of hunting and nature, 3rd arrondissement). Skip the queues at the big monuments, and stay local. You never know what fabulous discovery is hiding just around the corner!
Indulge And Savor
The French joie de vivre, and their reputation for living well is no joke. In my experience, French people really do take longer lunches, order more desserts and drink more wine. They also don’t tie themselves up in knots feeling guilty about it. Go ahead, just order the moelleux au chocolat. Experiencing Paris like a local means that life is too short for regrets.