My favorite Parisian food street is located on the eclectic, electric Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, offering both cheap and cheerful classic French cuisine and a rainbow selection of ethnic cuisines: Turkish, Kurdish, Indian, Senegalese, Lebanese.
When it comes to traditional cuisine, Bouillon Julien is unbeatable with great Art Nouveau decor and a really affordable menu; egg mayonnaise €3.90, beer stewed pickle €11. Just be prepared to queue for a table. Further down the street, Le Daily Syrien Veggie offers tasty mezze, and Urfa Dürüm’s hand-rolled wraps take a little beating.
The best deals for eating out are always at lunchtime, and bistros offer affordable prices plat du jour or a ready-made menu, and local bakeries offer bargain lunches, often to the table on the terrace on the pavement – a thick sandwich with a baguette, bakery and a soft drink for €6-8.
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In the heart of the Latin Quarter, lunch at L’Assignat is reminiscent of a 1960s French movie: walls covered in exhibition posters, Sorbonne students at the bar, happy gourmets enjoying homemade pâtés and a €14 blanquette de veau, prepared in tiny kitchen by the cheerful chef, the owner Gérard. There aren’t many authentic places like this anymore.
Remember that most Parisian neighborhoods have their own market, where you can find food stalls or eat a plate of oysters outside the fishmonger. Bistros around Parisian stations always offer great deals, like my local Le Relais Diderot, where chef Ali, the Algerian Berber, is open all day serving hearty vegetarian couscous for €9, or French specials like steak frites or boeuf bourguignon (€9.50).
The Paris City Hall oversees nearly a dozen small, offbeat museums that don’t charge admission. My favorites are Carnavalet, illustrating the history of the City of Lights, recently reopened after a major renovation; and in Pigalle the Musée de la Vie Romantique is a hidden gem. While the Grand Palais is closed for renovation, the permanent collection of the equally ornate Petit Palais is free daily, as is the grander Musée d’Art Moderne opposite the Eiffel Tower. And there is always a free temporary exhibition in the magnificent Hôtel de Ville itself; Currently, Capitale(s) is dedicated to Parisian street art.
For those who really want to hit the blockbuster museums, there’s free entry (online booking required) on the first Sunday of each month to most of the museum’s permanent collections (not temporary shows), from the masterpieces of the Louvre to the great Impressionists at L’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay .
The historic Père Lachaise Cemetery is the only Parisian sight I keep coming back to. It is a peaceful oasis where I like to get lost, always finding new discoveries hidden in a narrow maze of winding streets lined with thousands of ornate tombs, leaving tourists poring over maps to track down the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust and Marcel marceau.
There’s a great walk by the water along the Canal Saint-Martin, with its funky bars and bistros, all the way to the Bassin de la Villette, where barges moored on the quayside of what is now the Ourcq Canal serve as venues for live concerts, until the waterway enters the giant Villette Park, perfect for a picnic on a sunny day.
Rather than join the crowds at Montmartre’s iconic Sacré-Coeur, I prefer to hop on the RER subway to the equally impressive Saint-Denis Basilica, where almost all of France’s kings are buried. The dirty suburb of Saint-Denis is a world away from central Paris, with its bustling Saturday street market and raucous African restaurants, but the 12th-century Gothic cathedral always takes my breath away.
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The favorite green area of many Parisians is the Jardin des Plantes, an ancient botanical garden dating back 400 years, full of colorful flowers and exotic plants.
If you’re looking for a bargain, forget about famous department stores like Galeries Lafayette and head to one of the great weekend flea markets. Guidebooks say Clignancourt is the biggest and best, but I prefer the scruffy Puces de Montreuil, perfect for vintage fashion.
Bars and cafes
Leaving behind the bustling nightlife of funky Rue Oberkampf, I’d rather head to the best rock’n’roll bar around, Aux Folies in Belleville. Surrounded by the sparkling retro decor of a 19th-century cabaret, with great music on the sound system, grab a table and order a glass of house wine, pint of beer or pastis for €3-4, then relax and enjoy this slice of local Parisian life.
In the now-fashionable food and flea market on Place d’Aligre, Le Penty stubbornly resists gentrification, with a brilliant patron, Monsieur Jojo, serving up his signature tall glasses of steaming mint tea with crispy pine nuts for €2.30. On weekends, shoppers munch on a delicious croque monsieur, locals flock to the bar, and street vendors and street cleaners in green uniforms drop in and out for a quick coffee. For a Saturday night at the bar, just head back to the Faubourg Saint-Denis, which is full of partygoers until the wee hours of the morning.
Start with the cheapest watering hole on the street and with the longest happy hour, the wild bar on the corner of Le Château d’Eau. There is no guarantee what time you will get home. On Sunday nights, Le Quartier Rouge’s bustling bistro bar hosts free live jazz sessions from 6pm. They serve tasty food and drinks are not included in the concert surcharge – just remember to put some cash in the musicians hat.
Where to stay
Generator Paris offers hostel dormitories and private double rooms – as well as a trendy rooftop bar – near Gare du Nord for Eurostar, from €23 per person in a dorm or from €78 for a basic double room. A more local, trendy hostel, The People in Paris Nation (also with a rooftop bar) offers a bed in an 8-bed dormitory from €31.50 per person.