12 ways to experience romantic Paris

Paris is known as the capital of romance. But once you've snapped a romantic photo with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, what other romantic things are there to do? We've gathered up our 12 favourite unique experiences that are sure to impress your date
Paris' most romantic experiences
Paris romantic experiences. Photo: Shutterstock

Paris enjoys an image as one of the world's most romantic cities, yet what makes it romantic is hard to pin down; here's how to experience it for yourself

It all comes down to an endless collection of the smallest things: treasure hunting with your date to find the perfect gift for one another, the feeling of exhilaration after climbing to find the perfect view, or a quiet picnic in a park used by 19th-century royalty. Our latest extract from the brand-new guidebook Experience Paris will show you some of the best off-the-beaten-path romantic experiences.

1. Bask in romance and splendour at the Palais Garnier

It’s hard to imagine anything more extravagant than the Palais Garnier, the opera house that has come to symbolise Second Empire Paris and Napoleon III’s ambition to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world, and which is still an incredibly glamorous place to watch opera or the ballet. It was built between 1860 and 1875, after Charles Garnier saw off 170 competing architects, concocting a gloriously eclectic affair. 

If you don’t have tickets for a performance, visit during the day to absorb the fabulously over-the-top decor. For visits, the entrance is at the side, beneath the ramp intended as an imperial carriage entrance, which gives the impression of walking through a grotto before you arrive at the grand staircase built in gaudy polychrome marble. Halfway up, two grandiose caryatids support the entrance to the Amphithéâtre (dress circle), where you can visit a baignoire (box) all in red damask and velvet and gaze over the auditorium with its massive chandelier and ceiling painted by Chagall, a controversial addition in 1964. Most opulent of all is the beautifully restored Grand Foyer, laden with marble and sculpted, gilded and painted ceilings that make even Versailles look modest. 

The Palais Garnier recently added L’Opéra, a space-age red and white restaurant designed by architect Odile Decq, apparently just where Garnier had planned one. If you want to dine in true Garnier surroundings, Garnier also designed the opulent and very expensive Café de la Paix across the square. 

2. Explore the network of covered Passages between Palais-Royal and Opéra

The 19th-century covered passages were fore runners of the shopping mall or department stores, allowing Parisians to inspect novelties and traverse the town sheltered from the rain and horse-drawn traffic. Several still criss-cross the area between Palais-Royal and Opéra. Galerie Vivienne, inaugurated in 1826, is definitely the smartest of the passages (an aspiration revealed in the tag ‘Galerie’ rather than ‘Passage’), with anchors and cornucopias carved on the wooden facades, fan lights and elaborate mosaic floors. 

Wine merchant Legrand Filles et Fils, with a huge choice of wines and a tasting counter on the spot, and popular Bistrot Vivienne frame the entrance on rue des Petits-Champs; then come shawls and silks at Wolff et Descourtis, upmarket dépôt-vente (consignment store) La Marelle, colourful dresses at Nathalie Garçon, and the ladylike tea room A Priori Thé

Passage des Panoramas is the earliest of the covered passages. Today it’s been colonised by wine bars, bistros, North African and Indian restaurants, including hip wine bar Coinstot Vino, gourmet Passage 53, and old-fashioned Bar des Variétés, with old Paris Match covers glued over the bar. 

Children's ships in fountain near Luxembourg Palace in the Luxembourg Garden. Photo: ShutterstockChildren's ships in fountain near Luxembourg Palace in the Luxembourg Garden. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Take a pew in one of the iconic green chairs of the Jardin du Luxembourg

The classic Parisian park with sculptures, a bandstand and all the activities and facilities for garden starved apartment dwellers, the Jardin du Luxembourg is not so much old-fashioned as timeless: a palimpsest of Parisian life, with its pétanque pitches, tennis courts, cafés, playgrounds and sandpits, go carts, pony rides, cast-iron carousel, and a circular pond where generations of children have hired toy sailing boats in summer. 

One thing the Luxembourg gardens has made its own is the green metal Luxembourg chair, a desirable attribute for practising the très Parisian art of people-watching. There are gravel paths and lawns, bee hives where you can take courses in beekeeping and heritage collections of neatly espaliered apple and pear trees. The gardens are also a mini museum of sculpture, with the white stone figures of the queens of France providing a splendid evocation of fashion down the centuries and a sort of proto-feminist recognition of obscure women. Most dramatic is the Médicis fountain modelled on Renaissance grottoes, a giant cyclops looming over the romantically gloomy carp pool. 

4. Go aquatic in the new east with a dip in a floating swimming pool and nautical nightlife to follow

The Paris Seine Rive Gauche development area, dubbed the ‘new Latin Quarter’, is unlike many new districts mainly devoted to business; here there’s a surprisingly successful mix: a university, residential, business and even entertainment district, where new buildings are interspersed with parks and traces of the area’s industrial past. During the week it buzzes with students and office workers, at weekends it’s more likely to be cinema-goers heading for the 14-screen MK2 Bibliothèque multiplex. Behind the library, the broad avenue de France has been laid out, a frontier between brave new world and old Paris. Spot the homage to Astérix’s creator in rue René-Goscinny, where speech bubbles adorn lamp posts, and the Biopark, its buildings covered in a tangle of climbing plants. 

On the waterfront, Les Docks– Cité de la Mode et du Design housed in former warehouses, has a museum dedicated to cartoons and video games; there are also bars, nightclubs and restaurants including a summer terrace on its undulating green roof. 

South east of the library, the Port de la Gare has become another new entertainment hub with the Piscine Josephine Baker, a floating swimming pool with a retractable roof and sunbathing deck in summer, and a cluster of lively music bars. Red steel lighthouse ship Batofar is one of Paris’s best clubs with a bar and restaurant. La Dame de Canton puts on eclectic live music and DJs in a Chinese sailing junk, while purple Bateau El Alamein veers more towards chanson and jazz.

Parisian Batofar. Photo: Rog01/FlickrParisian Batofar. Photo: Rog01/Flickr

5. Get under the belly of the Iron Lady for the most spine-tingling views

Among nicknames for the Eiffel Tower are la dame de fer (the iron lady) and la grande oreille (the big ear), the latter relating to the use of its radio station to listen in on enemy messages during World War I. Intended to show off France’s engineering prowess for the World Fair of 1889, on the centenary of the French Revolution, the tower was constructed on the Champ de Mars, the former military parade ground where celebrations for the anniversary of the Revolution were held in the 1790s. As with many modern arrivals, Gustave Eiffel’s structure was initially feared or detested by many. During its construction, poet François Coppée wrote ‘the monster is hideous’, while William Morris claimed to go up it every day for lunch simply to avoid having to see it from afar. 

But Gustave Eiffel defended his project: ‘I believe, for my part, that the tower will have its own beauty.’ The fascinating structure drew nearly two million visitors during the world fair and now regularly receives 7 million visitors a year. The tower was intended to be temporary, but was saved by its role in telecommunications: France’s first wireless transmission was made from here to the Panthéon in 1898, and during World War I, the big ear intercepted crucial messages during the Battle of the Marne. It is still used for radio broadcasts and, since 2005, for TNT. 

Naturally, most people climb to the top for the views over Paris; but the really exciting views to be had are those of the Iron Lady herself. The metal structure looks impressive as you walk underneath its four legs or as you rise up in the vintage double-decker lifts, passing a constantly changing spider’s web of metal girders and the 2.5 million rivets that hold them together. The first level has the 58 Eiffel brasserie, souvenir shops and an ice rink at Christmas. A recent renovation has installed a breath-taking glass floor and a multi-media ‘cultural path’ featuring little-known information about the tower. Gourmet restaurant Le Jules Verne on the second level, and the third level brings you to Gustave Eiffel’s cosy office, a champagne bar and a viewing deck. The tower sparkles nightly with thousands of tiny lights, on the hour from nightfall until 1am. You can book in advance online. However, should you arrive ticketless, queues are usually shorter on foggy days or late at night. 

6. Explore the nature trails along La Petite Ceinture, along a disused railway

Unlike the manicured look of Parisian parks, La Petite Ceinture nature trail between Gare d’Auteuil and La Muette (rue de Ranelagh) is a cheerfully overgrown tangle of grass and bushes, a wonderful vision of the town reconquered by nature on the embankments and former tracks of the Petite Ceinture (little belt) railway that once encircled Paris. Panels point out the different habitats – meadow, woodland, scrub with bushes, clematis and honeysuckle, wetland with willows, limestone spur and the cutting wall colonised by ferns and creepers – surrounded only by birdsong from tits, warblers and woodpeckers. 

At the end of the promenade, the red brick Passy-LaMuette station has been converted into La Gare, a stylish restaurant with tables spread out along the platforms, and a bar set in the former ticket office. The railway was built between 1852 and 1869 to connect the different main lines, first to carry goods, later transporting Parisians as a forerunner of the Métro. The line closed to passenger trains in 1934 but still fascinates, with fans who campaign for its preservation. 

You can glimpse traces of it all over town: cuttings as you walk in Parc Montsouris and Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a tunnel under Parc Georges Brassens, lone railway bridges or remaining stations such as the Gare de Charonne, now the Flèche d’Or. Another short section has been turned into a nature trail and community garden in the 12th arrondissement, reached from square Charles Péguy, where it joins the Promenade Plantée (along the disused Bastille–Vincennes line); and a new footpath will follow in the 15th arrondissement, bringing a touch of wilderness between rue St-Charles and rue Olivier de Serres. 

 Puces de St-Ouen, Paris’s biggest flea market. Photo: Dukas Ju/FlickrPuces de St-Ouen, Paris’s biggest flea market. Photo: Dukas Ju/Flickr

7. Go on a treasure hunt at the Puces de St-Ouen, Paris’s biggest flea market

Described as the largest antiques market in the world, the location of the Puces de St-Ouen harks back to the days when rag-and-bone men were allowed to sell goods, free of duty, just outside the city walls. Today it has been listed for its unique style and character, a lure for thousands of visitors each weekend. However, to describe the Puces de St-Ouen as a market hardly gives you an idea of its scale: over 2,500 individual dealers spread across more than a dozen markets, most of them strung along the rue des Rosiers. There’s everything, from classy antiques to incredible junk, and a never-growing fashion for modern design and collectables. 

Marché Vernaison is atmospheric and eclectic, the oldest and most flea of the markets, encompassing 300 stalls in a triangle of alleys. Hidden in its depths, touristy but fun bistro-chansonnier Chez Louisette serves mussels and chips while singers belt out Piaf. Nearby Marché Biron is mainly devoted to period antiques for those with a taste for ormolu and chandeliers. 

Marché Dauphine, purpose-built in the 1990s, has plenty of high-quality goods, with antique mirrors and barometers at Leda, 19th-century aperitif sets, carpets, paintings, toys and watches. Take an escalator to the first floor for vintage clothes, books and postcards. Marché Serpette is indoors and rather chic, where you might find historic panelling, Art Deco furniture and wonderful costume jewellery at Olwen Forest. Marché Paul Bert, which runs round the sides, is a decorators’ favourite, with eclectic furniture, garden statuary, great kitchenwares specialist Bachelier and lots of 20th-century design. There are plenty of bars and bistros, and should your purchase be too big to get into a suitcase, transporter and shipping company representatives are on the spot.

8. Picnic in the Domaine de St-Cloud with superb views of Paris

Vistas and terraces, formal gardens and, above all, large expanses of grass and woodland make the Domaine de St-Cloud one of the loveliest places for a weekend stroll or a summer picnic, among the magnificent remains of a grand château park. Once the property of ‘Monsieur’ (Philipped’ Orléans, brother of Louis XIV), the park – landscaped by André LeNôtre, the king’s master gardener, also responsible for Versailles and the Tuileries – became a favourite setting for grand fêtes given by 19th-century royalty. 

There’s a superb view of Paris across the Seine from the belvedere, and a network of fountains to rival Versailles are put into action accompanied by world music performances over a weekend in June. There are cafés, a small farm, a circus pitch and pedal cars, a grand fireworks spectacular in September, and one of France’s best rock festivals, Rock en Seine, on the last weekend in August. 

At the foot of the park is the Manufacture de Sèvres, the historic porcelain factory founded in the 18th century which still makes porcelain to historic designs from its archives (visits of the ateliers by rendezvous). Recently rebaptised Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, the 25 listed buildings also include the Musée National de la Céramique, presenting a huge panorama of ceramics from around the world. 

9. Climb a medieval skyscraper in Vincennes, then lie back in the park

Compared to the Louvre or Versailles, the one-time role of the Château de Vincennes as royal residence has been rather forgotten; but its restored donjon (keep) – at 50 metres (164 ft) high, the tallest in France – imparts a vision of Charles V’s ambition when he moved out of Ile de la Cité and turned a secondary residence of the Capetians into a powerful stronghold. After climbing the surrounding châtelet, where you can admire the view from the parapet walk, a bridge brings you to the keep, where Charles V’s council room, with its vaulted ceiling and 3-metre (10ft-) thick walls, and the royal chamber up above, give a surprising sense of medieval palace life. Charles V also built the curtain wall (big enough to contain an entire town), and began the Ste Chapelle, a soaring Gothic edifice. The castle continued to be used by the monarchy, especially when things got too hot in Paris. 

If you’re here on a summer weekend, combine your visit with a concert in the Parc Floral, across the esplanade to the south. An excellent line up of jazz musicians in the Paris Jazz Festival in June–July gives way to symphony orchestras and chamber music in Classiqueau Vert in August–September. There are some seats by the stage but most people laze on the lawns or lounge between flowerbeds across the lake. This modern botanical garden recreates different habitats – pinewood, oak forest, water lily pond, butterfly house, bonsai garden – as well as an amusing mini golf around the monuments of Paris. 

 Patisserie des Reves. Photo: Meg Zimbeck/FlickrPatisserie des Reves. Photo: Meg Zimbeck/Flickr

10. Dream about cake at the Patisserie des Reves and Hugo & Victor

Let them eat cake (or rather, brioche), Marie-Antoinette supposedly tactlessly remarked on the fate of the hungry populace, but who would have thought that designer cakes would became the show ground for 21st-century creativity? ‘Designer’ in the literal sense: today’s top pastry chefs sketch out their ideas, produce seasonal collections and present them. Cakes are indeed the stuff of dreams at the La Pâtisserie des Rêves, where Philippe Conticini’s creations are displayed like jewels under a pyramid of gleaming glass cloches. Gems include a Saint-Honoré with caramel and an artistic wave of cream, a chocolate éclair that sits within a tube of chocolate and a flower-shaped Paris-Brest. 

Around the corner at Hugo & Victor, inspiration comes in a more literary form, with a black glass and chrome interior and chocolate boxes that look like books. Pastry chef Hugues Pouget works with eight key flavours: chocolate, vanilla and caramel year round along with five changing, seasonal flavours. Each features in glossy marble-like chocolates and two gâteaux – experimental Hugo and more classic Victor – along with a wine suggestion to match each flavour group. Want to make your cake part of a chic picnic? La Grande Epicerie, the food hall of Le Bon Marché department store, is particularly noted for its Italian deli counter. 

11. Find reasons to celebrate on the Champs-Elysees

Much of the time it’s hard to understand the fuss about the Champs-Elysées, automatically dubbed ‘the most beautiful avenue in the world’ by the French – but the Champs do come into their own for national celebrations, such as the military parade on le Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day) and the finale of the Tour de France. The Champs were first laid out as a promenade by royal gardener André Le Nôtre in an extension of the Tuileries gardens, later forming Napoleon’s triumphal way to the Arc de Triomphe. The lower half near place de la Concorde still has a pleasure garden feel, with the pavilions of restaurants Ledoyen and Laurent, and theatres Marigny and Rond-Point.

A few traces of grandeur remain in the mansions of the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, the Hôtel de la Païva, the original Guerlain perfume store, Le Fouquet’s brasserie and Louis Vuitton’s glitzy flagship store. The new flagship store of Galeries Lafayette, designed by Danish architect BjarkeIngels, is due to open in 2018. 

At the western end, the Arcde Triomphe is another of Napoleon’s show stoppers, modelled on the Arch of Titus in Rome but bigger, inaugurated in 1836 long after his downfall. A climb to the top rewards you with entrancing views of the traffic milling around below. 

12. Get into the spirit of 1900 at the Palais, Petit Palis and Pont Alexandre III

The grand triumvirate put up for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 still captures the glitter of the Belle Epoque and the optimism of the new century, showcasing all that was new in arts, technology and industry. With the largest glass roof in Europe, crowned by two bronze ensembles of galloping horses, the Grand Palais exudes Belle Epoque confidence in its sheer size, wealth of decoration and unselfconsciously eclectic mix of styles – Classical motifs here, Art Nouveau flourishes there – perhaps not surprising as, after 260 architects entered the competition in 1896, its three facades were actually designed by three different architects, Henri Deglane, Albert Louvet and Albert Thomas. During World War II, it housed Nazi tanks; in 1994 it closed overnight when a metal beam fell off the roof, reopening only in 2005. 

It now houses all manner of events and salons, from the giant art installations of Monumenta (Kiefer, Serra, Boltanski and Kapoor, so far), to exclusive fashion shows and show jumping. The avenue Eisenhower wing contains the Galeries Nationales used for prestigious, crowd-pulling art exhibitions, and the avenue Franklin-Roosevelt wing contains the old-fashioned Palaisde la Découverte science museum. Crown your visit with a meal, or the luxury snacks served all afternoon, at Mini Palais the Grand Palais’s glamorous restaurant decorated to resemble a 19th-century artist’s studio. 

Although the Grand Palais grabs most of the attention, the Petit Palais across the street is another fanciful confection of coloured marble, mosaics and wrought iron. Today, many people come here for the temporary exhibitions, but the eclectic fine art collection of the Ville de Paris offers plenty of discoveries. The most surprising part of the ensemble? Probably, Pont Alexandre III built as a link to Les Invalides across the Seine – with a cacophony of ships and dolphins, trident-bearing cherubs and fancy lampposts with lion’s paws – whose name, at the time, some disliked for its association with imperial Russia. You can even go inside the bridge, where venue the Showcase hosts bands and DJs at weekends in secret rooms with watery views.

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