In the pantheon of great cities, none have arguably achieved a more legendary status than that of Paris. With its grand boulevards, towering monuments, endless historical facades, and the general joie de vivre that fills every city pore, it’s hard to imagine there’s a more impressive and vibrant urban center anywhere else in the world. But for all its fame, and glamour, Paris is surprisingly approachable and genial. It’s a city where it’s okay to lose yourself, to meander a bit without worrying about a destination. Every block is packed with beautiful architecture, lively cafes and restaurants, gardens and parks. It seems like even with the most generous of stays in Paris, you wouldn’t be able to even touch a fraction of all there is to see and do in this grand capital. I only had about a week, minus a few days spent in Lyon, but I did pretty good and managed to tick off a lot of the big must-sees of the city. That being said, this trip has only whetted my appetite for both Paris and France and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
Where to Stay
Generally, it’s the areas outside of Paris, the suburbs, etc. that you have to be wary of, whereas the interior of the city is considered pretty safe. There also aren’t many neighborhoods that can’t be easily reached via the metro. For the first night, I stayed in Gentilly – which is technically outside of Paris proper – at a hostel called Jo and Joe. While there’s not a whole lot to see in the area, it is a five-minute walk from a metro station and seemed very safe, though not particularly well light at night in some areas.
The hostel itself was super clean, and the staff were friendly and very helpful. For a small, reasonable fee (less than it would have cost for a locker) they let me check in early, which was definitely a lifesaver, as my flight arrived in Paris around 9am and I didn’t want to drag my luggage around with me until the 3pm check-in time. Because they so kindly gave me access to my room earlier, I was able to get a quick nap in (after not sleeping for 24+ hours) and head back out sans luggage with plenty of time to explore. I can’t say much about the other amenities as my stay was brief, but the lounge and outdoor areas looked well-maintained and welcoming. My single “cabin” room was tiny, but that is to be expected for about 60 euros a night. It was basically just a bed in the room, and the washrooms were shared, but again everything was immaculately clean and tidy.
For the second half of my stay in Paris, I booked a room at Hotel Baldi, a lovely 8 storey hotel in the 15th arrondissement. The prices vary depending on demand, but I snagged a room with two twin beds for 80 Euros. As I was splitting the room with a friend, I only paid 40 Euros a night, which is an amazing deal for anywhere in Paris, but especially for a spot this central. The Eiffel Tower, which I could see from the window of my suite, and the Champ De Mars is only about 15-20 minute walk away. There are also multiple metro stations within walking distance (Cambronne, Ségur and Sèvres-Lecourbe), as well as numerous cafes, boutiques, restaurants, and parks. The front desk staff were also courteous, helpful, and spoke fluent English. The rooms were bigger than I expected, and everything was renovated in 2013, so the suites have a modern look and feel, but still retain some of the classic old school Parisian elements. Breakfast is included and they had plenty of nuts, fruit (both dried and fresh), and bread to satisfy a hungry vegan.
Paris’ metro system gets a bit of time to get used to, and with 16 different subway lines, it’s quite easy to lose track of where you are and how to get where you want to be. Paris is not structured in an east/west and north/south grid, like many modern North American cities. The city is instead divided into circular neighborhoods called arrondissements, and the metro lines are obviously shaped in such a way to serve this style – they tend to curve and intertwine a lot. Luckily, I was able to use my phone and google maps to navigate – otherwise, a good paper map is a must! Tickets are 2.30 euros per ride and can be purchased in every station with cash and/or card.
I do not drive, but my impression as a passenger was that driving in Paris is a bit crazy and perhaps best avoided if possible. Fortunately, in addition to a fairly efficient transit system, Paris is very walkable and you’ll want to walk. Paris is the most densely populated city in Europe, and there’s just so much packed into every block that the best and truest way to get a sense of the immense sprawl is by grabbing a good sturdy pair of shoes and hitting the streets.
Where to Eat
There seems to be a mini-revolution happening in France’s food scene in the last few years. While the country’s cuisine is still unquestionably renowned for its generous use of butter, cheese, and meat, in urban centers like Paris and Lyon the popularity and availability of vegan options has exploded, and by all accounts, the French are applying the same gusto, whimsy and heartiness to their plant-based food as they do to their traditional fare. There are a lot of specifically vegan restaurants, cafes, and bakeries in Paris, but other restaurants, even those serving otherwise very not-vegan food, have either a clearly marked vegan option or have something that can easily be made vegan upon request. Unfortunately, I only had time to sample a small fraction of this culinary wealth. Here are some of the highlights:
Hank Burger (Multiple locations)
Hank Burger is a popular vegan burger joint with two locations in Paris, and one in Lyon as well. The menu is pretty straightforward – there are five types of burgers to choose from, each with a unique set of toppings. You can just get the burger for 8.50 euros or get the burger+one side+drink combo for 13 euros. They have really good selections of beers, juices and organic colas and the potato wedges are superb, so the combo is highly recommended. For an extra 2 euros, you can include a small dessert (cookie, carrot cake or dessert du jour) in the combo. The burgers are a tad on the dry side, but what they lack in moistness, they make up for in big flavours and generous toppings.
Le Pain Quotidien (Multiple locations)
My noble quest to find vegan croissants lead me to Le Pain Quotidien, an international franchise founded in Brussels, with several locations in Paris. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the day and they were sold out of the elusive pastry, but I stayed for lunch and it was one of the best meals I had while in France. While not entirely vegan or even vegetarian, Le Pain Quotidien has a solid selection of plant-based options among their sweet and savory offerings. There was a good mix of food, which was ideal as I was dining with a group of friends, most of whom were not vegan. The location we went to, near Montmartre, was bright, cheery and spacious, with excellent service. I had the strawberry toast with cashew creme. I liked the simplicity of it, and the sweetness of fruit blended well with the slightly tart cashew cream. For dessert, I had a chocolate pistachio cake concoction that was decadent without being too sugary and had a dreamy soft texture. Highly recommended!
Gourmet Burger (77 Rue Saint-Martin)
While researching vegan places to try in Paris, I noticed that Gourmet Burger had a few bad reviews on Happy Cow – enough bad reviews, in fact, to initially deter me from trying it – but on my last night, as I was wandering hungrily through the narrow but lively streets surrounding Les Halles – a district within the 2nd Arrondissement overflowing with restaurants, bars, and shops and one of my favorite spots in Paris – I happened to pass by and was enticed by their small, but very lovely, street-facing patio and decided to stop in and have a burger. The negative experiences those customers had must have been isolated incidents because I thought the food was wonderful. I actually preferred Gourmet Burger to the much more popular Hank Burger. I had the Happy Burger and for 10.50 Euros it was a substantial burger with a gourmet flair and the herb sauce was delicious without overpowering the flavour of the rest of the burger.
Amorino (Multiple Locations)
Amorino is an Italian gelato company with locations all over Europe, Asia, United States, and Mexico. They are not exclusively vegan but have a generous range of vegan-friendly sorbets. With a consistency that’s more like ice cream, these are not your run of the mill sorbets though. The two flavours I tried had an incredibly creamy texture, were full of rich flavour without being too sweet. There are many, many locations all over Paris so there will likely always be one nearby no matter where you are in the city. If you happen to be near the Latin Quarter location, it is a neighborhood that is well suited to exploring with a gelato in hand.
Hot Vog (10bis Rue Vavin)
Hot Vog is exactly what it’s simple moniker suggests – takeaway vegan hot dogs. The only do one thing but they do it incredibly well. Okay, they do have a few other items of note like pastries and desserts, but their American inspired franks, topped with a list of classic ingredients, are the real star. One of the things I liked most about Hot Vog is in close proximity to Jardin Du Luxembourg, one of Paris’ most expansive and beautiful parks – perfect for a hot vog filled picnic!
Cloud Cakes (6 Rue Mandar)
I heard about Cloud Cakes a while ago via Instagram and it was top of my list of places to try in Paris. It did not disappoint. Though their cupcakes, cakes, pastries and other sweets will likely be the main drawn for many travelers, they also a full cafe menu. While their seating is not substantial, I had no issue finding a seat near lunchtime, and it’s a well-designed space that feels very relaxing and has a nice view of the street.
VG Patisserie Vegetale (123 Boulevard Voltaire)
While wandering around Paris you’re inevitably going to come across many stunning pastries displays, tempting you with a stylish, butter and cream decadence, but alas none of these classic French treats are remotely vegan. Fortunately, there’s VG Patisserie Vegetale, a vegan pastry shop in the 11th arr. that serves all those pastries that you’d never thought you’d see veganized – flans, macaroons, croissants, brioche (!) and more. I had a cream puff pastry and a slice of pizza from their savory selection. Both were superb. This is beautiful, elegant and delicious food. A must-visit place for any vegan visiting Paris
La Tour de Nesle (114 Rue de Sevres)
I included La Tour de Nesle, a standard French brasserie in Montparnasse because it’s the last place a vegan would expect to find a solid meal. After a quick discussion with our very friendly waiter, they happily modified the Thai Salad with Spring Rolls (sans Salmon) for me. It’s not a place I typically would have chosen to go, but I was eating with a group of friends and La Tour de Nesle had something to satisfy everyone. This is just one of many examples of how willing and even eager Parisian restaurants seem to be to make accommodations for their patrons.
Attractions/What to See
The Louvre is one of the most celebrated and prestigious Art Museums in the world, a crowning cultural jew for France and one of Paris’ most notable landmarks. It’s also the world’s largest art museum and also the most visited. There are 30 000 plus objects on display, in the 782 910 square foot space – it’s impossible to see it all in one trip, or even several trips. You should definitely buy your tickets in advance and come as early as possible – the crowds accumulate fast. I also recommend making a plan beforehand, like a list of specific works you want to see, and where they are so that you’re not wasting time drifting through the enormous and somewhat confusing layout. (I did not do this and I found it a bit overwhelming). The admission price is 17 euros, which is very reasonable considering what you’re getting access to.
The centerpiece of the Louvre collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa. I don’t want to deter anyone from queuing up to see the painting – it’s something you’ll want to see and it’s a bucket list type of thing for any art lover – but the experience was disappointing. It’s a pretty small painting and not only encased in thick glass, but kept at a substantial distance from the viewer. I understand that logic – it’s fragile and insanely valuable – but the problem is that they don’t let anyone linger long enough to really get a good sense of the work. It’s pretty much a ‘drive-by’ experience only, as the staff quickly usher people past, and insist that no one stands in front of it for more than a few seconds. That’s no really how art is supposed to be viewed, especially this art. The painting has a whole massive room all to itself and the queuing process seems to create more of a crowd than would otherwise accumulate if people were just allowed to come and go. Just a thought.
Effiel Tower & Champ de Mars
While I’m sure there are some major tourist attractions that don’t deserve their adulation or hype, the Effiel Tower is not one of them. Yes, it’s swarmed with tourists on a daily basis, and there will always be some cynics who say making the trip up is not worth it but there is in something undeniably magical, almost surreal, about the Eiffel tower and the grassy parkland of the Champ De Mars that surrounds it. It’s both a defiant (at the time) feat of engineering and the perfect symbol of French romanticism. The admission price, at 25.50 Euros, is very reasonable, the view from the top is spectacular, and the nightly light show is not to be missed.
Champ-Elysees/Arc de Triomphe
One of Paris’ most famous streets, The Avenue des Champs-Elysees is a majestic tree-lined strip that leads up to and frames the Arc de Triomphe, a monument built in the early 1800s to honour those who fought and died in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The street itself is known as a high-end shopping area and while there may nothing particularly interesting about the usual assortment of big luxury brand stores, it is a lovely area for a stroll. There are also some great cafes in the neighbourhood if you want to sit for a while and enjoy some first-class people watching.
Montmartre/Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur
Tucked away in the hilly and narrow cobblestone streets of the 18th Arrondissement, is the village of Montmartre, an area rich in artistic legacy and classic pastoral charm. If you ever wondered what Paris would have been like during the sumptuous Belle Epoque years, Montmartre is like a living, breathing monument to that most romantic of eras. You’ll still find landscape painters populating the Place Du Tertre with their easels and oils, paying tribute to artistic giants like Vincent van Gogh whose former apartment sits nearby on Rue Lepic. The Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, while definitely being a bit tourist-heavy, is definitely worth a visit and there are stunning views of Paris from the church’s terrace.
Les Halles was once the location of Paris’ central fresh food market. When that it demolished in the 1970s, they built a new mega-mall in its place, which was, of course, the trend at the time. Les Forum des Halles is a chic, impressively designed mall for sure and a great place to do some shopping but what I loved most about his area was the incredible vitality and excitement of the surrounding side streets. With bars and cafes that overflow into the streets, and music, food, and merriment in an abundance at every corner, walking through this neighbourhood will make you feel giddy and alive.
Jardin De Luxemburg
The lavish and immaculate 23 hectares of gardens, statues, promenades, and fountains that surround the equally lush Luxembourg palace, is another one of Paris’ most iconic spots. It’s also one of the busiest, as innumerable Pariseans gather on the grassy knolls to relax, socialize and escape the craziness of the city centre. That being said, if you spend enough time exploring the expansive grounds, you can find some really quiet and serene spots away from the crowds. Bring a blanket, a bottle of wine, and a good book!
The Latin Quarter
Ah, the glorious Latin quarter! This was probably my favorite area of Paris. It’s proximity to several educational institutes, including La Sorbonne, ensures that a youthful vibe wafts perpetually throughout the brightly light corridors. There are innumerable beautifully designed bistros if you are looking to grab some grub, as well as several notable museums, gardens, and landmarks, including The Pantheon, where Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Alexandre Dumas, among other renowned French figures, are buried. A highlight for me was visiting the legendary bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, which is just about the wildest, the most bohemian and most densely stacked bookstore you ever to likely to see!
The Seine and Paris Plages
While we may often associate chic Euro Beach culture with the lush rolling sands of France’s coast, Paris itself is nowhere near the coast, nor any other swimmable body of water. It does, however, have the Seine, a river that snakes through and divides the city. Taking a romantic stroll along the Seine is a Parisian rite of passage. As its a fairly slow-moving body of water there is something soothing and meditative about leisuring close to its steady flow. To compensate for its lack of beaches, the city has also created Paris Plages, an artificial strip of beaches along the banks of the Seine. Grab a towel, and curl up in one of the many lounge chairs for your dose of Vitamin D.