Most travelers have a foreign city that comes first in their heart. They might fall in love with Rome and its history, Melbourne and its hipsters, Buenos Aires and the art of the tango. But for me, the city I always want to visit again and again is Paris. It was the first foreign city I ever visited, and like any great first love, it captured my heart at first sight. I even learned how to speak French so that I could have as much fun as possible in my favorite city. Let other people say that Paris is overpriced, stuffy, and full of rude French people. That just leaves more Paris for me!
But given that my most recent trip to Paris was my fifth time in the City of Lights, I thought it would be nice to try to see my favorite city through the eyes of a local. That’s why I booked an all-day tour through Urban Adventures called the Total Paris tour. I got to spend all day being guided around to find the most interesting and most delicious secrets in my most beloved city. I even got to eat dinner in the home of a Parisienne! Come with me, and by the end of the day, you’ll feel right at home in Paris too!
Morning: Secret Paris Tour
Hours: 9 AM Every Day But Sunday
So the Total Paris tour is actually two half-day tours put together. The first half of the day is a “Secret Paris” tour that meets at the Place de la Concorde bright and early at 9 AM sharp! So the people joining you for the morning portion of the tour may or may not join you for the afternoon portion. Good news if you don’t like your tourmates, sad news if you do. But if you just want to book the Secret Paris morning tour and not the afternoon tour, you can do that here.
Our guide was that rarest of beasts, a friendly Frenchman named Tim. He spoke English with almost no accent, which he told us was because he had spent some time living in Australia. He then led us off on a whimsical tour of some of the quirkiest sights to be found right in the heart of Paris. I can’t possibly divulge them all, so allow to just share:
the approximately top five most interesting secrets in paris
1) As an American, one of the funniest Paris secrets to me was this plaque outside the swanky Hotel de Vendome, which is located on the just as swanky Place Vendome. This plaque honors the very first Embassy of Texas. No, despite what some Texans wish, Texas hasn’t seceeded from the Union yet. But before Texas was part of the United States, and after it separated from Mexico, it was briefly its own country, and that means it had its very own French embassy.
I really think someone needs to make a movie about the experiences of the Ambassador of Texas in France. In fact, let there be two Ambassadors played by Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew McConaughey, and let the whole movie just be them walking around 19th century Paris in Stetson hats annoying French people. Historical accuracy be damned!
2) That not terribly exciting picture above is of a Roberto Cavalli on the Rue St. Honore, which is a famous shopping boulevard for the rich and chic. But this street is more notable to me for what used to be here.
In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, this street was the home of a glamorous restaurant called Voisin. But because the city was under siege by the Germans, good food was hard to come by. The clever/heartless chef decided to remedy the situation by raiding the local zoo for a Christmas feast.
This is an actual copy of what the clientele of Voisin ate on the birthday of Our Lord in 1870: roasted camel, kangaroo stew, roasted bear chops with pepper sauce, and antelope terrine with truffles. As horrible as it sounds, I try not to judge because if New York City was ever under siege by the Germans (or anyone else), I would probably not be above eating the Bronx Zoo to survive.
3) Speaking of Germans invading Paris, our next stop was at the Tuileries, which are the gorgeous gardens right outside the Louvre. These gardens also happen to be right outside the Hotel Le Meurice, which is where the headquarters of the Nazi occupation of Paris was located during World War II.
What not everyone knows is that after it became clear to Hitler that he was going to lose the war, he gave orders to his commander in Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, to destroy the city. Tim says that legend has it that von Choltitz looked at this view outside his hotel window and thought that Paris was too beautiful to destroy, so he disobeyed Hitler’s order. (The part about the view might be a legend, but it’s certainly true that von Choltitz disobeyed the order and left Paris standing.)
So every time you look at the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, or Notre Dame Cathedral and admire their beauty you should…thank a Nazi? As a Jewish person, I’m sure that can’t be right. Let’s go back to a less complicated part of history, like when Parisians were eating camels and bears.
4) Even though I’d been to Paris four times before this, I had never had the pleasure of seeing the gardens of the Palais-Royal, which used to be the residence of all-powerful adviser to King Louis XIII and highly entertaining Tim Curry role, Cardinal Richelieu. You might be thinking to yourself that the cardinal probably wouldn’t approve of those black-and-white candy canes scattered all around his courtyard, and you would be correct! Those are an art installation called Colonnes de Buren that were installed in the courtyard in the 1980s.
Tim said the columns caused a big kerfuffle in Paris when they were put in place, just like the glass pyramid outside the Louvre had. But just keep in mind that Parisians also complained a lot about the Eiffel Tower when it was first built, so I think there’s just a good chance that Parisians don’t like change.
5) One of my favorite parts of the tour was when Tim walked us through these funny hidden passageways and covered arcades that are all over Paris. It was a great way to explore the city without being swamped by tourists. Once when Tim was telling us a story, a little French boy leaned out his apartment window and started waving a stick in the air as if it was a magic wand and yelling that he was giving us a light. Tim thanked him and said that was great because we couldn’t see anything. The little boy answered, “I know! That’s why I’m giving you a light!”
Sadly because this whole adorable exchange was in French, Tim and I were the only ones on the tour who could understand what this French cherub was telling us about his magic wand.
6) Now that we’d been able to walk the streets of Paris without being hassled by tourists, it was time to stop at one of the few churches in Paris that isn’t overrun by tourists: St. Eustache. Like Notre Dame, it is a spectacular example of Gothic architecture, but unlike Notre Dame, you won’t have to wait on a grotesque line to get in.
St. Eustache has enough dreamy stained glass windows to keep the most ardent admirer of Gothic architecture happy.
But my favorite part of the church was the Virgin Chapel, which features three stunning paintings by fashionable French artist Thomas Couture.
Like most churches in Paris, St. Eustache was vandalized during the Revolution but restored later, which explained why these paintings are from the 19th century even though the church itself is from Medieval Times.
Travelerette Treasure: As much as I love history, Gothic architecture, and Tim Curry movies, I’d be lying if I said that my favorite thing we experienced on this tour was anything but the Power of Cheese. Our group of ten got to stuff ourselves on this mouthwatering plate of France’s finest fromage: one was a spicy cheese with hot pepper that strangely reminded me of Pepper Jack, another was a soft, stinky Norman cheese canlled Pont-l’Eveque, and the third was a rich cheese dotted with mustard seed called Delice de Bourgogne.
My favorite was the Delice de Bourgogne just because it was so rich and flavorful. But I wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed for eating crackers. PS. Even though our group had ten people in it, we could not polish off this plate by ourselves, so there’s no way you’ll leave this portion of the tour hungry.
Travelerette Tip: Of course, we also got a sweet stop on the tour at Les Marquis de Laduree, which is a branch of the famous Laduree macaron store, only this one is dedicated to the fine art of fine chocolate. We were each allowed to pick a precious macaron here.
My tip for you is to try the white chocolate and passionfruit macaron because it’s the most popular flavor. Even if you are not a white chocolate lover (I’m not one especially), you will love its fruity, delicate taste. I love macarons because they have such interesting flavors, and they have the light texture of a meringue. Eating one is like living out some sort of Willy Wonka fantasy where I can consume clouds that taste like any flavor I can imagine, from chocolate to snozzberry.
Afternoon: Gourmet Marais Tour
Hours: 2 PM
After the Paris Secrets tour was finished, I got about an hour to wander around Paris by myself before the next tour began. This was much appreciated because the tour ended outside the Pompidou Center (pictured above), which is a modern art museum that resembles an avant-garde level of Super Mario Bros. So I was happy to be able to explore here and see what strange modern art delights I could find.
I like to call this display “Paul Klee and the Mobile Tree.
After about an hour, it was time to head to the infamous Notre Dame Cathedral to reconnect with Tim for the afternoon portion of the Total Paris tour. (If you are interested in just the afternoon portion, you can book it separately as the Gourmet Marais tour.) The afternoon tour crowd was much smaller than the morning crowd: just me and a very pleasant couple from Iran. I like small groups on a food tour because it usually means more food for me!
Le Marais is a very special neighborhood because it combines historic buildings and gardens with chic and delicious shopping opportunities. It’s helpful to have a guide with you just so you can narrow down all the options. Even though I can’t share literally any of the food through the screen with you, I can share with you…
the approximately top five best things to eat in le marais
1) Of course the first stop on any French food tour has to be for a baguette. You don’t need me to tell you that the French take breadmaking super seriously. Christian Vabret, the boulangerie above, is famous for its award-winning crusty baguette. Don’t believe me, Internet Stranger? Well, here is my proof:
I know that says they won second place, but this is Paris, so winning second place in a baguette making contest is like winning the silver medal in the Olympics: still pretty damn impressive.
2) We didn’t get to eat the baguette because we were saving it for a picnic later. So our first actual snack stop was at a patisserie called Aux Merveilleux. This place specializes in delectable meringues combined with different flavors of whipped cream and bedizened with a variety of toppings. I chose the scrumptious Magnifique, which has praline whipped cream and is covered with caramelized hazelnuts. It tastes like the wildest dream of an adorable French squirrel. Spoiler alert! It is not nut-free.
3) Our next stop was at a different patisserie that specializes in macarons called Pierre Herme. Even though I had already eaten one macaron that day, I always say that you need at least two macarons to have a successful day in Paris! While Laduree is a more traditional pastry shop, Pierre Herme is more on the avant-garde side.
I ordered one of their most popular flavors: the Mogador, which looks like an overripe banana, but tastes of milk chocolate and passionfruit. I wonder why passionfruit was the most popular flavor at two different macaron shops. It tasted amazing, but there’s part of me that wonders if French people just like saying the word “passion” and so that’s why this particular flavor is so popular.
4) Of course, the macaron is far from the only French contribution to the pastrial arts. We must not forget the power of the mighty eclair. Tim said that eclairs were becoming trendy in Paris again, thanks in part to a shop in Le Marais called L’Eclair de Genie. We got a surprise treat because we were able to split two different flavors of eclair: the gorgeously gold-flecked salted caramel above…
and this sparkling pink strawberry-raspberry. There’s really nothing as pretty as French pastry, is there? I think these guys belong in a museum. They were both perfect eclairs with that crunchy, light-as-helium exterior and the rich and creamy interior, but I slightly prefer the punch of the salted caramel.
5) It was now time for our picnic! We already had the bread, so we just needed to get the charcuterie and the wine. We had our meat needs met at a beautifully appointed meaterie called Au Sanglier, which literally translates to “At the Boar”. That probably explains why this husky fellow is standing outside the shop waiting to greet you.
Our guide asked the Iranian couple if they were okay with pork, but as they were not practicing Muslims, it didn’t present them with any issue. Tim picked up a giant plate of meat (not exaggerating, as you will soon see) and we headed to the final stop to conclude our picnic!
6) Our final stop was at a wine shop called Julien de Savignac. The shopkeeper was very curious about the kind of wines that I liked and peppered me with questions in French until I finally admitted that I love all kinds of wines and he should just pick out something that would go well with our meat and bread. So I got a lovely glass of rose from the Southwest of France, and I didn’t have to make a decision. Win-win! As a bonus, I got to sample some heady grape brandy and prune brandy.
Now we finally got to feast! The meat selection consisted of pate, two different kinds of sausages, ham, and head cheese, which is actually meat jelly made from the head of an animal like a pig or a cow. Tim was very assiduous about asking which of the meats we liked the best, and we generally preferred the pate and sausage. But I would eat it all again in a heartbeat! It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and the day was not even over yet!
Travelerette Treasure: The tour wasn’t all eating; we also had our fair share of historical tidbits and hidden attractions. But my favorite Parisian secret on this tour was the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. It was nice to find another beautiful French church that wasn’t overwhelmed with tourists, and this one has historical significance because it is where Victor Hugo’s daughter got married. Victor Hugo even donated these shell-shaped holy water vessels to the church in honor of his daughter.
I also have fond memories of this church because Tim saw an adviser to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and managed to go over and have a conversation with him. I’ve lived in the US my whole life and I’ve never had a conversation with an adviser to any President. Maybe French people really are a lot friendlier than they are given credit for being!
Fun Fact: Ex-President Sarkozy is Mary-Kate Olsen’s brother-in-law.
Evening: Eat With
As delightful as the food tour was, it was over around 6 PM so there was still plenty of time for me to get hungry by dinner. And I was even hungrier to spend time with some fun locals than I was for French food. That’s why I booked a dinner with a website called EatWith. This is like Airbnb but with more food and less risk of showing up at an empty apartment in a strange city with no place to stay. You just book dinner in the home of a local and show up for a charming dinner party with several fabulous strangers!
I selected A Parisian Dinner in Montmartre at the home of an educated former teacher named Claudine. The other guests were a couple of performing artists from California (the wife was a jazz singer, the husband an actor) and a mother and daughter, also traveling from the United States. I felt like the six of us became friends right away as we shared Claudine’s sparkling wine and delicious hors d’oeurves.
All of the wine and food was including with the price, which meant that we were treated to pea and mint veloute for an appetizer…
a fragrant oven-baked cod and potatoes for a main course…
and Claudine’s famous decadent chocolate fondant cake for a dessert along with peaches cooked in wine. I often spend about nine to ten weeks a summer on the road, and though I love the gypsy life, it can get a little lonely. Having this evening to spend in conversation with five charming and cultured people was really special to me. Plus have I mentioned that there was all the French wine a person could ask for? So even if your fellow guests are not as delightful as mine were, you can still make your own fun.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Paris!
What would you do with a day in Paris? Would you rather eat head cheese made from a cow or a pig? And which former world leader’s brother should Ashley Olsen marry? Is David Cameron’s brother single? Please leave your thoughts below!
My next travel goal is to visit all 50 states (and DC) in five years! If you want to contact me, I am available at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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