Avoid the Tourist Crowds at Paris’s Cooler Haunts
Appreciate the cliches without being a cliche.
There’s a reason why Paris is lauded as one of the most iconic, romantic destinations in the world. And it’s actually not just a successful marketing ploy—Paris is an example of how thriving a city can be when it embraces the artists and creators of the world. The streets overflow with ornately detailed buildings, so many outdoor cafes, well-made clothes (forget about fast fashion here), and museums bursting with some of the most exciting art created in the last three centuries. Even when the streets of Paris are burning (and they often are these days), it’s easy to be swept away by the walkable atmosphere, the decadent food, and the aesthetics everywhere you look.
But the most common complaint usually involves the overcrowded tourist sites. It is true, for example, that the wealth of beauty afforded by the Louvre can get obscured behind the hordes of line-wearied visitors aggressively vying for the best selfie position.
Your experience doesn’t have to be tousled by such touristic tempests. The city is so much more than its guidebook summaries. Paris is, like most everything else, what you make of it. If you forgo the fairytale crafted in popular media, and instead go in search of everything a vibrant city has to offer, you’ll find that there will never be enough time to tire of the city.
Whether you’ve already seen the highlights, or if you’re looking to do a mix of your Eiffel Tower whatnots with your dive bars and funky markets, we have the suggestions you need. Here’s what to do in Paris, ranging from slightly less-frequented alternatives to the usual hotspots and hidden corners where few tourists roam.
Experience arts beyond the Louvre
If you’re not keen on playing a pedestrian version of Mario Kart to navigate the Louvre, don’t worry. There are literally hundreds of art exhibits to choose from. Located just over the river, for example, is Musee d’Orsay. While it’s certainly popular in its own right, d’Orsay isn’t quite as overrun as its more famous cousin. It’s also more compact and focused, making it a somewhat less daunting collection. But that doesn’t mean it skimps on the amazing art.
From celebrated painters like Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Courbet, and way too many others to list, the collection is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Plus there’s an array of sculptures by Rodin and an expansive selection of classical sculptures portraying figures and scenes from myth and history. The museum is housed in a historic train station that is uniquely gorgeous.
Then just a bit behind the Louvre is the Bourse de Commerce. The modern art exhibits here are breathtaking and explore French history in a way that’s not typically addressed in the halls of former empire headquarters.
You can also hop on the metro and head out to LVMH’s Louis Vuitton Foundation, which is housed in a stunning building designed by Frank Gehry. The space has a few items exploring the brand’s iconic history, but also includes a rotating series of exhibits that curate art in a way that only a luxury giant like LVMH could.
If you’re looking for some artist haunts with a lively kick, the discrete Au Lapin Agile is a cabaret club that has existed since the 1860s, located on the upper shoulders of Montmartre. During its heyday of the early 1900s, it became the hangout of artists like Picasso, Apollinaire, Modigliani, and more, and there’s an apocryphal story that Picasso used to pay for his meals with drawings on napkins. Today, you can still go to Au Lapin Agile for drinks and to watch performances by poets, singers, and cabaret troops.
For some bookish arts, there’s Maison de Balzac. Long before there was an MCU, Honore de Balzac created the shared universe of La Comedie Humaine, a sprawling collection of over 100 novels that is widely considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. Maison de Balzac is the author’s home, where he did much of his writing. Located just over the river from the Eiffel Tower, it’s a quiet place to take a break from the throngs of the more crowded sites nearby.
Go shopping in the new luxury center of Paris
If you are looking for the ultra luxe shopping experience but are hoping to avoid the crowds, consider skipping Galeries Lafayette and head to the newly renovated and reopened Samaritaine in Paris’s first arrondissement. The multi-level building offers everything from Dior, Prada, Gucci, and Chanel to Europe’s largest beauty department store. You can also find more affordable items on the department store’s first floor by Parisian artists and smaller designers—so even if you can’t afford a new designer bag, you can find something more unique and still walk out with one of the sunny yellow shopping bags.
Beyond the shopping, there are multiple options for food and drinks. On the same floor where you can find some of the biggest streetwear brands in the world, you can also order from Yaboi Sando or French Terroirs on the lower floors. On the top floor is Voyage, where Executive Chef Jimmy Elisabeth has curated a truly fantastic global menu including items like crispy octopus with chimichurri sauce and Thai-style beef. (They also might mention that scenes from Emily in Paris were filmed there, if that's your sort of thing.)
Between the building’s stunning historical architecture, floors and floors of luxury and designer items, and ample dining opportunities, it would be easy to get lost in the space for an afternoon.
Eat pastries, foamy broths, and North African delicacies
In the heart of Montmartre you’ll find (or smell) Pain Pain, a traditional French bakery and patisserie that is famous for its baguettes and wide-ranging pastries. The baguettes are, of course, a must (you know, Paris). As far as pastries go, choose whichever looks the most delicious, and you can’t go wrong.
If you’re looking for a bigger meal, head to the Latin Quarter for Semilla, set in a lively setting with an open kitchen. The menu constantly changes, but if you’re lucky enough to be here during truffle season, the black truffle cacio e pepe is divine. Other possibilities include a sea bream ceviche or the ravioli floating in a decadent foam.
Paris has an absurd amount of Michelin-starred restaurants, but most of them are break-the-bank level. Yet despite the star held by Pavyllon, the restaurant offers a weekday lunch menu that’s not outrageously priced. Expect tasty broth pour-overs and edible flowers on delicately plated dishes.
If there’s something Parisian restaurants seem to love, it’s a hunk of meat (probably with some butter). If you’re looking for those juicy cuts with a side of pomme frites, look no further than Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecôte. You’ll quickly realize what the specialty is, since there’s only one thing on the menu: steak. It’s covered, naturally, in a butter sauce, with a side of fries.
Tucked away on the eastern edge of the Latin Quarter is Al Mosaic, a North African spot that offers traditional dishes from Tunisia and Morocco. This is an outstanding place to get a hardy meal after a day of exploring the city’s Left Bank. The lamb, in particular, and couscous should not be missed.
Indulge in Five-Star hotels without needing to spend the night
Paris is chock-full of stunning five-star hotel experiences, but for the average traveler, the cost of even one night at such a place is way out of budget. To still get some of the experience and finery, head to the bars and restaurants at these hotels for a culinary treat that’s swathed in luxury. At Hotel de Crillon, make a reservation at the new Nonos par Paul Pairet restaurant or grab a drink at the stunning Bars Les Ambassadeurs. In the Latin Quarter, grab an absolutely decadent croque monsieur at Clotilde Café, inside the Maison Colbert hotel. Over at the St. James, have a Michelin-starred meal at Bellefeuille, or grab a drink at the very trendy Library Bar.
The menu items will run a little pricier than they do at other haunts across Paris, but there is something to be said about steeping yourself in the luxury of a delicious meal or exquisite cocktail among the finery of a Five Star experience.
Stay in newly trending neighborhoods
There are many beautiful districts or arrondissements throughout Paris, with the most popular among visitors being those nearest the river such as Montparnasse, the upper Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain, and Les Halles, as well as Bastille and lower Montmartre. But if you’re willing to find accommodations in lesser known regions, you’ll not only avoid the crowds, you can ease the strain on your wallet too. Less cost and crowding don’t mean less in the way of things to do, either. These neighborhoods are rich with delicious restaurants, artistic experiences, pretty parks and streets, and everything else that brought you to Paris in the first place.
Jaures, for example, is located in the north-central part of the city, and it offers art galleries, outdoor markets, the Rue La Fayette thoroughfare painted by Van Gogh, and traditional French diners mixed in with flavorful eats from the immigrant community. It also provides convenient access to the rest of the city via the Stalingrad and Jaures metro stops.
Meanwhile the lower Latin Quarter and upper Montmartre areas provide easy access to these popular districts while avoiding some of the bustle and expense. And the eastern segments of the city like Charonne, Pere Lachaise, and Bel-Air are gaining more buzz, as more and more businesses are pushed outward by rising rents in the city center.
Go for classy cocktails or dive-bar tropical
Bisou. (the period is part of the name) is a sweet little place in the extremely popular Oberkampf district. Its decor leans hard into the color pink, and it has quintessential outdoor seating for people-watching. It also has a delightfully eccentric cocktail menu. Let’s put it this way: here you’ll find some uber-Instagrammable drinks to wow your people back home.
On the edge of the Latin Quarter, Prescription Cocktail Club has all the retro vibes, like art nouveau meets Mad Men. Expect elaborate cocktails in a laid-back setting, but don’t be surprised if you start here and get sucked into the nightlife of the surrounding, happening neighborhood.
Located a few dozen meters south of the metro station in the infamously, delightfully sleazy district Pigalle, Dirty Dick is a dark tiki-dive where you’ll find an affable blend of local boozers and international visitors. It’s primarily known for its unique, tropical-themed drink menu and dimly-lit Hawaiian décor. Fun historical note: the bar was first launched in 1936 as a sex club operated by the Corsican mafia, hence the name.
I’ll say outright that you’re not coming to New York Cafe for the bar itself, which is merely adequate. What you are coming for is the opportunity to croon (or caterwaul) some karaoke with the locals. This is an exceedingly fun place to drink late into the night, sing a few tunes, and make some new friends. As an added bonus, it’s in the fun Rue Mouffetard neighborhood.
Haunt the Paris cemeteries
Through the centuries, Paris has been home to many of history’s greatest figures, both during their lives and afterwards. Accordingly, the city boasts several impressive cemeteries.
The most renowned is inarguably Pere Lachaise, the most famed residents being Jim Morrison, Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Moliere, Chopin, and Richard Wright, among many others.
Less frequented are the cemeteries Montmartre and Montparnasse, which respectively host the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Dalida, Truffaut, Stendhal and Charles Baudelaire, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Serge Gainsbourg, and Samuel Beckett, and on and on.
These are not only photogenic and historic places to spend an afternoon, they provide a quiet place to escape from the cacophony of the city. It’s easy to spend hours on end exploring their chaotic hodgepodges of elaborate statues and tombs overflowing with ivy and drooping trees.
Shop the markets of Barbes-Rochechouart
On the eastern shoulder of the Montmartre bluffs is the neighborhood Barbes-Rochechouart, a largely immigrant-inhabited district that’s thick with food and clothing markets. Marché Barbes is probably the most highly-regarded of these, as it’s where many of the city’s top chefs go to acquire their ingredients.
Admittedly, the neighborhood has something of a bad reputation, but I’ve spent a lot of time here during all hours, and found it to be just like any other city environment. As in any major urban area, be aware of your surroundings and you shouldn’t have issues.
Stop to smell the flowers at Jardin des Plantes
Paris has no shortage of wonderful places to sit outside and enjoy a sunny day, with the Luxembourg Gardens perhaps being the most visited park. Just east, however, is Jardin des Plantes, a stunning botanical garden that offers paths to meander through the flowers, plots of grass and benches for kicking back, a zoo plus collection of dinosaur bones, and a restored 19th-century hothouse lush with tropical flora.
Hit up late-night river parties
While the Parisian stretch along the Seine tends to be its most tourist-infested region, if you know where to go late at night (we’re talking 2-4 am late) you can stumble upon some uniquely local after-parties that can include (but are not limited to) live music, drum circles, Romani dancing, and general boozery.
The most lively version I’ve seen has been at the Arenes amphitheater in Jardin Tino Rossi. Pont Neuf on Ile de la Cite also has its moments, though you should only venture there late at night if there’s already a crowd and you’re with people. A more regulated version of this can be found along Promenade Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Promenade Edouard Glissant, though in these cases you’re leaning into more popular fare.
Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.