Parisians may be en vacances, but there's plenty going on in the French capital, and more room to enjoy it, says Natasha Edwards
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WHY GO NOW?
To go or not to go to Paris in August is a dilemma. For those who want to experience the French capital as the Parisians live it, then August sees Paris at its least typical. Many good restaurants are closed and finding a baguette can involve a cross-city pilgrimage. Yet the streets are relatively empty and the city takes on an aura of calm. An effort is made, however, to put on cultural events and festivals, many of them outdoors. And until 19 August, you can enjoy the attractions of Paris Plage, a fake beach along the Seine. Originally intended to entertain Parisians who were unable to go away on holiday, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The low-stress option is a Eurostar train (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com ) from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord (1), taking two hours 35 minutes; fares start at €87 return. The vast majority of airlines, including Air France (0870 142 4343, www.airfrance.com); British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) ; easyJet (0905 821 0905;www.easyjet.com); and Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com ) serve Charles de Gaulle airport. The RER suburban express from the airport to Châtelet-Les Halles (2), at the heart of the capital, takes 40 minutes and costs €8; for the same fare, you can travel to Gare du Nord (1), St Michel (3), Luxembourg (4), or virtually any station on the Métro network. A taxi from the airport costs about €60.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Paris forms a neat oval divided by the river Seine, with the Right Bank to the north and the Left Bank to the south, and many of the major sights strung out along the river. The city is served by comprehensive Métro and bus networks, though its relatively compact size makes it ideal for exploring on foot. Paris has also just introduced Vélib (00 33 1 30 79 79 30; www.velib.paris.fr ), a self-service bicycle system. You can pick up one of the 10,000 bikes stationed at any of 750 points across the city, and leave it at another one. For a subscription of €1 a day, journeys of up to 30 minutes are free, after that you pay €1 for the next 30 minutes.
Open only since June, the arty Hôtel Particulier de Montmartre (5), reached up a cobbled alley at 23 avenue Junot (00 33 1 53 41 81 40; www.hotel-particulier-montmartre.com ) is like a luxurious private house, with a drawing room full of modern furniture classics, five suites decorated by contemporary artists (including Philippe Mayaux, whose sexy neo-surrealist work can be seen at the Centre Pompidou until 14 August), and a leafy garden that is perfect in summer. Until 20 August, smaller suites are reduced by €100 to €290, excluding breakfast.
Another brand new hotel with special opening rates is the Hôtel Bellechasse (6), at 8 rue de Bellechasse (00 33 1 45 50 22 31 ; www.lebellechasse.com ), the second Parisian establishment to be designed by Christian Lacroix, with a flamboyant decoration inspired by old engravings that variously evoke the bucolic Tuileries or 19th-century gentlemen – appropriately, as the hotel is seconds from the Musée d'Orsay. Doubles from €290, excluding breakfast.
With business travellers out of town, many hotels offer great summer deals: doubles at the chic Hôtel Montalembert (7), at 3 rue de Montalembert (00 33 1 45 49 68 68; www.montalembert.com ), a St-Germain literary favourite, start at €210, excluding breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
A Seine-side walk along Paris Plage is the chance to see the city from water level, on quaysides normally filled with busy traffic. Go down to the river at the eastern end of the Louvre, near the Pont des Arts (8), to discover sandy beaches, water sprinklers, palm trees, deckchairs, ice-cream stalls, fitness classes and children's workshops.
Climb up to street level at the Pont Louis-Philippe (9) to detour on to the Ile St-Louis, a gorgeous slice of 17th-century architecture. From its western tip, admire the cathedral of Notre-Dame (10), best viewed from behind, with its flying buttresses. Then amble down rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile, with its charming shops and bistros.
At the end of the street, turn right over the Pont de Sully (11), which takes you to the Left Bank, with the glass-and-steel Institut du Monde Arabe (12) in front of you. Take the ramp down to the quayside and turn right along the river through the Square Tino Rossi (13). The modern sculpture to be found here is a hotchpotch, and frequently vandalised, but on summer evenings (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, 5-7.30pm), the quays come alive with salsa classes, and at other times you can enjoy tango, folk, swing and Breton dancing.
Just before the Pont d'Austerlitz (14), return to street level; pass the Gare d'Austerlitz (15) and turn right up avenue Pierre Mendès-France for a vision of the new Paris going up around the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand (16). With the towers of the library in front of you, turn left under the overhead Métro on boulevard Vincent Auriol, towards the Seine, to explore the second stretch of Paris Plage along Port de la Gare. Here you can relax in a deckchair with a book, listen to music, take a painting class or cool off with a swim in the Piscine Joséphine Baker (17) (00 33 1 56 61 96 50; www.paris.fr/portail/sport ), a floating pool with retractable roof and sunbathing deck. Admission is €5 for adults, €2.60 for children (open 10am-10pm daily).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Snacking is à la mode: the Café Véry (18) (00 33 1 47 03 94 84) stands out from the other cafés in the Tuileries gardens with its trendy verrines and cosmopolitan salads conceived by the chef Gilles Choukroun.
If you've snacked in the Tuileries, continue to the place de la Concorde end of the park to see the gloriously kitsch painted-over photograph portraits by the French duo Pierre et Gilles at the Jeu de Paume (19) until 23 September; open noon-7pm daily except Monday, with early opening (10am) at weekends, and late (to 9pm) on Tuesdays; admission €6.
Alternatively, take the Passerelle de Solférino (20) (a footbridge) from the Tuileries across to the Musée d'Orsay (21), at 1 rue de la Légion d'Honneur (00 33 1 40 49 48 14; www.musee-orsay.fr); open 9.30am-6pm daily except Monday, admission €9, which also covers the current exhibition, From Cézanne to Picasso – Masterpieces from the Vollard Gallery (a wonderful excuse to display luscious works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Bonnard and others that once passed through the hands of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard), which runs to 16 September.
Paris is, of course, an unbeatable shopping city, but the rue St-Honoré, and its westward extension, the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré remain the epitome of chic Paris. Its inimitable mix of top designer names and small individual shops – from steamer trunks at Goyard (22) at 233, to the concept store Colette at 213 and John Galliano at 384, are perfect for indulging in a spot of lèche-vitrines.
Le Saut du Loup (00 33 1 42 25 49 55; www.lesautduloup.com ), the cool new bar and restaurant at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (23), in a wing of the Louvre, at 107 rue de Rivoli, has a stylish designer interior and superb outdoor terrace overlooking the Jardin du Carrousel (weather permitting). For something decidedly more offbeat, head for Glaz au Pays des Merveilles (24), the kitsch summer outdoor bar, complete with sand, sangria and pétanque (Thursday-Saturday 7pm-midnight) at Glaz'art, a coach terminus-turned-arts centre and music venue at 7-15 avenue de la Porte de la Villette (00 33 1 40 36 55 65; www.glazart.com ).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Savvy locals who are still in town dine on minimalist but perfectly prepared fish at La Cagouille (25), which has outside tables on place Constantin Brancusi, near Montparnasse (00 33 1 43 22 09 01; www.la-cagouille.fr ), for around €42 per person; or at Astier (26), at 44 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud (00 33 1 43 57 16 35; www.restaurant-astier.com , closed Saturday lunchtime and Sunday), a much-loved classic bistrot now under an enthusiastic young team. The dinner menu costs €29.50.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Stick to the river theme with a visit to St-Julien-le-Pauvre (27), at the back of square Viviani, off the quai de Montebello. One of the city's oldest churches, it's now used by the Greek Melchite community, hence its curious mix of Romanesque capitals and icons.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Brunch may not be part of the Parisian lifestyle, but heading to the local food market is. So pack knife and corkscrew and buy yourself a great picnic to eat in the park. Near the Jardin des Plantes, Place Monge (28) has a good market with excellent roast chicken, cheese, and several stalls where you can buy direct from producers. Or visit the chic organic market on boulevard Raspail (29) before heading to the Jardins du Luxembourg.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Still a park left: explore the Parc André Citroë* (30), an imaginative modern park beside the river in western Paris, which boasts colour-themed gardens, and computer-controlled fountains, and then...
TAKE A VIEW
Float gently over the city in the Eutelsat tethered hot-air balloon (00 33 1 44 26 20 00; www.aeroparis.com ), which rises 150m into the air from Parc André Citroë* (30) every day (except when it's windy) from 9am until half an hour before the park closes; €10 on weekdays, €12 at weekends.
TAKE A RIDE
Take your own chauffeur-driven tour of Paris in the quintessential French car, a convertible 2CV, with Quatre Roues Sous Une Parapluie (00 33 6 67 32 26 68; www.4roues-sous-1parapluie.com ). Tours last 90 minutes and cost from €79 per person for two, and drivers will pick up from Paris hotels.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Cinema under the stars is a summer tradition in Paris. Relax on the lawn in the Parc de la Villette (31), 211 avenue Jean-Jaurès (00 33 1 40 03 75 75; www.villette.com ), to watch screen classics on a giant inflatable screen. This year's theme, Première Classe et Strapontins (First Class and Folding Seats) focuses on social climbing and class struggle in, among others, Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, and John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, all screened in the original English; daily at nightfall except Monday, admission free.