These are the things I like to do when visiting Paris – maybe you’ll find them fun too! Besides sharing that information, I also wanted to share the experience of going to pools in France, which is the biggest cultural hurdle I had to face (besides seeing eels skinned alive in the market on Boulevard des Américains in Nantes – otherwise another one of my favorite places, especially for the oysters from Noirmoutier and the cheese from Auvergne). I’d love to hear about other people’s favorite things in Paris…
1. Hanging out in the 11th and 20th Arronidisements
Before my 2014-15 sabbatical, I had only been to this area of Paris a couple of times (once to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, of course). The first time I stayed there, near the Pyrénées metro station I happened to get in touch with my colleague Vincent Homer, who it turned out has an apartment in the same neighborhood. He showed me around a bit, and turned me on to my favorite park in Paris – Buttes de Chaumont. I went back a lot thereafter. Almost all of the concerts I saw this year were in this area. It’s young, multicultural, and a center for creative work in ways unlike any other area of Paris.
2. Walking and biking
You can get around a lot of Paris on foot, but make sure to wear comfortable shoes – I’ve gotten shin splints a couple times walking in leather soled shoes rather than running shoes. If you’re in the Latin Quarter, a particularly nice thing to do is walk across the river and head to the Marais, and then you can go over to the Bastille (see 1 above). Biking is also great and usually faster than the metro, and Vélib is a good option if you have a credit card with a chip (Americans can apparently get one with some work), and if you don’t mind the occasional frustration of trying to return it when the racks are full (get the app).
Paris has some gorgeous pools. My favorite is the Joséphine Baker (great name too!), which floats on the Seine. Pools in Paris usually open from 7 – 8:30 am, and then reopen later. Because I tend to wake up early when I’m there, I did a lot of swimming at that time, and it was particularly nice with the sun rising over the Seine in that pool. Another really nice one is the Buttes des Cailles, but I have to say that I’ve never had a bad experience in a Paris pool despite some of the negative reviews they sometimes get on the internet – my only problem was when they were too crowded, which only happened when I went later in the day. (In Nantes Léo Lagrange is the best pool, unless you go with kids, in which case the Petit Port is the place to go, or if you are there in summer, in which case there is an outdoor pool).
But yes, the culture shock. First thing you do is take off your shoes and socks, before heading into your “cabine” to change. I usually got that right, but occasionally would start to strip down in the shoe taking off area, which is co-ed. After you get changed, you lock up your clothes (don’t forget your one euro coin) and then head into the often coed showers with your swimming suit on. But not just any swimming suit. The first time I went swimming in France, I was wearing my usual speedo swimming shorts. The lifeguard stopped me, and told me I needed to have a speedo on. This doesn’t refer to the brand – you need to wear what the French call a “moule bite”. So I had to go out to the vending machine out front to buy one. I felt so awkward in that thing, but now it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s interesting that you can’t say that one swimming pool culture is more prudish. North America might be more prudish in the modesty of men’s swimming suits, but it has shower nakedness.
There are lots of guides to restaurants in Paris, and I haven’t made exploring them a priority. But here are a couple of “bonnes adresses”. Right near the École Normale Supérieure and the Parthenon is Mad in Terroir. The food is reasonably priced, locally sourced and freshly prepared, and very good. And the staff is actually very friendly, something that can be rare, especially in that area of town, which has a lot of tourists. And if you take that walk to the Marais, you could try Les Philosophes, where the food is again locally sourced and fresh, but it’s a little fancier and more expensive. Great place to sit on the terrace and people watch. I also eat lots of falafel in Paris, in the kosher places on Rosiers in the Marais around the corner from les Philosophes, and in various lebanese places, including this great one near the ENS, where I my regular lunch is the batata hara sandwhich for 4E (there’s also a very good Ethiopian restaurant on the same street). And for a traditional French meal, go to Chez Paul in the Bastille (recommended by all my French friends).