My first introduction to Paris as a child was the same as every other millennial girl’s: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s 1999 flick Passport to Paris. In the movie, Melanie and Ally Porter visit their rich grandfather in the French embassy and speed around the city on mopeds in their pleather jackets with cute local boys. My sister and I rented it over and over from Blockbuster (RIP) on weekends, clipping our hair back like they did, dreaming of crepes and kissing at the Eiffel Tower.
I fell in love with the City of Love, you could say, or the idea of it, long before I actually visited Paris and I know I’m not alone. Throughout my youth and into adulthood I continued to be barraged by America’s obsession with Paris. I ogled after a much-older Harrison Ford in Sabrina, when he says, “Paris is always a good idea.” I’ve skimmed dozens of Pinterest articles on “How to dress like a French girl.” I’ve read countless books about Paris ranging from French Women Don’t Get Fat to Bringing up Bebe (my personal bible to how I would raise my children before I actually had children, of course). And as an aspiring home chef, I have tried multiple recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. During my English literature studies at university, I read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, where he writes, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it…”
Although my obsession over Paris (and all things Parisian) started long before I stepped foot in the city, it wasn’t until I visited that I truly understood what everyone, from high to lowbrow, is trying to say about Paris when they refer to it as a city that must be seen to be believed.
So, Why is Everyone so Obsessed with Paris?
To say that everyone is obsessed with Paris may seem like an over-speculation rather than fact, but when you look at the numbers of tourists, particularly Americans, it’s safe to say—we are truly obsessed. Americans accounted for nearly 2 million of the 23 million visitors in Paris in 2017; that’s more than any other nationality! It is regularly one of the most visited cities in the world and is certainly one that is built for tourism. But still, it’s a question you won’t know the answer to until you visit. In fact, the answer might even evade you until after your trip is over!
Speaking from experience, Paris is, by and large, another big city with its pollution, and crime, and homelessness. On my first trip to Paris, I took a muggy Metro ride to a worn-down hostel upon arrival, wherein my backpack was nearly pickpocketed. It is overpriced in many areas, crowded, and intimidating in a way most foreign cities are not. There are tourist traps everywhere – most selling cheap Eiffel Tower tokens or Mona Lisa magnets. My husband and I, fresh from two weeks in Italy were disappointed in the general lack of pizza and the cost of food. My fashion choices felt inferior as I walked the city streets and I found myself wishing I had something more put-together than my traveling shoes and jeans.
It was not, as I found, the romance-inducing, adventure-laden Paris of my childhood dreams. (Talk about Paris syndrome!) I think I expected it to be less of a big city somehow. A Utopia where I and the people I loved were magically transformed into someone else.
Yet–I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat (and have). It was, as Hemingway so beautifully puts, “worth it”.
If you venture to Paris with my naive sensibilities, you may be disappointed at first look. But I left with an even deeper and richer obsession with Paris – one that has fueled my desire to return again and again and again.
Why Paris is Worth It
Needless to say, I found quite a few reasons to obsess over Paris, and here they are:
A lot of places are picturesque. A lot of places are charming, even. But the architecture and layout of Paris are unique and you must be there, in the city, walking the streets, to fully appreciate its value.
The architecture feels both old and timeless – fresh despite its age. Many of the streets are cobble-stoned, giving it an old-world feel but for the most part, there are modern touches that exude thoughtful design and glamour. Everywhere, there is art. Not just the museums, which are plentiful but on the streets. Artists paint from bridges and along the sidewalks, many of them focused on their art rather than on peddling their wares.
People dress well – not necessarily flamboyantly – but simply, in tailored and timeless pieces. The women wear minimal makeup with the occasional red lip. They feel like the perfect analogy for the city itself – both vibrant and effortless simultaneously.
Our first day there I took a deep breath on a busy sidewalk and asked my husband, “Wow that smells amazing. Are you wearing cologne?”
To which he replied, “No. It’s just the city of Paris.”
Visiting from the United States, where we have a relatively new history, the old charm of Paris is a huge draw. During the Middle Ages, Paris became the birthplace of Gothic architecture. Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartres Cathedral, and Amiens Cathedral are the best places to experience it. All of the stained glass and flying buttresses will stop anyone in their tracks. I love to see all the new construction built against the old.
It was the center of the Enlightenment, which, yes, spurred the French Revolution. It also gave birth to philosophical, social, religious, and artistic contributions with thinkers like Rosseau, Diderot, and Voltaire. And then Napoleon – who rebuilt the center of Paris with wide avenues, new parks, and later – the Eiffel Tower. Napoleon’s footprints are all over Paris. Later, Paris became the capital of modern art between WWI and WWII.
The fact that you might see a 12th Century building still in use, perhaps as a town hall, is beautiful to me. The museums have art and artifacts that date back to the origins of the country. The age and preservation of historical monuments amidst a modern backdrop is truly something you have to experience to appreciate.
The Locals Take Their Food Seriously.
As someone who drives my car to the grocery store (often opting for pick-up to avoid going inside), the French approach to food is refreshing. You’ll see locals with wicker baskets at outdoor markets – many of them shopping each day for what is the freshest. They buy brioche from bakeries, cheese from cheese shops, roasted chicken from rotisseries. In an American world where everything is mass-produced, Costco-style, I love the act of shopping from local merchants who specialize in certain foods.
I also love that the restaurants and cafes are unique – since so many in the United States are chains. I love that there is a plat du jour (plate of the day) at nearly every local restaurant where you can buy excellent food relatively inexpensively. There are French restaurants but also a huge array of other ethnicities available from Persian to Indian to Thai.
The patisseries are what really call to me though. Every time I enter one, I stare because the pastries are as beautiful as they are mouthwatering. There is a reason why bakeries around the world boast that their pastry chefs were trained in France. There is nothing quick about their processes and you can taste it. They use real butter, real ingredients. Of course, you can buy French pastries nearly everywhere now, but I swear they taste better in France.
Visit Paris and you are bound to experience the unexpected. For me, it is the streets with flowers spilling over their balconies. The Jardin de Luxembourg, where we watched local girls and boys race boats. The freshness of Berthillion’s strawberry ice-cream. The charm of the Notre Dame gargoyles. The details of Paris surprise me – not every day, but every hour, it seems.
I took pictures of things I never thought I would before. The tile in a public restroom. A rainbow assortment of macarons. The font used in a patisserie sign. It’s a city that oozes charm and sophistication and thoughtful, design above all else. The Parisians have learned to make beauty accessible. And as Charles Eames is famous for saying, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”
If you’re headed to Paris, besides cheap plane tickets, keep in mind that it’s not a Utopia. if you’re expecting an easy, crowd less, inexpensive and odorless experience- you may be disappointed. Instead, look past the idealization to see the soul of Paris. To me, the soul is in the simplicity. I’m still obsessed, all of these years later, and I’m in good company.
Hey, Francophile! Tell us about your favorite things about your last trip to Paris in the comments section!