Paris — Project for Public Spaces (PPS), the internationally recognized expert in discovering great urban places, offers a list of 10 spots you won’t want to miss on any visit to Paris. Leave the tourist traps and mediocre monuments behind–these are the best places to enjoy the charms of the world’s most beloved city.
“Paris in many ways sets the standard for just how pleasurable urban life can be,” says Fred Kent, president of PPS and a long-time explorer of Paris. “These are the places we’ve found over many visits where you can join in the wonderful life of this amazing city–relaxing in sidewalk cafés, strolling beautiful boulevards, soaking up the cultural richness.”
Project for Public Spaces has honed a unique technique for identifying the best public places in the course of its 30 years of work in 14 countries and over 1000 communities. The New York-based research organization builds upon the insights of pioneering urbanist William H. Whyte, in evaluating the ways places are actually used by people–not just how they look. In addition to highlighting great spots to visit, PPS helps communities around the world improve their public spaces.
After pounding the Parisian pavement for more than 100 days over a number of visits in different seasons, Fred Kent and PPS Vice President Kathy Madden identified dozens of public spaces where people truly enjoy spending time’the most important measure of any great place. That list was refined even further until only the very best remained, the kind that stirs your soul and induces a swirl of euphoria as only the very best public spaces can. Here is la crème de la crème, the 10 Must-See Places of Paris:
10. Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges is the classic “urban oasis,” tucked away among the narrow streets of the Marais. Walk there on a hot June day, and behold the lawn full of people spread out in blissful relaxation as the square opens up before you. Exactly what is it about Place des Vosges that makes you want to take off your shoes and feel the grass between your toes? In a word: simplicity. The square’s uncomplicated layout–four quadrants anchored by fountains, with plenty of benches, grass, and shady trees–lets you feel at ease from the moment you enter. When you’ve had your fill of leisurely repose, the arcades surrounding the square beckon, brimming with shops and cafés.
9. Hotel de Ville
If you’re accustomed to the staid, strictly-business aura of American municipal buildings, you’d never guess that the Hotel de Ville is Paris’s city hall. That’s because the square in front of this building is packed all year round with Parisians who’ve come to enjoy the latest attraction. In the winter, it’s an ice-rink. In the summer, a sandy “beach” where kids play soccer and volleyball. In between, all manner of festivals and expositions appear: cultural exhibits, organic food fairs–you name it. Go to the Hotel de Ville on a peak day, and you’ll never look at your city hall the same way again.
8. Rue de Buci
A compact thoroughfare filled chockablock with wonderful uses, Rue de Buci is as lively a street as you can imagine. Produce stands and flower stalls, cafés and street markets, all combine to make an agglomeration of activity more intense than any outside of the bazaars and souks of the Middle East and Asia. There’s always a lot of passion on display as the street merchants, performers, and even pedestrians compete aggressively for attention.
7. Rue St. Louis en l’Ile
Start out at the western end of Rue St. Louis en l’Ile and take in one of the city’s most breathtaking vistas: the spires and buttresses of Notre Dame, rising from the Seine like an ancient formation of sculpted rock. Turn around and you can see all the way to the end of the street, which is actually the “main drag” on the smaller of the two islands at the center of Paris, Ile Saint-Louis. Though the island is inhabited by a privileged few, Rue St. Louis en l’Ile is filled with all types, drawn to its romantic 17th and 18th century architecture and the scores of tiny attraction that line its sidewalks. There are so many enticements vying for you interest, chief among them the legendary Berthillon ice cream shop, that you cannot absorb them all in one visit.
6. Notre Dame
Most tourists gawk at the flying buttresses, tour the nave, and move on, but the real pleasure of Notre Dame reveals itself slowly, as you discover the little flourishes that surround it. Take your time exploring the small parks, gardens, and playgrounds that the cathedral supports. These are the places that Parisians enjoy on a daily basis, playing and strolling with one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks as their backdrop. The interplay between Notre Dame and its immediate surroundings forms a lesson that most recent iconic designs have yet to absorb: It takes more than architecture alone to bring people together.
5. Rue des Rosiers
Rue des Rosiers has been the main artery of Paris’s Jewish quarter since the Middle Ages. The sense of tradition is palpable: Shops housed in 17th century buildings promote themselves in Yiddish and Hebrew, and excellent kosher foods and specialty items tempt you from behind their windows. Though the area’s cultural heritage is threatened by the encroachment of trendy commercial ventures, there is every reason to believe it will remain a vital ethnic enclave. The area’s longtime Ashkenazi residents, refugees from 19th century pogroms in Eastern Europe, now share the street with Sephardic Jews, more recent immigrants from North Africa. This population shift is an encouraging reminder of how places like Rue des Rosiers help new arrivals adjust to the city, and vice versa.
4. Tuileries Garden
The Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe have more name recognition, but the Tuileries Garden, which lies between the two, is where you’ll find the real action. A boulevard without buildings, the Tuileries is the quintessential promenade. Join the stream of flâneurs and immerse yourself in the pleasures of strolling at its finest. As with all great places, the Tuileries must be savored to experience it fully. Take some time away from the main path, because the periphery is filled with fountains, sculptures, lovely outdoor cafés, and hundreds of movable chairs filled with Parisians enjoying the procession of boulevardiers.
3. Rue Mouffetard
Rue Mouffetard is the gold standard for commercial streets. The merchants who crowd its crooked contours have elevated street displays to an art form. But the true thrill is watching people as they engage in the ritual of shopping for their daily needs. Observe closely over time, and you’ll see how many of the customers stay loyal to their familiar vendors, yet also engage in frequent chance encounters. It is a world unto itself, street theater at its best.
2. Paris Plage
To see Paris Plage is to be in awe of its ingenuity: It transforms two miles of the city’s busiest roadway (The Georges Pompidou Expressway) into a lush riverfront beach, complete with sand, palm trees, deck chairs, hammocks, and big, shady umbrellas. On top of the remarkable way the space has been reclaimed for pedestrians, Paris Plage is intricately laced with activities ranging from writers’ workshops to children’s sports. Though temporary (it is only set up for parts of July and August), it offers a richness of experience equal to that of the most well-established and highly evolved public spaces.
1. Luxembourg Gardens
When you think of the world’s great parks, this gem leaps to the top of the list. The layers of human activity pulsing within its 60 acres are seemingly infinite. Here you will find lifelong friends chatting over espresso, solitary readers absorbed in their books, lovers in full embrace, families out for a picnic. There are no interior boundaries, just overlapping spheres of use anchored by popular attractions: a carousel, a puppet theater, a sailboat pond–even a beekeeping school. No matter how many times you visit, each encounter is invigorating, an everyday celebration of urban life made all the more glorious by the knowledge that you are surrounded by people who feel a similar sense of wonder.
Don’t miss the full report on Paris’s best (and worst) places.