Sick of debating whether of not the Mona Lisa is smiling? Eaten falafel in the Marais one too many times? Been to the Eiffel Tower so often you could run your own tour group? Paris secrets may be closely guarded, but the city can’t hide them forever. Here are seven of them.
Ballon Air de Paris
Spectacular views of the Paris skyline usually come at the price of a 200-step, or more, climb. Thankfully, there are ways in which you can save yourself the huff, the puff and the leg workout and still see as far as the Sacré Coeur. Ballon Air de Paris allows you to float far more elegantly into the sky, 150 meters (492 feet) over the Parc André Citroën.
The huge balloon sizes up at an impressive 32 meters tall (105 feet), and 22 meters (72 feet) in diameter, housing up to 30 Phileas Fogg wannabes at a time. For those fearful that they might float into the heavens, you’ll be happy to know that it’s an up, up, but not away experience, as the balloon is secured safely to the ground by a long, strong cable. And once you’ve admired the view, and your feet are firmly back on solid land, you’re free to explore the 14 hectares (about 35 acres) of surrounding parkland. The Parc André Citroën contains six serial gardens, each of which is associated with a metal, planet, sense, day of the week and state of water.
Note that it’s a good idea to ring ahead on the morning you’re planning on jumping aboard, as balloon rides will be canceled if it gets too windy.
Beehives at the Jardin du Luxembourg
A botanical secret of Paris kept under wraps from even locals and regulars of the Jardin du Luxembourg is the cluster of large beehives located in the southwest part of the gardens. These are working hives, where busy bees make their Parisian honey. Visitors can even sign up for a set of beekeeping lessons, offered at Le Rucher de Luxembourg, a beekeeping school that was founded in 1856. These run on Wednesday afternoons, Saturday mornings and Saturday afternoons. Beekeeping hopefuls can sign up near the apiary during the autumnal Fête du Miel, when the chief beekeeper is present. This is also the time when the Luxembourg bees’ annual crop of honey is sold in the garden’s orangerie, or nursery. Look out, too, for the nearby apple and pear orchard, featuring over 200 different varieties of the fruits.
Lacs Inférieur and Supérieur are where most visitors to the Bois de Boulogne flock, but if your legs are tiring from walking around the 2,090 hectares (about 5,165 acres) of woodland, you can instead put your arms to good use by hiring a boat.
Rowing boats fit up to five, depending on your ability to balance, and you can run figure eights around the two islands in the center of Lac Inférieur, the larger of the two lakes. Carp and catfish are common finds in this lake, so if you’re squeamish about fish, be careful not to rock the boat.
The two branches of cocktail bar Les Etages fall snugly into summer and winter hangouts. The one in the Marais is three floors’ worth of definite stay-indoors perfection. Travelers to Southeast Asia will get a throwback hint to those hippie days here, with red walls and tiled floors, paper lanterns and the dreamy waft of incense. Wide balconies also provide pretty views, where you can dangle your cocktail glass and gaze out over the busy street below. The branch at St.-Germain has much more of a summer feel, with chairs that sprawl out onto the street, where the cool kids of Paris, who’d probably rather keep their favorite hangout a secret, rack up the drinks and nibble on caramel peanuts.
Hot or cold, both bars follow the same formula: it’s all about the cocktails. Highball glasses line the bar top, with smooshed and smashed-up fruit awaiting spirits and mixers. In typical Paris fashion, raspberry and strawberry mojitos remain ever popular, but there are many others—fruity, creamy or just plain strong—to get excited about. Nice touches like a cuckoo clock, Isle of Wight posters and a handwritten menu make these bars feel like more than just another set of bobo hot spots.
A favorite among Parisians, the Marché St.-Quentin is a covered food market dating from the 1860s. The concept of traditional, stall-bought fresh produce is sadly now something of a dying breed in Paris, but this market, thankfully, is very much alive and kicking. It’s no wonder that Paris’s food shoppers won’t want you unearthing their secret supply of the best of market produce.
With heaped-up, brightly colored fruits; the distinctive smell of luscious, ripe cheeses; the loudly voiced opinions of the storekeepers; and the hustle-and-bustle friendliness of a busy village square, you may find that you never want to step inside another supermarché again.
Thirty or so stalls are housed in a high-ceilinged, wide-windowed, sunlit atrium. For a first-timer, the market is probably best enjoyed as a slow amble while you absentmindedly accumulate a mishmash of foodie odds and ends as you go. Choose from cuts of meat, smoked and unsmoked, fresh fish that arrived straight from the coast that morning, indulgent baked or creamy goods, French and Belgium beers, fare from Italy, Lebanon, Mexico and Portugal, plus crêpes and pizzas, which act as a great pick-me-up if you’re not already nibbling on chorizo and olives. There’s also a fair supply of organics to keep bio (organic) lovers happy.
It would be easy to stroll past La Perlerie, thinking it was a mere button and haberdashery shop. In fact, dart inside and you’ll find it’s a virtual treasure trove of pretty bronze and silver bracelet and necklace charms, and a chance to embrace your arty side, where you can assemble the charms, clasps and jump rings onto the chains yourself.
Charms are anything from miniature Eiffel Towers to Big Bens; tiny zebras and ladybirds; pint-size cassette tapes and cameras; little music notes and rocking horses; minute guitars and headphones, all for a snip of the price you’d spend if they were already assembled onto the chains. La Perlerie is undoubtedly one of those shops you enter planning to buy presents for others and leave with more for yourself.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Known simply as L’Entrecôte to its band of well-established regulars, this chain of four (the fourth is in Geneva) is famed by Parisians and visitors alike as the place for steak frites. The key is in the marvelously moreish butter sauce, one of Paris’s greatest secrets. What makes up this well-guarded family recipe has come under close scrutiny. Le Monde claimed one recipe; the Independent rubbished it; but no one has come close to perfecting it quite as well as L’Entrecôte.
In keeping with the Entrecôte tradition, begin your meal with a lettuce-and-walnut salad and end it with one of the sumptuous desserts. For vegetarians—no doubt a rarity here—there’s a vast and varied cheese platter.
Note that L’Entrecôte takes no reservations, and hungry patrons are usually found queued outside—expect on average a half-hour wait.
Ballon Air de Paris
Parc André Citroën, in the 15th Arrondissement.
Metro, RER: Balard, Javel, Javel-André Citroën.
Le Rucher du Jardin du Luxembourg
Entrance near Hôtel Residence du Palais Paris, rue d’Assas.
Lac Inférieur at the Bois de Boulogne
Metro: Porte Dauphine, Line 2.
RER C: Avenue Henri Martin, Avenue Foch.
35, rue Vieille du Temple, in the 4th.
5, rue de Buci, in the 6th.
85 bis, blvd Magenta, in the 10th.
Metro, RER: Gare de l’Est.
22, rue du Temple, in the 4th.
Metro: Hôtel de Ville.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
101, blvd du Montparnasse, in the 6th.
15, rue Marbeuf, in the 8th.
20, rue St.-Benoît, in the 6th.
Editor’s note: We are really excited about the launch of our new iPhone app, Highlights of Paris. Check it out.