Visitors see Paris as a giant playground, an outdoor museum with amazing food and wine, as the most inspirational city in the world. Visitors may be right.
As a travel writer, however, I see Paris a bit differently. It’s my business to know what’s happening under the surface, to distinguish the good from, well, the less good. Travel writers and journalists are trained to notice what the everyday tourist might not, to make sure you can just show up and enjoy the city without having to worry. It’s not always as easy as it looks, especially since we want to enjoy Parisian moments as much as anyone else, but someone needs to find the buried information. So here are some ways we do it.
When visitors go to the Louvre, or any museum, they see a beautiful structure with priceless art like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa. They appreciate the art and then move on to the next event.
When I go to a museum, I want to know what’s different. I look for the pieces of art that have changed or that are no longer there. I look for the galleries with no one in them and wonder why that is the case. I look at the steps, noticing which staircases are the most well-worn, indicating a crowd ahead. I’m not sure I even appreciate what’s on the walls anymore, but I love watching what other people photograph while strolling the Louvre.
Dining out in a restaurant in Paris, tourists get excited for French food, affordable wine, and baskets of baguette served by waiters that they expect to be slightly grumpy.
Dining out in Paris, I try to peek into the kitchen to see if chefs are preparing food fresh or just using a microwave. I look at the bottom of the baguette slices to see if they have those little matrices of dots, indicating it’s industrial bread. I use the menu as a window into the food’s quality – strawberries or tomatoes in February? That’s a red flag for non-seasonal produce.
Beyond the food, there needs to be ambiance. From boisterous brasseries to quaint little cafés, I always take the temperature of the room. I check for groups of tourists crammed around small tables, and I listen to hear at least some French. Is everything translated into a dozen languages or is there just a simple French menu? I want to know who the target clientele is.
Then there are always the tiny details that can make or break a place. I try to gauge if there is enough space to be comfortable, as opposed to a tiny trendy crowded coffee shop with four seats that will surely disappoint a traveler looking for a relaxing break from touring the city. I note the lighting, the types of glasses used, and the general attitudes of the servers, all to be able to give readers a more complete picture of what to expect. Just knowing there is good or seasonal food doesn’t suffice.
When tourists enter a shop, they look for prices and sizes, colors and textures. Tourists love to touch things, try them on, and buy a few items that came from Paris.
When I enter a shop, I immediately turn over products to look for the “Made in China” label. I ask how long the store has been open and, if it’s new, try to find out what’s original about the products. Can they be bought in New York? Are they made in France? In Europe? I want to know that the shop is offering something unique, or else what’s the point of writing about it?
When tourists enter a pastry shop, their eyes will open a bit wider, trying to take in all of the beautiful creations. Colorful macarons, sleek éclairs, creamy choux pastries – it’s all eye-catching and delicious.
When I enter a pastry shop, my eyes narrow a little bit. I am always cautious. Are they making these pastries on the premises, and is that even important? I look for a kitchen, a sign that someone is back there filling up those choux one by one. If there’s only a few of a certain product left, I usually order it, since this typically means it’s a poplar and worthwhile choice. I look for unique products that aren’t frozen and sent across the ocean to be sold in New York or Tokyo.
Visiting a monument like the Eiffel Tower, visitors see the queue, hop in it, and follow along. There’s no problem with that – with such huge crowds at Notre Dame, what else can you do?
Visiting a monument like the Eiffel Tower, I have to queue as well. But as a writer, I look for details on what’s happening. I look for scaffolding to see what’s changing. I look at anything that seems freshly painted or restored to see what has already changed. I also keep an eye on the bathrooms, dining options, and other facilities, which are little details that can actually help tourists navigate the crowds.
At a Parisian café, tourists like to sit back and people-watch while sipping coffee. It doesn’t get much more Parisian than that!
At a Parisian café, I take a look at the barista making the coffee – I admittedly may be biased since I once trained a barista. Are they paying attention to their machine? I try to see what kind of coffee they are using, since the Parisian roasting scene is becoming more of a thing. I look at what comes with the coffee – a little chocolate or cookie is always a plus. I also look at who else is sitting with us. If people are taking a pictures of their coffee, I usually strike the café from my list. If there is an older French couple reading the newspaper with their crèmes, then it’s a great find.
So even if you’re not penning your own article, rest assured that travel writers are continually doing their job, forgoing selfie opps and other enjoyable moments to make sure you have the information you need to ensure a wonderful trip.
- With springtime just around the corner, check out Lily’s favorite places to enjoy springtime in Paris off the tourist track.
- Check out Bryan’s secrets of the Paris food scene on Thrillist.