Aerial view on Eiffel Tower and district la Defense in Paris

My Secret City: Paris

One of the world’s most stylish cities, Paris offers unbeatable food and culture. Alumnus Michael Scott (MA 2010) shares what he loves most about the city that will soon play host to the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

To learn about Paris, my go-to museum would be the Musée Carnavalet in the 3rd arrondissement (district). The museum tells the history of Paris and her inhabitants through a series of paintings and objects. My personal favourites are the revolutionary plates: tableware, quickly (and badly) mass-produced during the Revolution, to replace aristocratic porcelain on the dinner tables of high society. Each plate features an ‘appropriate’ image or message, commemorating events of the time, such as ‘Vive la nation’ (long live the nation) and ‘Vivre libre ou mourir’ (live free or die). The permanent collection has free entry and the museum is open nearly all year round.

"Paris is a city full of interesting contradictions and juxtapositions: historic/modern, chaotic/relaxed, French/international, rich/poor, big/small, progressive/conservative."

One curious monument to visit is the Tour Saint Jacques in the 4th arrondissement. It is the surviving bell tower of a church that has long been lost to history. At 500 years old the tower is nearly as old as Notre Dame and is located not far away in the city centre. Although I have a little vertigo sometimes, I do like the uninterrupted views from the top. It’s possible to see all the other landmarks of Paris from up there. It’s open from May to November and an English language tour is available, although you can also practise your language skills by taking the tour in French.

My favourite place to spend a Sunday afternoon is socialising at the Rosa Bonheur bar in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont (19th arrondissement). It’s Pride Month every Sunday at this LGBTQ+-friendly establishment. With decor influenced by the Camargue region of France and a pop choir singing covers of songs, this modern version of a guinguette (17th-century popular tavern) is highly popular in summer so arrive early to beat the queue. Bottles of rosé wine and pizzas keep the crowd going until the disco soundtrack pulls me and everyone else inside to dance until midnight.

Paris famously has 20 arrondissements, but she can also be divided into Rive Droite and Rive Gauche. Broadly speaking, that’s north or south of the river. Normally Parisians fall into one camp or the other. I’m a Rive Droite person, mostly because everything I do tends to fall into the central arrondissements or the north and north-east of the city. Most visitors will know the Canal Saint-Martin but I recommend exploring further, and continuing up to the Bassin de la Villette and into the park beyond. It’s fun to hire a little boat and take a picnic with you.

"Any effort to speak French, such as saying bonjour (or bonsoir after 5pm) loudly and assertively when you enter a shop, or before trying to order, is highly appreciated."

Another great way to discover Paris, especially the architecture and the history, is to take a cycle tour. It’s much healthier than a bus tour and more interactive. The guide will make sure you are not in any danger – many roads now limit access to cars and there are cycle lanes all over the city. The city authorities have invested a great deal in improving the cycling infrastructure. I find it is often quicker than taking the metro and more direct. I see more of the city from above ground and live a more active lifestyle. It’s also possible to hire a bicycle and cycle out of town. A good route is north-east, following the Canal de l’Ourcq non-stop, 16km until you reach the Parc forestier de la Poudrerie.

I was recently introduced to a club called Supersonic near Bastille which regularly hosts emerging bands from the UK, France and other countries. The gigs have free entry and the venue has a mixed clientele of different ages. It’s worth checking out to see if there is a Glaswegian band passing through on a European tour.

Most people will want to visit Versailles if they go anywhere on a day trip from Paris. As impressive as Versailles is, I prefer to beat the crowds of tourists and go for a similar experience in one of the lesser-known chateaux that surround Paris in the greater Île-de-France region. Fontainebleau is an excellent alternative, easily reachable in 45 minutes on a local train from Gare du Lyon station. Similarly, Rambouillet is worth visiting for the small chateau and park of the same name, but especially to visit Bergerie Nationale – a working, educational farm where the relatives of the sheep once owned by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are still producing merino wool today.

My food & drink hit list

Budget options with classic touches

My favourite place for a cheap meal would be one of the many restaurants serving traditional French favourites like blanquette de veau (veal stew) or poireau à la vinaigrette (leeks marinated in a mustard vinaigrette) in a modern setting, with classic touches such as white tablecloths and silver cutlery. You can find these bouillon (bistro or brasserie)-style restaurants in République, Pigalle and Les Halles.

Grab a quick snack

There are many places to grab a quick snack if you don’t want to sit in for a full meal. I think that an independent Greek business on the Rue Mouffetard (5th arrondissement), does the best (and largest) filled savoury and sweet crêpes in Paris. The Rue Strasbourg St Denis (10th arrondissement) does delicious lahmacun (Levantine wraps) to order and take away – I love them with coriander and a squeeze of fresh lemon. You can also buy fresh sandwiches and delicious pastries in any of the thousands of bakeries to enjoy while you sit along the banks of the Seine and watch the bateaux mouches (excursion boats) sail by.

Tasty treats from around the world

I’m a fan of my neighbourhood market in the 18th arrondissement. It’s a traditional covered market with all the usual stalls (greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers) but also vendors selling sandwiches from Vietnam, such as bahn mi, and salty cod fritters such as accra from Ghana and the West Indies. Some markets might be daunting to visit, especially if you are concerned about the language barrier, but be brave and people will try to help you.

Eating before eight 

I like the very good Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants in the area near Gare du Nord station. These restaurants are inexpensive, popular and serve food all day, so you don’t have to wait until French dinner time (8pm) to eat. These restaurants also serve great vegetarian options. Ten years ago, it was quite difficult to find vegetarian options on a menu, now it is common. Vegan options, however, are still rare in a country that produces over two million tonnes of cheese per year.

Somewhere special

For a special occasion, I would recommend Georges on the roof of the Pompidou Centre in the 4th arrondissement for the spectacular view, or Le Grand Salon at the Hotel Particulier for the unique environment – a hidden venue in the heart of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement.

This article was first published June 2024. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.

Outside view of Carnavalet museum in Paris - a yellow sandstone grand buiilding with manicured gardens in front [Photo: Shutterstock]

Musée Carnavalet is dedicated to the history of Paris. Michael's favourite collection in the museum is the revolutionary plates.

Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe during a pink sunset [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile is one of the most famous monuments in Paris and sits at the end of the Champs-Élysées.

People sitting at the terrace of Peniche Rosa Bonheur - a boat-like pub - on the quays of the Seine river on a sunny day [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Peniche Rosa Bonheur is an old river barge which is now home to cafes, bars and nightclubs – Michael's favourite place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

People sitting talking and socialising on the banks of the Canal Saint Martin [Photo: Shutterstock]

Canal Saint-Martin is both a canal and a district of Paris. The trendy neighbourhood straddles the canal in the 10th and 11th arrondissements.

Interior view of a room in Fontainebleau chateux. The room has a highly ornate ceiling, walls and carpet [Photo: Shutterstock]

Chateau de Fontainebleau is one of the largest French chateaux. It served as a hunting lodge and summer residence to many French monarchs.

Exterior view of Louvre showing the old building and the glass pyramid [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Louvre is home to world-renowned masterpieces including the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and The Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Panoramic aerial view of Paris and The Avenue Charles de Gaulle and business district of La Defence from Arc de Triomphe [Photo: Shutterstock]

The architecture of the Avenue Charles de Gaulle and the business district of La Défense shows the contrast of old and new in Paris.

The tall, pale, stone Saint-Jacques Tower viewed along the street, appearing at the end of the road between rows of buildings [Photo: Shutterstock]

The 52-metre tall Saint-Jacques Tower is all that remains of the former 16th-century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. It's possible to climb up to the top of the tower.

Outside of a tower and barn-like buildings at Bergerie Nationale of Rambouillet [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Bergerie Nationale de Rambouillet was created in 1786 by Louis XVI and is now a working farm open to visitors. Descendants of Louis XVI's sheep still live on the farm.