In September 2015, my husband and I (along with our two good friends) traveled to Iceland, France, and Belgium over the course of two weeks. I had an absolute blast in each country, but I'd longed to visit Paris for so many years, and it remains a highlight of our trip.
In Iceland and Belgium, we stayed in modest apartments rented through Airbnb. But in Paris - because it's #Paris - we splurged and rented a dreamy, all-white flat in the 17th Arrondissement with herringbone wood floors and quintessential Haussmannian architecture. The 17th Arrondissement is an overlooked area of Paris; most travelers don't ever venture there and the lack of tourists keeps it feeling authentically Parisian with its blend of everyday life plus a bit of the bourgeois. There's the boulangerie on the corner with baskets of fresh baguettes, and the neighborhood brasserie serving up crepes and espresso - the Parisian mainstays that a traveler's dreams are made of. You'll also find the shopping area of Wagram-Ternes, but most shops here are catered to residents: a salon, a post office, a bank, a real estate office, and a stationery shop where the owner spoke only French. At end of business each weekday, shopkeepers closed their doors and the hum of motorbikes that filled the air all day simmered down. The few restaurants open for dinner slowly filled with people as they returned home from their jobs in other arrondissements.
The 17th Arr. is like a secret garden, one in which visitation must be earned in order for it to remain a sanctuary. It's not a place to come and expect to be spoken to in English. It's not a place to find souvenir shops or museums or venti three-pump caramel lattes. It's a place to experience Paris as a temporary Parisian.
My husband and I came to Paris with very few plans. Of course we would see Notre Dame and her flying buttresses, and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but we opted out of the Louvre, Versailles, and other typical 'must-see' Parisian icons because for our first visit, we wanted to just be. To stroll the back streets of the left bank and see what we found, or get a patisserie recommendation from a local and take them up on it. To buy some baguettes and macarons and have a picnic in Jardin du Luxembourg, or visit the Louvre gift shop and then wander into Jardin des Tuileries to write in our journals, people watch, and nap - just as the Parisians were doing.
Even Pere Lachaise Cemetery is a quiet place to escape the noise of the city and unwind as we stroll the cobbled paths. There's something about traveling that makes me want to take a slower pace to my day and really stop and smell the roses. It's as if the idea that I might possibly never be in this place again stops me in my tracks and says 'Look around! Enjoy this time!'
People-watching is as Parisian an activity as you'll ever find. Everyone does it, and in fact, it's common enough that at just about every cafe, the chairs are always facing street side. One morning, my husband and I observed a gentleman take a seat at a table near ours. Unlike we Americans and our full breakfast of crepes and coffee, he had a très Parisian breakfast of an espresso and a cigarette. Over the next 20 minutes, he continued to smoke and watch, watch and smoke. Finally after his third cigarette, he threw back his double shot in one swallow, slammed his hand down on the table as if it were actually tequila and not coffee, and promptly headed out to begin his day.
Walking along the left bank, we found a riverside pedestrian area called Les Berges de Seine. It's below the street level (right on the river) and stretches from the Musee D'Orsay to the Eiffel Tower. There are up-cycled cargo containers turned into private rental pods for taking a nap; game areas for both children and adults; and paved pathways for joggers, walkers, and cyclists. Sure, guidebooks probably have a page dedicated to Les Berges de Seine, but because we stumbled upon it during a bike ride from Ile de la Cite to La Tour Eiffel, it felt like another hidden secret. One evening, we walked here to get a bite for dinner and discovered that it's a happy hour hot spot for Parisian professionals. And as the saying goes, when in Rome (or Paris)... which is how we ended up with a bottle of wine, four freshly-made personal pizzas, and eight legs dangling over la Seine as the sky slowly darkened from blue to black. The group sitting next to us toasted a friendly 'bon appetit!' our way, and in the distance, the Eiffel Tower began the first of its hourly twinkles. This is the kind of magic that only Paris can create.
Some of the best travel experiences and memories happen when you're not surrounded by other tourists or on a beeline to the next sight to see. I couldn't have planned our afternoon around the boules games we watched in Jardin du Luxembourg, the brocante (antiques street fair) where I scored a Christmas gift for my brother, or found the three piece jazz band practicing along the Seine. If my nose were in a guidebook, I never would have witnessed a quiet moment between mother and baby in the park as she soothed him with a song. It's these seemingly insignificant, unplanned moments that I most recall when people ask what we did in Paris. So if I have any piece of advice to share about how to experience magic while traveling, it's this: stop looking, and let the magic find you.
My name is Alicia, and I like my aperture wide and my whiskey neat. I’m a meteorologist-turned-photographer and while I call the rolling hills of Northern Virginia home, my heart belongs in Paris, as well as dozens of places I've not yet visited. My wedding photography business, Love Knot Photo, caters to quirky couples with a laid back vibe and a sense of humor. I also work with brands and small businesses to create visual eye candy for their websites and blogs.
To see more of Alicia's work, visit her here.