“Paris is always a good idea,” Audrey Hepburn said in the 1954 film “Sabrina,” and record visitor numbers suggest that a lot of us agree. For the first time ever, hotel arrivals in Greater Paris exceeded 23 million in 2017, an increase of 11% over the previous year, according to Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency. And — just to add to the good news — Paris was voted the world’s No. 1 destination by TripAdvisor in its 2018 Travelers Choice Awards.
How to explain this resilience in the face of competition from upstart European cities like Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Reykjavik, Iceland; high-profile terrorist incidents that left the city reeling; and a national fondness for recurring transportation strikes?
Some of the appeal is obvious. I remember a local tour guide once telling me that she has seen visitors from other countries cry at their first sight of the Eiffel Tower. Paris has been so ingrained in our lives through film over the decades that even first-timers feel they know the city even before they arrive.
But what about the charge I’ve sometimes heard that Paris is old hat, never changing and, therefore, not as exciting as some of the emerging destinations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere?
To that I would argue that the city is, in fact, changing all the time and, to dredge up another quote, in the City of Lights, “everything old is new again.”
During a recent Paris-focused excursion at the invitation of Atout France and organized by the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, I spent a day visiting less-obvious locations that are both appealing and uncrowded.
The itinerary kicked off with a guided tour of the eye-popping street art of Vitry-sur-Seine, a commune just south of Paris that can legitimately be called an open-air museum.
The art is so colorful and outsized that you won’t need a guide to show you around, but it does help, especially if you want to understand the evolution of the art form in this neighborhood and its message of openness and cultural inclusion.
Nor are we just talking about graffiti, although there is plenty of that, and much of it is beautiful. The intensely decorated urban facades also include mosaics, stencil paintings and other mediums, some by internationally known street artists, including Bebar, Finbarr and Cope2.
Vitry also boasts the Mac/Val museum, which houses more than 2,000 works of contemporary art from the 1950s to today.
The Office Les Frigos is a pop-up restaurant located in a former refrigerated warehouse in Vitry-sur-Seine. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Carrying on with this theme, we had lunch at the Office Les Frigos, located in a former refrigerated warehouse that has morphed into an artist’s studio and pop-up restaurant.
Dining here is akin to walking straight into a graffiti artist’s installation, as the walls, floors and ceilings are festooned with original works. The dining and service are first-rate, and custom meals can be arranged by advance reservation.
For a change of scenery, theme and location, we spent the afternoon in western Paris at La Defense, which I have to admit, despite my many years living in Paris, was never more than a Metro stop to me. In fact, this part of Paris is well worth a visit, and you won’t be as trampled by hordes of tourists as you might be at some of the central Paris sites.
Yes, La Defense was conceived as a business district, but this is Paris, after all, where even skyscraper office buildings aren’t allowed to be boring. The area also functions as an open-air museum with such notable outdoor pieces as “Thumb” by Cesar, “Red Spider” by Alexander Calder and “Two Fantastic Characters” by Joan Miro, and the arresting Grand Arche offers a unequaled view straight across the city to the Arc de Triomphe.
“Thumb,” by Cesar is one of several pieces of street art on display throughout Paris’ La Defense district. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Other off-the-beaten-track tours can include visits to Sevres — Cite de la Ceramique, a renowned ceramic museum in western Paris that features both classical and contemporary works; electric boat tours of the Seine with Marin d’Eau Douce and the Thaddaeus Ropac contemporary art gallery.
And because the French don’t live by wine alone, the Gallia Brewery offers an engaging visitor experience for connoisseurs of beer.
Or tackle Saint-Denis in eastern Paris, with its exotic food market, which boasts nearly 75 food stalls, followed by a visit to the basilica, which features a Gothic exterior, vibrantly colored windows and dozens of imposing statues.
If none of this works to rekindle your clients’ passion for Paris, consider sending them to the summer blockbuster “Mission Impossible: Fallout.” The high-adrenaline chase scenes through some of the city’s most iconic locations (the shots of London are pretty impressive, too, by the way) ought to do the trick.
In short, Paris is old hat? Non, I don’t think so.