Paris is one of the most touristed cities in the world, and if you visit the French capital in August, as I did this week, there’s a chance you’ll see more tourists than Parisians. But having spent more than a few hours wandering the city’s downtown arrondissements, the thing that impresses me most is just how well it manages to make everyone feel at home. To me, that’s truly the magic of Paris.
Of course, people come to Paris to see the sights, and there’s no shortage of them. It’s hard to imagine a city having more beautiful, amazing buildings handed down from ages past: you wander the streets gazing at one marvel after another, from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, the church of Saint-Eustache, the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides (right), the Pantheon … even some of the bridges are beautiful.
But Paris is not content to simply let people look at its ancient monuments. The city fathers have spent massive amounts of time and money making the centuries-old districts livable and enjoyable, both for visitors and for the Parisians themselves.
The banks of the Seine have been turned into playgrounds, with walkways, restaurants and artificial beaches that provide a perfect place for sunbathing, picnicking or a game of boules (that’s bocce, if you’re Italian). The city’s streets double as restaurants, with hundreds of outdoor cafes where you can sit and nurse a coffee at midday, or drink and dine with friends until the wee hours, as Hemingway and Sartre and many more have done before you.
And there’s an amazing amount of green space for a city as built-up and urban as Paris. Besides their palaces and chateaux, the ancient kings and nobles left the city another great legacy: huge, sprawling lawns, wooded walkways, and full-on city parks, custom-made to accommodate thousands of Parisians on a Sunday afternoon.
The most amazing is the Luxembourg Gardens, a huge expanse of green that flows out in all directions from the foot of the palace that gives it its name. Built in the 1600s by Marie de’ Medici, the Luxembourg Palace is the place where the French Senate meets. But most days it plays the role of backdrop for 23 hectares of lawns, wooded glades, flower beds, fountains, tennis courts and performance spaces.
And while many cities have big parks, Luxembourg actually goes out of its way to let people enjoy the space, with free concerts, expansive picnic and play areas, and (best of all) thousands of comfortable metal chairs, available free of charge. Just pick one up and carry it to whichever shady spot has the best view, then relax and let the hours slip by. Of course, you can also choose just to flop out on the grass and enjoy a glass of vin rouge.
Then there’s the arts. For centuries, Paris has been the world centre for arts of all kinds. The most famous painters, sculptors, designers, musicians and writers have flocked here: their statues, plaques and public art works are everywhere (check out the murals by Eugene Delacroix in the Church of Saint-Sulpice). Whatever your taste, there’s a museum, gallery or performance venue that features it. And there’s always a new festival or exhibit, so it’s impossible to be bored.
To me, it’s not enough for a city to be beautiful, or a venue for people to get rich: it’s all for naught unless you make it a place for people to enjoy, whether they’re locals or visitors, rich or poor. This city has done it admirably, and that’s the true magic of Paris.
All photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR