This wealthy neighborhood’s streets are mostly quiet, though lined with lovely buildings. This bastion of high society boasts grand views of the city’s loveliest esplanades, a lively outdoor market, some specialty museums, and great shopping streets.
1. We begin from the Sèvres Babylone Métro station, where several nearby parks offer a cool respite from the heat of the day (warning: we have a fair amount of walking ahead of us). Enjoy the sight of the l'il French kiddies playing in Square Boucicaut, Square des Missions Etrangères, or Square Chaise Récamier and the adjacent 1734 Fontaine des Quatre Saisons. Then head west along Rue de Sèvres to Le Bon Marché, the oldest department store in the world. In the back, you can see the old mosaic signs dating to 1876 that advertise toile, rideaux, and rubans (cloth, curtains, and ribbons). Stop at its food wing, La Grande Épicerie, where you can stop in for a delicious snack and to admire the sumptuous food displays. Then turn north and head up Rue de Bac, passing plain little Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Médaille-Miraculeuse off the street at No. 140, a popular pilgrimage site that draws a steady stream of visitors throughout the year.
2. Take a left and head down Rue de Babylone, past the Jardin Catherine Labouré on your left. Take a right at Rue Barbet de Jouy, at a corner between the office of the Préfecture de Police of the Île de France (Paris's "county") and La Pagode, an 1895 Chinese-themed salon de thé. Turn right on Rue de Varenne to reach the Hôtel Matignon, one of the most beautiful mansions in the area and, naturally, the official residence of the prime minister. Out back is the Jardin de Babylone, (again, naturally) the largest private garden in Paris. Then take a left once you get back to Rue de Bac.
3. Rue du Bac is lined with chic and elegant antique shops and galleries. For fine stationery, Bookbinders Design at No. 130 has been selling paper goods since 1927. For sustenance for all this window-shopping, stop at Le Bac à Glaces at No. 109, where the ice cream is made on site without preservatives (the rich and famous come here to indulge). Blanc d’Ivoire at No. 104 sells attractive housewares, while whimsical hats and gloves are available at Chorange at No. 65; the finest in kiddie couture can be found at Bonpoint at the corner with Rue de Grenelle. At No. 32 Rue du Bac, you can see both fashionable sleepwear at Laurence Tavernier and floral quilts at Le Rideau de Paris. Amidst all the shopping, you'll also pass Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin. Detour down Rue de l'Université to visit Debauve & Gallais at 30 Rue des Saint-Pères, a giftstore dating back to 1800. Then return via Rue de Verneuil and Rue de Beaune for more great window-shopping experiences. Amid all this art and gilt is an inviting little salon de thé at No. 22 Rue de Beaune called Les Nuits de Thés. At the end of the street, turn left onto Quai Anatole France.
4. Built in 1900 for the World Fair, the Musée d’Orsay was originally a train station. In 1986, it re-opened as a museum devoted to French art from the second half of the 19th century and exceptional seasonal exhibits. Across Rue de Bellechasse a block to the west is the Hôtel Salm, housing the Musée de la Légion d’Honneur.
5. Following Rue de Bellechasse south, take a right at Rue Las Cases. Tucked away here behind the Ministère de la Défense is the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde, the first Neo-Gothic church of its kind to be built in Paris. The church is noted for its imposing twin towers, visible from across the Seine.
(Also tucked away nearby is the Hôtel de Beauharnais, which houses the German Embassy. I guess the government officials wanted to be able to keep a very close eye on them, just in case.)
6. Just to the west, take Rue de Bourgogne north. Dalloyau, at No. 63, has been in business since 1802, and in that time, has perfected French pastry. People from all over town also flock to Barthélémy at No. 51 for its fine selection of cheeses. At the end of the street, make the block to circle the Palais-Bourbon, once the home of the daughter of Louis XIV and, since 1830, home to the Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of French Parliament. The public (if they write for permission in advance) is welcome to watch the legislative action from the balcony, sorta like Monsieur Smith Goes To Paris.
I had thought about going one particular day recently, but switched gears to do something else. Later we learned that a near-riot (Taiwan-style!) had broken out in the chamber when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called out François Hollande, Socialist Party leader—and longtime domestic partner of Madame Segolène Royal, both of whom are rumored to be candidates for the 2007 presidential race, and who must have a very awkward dinner table—for cowardice (over, of all things, policy toward the recent Airbus fiasco). Why, oh why, couldn't I have been there? That would have been a picture for the scrapbook. Violence, violence, everywhere I go.
7. From the side of the Palais-Bourbon, head south through the magnificent Esplanade des Invalides. Ahead is the imposing Hôtel des Invalides.
Built by Louis XIV for veterans of the French army, it now houses the Musée de l’Armée and several smaller museums.
In the gardens of the small Hôtel Biron just to the east of the Invalides complex is the Musée Rodin, one of Paris’s loveliest museums. For a small fee, you can tour his house, a surprisingly packed museum of the works of Rodin and his contemporaries, and his sculpture garden outside. My sister, who turns 22 today, would love it. Happy birthday, gal.
8. From the southern side of Invalides, follow the green Avenue de Breteuil south, past the large church of Saint-François Xavier to Place de Breteuil. Then turn northwest, taking Avenue de Saxe up to Place de Fontenoy. One interesting detour here is a visit to the UNESCO compound.
The building is staggeringly ugly, but what a surprise to discover a small, modern, open-air sculpture museum on the grounds. After passing through security, you will find sculpural gifts from various countries and a Japanese garden; a Corbusier tapestry and a huge mural by Picasso are on view inside. Across from UNESCO is Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil.
9. On the other side of UNESCO is the École Militaire, regrettably closed to the public; founded in 1751 to educate the sons of impoverished officers, its most famous graduate was a young lad named Napoleon whose graduation report opined that "he could go far if the circumstances are right." Apparently.
10. Being a military school, it would need plenty of parade grounds to train the cadets, and the result was the sprawling Champ de Mars out front, stretching all the way to the river. The area has since been used for everything from horse racing to balloon ascents to the World's Fair. These days, one of its most popular uses is as a getaway on sunny days to play soccer, toss a frisbee, or walk a grateful dog. In a historic turnabout, the area directly in front of the École Militaire is now the site of the glass monument to world peace, Le Mur de la Paix (Peace Wall). On the western side of the grounds, just across the border of the 15e arrondissement along Avenue de Suffren, is a mock Alpine village the Swiss built for the 1900 fair; these days, the "Village Suisse" persists as a haven for antique dealers. On the eastern side is the world-famous culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. Classes are available to the public if your itinerary (and your wallet) can fit them in.
11. If you're in the mood for one more detour, take Rue Saint-Dominique east from the central portion of the Champ de Mars. At No. 129 is the 1900 café La Fontaine de Mars, while the house at No. 29 Avenue Rapp, just a stone's throw from Champ de Mars, is an example of award-winning architectural design, with its exotic, feminine sandstone figurines causing quite a stir when it debuted in 1901. Also nearby are the much more restrained churches of Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou and Saint-Jean, the latter down a cul-de-sac named Villa Bosquet just to the north, off Rue de l'Université. The market street of Rue Cler is also a bonanza of pâtisseries and boulangeries for the wealthy families living in this district. Eventually, make your way back to the Champ de Mars.
12. The Champ de Mars also leads all the way to the monument of Paris, the 1,063-foot (or eight seconds, if you're falling off of it, something not recommended by the Bureau of Tourism) Eiffel Tower. Hated by contemporary critics like Guy de Maupassant so much that he dined there just so he couldn't see it on the horizon, the Tour Eiffel has since become to modern-day Parisians a beloved symbol of their city.
All those endless flocks of tourists can't be wrong about the unparalleled view, either, so vast that on a clear day, with a sufficiently powerful pair of binoculars, you can see Chartres Cathedral fifty miles away. Although it is permitted to climb the thousands of stairs to the top, only the truly energetic and the truly mad would avoid paying the well-justified eight bucks to ride the three-stage elevator, from which you can survey the vast area you have just walked across.
13. You can close out your tour by paying a visit to the brand-new (seriously, it opened today) Musée Branly just to the east of Eiffel; dedicated to arts of various cultures from around the world, it is the capstone of outgoing President Jacques Chirac's career. In 2000, a residential area here had been one of the first things I saw when visiting Propes-y as she spent her miserable, lonely fall doing dissertation research (since all first-time tourists flock here to gawk like slack-jawed yokels at the Eiffel Tower, even me); the distinctiveness of Parisian architecture was well on display, and made quite an impact. In 2002, we returned to scale the tower to the third-stage lookout and discovered, to our great surprise, that the entire four- or five-block area had been leveled completely, all the way down to the dirt, and wondered whether some great urban renewal was in the works. Sure enough, now, four more years later, we arrive to discover said project finally being completed. The circle of life, as Elton would say.
14. Speaking of whom, Elton's other muse, Princess Diana, died just across the river at Place de l'Alma. You can visit her makeshrift shrine on your way home via the Métro station at Alma-Marceau; alternatively, if you don't mind the more limited stopoff choices of the RER, there's one of its stations right there on the nearer bank. If you're up for one more, shall we say, unusual stop, there's the entrance to Les Egouts (the sewers) at that same spot.
Yes, I said sewers. The city's revolutionary plumbing system was such a marvel that people have been visiting it ever since. Not surprisingly, it doesn't exactly smell like a rose garden, and it's pretty much the only sight in Paris I don't really want to see. I have my standards, you know.
The Other Paris