European hot spots are buckling with record numbers of travelers this season. But even in a global travel darling like the French capital, strategies exist to enjoy the sights without the crowds.
Summer has arrived in Paris, and the world with it. By day, international hordes pile into the Musée d’Orsay to catch the final month of the blockbuster “Manet / Degas” exhibition as throngs surround the closed, fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral to snap any possible selfies. By night, the available picnic space quickly disappears on the lawns of the Champ de Mars and its direct view of the Eiffel Tower.
But even in a global travel darling like the French capital, strategies exist for dodging the droves — especially if you can sacrifice a few “musts” in favor of worthy but less-famous alternatives. Here’s a six-point plan to help create a little space and comfort in the height of high season.
Get out of town
Less touristed and less expensive, many Paris suburbs offer a respite from the masses while featuring distinctive culinary, cultural and historical draws of their own. And no need to worry about transportation: Most are linked to the city center by metro or commuter rail.
Montreuil, just beyond the city’s eastern edge, has become a haven for musicians, artists and self-styled bohemians who hang around craft-beer bars like Brasserie Croix de Chavaux and Beer and Records, and live-music clubs such as La Marberie and Le Chinois.
Northeast of Paris, Pantin is the base of the Hermès luxury brand and some cultural powerhouses as well, notably the Centre National de la Danse and an exhibition space from Thaddeus Ropac, one of Paris’s most well-known art gallerists. Staying in Pantin also offers quick access to top cultural venues in Paris’s 19th arrondissement. The Philharmonie de Paris complex includes a Jean Nouvel-designed concert hall and music museum, while the nearby Grande Halle de la Villette hosts exhibitions and performances.
Across the city, beyond Paris’s western limit, the upscale town of St.-Germain-en-Laye (birthplace of King Louis XIV) contains museums devoted to former residents like the composer Claude Debussy and the painter Maurice Denis as well as numerous fine-dining options. Le Wauthier by Cagna, a chic contemporary bistrot, and the gastronomic restaurant of the century-old Cazaudehore hotel (noted for its wine selection) are among the top tables.
Eat your big meal at lunch
In a global food capital where simply landing a table at a corner bistro can require booking hours or days ahead, scoring a dinner reservation in a lauded dining room or cult foodie haunt can require making your restaurant choices even before purchasing your plane tickets.
In such supersaturated conditions, the lunch hour could be your ticket. During this less-coveted period, top restaurants typically have more tables available and serve a more affordable menu that might cost half of what a dinner would run. You get the same kitchen, cooks, dining room and savoir-faire, but the whole package is easier to reserve — and to pay for.
This recent list from the Michelin Guide features several top restaurants offering good-value lunches. In a quiet street in the Bastille area, the Japanese chef Nobuyuki Akishige runs the kitchen at Automne, which features one of the most affordable Michelin-starred meals in town: a three-course lunch for just 45 euros. (Dinner menus start at 85 euros.) Such a deal makes the restaurant “the perfect place to discover haute cuisine for a small price,” in the words of the French newsweekly Le Point.
For a date with history, the one-star Auberge Nicolas Flamel occupies the oldest house in Paris, a 15th-century mansion in the Marais that underwent total renovation in 2021. These days the chef Grégory Garimbay and crew serve a three-course lunch for 64 euros, which saves you 50 percent from the cheapest dinner menu, a five-course meal for 128 euros.
Another bonus: You can spend the rest of the day walking off your feast among the celebrated boulevards and parks in the City of Light.
Do your sightseeing in the dark
Now that your evenings are free, grab a quick bite and take advantage of the city’s many “nocturnes” — the nights that museums stay open late. According to museum representatives and Paris tour guides, these are the periods when crowds tend to be most manageable.
Museums with nocturnes include the Jeu de Paume photography and film museum (Tuesdays until 9 p.m.), Musée d’Orsay (Thursday until 9:45 p.m.), Louvre (Friday until 9:45 p.m.) and Musée Rodin (Thursday to Saturday in summer until 9:30 p.m.), which also allows nighttime visitors to picnic on the lawn of its sculpture garden.
Other top cultural institutions are open late nearly every night. The Pompidou Center is open until 9 p.m. most nights (and 11 p.m. on Thursday), while the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum is generally open until 10 p.m. and until midnight on Thursdays.
The iconic Sacre-Coeur basilica is also a night owl, welcoming visitors (for free) until 10:30 p.m. every evening.
Solve the cafe conundrum
It’s the age-old question: To soak up classic Parisian décor and literary history while eating baked goods and sipping some of the city’s best hot chocolate, should you go to the Café de Flore or the neighboring Café aux Deux Magots? Correct answer: Neither.
Rather than line up behind the velvet ropes of these famed Left Bank cafes, cross the Seine to some Right Bank gems. Carette, a century-old pastry shop and tearoom alongside the Place du Trocadero is known for its chocolat chaud and homemade macarons. Their newer, 21st-century location, under the stone arcades of the aristocratic Place des Vosges, ups the charm and tosses in some writerly vibes: just across the square is the former townhouse of novelist Victor Hugo, now a museum. Or head to fashionable rue Saint Honoré. Operating since 1880, Verlet roastery serves myriad house-label coffees and teas inside its elegant café-boutique.
Consider alternate routes
Like the old expression implores, when everyone else zigs, you zag. Instead of crushing onto the decks of the mobbed sightseeing boats that ply the Seine, try a cruise up or down the Canal St. Martin, a slim waterway that winds north by northwest from the river and takes you through the trendy 10th and 19th Arrondissements.
Rather than hiking the steep, crowded, souvenir-filled streets of Montmartre to ogle Paris from the high perch of the Sacre-Coeur basilica, you can discover one of Paris’s most lovely parks — Buttes Chaumont — which sports a hilltop house of worship of its own: a replica Roman temple with views over northeast Paris, a bohemian and multicultural area far from the city’s well-trodden tourist zones.
As when others are jamming themselves into the trains that head westward to the overrun gilded halls of Versailles, opt instead to ride the rails south to Fontainebleau and stroll through some of the 1,500-plus rooms of the equally opulent Château de Fontainebleau. Built mainly over the course of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the sumptuous, art-filled royal palace and residence was home to a long succession of French kings and rulers, from François I to Louis XVI to Napoleon.
If your dates are flexible, visit in August
The city empties out in late summer as Parisians depart on their annual holiday and tourist numbers dip, leaving Paris blissfully quiet and calm. (Many locals and expats who hang around say that this is their favorite time of the year.) Museums, monuments and parks generally stay open, as do many hotels, allowing you to enjoy iconic Paris with more breathing room. And though many restaurants and shops are shuttered for a few weeks, those that operate can be reserved or enjoyed with less hassle. Lists of restaurants that typically stay open in August are published by Sortir à Paris and Paris by Mouth.
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