The Opéra Garnier is a mini-city unto itself, with a museum, gourmet restaurant, one of the world's lovliest theatres and even an underground lake (the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's 'Phantom of the Opera') now used for specialised underwater fireman training. Its location between department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, the Louvre and the Japanese quarter by rue St-Anne, makes it one of the city's most visited monuments, so if you want to escape the tourists, you have to be inventive.
We recommend heading ten-minutes eastwards on foot towards Grands Boulevards, or northwards into the heart of the 9th arrondissement where young crowds of Parisians are setting up shop, bringing with them a trail of cool boutiques, bars, cafés and attractions. Here's our pick of the bunch....
Around Opéra Garnier...
In 18th and 19th century Paris, the areas around today’s Grands Boulevards donned themselves with glass-roofed shopping galleries known as les passages couverts (covered passages). These forerunners to modern-day malls simultaneously allowed you to take a shortcut through the city, shelter from the rain, shop, dine, and (for many men) spend a debaucherous hour in the arms of a lady. Who knows, Paris’s reputation for its ubiquitous merde may even have roots in this era, as most passages were equipped with a salon de décrottage – literally a de-pooping room, in which punters had their shoes scraped clean! Nowadays these passages are real architectural gems – olde-worlde galleries perfect for tantric browsing. Galerie Vivienne (4 rue des Petits Champs, 5 rue de la Banque, 6 rue Vivienne, 2nd) is one of the prettiest with ochre paintwork and mythology-themed mosaics. It also has a tearoom. While Passage des Panoramas (11–13 bd. Montmartre, 151 rue Montmartre, 2nd) built in 1800, takes the credit for being the first public area in Paris to be lit by gas in 1817. Best for a mooch though, are Passage Jouffroy (10–12 bd. Montmartre and 9 rue de la Grange Batelière, 9th) and its continuation, Passage Verdeau (6 rue de la Grange Batelière and 31bis rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 9th) both built around 1847. Here you’ll find the Musée Grévin waxwork museum and dinky boutiques that flaunt everything from precious stones, stamps and jewellery to antique cameras and furniture.
Between 2.30pm and 7pm this tiny Taiwanese restaurant doubles as a 'tea bar', the only place in Paris that serves China's famous tapioca cocktails - sometimes known as 'bubble tea', they are served with an extra-wide straw to suck up the little tapioca balls at the bottom. The sensation may seem strange at first, but the tastes are great; among the flavours are mango, coconut and kumquat. Up the road at No.2, a spin-off boutique sells excellent oolong flower teas.
There are plenty of Japanese restaurants to choose from along nearby rue Ste-Anne, but none is as original - nor as friendly - as this tiny bistro run entirely by women, next to the square Louvois. The speciality here is bento boxes, which you compose yourself from a scribbled blackboard list (in Japanese and French). For €15 you can choose two small dishes - marinated sardines and fried chicken wings are especially popular - and a larger dish, such as grilled pork with ginger. Don't miss the inventive desserts, which might include lime jelly spiked with alcohol.
In the up-and-coming neighbourhood near the Folies Bergère a band of five ‘mothers’ boys’ has created a restaurant evoking their mums’ home cooking. Even the mums themselves get into the kitchen on the first Tuesday of the month to turn out blanquette de veau, chicken cordon bleu with beaufort cheese and Nutella-flavoured puddings. Whether or not you think Babybel has a place in Gallic cuisine, it’s a chance to relive the school French exchange or 1980s après-ski in the company of an ebullient crowd.
Who said eating healthily was boring? Certainly not the many regulars who flock each afternoon (and on Sunday for brunch) to this tiny canteen in the 9th arrondissement. There’s no overriding organic or vegetarian concept, just well-cooked, daily-changing healthy dishes. There’s at least one delicious vegetarian dish each day, and they often have an ‘Assiette vitalité’ which brings together fresh vegetables goat’s cheese and organic galettes in a wondrous combination.
A brilliant little burger joint, which takes the traditional American burger and gives it the French terroir treatment. Nowhere’s been left out, with regional specialities from all over France wedged between delicious sesame seed buns from the bakery next door. There’s fourme cheese from Ambert, tomme cheese from Savoie, Saint-Nectaire cheese, Charolais and Blonde d’Aquitaine beef and more.The menu lists five house burgers, but you can also build your own. Choose from beef, chicken, lamb and veal and then add cheese, grilled vegetables, streaky bacon, sauces, herbs or spices. You order at the counter and then try and find a seat, which isn’t always easy – but if all else fails you can get it to go. Chips (known here as ‘fernandines’) come with, and the concept even extends to the drinks and desserts, with homemade soda, organic lemonade, and traditional puddings.Quick and friendly service comes from moustachioed men in checked shirts, all part of why Big Fernand has shot to the top of Paris’s burger ranks. The only slight quibble is the price – about €15 without dessert. The quality of the ingredients is high, but the portions aren’t huge and it feels a little much to pay for what is still fast food.
Note the address well, because there’s no other sign to indicate the whereabouts of this tapas bar, opened at the end of 2010 by a chap called Cornélius (whence the name). But once you do find your way inside, to the room with its big windows and warm atmosphere, it’s easy to settle in. No pretentious clientele here, but rather the neighbourhood regulars drinking a glass of wine or a bottle à la ficelle (you only pay for what you drink) chosen with the wise counsel of the proprietor. You can also eat very well here, snacking on canailles [‘rogues’], a sort of French tapas, from a regularly changing menu. At three top quality canailles for €12, or five for €15, the prices are really very good for what you get. Beneath the gaze of the enormous scarecrow installed behind the bar, you can also spend your weekends dancing to disco and rock. Overall, a great find in the 9th arrondissement.
The Rex's new sound system puts over 40 different sound configurations at the DJ's fingertips, and has proved to be a magnet for top turntable stars. Once associated with iconic techno pioneer Laurent Garnier, the Rex has stayed at the top of the Paris techno scene, and occupies an unassailable position as the city's serious club music venue.
Set right in the hub of the city's club activity around Grands Boulevards, this electro venue has some of the hippest acts from the French and international scene, thanks to its owner's multidisciplinary career as a producer and founder of the record label Uncivilized World. Recent refurbishment should make it even better.
If Didier Ludot is too intimidating, visit Gabrielle Geppert's shop, where much fun can be had rummaging in the back room or trying on the outrageous collection of '70s sunglasses (about €380 a pop, but they will get you into any party worth going to). A new exclusive room dedicated to accessories by the likes of Hermès and Manolo Blahnik can be opened on request, and she also carries a range of original costume jewellery by Elisabeth Ramuz.