Cultural Navigator | Top 5 Adventures in Paris

Posted by Kait Bolongaro & filed under Travel.

Photo courtesy of Benh Lieu Song via Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Benh Lieu Song via Wikimedia Commons

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Paris: a city can’t get more famous.

The Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, call the City of Lights home. Known for romance and high fashion, its hard not to be enchanted by this bustling metropolis of twelve million. Tourists flock here, but often they miss out on Paris’ vast multicultural ethnic offerings. Here are five ethnic cool adventures that can only be found in Paris.

1. Artist’s Mecca of Montmartre

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While Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur Basilica are must-sees, its this district’s artistic importance that attracts the world’s best artists. This is the true heart of Paris’ art world. Since the 19th century, Montmartre has been the mecca for artists from all over the world. Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Amedeo Modigliani are counted among its most famous international residents from times past. Now its streets and cafés are thriving with Russian, Chinese, Serbian and Chilean artists all deriving their inspiration from this artistic holy place.

As I was wandering among the artist’s booths under the shadow of Sacré Coeur in the Place de Théâtre, I met Goghy. Goghy has the allure of the quintessential Parisian with a special je ne sais quoi. I immediately had to speak with him. His work was fascinating and visibly differe    nt from the rest; he uses Byzantine art as one of his main influences with a modern edge.

When I asked Goghy where he was from, I was certain this would be a complicated answer. Goghy grew up in Egypt but has lived in Paris for thirty-five years. He boldly stated, like a true Parisian: I am more Parisian than the Parisians. I would agree that with his black beret turned slightly to the side and his natural aloofness, he fits right in.

I snapped his photo and continued on my way, only to meet a few more artists from far-flung corners of the globe. It was cool to see such an mélange of artists sharing their work with the public.

If you have time, sit a while and let one of these masters draw your portrait for 40 euros. It is worth the price and is a unique souvenir of Paris. To arrive at Montmartre, take either metro line 2 or 12 to Pigalle.

2. Around the World in Eighty Plates

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In the Quartier Latin, visiting and local foodies hustle to find a place to eat at meal times. I have travelled all over the world, and I have never seen so many restaurants from such a variety of countries anywhere. Nestled between the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sorbonne, the Latin Quarter is the perfect spot to take a lunch break while exploring Paris.

From sushi and masalas, pasta and kebab, it is hard not to find a quaint café to fit everyone’s taste. There is even a vegetarian restaurant — an exotic and rare species in France — called Maoz Vegetarian, serving specialties from around the world including excellent falafel.

I could spend hours on this street, eating until I fall into a food-induced coma.

The smells wafting from every kitchen mingle together and it is hard to decide which craving to give in to. I could spend hours on this street, eating until I fall into a food-induced coma. Each restaurant has a host who tries to entice customers to indulge in their delicacies with big smiles and sales pitches in a variety of languages: Hindi, English, Mandarin, German. Whether you are looking for a good meal that reminds you of home or are sick of French cuisine, this is a food lover’s paradise.

The prices are average for Parisian standards at between 10-15 euros for lunch. Most establishments are open for lunch between 12 and 3 pm and reopen for supper at 6 pm. Since prices are higher at night, travellers on a budget will get a better deal with lunch menus.

3. Incredible Street Performances

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For centuries, Paris has been the centre of the artistic world. Poets, authors, actors, musicians and painters flock to France’s capital, seduced by its charm. Thanks to this creative energy, Paris is now home to some of the best street shows in the world. They can be found where you least expect them: metro cars, small side streets and in random plazas throughout the city. It is difficult to spend a day here without coming across one unique spectacle.

Paris is now home to some of the best street shows in the world.

Just as I was leaving Montmartre, there was an impromptu performance that blew me away. The performers blended dance forms from two very different cultures: Capoeira from Brazil and Belly Dancing from the Middle East. Three Brazilian musicians played instruments while the belly dancer hypnotized the crowd. She wriggled her hips to the beat while swinging batons lit on fire. All of a sudden, one of the musicians began performing capoeira moves as she danced, creating a cultural fusion unique to Paris.

As the crowd swayed to the music, one of younger group members began confronting people who were taking photos of the group, demanding money in exchange. I would have been happy to oblige if he hadn’t been so aggressive, trying to block my camera’s view while hassling me in Portuguese and French. This is unfortunately common in Paris so it can be hard to capture these beautiful shows on film or even get more information about the performers; don’t let that stop you from enjoying these amazing and thrilling pieces.

Performances can be found throughout Paris, mostly in the afternoon and evening. You are likely to find a performance at Montmartre, metro stations and the various gardens and plazas that dot Paris.

Author’s Note: Beware of pickpockets. Some thieves put together ‘shows’ in an effort to distract tourists and take their valuables.

4. Le Marais: Where Tradition and Culture Meet

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Le Marais has been an important district in Paris for over 800 years. Although first populated by aristocrats, by the 19th century, Le Marais was home to a large Jewish community. Jewish traditions thrived here until World War II, when most of its population was deported to concentration camps by Nazi Germany. Nowadays, this area is enjoying a cultural renaissance. The Jewish community is once again thriving and expensive boutiques and chic cafés line the streets.

In the heart of this borough is La Place des Vosges. It is the oldest planned square in Paris. The plaza is surrounded by long arched hallways called arcades and features a beautiful garden with a fountain as its centre. Residents peacefully read their novels in the lazy Parisian suns or congregate in the outdoor cafés Paris is famous for.

One of the best crêperies in Paris is not too far away. Crêperie Suzette offers traditional sweet and savoury fare from Brittany. The crepes are divine; I was surprised when I peered into the open-air kitchen. The chef and the staff all have South Asian origins. Most of the hundreds of crêperies in Paris are owned and run by ethnic French people who are very proud of their cuisine. What is even more interesting is that although these South Asian roots could make for interesting fusion food, the menu is thoroughly French. You never know what sort of ethnic identities one will find in Paris, or how it will be expressed in the cuisine.

Le Marais can be reached by metro on lines 1,3 and 5. Follow the signs to Place des Vosges before heading to Crêperie Suzette at 24 rue des Francs Bourgeois. Prices start at 10 euros.

5. The Search for Chinatown

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When I heard that Paris has the largest Chinatown in continental Europe, I was ecstatic. Since Vancouver is my hometown, I am always on the lookout for an awesome Chinese bakery with mochi stuffed with red bean paste or sweet pineapple buns. It’s easy to say that these are my favourite bakeries in the world other than French patisseries. There had to be some sort of Chinese-French super bakery that created the best almond croissants in the known universe, and I wasn’t leaving Paris until I found them. This pastry hunt turned more into a wild goose chase than an afternoon of over indulgence I was hoping for.

There had to be some sort of Chinese-French super bakery that created the best almond croissants in the known universe, and I wasn’t leaving Paris until I found them.

I travelled outside the centre of the city to the 13th arrondisement to scope out bakeries and Tang Frères, the largest Chinese grocery in France. I was also hoping to see the usual beautiful architecture that is found in Chinatowns throughout the world. Alas, I was disappointed. There was no indication that I had even magically stumbled into Chinatown; the streets were almost abandoned.

While there were a few Vietnamese serving pho, there wasn’t a bakery in sight. I thought I was hallucinating. In France, this is rare, because there are bakeries on almost every street corner. I decided to try my luck with Tang Frères and ask local shoppers where to go. This tactic works 99 percent of the time. Not in Paris.

I scoped the store aisles searching for even boxed mochi. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t a baked goods section. I asked the cashier where I could find a bakery. She sent me down the street to a restaurant and I was floating. At last, I would have my sweet delights. Unfortunately, this magical restaurant was a fast food place featuring Laotian food with hardly any sweets in sight.

I found some sort of mochi stuffed with egg cream. It was good but just not quite like Vancouver.

I was hoping to have the inside scoop on Chinatown. Unfortunately, I would say that bakery afficianados and those looking for a touch of Asia in Paris will be disappointed. To embark on your own quest to find Paris’ mysterious Chinatown, take the metro to either Tessaic or Place d’Italie and be sure to let me know if you find an awesome bakery.

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