Paris is full of paradoxes. Parisians who seem eternally slim despite all that wine and cheese. A city that is discreet and conservative — and that has been known to also erupt into revolutions and rebellions. Polite little Parisian children who always say oui… who grow up into Parisian adults who love to say non. Parisiennes who follow faultless skincare regimens, and yet smoke like it’s going out of fashion.
But one of my favourite Parisian paradoxes is how this is the city of extravagant luxury — yet also life’s simple pleasures.
Take food, for instance. Yes, you can splurge on fancy feasts at La Tour d’Argent or Le Grand Véfour, and if you get the opportunity to do so, you most definitely should. But at the other end of the spending spectrum, you can enjoy just as memorable a meal with a shopping bag of groceries and a sunny spot by the Seine, crunching into a crusty baguette topped with brie melted-warm in the golden-hour air, sipping rosé well into the twilight-tinged time known as l’heure bleue.
Feasting en plein air is a much-loved Parisian pastime; few cities know how to roll out an impromptu riverside picnic with as much panache as Paris does, especially now that the banks of the Seine have been completely pedestrianised. Picnicking here brings together some of Parisians’ most beloved to-dos: watching life float by (along with the boats and swans), enjoying free-flowing conversation (and wine, too), and snacking on simple, fresh, flavour-packed produce.
For visitors to Paris in the warmer months, picnics are also a genius way to manage your euros, as eating at cafés, even the more basic ones, can add up if you’re doing so three times a day. But there are picnics … and there are pique-niques. Here are some tips for making sure yours is à la parisienne …
- First up, pack some picnic gear in your suitcase. I know this kind of goes against the whole spontaneous vibe of a picnic … but hear me out, as this is what I always do. It’s a habit I inherited from my dad who, for our family holidays driving around France, would always make sure to have a handy stash of plates, cups, cutlery, napkins, and — bien sûr! — a bottle opener. It meant that whenever we chanced upon a lively country market, the logistics of setting up a lunch by some pretty river would be a cinch. I now also pack a few Turkish beach towels into my luggage, as they make for ideal summer picnic blankets, without the bulk. Oh, and I also take a basket-bag of some type for all the stocking up (just to, well, feel more Parisian while doing so).
- So, you’ve arrived in Paris (bienvenue!), and you wake to a glorious day for a meal alfresco. Toss your picnic paraphernalia into your basket and, channelling Jane Birkin, head to Saint-Germain for your shopping.
- On the corner of Rue de Buci and Rue de Seine, you’ll find a greengrocer’s; no Parisian picnic is complete without cherry tomatoes, a bunch of radishes, and a large tray of strawberries.
- If it’s a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, a cheesemonger will have set up across the way; ask him for his top suggestions. He’s also your guy for a saucisson or two.
- Next, pop into the Carrefour supermarché, at 78 Rue de Seine, for your dips, chips and olives. If you need to buy your cheese here, a round of brie and log of goat’s are always crowd-pleasers.
- Now the essential bread and wine: buy your baguettes at Paul, just opposite the fruit & veg; and find a Nicolas bottle shop around the corner, at 13 Rue de Buci.
- Finally, le dessert: try Carton, at 6 Rue de Buci, for a gorgeous array of traditional French treats, such as éclairs, milles-feuilles and tarts.
- Walk up Rue Dauphine, swinging that basket of yours (so très Jane of you). When you reach the river, you can scoot around the two islands until you find your perfect spot. For example, upstream on the Île Saint-Louis, a ramp takes you down from the Quai d’Orléans to a cobbled bank that looks straight up to the flying buttresses and spires of Notre-Dame; this view is particularly stunning, and glamorously gothic, at sunset. But my personal favourite patch is at the very tip of the Île de la Cité, known as the Square du Vert-Galant. To get there, cross Pont Neuf and head down the stairs that are tucked just behind the equestrian statue of King Henri IV. Claim a position somewhere around the triangular flower-filled park, ideally in sight of the wistful willow at the point there, and the graceful Pont des Arts just beyond it. Unfurl your blanket, throw everything on it in that casually studied way that French people do so well, uncork your rosé, and settle in for some hours of utter bliss.
La vie est faite de petits bonheurs, say the French. Life is made of small happinesses. And a Parisian picnic is certainly one of life’s biggest little joys.