Is unexpected Paris hard to come by? 

Even if books and lists claim the opposite there are hardly any real secrets left in Paris anymore. There are however off-the-beaten-path places (and experiences) some Parisians or visitors (who got lucky or did their homework) discover and enjoy around the French capital. Many of these have not yet gained international fame, but thanks to social media and the world’s ravenous and endless appetite for everything-Paris, things are changing fast. As a former resident, I tend to spend most of my time away from well-visited landmarks. This travel philosophy makes for more inspiring explorations and blogposts. I don’t shy away from “Pinterest Paris” either and make the most of iconic spots too. When I get lucky, I even find unexpected Paris there.

Unexpected Paris: Le Louvre et les Tuileries

In early spring, I had a great day in the busy downtown section around rue de Rivoli and place de la Concorde (sections of the 1st and 8th arrondissements.) I planned ahead and knew I would bypass most landmarks to focus on my goal: having an unusual experience in what remains a popular corner of the French capital. The day started at le Louvre and les Tuileries. The weather was its usual fickle self, but they were already there, lining up, waiting for their slice of the Paris mystique.

unexpected Paris

Looking good from the outside…

unexpected Paris

Hellooooo lines! (Don’t tell me they all have the Museum Pass?)

Outside, les Tuileries did what les Tuileries do best: Looking elegant, inviting, offering a chance to stroll, or to sit down, with expansive views of the glamorous 8th arrondissement, lying west of the venerable gardens, up les Champs-Elysées.

unexpected Paris

Jardin des Tuileries

Who has not enjoyed special moments aux Tuileries? On Sundays, locals and visitors flock there, fighting for the popular green Fermob chairs. Junior and I had many fun afternoons at that park over the years, as he ran around the gardens, minding the Pelouse Interdite (Keep off the Grass) signs, and chasing the iconic sailboats around the fountains, mon petit touriste américain.

unexpected Paris

Truthfully, not all sections of les Tuileries look like mob scenes on a sunny day. There are moments when you almost forget you are walking through one of the most beloved Parisian parks. Unexpected Paris. Those elusive moments should be treasured and are worth slowing down for. So I did, that morning. It was not warm, but I sat down in one of the chairs, and watched birds and people for a while.

unexpected Paris

Unexpected Paris: rue de Rivoli

Rue de Rivoli. It is long. It is busy. It is loud. Along the way, iconic sights abound under the famed arches. Angelina, the tea room where Coco Chanel (and many other Parisians) had a favorite table, so popular for its pâtisseries and rich hot chocolate, l’Africain, that customers are cordoned off outside, just like at Disneyland (one line for the restaurant, one line for the gift shop.) Hôtel Meurice, the historic 5-star Parisian address, once the headquarters of General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, during the German occupation (because even self-serving mythomaniacs like to live in style.)

unexpected Paris

A famed Parisian tea room

unexpected Paris

Hôtel Meurice

Nearby, rue des Pyramides, another excellent address many visitors bypass: Sébastien Gaudard, more affordable than Angelina, with delicious pastries and a croque-monsieur maison often listed as one of the best in Paris.

unexpected Paris

Sébastien Gaudard

Unexpected Paris? It is there, if you know where to look. Rue du Mont Thabor, in fact, where I had lunch at a small, unpretentious family bar/restaurant, un troquet, as the French say, that’s been there for more than 50 years. Run by an 80+ year-old couple, Jean and Colette, and their two sons (France with Vero: Written in 2018.) I would not go with a large group, as Au Petit Bar only sits about 20 people. No Wifi. No credit cards. Daily specials, like Rumsteak-frites, salé aux lentilles, or gigot d’agneau haricots verts. For dessert, French standards, tarte aux fraises, mousse au chocolat, all prepared daily by Colette in the tiny kitchen. Fans of a retro feel, formica tables and an authentic Parisian experience (complete with efficient, no fuss service,) will love it. Les autres should stay away.

unexpected Paris

Sometimes, returning to French dining basics is good

unexpected Paris

Au Petit Bar where life is sans-chichi

Unexpected Paris: rue Royale

In a neighborhood where superstar museums like Le Louvre or l’Orangerie compete for visitors’ attention, one can easily miss small treasures, especially if they are hiding behind a restaurant façade. Rue Royale connects la place de la Concorde and la Madeleine church. Everyone has heard of its most iconic address: Maxim’s.

unexpected Paris

unexpected Paris

They say it was once the most famous restaurant in the world, attracting stars, royalty, artists, and everyone in search of a good time, complete with elegant, sophisticated meals, Champagne, and a lot of dancing. Woody Allen paid a tribute to Maxim’s in the beloved Midnight in Paris.

unexpected Paris

Remember that scene?

I happen to know why Adriana (Marion Cotillard) looks so mesmerized. She, too, has just met a slice of unexpected Paris and is likely looking at this magnificent Art Nouveau glass ceiling.

unexpected Paris

Welcome to Belle Epoque Paris! Time has stopped chez Maxim’s since French fashion designer Pierre Cardin bought the restaurant in 1981 and transformed the three floors in the building above into one of the most surprising and enchanting museums in Paris. Cardin, now in his 90s (2023 update: Pierre Cardin passed away in 2020. The museum has not been open to individual visitors for several years) has collected Art Nouveau for over 60 years, and shares his favorite pieces in le Musée de l’Art Nouveau, where tours are conducted in French and in English several times a week. Art Nouveau was only in favor for about 15 years, starting in the late 1800s. Still, what a creative, modern trend it launched around the world! Artists experimented with new materials, new technology and new design. Nature and womens’ curvaceous bodies were featured prominently in Art Nouveau pieces. The Maxim’s museum recreates interiors of famous Belle Epoque courtesans nicknamed “les grandes horizontales” for their ability to become the toast of the city by seducing wealthy men who became their patrons. They were beautiful and cultured, and we get a glimpse of their decadent lifestyles while following knowledgeable and entertaining Pierre-André Hélène, a well-known art historian and the museum’s curator.

The rooms and the colors are fascinating.

unexpected Paris

Le salon (living room,) with the Gaudi-inspired couch

unexpected Paris

Not all Halls of Mirrors are in Versailles!

unexpected Paris

Delicate plates featuring an églantine (wild rose) motif

Once in the bedrooms, we feel like we are spying on la Belle Otéro, “queen of la Belle Epoque courtesans,” who built an immense fortune she gambled away and died in poverty on the French Riviera, or  Liane de Pougy, another courtesan, who reinvented herself several times during her long life. There are also photos of the great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, during one of her triumphant tours of the United States (she did not speak English!)

unexpected Paris

Rare Louis Majorelle bed and Tiffany lamps

unexpected Paris

The great Sarah Bernhardt looks back at us

When it was finally time to leave, like Midnight in Paris‘s Adriana, I wished I lived during la Belle Epoque. It was late afternoon, the perfect time to enjoy a goûter. Back on rue de Rivoli, I bypassed Angelina, and even Sébastien Gaudard and his delicious éclairs. Instead,I stepped into Paris’s largest English bookstore, W.H. Smith. Inside, on the first floor, I knew I would find a cozy café where I could rest while taking some notes after my museum visit. The café reopened last year and has been a hit with locals and a visitors in the know. If you have been craving an English breakfast, or lunch, here is your chance to indulge without crossing the Channel. The delicious Twinings tea selection and homemade scones, complete with clotted cream, are to die for! In French Girl in Seattle‘s life, like in Asterix and Obelix comic books, most adventures end with good food!

unexpected Paris

unexpected Paris

A bientôt.

 Resource List inspired by this story:

The early years of la Belle Epoque: Learn more.

The life of a Paris courtesan during la Belle Epoque, a novel: Learn more.

unexpected Paris


Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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  1. Albert W Kurjan on June 16, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    Thank you Veronique, if you can’t go – it’s nice to dream.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:37 am

      If you can’t go, it’s nice to dream, indeed! — You can always count on me to take you back to France, however virtually. “Dreaming of France,” is what people do here, with me, on the French Girl in Seattle website. 🙂

  2. Bree on June 16, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you so much Veronique xx I imagined I was there. So many places to visit next time we visit Paris.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:38 am

      I am glad you were able to add a few ways of finding “Unexpected Paris” to your list, Bree. Thank you for your visit.

  3. Bree on June 16, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    shared on Twitter xx

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:38 am

      Merci beaucoup!

  4. Rebecca Cantrell on June 16, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    The thing that is most interesting to me is the life of real Parisians. When I was in France as a tourist, I hardly got out of the tourist areas and I had a completely distorted picture of the place. The one real experience I had was wandering around one day when my husband was away and finding a Fast Food place that served Camembert sandwiches. At that time Camembert sandwich was one of the only things I knew how to say in French. The guy behind the counter approved of my pronunciation and of course, the sandwich was fantastic so I was on Cloud Nine. That memory is very special to me despite the fact that I also went to the Louvre, the Opera House, The Galleries Layfayette, etc. Later, when I learned about the problems in the slums and the problems of homelessness, it became a real place for me, even though I hadn’t been there in forty-six years, and I only stayed a week. Since then I’ve been studying all about the Paris Commune, the idol smashing after the revolution, and the riots of 1968.
    I’m fascinated by every aspect of it.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:48 am

      Bonjour Rebecca. What a wonderful comment. I see you have gone out of your way to experience the real France, with the good and also the bad. As I like to remind my readers often on this site or on Facebook, France is a real country, where real people live, not just the Disney-fied version experienced by many visitors who only scratch the surface and focus on the positive sides (understandable, as they are on vacation.) If you enjoy history, in particular social history, there is a lot to learn about my homeland indeed. You are already ahead of the game, even if you don’t visit often, as you can look at France a bit more in depth than most and understand what is around you. I had the same approach before I relocated to the United States many years ago. As a result, I experienced very little culture shock and was able to integrate quickly (speaking English at a proficient level helped too, granted.) Merci de votre visite, et à bientôt.

  5. Miss Bougie on June 17, 2018 at 12:54 am

    I’m quite often in this area but I have never been inside Maxim’s. Thanks for posting the pictures.
    I love going to the small tea shop at WHSmith. I have been many times for sandwich and tea! Or I go to Paul for a poulet-crudités and sit in the Tuileries gardens for some quiet time. Rue de Rivoli can be very noisy!

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:50 am

      Bonjour Miss Bougie (great name!) I am glad you enjoy the lovely WH Smith tea shop. I will have to return for breakfast. I so miss sampling a good English breakfast once in a while! How peaceful that tea room is, sitting just above the commotion below, rue de Rivoli. A bientôt!

  6. Susan Bush on June 17, 2018 at 1:52 am

    We are in Paris and this post could have been written about our day yesterday. We enjoyed taking a break from walking in the green chairs in the Tuileries Garden. We started our day walking along Canal St. Martin enjoying the beautiful weather and taking in the scenery. Today, we plan on visiting the flea markets. Any suggestions? Thank you for your wonderful narrative.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 6:52 am

      Bonjour Susan. It sounds like you are enjoying your Paris visit and have already covered some ground. You must be wrapping up your day by now, since it is already late afternoon in France as I type this. Too late for a flea market recommendation, but I am almost certain you headed out to the northern outskirts of Paris to visit Les Puces de St Ouen. It’s a busy place on a Sundays, and I hope you were able to find treasures there. Bonne visite!

  7. Geri Metz on June 17, 2018 at 10:02 am

    Thank you for your always delightful visits. This one was so lovely; I love that you guide your readers to the real France, and the little restos like Le Petit Bar that would be easy to miss. And the visit to Maxim’s was so special since most of us will never get to go there. I appreciate your work and send you my best wishes.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 11:12 am

      Merci beaucoup Geri. I know you have been following FGIS for quite a while now! Your support means a lot. Thank you.

  8. Susan Bush on June 17, 2018 at 10:23 am

    That is where we went. Saw lots of beautiful items, but couldn’t afford any of them. We did come away with some decorating inspiration though, so not all was lost. ?

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 17, 2018 at 11:18 am

      Bienvenue Susan. I am assuming you are referring the boutique at the Maxim’s Musée de l’Art Nouveau? I did not have time to take a look, but would have loved to. As for pieces displayed in the museum itself, I have no doubt I couldn’t afford any of them, based on the curator’s descriptions. What really surprised me in that museum is how exposed every object was. I can just picture visitors feeling tempted to pick up some of them, even if only out of curiosity (“Oh, look, I am holding Sarah Bernhardt’s silver hair brush in my hand!”) I guess they have cameras to make sure this does not happen. A bientôt!

  9. Cheryl Moore on June 17, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Merci for such an interesting and fascinating post. I think Marita and I should see Midnight in Paris again before we leave for France in September. The English breakfast at the tea room at W.H. Smith looks delicious. Maybe we will make it there. Our list is growing longer of where we want to visit! Such a timely post for us.

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

      Bonjour Chérie. Always wonderful to hear from my former students 🙂 I know you and Marita will have a fabulous time even if you don’t hit all the places on your list. Remember Paris is about taking the time to “smell the roses,” too. Happy planning (I might have a few more tips for you here before you head out in the fall…) A bientôt.

  10. Matita on June 17, 2018 at 6:54 pm

    Bonjour Vero!
    I’m so mesmerized by all your beautiful images and content that you manage to take me with you to all these wondrous places! Paris! Here we come soon! !! La vie est tres belle! !

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 18, 2018 at 7:31 am

      Merci Matita. Oui, la vie est belle, especially for those who are lucky enough to go and visit Paris for a few days…

  11. DiAnn Bottomley on June 19, 2018 at 11:50 am

    Great post. I recently spent a month in Paris and simply loved it. My first visit but not my last. Like you I am led more to the off the beaten path or less recognized places but of course did find my way to a few of the regular tourist attractions.

    Knowing little French was the downside to my trip so once back in the states, I will be taking some conversational courses & prepare better.

    A few of the great things I found by taking the road less traveled were:
    *A little hat shop tucked away in a courtyard where the owner makes hats of every type by hand. Of course, I had to buy one.
    *A musician and instrument repairman. Almost missed this one but took a chance and went around the back door. What a story to tell. While conversing we discover that we both played the flute so of course we went off in that direction for a bit. He showed me some very handsome wooden flutes that he was repairing…he actually had to make the parts it was so old.
    *A few vintage clothing stores that I spent way too much time in but did I ever have fun speaking with the owners.
    *A quite good opera singer that was practicing on the sidewalk.

    I did not know of the Maxims Museum and will be sure to visit next time. I’m so into that kind of thing.

    Although I don’t have the writing skills you have I have made an attempt to blog my four month journey through France and the UK (and a few places in-between).

    Thank you for all your posting…I do enjoy the insights.
    ‘Once a Seattle now in Arizona …when not traveling’

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 20, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      Thank you for sharing your Paris experiences here DiAnn! It sounds like you enjoyed a lovely trip indeed. A 4-month trip around Europe sounds heavenly to me right now, and I envy you! Remind me of the name of your blog when you get a chance. I will try and pay you a visit too. A bientôt!

  12. Sandy on June 20, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    Bonjour V. So much to see in Paris. You sure do a good job covering this beautiful city. The comment under the picture, “Un Petit Bar where life is sans-chichi.” I would totally fit in that place. It almost looks like an American diner. Cute. ?? Au revoir!

    • French Girl in Seattle on June 20, 2018 at 10:19 pm

      Absolument, Sandy: Au Petit Bar has your name written all over it (no avocado toast, though…) 😉

      • Sandy on June 21, 2018 at 2:15 pm

        Haha! Very funny! They need to get with the program then! ?

  13. Carol Ann Peeler on February 16, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    Another great article Véronique! One of the places I would like to visit is the Musée de l’Art Moderne. Did I understand correctly that it’s located above Maxim’s restaurant on la Rue Royale?

    • French Girl in Seattle on February 16, 2020 at 2:56 pm

      Bonsoir. Thank you for your kind words. Le Musée de l’Art Nouveau is only open for group visits currently I believe, but you should check to make sure. It is indeed located above the restaurant, rue Royale. Fabulous place, especially when Pierre-André Hélène acts as your guide. Bonne chance!

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