Sure, you could sashay down the Champs-Elysées or swoon over the Sacre Couer, but the real story of Paris unfolds beyond the headlines. For a slightly more gritty and altogether more authentic taste of the city, can-can your way into former red-light district South Pigalle (or SoPi) in the 9eme, now a purlieu of cool cafés, cobbled squares, hipster bars and boho boutique stays. Here’s our insider guide…
The concentration of roadside cafés spilling their boho clientele onto SoPi’s chaussée is high. A la place Saint Georges gets our vote for its location on probably the cutest cobbled square in all of Paris. It serves escargot and other French staples alongside bière blonde. Coffee connoisseurs should caffeinate at newly opened Marlette or Avenue Trudaine roastery KB CaféShop. Vegetarians and juice lovers can slip into meatless café Otium for cold-pressed juices and hipster attitude. For cocktails served in coconuts or skulls (we loved the voodoo-inspired ‘Scorpion Bowl’, or the delightfully monikered ‘Monkey Seed Monkey Screwed’), make your way to kitsch tiki bar Dirty Dick, a hangover from the area’s seedy past (and, as you may discover, ‘hangover’ is an accurate word).
Squeeze around one of the tiny candlelit tables in atmospheric Buvette for dreamy coq au vin, served steaming from a cast-iron skillet (leave some warm petit pain to mop the plate). For just-right poulpe grillé, head to Belle Maison, named after a spot on Île d’Yeu (off France’s Atlantic coast) where this fish restaurant’s owners go on holiday. At the edge of Pigalle and Montmartre – and therefore livelier, but no less Parisian – is Le Pantruche, where desserts include a local favourite: the Grand Marnier soufflé. Talking of the sweet stuff, be sure to stop in at Mesdemoiselles Madeleines, selling exquisite madeleine cakes and nothing else.
Pigalle is where the likes of Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh cavorted with showgirls and streetwalkers (the Moulin Rouge is here). Tortured symbolist Gustave Moreau was a local; his disturbing watercolours are hung at the Musée Gustave Moreau (look out for the unicorns with dead black eyes if you enjoy your myths with extra creepy). Nearby, the neon signs of sex shops rub their scarlet shoulders with anarchist bookstores, haberdasheries and Japanese kimono outlets. Keep an eye out for punk jeweller Emmanuelle Zysman; cutting-edge, circus-inspired fashion boutique Pigalle and, on Rue des Martyrs, the half-century-old transvestite cabaret Chez Michou.
Soaking up the louche hedonism of surrounding streets, Grand Pigalle Hotel is a retro-styled design den conceived by the Experimental Cocktail Club – needless to say, the bar is a highlight. Dorothée Meilichzon has imbued the interiors with art deco angles, brassy pineapple doorknockers and martini-motif carpets, and celebrated chef Giovanni Passerini lovingly crafts Italian sharing plates in the restaurant. For a more budget-conscious option with just as much style, choose Hotel Bienvenue near the apex of Rue des Martyrs and Rue Notre Dame de Florette. This supermodel-thin townhouse has an antique lift and a courtyard with a kaleidoscopic floor. Pick the Privilege room to enjoy your own high-tech hammam.
Featured image by Buvette Flickr/CC