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Paris City Trip - Museums and Historic Sites

The Grand Palais in Paris
Grand Palais

PARIS DAY 2: The Louvre, Les Arts Decoratifs, Grand Palais, Luxembourg Gardens

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Café Marly, in the courtyard of the Louvre, serves a range of breakfast items on a sunny, heated terrace facing the I.M. Pei glass pyramid that has come to symbolize the great museum. While you may be tempted to start your day here in this sprawling sanctuary of the arts, resist the urge and postpone the expedition until Wednesday or Friday evening if you can, when the exhibits are open until 9:45 p.m. At that time the crowds have thinned, the galleries take on a more serene air, and you can better appreciate the masterpieces housed in this former palace of kings.

The Louvre
The Louvre

Instead, opt for a visit to the nearby Les Arts Décoratifs complex, containing the Museum of Fashion and Textiles, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Museum of Advertising. Celebrating French craftsmanship and the "art de vivre," the masterpieces on display here include objects designed to be both functional and beautiful. Refurbished galleries showcase toys, jewelry, ceramics, glass, wallpaper, furniture, textiles and other extraordinary objects. Also exhibited in the museum is a full repertoire of Jean Dubuffet paintings. The museum's new restaurant, Le Saut du Loup, whose cuisine is overseen by the famous Burgundian chef Marc Meneau, serves up quality fare in a sleek, split-level space.

I.M. Pei Pyramid
I.M. Pei Pyramid

Alternatively, Belle Epoque art and architecture buffs will want to spend the afternoon discovering the Petit Palais. With its regal dome, golden gates, ornate columns and sumptuously sculpted exterior, it's one of the most romantic vestiges of the 1900 Paris World Fair. Massive, elaborately decorated bay windows and smaller stained glass skylights infuse the museum with natural light and afford a generous view of the surrounding splendor of the Grand Palais, the Champs Elysées gardens and the adjacent River Seine. Intricately rich mosaics adorn the floors of the sprawling entry, and a seductive garden in the courtyard beckons the visitor with its inviting café. Considered in 1902 the Beaux-Arts museum of the city, the Petit Palais today houses an astoundingly diverse collection of art ranging from ancient Greek and Roman times to unique late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art and artifacts, including a perfect reconstitution of an Art Nouveau dining room by Hector Guimard. Other highlights include paintings from Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix, Ingres and several Impressionist masterpieces. This glorious museum is also free to the public.

Across the street are the absolutely arresting, perfectly restored glass domes of the Grand Palais. Built for the 1900 Paris World Fair, the Grand Palais bears witness to the highly revered architectural usage of glass and iron at the turn of the century. The national galleries of the Grand Palais were created in the 1960s and are home to a series of sensational temporary exhibits, although the edifice alone is reason enough to visit this most majestic of Parisian landmarks. Helmed by Eric Frechon and boasting a sprawling terrace, the restaurant Mini Palais occupies one side of this edifice.

La Seine
La Seine

Affiliated with the Arts Décoratifs complex, but located near Parc Monceau in the residential 17th arrondissement, the ornate Nissim de Camondo Museum is the former private residence and art collection of his father, Moïse de Camondo, a nineteenth century philanthropist and art aficionado. In the same spirit, the Musée Jacquemart-André should not be missed with its eclectic assortment of stunning paintings, artifacts and furniture. This superbly appointed nineteenth century palace on the boulevard Haussmann is one of the city's lesser known treasures. Another former private home-turned-museum is the Musée Rodin, opened to the public in 1919 after the sculptor bestowed his entire collection to the French state with the express desire to transform his Parisian art studio into a museum in his honor. The splendid eighteenth-century château anchors a vast park scattered with the artist's most astonishing statues and sculptures. Another option for exciting exhibits in a mini-museum is the Musée Maillol, created by Dina Vierny, the muse of Aristide Maillol, in a handsome eighteenth-century marble edifice embellished by a monumental fountain.

Further along in the heart of Saint-Germain is the miniature Musée Delacroix. A quick detour to the romantic former home and studio of this "orientalist" painter grants you access to a blissfully quiet interior garden. To view more of his paintings, reserve a couple of hours for the Musée d'Orsay, where you'll find a diverse collection of contemporary Western art.

Luxembourg Palace
Luxembourg Palace

Fine restaurants abound in and around Saint-Germain. Top-of-the-line favorites on and around the rue du Bac include the trend-setting L'Atelier de Joël Robuchonand Gaya Rive Gauche, the jewel-box sized seafood sanctuary directed by Pierre Gagnaire. Lunch on the Left Bank should include a stop at the heavenly patisserie Ladurée, where you must try its decadent "macarons" — small, round almond cakes scented with twenty flavors that include rose petal, salted caramel and chocolate with yuzu. Just east of here on the rue de Seine, the Anglo-owned Fish La Boissonnerie is convivial and affordable. Just a few miles away, on the rue des Beaux-Arts, Le Restaurant benefits from a plush decor by Jacques Garcia, a wonderful patio adorned with a fountain and refined dishes from chef Julien Montbabut. On the nearby rue des Grands Augustins, the Ze Kitchen Gallery appeals to a diverse clientele in search of non-traditional, uncomplicated and expertly prepared quality ingredients in a modern art-adorned space. Off the Carrefour de l'Odéon is the reinvented Le Comptoir, the restaurant of the Hotel Relais Saint-Germain. Here, chef Yves Camdeborde, formerly of La Régalade, serves upscale bistro fare in a 1920s-style ambience.

A walk south on the fashionable rue des Saints-Pères will lead you to the popular wine bar, Au Sauvignon. Sunny and still in the morning hours, Au Sauvignon is an excellent choice for café au lait and croissants. As the day progresses, simple lunches of smoked salmon, charcuterie and generous slices of foie gras attract the masses. A few steps more, near the sophisticated Bon Marché department store, Le Cigale Récamier is famous for delectable soufflés and a stunning sidewalk terrace. Even closer to the Bon Marché is L'Epi Dupin, a contemporary bistro offering a superb four-course meal. Celebrity chef Hélène Darroze has also chosen this sought-after neighborhood for her namesake gastronomic restaurant and "salon," essentially a sophisticated Southwestern French tapas bar. After lunch, steal into the impressive Grande Epicerie supermarket to buy luxurious, edible souvenirs.

Take rue du Vieux Colombier off rue de Sèvres until you reach the rushing fountain at Saint-Sulpice, whose soaring church is illuminated by spectacular, translucent stained glass windows. In addition to lovely frescos painted by Delacroix, the Saint-Sulpice parish is also home to one of the most famous organs in the world, which you can enjoy hearing by attending mass or a concert.

Luxembourg Gardens
Luxembourg Gardens

Not just a walk in the park, a visit to the Luxembourg Gardens in an essential element of the perfect Parisian weekend. Built for Marie de Medici in the early 1600s, the Luxembourg Palace, which now houses the Senate, is surrounded by this meticulously manicured and surveyed park that includes a museum, lush gardens, an opulent fountain, graceful statuary, charming cafés, a marionette theater, playgrounds, miniature ponies, tennis courts and a small orchard. There are even beehives and an apiculture society that produces Luxembourg Gardens honey! It's a truly divine place to find respite from the crush of Parisian life.

Descend the Boulevard Saint Michel towards the Seine where you can dine at the classy Brasserie Balzar or the elegant, old-fashioned bistro Allard, where the duck with olives for two and other specialties attract visitors and locals in search of traditional French cooking and careful service. If you're feeling nostalgic, head to Montparnasse for more vestiges of Paris during the "Années Folles," or crazy years, of the 1920s. For fabulous fish and seafood dishes, continue along the Boulevard Montparnasse until you reach the upscale Le Dôme brasserie, where warm oysters in a port sabayon and a towering praline millefeuille for dessert are alone worth a visit. Raised platters of crustaceans feature prominently at the colossal La Coupole, where the cool Art Deco interior merits a detour. A less extravagant choice in the area is Chez Marcel, a tiny, informal bistro where the eccentric owner serves large portions of flavorful Lyonnais specialties. The "quenelles de brochet" in a spicy bisque sauce is a standout. Cap off the evening with a cocktail at the magical La Closerie des Lilas piano bar, once frequented by Hemingway and other illustrious expatriates.

Continue to Day 3


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*Images courtesy of Paris Tourist Office. Grand Palais photo by Marc Bertrand.

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