Before moving back to Paris, I started reading "My Life in France" by Julia Child. The first chapter, a discussion on Julia Child's own experiences moving to Paris, was aptly named "La Belle France."She talked about meeting French people and Expats, enjoying the wine and food, and her personal favorite, walking around the markets with its fresh smells and colorful sights... and all done on a very limited budget. It was a wonderful way to reignite my own excitement to return to Paris.
Being in the US for 3 months has given me a chance to think about all the things I've missed most about living in Paris. Here I have compiled my favorite things to do in Paris as a non-tourist. I wasted no time.... I've been back for a week and have already gone through the list.
1. Picnic along the Canal St. Martin or the Seine
As soon as it becomes warm enough, scores of Parisians can be found with their choice of baguettes, meats, cheeses, wine, beer, and cigarettes along the banks of the Seine or the Canal. I personally prefer the Canal because it is less crowded and is further away from the main tourist attractions. A good spot to start looking is near the Jaurès metro stop which is at the junction of the Canal St. Martin and the wider Bassin de la Villette. Grocery stores (Franprix, Carrefour) can easily be found for the deli meats (they have many charcuterie assortments), patés, cheeses, wines, beers, etc. The important thing is to get the baguette from the boulangerie, not the grocery store... your taste buds will thank you!
2. Walking around the Marais
This one may be categorized as a bit more for the tourists, but I definitely love meandering through this part of the city. Anytime people visit me, I usually take them on a walk through this area. The great thing is that this area is so diverse that I can tailor a walk through this neighborhood to my friend's specific interests. The Marais is unofficially the Jewish and Gay area, with many kosher restaurants (many concentrated at rue des Rosiers) and gay clubs and bars (near rue des Archives). But there are also vintages stores and many interesting and unique shops, such as a shop that specializes in Absinthe or Lomography. There are also nicer, more typical shops for clothes, trinkets, furnitures, etc. The (free) Musée Carnavalet, the museum about the history of Paris and the Place des Vosges, a beautiful square containing Victor Hugo's house is in this area.
Paris has a very handy bike-share system called the Velib, with 18,000 bike stations throughout the city and bike paths complete with little bike traffic lights. They are 1.70 € to rent for the day, with the first 30 minutes ride (each trip) free. That is, if you ride in 30 minute intervals throughout the day, you do not have to pay extra. Additional 30 min is 1€. There is also a 150€ safety deposit that is returned at the end of the 24 hours. It's a bit difficult for Americans to rent these because it requires a credit card with a "chip" instead of the magnetic strip. Although my friends were able to get a debit card with the chip at the exchange office which worked on the Velibs. This was handy at other automated machines as well (such as metro ticket stations).
4. Eating/Drinking outdoors (on the Terrasse)
This is perhaps the quintessential Parisian experience. Sitting on the terrasse (the outdoor seating) of a café or brasserie, drinking, eating, people-watching, chatting, generally just slowing down. There are many reasons French people love this: 1) they like being outdoors during warm weather, 2) you can smoke on the terrasse, and 3) they love drinking. But as an American, the actual experience is not always as glamorous as this sounds because many outdoor areas are on narrow sidewalks, with tables extending right up to the curb. Thus it can be crowded (by other tables or pedestrians walking by) and smoky (from French people smoking on the terrasse or exhaust from the cars driving by). To avoid the undesirable portion of this experience, find a place that has ample sidewalk!
5. Eating Crepes!
I admit that I am a big crepe snob... and I missed eating really good, authentic crepes. There are a couple of good places in Paris (although to get really great ones, you need to go to Brittany). The savory crepe is made out of buckwheat and the sweet crepe is made out of flour. The default savory crepe contains ham, eggs (typically sunny-side up), and emmental cheese. For me, you could never go wrong with the goat cheese (chevre) with something sweet (honey or jam), or something with caramelized onions. My favorite sweet crepe is caramel au buerre salé... very authentic to the Brittany region, if the creperie does not have this on their menu, I just don't believe that they will have good crepes. And of course, no crepe meal is complete without cider served in a ceramic bowl or cup. It's common French knowledge to drink cider with crepes.
6. Walking around Flea/Antique Markets (les Puces/les Brocantes)
Often times there are traveling outdoor Puces and Brocantes around different areas, set up in the medians of the road. There are also permanent ones such as Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (the largest flea market, just north of Paris... I got lost here once) or Puces de Vanves (smaller market in south Paris). It's always fun to walk around and look at the items (and perhaps buy Harry Potter in French for 1€). You can also get food at many of these places and hear traveling musicians.