We talk to chef and author Lisa Baker Morgan who splits her life between Los Angeles and Paris. As a Paris local with a love of food, culture and history, she shares some of her top tips for visitors the the city of light…
What draws you to Paris – the things that make you fall in love with the city…?
Paris has everything I want. It is a walking city. I am close to amazing restaurants, art, theatre, and there are parks and open green spaces everywhere for everyone to enjoy. It has all the conveniences and opportunities of a well-planned and preeminent city, and it is aesthetically and inspiringly beautiful at every turn. There is also a feeling of community in Paris that doesn’t exist in other large cities. People live outside of their apartments. They gather in cafés, and picnic in the gardens and parks. There are also a variety of communal activities open to the public like the open-air cinema, tango dancing, or group roller blading through the heart of the city. On the weekends, streets are closed to allow residents to safely cycle or exercise on the streets. It is a place that offers and promotes a quality life for everyone. I love that.
What’s the first restaurant/café you visit when you arrive in Paris?
After an eleven-hour flight (and I can never sleep on a plane) dinner will be on the early side and some place close. Usually I will join up with my friends: an apéro or something light at Carette or an early dinner on the roof at Molitor or the terrace at Le Flandrin. The food, service, and atmosphere are consistently good and it is always nice to dine in a place where you see familiar faces.
What’s your favourite market in Paris and why?
My favorite marché is the Marché Président Wilson on Wednesdays. I know the sellers, the selection is wonderful, and I love running into my neighbors. If I venture out of my neighborhood, I like the bio Marché Raspail in the 6e and the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille. My favorite epicérie is La Grande Epicérie at Le Bon Marché. It is newish and a one-stop shop for everything.
Where would you recommend as a must-see for any first timer to Paris? And why…
I think that one has to approach Paris in layers and your first visit will be much different than your second one. The first time you visit Paris there are certain big ticket items that you must experience. The Eiffel Tower is a must-see. You do not have to go to the observation deck, but if you choose to do so, reserve in advance and go early in the day. For an uninterrupted photograph of the Eiffel Tower, go to the Place du Trocadéro in the early morning or late at night. (Métro line 6 or 9.)
A cruise on the Seine (or one from Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine) is another must-see for first time visitors. The availability and times will depend on the weather and time of year (the Seine sometimes floods and if the water is too high the boats cannot go under the bridges). Try a dinner cruise. There are many options and looking up at the City of Light from the water below is a perspective that is not to be missed.
You must see a museum. The Louvre is as obligatory as eating a jambon beurre sandwich. To make your Louvre visit more meaningful, look into hiring a private guide for a two-three hour tour. (You can find reasonably-priced tour guides online. many students will do this to earn extra money.) You will learn so much not only about the art, but Paris and the history of Louvre itself. This short video reveals the Louvre’s sectional construction, the fires, the rebuilding, and who lived there, etc.
Another one of my personal favorites is the quaint Rodin museum (near Invalides) in the Hôtel Biron. The mansion houses the sculptor’s work and has a lovely garden where you will find treasures such as The Gates of Hell and The Thinker. Jeu de Paume, another favorite, is devoted to photography (sometimes short films) and usually has two exhibitions at a time. It is not a big time commitment, the photography is phenomenal, and it is centrally located by the Place de la Concorde.
The Pompidou is wonderful for modern art (and the rooftop restaurant also offers a stellar view of the city). The Musée d’Orsay (a former train station turned museum) is the place to go for impressionist art. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is on the west side of the city so if you are staying on the that side of Paris, consider a visit. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum itself resembles a ship and the exhibits are consistently well-curated. They also have concerts in the summer.
Regardless of your choice, it is worth it to purchase a museum pass. At a minimum, purchase all tickets/reserve any time slots in advance online otherwise you will be standing in line for hours.
Park yourself in a park
A first time visitor must see a park. This is not difficult to do as Paris is filled with parks and flanked by the very large Bois de Boulogne (on the west) and Bois de Vincennes (on the east). For a first timer, I would suggest the Jardin des Tuileries and/or the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6e (which is particularly popular with expats and children). If you are staying on the east side of Paris, visit the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the views of the city are incredible.
Visit the neighbours
Spend some time in a neighborhood. I recommend that a first-time visitor begin with the oldest part of the city: Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. The former is the very heart of Paris – the Medieval part of the city- and where you will find Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle (known for its stained glass windows and its evening classical concerts), and La Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette stayed prior to her execution). Île Saint-Louis is next door and on you can wander the little streets and have something to drink or eat or do a little shopping. If you walk directly north you will find the Marais with its old mansions and lots of little shops and cafés.
Other neighborhoods to explore are: Montmartre in the north end of Paris. One of the last arrondissements to become a part of Paris, it is full of little art galleries, casual eateries, the Moulin Rouge, and Sacré-Cœur. Saint-Germain-de-Prés in the 6e or the Latin Quarter in the 5e are also favorites because they are replete with boutique hotels, wine bars, quaint jazz clubs, art galleries, bistros, cafés, and shopping.
Lastly, food is serious business in France and there is nothing like it. If possible, I recommend making one reservation at a Michelin restaurant, it does not matter the number of stars. If there is ever a place to save and splurge on a dining experience, it is Paris. However, even if you do not, there are many, many wonderful places to dine; bistros, brasseries, even the food trucks in Place de la Madeleine (8e) or the oyster bar on the Seine. I recommend also buying sandwiches from a boulangerie or bread, cheese, and wine from a fromagerie and relax in a park or along the side of the Seine. You can eat very well for little money in Paris; however, it is possible to have a bad meal. I suggest obtaining recommendations from people you know and websites you trust.
If you could meet one French person – past or present -who would it be, what would you cook them for lunch and ask them?
This is a fantastically difficult question. There are so many – cooks, artists, writers, intellectuals, women – that come to mind. Limiting it to one, I’d invite George Sand.
Because it is lunch, the meal will be light. In the spring, I would prepare a white fish, maybe cabillaud (cod), poached and set on top of a melange of tender spring vegetables with a vegetable jus or foam. Asparagus, spring peas and fava beans are at their prime in the spring and I’d garnish the dish with pea tendrils or baby carrot tops and plenty of fresh chervil. In the summer, a loup de mer (sea bass) with braised zucchini, Niçoise olives and fresh, flowering thyme, or served in a cru with heirloom tomatoes and a tomato jus of a contrasting color garnished with some basil flowers and mélisse leaves.
I would ask Ms. Sand about her novels and autobiography, her ideas, her experiences tobacco-smoking and dressing like a man in a time when women were prohibited from doing either. I’d ask her about one of her well-known quotes: “There is only one happiness in life — to love and be loved.” And then I would ask her, “if food is love, what would that look like served on a plate and for whom would you prepare it?”
Do you have any plans for more books about France?
I am currently working on a few writing projects. While they are primarily about food, France is an integral part, and stories of my experiences in France are woven throughout as the country and its culture have become a part of me and indelibly shaped my perspective in a myriad of ways.