The French are said to hold a certain je ne sais quoi, making their allure seem all the more attractive to outsiders. And while they get a rep for being on the unfriendly side, a simple bonjour will open more doors than you think. If that doesn’t work, sharing a glass of wine definitely will. This is the country known for its world-class wineries and haute cuisine, after all. Paris is an obvious starting point, but it’s easy to connect from the capital to two other equally vibrant cities: Nice and Bordeaux. The South of France’s swanky beach bars and Bordeaux’s beautiful châteaux may scream dollar signs, but travelers can easily swing stays here living like locals (while meeting them) on a backpacker-style budget.
Paris: The City of Love
Paris is known as the “City of Love,” but you don’t have to come with a partner for it to be a romantic retreat. There are plenty of opportunities for a rendezvous if you know the right spots to look for (and meet) others, from the most happening cocktail bars to the coolest quartiers, or neighborhoods. Once upon a time the Bastille was the study abroad hangout where you were sure to make a connection (if only for the night), but the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods (and a slew of new dating apps) are making it easier than ever to seek out a more local scene.
Where to stay if you’re single (and even if you’re not): Take your pick of hostel or private rooms—complete with terraces and hammocks overlooking the Sacré-Cœur—at the two-year-old Generator Paris. Not only is the hostel (which masquerades as a boutique hotel) just a 10-minute stroll from the bars and cafés lining the hip Canal Saint-Martin, it’s also home to a buzzy or rooftop bar, appropriately named Le Rooftop, with some of the best views over Montmartre. Another spot with a great scene for socializing is Mama Shelter, Philippe Starck’s budget-friendly hotel near Père Lachaise (the cemetery that houses Jim Morrison’s gave) in the artsy 20th arrondissement. You don’t need to go far to find a good bar, either. Play ping-pong alfresco on the Sunday-only rooftop bar or head down to the main watering hole for a round of foosball and cheekily titled cocktails like the whiskey and absinthe infused Monkey Business.
Where to go for a drink: Start the evening in the onetime working class quartier of Oberkampf at Ober Mamma, whose Italian-inspired aperitivo draws a well-clad crowd seeking craft cocktails and light bites like couture-style Jambon Culatello, or cured ham. If you’re planning on an all-night affair, head to Pigalle’s Carmen, a cocktail bar housed in an ornate 19th-century hotel swathed in red velvet, featuring gilded armchairs sitting in birdcages and DJs spinning in the basement.
Some cultural tips for your trip: Explore the neighborhood: Parisians tend to stick to their neighborhood, so rent an apartment and explore your surroundings to really feel like a local in the city. “In my quartier, I always go to this typically French restaurant called Coinstot Vino,” says Parisian radio producer Caroline Barel. “Everyone knows it and tables mix and mingle, so you always end up chatting with your neighbors.”
Live like a local: The city recently closed off a two-mile stretch of the River Seine’s Right Bank, pedestrianizing the area running from the Alma Bridge (near the Eiffel Tower) to the Musée d’Orsay. “If you’re single, this is a great place to go and make friends with locals,” suggests Madelyn Byrne, founder of Paris vacation apartment rental site Paris Perfect. “Everyone in Paris seems to go there on sunny weekends; they bicycle, run, work out together, picnic, and play games.”
Avoid the crowds: If you want to avoid slews of tourists, skip areas like the Champs-Élysées and grand boulevards, recommends Generator Paris sales manager Etienne Matichard. Locals are more likely to spread out in parks like Belleville’s Buttes-Chaumont than under the Eiffel Tower in Champ de Mars.
Which apps to download: Excuse MyParty is essentially the Airbnb for parties, where you can either be the host (ambianceur) or the guest (ambiancé).
AdopteUnMec.com is a dating site that gives ladies the chance to make the first move by choosing their mec, or guy.
Happn is the app version of “Missed Connections,” making serendipity all the more real.
ParisBouge is a guide to weekly happenings in the city, from museum exhibitions to concerts and restaurant openings.
Citymapper is a handy routing app that’ll have you navigating the Paris Métro and city streets like a true Parisian.
Did you know?: Paris is home to 1,000 Space Invaders mosaics, but in Montmartre you’ll find another type of street art lining the rue Piémontési. Artist Le CyKlop turned street poles into portraits of famous painters like Picasso, who once lived and worked in the area.
Here’s how to get to the next city: Hop on the high-speed TGV train at the Paris Montparnasse station for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Bordeaux (Saint-Jean), with one-way tickets starting at 22 euros (about $243.45). To snag the best deals (and avoid waiting in notoriously long ticket lines), book ahead on the SNCF site and download your ticket to the app.
Bordeaux: Wine not?
Where to stay: Mama Shelter Bordeaux’s central location, minimalist chic rooms (outfitted with iMacs and superhero masks), affordable nightly rates (starting at 79 euros, or $84), and communal-style restaurant make it a prime launchpad for singles staying in the city. Plus, it’s home to one of the best rooftop bar views over Bordeaux.
Best countryside outings: Tour the historic Château Siaurac’s vineyards and cellars on Bordeaux’s right bank any day of the week sans reservations for just 10 euros ($10.60), including wine tastings. If you’re traveling in a pair, spend the night at the 19th-century château in one of the five revamped rooms with views across the English-style gardens.
Over 89 percent of the region’s wines may be red, but Bordeaux is also home to one of the more underappreciated wines out there: Sauternes. “Definitely go to Château d’Yquem for the sweet Sauternes wines,” recommends Bordeaux native and Grey Goose ambassador Julien LaFond. “A lot of arduous labor, meticulous care, and plain luck go into the making of these wines, and nowhere achieves this better than the Château d'Yquem.”
Cultural tip on what not to do: Don’t talk to locals about any other wine than Bordeaux wine. In their eyes, nothing else compares.
Where to taste wine and meet people: Get your bearings at wine bar Aux 4 Coins du Vin, where you can taste your way through a menu of over 500 bottles from around the globe and 40 wines by the glass.
The newly opened La Cité du Vin is one museum worth a stop in town. Its curved wood and glass paneled architecture mimics the flow of the Garonne, as well as the swirl of wine in a glass. From the eighth floor Belvedere, sample a global selection of wine while taking in 360-degree views of Bordeaux and its vineyards.
The Bordelais may be devoted to their wine, but the city’s burgeoning cocktail scene is a sign that they aren’t afraid of switching things up. For a taste of what’s happening in town, head to Vieux Bordeaux and look for the telephone booth, which happens to be a disguise for the speakeasy, Cancan. Take a seat on the shabby chic vintage furniture while sipping on New Orleans-inspired cocktails and tuning in to music that wavers between live jazz and vinyl-spun soul and funk. Le Point Rouge is another favorite that easily rivals the speakeasies you’d find in New York’s East Village. Ask co-owner Gaël to see the cellar and let the night carry on from there.
How to get to the next city: The direct Intercités train takes about nine hours from Bordeaux to the Nice Ville station, with second class tickets starting at 20 euros ($21.32).
Nice: Or naughty?
Best places to get a tan: The pebble-strewn plages (beaches) in Nice are mostly private, meaning you’ll have to shell out for an umbrella and beach bed. Castel Plage is a favorite for its location (just across from the Old Town), as well as its upscale Provençal cuisine crafted around market-fresh produce. Locals tend to hop to the next beach town over, Villefranche-sur-Mer, for its crescent-shaped bay lined by coarse, sandy beach. The vibe here is no fuss: Spread out a towel and don’t be afraid to go topless.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Best place for a leisurely dinner: Stray from the Old Town toward the port, Nice’s version of Paris’s Marais, the gay quartier known for its trendy bars and eateries. One of the liveliest, L’Uzine (a play on the French word for factory), lies on a side street just a few minutes from the water. Linger over a Mediterranean-influenced meal (the tomato and creamy burrata starter is a must-try) in a setting that doesn’t feel stuffy. Industrial-inspired ceilings are lined with wood and metal; vintage furniture and local artwork fill the space; and musicians aren’t afraid to get up on tables to get the crowd going as the night dwindles on.
Cultural tip on what not to do: Skip the heels and the tie. The French Riviera may have a glam reputation, but Nice is much more of an understated cool kind of place than its more spruced up sisters, Cannes and Monaco.
Where to go for a night on the town: Nights start with apéro, or pre-dinner drinks, and end when the majority of bars shut down around 2 a.m. Take a seat on the packed terrace at Spanish tapas bar El Merkado near the Cours Saleya, where you’ll be surrounded by a fashionable set sipping margaritas and nibbling Serrano ham-filled croquettes while the DJ du jour spins electro.
Over on the Promenade des Anglais, you’ll come across the newly opened Waka Bar, a loftlike space set inside a former fishermen’s seafront boathouse. The New Zealand-run bar caters to an English-speaking crowd and has a house party feel with its couch seating and tucked away enclaves.
Nights are known to end in another Niçois institution, Wayne’s Bar, where dancing on tables is mandatory and the spirited staff of 20-something Aussies and Brits know how to make every night of the week a party.
Did you know? The Côte d’Azur is also a ski destination, with 15 resorts sitting less than two hours from the shore. From the airport, the Bus 100% Neige heads to the more popular ones like Auron and Isola 2000 (8 euros, or $8.53, round-trip). Think of the après-ski soirées as the winter version of the Riviera’s buzzing summer bar scene.
How to get to the next city: The regional TER train runs along the coastline connecting Nice to towns like the nightlife heavy Juan-les-Pins near Antibes (30-minute ride; 5 euros or $5.33) and the principality of Monaco (20-minute ride; 3.90 euros or $4.15), with its infamous Casino de Monte-Carlo and luxe lounges like waterfront Twiga.
How to continue your backpacking journey
From the main train station in Nice (Nice Ville), you can hop on the high-speed TGV train for the five-and-a-half-hour ride to Paris (Gare de Lyon), with tickets starting at 43 euros ($46). Meanwhile, the Italian border town of Ventimiglia is just a 45-minute train ride from Nice on the TER and connects to the Inter-City train heading to Milano Centrale, Milan’s main station, less than four hours away (with one-way tickets as low as 41 euros, or $44).
Lane Nieset is a freelance travel journalist from Miami who currently calls Nice, France home. Take a look at her travels @LaneNieset or follow along on Twitter.