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Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Pablo Picasso often met at this café in St.-Germain-des-Prés. (Photograph by Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo)

How to Explore Paris Like a Flâneur

Stroll France’s capital and you’ll see human nature on full display, from doyennes taking their café to lovers cooing by the River Seine. As poet Charles Baudelaire put it, in Paris “the spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

> Flâneur Venues:

Since the mid-1900s, the Boulevard St. Germain, on Paris’s Left Bank, has been a preferred thoroughfare for flânerie. Its twin titans of café culture, Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, attract visitors interested in literary history; the cafés’ tables hosted such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

Look closely today and you’ll spot patrician dowagers and longtime locals who resist change, often occupying their “usual” tables for hours at a time even on busy nights.

For a cozier flânerie experience, cross the boulevard to Brasserie Lipp, Ernest Hemingway’s haunt. Favored customers here score the high-profile front table, but all patrons enjoy front-row seats to the local scene.

Few restaurants evoke the glamour of 19th-century Paris like L’Arbre à Cannelle, in the Passage des Panoramas; actresses and courtesans from the nearby Théâtre des Variétés would rendezvous here with their lovers. Flâneurs can park themselves in the restaurant’s frescoed interior or at “outdoor” seating under the glass-covered arcade, both good vantage points for observing the gallery’s parade of shoppers.

People-watching isn’t restricted to cafés, of course. Get past the bouncers at Le Baron, a jewel box of a nightclub housed in a onetime brothel near the Arc de Triomphe, and you’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with Parisian socialites and such international celebs as Beyoncé and Björk.

> Where to Stay:

Creative types from Jean-Paul Sartre to Miles Davis to Salvador Dalí have convened at Hôtel La Louisiane, just off the Boulevard St. Germain. Dating to 1823, the Louisiane has 80 modest but comfy guest rooms.

Fin de siècle bohemia once thrived on Paris’s now trendy Right Bank—and still does at the Hôtel d’Albion (not to be confused with the Hotel France Albion), where 26 colorful rooms sport such themes as “Poetry” and “Dance.”

Prefer avant-garde digs? Then head east to the Belleville neighborhood, where the Paris-born designer Philippe Starck has transformed a parking garage into the gleefully playful Mama Shelter, equal parts restaurant, nightclub, and “concept hotel.” Guests may don masks (provided) and take selfies with guest room computers. The images upload to a server, offering an innovative way to people-watch from the comfort of your room.

> Travel Trivia:

  • The Passage des Panoramas, which dates to 1800, was the first public building in Paris to try gas lighting.
  • Paris’s largest cemetery, Père Lachaise is the resting place for such luminaries as writer Marcel Proust, painter Eugene Delacroix, and rock star Jim Morrison.
  • The number of stop signs in Paris: one, in the 16th arrondissement. Drivers rely on right-of-way rules.

This piece, reported by Tara Isabella Burton, first appeared in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine to accompany a feature she penned for the issue entitled “Café Society.”