Sure, you could sashay down the Champs-Elysées or swoon over the Sacré-Coeur, but the real story of Paris unfolds beyond the headlines. For a slightly more gritty and altogether authentic taste of the city, can-can your way into former red-light district South Pigalle (or SoPi) in the 9eme, now a purlieu of cool cafés, cobbled squares, hipster bars and boho boutique stays. Here’s our insider guide…
The concentration of roadside cafés spilling their boho clientele onto SoPi’s chaussée is high. A la place Saint Georges gets our vote for its location on probably the cutest cobbled square in all of Paris. It serves escargot and other French staples alongside bière blonde. Coffee connoisseurs should caffeinate at newly opened Marlette or Avenue Trudaine roastery KB CaféShop. Vegetarians and juice lovers can slip into meat-free café Otium for cold-pressed juices and hipster attitude. For cocktails, served in coconuts or skulls (we loved the voodoo-inspired ‘Scorpion Bowl’, or the delightfully monikered ‘Monkey Seed Monkey Screwed’), make your way to kitsch tiki bar Dirty Dick, a hangover from the area’s seedy past (and, as you may discover, a hangover from the present-day, too).
Squeeze around one of the tiny candlelit tables in atmospheric Buvette for dreamy coq au vin, served steaming from a cast-iron skillet (leave some warm petit pain to mop the plate). For just-right poulpe grillé, head to Belle Maison, named after a spot on Ile d’Yeu (an island off France’s Atlantic coast) where this fish restaurant’s owners go on holiday. At the edge of Pigalle and Montmartre, is Le Pantruche, where desserts include a local favourite: the Grand Marnier soufflé. Talking of the sweet stuff, be sure to stop in at Mesdemoiselles Madeleines, selling exquisite madeleine cakes and nothing else.
Pigalle is where Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh cavorted with showgirls and streetwalkers (you can still visit the Moulin Rouge in nearby Montmatre today). Tortured symbolist Gustave Moreau was a local, too: his disturbing watercolours are hung at the Musée Gustave Moreau (look out for the unicorns with dead black eyes if you enjoy your myths with a side-serving of extra creepy). Nearby, the neon signs of sex shops rub their scarlet shoulders with anarchist bookstores, haberdasheries and Japanese kimono outlets. Keep an eye out for punk jeweller Emmanuelle Zysman; cutting-edge, circus-inspired fashion boutique Pigalle and, on Rue des Martyrs, the half-century-old transvestite cabaret Chez Michou.
Soaking up the louche hedonism of surrounding streets, Grand Pigalle Hotel is a retro-styled design den conceived by the Experimental Cocktail Club where, needless to say, the bar is a highlight. Dorothée Meilichzon has imbued the interiors with art-deco angles, brassy pineapple door-knockers and martini-motif carpets, and celebrated chef Giovanni Passerini lovingly crafts Italian sharing plates in the restaurant. For a more budget-conscious option with just as much style, choose Hôtel Bienvenue near the apex of Rue des Martyrs and Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. This waif-thin townhouse has an antique lift at its heart and a courtyard with a kaleidoscopic floor. Pick the Privilege room to enjoy your own in-suite hammam.
Why stop there? Continue bed-hopping around our other Parisian pied-à-terres.