Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, France, England, Mexico and the U.S. — I have so many favorite places, a few of which (sob!) are now gone.
I travel as often as time and money allows, and am always torn between re-visiting old favorites and making new discoveries.
We’ve stayed several times in a rented apartment here, on the aptly-named Rue de Deux Ponts (the street of two bridges). The island sits in the Seine River, setting it physically apart from the bustle and noise of the rest of the city. The streets are narrow and short, and it’s overwhelmingly residential. One of our favorite restaurants, Les Fous de L’Île is on that street, about four doors away from a Parisian legend, the ice cream shop Berthillon, which offers amazing flavors.
I love how compact the island is, complete with its own bars, bakeries, hair salon, ancient church. Yet, within minutes, you’re back on Paris’ Left Bank or Right Bank, ready to roll.
Tucked away on a side street in un-glamorous midtown sits this terrific bit of Manhattan culinary history. The main dining room is long, dimly-lit, filled with tablecloth-covered tables and framed ephemera. The ceiling is the coolest part — lined with clay pipes wired to the ceiling. In business since 1885, the food is delicious and well worth a splurge. There’s a less-formal small dining room on one side and the bar area is also charming. You feel completely transported out of noisy, busy 2018.
I visit every time I get to London, even if I buy nothing.
It’s a store focused on luxury, but a very specific louche-aristo look, eccentric and confident. Even if you just go for a cuppa in their tearoom, check out the mock-Tudor building’s exquisite stained glass windows and light-filled central atrium.
The Grand Canyon
Ohhhhhh, you must go! No words can really do it justice. My only advice — you must hike down into the Canyon to experience it, and spend a full day if at all possible, watching the light and shadows shift minute by minute.
The Toronto Islands
What a joy these are! Jose and I got married on one of them, in a tiny wooden church surrounded by public parkland — and accompanied by (!) the mooing of cows from a nearby petting zoo. One of the islands is covered with tiny inhabited cottages, the most coveted real estate in the city — a challenge when, (as happened to me with a boyfriend) — you have a 3 a.m. nosebleed and the Harbor Police have to race across and get you to a hospital. They’re a great place to walk, bike, swim, relax and enjoy great views of the city at sunset. The ferry ride over is still one of my favorite things to do anywhere, any time.
Grand Central Terminal
It really is a cathedral, and sees more than 750,000 visitors every day — most of them commuters from suburban Westchester (north in New York) or Connecticut (northeast) traveling by train.
Built in 1913, it’s spectacular — a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations and pin-point lights sparkling as stars; enormous gleaming metal hanging lamps, elegant brass-trimmed ticket booths, wide marble steps and floors.
It also offers many shops, great restaurants and bars, a terrific food market (check out Li-Lac chocolates for a chocolate Statue of Liberty) and the classic Oyster Bar downstairs.
The Coffee Mill
This legendary cafe, a fixture in Toronto for more than 50 years, closed in 2014. It opened in 1963, and, as a little girl, I loved sitting on one of its cafe chairs in the sunshine near a fountain. Later, in a nearby location, inside a small shopping center easily overlooked, it continued serving Hungarian specialties — strudel, goulash and the freshest rye bread anywhere. The booths were small and intimate and its owner always immaculate. On every trip back — and I left in 1986 — I stopped in for a coffee or a meal.
Oh, the 80s! A former laundromat on Toronto’s Queen Street became — from 1983 to 2002 — a fantastic bar and restaurant, with a lively rooftop scene perfect on a steamy summer’s evening. Here’s its history, and an excerpt:
Inviting in every possible way, the BamBoo was relaxed, warm, and far from slick. Random parts hinted at an industrial past, including the outdoor fountain built atop the remnants of the building’s original boiler. A narrow metal stairwell led up to the Treetop, a Jamaican style bar ‘n’ BBQ that opened on the club’s rooftop in summer of 1984, expanding the BamBoo’s legal capacity to 500.
“During the summer heat, there was nowhere you wanted to be other than the Treetop Lounge,” says [Toronto artist Barbara] Klunder. “Think rum drinks and burgers at brightly painted barstools or coffee tables under the night sky and the CN Tower.”
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
The last few visits here we’ve rented an apartment. Unless we suddenly (hah!) come into millions, I suspect we’ll keep making that same choice, for a few reasons.
We stayed in a hotel for one night seven years ago. It was gorgeous but minuscule — and our own bathroom at home is 5 x 7, so I know what small looks like!
I’m also a homebody, so I like being able to laze around for hours in the morning, or afternoon, without the need to get dressed to eat or wait for a maid to come clean the room. I like listening to music on my computer (check out TSF jazz, a local station here I discovered this trip.)
I really enjoy having a home to come home to after a fun/exhausting day bopping around Paris. I love the city but — between crazy shoving crowds, the endless stairs of the Metro and the general pace — it’s epuisant!
A few thoughts for those of you considering it:
You can choose a neighborhood and get to know it
We rented on the Ile St. Louis twice, a two-bedroom with a large and comfortable bathroom and super-deep bathtub. We literally overlooked Berthillon, the famed ice cream maker, and could hop across the street for a boule of mango or passion fruit. The ISL is a quiet and bourgeois neighborhood but it’s perfectly located in the Seine, with easy walking access to the Left Bank and Right Bank (the two halves of Paris.) There are plenty of restaurants.
This time we’ve been in the 7th., also quiet and bourgeois. I’ve loved every minute of it and will miss it. It’s not a spot I would have chosen, (we were offered it by friends), so it’s been a great discovery.
I fail to see the point, or pleasure, of traveling the world only to be surrounded, in a hotel or hostel, by fellow North Americans — I travel to flee my normal life and its references! By renting a flat, whether you’re alone or with your family, you’re choosing to plant yourself into the country, culture and neighborhood, not cling to the safe and familiar.
You’ll live like a Parisian for a while
Not a bad thing! You’ll shop every day or so for freshly-baked bread, produce, flowers, and the many delicious cheeses. You can stop at a traiteur offering an array of delicious prepared foods, from a roast chicken to a quiche to salads. You’ll line up at la boulangerie for your daily fresh baguette or croissant.
You can cook!
Maybe your dream is to fully escape the kitchen. But if you love great food, what better pleasure than waking up to a fresh croissant and some runny cheese in the comfort of your temporary home? Making a tisane from some tea you bought around the corner and settling into the sofa? Enjoying a yogurt or fromage blanc? Fresh figs, the fattest asparagus you’ve ever seen…
It’s cheaper and healthier to eat even some of your meals at home plus the added sensual joy of shopping for lovely food in the city’s many street markets…not just racing around an enormous, soulless American grocery store jammed with nasty, useless, fattening junk food. (Yes, I loathe them!)
I pigged out our first week and could barely get into my stockings as a result. The second week, alone, I ate more often at home, consumed less, and many fewer sweets and wine. Voila!
I was amazed by my friend Rebecca — one day after arriving from the U.S. this week, and using a one-burner stove, she made a fantastic meal: bruschetta, green salad, fish stew and a bakery-bought galette du roi. (See, you won’t find that classic dessert on a restaurant menu!)
If you speak French, allez-y! If you don’t, you’ll pick some up quickly
I speak French so I really enjoy chatting to people here, whether asking a law student at the landromat to help me figure out to open the washer door (!) to buying new shoelaces. The city gets so many tourists you’ll find many shopkeepers and retailers able to converse en anglais — but so much better if you quickly adopt the essential habit of saying, every single time, Bonjour monsieur/madame! and Au revoir, monsieur/dame! It’s comme il faut and just a more civilized way to behave.
If you have fantasies of living here more permanently, (as we do), you’ll quickly get a better feel for the place
The sun rises here in late December at 8:43 a.m. Seriously. This city is much further north than you might expect, so days are short and often very cloudy. If you take the bus and Metro as locals do, you’ll experience the utter insanity of rush hour and can enjoy getting lost within the bowels of Chatelet Les Halles mid-renovation — all joys you’d miss if you cab everywhere.
The apartments I’ve been staying in here are both on the ground floor. Easy for luggage and shopping — but they don’t get much daylight. I now realize how essential it would be to rent or own on a higher floor to access the maximum precious sunlight as winter days here also tend to be overcast.
You’ll feel the rhythms of the neighborhood and the city
Almost every building has a concierge or gardien, a man or woman, (like a superintendent), who keeps a careful eye on the building and its inhabitants. In the 7th, our gardien was Marie, a lovely African-American woman with a rocking collection of sneakers, (les baskets!), who also delivered the mail.
You’ll see when shops open and close, and get to know your local merchants a bit as you buy your food and drink. You’ll see dog-walkers and babies in their carriages and kids on their way to and from school.
Don’t expect to find a washer, dryer or dishwasher
Most Paris apartments are small, and appliances and furniture scaled accordingly. Many homes will have a small washing machine for clothes, but fewer will also accommodate a dryer and I would never expect to find a dishwasher. Bring enough clothes and/or be prepared to spend an hour at the laundromat or do some hand-washing.
Things will look different — like electrical outlets!
French appliances use a two-pronged plug whose prongs are rounded. Be sure to bring a set of electrical converters with you. I’d also inquire before you arrive about how much power you can safely use before blowing a fuse. (See below!)
Don’t forget — you’ll be thinking and shopping in metric!
So if you want a small portion of meat or cheese or loose tea, think 100 grams, (cent grams, s’il vous plait!); a kilo = 2.2 pounds.
Also, in euros!
So don’t forget that it’s not $10 you’re spending but $13 or $15 or whatever the rate is that week.
Is there an elevator?
I made the mistake on a prior visit of taking a friend’s advice to stay in a flat he had enjoyed. I didn’t even think to ask…and it was a sixth-floor walk-up. Make sure, if you dislike hoofing it with tons of luggage up a narrow staircase, there is un ascenseur.
Is the flat properly heated/cooled?
I’ve been wearing a lot more clothing than I expected to sleep in.
Beware of minuterie
This oh-so-French invention is lighting that only stays on for a few minutes, saving costs for the building. You have to find the hallway and/or stairs light button outside your apartment, (not easy), push it, and move fast! Best to carry with you a mini-flashlight or headlamp.
How good is the apartment’s lighting?
We had only one small bedside lamp. Bring a mini-flashlight — (how to unlock that unfamiliar door in a dark hallway?) — and a headlamp, available from any camping supply company.
Don’t lose the keys!
Don’t forget the door code!
Remember your address and memorize the nearest Metro stops; functioning while jet-lagged and disoriented and non-French-speaking, (let alone drugged or drunk), is not a great combo.
Bring a large, light, capacious bag for food-shopping. You’ll need it.
Carry a Metro map and Plan de Paris, (or whatever app suits you), so you can always orient yourself quickly. You do not want to be the hapless tourist whose bag is snatched, backpack plundered or pockets picked while you dick around on the Metro or street corner. It happens!
And don’t — as poor Jose did — bring a power strip and try to plug it in. Nope. Blew a fuse and that introduced us to the (very nice) people at our local electric supply shop…after photographing the fusebox, which we did not understand, and emailing the image to our friend whose apartment it is…