Paris's center isn't stuffed with business suits and glass skyscrapers (they're out in the suburbs, at La Défense). Instead, the city center is a refined neighborhood on a human scale, perfect for an elegant stroll that passes a little bit of business, a little bit of culture—and quite a bit of shopping.
Start at a place that really feels like the center of Paris, the (1) western tip of the Île de la Cité (Métro: Pont Neuf). It resembles the prow of a ship; "every Parisian knows the weeping willow that grows there is the first tree to leaf in the spring," says French-American artist Tom Jones.
Take the bridge, the (2) Pont Neuf, over to the Right Bank, for a quick look at the city's greatest art nouveau landmark, the gloriously floral 1928 facade of the (3) La Samaritaine department store on Rue de la Monnaie (the store is currently closed for renovations). Then follow the quays of the Seine westward, past the green metal stalls of the bouquinistes selling old books and postcards. Turn right on Rue de l'Amiral de Coligny, where you can admire the old royal church (4) Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois (look closely for the fanciful carvings of monkey musicians on the porch), and across from it the great colonnaded facade of the (5) Louvre.
Head left on the long, gray Rue de Rivoli, Napoleon's contribution to urban planning, and turn right on Rue de Marengo. If you have room for a Louis XV table or clock in your suitcase, check out the (6) Louvre des Antiquaires (www.louvre-antiquaires.com) on the left, a sumptuous mall filled with 250 antique shops.
Continue north as the street changes its name to Rue du Croix des Petits Champs. On your right is the entrance to the world's oldest "shopping mall," the (7) Galerie Véro-Dodat (1823). Glass-covered arcades were a Paris invention of the 19th century; the city once had more than 150 of them.
Turn left on Rue du Colonel Driant past the solemn neoclassical headquarters of the (8) Banque de France; at the end of the street, duck through an archway under the big, plain building opposite. Surprise—you're in the gardens of the (9) Palais Royal.
Cardinal Richelieu built this hidden Paris treasure. Once the buzzing heart of city life (and later, best known for its brothels), its porticos now house fascinating shops selling everything from used designer dresses to tin soldiers, as well as the ornate (10) Grand Véfour restaurant (www.grand-vefour.com), open since 1784. Just five years after that, the French Revolution began here, when Camille Desmoulins jumped up on a café table and suggested everyone pay a call on the Bastille.
North of the Palais Royal, across Rue des Petits Champs, you'll find on the right two more arcades, the (11) Galerie Colbert and the (12) Galerie Vivienne, now filled with art galleries, and on the left, the ponderous bulk of the (13) Bibliothèque Nationale (www.bnf.fr). Most of the books have gone on to a new home, but the building still houses major art exhibitions, as well as the Cabinet des Médailles, one of the lesser known museums in Paris, yet one of the most amazing. This small collection of treasures once belonged to the royal family, and includes everything from the misnamed Charlemagne chessmen to the biggest ancient cameo—all of which you can see for free.
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