Visitors to Paris typically all do the same tour. The Louvre. The Left Bank. The grands boulevards whose intricate stone façades stretch for miles, the perfectly manicured gardens, maybe an overpriced café crème or greasy cassoulet that makes you wonder why French cuisine is supposed to be the best in the world.
But there are plenty of nooks and crannies in Paris–some are hidden, but many are just overshadowed by the cold, calculating majesty of the city’s most recognizable monuments, and the frosty first impression locals give outsiders. Get to know some Parisians, though, and you could have the time of your life. They might take you to an underground hip-hop party in the catacombs or the best new boutique on the rue des Rosiers. You’re likely to find yourself with a verre and a cigarette in hand on some sunny quai-side terrace, followed by a long dinner where fresh baguette and the best cheese are compulsory. If they really know what’s up, you could get a picnic in the Buttes-Chaumont park, a feast of n’dole and jollof rice at a Cameroonian restaurant, or beer and pogo-ing at a hard tekno squat party in the suburbs.
In any case, you don’t need a guide to enjoy the lively streets of Belleville, with durian fruits stacked high in Asian markets and Algerian salons de thé down every side street. And though the nightlife in Paris has long gotten a bad rap–lots of rich clubs with corny music, racist bouncers, and crazy cover charges–a wealth of small, smoky DJ bars provide forward-thinking sounds. An equally good time can be had popping champagne with Karl Lagerfeld’s assistant and the Ed Banger DJs at jetset clubs like the André-owned Le Paris Paris or Hôtel Amour. Parisians don’t really believe in “slumming it” and after you’ve had a taste of the good life, you probably won’t either.
Paris may be dignified at times, but it’s definitely not squeaky clean like Stockholm or Switzerland. There’s centuries of grit baked into the buildings here and not just a little bit of sleaze in the culture, from breast-baring at the Moulin Rouge in sketchy Pigalle to Eyes Wide Shut-style swingers clubs behind mansion doors in the Marais, from loose-lipped American bohemians chasing the ghost of Hemingway to the clipped, nasal tones of elderly French men cursing Arab teenagers to the hisses of gypsy children pick-pocketing Teva-clad tourists on the Champs-Élysées. But this is Paris–even the sleaze is done in style.
The city is full of clichés but Parisians are fine with them–they’re just as easily swayed by the beauty of the Eiffel Tower, the romance of a stroll along the Seine, and a good pick-up line. As if to drive the point home, the subtitle of Respect Is Burning’s sizzling Summer of Love jump-off is “Dis-moi que tu m’aimes”; the catchphrase–taken from one of the most popular French chansons–means “Tell me that you love me” (even if you don’t mean it). We love you, baby.