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The City of Light gets its shine back

A panoramic view of Paris includes the Seine River and the Eiffel Tower. Photo by NicoElNino/

It had been decades since my first visit, but the café Les Deux Magots was just as I had remembered: all the tables and wicker chairs facing out onto the boulevard, as if waiting for a parade. Not a single Kir Royale imbiber or Gauloises smoker wanted to miss the stream of life passing by, not a second of it. It hardly mattered that the late-summer sky threatened to storm. We were here for it all. Even the deluge. 

A boy-faced maître d’ dressed in a suit grabbed 3 menus and waved me over. “Mademoiselle, which table do you prefer? Pour toi, anywhere.”

“Hmmm, which is best?” I asked, lifting my shades onto my head and scanning the crowd of amazing-looking French people—jewel-toned eyes, strong noses, goatees, good shoes. 

Eh bien, each one, it is a seat for the theater of happiness, no?” With that, he placed me front and center. Handing me a menu, he smiled and winked. I glanced up at him—with his tie askew and his golden floppy hair, he looked about 21, my daughter’s age. Mais, did it matter, really? 

Merci, it’s absolument parfait,” I replied in my best Franglish, and winked back. Because, when in Paris … 

I had first sat at one of these tables when I was 20 and a Cambridge exchange student, counting out francs from my backpack pocket until I had enough for a café crème. Who could resist being part of this?

It was legend that Ernest Hemingway wrote several chapters of The Sun Also Rises on the café’s second floor. Pablo Picasso met his muse Dora Maar here, finding her irresistible after she plunged a knife into their café table, right between his fingers. The Doors’ Jim Morrison idled on this terrace, downing caffè Americanos (though not beer—he was in Paris detoxing).

Diners pack the tables at Les Deux Magots.

Les Deux Magots has served as a front-row seat to Paris’ “theater of happiness” since it opened in the late 1800s. Photo by © Sébastien Dubois-Didcock

On this evening, decades later, this same theater of happiness, the Paris café, was very much open for business. The sky was like a Eugène Boudin landscape, strewn with gray clouds and streaked with a fading sunset.

A woman dressed in claustrophobically tight jeans and towering heels strutted by, her 3 sausage dogs sporting tiny berets—red, white, and French blue. Two teen boys preened in a vintage convertible Porsche, blasting Francophone rap. Four Kardashian wannabes, all sheathed in shades of pink, sashayed over and seized the table next to me, tossing about oh-là-làs like rose petals into the air.

The maître d’ gave them all the same blue-eyed wink.                          

Sophie, an old friend I like to refer to as my favorite London gypsy, and Nathalie, the daughter of a former Australian ambassador to Paris, had joined me, all designer shopping bags and rouged lips. Our Cambodian French waiter brought by flutes of Champagne and plates of cantaloupe crisscrossed with San Daniele prosciutto. (Did it matter that half a melon cost 17 euros?) 

Taking in the show playing out in front of us, Nathalie raised her flute and cooed: “Paris is back.”

My local friends had told me that recent years had done a hatchet job on the City of Light. The city’s cost of living and increasingly crowded conditions had been driving residents away. According to a 6-part series published in early 2023 by Le Parisien newspaper, the city’s population declined by 122,919 over the past decade. 

By many accounts, the once-glorious French capital had reached a physical and psychological nadir. Slothful civic services meant that heaps of trash bags lined the sidewalks, even in posh neighborhoods. Graffiti exploded on city walls.

Well-meaning lovers clamped padlocks (a symbol of eternal amour) on the stately bridges spanning the Seine, obscuring Paris’ sparkling views with rusting metal. Pollution choked the air. Fumes rose from the Seine. As if responding to the collective despair in 2019, the Notre-Dame, Paris’ iconic 12th-century French Gothic church, combusted into flames.

And then came the pandemic. COVID not only isolated a population of bons vivants in their often-cramped apartments but also shuttered café society, one of the city’s most defining aspects. “In Paris there is such a strong culture of people watching,” Nathalie told us that evening at Les Deux Magots. “COVID destroyed that. We didn’t know if we’d ever get it back.” 

But if the scene at Les Deux Magots was any indication, Paris was indeed back. And not only back, but also arguably heading into its most ambitious period since it was modernized in the late 19th century. 

Paris today was not content just to regain its sparkle. It was also determined to rise as the greenest city on the planet—if the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, had anything to say about it.

Since her reign began in 2014, Hidalgo has led efforts to assertively greenify urban spaces and infrastructure, converting the Seine’s banks into promenades, limiting daily traffic into the city’s borders, and turning entire neighborhoods into pedestrian- and cycling-only zones on Sundays.

The controversial leader proposed ripping out concrete spaces surrounding the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées and planting thousands of trees and parklets there.

Olympic rings on the Trocadero esplanade, with the Eiffel Tower aglow in the distance.

The Olympic rings were unveiled on the Trocadero esplanade on September 13, 2017, when it was announced that Paris would host the 2024 Summer Games. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

“This is the city we want to show the world during the Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024,” Hidalgo wrote in a 2019 Time magazine essay. The plan is to transform the whole city into one big sporting festival.

I was already seeing artist renderings of sporting events taking place in the Eiffel Tower’s shadow and at the Place de la Concorde (never mind that this massive public square was also the site of Marie Antoinette’s guillotining).

In fact, Paris officials had invested $1.55 billion to clean up the Seine, with the idea of hosting several swimming events on the famous river as the city had done for the 1900 Paris Olympics. (Unfortunately, even after an extensive de-polluting effort, 2 recent triathlons were nixed due to poor water quality.)

Paris is expecting millions of international tourists to descend on the city for the Olympics, but in response millions of les vrais Parisians may exit. “Lots of friends say they plan to rent out their small studios for $500 a night,” Nathalie told us. 

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French immersion

This generous city has been my touchstone for decades. And during this second-act season of my life, I found I needed the city again, her beauty and joy. Her eternal light.

Traveling from L.A., I yearned to step back into decades of memories—I had been to Paris with my college boyfriend, my Cambridge mates, my brother, my mother, the man I almost married, the man I did marry. My 1-year-old daughter Anais (yes, named after the French writer) had taken her first steps in the Tuileries, and we returned together 15 years later when she had transformed into a dazzling teen.

So on this trip I wanted to do the things I’d always loved to do in Paris, but I also longed to do things I had never done.

“Ali, get off that phone and get on your bike!” barked Sophie. “You can snap photos of the Eiffel Tower later.” She was on my case again, and I half-wondered why I had even invited her on this trip. But Sophie had been to Paris some 30 times and could navigate the route between the Bois de Boulogne and the Bastille without consulting a map.

For this trip, we had made a pact to shun taxis and rely solely on the Métro, bicycles, and à pied, like classic Parisian flaneurs. 

Both wearing dresses and berets, we jumped on Vélib’—the city’s bike-share wheels—and sped off. Becoming one of the world’s premier bicycling cities was also one of Paris’ new grand ambitions, and the city had shifted radically because of it. Two-way bike lanes crossed the city, inviting all sorts of wheeled chaos. Bicycling not only got us to where we were going, but also invited us to be part of the city’s natural flow.

Three women sharing drinks al fresco at a bistro.

The author (left) relaxes with friends Lisa Anselmo (center) and Sophie Benge (right) at a bistro in Canal Saint-Martin. Photo courtesy Alison Gee

Our first stop was Canal Saint-Martin, the hip neighborhood du jour. My friend Lisa Anselmo, the author of the memoir My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, had insisted we see it. We met her for a bistro lunch at Chez Prune, where everyone looked fresh out of a Zadig & Voltaire ad.

Afterward we wandered along the canal, no set plans. Canal Saint-Martin is a photogenic arrondissement that had served as a backdrop in Amelie and so many other movies.

The post-uni crowd sat along the canal picnicking, reading Camus, strumming guitars. The chestnut trees reflected off the water, and even the functional locks and iron bridges appeared picturesque in that distinctly European way. Inspired by the beauty around me, I ducked into a boutique and bought some quintessentially French tops and skirts.

We stopped about a mile upstream at yet another bistro for a citron pressé and a gab about Madame Hidalgo. It was the perfectly French afternoon I had always dreamed of having, but I never knew where to have it.

The next day, I put on one of my new French ensembles, and Sophie and I walked a couple of miles across town to l’Opéra Garnier, which the fictional phantom of the opera famously haunted. The whole palace, with its glowing 19th-century candelabras and marble balustrades, stunned me with its opulence.

But the real gasp moment came when we entered the theater and looked up: In 1964, Marc Chagall painted a 2,400-square-foot fresco of winged characters and heavenly gardens on the ceiling. The artwork was so joyful and expressive that it felt like a gift to humanity—and, in fact, it was. Although the work had taken the then–77-year-old painter a year to complete, he refused any payment for it. 

As it turned out, opera would be the theme of our entire day. That evening, we walked along the Seine until we reached Bel Canto, a cozy Paris eatery with an opera concept. As we waited for our meal, a handsome server waltzing past us with plated appetizers suddenly turned around and started belting out “Libiamo ne’lieti calici” from La Traviata

Throughout the 4-course meal, several exquisite performers—professional opera singers—serenaded us, acting out embraces and feuds, which seemed a bit wacky at first.

One of the singers explained to me that centuries ago at the Italian opera house La Scala, audience members would sit in the theater in their haute finery and dine while enjoying the opera. “At La Scala, you could laugh, you could cry, you could talk without anyone shooting you a dirty look,” she explained.

That night ended up being Sophie’s favorite of our entire visit. “There’s usually something aloof about opera,” she said after we left the restaurant, “but at Bel Canto, I felt I was in its pocket.”

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The Emily effect

A rainbow of clothing and accessories inside glass display cases surrounding a spiral staircase in the Christian Dior Museum.

“Emily in Paris” devotees will delight in the Christian Dior Museum. Photo by Frederic Reglain/Alamy Stock Photo

On day 6 of our 8-day visit, Sophie awoke early and headed off to the famed Paris flea market Porte de Clignancourt, while I readied to visit Paris’ hottest new museum, La Galerie Dior, also known as the Christian Dior Museum. When I arrived, I smiled when I saw a blocks-long line of adorable teen girls fancied up in selfie-worthy dresses.

Laduree employees pack sweets from the pastry shop's display case.

Macarons and other sweets on display at the Ladurée pastry shop. Photo by Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

They were part of the Emily in Paris phenomenon—a new generation of French capital aficionadas inspired by the popular Netflix series. You could see it all over the city, the girls flooding the Tuileries to snap photos next to the 18th-century statues; the flirty queue for pastel-colored macarons outside Ladurée; and the cafés now beautified with bouquets of effusive silk flowers, all to attract the Baby Emily crowd.

Opened in 2022, the museum features the legendary Christian Dior’s designs, childhood photographs, and historic images of celebrities wearing his ensembles. In one room, artisans showed how they hand-make Dior’s signature handbags.

It was the city’s most-coveted museum ticket, and rightly so. La Galerie Dior taught me not only about the next-level refinement of this sartorial genius, but also about Parisian history and evolving perspectives on beauty and female liberation. 

In the afternoon, Sophie and I met up at a Vietnamese café for pho before embarking on the road going up Montmartre.

La Maison Rose on the corner of a street in Montmartre.

La Maison Rose is a popular eatery in the artsy Montmartre district. Photo by Mihai Barbat/Alamy Stock Photo

Both of us downloaded a walking tour that took us past the neighborhood’s bright spots: the studios of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí; the pink restaurant La Maison Rose; the Wall of Love (a public artwork composed of 612 tiles mortared onto a park wall, with the phrase “I love you” written in 250 languages); and into the town square, Place du Tertre, where street artists painted tourists’ portraits.

The Sacré Coeur basilica, set on Paris’ highest hill, offers one of the city’s prettiest views.

The Sacré Coeur basilica, set on Paris’ highest hill, offers one of the city’s prettiest views. Photo by eye35/Alamy Stock Photo

No matter how frenetic my visits to Paris were, I always took time to visit the Sacré Coeur. With its cloud-like domes and home at the top of Paris’ highest hill, this remarkable church, completed in 1914, is for me one of the city’s beating hearts. I walked into its cool expanses, lit a candle, and said a silent prayer.

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The Eiffel sparkles eternal

Pedestrians, cyclists, and diners fill the path beside the Seine.

Stretching for miles and lined with trees, benches, and food stalls, the path along the Seine attracts a steady stream of pedestrians and bicyclists. Photo by Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

It was close to midnight, and Sophie and I were walking along the Seine once more. Since its greening, the river’s banks had become a low-key meeting ground for Parisian twentysomethings. They sat on benches, grooving to techno, sharing bottles of Beaujolais, basking in the golden lamplight shimmering off the dark river. 

Sophie glanced down at her Cartier. “Oh, Ali, get ready for this!” she gushed, waving northward. A second later, the Eiffel Tower erupted into a glittering light show. 

“C’est incroyable!” I squealed and reached over to hug her. “Paris, I love you!” Sophie beamed.

“So, do you think Paris is a man or a woman?” I asked.

“A woman,” she replied. “Definitely a woman. Her elegance, her charme. What do you think?”

“A woman for sure,” I answered, still gazing at the luminous Eiffel, my beacon. “This city is forever offering gifts that you never knew you needed.” 

We returned to the Eiffel Tower on our last evening in Paris. We were standing in line for the elevator when I noticed my hands were shaking. I soon realized why.

Sure, l’Eiffel had been the backdrop for some of my most cinematic French experiences—whooshing 905 feet upward in a glass elevator to the highest platform and staring out onto tout Paris, for one.

But it had also been the scene of some rather regrettable moments. Like when, in my 20s, I scrutinized my angelic mother’s outfit and informed her that her head-to-toe denim look and fanny pack were simply not good enough for me to associate with.

Or the time when my brilliant and handsome first love and I stood at the tower’s base, ready to ascend, and the early spring skies started to snow. With the frost collecting on his hair, he clutched his Armani scarf to his neck and grimaced.

He looked so miserable, so averse to adventure, so unwilling to laugh at life’s little inconveniences. He said no to the theater of life. It was then that I knew we had reached the beginning of the end. 

I shook off the creeping melancholia and steadied my hands, and Sophie and I whooshed upward in the lift. At the top, I stood at the tower’s rail and stared. “Wow,” I whispered to myself.

In the middle distance was the only French history lesson I would ever need: Le Panthéon, Les Invalides, Pont Alexandre III, Notre-Dame—my old friends of so many decades. Sprawling before me was a 3D map of a great civilization.

Paris was now on the verge of a grand encore. And so was I. The first star of the night popped into view, and I caught its gaze. It twinkled brighter by the moment, this star above Paris, bathing me in its forever light. 

Frequent contributor Alison Gee is the author of the memoir Where the Peacocks Sing and a lecturer at Scripps College.

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Where to stay

Hôtel Rochechouart

Located at the base of Montmartre, this beautiful art deco boutique hotel has très French rooms and spectacular rooftop views. Rates start at $228.


Paris Marriott Champs Elysees Hotel

Where Parisian flair meets American service, this elegant Marriott offers a great location as well as comfort and style. Rates start at $440.


Renaissance Paris Vendome Hotel

Sophisticated, fun, and situated across from the Tuileries and the Louvre, this boutique hotel also has an indoor pool. Rates start at $494.

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