Paris Above: Dejeuner sur l'herbe

To best appreciate Paris you need to stay outside and, with just the odd cafe break, stay on your feet

If you've ever sat outside the famous Deux Magots cafe on the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris, you will know The Explorer. He arrives by bike, wearing khaki shorts and a white hunter hat and bearing a box of tricks. He plucks an assistant from the assembled ranks of beautifully dressed Parisians and shorts-wearing tourists, and then proceeds to make an ass of them - in the nicest possible way. The show lasts about as long as the average cafe creme.

Street performers make Paris an endless open-air delight. In the Arenes de Lutece, watch a game of boules; on the Pont St Louis, listen to six trendy young men play jazz; on the Pont des Arts, examine the 10ft-high sculptures; in front of Notre Dame, watch teenagers on in-line skates do everything bar a back-flip. Just thinking about all this activity is enough to make you feel tired.

But Paris has plenty of places to recuperate - with some of the prettiest parks and most enticing pavement cafes in the world, you can top up your caffeine or alcohol levels while observing Parisian life in all its many guises.

If you want to take the city by storm, where better to start than the Bastille? A focal point through the ages of political protest, the Bastille's column commemorates no less than three uprisings: the July revolt of 1830, the July revolution of 1789, and the 1848 uprising. It has stood here since 1833, but the column is now rather overshadowed by the gleaming glass opera house, built 10 years ago for the bicentennial of the 1789 revolution.

From Bastille, it's just a short hop to the Place des Vosges. Up Boulevard Beaumarchais and first left into rue des Francs Bourgeois - wittily translated by Jack Kerouac as "the street of the outspoken middle classes" - the chic street lined with boutiques soon opens up into a beautiful, early 17th-century square, with antique shops and cafes tucked under the surrounding arcades, and a haven of green in the centre. This is the ideal spot to sit with a baguette, a wedge of brie and a bottle of Bordeaux.

Between here and the Left Bank float the two little islands that formed the original heart of Paris, the Ile de la Cite, home of Notre-Dame, and Ile St Louis. On the tiny Pont St Louis that links the two, mime artists, musicians, fire-eaters and cafes jostle together, and a queue snakes up to the most famous ice-cream parlour in the city - chez Berthillon.

For a different flavour, head south to the tranquillity of the arresting Mosquee. In a quiet square just between rue Monge and the Natural History Museum, the facade is a stunning mosaic of green and white. On certain days you can take a tour of the mosque, which plays an active part in Muslim life here, but if there's no tour you may be lucky enough to sneak a glimpse of the garden patio. Around the corner, on rue Geoffroy St Hilaire, is the mosque's very special cafe. The lion's share of the restaurant is indoors and decidedly Persian in feel, but there is a large, shady outside terrace where the waiters serve you hot, sweet mint tea in tiny glasses and sweeter-than-sweet Persian cakes. There is a hammam here, with alternate days for men and women to come and be steamed, pummelled and pampered.

Well-spruced young men awaiting their dates festoon the gates of Luxembourg Gardens on sunny days. This is a formal park, and large areas of the grass are not meant for walking on; but it does have plenty of thoughtfully provided chairs that are always occupied - whether by picnickers, girls sunbathing, or solitary readers, their heads buried in books. Beyond a stone balustrade adorned with geraniums is the pond, where boys from five to 65 sail their boats.

A few blocks west, on rue de Varenne, is the Rodin Museum, whose grounds are a quieter treasure than the Luxembourg.

Among trees and shrubs in the front garden you can glimpse the gilded dome of Les Invalides next door; the long, elegant garden behind the museum has a shady avenue of cafe tables where you can sip a citron presse.

From culture to shopping: as well as some rather expensive fashion, the Boulevard St Germain is the place to find some of Paris's oldest and most famous cafes - the Brasserie Lipp, the Deux Magots and the Cafe de Flore. There is also St Germain church to admire, after which you could head east a little way along the boulevard and take a left along rue de Seine.

Immediately, a bunch of flower stalls springs up alongside popular cafes at the junction with the rue de Buci. Continuing down either rue de Seine or the parallel rue Mazarine towards the river, you will come to a little arch and emerge on the river at the Pont des Arts, which has to be the perfect place to sit and reflect on the river. On warm days, the pedestrian, wooden-planked bridge is lined with students reading andtourists studying their guides; often there is an open-air exhibition of paintings or sculpture.

North of the Seine, the rue Montorgueil offers no tourist vista, but it's entirely Parisian. Cobbled and (almost) car-free, it bursts with flower shops and cafes, but also a supermarket and regular delis, some of which have stalls of fish or cheeses outside.

Sipping a coffee or a pastis here rewards you with the endless entertainment of watching Parisians go to buy their daily bread.

This is the place to buy croissants for breakfast at one of the patisseries, then take them to your favourite cafe; or, for later in the day, there are several great lunch spots, including the terminally hip Le Cafe, where having to squeeze in is part of the attraction. Ther street also features unusual boutiques and shoe shops, and even an old-fashioned, very French bar where you share a bench and wash your oysters down with rose.

You can spend all day here, if you try. But in the evening, the Marais calls, pulling you back to your starting point near the Place des Vosges. At night the Marais is decidedly gay.

A patchwork of streets full of lively bars, perhaps my favourite is the rue Vieille du Temple, which offers rich pickings for window-shoppers, the fenetres of the apartments above giving glimpses of opulent interiors. Stop at the corner of rue du Tresor for an open-air aperitif at the Cafe des Chaises au Plafond, and when you finally have to venture indoors, there's no better place than the restaurant next door, Le Philosophe.

Victor Hugo, an almost-philosopher, wrote in 1862: "To inhale Paris preserves the soul." So get outside and start breathing.

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