Paris in the springtime

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Yes, now really is the best time to enjoy the French capital before the heat and the hordes of summer arrive. By Harriet O'Brien

What's the attraction?

It's true: Paris is at its peak in spring. The sunshine may occasionally be interspersed with rain, but the light is fantastic, the first hint of green leaves adds allure, and the tourist hordes of the summer season haven't yet descended. Go now.



Planes, trains?

Flights from more than a dozen UK airports arrive at Paris-Charles de Gaulle, about 25km (16 miles) north-east of central Paris. The regional RER rail service provides quick links to the central Gare du Nord, leaving roughly every 10-15 minutes. The 25-minute journey costs €8.70 (£7.50).

If you're starting out from London or Kent it is quicker, not to say greener, to go by train. Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) from London St Pancras (with Ebbsfleet and Ashford as possible starting points) to Paris Gare du Nord takes about two hours 15 minutes and costs from £69.



Check me in

A spring break in Paris has added charm if you have access to some greenery. For a beautifully landscaped patch with palatial luxury – and a hefty price tag – attached, head to the Shangri-la Paris (00 33 1 53 67 19 98; www.shangri-la.com) at 10 avenue d'Iéna near the Champs Elysées. The 81-bedroom hotel opened in December and is set in a refurbished 1896 mansion built for Prince Roland Bonaparte, great nephew of Napoleon. Its garden was reworked by the landscape designer Louis Benech, who was also the force behind the revitalised Jardin des Tuileries. Doubles from €750, room only.

There are, of course, many less expensive alternatives. Over on the Left Bank, Hotel des Grandes Ecoles (00 331 43 26 79 23; www.hotel-grandes-ecoles.com) is a hidden treasure. This elegant pink villa sits in tranquil, well-clipped gardens in the midst of the Quartier Latin and offers 51 bright bedrooms with old-fashioned floral wallpaper. Doubles cost from €115, room only.

Alternatively, make for Montparnasse where Hotel Mistral (00 33 1 43 20 25 43; www.hotel-mistral-paris.com) is a peaceful budget option at 24 rue Cels. This pleasingly simple outfit has 43 cosy rooms, a kitchen area that guests are welcome to use, and a courtyard garden where, should the weather be warm enough, you can dine outside. Doubles from €70, room only.



For joie de vivre...

Make for Ile de la Cité, stroll by the Seine and then head to the colour of the daily flower market at place Louis-Lépine – if you're there on a Sunday you'll find a chirruping bird market taking place alongside. The church of Sainte Chapelle ( www.sainte-chapelle. monuments-nationaux.fr) is almost adjacent. It's a soaring Gothic building containing astonishingly beautiful stained-glass windows and was built as part of Paris's ancient royal palace. Open daily 9am-6pm; admission €8.

From there, meander a short way north-east to the Marais district, its lanes exuding a cheerfully bustling atmosphere. This picturesque neighbourhood is lined with appealing little shops and dotted with architectural glories; in the 17th century it was a haunt of the aristocracy who constructed sumptuous mansions – hôtels particuliers – here. One of them is now a free museum: Hôtel Carnavalet ( www.carnavalet.paris.fr). Located at 23 Rue de Sevigné, it tells the story of Paris largely through room sets salvaged from old buildings, ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Open 10am-6pm daily except Monday.



What's on?

Catch the critically acclaimed exhibition on Mondrian and the De Stijl movement at the Centre Pompidou ( www.centrepompidou.fr). It runs until 21 March and is open daily 11am-9pm and until 11pm on Thurs; admission €12. See the display of Pre-Raphaelite photography at the Musée d'Orsay ( www.musee-orsay.fr) at 1 rue de la Légion de l'Honneur, which runs until 29 May. Open 9.30am-6.45pm daily except Monday (until 9.45pm on Thurs); admission €10.

Finally, admire the mix of tradition and fashion at the riverfront Musée du quai Branly ( www.quaibranly.fr) near the Eiffel Tower, where until 15 May an exhibition entitled "Women in the Orient" displays fabulous robes from the near East selected by Christian Lacroix. Open 11am-7pm daily except Monday (to 9pm Thurs-Sat); €7.

I'm hungry – for a view

Quai Branly also offers one of the French capital's best-located restaurants. Les Ombres (00 33 1 47 53 68 00; www.lesombres-restaurant. com) on the rooftop of 27 Quai Branly is a greenhouse-like structure devised by the architect Jean Nouvel to present stunning views of Eiffel Tower – and Paris. Main courses are around €35.

Less well known but providing equally dramatic views is Le Zyriab (00 33 1 55 42 55 42; www.noura.com), which occupies a building also devised by Jean Nouvel. Set on the ninth floor of the Institut du Monde Arabe at 1 rue des Fossés St Bernard, this well-priced Lebanese restaurant has spectacular views over the Seine and across to Nôtre Dame. The set mezze menu costs €29.



Park life

Elegant, leafy and great for people- watching, Jardin du Luxembourg, south of St-Germain des Prés, in many ways encapsulates Paris in the spring. The gardens were laid out in 1612 around the great palace built for Marie de Medici, regent of France. Wander between the romantic Fontaine de Medicis on the eastern side and the central Grand Bassin, where children sail little boats.

If the rain clouds are gathering, make for the Orangerie in the north-western corner. It was built in 1830 and contains more than 200 plant pots, with everything from oleanders to palm trees. The gardens are open daily from dawn until dusk, free admission.



What Google will tell you...

March can be a wet month, and Paris is well known for its erratic and sudden downpours. So make sure to pack an umbrella that can withstand strong rain and wind. www.goparis.about.com



What Google won't tell you – until now

For an exquisite take on Parisian life, and a sublime outlook, make for Place des Vosges, possibly the most beautiful square in the city. Head to Carette Salon de Thé (00 33 1 48 87 94 07; www.carette-paris.com) at number 25, sit at a table on the terrace and order a hot chocolate. It will be served from a silver pot into a delicate porcelain cup. As you savour this treat you will be able to gaze upon supremely elegant mellow pink-brick mansions and over a central garden complete with topiary and early spring flowers.

Who said that?

* "I love Paris in the springtime" – Cole Porter (1953) in the musical Can-Can (sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1960 film)

* "In the great local tradition of the flâneur, or thoughtful boulevard-stroller, Paris is a wonderful city for aimless wandering" – the Rough Guide to Paris by Ruth Blackmore and James McConnachie

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