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Paris is always a good idea

No matter the time of year or the struggles it faces, the City of Light holds an eternal allure. Amelia Hungerford explores why she returns again and again to seek la vie en rose in Paris.

The final chords of Chopin’s Nocturne #8 reverberate against the rafters of Église Saint- Julien-le-Pauvre, a 12th-century church tucked away between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the waters of the Seine. The audience lets out a collective breath, letting the music hang in the air a moment longer, before bursting into rapturous applause. The crowd is small, huddled in coats against the pervading winter chill, and there’s a sense that together we have shared something beautiful, regardless of the language we speak.

This is why I keep coming back to Paris. Every time I return, I fall a little more in love with the City of Light and relax a little more into her restorative embrace, an allure that has inscribed this elegant metropolis in the imaginations of millions.

Delights of Paris and her restaurants

Fluctuat nec mergitur. ‘She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink’. The city’s Latin motto became a statement of solidarity following the November 2015 attacks and an expression of the eternal appeal of Paris. Although tourist numbers flagged, the #ParisWeLoveYou campaign sought to show the world that the City of Light hasn’t changed, and for the world to show that nothing could alter our opinion of Paris.

There is something unshakeable about her grand boulevards, the assuredness of her bistros and the elegance of her monuments. It is as if they stand to say, ‘it’s all right, traveller, Paris will always be here for you’.

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Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in its food: seeking out the nearest boulangerie is always a first-day delight, biting into a Ladurée macaron, relishing the ham-and-cheese cliché of a croque monsieur for lunch, and spreading house-made sugarplum jam on a flaking croissant for breakfast at Four Seasons Hotel George V.

Dinner is a ritual. At Le Comptoir du Relais, diners are jammed elbow-to-elbow into a tiny bistro space, where the weeknight set menu is a celebration of classic cooking executed perfectly, and the lobster bisque remains a personal highlight. Owner and chef Yves Camdeborde’s now-classic restaurant has a months-long waitlist, but I manage to skip ahead in the queue by staying above in his boutique hotel, Le Relais Saint-Germain. Together with his wife, Claudine, Camdeborde opens Paris’ dining rooms to his guests, whether it’s a night of conviviality at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Saint-Germain, Christian Constant’s flagship  Le Violon d’Ingres, or a hearty Basque meal at Chez l’Ami Jean.

The city is replete with baroque dining rooms and Michelin-starred restaurants. Since its reopening last year, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée has attracted acclaim for its pescatarian menu and hyper-contemporary design that puts all attention on the delicate cuisine.

Nearby, in the 8th Arrondissement, Le Bristol Paris, a member of the Oetker Collection, houses four Michelin stars under its elegant roof — three for Epicure and one for 114 Faubourg — thanks to the vision of Executive Chef and Meilleur Ouvrier de France master, Eric Frechon.

At Four Seasons Hotel George V, artistic director Jeff Leatham’s vibrant floral displays are as renowned as Christian Le Squer’s cuisine at Le Cinq, just this year awarded its third Michelin star.

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Museums and other essentials

After so much feasting, the streets beckon. Start on foot, stop often and keep plans to a minimum. During winter, I punctuate bouts of intense shopping (the January sales are irresistible) with sightseeing that gives a new perspective on the well-travelled city. Instead of scaling the Eiffel Tower, I ascend the Arc de Triomphe by night to see the illuminated Champs-Élysées laid out below me, a carpet of lights leading to the wheel slowly turning above the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre beyond. Instead of taking in the can-can at the Moulin Rouge, I head to Au Lapin Agile, where cherry wine accompanies cabaret in a night of singing classic chansons around the piano, tourist, local and professional coming together in a strange Gallic karaoke.

Making a few stops on the museum circuit is a must for every visitor. Whether you’re working your way through the grand galleries of the Louvre, exploring the modernist masterpiece that is the Centre Pompidou, discovering the cultures of the world at Musée du Quai Branly or exploring the offbeat collection of funfair curios at the Musée des Arts Forains, there is a curated marvel for every taste. Last year saw the reopening of both Musée Rodin and Musée Picasso, revamped for modern tastes, but it is that ode to the art of the early 20th century, Musée d’Orsay, that remains my sentimental favourite.

A private walking tour is the ideal way to acquaint yourself with Paris. If you’re exploring further afield to Versailles or Giverney, enlist the expertise of a driver-guide, but the city itself is best seen on foot.

There are strolls for all interests, be it haute-couture shopping with an American in Paris, from Le Bon Marché to the aristocratic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, or a literary ramble with Australian raconteur John Baxter. Art, history, cinema, science… there is no end to the fascination captured in her streets.

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City of palaces

When it comes to a luxurious place to rest your head, the city’s Palace-status hotels offer the pinnacle of fine living.The beyond-five-star designation applies to just eight Parisian properties: Le Meurice, Park Hyatt Vendôme, Plaza Athénée, Le Bristol, Mandarin OrientalShangri-La, Hôtel Royal Monceau-Raffles Paris and Four Seasons Hotel George V.

There is one hotel that stands out above them all, though, conspicuous by its absence. The legendary Ritz Paris returns this year, reborn to a new level of grandeur after an unprecedented unprecedented restoration. In its Prestige Suites, the signature decors of celebrated guests Marcel Proust, Frédéric Chopin and Coco Chanel have been faithfully restored, while alongside Bar Hemingway and the historic Salon Proust, the spa will herald a new era of beauty with Chanel au Ritz.

The revival of this icon proves there’s always a reason to return to Paris.

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