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Pocket Guide: Paris

It's easy to fall for Paris. Even if you've never been, you'll probably have felt the attraction already; its beauty is no secret. Endlessly written about, painted, and photographed, Paris conjures up emotions for which adequate words and images simply don't exist. Whatever you have read, seen, or heard about the city, the most important thing you need to do is visit.

A bit of va-va-velib

Only Paris can make a gray, bulky bicycle seem glamorous and sophisticated. Velib, the city's free hire bikes, are Paris's answer to traffic congestion, the good heath of its inhabitants, and transport strikes. For the visitor, they offer an excellent way to get to know the city's 20 arrondissements, or districts, all of which have their own distinctive markings.

The heart of the capital, on the Ile de la Cité, is where Paris began around 250 BC. Now home to the law courts, a flower market, and the gothic masterpiece Notre Dame, it's a deservedly popular spot. Like most of Paris's landmarks, Notre Dame is always surrounded by people gazing up in awe and wonder. Climb the south tower and you'll be similarly humbled as you look down on the city landscape of grand boulevards, parks, and monuments.

Following your eye along the Seine, you can see the world's most famous museum, the Louvre, and further down, the instantly recognizable Eiffel Tower. Include these on your itinerary and you'll have made a small (but important) chip into the huge block of Paris's famous landmarks, monuments, and museums. It's quite possible that the list could seem overwhelming, but sitting at a pavement café with a strong coffee and a guidebook is a good start, and will certainly put you in the Parisian mood.

A bit of ooh la la

Back in 1889, the Moulin Rouge introduced a seductive, skirts-and-eyebrow-raising dance called the cancan. Today it hosts a sell-out show, though risqué titillation has been replaced by slick dance routines and acrobatics. The Opera National de Paris offers a program of classical ballet and opera, performed at the modern Opera Bastille and the grandiose Palais Garnier. In contrast to these big-scale productions, you'll find live music from rock to chanson throughout the week at venues ranging from scruffy basements to plush auditoriums. Alternatively, try a dinner cruise along the Seine for a traffic-free view of the city's carefully lit architecture.

There are a dizzying number of festivals in Paris, each reinvigorating the city in a unique way. Visit on June 21st for a musical adventure as the city plays host to a free music festival, Fête de la Musique. As the world's capital of cinema, Paris naturally has its own film festival and the highest number of art-house cinemas per inhabitant. Open-air screenings, cinematographic tours, and an eclectic mix of films make up a busy program which is enough to push any blockbuster boundaries.

It's true that people here often have a baguette under their arm. There is a boulangerie (bakery) on almost every street and even if you're not hungry the pastries in the window will probably have a persuasive impact. French cuisine is notoriously sophisticated, but you don't need to find Michelin stars to enjoy it. A neighborhood brasserie can offer a fine meal, a place to watch people come and go, and inspiration for your return visit to the city of light.

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