Double-decker hop-on, hop-off buses packed to the brim with people. Hordes of eager travelers huddled around a visibly weary tour guide. Street-side salesmen looking to lure naive tourists to buy their overpriced trinkets. Museum entry lines so long they curl around in circles.
These are some of the typical scenes of Paris's most central and most visited neighborhood, the 1st arrondissement. Famously known for housing iconic spots like the Louvre Museum, the Tuileries Gardens, and Pont Neuf, the 1st is always crowded and bustling. You might conclude, especially if you've already explored the area in the past, that it has little else to offer.
But here's the irony: just a few minutes walk away from the throngs of the Louvre and the tackiness of the tourist traps lies an elegant, peaceful garden with all the eighteenth-century French charm of the Tuileries and regality of the Louvre, but none of the crowds. The Palais Royal is a quiet refuge in the city's tourist center. It's also remarkably under-appreciated.
The Palais Royal was built in 1692 by the Cardinal Richelieu. Originally named the Palais Cardinal, the palace was bequeathed to King Louis XIII after Richelieu's death and was his childhood home before moving to the Louvre and eventually to Versailles.
The palace was expanded upon between 1871 and 1874 by Louis-Philippe d'Orleans, who added a sprinkling of shops and arcades to the beautiful structure. As the palace aged, it survived a mobbing and even a fire before eventually being restored in 1876 and placed in the hands of the French government. It now hosts the Conseil d'État and the Ministry of Culture.
Cour d'Honneur and Daniel Buren Sculptures
The courtyard and beautiful gardens at the Palais Royal are open daily to visitors. The inner courtyard is called the Cour d'Honneur, and features a large and striking sculpture by Daniel Buren entitled 'Les Deux Plateaux'.
Installed in 1986, the modern sculpture, pictured above, presents a stark contrast to the classically designed French palace. It consists of 280 black and white columns of various heights arranged in a dizzying array of monochromatic swirls. It's not popular with everyone but adds a sense of distinctive modernity to the palace and its environs.
A Closer Look at the Gardens
Next to the Cour d'Honneur lies the Jardin du Palais Royal. Lined with gorgeous trees and a smattering of terraces, the garden includes beautiful rose bushes, elegant fountains, and dusty paths. It is at once spectacularly opulent, and casually tranquil. At any given time, you might find couples taking a stroll beneath the trees, several runners gliding past terraces, and families soaking in the sun and relaxing around the fountain.
Palais Royal: Where to Eat and Shop
There are numerous good options for grabbing a bite, whether casual or formal, as well as for shopping in the area.
The Jardin du Palais Royal hosts a few very good restaurants, most with outdoor seating. The most famous is Le Grand Véfour, a French icon of excellence and history, and the proud possessor of all three Michelin stars. It is often called “the first grand restaurant in Paris”. Even the likes of Napoleon and Jean Cocteau have dined there. Signature dishes include the Prince Ranier III pigeon and the truffled oxtail parmentier, but save room for the always exceptionally rich desserts.
Other gastronomic highlights include the aptly named Restaurant du Palais Royal and Pierre au Palais Royal, the former of which has a spectacular terrace in the garden, and the latter of which has a veers away from the classic version of French cuisine, instead serving an array of contemporary dishes.
While taking a stroll through the Palais, you'll probably be lured into the arcades that wind around the garden for a quick peek or two at the impossibly chic window displays. The Palais Royal is home to some of Paris's best shopping-- if you can afford it, that is. The arcades host boutiques from the stylish likes of Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs, as well as tiny stores so charmingly old, it seems they've been there for centuries.
Check out Au Duc de Chartres, a little shop carrying antique heraldry, coins, and medals. You might also come upon a shop or two of Didier Ludot, Paris's most famous name in vintage clothing. Take a look around, and you'll find vintage Chanel suits from the mid-1900's, and painstakingly curated high fashion from every decade. Perfume fan? Serge Lutens makes dreamy scents and has a beautiful boutique on one end of the arcades.
Need a pause-café from all that shopping? Stop by Café Kitsuné, the super-hip espresso bar from the House of Kitsuné, a fashion designer. Here, you'll find coffee so good you'll think you've been transported into Brooklyn.