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Rick Steves: Paris When It Sizzles

Few cities can match Paris in its rich cultural, artistic, and historic heritage. And few residents are as confident as Parisians in their expertise in good living. That uniquely French joie de vivre is especially apparent in the fine summer months, as the little joys of life are embraced by Parisians citywide.

An old travel mantra tells you to avoid Paris in summer, when its citizens traditionally go on vacation. But it’s a myth that the city is deserted in summer (where would 2.2 million people go?). Some restaurants and shops do close in August, but you’ll hardly notice. Instead, you’ll find it easy to tap into the city’s breezy summertime fun.

For the benefit of Parisians who do stay in town—and the thousands of visitors to the city—France’s ministry of culture sponsors an eclectic Summer Festival spanning July and August. Its diverse programs—flamenco, trapeze artists, international folk dancers, traditional French theater—take place all around the city, and many are outdoors and free.

Some of summer’s best diversions take place along the Seine, the looping, majestic artery meandering through the city. Landscaped promenades, tailor-made for strolling and biking, line the banks of the river. Just downstream from Notre-Dame, there’s an engaging people zone with an open-air art gallery, music, and salsa dancing—ideal on a balmy summer night.

Parisians have the habit of spilling onto the river’s bridges and embankments just at that magic hour when the setting sun begins to color the evening sky. It’s the perfect time to share a simple picnic with friends. Join in—it’s an ambience that no restaurant can touch. Even at 9 p.m., the waters of the Seine reflect the proud buildings along the banks.

If you’d rather toss a Frisbee than ponder the river’s reflections, head to the one-mile stretch of the Right Bank (just north of Ile de la Cité) where the city government trucks in 2,000 tons of sand in midsummer to create a whimsical temporary beach (plage) from mid-July through mid-August. With climbing walls, “beach” cafes, stylish swimsuits, volleyball courts, and trampolines, it’s an ideal place to see Paris at play—and to play with Paris. Other areas of town, such as Bassin de la Villette in the northeast corner of Paris, have their own artificial beaches.

Midsummer is also the time for two of France’s quintessential summer events. The country’s national holiday, Bastille Day, is July 14. Later that month, the hugely popular Tour de France bike race culminates in the center of Paris.

Summer also means art after dark: Some sights and museums—such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame Cathedral—keep longer hours. Still others host special summer-only events. Notre-Dame puts on a sound-and-light display about the history of the church. In nearby Versailles, weekend summer nights are a cool display of gushing fountains, lighted displays, and fireworks. King Louis XIV had his engineers literally reroute a river to fuel his fountains and feed his plants. Even by today’s standards, the fountains are impressive.

Paris’s always lovely parks work overtime in summer as playgrounds for all ages. The sprawling Esplanade des Invalides is just right for afternoon lawn bowling (boules). Puppet shows, pony rides, rental toy sailboats, and a wading pool enliven the Luxembourg Gardens. A temporary amusement park pops up at the Tuileries Garden, complete with a huge Ferris wheel. An open-air cinema at Parc de la Villette screens English and French films nearly every summer night (no charge if you sit on your own blanket).

Formal music venues such as the opera go on vacation in summer, but the city keeps making music. The Paris Jazz Festival swings its hip beats in June and July among the spacious lawns and gardens of Parc Floral. The city’s many old churches do double-duty as venues for chamber music concerts.

I like seeing the City of Light at night on a taxi tour or a boat cruise—or even by bike. Paris is enthusiastically bike-friendly, with a popular loaner bike system for locals and dedicated bike lanes. For tourists, the easiest option is to join a bike tour. The lively summer-evening tours cruise through town past floodlit monuments (try Fat Tire Bikes). It’s a sparkling way to cap an exciting day.

Don’t get me wrong—summer in Paris requires patience and flexibility. It’s peak tourist season, and it’s hot. City buses are like rolling greenhouses. If you don’t make advance reservations or get a museum pass, you’ll swelter in lines at the Eiffel Tower or Louvre. But for the thoughtful and well-prepared traveler, summer in Paris is an exhilarating time to feel the groove of a city simply in love with life.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook.

(Photo: Carol Ries)

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