A Gay Paris Primer
Paris is not truly a gay destination, like Amsterdam or San Francisco, but rather an immensely appealing world capital that happens to have a lively, if understated, gay scene. You could spend a week in Paris, alone or with a same-sex partner, never set foot in a gay-oriented establishment, and still come away completely enamored of this resplendent, culturally rich city.
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Parisians maintain a rather blase, even discreet, attitude about personal issues, from sexuality to religion to politics. People don't gossip much here about who's sleeping with whom, or even who's voting for whom (France's disdain for President Bush notwithstanding). Paris does have one distinctly gay
neighborhood, the eminently walkable and unabashedly romantic Marais, on the right bank of the Seine. The Marais' western boundary is marked by the city's ornately neo-Renaissance City Hall, the office of Paris' openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoe. Were Delanoe the mayor of New York or London, much fuss might be made of his sexual orientation. But this is Paris, and people don't seem to care much one way or another.
If you're expecting a ribald and robust gay scene complete with storefronts draped in rainbow flags and mammoth queer discos pulsing to state-of-the-art sound systems, you may be a little disappointed. The gay offerings here are decidedly low-keyed although generally quite cozy and inviting. There are plenty of alluring inns and hotels to make Paris a special place for gay
couples, and enough cruisy bars and saunas to satisfy the appetites of singles on the make. Where gay offerings are concerned, Paris proves that bigger and brasher are not always better.
So how best to enjoy a gay getaway in Paris? For one, choose a hotel with some character and an appealing location - several first-rate gay-friendly accommodations are described below, but don't rule out some other fine hotel just because it's outside the Marais. Paris is walkable, safe, and easy to navigate, and just about every lodging in this city is accepting of gays and lesbians.
Beyond choosing a great place to stay, get to know the city's layout. Paris comprises 20 numbered districts, known as
arrondissements, most of which contain several smaller neighborhoods. The Marais, for instance, lies in the 4th Arrondissement, which is just east of the 1st Arrondissement (home to the Louvre, the city's de facto center point). If you can get a handle on this arrangement, you should find it relatively easy to plan your days.
The ancient Marais neighborhood, with its narrow lanes and gentrified town houses, once served as the city's Jewish ghetto. Over the past 15 years, it's become steadily more popular with the lavender set - first with gay men as a place to shop, eat, and party, and more recently with lesbians, and as a place to live. In fact, heteros and homos - especially of the young and stylish sort - have begun rehabbing homes and storefronts here at breakneck speed, driving up housing costs drastically.
Marais gay bars tend to be guy-oriented and a tad cliquey, but the cafes, most of which have pleasant seating along the sidewalks, draw gay men, lesbians, and plenty of heteros. The majority of these places are set along just a few interconnecting streets: rues Vieille du Temple, de la Verrerie, des Archives, and Ste-Croix de la Bretonnerie. With few exceptions, the
Marais is not especially known for memorable dining, although the neighborhood's gayest sector does buzz with lively restaurants - just be prepared to be more impressed, in most cases, with the decor and people-watching than with the food.
Les Marronniers is a prime gay cafe, feverishly busy and with ample sidewalk seating, plus toothsome sandwiches, salads, and other light fare. The quieter upstairs dining room is less of a zoo. Enjoy breakfast, lunch, coffee, and conversation at the Marais branch of the noted bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien. Tres gay L'Amazonial is a great place to cruise cute passersby; it's also renowned for weekend brunch. Near elegant Places des Vosges, a leafy square surrounded by 17th-century mansions, Cafe Baci presents excellent Italian food.
Aux Trois Petits Cochons is a charming little gay-owned restaurant serving such French classics as free-range duckling with peaches, and warm lentil salad with Lyonnais sausage. The warmly furnished OZO Restaurant can be counted on for very good Mediterranean fare. Restaurant L'Arganier, along a busy gay drag, serves first-rate couscous and other delicious North African
cuisine. Fans of vegetarian food should check out La Verte Tige, which serves up tasty international-influenced foods.
In a culinary wonderland like Paris, it doesn't make much sense to restrict your dining to the Marais or to gay-popular establishments in general - most of the city's truly notable restaurants lie elsewhere. However, there is an absolute culinary gem in the Marais, L'Ambroisie, one of the best restaurants in the entire country. You need to book ahead for this one, but it's worth it.
Clubbing, Cruising, and Conversation
Among favorite Marais nightspots, the snazzy Amnesia bar snags a natty crowd of women and men for schmoozing and fills to the rafters for its Sunday tea dance. Open Cafe draws a young, fashionable bunch who love to lounge around its few sidewalk tables and watch the world go by. A flood of handsome young guys crowds Le Cox video bar nightly, with the revelry often spilling out onto the sidewalk. Quetzel received a super-chic makeover recently, changing from a down-and-dirty cruise bar into a slightly precious lounge. The Duplex is more relaxed and chatty, a real conversation bar that's less stand-offish than some of its Marais competition. Another quirky alternative to the usual standbys, Tango pulls in gays and lesbians for ballroom dancing to live music. If you've got two left feet, it's worth stopping in just to watch the great dancing.
Before the Marais developed cachet as a gay nightlife hub, many "pink" businesses were concentrated around the Opera Quarter, which, to this day, still has a few long-running gay bars including Le Vaudeville and L'Insolite. These chummy spots draw more laid-back locals than tourists and scene-makers, but they're still worth popping inside for a drink.
The lesbian bar scene is rather spread out, although women do frequent some of the guy-oriented bars in the Marais. La Champmesle ranks among the longest-running lesbian bars in Europe - it's near the Opera Quarter and is de rigueur for women out for a night on the town. Other haunts with sapphic appeal include Les Scandaleuses, with a basement dance floor and a lively upstairs video bar, and L'Unity, a spirited spot for shooting pool.
Finally, the city's cruisiest clubs - with dark rooms, private cabins, and X-rated videos - are also spread throughout the city a bit, as are its saunas (bathhouse culture is alive and well in Paris, suffering none of the stigma typical in the United States). Some places, such as the Marais' Le Station, are really laid-back bars that happen to have some dark rooms -
they can be fun simply for hanging out or for hooking up. More sexually intense, the Docks favors a hard-core leather and uniform crowd, and Le Depot is a steamy, raucous men's disco with a maze of backrooms.
Blue Square is newer among the sexually charged clubs, with both a dance floor and darkly lit cruise area, and the Bear's Den draws - you guessed it - rough-and-tumble bears. The Glove might be the best leather bar around town, although QG - with its rigid dress code of leather, latex, or uniforms - also cultivates a cruisy, hard-core ambience. IDM is Paris' classic men's sauna, while the slicker and newer Univers bathhouse tends toward the younger buffed set.
Also outside the Marais are some of Paris' bigger - though still small compared to those in many cities - discos, including the famously trashy and tarty Queen disco, which has been going strong for years now and draws plenty of heteros, too, who know it for the outstanding dance music.
With the dollar struggling against the euro, and Paris already pricey, even basic hotel rooms here can drain many budgets. One worthwhile strategy if you're staying for more than a few days is to encamp somewhere fancy for a couple of evenings, then move to a simpler spot for the balance of your stay - this way you can also experience a couple of different neighborhoods.
If you want to stay right at gay ground zero, and you don't mind basic rooms, the Hotel Central Marais fits the bill: it's the only bona fide gay hotel in the city, with seven no-frills rooms and shared baths. It's above Le Central gay bar. Far fancier but still with very reasonable rates and a great location nearby, Hotel Saintonge draws plenty of gay folks and
contains 23 romantic rooms with beamed ceilings, private baths, and cable TV. If you're willing to shell out just a little more dough, opt for a room at the Marais' Hotel Axial Beaubourg, which has modern rooms with sleek, understated decor. Considering the location and fab ambience, it's a remarkable value, with rooms starting at 110 euros. A 10-minute walk from the Marais, the Grand Hotel de Champaigne occupies a lovely 16th-century building; many of the 35 richly furnished rooms have balconies.
On the Left Bank, the stellar Victoria Palace Hotel, one of the gay-friendliest in Paris, exudes warmth while offering huge rooms with marble baths; more than half the rooms have separate sitting areas. The hotel is steps from great shopping, numerous cafes, and several Metro lines, and the staff could not be warmer or more professional. Another good gay-friendly spot on the Left Bank, the mid-priced Le Clos Medicis contains 38 rooms and sits amid the swanky cafe and boutique culture of St-Germain des Pres. A working fireplace warms the antiques-filled lobby, which also has a cozy bar.
In the chichi Madeleine neighborhood, the Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine is atypical of the chain, which tends toward large convention hotels - in fact, with just 86 rooms, it's the smallest Hyatt Regency in the world. Rooms are sleek and contemporary, with plush feather duvets and high-speed Internet, and guests can sup in either of two intimate, stylish restaurants or enjoy a massage in the small, state-of-the-art fitness center and spa. Another superb luxury hotel of note is the relatively new Pershing Hall, a super-swank boutique property with 26 light and airy rooms with deep soaking tubs; the bar and restaurant are the quintessence of Paris chic.
Few hotels in the world possess both the royal luxury and the unabashed gay-friendliness of the Four Seasons George V Paris, whose sunny rooms contain pictures of and books by famous past guests. Ornate ceiling medallions, chandeliers, Bulgari bath products, walk-in closets, and private terraces ensure complete and utter relaxation. For a truly special experience, you and your honey can book one of the candlelit double treatment rooms in the spa for a 50-minute couples' massage, which you might follow with dinner at the legendary Le Cinq restaurant. It's the ultimate in pampering, and no city merits an over-the-top splurge more than
Seeing the Sights
Attempting to see all of Paris' leading attractions can prove challenging, especially if you're only here for a few days. After all, the Louvre alone can take days to explore fully. To avoid frustration, or the feeling that you've simply rushed through some chaotic version of a sightseeing scavenger hunt, set realistic goals. You cannot possibly see it all. Think about your interests, your energy level, and your time constraints, and prioritize accordingly.
Unquestionably, certain iconic sights are must-sees for virtually any visitor to Paris: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral. But it's worth allowing some time for some less-crowded gems, or even to set aside one or two days entirely for unplanned meandering. Paris has a clean, efficient, and vast subway system, the Metro; try buying a pass good for a
few days, and then simply hop around the city on foot and by Metro. You'll undoubtedly discover some wonderful museums, shops, and neighborhoods this way. Also consider buying a
Carte Musees et Monuments, which is available in one-, three-, and five-day versions. This pass entitles you to admission to more than 70 attractions around the city and, perhaps more importantly, allows you to skip those tortuous general-admission lines.
If you're determined to hit the key major attractions, try to visit them in the morning, as the worst lines form in the afternoon, especially in summer and on holidays - you could easily lose 30 to 60 minutes waiting to take the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Here's a rather breathless roundup of great Paris cultural draws, both touristy icons and insider faves. Just try not to lose your breath seeing them all.
If French Impressionism makes you giddy, you might want to skip the Louvre and slip across the Seine to Musee D'Orsay, which has been installed rather ingeniously into a turn-of-the-20th-century rail station and can easily keep you busy for at least a full day. Other superb museums near the Louvre include the Museum of Fashion and Textile and the new National Photography and Film Center at the Jeu de Paume. At the very least, stroll along the enchanting gravel paths of the Tuileries Gardens. A short way east in the Beaubourg
neighborhood, fans of all things contemporary must not miss the outlandish Pompidou Centre, which houses the exceptionally well-endowed National Museum of Modern Art. Similarly important, and with a delightful garden, is the Rodin Museum, set inside the mansion in which Auguste Rodin lived during his final years.
The gay Marais neighborhood contains the small but remarkable Picasso Museum. Here rue des Francs-Bourgeois is lined with spectacularly opulent mansions, one containing the rather underrated Carnavalet Museum, which contains exhibits on the city's history and replica rooms of now-razed French mansions from the early 1600s through late 1700s. Also in the Marais, you can tour the Victor Hugo House, which is right on the grand Places des Vosges; the writer and artist lived in this courtly mansion during the 1830s and '40s.
Finally, there are a couple of wonderful neighborhoods that really bear a visit, even if your time is limited: Montmartre, the artsy northern district immortalized by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in his prints of bars and cabarets, and the student-infested Latin Quarter, which is the heart of the city's cafe society.