How to Experience Paris Like a Local
“You could keep your postcard Paris. Nothing was better than the real one.”
Paris is one of the world's top destinations, but with so many highlights—from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre—it can be a challenge to get past the attractions and experience the city like a local would.
Lisa Anselmo, an American who fell in love with Paris on frequent visits, took a big step after her mother passed away in 2011. She bought an apartment in the City of Light.
In her new memoir, “My (Part-Time) Paris Life,” the city is more than a backdrop for her own narrative—it's an active character that contributed to her personal growth.
Travel + Leisure spoke to Anselmo about the book and her new series, about what she's learned not just visiting but living in Paris, and how she encourages responsible travel to the city.
Travel + Leisure: What is the one experience a trip to Paris is incomplete without?
I think it's less about what you have to do, and more about what not to do—which is create a list of things to do. Okay, yes, you're going to want to go to the Eiffel Tower, but I would argue you get better views walking the 16th arrondissement instead of going up in the tower.
Don't go running around museums. Pick one museum—I would say the Orsay or the Carnavalet. Then spend the rest of your time walking around, exploring the neighborhoods, sitting in cafés and watching the city go by.
Paris is an amazing walking city. Explore the canals of the 10th. Have a crepe but have it in the 14th. Have Chinese food in the 19th. Get out and go and move. Don't have a plan, it's not about checking things off a list. Leave the to-do list at home, and don't be afraid to sit in a café where no one speaks English. They're not going to think you're a tourist, because you're in their neighborhood.
What has been the difference between visiting and living in Paris?
I moved to Paris, and I thought this would be living the “dream.” But I realized when I got there my life was hugely changed...I wasn't on vacation anymore. Paris is not an easy city to live in—it's like New York City. The dream was a nightmare in the beginning, but now I'm two years into it. It wasn't what I expected when I first moved there, because my expectations were unrealistic and based on a fantasy. But it's turned out to be more than I had ever hoped.
It's made me a braver person, a bolder person. I've learned to speak the language. In many ways it's taught me to take in life in a more leisurely way, where I'm really able to find the joy in the small things in life now. Sitting in a cafe and watching the world go by, that's the true richness of life.
In the book you write, “The minute I landed in Paris...my Paris self would turn on.” How were you different than when you're in the U.S.? What effect do you think different cities have on travelers?
I noticed Paris' effect on me after a few years of going there. I would be happier, more free, more social. I found when I went to the city, I would open myself to an anything-can-happen state of mind. It's so important when you travel to leave behind the expectations of your own home country, and allow the city—or the site or the culture or the people—to imprint themselves on you. That's when travel becomes really enriching.
The energy in Paris, the more relaxed quality of life, the food, the ability to see the sky—all of those things would open me up. I found that I when I was in Paris, it was the one place where I could escape whatever expectations were upon me by my family, my job or myself.
Is getting out of your comfort zone essential for traveling?
For me, travel is an opportunity to expand yourself, and to challenge yourself, and to embrace the world at large. If you go to a place you've never been—and that can happen in your own country—you don't have to be an adventure traveler to have an adventure.
Even if you're going for two weeks, if you go to a place that feels a little out of your comfort zone, and then you arrive there willing to take in what happens, you will come out of that trip enriched and changed. It's inevitable.
You don't have to live in Paris to have a locals-only experience there.
What does it take to really know a city?
I don't know if it's about time spent or frequency of visits. Or if you can—before you go—plan the trip in a way that you do immerse yourself in local neighborhoods, and explore the local markets and the local great dining experiences. I think you could go to Paris for 10 days, and if you go with that in mind, I think you could leave feeling you have a real impression. But I wonder if you can ever really understand a city fully, because it's always changing, and you're always changing.
As someone in New York City, I do feel like a local but there's always something new to learn and see. It's really about your willingness to immerse.
[In my web series], I want to encourage people not to be tourists. I want to encourage them to be travelers, shopping in a local market, even walking around a local neighborhood. Let's say you were staying in a hotel in the Marais, tourist central, and then you took the train to my neighborhood and walked around. You'll immediately see the difference.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.