(Plus some good movies to put you in the mood as well!)
(And a few great apps to download too.)
For me, half the fun of travelling is all the pre-trip planning. A little research, a few reservations, a couple tickets and I’m a happy traveller. I also love to bring along a couple books that take place in my destination to read while I’m there. It’s pretty amazing when you read a chapter one night and then literally walk in the character’s footsteps the next day.
Do a search for “Paris” or “French” on Amazon.com and literally thousands of titles will come up. These are just a few of my favorites, books I’ve shared with friends and some that I’ve read over and over. There will always be a new book, a new story to tell about Paris, which is one reason why I’m writing my own. Until you write your Paris story, peruse some of these.
Here’s a long list of some of my favorites, from cookbooks to historic novels, a whole lot of fashion and a sprinkling of romance. Most of these are available on e-readers, so download before you go and save some valuable space in your suitcase!
For the foodie:
Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris – Clotilde Dusoulier
Favorite restaurants and cafes, plus tips on navigating French menus and menus.
Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Really Make at Home — Ina Garten
Even if your cooking skills begin and end with making toast, you’ll enjoy this beautifully photographed book by the charming Ms. Garten. Lots of tips of entertaining like a Parisian, plus great lists of places to buy French kitchen gear.
The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School – by Kathleen Finn
After her job in management was eliminated, Finn cashed in her savings and moved to Paris to attend the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu. From dealing with temperamental chefs, complex recipes in a language she hasn’t quite mastered and her eclectic fellow classmates, Finn tells a tale of what can happen when you follow a dream. The book includes simplified recipes of Finn’s Cordon Bleu assignments. You’ll gain a new appreciation for advanced cooking skills!
The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris: The Best Restaurants, Bistros, Cafes, Markets, Bakeries and More – Patricia Wells
After spending over 30 years in Paris, Mme. Wells is a reliable resource for not just restaurant recommendations but information on finding the best cheese/chocolate/croissants in the city. There is an excellent companion app for your smart phone that worth downloading and using when you’re walking down rue Cherche Midi in search of Poilane bakery. There is a great app for this book as well that is frequently updated. Perfect to find out if that divine boulangerie in the Marais is open before you make the hike.
Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas – John Baxter
I read this book on a train coming back from an incredible five course lunch in the countryside southwest of Paris. It had me hankering for French oysters before the train pulled into Montparnesse station. The true tale of a non-French speaking American, Mr. Baxter, who nonetheless is put in charge of the all-important annual Christmas dinner for his critical inlaws. This is a great book to read if you’re traveling to Paris in cold weather. It’s cozy and delicious.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes – Elizabeth Bard
Every single girl’s Parisian dream —a lunch date with a charming Frenchman that turns into the romance of lifetime. Bard’s growing mastery of French cuisine becomes the way her new city turns into her home. Recipes included!
Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) – Amy Thomas
When advertising copywriter Mlle. Thomas lands a job in a Paris agency, she leaves the cupcakes and chocolate shops of Manhattan for the macarons and shoppes de chocolat of Paris. If you have a serious sweet tooth, this is the book for you (and your dentist.) Since Mlle. Thomas lists her favorite destinations in both Paris and New York, you may want to plan a 48-hour layover at JFK.
For the Fashion-followers:
The Fashion Insider’s Guide to Paris – Carole Sabas
Written by a French Vogue correspondent, this handbag friendly sized book is the must-read before pulling out your gold card. Where the fashion set goes for everything from slingbacks to oxygen facials to vegan sushi.
Coco Chanel: A Life – Justine Picardie
Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History — Rhonda K. Garelick
There are literally dozens of books available about the talented enigma known as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. These are two of the best and most revealing about this very private and mysterious woman with an incredible drive to succeed at all costs.
The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris—Alicia Drake
Originally titled The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris, Lagerfeld felt the book so invaded his private life that he went to the French courts, resulting in the book being “voluntarily withdrawn” from French stores. Parties, drugs, sexual liberties celebrity followers and some of the best fashion innovations in the last century— it’s all here.
How to be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits —Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline De Maigret, Sophie Mas
This book feels like it was written by four girlfriends after a couple bottles of Sancerre at Deux Magots. Sly and sexy, unapologetic and outspoken, this book pokes fun at the Parisian clichés and instead tells it like it is, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Paris Street Style: A Guide to Effortless Chic — Isabelle Thomas and Frederique Veysset
Here are the women who catch your eye on the streets of Paris, captured in photographs and describing their own personal style and indispensible items in their wardrobes. Accessible easy style.
Parisian Chic: A Style Guide – Ines de La Fressange
The breath-taking Mme. De la Fressange has been a fashion icon of mine for years, one I was fortunate enough to study in her native turf at Paris Fashion Week and then later meet in person at a book signing. We're the same age and she wears her half century of experience unapologetically. There are not a lot of surprises in this book – a trench coat, a little black dress, great fitting jeans — but it’s told with such charm and wit. Ines is the global ambassador for shoe designer Roger Vivier and pens a handy city guide on their website titled Ines’s Little Diaries with listings of her favorite destinations in each arrondisement. Download the app before you go.
For the art and history lovers:
Luncheon of the Boating Party – Susan Vreeland
The creation of one of Renoir’s best-known paintings of friends enjoying a sunny summer afternoon on the Seine is the centerpiece of this novel told from the point of view of the artist and several of the models. Mme. Vreeland is well-versed on her subject matter and vividly captures the era of la vie moderne. You won’t look at a Renoir in quite the same way after reading this novel.
The Lady and the Unicorn— Tracy Chevalier
Similiarly, Mme. Chevalier tells the story behind this set of medieval tapestries that hang today in the Cluny Museum. From the reason for their creation to the design and manufacturing, this novel skillfully weaves as many stories as there are threads in the tapestries. You’ll definitely want to visit the Museum after reading the book—be sure to book a tour in English as there is much to enjoy at this oldest surviving Gothic style home in Paris.
Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette – Sena Jeter Naslund
I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette, the eager and guileless adolescent queen who really didn’t know what she was getting herself into. In many ways, her life has similarities to Princess Diana’s – both beloved and reviled by their subjects for things way beyond their control, both much smarter than they were given credit for, and both devoted mothers who came to tragic ends. This insightful novel is filled with historic facts that shed a new light on a fascinating woman who never ever said “let them eat cake.”
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution – Caroline Weber
I went to a book reading at the French Institute/Alliance Francais in New York and came away with a signed book and a new friend. The author, Carrie Weber, was wearing a cool shift dress. “Marni?” I asked. “Miu Miu!” she replied, recognizing another fashion devotee. So I’m a bit biased when it comes to this excellent book. The fascinating politics of fashion are uncovered in painstaking detail here. Marie Antoinette set trends and broke rules. Riding her horse astride in men’s clothing. Promoting vaccination with an elaborate hair style. Even making a final statement with the outfit she wore to the guillotine. A fascinating read.
Walks Through Marie Antoinette’s Paris and Walks Through Napoleon and Josephine’s Paris — Diana Reid Haig
I also had the delightful privilege of hearing Mme. Haig read from her books at the French Institute which in turn, plunged me into an exuberant frenzy to learn as much as I could about Napoleon and even more so - Josephine. Her next book about Marie Antoinette was similarly devoured. Mme. Haig's writing comes from a genuine passion about her subjects and is wonderfully researched, with fascinating detail. Buy chocolates where Marie Antoinette did, dine where Napoleon and Josephine went on date night. Should you be travelling to Paris with a teenager, the walking tours in these books could ignite a passion about history as it unfolds before them.
Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era — Caroline Moorehead
I’ll be honest, this book sat on my shelf for a couple years before I cracked the spine. But once I did, I devoured this book like a box of Laduree macarons. This biography drawing on Lucie’s memoirs takes us from Marie Antoinette’s inner circle through the revolution, across the ocean to New England, back to France as an empire and a republic. An amazing story of a woman who lived through so much history, I’m shocked no one has optioned this for a movie yet.
Sarah’s Key — Tatiana de Rosnay
This is a heart-wrenching novel of the 1942 roundups and deportation and one of the darkest days in French history. I’ll admit, this book was given to me and I was hesitant to read what I was afraid to be another retelling of the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, Mme. De Rosnay has crafted an absorbing, powerful and unflinchingly told tale of what we do to survive horrible circumstances.
Secret Paris – Jacques Garance, Maud Ratton
This is a fun and quirky book that draws your attention to unusual things in Paris that you might just walk by without noticing. Perfect for the “seen it all” visitor.
A Paris Apartment: A Novel — Michelle Gable
Based on a true story of an apartment near Pigalle that was unoccupied for over seventy years and opened to reveal a time capsule of the Belle Epoque, this novel goes back and forth between the antique appraiser sent to catalog the contents and the diaries of the original resident Marthe, a renowned courtesan of the 1900’s. I greatly preferred Marthe’s entries to the modern-day storyline, still it was a fascinating glimpse into an intriguing time in Paris.
The Painted Girls: A Novel – Cathy Marie Buchanan
Set in 1878 Paris, this is the tale of two sisters, one who becomes one of the “petit rats” or student dancers of the Paris Opera ballet and the model for Edgar Degas’ highly controversial sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as several paintings. Her older sister debates between choosing an honest living or that as a member of the lucrative Parisian demi-monde. I really enjoyed this book, as I love both the ballet and the work of Degas. Plan on taking the tour of the Opera Garnier after reading this book then cross the Seine and visit the little dancer at the Musee D’Orsay.
Fun, fast-reads that will put you in a Paris state of mind:
The Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown
What hasn’t been said about The Da Vinci Code? Put aside the controversial theology and instead, go on a whirlwind ride through Paris, from Saint Sulpice to the shopping mall underneath the Louvre.
Paris Hangover – Kristen Lobe
A very guilty pleasure. Imagine if Carrie Bradshaw had told Mr. Big to shod off and had stayed in Paris instead. This is the book of the fabulous fashionable American who kicks NYC for Paris and her adventures, romantic and otherwise. It’s humorous and light-hearted and is loosely based on Mme. Lobe’s own experiences as an expat, so most of the restaurants and shops mentioned do exist.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles: A Novel - Katherine Pancol
This is the first of Mme. Pancol’s novels translated from the original French to English and I only hope there are more to come. When her husband leaves her and their daughters to run a crocodile farm in Kenya, Josephine struggles financially until she agrees to ghostwrite a romantic novel for her glamorous sister Iris. Which is fine until it becomes an unexpected hit. Family members are well-drawn and not cookie-cutter clichés. A great read set throughout Paris.
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris —Sarah Turnbull
I really enjoyed this Australian journalist’s tale of finding love and the foibles and successes of making a new home in Paris. It’s always been a dream of mine to move to Paris, this memoir tells it like it is, the good, the not-so-good and the wonderful.
Dial M for Merde
A Year in the Merde
In the Merde for Love —Stephen Clarke
This is a series of stories set in France, mostly in Paris, about a hapless but charming young Englishman sent to open a French chain of British tea rooms. These books would have made a great series of movies for Hugh Grant back in the day, as the main character has been described as a male Bridget Jones with a little James Bond thrown in. They’re a little silly with more than a few laugh out loud moments.
Spotted in France – Greg Edmont
I first met Greg Edmont and his beautiful pair of father and son Dalmatians when a group of us would covertly meet at a city playground at 7:00 a.m. to let our dogs illegally romp off leash. His book tells the tale of how getting the spotted J.P. while living in Paris turned his life from lonely to charmed. The two embark journey across France on a Vespa, with stops at Michelin-starred restaurants along the way where J.P. assures him of VIP status. If you love dogs and France, grab a copy of this book.
The Aimee Leduc Investigation books – Cara Black
Springtime means the arrival of a new Murder in…. book from Cara Black! At the time of this writing, I’d just finished her 15th book. In each, her intrepid half-French, half-American detective and internet security expert Aimee Leduc finds herself investigating murders all across the City of the Lights, usually in a Balenciaga jacket she rescued from a bin in a flea market and her trademark red Chanel lipstick. Mme. Black takes Aimee all over Paris, where we learn more about the residents of the many varied arrondisements and the history of Paris. For the most part, the restaurants and places listed are authentic. However, if a spiky-haired brunette with kohl-rimmed eyes sits next to you, prepare to duck as bullets may soon fly.
No time to read? Download these favorite movies starring Paris to watch on the plane:
Note: This list should no way be confused with the great tradition of French cinema. Instead, with few exceptions, these are English-language films set in Paris.
Picture Paris – this 30-minute short film, subtitled “Revenge is a dish best served French” features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a lonely empty nester with great expectations of her first trip to Paris. Written and directed by her husband Brad Hall, Picture Paris is the one of the top short film available on iTunes.
Le Divorce – Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson and Glenn Close give an American spin on the sexy Frenchman, the art world, and the cult of the Hermes Kelly bag.
French Kiss — Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline in a light-hearted caper film across Paris and down to the French Riviera.
Midnight in Paris – Owen Wilson subs for Woody Allen in this time-traveling love letter to the jazz age of Paris, with the lovely Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard and a handful of fun cameos as Ernest Hemingway, Dali and Getrude Stein.
Paris je t’aime — A collection of Parisian stories, each by a different director, paints a less romantic, but still quite authentic portrayal of the city of light.
Amelie — The film where we first fell in love with Audrey Tatou. Quirky and delightful. While you can’t skip stones as Amelie did at Canal St. Martin, you can visit the Café aux Deux Moulins (the café of two windmills) in Montmartre where Amelie worked.
Funny Face, Paris when it Sizzles, How to Steal a Million, Charade – Before Audrey Tatou, another Audrey took Paris by storm and is still very much beloved by Parisians. This quartet of films feature gorgeous Parisian backdrops, marvelous scores (Gershwin! Mancini!), incredible co-stars (Kay Thompson! Fred Astaire! Cary Grant! Peter Sellers!), and of course, those still fabulous clothes by Hubert de Givenchy. Time for a Sunday afternoon movie binge!
Marie Antoinette – While not a critical success, I did find much to like about writer and director Sofia Coppola’s sympathetic retelling of France’s most famous Queen, starring Kirsten Dunst. Ms. Dunst captures the naive14-year old who left behind her family in Austria to marry the disinterested heir to the French throne. The film was given unprecedented access to the Palace of Versailles, so if you’re planning a trip to this always crowded tourist destination, watch this first for a sense of what life was really like there. Scenes were also shot at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Chateau de Chantilly, two of my favorite (less visited) day-trip destinations.
La Vie En Rose – It’s almost impossible to walk through Paris without hearing the plaintive voice of Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress (as well as the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Cesar Award) for her portrayal. This film tells the story of the woman behind the anguish and passion of her songs.
Vatel – While there are literally dozens of films featuring French actor Gerard Depardieu, this one deserves a viewing if you’re planning a visit to Chateau de Chantilly, where you can actually have an incredible lunch created in Vatel’s kitchen.
Belle de Jour – No list of must-see movies about Paris would be complete without this stylish, timeless classic featuring the impossibly beautiful Catherine Deneuve. And a wardrobe by Yves Saint Laurent and Roger Vivier is just icing on the cake.