Sometimes I think about all the pastry, butter, cheese and hot chocolate I consume on short trips to Paris and wonder how I don’t roll home four sizes larger than I was before. When I’m settled in Paris for long periods of time, I’m pretty good at basing my meals around fruit and vegetables (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pair them with a demi-baguette most days.) But if I’m only in the city for a few weeks or (god forbid) days, I don’t know how to stop myself from devouring all the French treats I haven’t had since the last trip. I should turn into a butter-filled ball.
And then I remember: the walking.
When friends ask me for practical advice before a Paris trip, my first recommendation is usually comfortable shoes. In Paris you walk so much farther in so many more situations than you ever thought possible. A simple metro trip can involve dozens of stairs and long underground stretches of corridors. If you’re staying in a C19th building, you may find yourself climbing up to six flights of stairs every time you get home (look out for the term sans ascenseur [“no lift”] on listings if this is a problem.) And that’s not even taking into account Paris’ sheer walkability; just choosing to faire un tour after dinner might lead you on an hour’s stroll to discover a new corner of the city.
Actually, if it is physically possible for you, I think walking is the best way to see Paris. Of course, for those who need accessible options, there are many adapted hotels, apartment buildings and especially museums that don’t involve steps or long stretches of walking; see here. But if, like me, you want to burn off pastries during your cultural excursions, there are several tower museums across the city that also happen to offer some of the best views in town.
Thankfully preserved in this year’s fire, the bell towers of Notre-Dame, with their iconic gargoyles and giant bells, feature 387 steps up to a panorama of the city laid out from Quasimodo’s perspective. Just over the river, the Tour Saint-Jacques is less famous, but also a lovely tower to climb (300 steps in all) and look out over the Seine. But one tower almost no tourists even hear about is the Tour Jean-sans-peur, tucked behind an iron gate in the Etienne-Marcel area of the second arrondissement.
Constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and originally surrounded by the magnificent Hôtel de Bourgogne, the Jean-sans-peur tower now stands alone. It was the focal point of the mansion inhabited by the Artois and then the Bourgogne families during the Middle Ages, before falling into disrepair in the C17th. (Lovers of this period of History should also visit the Musée de Cluny, the Middle Ages museum in the Latin Quarter.) Today you have to imagine the Tour Jean-sans-peur’s surrounding residence, but the tower remains one of the most impressive and well-preserved examples of Medieval architecture in the city. Inside, you’ll find winding staircases, fluted ceilings with intricate botanical emblems and coats of arms, sculpted vaults and even some of the original beams. It’s one of the most unique and overlooked places in Paris to learn about the Middle Ages- and to burn off those croissants.