I was sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur when I noticed that everyone around me was drinking a Heineken. My first thought was “bus tour.” I assumed that everyone was drinking the same beer because everyone came from the same bus. I thought it was a little rude to be drinking on the steps of a church, but in front of Sacre Coeur is a grassy hill where it’s great to sit down and admire the city. You can see everything from there except the Eiffel Tower, which is hidden by some very tall trees.
After a few moments of admiring the church, I found myself craving said beer. That’s when a friendly gentleman offered me a Heineken for two Euros. Then it all made sense to me: Everyone was drinking the same beer because they had all bought them from a “street vendor.” I put that in quotes because the vendor is really just a man with a 12-pack of Heineken in a black plastic bag. Trying to be a good citizen, I asked the man if it was “OK” to drink the beer and he said “of course.” He even offered me two beers for 3 Euros so that his box would be empty and he would be done for the day. (Of course I said “yes.”) In a city where a beer at a bar will run you anywhere from 2 to 6 Euros, this was a deal not to pass up. (For the record, the Euro-to-dollar rate is around 1 to 1.5, and I still think there were some tour buses at Sacre Coeur.)
As I sat on the steps of Sacre Coeur enjoying my beer with my girlfriend, I contemplated whether the French government had a different attitude toward public drinking than the government back in America. Keep in mind that I reside in the great state of California, where you can’t drink on most beaches—except for the occasional special event. I asked my host, an American who lives in France, and he said that it was pretty much OK to drink anywhere in France. But I noticed throughout the rest of the trip that the French have a very classy way of public drinking. During my whole week in Paris, I never saw anyone walking with a beer or open bottle of wine in hand. The French are more likely to stop by the Franprix or Monoprix (popular grocery stores) and stock up on picnic items and then take them to one of many prime locations for picnicking, find a good spot, get settled, and then start drinking.
The best spot to have a picnic is the Pont des Arts, which is a pedestrian bridge that runs over the River Seine. On a typical spring or summer day the entire bridge is covered with picnickers. Its view of the Seine, the Louvre and the Île de la Cité are breathtaking. If you happen to be here at sunset, the view is even more amazing and photogenic. In addition to posing with your sweetheart, the chain link fence on the Pont de Arts is a popular place to leave a padlock and throw the key into the river. You’ll see hundreds of locks of various sizes, shapes and colors lining the fence along the bridge.
The second-best (or debatably the best) place for a picnic is along the Canal St. Martin on the Right Bank. The most ideal picnic spot is at the entrance of the Canal near Place de Stalingrad. On a warm spring day there will be people sitting along both sides of the Canal. It’s crowded, but you’ll have no trouble finding your own area to sit and spread out. In the summer they shut down the streets along the canal so the picnickers can spread out even further. You might not get a prime spot by the water, but you’ll probably still find a good place to take a load off. There’s even a Monoprix across the street if you haven’t pre-packed your picnic… though I’d imagine the prices are a little inflated due to its proximity.
Sitting and enjoying these picnic spots is as important as going to the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Besides their inherent beauty, it’s just a typically French experience. But it’s also a great way to curb your expenses. In a city where restaurants are expensive and hotels are even more expensive, you’ll be happy to have a few nights not eating and drinking out. You can also stop at these places or any number of beautiful parks to have a baguette with ham, cheese and butter or split a bottle of wine before you hit the town.
Here are the items you’ll need for a proper French picnic:
- Wine – You can walk into any grocery store and grab a bottle of wine and it will be good. Don’t feel you have to spend an arm and a leg on a bottle. Just grab one in your price range and it will be better than expected. Rosé is great for spring and summer. Red is too heavy for a hot day. White isn’t for everyone. You won’t go wrong with a Rosé from the Côtes du Rhône region. You can also find a large number of wines with twist-off caps which are convenient for picnicking. But at any of the aforementioned spots, they’ll be someone with a wine opener. Plastic cups, on the other hand, are harder to find and sometimes expensive.
- Cheese – The French have over 400 types of cheese. There’s no way you’ll be able to try them all, but you can buy a variety pack from the grocery store and try to get a good variety. After your first variety pack you’ll better know what you like. Soft or hard? Stinky? You’ll find out!
- A Baguette – No French picnic (or meal) is complete without a baguette. Plus you’ll need something to spread that cheese on. Stop in a boulangerie (bakery) for a good baguette or just pick one up at the grocery store.
- Pâté – The French are also known for their Pâté. It comes in a lot of varieties, but I can’t say I’ve tried them all. My favorite was Pâté de Champagne, which is made from pork and bacon and is a little bit chunky. The other classic kind is Fois Gras, which is made from goose liver, has a mousse-like consistency and is sometimes served with a little bit of jam. You’ll come across many gourmet stores selling very expensive Pâté, but again you can just swing by the local grocery store and get some great quality stuff at a very affordable price.