Destinations

Paris nightlife: the best bars, cocktail lounges and more

They don’t call it the City of Light because of how it looks in the daytime. From gilded cocktail lounges to late-night museums, the French capital is at its shimmering best when the sun goes down.

By Seth Sherwood and Gourmet Traveller
The Louvre at night
The Louvre (photography: Getty)

As evening settles over Paris' Mansard roofs and wrought-iron balconies, the French capital unfurls a more varied bounty of night-time possibilities than just about any other place on earth. Fancy an aperitif in a gilded Old-World hotel followed by a night at the opera? Facile. Dinner with 'les beautiful people' and drinks with the fashion set? Bien sur. A late-night avant-garde art show and a kitsch-cool hipster cocktail lounge? Pas de problème. Like the seductive blackness of a Rorschach ink blot, a Parisian evening morphs effortlessly to every mood and taste. From glamorous cocktail lounges and hip bars to late-night shopping and museums open past the horde-packed hours, here's how to enjoy the City of Light by night.

ESSENTIAL PARIS

A true Parisian evening should begin - must begin - with an aperitif, known to every French person as simply an apéro. Step into the 19th-century confines of L'Hôtel and order a Kir Royale (Champagne with crème de cassis) amid the gilt columns, plush fabrics, bookshelves and thick rugs of the Empire-style bar. If the tassled, plush interiors feel cosily familiar, that's possibly because they were conceived by celebrity designer Jacques Garcia, the man who decorated hotspots such as Hôtel Costes and, more recently, NoMad Hotel in Manhattan. And if you feel a surge of wit, you might be channelling the ghost of Oscar Wilde; the Irish writer passed away in 1900 in room 16, where he uttered one of his most famous lines: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go".

Inside cocktail bar Solera
Inside cocktail bar Solera

For a beautifully illuminated tour of the City of Light, head to 12, place Vendôme (where Frédéric Chopin drew his final breath) and take the 8pm sightseeing trip with Paris Charms & Secrets. Humming along on an electric bicycle, you'll point your headlamp down cobbled medieval streets and grand 19th-century boulevards as bilingual guides lead you past the eerie glow of the Saint-Sulpice church (famous from The Da Vinci Code), the radiant crystalline beauty of the Louvre pyramid and the glittering gold dome of Napoleon's tomb, as well as other centuries-old icons. You'll also encounter classic Parisian hang-outs like Le Procope restaurant, former haunt of Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire.

Or you could take in the city from higher ground at La Tour d'Argent, one of France's oldest restaurants with one of Paris' most famous views to boot. Since taking the reins in 2016, chef Philippe Labbé has brought the food and atmosphere into the 21st-century while leaving the dining room pleasingly untouched. Plates include lobster with scallops and purple cauliflower velouté and a contemporary take on the restaurant's reputation for duck that involves liquorice foam stock and confit fennel - dishes that might just rival the glittering cityscape for your attention.

If soaking up high culture is more your speed, the city's most refined musical spectacles await inside the colonnaded, gilded, chiselled and statue-draped Opéra National de Paris or Opéra Garnier as it's more commonly called. A late-night stroll through the Louvre is also possible on Wednesday and Friday evenings until 9.45pm. By night, the backpackers and iPads thin out, leaving the vaulted galleries blissfully tranquil. A few hours isn't much time to explore the museum's 16 kilometres of galleries, so head straight to level one of the Denon wing. A pageant of colour-soaked works from Botticelli, Raphael, del Sarto and other masters of the Italian Renaissance flow by, culminating in Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Véronèse's enormous The Wedding Feast at Cana.

Views from Tour d'Argent (photography: Getty)
Views from Tour d'Argent (photography: Getty)

After filling up on music or art, sate yourself on classic French country cuisine at Aux Lyonnais. Built in the 1890s, the ornate bistro was bought in 2002 by superchef Alain Ducasse and the late Thierry de la Brosse. The pair maintained the Old-World décor - grand mirrors, oak tables and painted floral motifs on the walls - and brought a stylish and sure-handed touch to traditional Lyonnaise-style cooking. From the wonderfully rich pike quenelles with Nantua sauce to the sweet chestnut soufflé, the dishes are robust and no-nonsense.

For a quintessential bistro experience of the Parisian kind don't miss Le Baratin. Chef Raquel Carena is a darling of the bistronomie movement and it's clear why after you experience her restrained cooking and attention to provenance. The restaurant's wine list is a drawcard in and of itself; another reason the Parisian hospitality crowd flock here night after night.

Alternatively, if you're seeking sustenance from more exotic climes, head to Chez Omar. Every other discerning fan of North African cooking does: young and old, Left Bank and Right, bourgeois and bohemian, Sofia Coppola and Yoko Ono. Around for decades, the Arabo-Berber brasserie is renowned for its steaming couscous dishes, which arrive fluffy as a pillow, as finely granulated as caviar and topped with your choice of roast chicken, skewered lamb or spicy red merguez sausages (or all three). Unrepentant carnivores can tackle the robust mechoui, a five-bone rack of succulent slow-roasted and well-marbled lamb with a wonderful salty crisp coating. A bottle of hearty Algerian Cuvée du Président red wine is the ideal complement.

Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris (photography: Carrie Solomon)
Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris (photography: Carrie Solomon)

"It's awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime," muses Jake Barnes, the world-weary, Paris-based protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. "But at night is another thing." It's doubly hard when you're ensconced in a cosy leather chair and sipping a house Serendipity cocktail (Calvados, fresh mint, apple juice and Champagne) amid the book-lined walls of the ultra-deluxe Ritz Paris' Bar Hemingway. As Papa would have liked, it's a clean and well-lighted place - perfect for scoping out the suited dealmakers, fashionistas, foreign moguls and incognito film stars who haunt the place. For something more lethal, ask one of the white-jacketed barmen to serve up one of the cocktails named for helicopter pilots - a Whiskey Cobra (bourbon, mandarin juice and Angostura bitters) or a Hammerhead (whiskey and coffee liqueur over ice) - as you exchange terse sentences with the old man with the Sea Breeze next to you at the bar.

GLAMOROUS PARIS

Part of the burgeoning cocktail scene in Paris, Solera and its glam surrounds are simply the backdrop to the art of Christopher Gaglione and Luis-David Cuevas, who turn out drinks such as the Belize, a guaranteed lift-off from Blackwell rum, strawberry purée, lime juice and pressed mint leaves, and the Prince de la Ville, a mix of Campari, gin, sugar cane juice and blood orange. The crowd drawn to this Left Bank hangout with its gold accents and velvet couches is made up of night owls of all shapes and sizes – young, old, local and foreign – but they're united in their love of having a good time.

On the other side of town, Le Grand Bain's dark interiors and soft lighting attract photographers and creative directors during fashion weeks, and party-goers and bon vivants year-round. The latest spot from former Au Passage chef Edward Delling-Williams offers a tight menu, written by hand each day, while the wine list is extensive and reasonably priced.

Le Grand Bain (photography: Joann Pai)
Le Grand Bain (photography: Joann Pai)

Korean flavours are less commonly seen in Paris, but at Hero they're the headliner, with fried chicken, pork belly buns and banchan sharing table space with on-theme cocktails such as the Minwou Martini spiked with soju and garnished with coriander. Another feather in the Quixotic group's hat (the people behind such Paris hotspots as Candelaria and Le Mary Celeste), Hero is as much about the party atmosphere as the food. And with a hip-hop soundtrack, projections on the walls and an industrial-chic fit-out, it's definitely the place to be seen, as the crowded tables each night indicate.

If some post-dinner dancing is in order, the hottest dancefloor in Paris has to be Le Montana, where Kate Moss, Mick Jagger and Vanessa Bruno have all been seen. But with that kind of reputation comes a tough door policy. If you can get inside, get ready to shimmy in the dark and moody wallpapered room full of fashionistas enjoying old-school hip-hop tracks over bottles of Champagne. Reserve a table on the rooftop for views over Saint Germain-des-Prés.

Solera's Regulus cocktail
Solera's Regulus cocktail

And if you're seized by a burning 11th-hour desire for a new designer handbag, never fear. Open seven days until two in the morning, the ritzy Drugstore Publicis addresses late-night fashion emergencies and other last-minute needs. Weave through the clothing boutique, newspaper kiosk, bookstore, pharmacy and deli, and walk out with a bottle of Château Talbot, a gold necklace and that coveted accessory.

ALTERNATIVE PARIS

Like way-stations for avant-garde insomniacs, a host of Parisian spots beckon after hours with art, cinema and rock 'n' roll. Fans of all three meet up nightly at the Hôtel Amour. Once a louche hotel catering to the denizens of the nearby red-light district, the building was bought and overhauled several years ago by a group of Paris nightlife impresarios - and the new generation of clients seem willing to stick around the premises for much more than an hour at a time. The red leather banquettes, warm lighting and Mid-Century modern American furnishings of the lobby restaurant and bar make a great place to discuss your latest video installation or modelling gig over a Whiskey Sour or The Last Tango in Paris cocktail (Campari, Noilly Pratt, Prosecco and maraschino cherry liqueur). If you're feeling decadent, kick off the night with a bottle of Nuits d'Ivresse, a Bourgueil from the Loire Valley, and retire to the leafy patio - or to one of the 24 kitsch-cool rooms.

Then, for foie gras with the self-styled bohemians, cruise Canal Saint Martin. Once a shipping channel of warehouses and industrial buildings, the waterway and its quays have been transformed into some of the city's hottest hangouts for young artists, musicians and designers. Gravity Bar's cool concrete interiors suit the crowd that flocks here for excellent wines, creative cocktails and conversation over shared plates of duck tataki and gnocchi with clams.

Below the canal lies the 11th arrondissement, where some of the city's hottest new restaurants and wine bars are opening their doors. Seafood is the order of the day at Clamato, the little sister to highly regarded (and often booked-out) Septime, located next door. At Clamato, there's a no bookings policy, making it perfect for those travellers who like to leave some things to chance. The menu changes according to the day's catch but might feature a bonito tataki, sea bass from France's west coast or ceviche of mullet. Natural wines and cosy seating arrangements complete the picture.

Any late-night fix for wildly conceived conceptual art is satisfied at the Palais de Tokyo. The converted Art Deco-era complex claims to be the world's only art museum to remain open until midnight (closed Tuesdays). There's no permanent collection, but rotating exhibitions showcase experimental video, sculpture, painting, collage and mechanical installations. If all that walking, analysing and chin-stroking works up your appetite again, grab dessert at Les Grands Verres, the newest restaurant at the museum from Quixotic, the people behind such Paris hotspots as Candelaria and Le Mary Celeste. With that kind of pedigree, a cocktail is also in order. Take it on the outdoor terrace in summer or enjoy the soaring ceilings and Mid-Century furnishings of the restaurant proper as you digest all that culture.

Cap off your evening Arabian-style at Andy Wahloo, a North African answer to Andy Warhol's factory. Thanks to its excellent signature cocktails, such as the Rum Line (rum, peach bitters, Lillet Blanc and cloves), and recent refurb that features sleek leather banquettes and timber louvres along the walls, the edgy bar continues to be a favourite of Parisian and expat 30-something scenesters. DJs set the vibe under the tangerine-hued lights, spinning everything from '70s funk to '80s Madonna to contemporary Egyptian and Algerian pop. And there's no cover charge.

Parts of this article first appeared in the New York Times.