In Paris, art is everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say every block inside the city limits boasts a little bit of eye candy — whether it’s a world-class museum, a row of elegant Haussmann-designed apartments, a sweet arbor covered in pink roses or just an attractive café.
With all this visual stimulation, visitors to the City of Light may momentarily forget the other four senses. (Okay, the other three: In this town, you won’t soon forget taste!) But doing so altogether would be a mistake, because this magical place is as sonically pleasing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, it’s been home to some of the greatest composers who ever lived.
Though Paris’ reputation for world-class art is due in large part to Debussy, Rossini and other famous music masters who resided there, few tourists will learn much about their legacy. That’s because sites dedicated to the city’s musical history have to compete with world-class art museums, shopping and restaurants. And not even the biggest classical fan wants to spend a day stalking Satie if it means missing the Mona Lisa or Moulin Rouge.
Luckily, as my most recent trip to Paris proves, it’s easy to make time for the classical alongside the classics. If you’re a music lover, you can have your macaron and eat it too. Here’s how to walk in the footsteps of Debussy, Chopin and other classical greats while still staying on the tourist trail.
A trip to the Musee D’Orsay, where some of the world’s most famous Impressionist paintings are housed, is a must on any trip to Paris. Luckily, the museum houses a few delightful classical-themed gems for those who are as excited about Liszt as they are about water lilies. Here you’ll find portraits of Erik Satie and Hector Berlioz, Degas’ rendering of a night at the Paris Opera, and Franz von Stück’s arresting Beethoven mask, which I’ve hoped to see in person since childhood. Even when the D’Orsay isn’t paying outright tribute to the most famous Parisian composers, it still feels as if you’re floating through the visual equivalent of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” — especially on the museum’s famous fifth floor, which is all dreamy water lilies, soft lines and pastel landscapes.
If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, you’ll probably end up in Montmartre at some point during your trip. Home to heavyweights such as the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, this hilly neighborhood was once the international capital of bohemianism and creativity. Among its famous residents were the painters Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Naturally, writers and musicians flocked here, too, holing up in cabarets by night and philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes by day. More than a century later, it’s still easy to see why Montmartre’s romantic, winding lanes and colorful storefronts attracted artists of all kinds.
Here in the 18th arrondissement, fitting in a taste of the belle époque musician’s life between visits to major tourist sights is easy. Just blocks away from Sacre-Coeur is Rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — he of the dreamy “Gymnopédie” piano pieces — once lived. And right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge sits Le Carmen, an elegant nightclub that was once the home of Georges Bizet. The grand foyer opens up to a massive bar area, which offers opera-themed cocktails (spicy “Habanera,” anyone?) and countless flavors of infused gin.
A day trip to this over-the-top palace, built just outside Paris by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, is popular for a reason: Its interiors are jaw-droppingly opulent, and its acres of manicured grounds provide hours of free entertainment. For more than a century, Versailles residents’ fashion sense and food tastes set international trends, some of which persist to this day (macarons, anyone?).
So, too, did Louis XIV’s tastes in music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer of the lively, balletic operas “Armide” and “Phaeton,” was the Sun King’s composer-in-residence for decades, filling the palace with incomparable music on a regular basis. Versailles quickly became a must-visit destination for the biggest names in the biz, including Mozart and Charpentier.
Today, there are several ways to soak up Versailles’ classical history. If you’re already planning to tour the palace, simply grab a free audio guide on your way in and you’ll be treated to clips of the same music Marie Antoinette once heard, along with a few facts about the concerts that took place in the palace’s heyday, from sacred music in private chapel ceremonies to big parlor concerts. But the best way to connect with this estate’s classical history by far is to attend a live concert on the grounds. Held in the evenings after the crowds are gone, these concerts include music from the 17th century and today and often feature big-name soloists. In the warmer months, the palace sometimes moves the festivities outside, pairing the sweet sounds with a lighted fountain show.
PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY
Most tourists visit this beautiful park to pay their respects to rock star Jim Morrison, probably the most famous figure buried here. That’s good news for classical fans, who might be more interested in the cemetery’s other rock stars. Chopin, Rossini, Cherubini and Poulenc are among the composers who rest here — and their intricate, hand-carved mausoleums don’t disappoint. Once you’ve gawked to your heart’s content, walk to Belleville or Le Banane for a bite — these neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s hippest bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
While you’re touring around Paris, keep an eye out for other tiny hints of the city’s rich classical history. While walking between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, I spotted a street sign dedicated to Léo Delibes, whose lush Flower Duet has found its way into countless commercials and films. And as we strolled near the Moulin Rouge, we turned a corner and came eye to eye with a large sculpture of Hector Berlioz. And Chopin is everywhere in this city, from monuments in the Luxembourg Gardens and Parc Monceau to an entire small museum within the Polish Library.
Of course, the best place to see classical history come alive in Paris is at the Opéra National. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend myself…but it’s at the top of my list for next time!
Have you been to Paris? What was your favorite experience? Sound off in the comments!