Bienvenue à Paris! Or, welcome to Paris! Although it may seem as if time stands still in this city—with its romantic buildings, elegant parks, and sublime squares—there's an undercurrent of small but significant changes happening here that might not be immediately obvious.
Despite the pall cast by severe smog in recent years, Parisians are breathing a little easier these days as the city becomes more environmentally aware. Emission-free buses and the first hydrogen-powered riverboat are making the capital more eco-friendly. The popular Vélib' bike program and the AutoLib' car-sharing service are further helping to reduce Paris's carbon footprint. In addition to the gradual replacement of paved streets with more aesthetically pleasing cobblestones and the widening of tree-lined sidewalks, the city is slowly implementing an ambitious project to permanently pedestrianize expressways along the Seine, following the success of Paris Plage, the yearly beach party. In September 2015, vehicles were banned from the city center from 11 am to 7 pm, an unprecedented car-free day that was heralded by strolling locals and tourists alike, and starting in spring 2016, the Champs-Élysées was completely pedestrianized once a month. There are also plans in the works to have half the city's parks open 24/7 from mid-April through mid-September.
You’ll always find foie gras, steak frites, and macarons in this gastonomic mecca (though a poll confirms 29% of the population forgo the former for "ethical reasons"). Yet Parisians are opening up to more diverse dining options and healthier lifestyles, causing a massive boom in vegetarian restaurants. "C'est la vegan!”can be heard in French restaurants when diners see there are no vegetarian or vegan options, but there are now some 220 eateries listed in Paris serving non-meat dishes, including the new Wild and the Moon in the Marais district, which serves a 100% vegan and gluten-free menu. Parisians are also moving their bodies, and ever-expanding fitness facilities are making exercising more culturally acceptable than ever before.
France has one of the highest smartphone usages in Europe, with 81% of 18- to 24-year-olds owning one, as well as 26% of those ages 60 to 69, and new gadgets are popping up everywhere since an ongoing government program began encouraging innovation. The result? Centers like the Gaîté Lyrique mix technology with art on a daily basis. Google opened the Google Cultural Institute, which includes a permanent exhibit at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal. Versailles enlists the latest technology to engage visitors, and the Louvre uses Nintendo 3DS systems as its audioguides. Bakeries are giving a nod to the future by letting you pay at automated machines while the revolutionary Smarter Paris app updates continuously (and offline) in real-time anything from bus info to maps and restaurant reviews, avoiding roaming charges.
Did somebody say "la crise"? If so, the hospitality industry has been too busy renovating luxury palace hotels (an official designation for five-star digs that demonstrate "exceptional hospitality") to worry about economic woes. The glamorous Ritz Hotel in Place Vendôme reopened in 2016 after undergoing a €140 million face-lift. That’s pennies compared to what was spent on The Peninsula Paris; renovation of that century-old building near the Arc de Triomphe cost (gulp!) €430 million. Rooms there now start at €1,000 a night (the rooftop penthouse goes for €25,000—but, hey, it comes with its own garden). The Hôtel de Crillon in Place de la Concorde also reopened in 2016 after a three-year overhaul, including two new Karl Lagerfield–designed suites..
Music lovers and architecture buffs alike rejoiced when the curtain rose at La Philharmonie de Paris in the Parc de la Villette in 2015. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the striking new home of the Orchestre de Paris seats 2,400 and cost a whopping €381 million. Art aficionados needn’t feel slighted, however: a few months prior, the ribbon was cut at Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, an undulating yet angular museum of contemporary art in the Bois de Boulogne. Makeovers of existing venues (most notably the Musée Rodin's Hôtel Biron) are also cause for celebration. In fact, culture vultures are still buzzing about the reopening of the Musée Picasso Paris after extensive renovation work—including the installation of bulletproof windows at €12,000 a pop—as well as the eight-year, €96 million overhaul of the Musée de l'Homme, where Picasso himself used to go to admire African art.
Although Paris was once described by Hemingway as being "full of nocturnal pleasure-seekers," the newspaper Le Monde named it the "European capital of boredom" a few years ago. To help prevent the City of Light from turning into the City of Lights Out, Paris elected its first “Nightlife Mayor” in late 2013. Arguing that "we can’t afford to become the laughingstock of Europe,” Clément Léon promised an after-dark scene to rival such Continental hotspots as Berlin, London, and Barcelona. So has Paris turned the beat around? The exploding cocktail culture, with bitters, lime cordials, and syrups made à la maison, is certainly helping to liven things up. Or take Concrete: a repurposed barge on the Seine that has garnered a cult following for its late-night (and sometimes all-day) action. But the city's mayor continues her campaign to deploy the Pierrots de la Nuit, the "nocturnal artistic squad" (or night mimes), whose mission is to silently inform revelers about noise pollution. Nothing kills a buzz more than encountering a sad-faced mime.
The year 2015 changed Paris forever, with the Charlie Hebdo attack in January and the Bataclan massacre in November leaving the capital wondering how life could ever return to normal. But rather than shuttering up their apartments and cowering to threats, Parisians took to the streets, filled café seats, and lived their lives with the usual joie de vivre. While tourism did understandably see a decline during the weeks immediately following the November attacks, public security in Paris, and all other cities in France, continues to be the government’s number one priority. You’ll notice longer lines for airport security checks, see yellow, orange, or red colored signs for "Vigipirate," the national security alert system, and, on the streets, an increased presence of police and soldiers. Despite the events of 2015, Paris remains one of the world's safest cities, and travelers shouldn't feel discouraged from experiencing the culture and beauty the city has to offer.
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