Throughout my visit to New York, I couldn’t help but compare it to Paris. They are both sophisticated, vibrant cities, magnets for creative and ambitious people and attract some of the best and brightest. Both are beautiful with proud, colorful histories. There is even a book that takes a humorous look at comparing and contrasting them (Paris vs New York by Vahram Muratyan) I began to see some parallels myself, and have put together a list of my own.
Now, to be clear, this is a very eccentric, very personal list, highlighting things that I personally found interesting. You may very likely have no interest in many/most of the items on my list, and you may vigorously disagree with many/most of my conclusions, but that’s okay. Everyone will have their own list with their own conclusions. That’s the beauty of these cities – there’s plenty of choice for everyone.
Before I begin, some ground rules. New York is significantly larger than Paris (8.245 million vs 2.234 million) which has some bearing on how a city operates. However, for a girl coming from a city of 100,000, it hardly matters – they’re both BIG! Second, I’ve spent more time in Paris (about 3 weeks total over 2 trips) than in New York (less than a week, part of that many, many years ago) so oddly, I know Paris a little better than New York. Also, in both cities, I spent my time in fairly upscale, tourist-destination areas which the local governments understandably try to keep looking and behaving their best; I did not seek out the seedy side of either city and therefore have fairly romanticized views. I’m okay with that; this is a personal blog, not a documentary! Now, on to the list!
Pain aux raisins (bread with raisins)
Imagine my delight when I discovered that pain aux raisin – my favorite pastry in Paris – was on the menu at La Pain Quotidien, a charming cafe near our New York hotel. While it was delicious, tender and sweet, I thought that the icing was unnecessary. The Parisian version achieved a balance of flavor and subtle sweetness, simple and straightforward. Paris or New York? Paris
Getting a bird’s-eye view of a location is one of my favorite things to do when traveling. Views in both New York and Paris can be spectacular – it’s easy to find a perch high enough for a good long-view in either city, both have lots of gorgeous, iconic buildings to look for and both have a distinctive style. However, I’m going to give the edge to Paris; something about the regularity of the beautiful, gold-tan Haussmann buildings, punctuated by historic landmarks makes me very happy. Also, Eiffel Tower. Paris or New York? Paris
Paris’ Promenade Plantee was the inspiration for New York’s Highline. The Promenade Plantee has a more formal style with clipped hedges and traditional plantings. Any hint that this garden used to be a railroad have disappeared. On the other hand the Highline has bold, extravagant plantings with great drifts of ornamental grasses and native American plants. The original railroad rails are incorporated in the planting in several places. Both gardens offer unique, spectacular views of neighboring buildings, both offer an unexpected green space in the middle of the city, both are very popular and heavily used. While both are wonderful, my choice goes to the Highline, influenced by my love of prairie gardens. Paris or New York? New York
Bicycle Rental Program
Okay, this is a pretty obscure one, but fun. Public bicycle sharing programs have been growing in popularity recently; they allow anyone to rent a bike for short periods of time. You pick up your bike at one station then return it to the station closest to your destination – slick! Paris was one of the first cities to start a program, called Velib. New York’s program, Citi Bike, began just this summer.
Now, I never actually rented one of these bikes in either city, but I certainly saw a lot of them. They’re quite popular and you see all kinds of people, tourists to businessmen using them, a briefcase or shopping bag propped in the basket. What I find especially interesting is how each program perfectly reflects their city – in New York the bikes are bright and bold colored, standing in sharp contrast to the famous yellow taxicabs. In Paris, the bikes are a subdued, neutral gray, blending in with the rest of the traffic (not sure that’s a good idea when you’re riding a bike in traffic, but it seems to work). Paris or New York? Draw.
Both cities have crazy busy traffic. New York, because its streets are generally in a regular grid system, is a bit more straightforward while in Paris nearly every street seems to run at a crazy angle. However, to me, the traffic in Paris seemed relatively calmer and noticeably quieter. Yes, it’s loud and everything moves too fast, but compared to New York, it’s downright peaceful. I think this has a lot to do with the prevalence of small cars, many of which are hybrids or electric, and the huge popularity of motor scooters. Often quite sophisticated, decked out with leather covers and windshields, the motor scooters are quick and quiet, and much easier (and economical) to park than a car. In New York (as in most of the United States), the cars are huge; many of the taxis were SUVs and delivery trucks were much larger (and louder) Paris or New York? Paris
Probably because I have almost no experience with mass transit – and certainly not with underground railroads – I find subways fascinating. They seem a bit like a wild tiger – dangerous and unpredictable, to be watched carefully at all times. (haha!) The basics of navigating via subway is the same with any that I’ve used (London, Paris and New York) – you determine what line to take, what changes if any you need to make to reach your destination, and the direction that you want to go. In Paris (and London), the direction is indicated by the name of the last stop on the line; in New York it’s usually the direction (such as Uptown or Downtown). For some reason this confused me, more than the French names on the Parisian lines! Also, the stops in Paris were most often the names of nearby sites or landmarks (Louvre, Ecole Miltaire, Opera, etc) while many of the New York stops are referred to by the names of the street the stop is at – which are often numbers (7th Ave, 72nd, 57th, etc) Start throwing those kinds of numbers around and my brain shuts down just in case someone suggests it try doing some math. So, bizarrely, I was more comfortable with the Paris subway in spite of not speaking the language!
I was also warned, via many guidebooks and websites, that the Paris subway stations would be dirty and smelly. In fact, while I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in them, I thought the Paris stations were relatively clean and well-lit. The New York stations, on the other hand, were much dirtier and smellier although the trains themselves were clean and spacious. Overall, the Parisian subway had more style – beautiful, often elegant Metro signs, many stations that were decorated to reflect the above ground attractions, and frequent service. Both cities warn to watch for pickpockets and while I was very careful, I never felt threatened or afraid in either (lost, on the other hand, more than once!) Paris or New York? Paris.
Friendliness of People
Both of these cities have reputations for being rude to and unforgiving of tourists, and I have to admit, before traveling to them I had some worries about this. However, I found almost everyone to not only be polite, but to be warm and friendly in both Paris and New York. In Paris it is important to follow a few simple rules of civility – hello, good-bye, please, thank you – exactly the manners your Mother taught you. In New York, the perceived brusqueness is simply not true. Over and over people were kind and helpful and seemed genuinely happy to help. It was a lesson I was very happy to learn and which showed, once again, why traveling is important – not only to see new and beautiful sights, but to open up your mind. That’s an experience that will stay with you long after the postcards fade. Paris or New York? Both!