A Guide to Coffee Culture in Paris
Today’s guest post is by Caroline Black. Caroline is a freelance travel writer. She set out on her first trip when she was in college for a semester in Paris, and she’s never looked back. Since then she’s spent time living, working and traveling around Europe and a little bit of Asia. She spent a summer in Italy and fell in love with their coffee culture, and so now as she wanders around the globe she is always hopelessly looking for her next cup of coffee.
When most people think of Paris, the first things that come to mind are obviously its landmarks. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre are known around the world. But these are just landmarks, and they don’t really reflect the energy and attitude of the city. They exist so that people who come for a short stay have something to look at and photograph.
Paris exists on the streets, specifically in the cafés. Nearly everywhere you walk, you’ll find chairs and tables lined up on the sidewalks with people sitting and sipping coffee (and likely smoking a cigarette). The seats always face out, since people watching is one of the principal activities of sitting in a café. And inside the buzz of conversation will blend with the loud shriek of the frother whipping up milk for someone’s café au lait.
It’s hard to get much more Parisian than a good, authentic café. You’ll definitely spend your fair share of time sipping on coffee and eating pastries, pretending to be French, especially when the weather gets cold and rainy.
But if you come to Paris, you’ll notice a few things you might not expect from a place so well-known for its café culture. To prepare you for this, here’s some info on coffee culture in Paris.
It’s actually not about the coffee
One of the things that surprises most people when they first sit down at a café in Paris is…the coffee. It’s actually not that good. Paris, and France in general, has achieved fame around the world for its food and wine, yet most people will agree that the coffee in Paris is actually quite bad.
This is because the coffee is really secondary. People gather in cafés to talk with friends and families, to escape the hustle and bustle of the street, to read a book, or to just be alone. They are drinking the coffee because it’s something to do and they don’t feel like ordering anything else.
It’s not the worst coffee in the world—obviously a step above instant coffee—but it’s bitter and at times will drift towards tasting a bit like dirt.
Don’t let this scare you away, though. It’s still a blast to waste away the afternoon watching the city go by whilst perched at a seat on the terrace. Just don’t expect the coffee to blow you away.
It matters where you sit
Something that might be new to a lot of foreigners, especially those coming from across the pond, is that the price of your coffee will be different depending on where you sit.
In general, you have three options: the bar, an inside table or the terrace. Prices will go up as you get more comfortable, so the bar is the cheapest and the terrace is the most expensive.
Still, your average espresso at a café in Paris shouldn’t cost you more than a few euros. But it depends heavily on the area. If you’re somewhere with a heavy international influence, expect higher prices. Parisian cafés have seized the opportunity to jack up prices to meet what people coming from abroad might expect. And since we’re talking about mediocre coffee at best, try to find a good spot.
Café au lait in the mornings
While most people think of sipping tiny espresso cups when they imagine themselves at a Parisian café, this image misses out on a rather important part of Parisian coffee culture (and perhaps a big reason why the coffee isn’t so great.)
Café au lait, or coffee with milk, is the most popular drink in the morning. It’s usually served in a wide-brimmed mug or even a bowl so that you can dip your croissant or even some bread into it.
And this brings us to one of the issues with the coffee in Paris: it’s really about the pastries. In many ways, the coffee is just an add-on to their delicious pastries. Since they’re amazing, we’ll excuse this.
However, if you head out in the morning, you may find there’s less activity in cafés than you were expecting. This is because most Parisians will have this breakfast at home. If you want to do the same, you can invest in having better coffee delivered to your door to help make the experience a mixture of French and delicious (two things that aren’t usually kept separate).
Things are changing
Even though the coffee isn’t amazing, you’ll still fall in love with Parisian café culture. There’s an energy in these little places that really brings you closer to the heart of the city. As a foreigner, it’s always a bit harder to feel that connection, but sitting in a café makes it not seem such a challenge.
However, as time marches on, things are certainly changing. Influences from abroad and just an overall push to revitalize certain areas of the city have led to an explosion of specialty cafés around Paris, particularly in the Northeast part known as BoBo (a word deriving from a mixture of bourgeois and bohemian; hipsters, essentially).
When these first hit the scene, they catered more towards expats and tourists, as Parisians weren’t quite sure what to make of a café that was entirely dedicated to coffee. But they are slowly catching on.
However, a lot of these businesses are run by people who aren’t French. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but one must ask if this influx of specialty cafés is really a part of Parisian coffee culture. But then again, what exactly is culture anyway if not ever-changing?
It’s doubtful traditional cafés will be going away anytime soon, and the introduction of artisan coffee houses will be a nice refuge for people looking for a genuinely good cup of coffee.
So, there you have it. Parisian coffee culture in a nutshell. The best thing to do is to just try out a bunch of different places.To give you a head start, Savoir Faire Paris’ favorite classic café is Café Crème. Eventually, you’ll find one with the right vibe, and the right coffee, and soon it will feel like a little Parisian home away from home.
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