Culture / Travel

Paris On the Eve of the Summer Olympics — An Inside Look at What The City Of Light Is Like With the World Watching

The Olympic Torch Illuminates Old Haunts and New Gems

BY Donatella Benckenstein // 07.01.24

Editor’s note: In this new PaperCity series dubbed Postcards from Paris, Donatella Benckenstein chronicles her adventures in the French capital. With a Dutch mother and Italian-American diplomat father, Benckenstein was raised all over the world. She was schooled under the French academic and university systems, and anchored herself in Paris, both professionally and privately. Now, this well-traveled sophisticate is back in Paris after living in Houston for more than two decades.

In the second story in the series, Benckenstein explores the city just before the Paris Summer Olympics.


Graphic by Jenna Baer

Excitement fills the air as Paris prepares to host the Summer Olympics. After crossing the Mediterranean from Greece, the Olympic torch has already arrived in Marseilles to kick off the festivities. The Summer Olympics will take place July 26 through August 11, adding to the already exhilarating experience of life in the City of Light. Many of the celebrations will take place along and on the Seine River.

The Olympic flame was even a special guest at the Cannes Film Festival, carried up the steps by French Olympic and Paralympic athletes. 

During this vibrant time in the city, I dedicated a week to reconnect with it. I museum hopped, explored the latest boutiques, visited art pop-ups, discovered historical treasures, and enjoyed a coffee and croissant at my favorite cafe. It was a wonderful way to deepen my appreciation and knowledge of the Paris I already love.


Ready-To-Wear Art

I kicked off the week by rediscovering the Right Bank’s First Arrondissement, a neighborhood I adopted during my university years in Paris. I used to reside on Rue Saint Honoré, a stone’s throw from the Jardin des Tuileries and Place Vendôme, renowned for its prestigious jewelry boutiques.

Across from the Louvre Museum stands the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, one of my personal favorites and the starting point for my adventure. Famed for its 20th and 21st century design, it offers beautifully curated exhibits such as that of Belgian designer Iris van Herpen. The displays feature a symphony of ethereal gowns presented alongside natural elements and organic themes. They are complemented by sculptures and drawings from contemporary artists. 

Fashion exhibits inside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs are worth the trip.
Fashion exhibits inside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs are worth the trip.

The museum’s permanent exhibit is captivating. Each floor is organized by theme, highlighting 20th and 21st century styles and trends. It is complemented by a selection of exquisite jewelry and fashion creations in the exhibition titled “Parcours mode, bijoux, design,” which is showing through November 10.

After indulging in art and couture, an array of nearby restaurants awaits to satiate any appetite. The museum’s in-house restaurant Loulou offers a chic ambiance and a delightful culinary experience. Venturing further from the museum, Rue de Rivoli beckons with Alain Ducasse’s gastronomic headquarters at the Hotel Meurice. This renowned restaurant, Le Meurice, and the Chef’s Table has contemporary, volt-like decor with subtle lighting that accentuates the focus on the kitchen. Diners can observe a meticulous and artful culinary operation, where dishes are crafted to delight the palate.

Tour de Architecture Meets Fashion and Fromage

After immersing myself in art and cuisine, I turned my attention to admiring architectural marvels in neighboring arrondissements.

I started with the recently renovated oval room in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the country’s national library located in the Second Arrondissement. It has become a notable attraction and an exquisite focal point open to the general public. Beyond the oval room, the library’s exterior spaces and gardens are equally charming, filled with serenity and peace.

The oval room of the Bibliothèque nationale de France stuns onlookers.
The oval room of the Bibliothèque nationale de France stuns onlookers.

While the Louvre often commands attention for its cultural significance, just around the corner in the Ninth Arrondissement lies the infamous Avenue de l’Opera. Its splendid centerpiece, the Palais Garnier, beckons visitors with its timeless allure. Other notable landmarks nearby include the Palais Royal in the First Arrondissement, a 17th century palace commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu and adorned with contemporary Daniel Buren columns. “La Fontaine des Spheres,” a mesmerizing mirrorball fountain sculpture by Belgian artist Pol Bury, further adds to the neighborhood’s charm

For enthusiasts of haute couture, the Second Arrondissement features the Place des Victoires. It celebrates the boutiques that epitomize Parisian elegance.

No day in Paris is complete without a unique culinary experience. Stay in the Second and stop at Salon du Fromage Hisada, a specialty shop that blends traditional Japanese ingredients with full-flavored French fromages. These combinations are creatively crafted by French master cheesemaker Eri Hisada. This part of the Second Arrondissement also has a wide selection of Japanese and Korean restaurants, in addition to H.A.N.D, an American-style restaurant offering gourmet hamburgers.

Home is Where the Butter Croissants Are

The author examines Ellsworth Kelly's "Gironde," a 1951 masterpiece.
The author examines Ellsworth Kelly’s “Gironde,” a 1951 masterpiece.

Later in the week, I wandered the 16th Arrondissement, my home base in Paris. One of my stops was the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a striking cultural center designed by architect Frank Gehry. Situated near the infamous Bois de Boulogne, the museum hosts captivating retrospectives. During my visit, I immersed myself in the Mark Rothko retrospective, which gave a nod to Houston’s Rothko Chapel and the de Menils. Currently on display through September 9 are “Matisse, L’Atelier Rouge,” a collaborative effort between the Fondation Louis Vuitton and MoMA, and Ellsworth Kelly’s “Forms and Colors.”

In the 16th, the local haunts never disappoint. After a morning stroll through the picturesque Bois de Boulogne park, I treat myself to a coffee from my go-to spot Le Chalet. (My favorite waiter Thomas always sets aside a butter croissant for me.) When lunchtime calls, I head to Fondation Louis Vuitton’s Le Frank — or grab lunch with a friend at Ladurée’s new Paris Victor Hugo. (The omelets are scrumptious and teatime includes a delectable assortment of macarons.)

Continuing the exploration of the neighborhood, I visited the recently renovated Musée National de la Marine and enjoyed a quick treat at Carette, where the macarons are as popular as ever. Insider tip: Carette often has long lines, so save neighboring cafes Cafe Klébert and Cafe du Trocadéro to your list of backup options.

Closing It Out With Couture

To conclude the week, I visited the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. Located in the Eighth Arrondissement, it was a special experience to explore the fashion icon’s former couture house. The Studio de Couture, pulsating at the core of the fashion house, offered a profound glimpse into its storied past. 

Afterwards, I joined friends for a leisurely afternoon at Café L’Avenue. It is located on Avenue Montaigne, one of Paris’s most elegant shopping streets. Steeped in haute couture history, this iconic avenue is home to legendary salons and designer boutiques, including Givenchy. My late brother Arend served as “Le grand Hubert” de Givenchy’s right hand in the creative studio for decades. Today, the former Nina Ricci couture house, where I briefly modeled, is now occupied by Paco Rabanne. 

As Paris buzzes with anticipation for the Summer Olympics, my week of rediscovery earned the gold medal. I embraced the city’s excitement and deepened my connection to its rich tapestry.

Read the first article in the series in which Benckenstein interviews journalist and acclaimed de Menil biographer William Middleton.

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