You can't argue with the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and the Louvre. For generations, they and the history that surrounds them have lured travelers by the millions,even if the journey meant braving summer hordes and then sleeping in a small hotel that was unclean, or unspacious, or unfriendly, or unaffordable, or some combination of those.
Now an American in Paris doesn't have to face those compromises. After six days of traipsing from hotel to hotel a few weeks ago, I can report the emergence of a new crop of romantic, smallish and reasonably priced Parisian lodgings. In a city where a cup of coffee in a sidewalk cafe can easily run $5, a clean room for two with private bath in a convenient neighborhood can commonly be had these days for less than $140 nightly, and often less than $100.
That's substantially less than in recent years. Those numbers would put Parisian lodging prices on a par with those in Manhattan--except that in Manhattan, taxes add another 20% or so to the bill. In Paris, taxes are already included in the room rates.
The second inducement in Paris at the moment is the season: Fall will arrive in a few days, bringing the city's annual summer tour-bus gridlock to a close, summoning merchants and restaurateurs back to duty and generally delivering Paris into the hands of Parisians--and smart travelers.
There are simple market forces behind the Parisian hotel upgrading effort: Recession-hardened travelers, whether from across the English Channel or across the Atlantic, will walk away if they don't find value for their money. There's also a direct challenge by the French state at work here: The government agency that grades hotels (one to four stars are awarded, depending on an establishment's physical amenities) raised its standards two years ago.
And so the rooms and closets are growing. Elevators are gaining ground, even in ancient buildings. Even in budget lodgings, most new rooms include bathrooms, thus eliminating the frugal traveler's long-lamented stroll down the hall for relief. Thick bath towels seem to have replaced thin (though the toilet paper may still remind Americans of paper towels, and shower curtains remain a rarity). Built-in blow-dryers are coming into wide use, as are double-paned windows to reduce street noise. Even in the most resolutely old-fashioned places--the tattered yet fetching Esmeralda on the Left Bank, for example--a fax machine can be found somewhere in back, humming amid the antiques and lace runners.
One particularly pleasing discovery was the recently expanded Libertel chain. Most of the 17 properties throughout Paris were bought up from independent owners in the last three years and renovated to be clean and bright, yet decorated to retain individual personality (I saw two of them). The hotels range from 25 to 70 rooms each, and carry two or three stars under the French government system. The prices: roughly $75-$135 nightly, depending on the location. (In the July and August just past, Libertel offered rooms throughout the chain for a remarkable $89-$99 nightly; there's no word on whether that discount will be repeated next summer.)
A few more bits of happy, though less quantifiable, news: In most of my wanderings, attentive and multilingual service prevailed. And in most establishments, virtually no French was necessary. As long as a traveler is suitably humble, even less-than-fluent employees are likely to volunteer their English.
"I am a good dog," one beaming desk woman assured me when I briefly left luggage with her. Watchdog , I thought. But I was so grateful, I didn't dare correct her.
The methods of my survey were not scientific. Sticking to the newly opened and the recently renovated, I looked through about two dozen places. (A handful of recommended veteran small hotels can be found on Page L13.) I didn't get to every address I wanted to--there are some 12,000 hotel rooms in Paris--but in each of the hotels listed below, I walked through rooms and talked with staff members. In every case, I tested the staff attitude before I disclosed my mission.
Generally, I stuck to the most tourist-friendly arrondissements , as the 20 districts of the city are known. To get a sense of where a hotel is, take the last two digits of its postal code and match them up with the numbers on the arrondissement map included here.
If you go looking for stratospheric prices and rude service, of course you will find them. I wasn't particularly looking, but nevertheless found the unyielding woman at the Hotel L'Angleterre on the Left Bank who wouldn't show me a room. I found also the sour man at the Atlantis Saint-Germain des Pres, who, well, threw me out. But they were exceptions.
Recommended hotels from $100-$200 nightly are listed first, followed by those under $100 nightly, and then those over $275 nightly. All rates quoted are for double rooms, and are based on an exchange rate of 5.5 francs per $1. If you're calling or faxing hotels from the U.S., the phone numbers listed below should be preceded by the international prefix, the country code, and the city code: 011-33-1.
From $100-$200 nightly:
* Le Pavillon Bastille (65 rue de Lyon, Paris 75012; telephone 43-43-65-65, fax 43-43-96-52) gleams in blue and yellow, its relatively modest spaces done up in dramatically lit post-modern style. Opened in May, 1991. "We didn't expect many Americans here because the size of the rooms is not so great," says owner Michel Arnaud, "but the Americans are coming for the design." Atmosphere is exclusive: guests carry passcards and strangers must be buzzed through the front door by the desk clerk, though the neighborhood is reputable. Popular among music-lovers who build weekends around productions in the Bastille Opera down the street. Air-conditioned. Buffet breakfast ($14) reach beyond the usual to include fruits and cheeses. Elevator. 25 rooms. Rate: $162.
* Relais du Louvre (19 rue de Pretres, Saint-Germain-L'Auxerrois, 75001; tel. 40-41-96-42, fax 40-41-96-44). The lobby window promises an intimacy in a neighborhood of monumental scale; the interior delivers. Walls done up in rich colors. Fancy paisley patterns on furniture and bedspreads, some rooms facing gargoyles of church across the street. Helpful, multilingual staff. Elevator. Opened in April, 1991. 20 rooms. Rates: $136-$160.
* Libertel Montparnasse (126 rue de Cherche-Midi, 75006; tel. 45-48-37-48, fax 45-49-94-49; reservations for any Libertel can be made through Utell International at 800-448-8355). Small, bright lobby, full of blond wood. Rooms small, too, but efficient and artfully decorated. Elevator. Staff speaks good English. No air conditioning. Three stars. Opened October, 1992. 25 rooms. Rates: $113-$131.
* Galileo (54 rue Galilee, 75008; tel. 47-20-66-06, fax 47-20-67-17) Behind a bright red awning, an airy comfortable lobby. English spoken. Marble in the bathrooms. Three stars, but a four-star atmosphere. For its neighborhood--hard by the Champs Elysees, surrounded by more grand, costly hotels--a good value. Air-conditioned. Elevator. 25 rooms. Opened September, 1992. Rates: $145-$173.
* Relais Bosquet (19 rue du Champ de Mars, 75007; tel. 47-05-25-45 or 800-448-8355, fax 45-55-08-24). Reopened in October, 1992, after a nine-month renovation. Restaurants and the Eiffel Tower handy, and a quiet neighborhood. English spoken. "It's an excellent hotel. We've been here a week," volunteered a British guests when I started asking questions at the desk. No air-conditioning. Three stars. 40 rooms, 28 of which overlook a courtyard garden. Rates: $126-$136.
* Hotel Saint-Germain des Pres (36 rue Bonaparte, 75006; tel. 43-26-00-19, fax 40-46-83-63). Ancient timber beams and wallpaper in startling colors. Comfortable Left Bank location. Lobby full of armchairs, statuary and a big spray of flowers . Elevator. Recent renovation. 35 rooms (12 air-conditioned). Rates: $136-$173.
* Hotel Lenox Saint Germain (9 rue l'Universite, 75007; tel. 42-96-10-95, fax 42-61-52-83). James Joyce once slept here, the staff says, and the place is popular with American journalists. Antique stores line the street outside. The place was renovated last spring. No air conditioning. Three stars. Elevator. 34 rooms. Rates: $105-$149.
* Quatre Saisons Bastille (67 rue de Lyon, 75012; tel. 40-01-07-17, fax 40-01-07-27) will not bowl you over at first or second glance. The facade is generic, and the Spartan lobby and rooms seem vaguely Japanese, though that's not the intention. But the Bastille Opera house is just down the street, the rooms are clean, the night manager was helpful, and the plumbing and fixtures are of recent vintage. Open three years. Three stars. Air-conditioning. 36 rooms. Rate: $138.
* Hotel Mansart (5 rue des Capucines, 75001; tel. 42-61-50-28, fax 49-27-97-44). This is a bit of a gamble. Known as the Calais until 1992, this place is open, but undergoing renovation scheduled to last through next March. During my visit, artisans were sponging walls with colors in Mondrian patterns, and 23 rooms remained unrenovated. It's an ungainly building: the hallways veer, some ceilings are 20 feet high, some doorways only six feet high. But it's a central location near the Paris Opera house and the ritziest neighborhood in the city. (Literally. The Ritz hotel is a few blocks away.) Three stars. 57 rooms. Rates: $84.50-$145.
Options under $100 nightly:
* Libertel Bastille (14 rue de la Roquette, 75011; tel. 47-00-56-02, fax 47-00-39-33). A tiny lobby up a flight of stairs. Young staff with good English skills. 30 rooms (9 of which front on a busy street in a young, lively neighborhood). No air-conditioning or elevator (and the stairwell is narrow, which makes luggage-carrying a challenge). Two stars. Rates: $82-$95.
* Atlantis Saint-Germain des Pres (4 rue du Vieux Colombier, 75006; tel. 45-48- 31-81, fax 45-48-35-16). This is where the man at the counter threw me out. First, he granted my request to see a room, but evidently my note-taking led him to suspect me of stealing company secrets. So he scowled, raised his voice and chucked me out. Service aside, however, the place is clean, was renovated in February, 1992, and has relatively low rates. Utilitarian decor. Often used by tour groups. Two stars. 35 rooms. Rates: $93-$100.
* Hospitel Hotel-Dieu (1 Place du Parvis Notre Dame, 75181, fourth arrondissement ; tel. 44-32-01-00). Probably the quietest and cleanest hotel in the city, but with a very specialized appeal. The hotel is within the walls of Paris's most prominent hospital, and opened in May, 1992, aiming principally to serve relatives of patients. However, the tiny, bright sixth-floor rooms are open to all comers, and half have window views of Notre Dame a few steps away. Elevator. 14 rooms. Rate: $85.
Options over $250 nightly:
* Hotel Royal Saint-Honore (221 rue Saint-Honore, 75001; tel. 42-60-32-79 or 800-44-88355, fax 42-60-47-44). This lodging reopened June 7 after a 14-month renovation. Lobby full of marble and mirrors, rooms with dark wood furniture, fancy drapes and bedspreads--but for the price, they should be fancy. Location on a premier shopping street. Rate: $255.
* Hotel Elysees Star (19 rue Vernet/63 rue Galilee, 75008; tel. 47-20-41-73, fax 47-23-32-15). Sprawling, paneled lobby. Fresh roses replaced daily in guest rooms. Videocassette players, and soft, piped-in background music. Tiny bathrooms. Accomplished, if not quite warm, service. Near Arc de Triomphe. Four stars. Renovated in 1992. Air-conditioned. 43 rooms. Rates: $309-$345.
* Le Stendhal (22 rue Danielle-Casanova, 75002; tel. 44-58-52-52, fax 44-58-52-00). Behind a simple door between a jeweler and a pub, this hotel is lavishly furnished and well-placed. Elaborately designed rooms, each one different. Spa jets in bathtubs. The 19th-century novelist and essayist who is the hotel's namesake once lived here. Opened in September, 1992, after transformation that took the site from two-star to four-star status. Rates: $255-$273.
* Hotel de Vigny (9-11 rue de Balzac, 75008; tel. 40-75-04-39, fax 40-75-05-81). A lair for prosperous business people and retreat for well-heeled leisure travelers. A few blocks from the high-toned shops of the Champs Elysees. Enormous lobby and public rooms, with wood paneling, clubby atmosphere, but also some wit: trompe l'oeil painting on the elevator doors. Rooms individually designed, many with canopies over beds. Art Deco bar-restaurant downstairs. Air conditioning. Opened in June, 1990. 37 rooms. Rate: $400.
How to book: If you can, do it in writing. Say whether you want a shower ( douche ) or bathtub ( bain ), which often costs more. Twin beds ( lit jumeaux) may cost more than a double ( grand lit ). Many hotels require nonreturnable deposits; some don't accept credit cards.
Breakfasts: In hotels, $12 for a roll and coffee is common; less than $8 is rare. Cafes are often cheaper.
For more information: A long list of hotels with rooms $120 nightly or less ("Insider's Good Value Guide to Paris") is available free from the French Government Tourist Office (9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills 90212; tel. 900-990- 0040; calls cost 50 per minute). The Paris Tourist Office (127 Avenue des Champs Elysees, 75008; local phone 47-23-61-72) offers a citywide reservation service.
. . . and Some Old Favorites
The following hotels haven't been opened or notably renovated in the last couple of years, but then neither has the Arc de Triomphe. This sampling of the tried-and-true offers convenient locations, generally clean and often quaint lodgings, and reachable prices: roughly $60-$160 a night. Rates quoted are for double rooms; many hotels offer single rooms for less.
* Hotel de la Place du Louvre (21 rue des Pretres, Saint Germain l'Auxerrois, 75001; tel. 42-33-78-68, fax 42-33- 09-95). Louvre-convenient, as the name suggests, and a block from the Seine. Very clean and modern, though there's no air-conditioning. Rooms named for famous artists. Some hardwood floors. Helpful staff, though almost no English is spoken. Three stars. 20 rooms. Rates: $118-$145.
* Hotel de l'Universite (22 rue de l'Universite, 75007; tel. 42-61-09-39, fax 42-60-40-84). Wood-beamed ceilings, convenient left-bank location. Carpets of green and gold give the place a sallow pallor, but staff is friendly and speaks good English. No air conditioning. Three stars. 28 rooms. Rates: $136-$155.
* Hotel de l'Abbaye (10 rue Cassette, 75006; tel. 45-44-38-11). Handsome public rooms, garden in back, and a cobblestone-and-ivy approach that sets the building back slightly from the street. Spacious lobby with inviting couches, wood paneling, fireplace. Elevator. Two-year renovation concluded in April. Some, but not much, English spoken. Six rooms air-conditioned. Breakfast included--a unique offering among the many hotels I saw. Three stars. 46 rooms. Rates: $156.
* Ferrandi Hotel (92 rue de Cherche-Midi, 75006; tel. 42-22-97-40, fax 45-44-89-97). Compact place in quiet section near Montparnasse, amid antique shops, clothing stores and galleries. English spoken. Lobby feels a bit lived-in, but rooms upstairs are elegantly furnished. Three stars. 42 rooms. Rates: $102-$124.
* Hotel Esmeralda (4 rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, 75005; tel. 43-54-19-20, fax 40-51-00-68). A 17th-Century building, brimming with character, lined with yellowed wallpaper. Aged cat, Mona Lisa, presides over knicknack-rich lobby. No elevator, no air conditioning, no television. Views of Notre Dame, the Seine close at hand, Shakespeare & Co. bookshop around the corner. Clientele about 40% American. Two stars. 23 rooms. Rates: $56-$85.