Like almost no other city, Paris has a profusion of small hotels. But small in Paris doesn't always mean charming, and it doesn't always mean inexpensive.
Making sense of this bewildering array of possibilities is hard from your armchair, and impossible once you get there, since all the good places tend to be booked ahead.
At least that's what we found in June, when we spent three weeks in Paris looking at more than 50 hotels. We assumed most visitors want everything: a perfectly quiet hotel at the center of Parisian life, around the corner from the most exciting cafe' and the chicest shops, within easy walking distance of the Metro. And we discovered 18 smaller hotels that give the best value, in the best neighborhoods, with an ample dose of the je ne sais quoi that makes this city one of the most exciting in Europe.
There are as many kinds of small hotels in Paris as there are cheeses. Word of mouth is the best way to go, but most Americans living in Paris would rather give up the name of their coiffeur than reveal the name of the hotel at which they put up guests. Price provides an important clue: If you pay $600 a night at Le Crillon you will be happy in a way no $75 room can match. But in a smaller range -- rooms, say, between $75 and $100 -- the difference can be all out of proportion to price. For the same 600 francs or less ($100 for two) you can get space, service and good plumbing in a convenient, quiet location or a dark, smelly hole in the wall on the wrong street in the wrong neighborhood.
There are a number of good guidebooks to Paris hotels but, by necessity, they must be used cautiously since even the newest are often a year or two behind. What was charming five years ago could be full of musty odors, dark staircases and sagging mattresses today, located on a street that has become a major thoroughfare.
Two hotel characteristics deserve special mention: mattresses and reading lights. With regard to the latter, take your own. Keep in mind that the most expensive hotels in Washington don't seem to get a simple thing like bulb wattage right. As for the bed, there are two things the French seem never to have heard about: that a hard mattress is good for your back and the surgeon general's warning that smoking can kill you. It seems 90 percent of the people in Paris smoke; everything reeks of it, including hotels. So try the mattresses before checking in.
Most of the hotels listed are on the Left Bank, not just because you get more for your money there, but because that is where the fun is: the all-night cafe's, the street musicians, the artists, antique stores, the great churches, interesting restaurants and excitement. But remember, the heart of Paris is relatively small and the Seine very narrow. With bridges every few blocks, you can walk from the Left to the Right Bank in a matter of minutes.
Ho~tel Saint-Simon. If you want tranquility and elegance, head for this former villa, steps from Boulevard Saint-Germain but as hushed and calm as a convent. Think ivy-covered mansion in Kalorama, so impeccably maintained that it has never needed renovation, and you will get an idea of the ambiance of the Saint-Simon with its huge windows opening outward onto a formal garden, high molded ceilings, understated prints on the wall, antique chests of drawers and chaise longues in the spacious rooms.
The modern bathrooms and the lighted closets are sops to the 20th century, as is the large elevator, decorated with heavy tapestry and hung with old mirrors and prints. Breakfast can be taken in your room or the dining room.
Ho~tel des Saints-Pe`res. Another small gem a few blocks away is a real find, a blend of Right Bank efficiency and elegance and Left Bank ambiance. Built in the 17th century by Louis XIV's architect and recently renovated, it is quiet and peaceful despite being right in the middle of sophisticated shops and restaurants.
The main floor has a cheerful paneled breakfast room and a reading room with an entire wall of glass looking into a tiny back garden. But the pie`ce de re'sistance is the lovely, central courtyard garden where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast or afternoon tea among the flowers. On the down side, the rooms, while comfortable and attractive, are typically Left Bank small, although the baths are untypically large and modern.
Ho~tel le Sainte-Beuve, between the St.-Germain-des-Pre's and Montparnasse areas of the city, and two minutes from the Luxembourg Gardens, is only a year and a half old, but it is already doing a land-office business.
Elegant and charming, it bears the stamp of one of London's hottest designers, David Hicks, who is famous for his deft and subtle touch. Everything is of the highest quality, from the heavy linen and raw silk curtains to the marble bar with its soaring skylight to the living room with its overstuffed sofas and massive fireplace.
The rooms are small, but crisp and fresh with white coverlets and headboards, country French antique pieces and many lamps. Modern touches, like TVs, bars and a safe, are tucked behind built-in closets and drawers so as not to detract from the uncluttered design. The bathrooms are spacious with separate toilets complete with phone.
Once the secret is out it won't be easy to get a room here.
Ho~tel Scandinavia is around the corner from the Ode'on place. It is perfectly comfortable, even if its decor is slightly bizarre, running to religious artifacts, red velvet chaise longues and medieval armor. The rooms have wooden beams, large antique pieces, dark oil paintings and sturdy beds. All is neat, clean and friendly.
Ho~tel Notre-Dame. If the romance of the Latin Quarter appeals to you and you like a room with view -- the rooftops of "veille Paris," the spires of Notre Dame and the dome of the Pantheon, the Seine -- head for the Ho~tel Notre-Dame. Hidden away in a quiet, narrow little street, its 32 renovated rooms have wooden beams, antique desks or armoires, telephones, color TVs, refrigerators and radios.
Ho~tel Esmeralda is right, as long as it's character, not space and an elevator, you crave. With its postage-stamp lobby crowded with antiques, and tiny rooms tucked in every nook and cranny, the Esmeralda screams Left Bank. The bathrooms are small, but perfectly adequate, and the rooms rustic. This hotel has one of the best views of Notre Dame and the Seine and of the oldest church in Paris, St.-Julien-le-Pauvre. Just be warned: Take your earplugs. One thing the Esmeralda cannot boast is a tranquil setting -- traffic on the quai (20 feet away) can be heavy.
Ho~tel des Marronniers. For a more assured night's sleep, without sacrificing character, consider the Ho~tel des Marronniers, set well back from the street and protected by an inner courtyard. The location is excellent for hunting down antiques and cruising small art galleries.
Just slightly shabby, the Marronniers nonetheless has its pretty side in a lovely glassed-in breakfast greenhouse that gives onto a small garden, complete with tables and chairs for de'jeuner dans les fleurs. At an average of less than $50 per night, you can't expect the rooms to be extra special, but they are comfortable and clean and each has a private bath.
Ho~tel d'Angleterre. For more elegance on the same street, go to the Ho~tel d'Angleterre. With its grand piano, sweeping staircase, oriental rugs and high ceilings, it effortlessly creates an air of gentility and old-world standards. It is saved from being stiff by a glassed-in garden and courtyard and breakfast tables with flowered tablecloths.
The rooms are basic but quiet with telephones; most look out onto a courtyard filled with ivy and flowers and have full baths.
Ho~tel Bersoly's St. Germain stands on one of the more convenient yet quiet streets in Paris, the Rue de Lille, nestled in the heart of the antique shops and art galleries of the Left Bank, yet a short walk across the Pont du Carrousel to the Louvre and shops of the Rue de Rivoli. Although not in le style grand luxe, this little place has been entirely renovated. The rooms are small but attractive and comfortable, with private baths, television, telephones and, so you don't have to worry about dual voltage, a hair dryer.
Ho~tel Lenox has a shiny, hard surface but a soft charming interior. The super-chic bar is a favorite of the city's high-fashion models, which gives it an added panache. Not far from the Muse'e d'Orsay, the hotel has been completely renovated but with an effort to retain its charm. Some of the rooms have lofts, creating an air of spaciousness in the square footage of a large telephone booth.
Ho~tel de l'Universite' has a brooding, tapestry-hung lobby with a wide curving staircase. There is a tiny room off the lobby for drinks and coffee and a large lending library filled with paperbacks and guidebooks. This renovation of a 17th-century townhouse -- half a block from the Lenox on the other side of the street -- has interesting period pieces in all the rooms. The top floor has a room with a balcony complete with state-of-the-art garden furniture at the top price of 900 francs (about $150); others equally interesting but without the terrace go for 550 francs (about $90). The baths are marble and adequate.
Another good address is the tiny Ile St. Louis, one of the most romantic and attractive sections of Paris. It is literally an island of tranquility in a sea of hustle and bustle, sitting as it does smack in the middle of the Seine. The island is very residential, with patrician townhouses and courtyards and a riverside charm, yet only a couple minutes from Notre Dame and the pulsing nightlife of the Latin Quarter. It's also within easy walking distance of the interesting hangouts of the Marais. Only small hotels exist here; the two most interesting are Les Deux-Iles and Lute`ce.
Les Deux-Iles is a small, rustic 17th-century hotel with a greenhouse garden in the lobby, along with chintz-covered sofas and chairs, a refectory table and an eclectic mix of old wicker and period furniture. One flight down is an intimate, medieval-style tavern with thick stone walls and fireplace.
In the rooms, the bathrooms reflect the past grandeur of the Grand Sie`cle: large with lots of marble, claw-foot bathtubs and huge sinks. Bedroom sizes vary -- some are barely larger than the bed (ask for the biggest available) and are pleasantly furnished in the same whimsical style as the lobby.
Ho~tel de Lute`ce. On the same side of the street in the next block, this hotel is the home away from home for some members of British aristocracy. Although unique, the lobby has the same blend of comfort, coziness and style as found at the Deux Iles.
The Lute`ce captures a mood of country-house chic: pretty sofas and chairs centered around a fireplace, huge bouquets of fresh flowers, contemporary oil paintings and original tile floors. The 23 guest rooms are individually decorated with attention to detail. Bathrooms are small, modern and impeccable.
Moving squarely on to the Right Bank, if you must, first consider the Marais, now the trendiest neighborhood in Paris. Neglected for years, the Marais is enjoying a renaissance, spurred on by the long-awaited opening of the Picasso Museum last year. The neighborhood that fans out from the elegant Place des Vosges is now filled with high-wattage art galleries, designer shops and bistros.
Ho~tel des Chevaliers. The most elegant hotel of the Marais, the Pavillon de la Reine, sits right on the Place itself but runs around 1,500 francs (close to $250) a night. Less pricey is the Chevaliers, another new hotel that sits just outside the symmetrical mansions of the Place des Vosges on Rue de Turenne. Although on a main street, the hotel has double-glazed windows and many rooms face a back courtyard.
The owners retained the 17th-century architectural details while redoing everything else. There is an elevator, state-of-the-art bathrooms with hair dryers, telephone, remote control television, alarm clock and minibar, and regulation closets with sliding mirrored doors. The new owners are anxious to please so service is cheerful. They'll make restaurant and theater reservations, call a cab and fix your breakfast.
Ho~tel de la Place des Vosges. If you want a quieter street and don't mind a more threadbare look in exchange for lower prices, walk over to the Ho~tel de la Place des Vosges. Its location -- around the corner from the Victor Hugo Museum and some great restaurants -- its friendliness and the price (starting at less than $40 for two, including breakfast) help you to ignore the fraying carpet, worn furniture and having to maneuver sideways around the bed.
Atala. In the heart of the Right Bank, on a curving narrow street with little traffic, stands Atala, constructed around a large garden in such a way that once you step through the door you will completely forget that you are only a hundred meters away from the noise and congestion of the Champs Elyse'es.
The first floor is quite grand: A reception desk, writing tables and chairs fill the first room, which opens onto an imposing, full-scale dining room with one wall entirely made of glass looking out on a garden full of white tables with bright umbrellas.
The upstairs is not as grand but the rooms are well above average -- large, bright and mostly overlooking the garden. All have modern conveniences like telephones, minibars and shining tiled baths. A full-fledged hotel with all the services on the Right Bank for 680 francs ($110) a night is remarkable. The Balzac down the street, for example, is triple the price.
Just across the street and down the block sit two other remarkable finds in this neighborhood, perfect for travelers who don't need all the services of a large hotel.
Re'sidence Lord Byron, and its twin, the Mayflower, are appealing little jewel boxes, designed with a fresh, Laura Ashley look.
The Lord Byron is all arched hallways and wide marble staircase with a sweeping glassed double door to a trellised garden. English country house is the predominant theme, with fine English antiques, leather-bound vintage books lining the walls and framed hunting prints.
The Mayflower is not as stunning but it is pretty and comfortable. The rooms have been renovated with lots of attention to firm mattresses and strategically placed reading lamps. The bathrooms have been updated to a fare-thee-well -- marble floors, white, sparkling tile and state-of-the-art chrome fixtures. Breakfast can be taken in a little dining room or in a large courtyard or will be brought to your room on a tray.
With the Lord Byron and the Mayflower, you come as close as possible to a Left bank ambiance with Right Bank location. Even more astounding is the price -- more Left Bank than even Left Bank: from 470 francs ($76) on up.
Pullman Saint-Honore' is a good value for those unreconstructed Americans who prefer the feel of being at home while away. New and shiny, the Pullman could pass for a Holiday Inn in Kansas but for the fact that it is directly across the street from Le Crillon, arguably the grandest, most luxurious hotel in Paris. The Pullman provides those European touches that can't be mass-produced, like pink rosebuds on all the tables in the large lobby and a staff that is happy to be there. The rooms are well-designed and highly functional. There are no quirks here, it's well run and professionally staffed, and the price -- from $80 a night -- for Right Bank modern is fair.
Margaret B. Carlson is a Washington writer. Catherine Williams is a contributing editor of Ottawa magazine.