PARIS — Full disclosure: I love-love-love this city. In the springtime. In the fall. In the summer, when it sizzles. In the winter, when it drizzles (though not so much when it snows!) Merci, Cole Porter.
I visit twice a year on business, for Maison et Object, a home-fashions trade show at the Parc des Expositions, a 45-minute RER train ride just before Charles de Gaulle Airport. There I dash around eight ginormous halls (1.4 million square feet!), reporting on trends — color, pattern, texture, the shape of things soon to come across the pond.
So I am attuned to all things design: on the street, in the shops, in restaurants. I see Paris as the ne plus ultra of shopping, and here is my approach to retail nirvana, not just for offerings but for style. My favorite place is Saint-Germain-des-Pres (in the 6th arrondissement). It's my comfort zone, one whose maze of tiny streets now is sooo much easier to navigate with Google maps on a smartphone. It's the right combination of energy and quaintness, and the shops are amazing!
Then there's the Marais (in the 3rd and 4th), the other neighborhood with irresistible charms and architecture reflecting its medieval roots. Perfect for walking, which you need to do — once you get to the neigborhood you want by train. Master the Metro! Zipping around takes minutes, and sometimes you get serenaded by guitar, accordion or full-on orchestra. Yes, that happened.
My ritual: The first thing I do after I check in at my hotel is to head to a flower shop. Quoi? But of course, for a small bouquet for my room. So French. Aquarelle (9 rue de Buci, aquarelle.com) has delicious blooms wrapped in cellophane, ready to travel, as inexpensive as $10. Another favorite: Au Nom de la Rose (14 rue de Tournon, aunomdelarose.fr), with the obvious specialty. A petite bouquet tucked into a painted zinc pot is about $20.
Mosey along, eyes wide open. Admire the window boxes lush with flowers year-round. Boxwood in pots framing a doorway. Massive doors with exquisite hardware. Corbels on buildings. A pretty lace curtain in a window. Savor the patisseries — quel eye candy!
Enjoy the boutiques — well-edited displays, beaucoup de details on clothing, such as trims, stitching, embellishments. I try to seek out locally made goods. A sometime exception: a scarf shop like one on rue Dauphine where labels may be from India, but the inexpensive accessories reflect street trends. Take fashion cues from the tres chic French women and men, who love their foulards and wear them elegantly.
Shopping until you drop is great sport here; but there's always a salon du chocolat nearby to rest your feet and indulge in a little tarte au citron or eclair au chocolat. Just enough energy for the next round.
Hard-core shoppers: Take an extra packable bag for goodies. Check airline limitations. On Air France, for example, you're allowed to check one bag and carry on one bag. Pack light, perhaps just using your carry-on, so you have plenty of baggage space for your return trip with the checked bag. And take care of your VAT (tax) paperwork before you check luggage, or carry your souvenirs with you, because they sometimes ask to see what you bought.
If you've bought at least 175 euros (or $232) in one place, take advantage of the VAT (value added tax) or detaxe, which entitles you to an 18 percent refund on purchases. This number fluctuates, but in France it's expected to go up to 20 percent in 2014. Ask the vendor for the papers — fill them out in the store, enter your passport number — they'll ask to see it; they'll sign and give you an envelope with two copies. Take it to the airport, present it to customs, and you can get reimbursed on the spot or you drop it in a designated mailbox and you'll be issued a credit on your charge card (you choose the option at the shop).
Where to hunt
Nina Kendosa (24 rue de Buci, ninakendosa.com). Especially a hot spot for reasonable on-trend blouses, fancy T-shirts.
Flamant (8 rue l'Abbaye, flamant.com). Like shopping from the pages of a French design magazine, room after room of exquisite furnishings, even a proprietary paint line. This Belgian-based retailer was doing reclaimed woods, rustic modern and industrial well before Restoration Hardware. A bonus: location in the picturesque place de Furstenberg. Saunter about the charming square, framed with a quartet of paulownia trees and jewel-like shops including Manuel Canovas or Osborne & Little.
Blanc d'Ivoire (104 rue du Bac, blancdivoire.com). Luscious bedding, with finely stitched quilts in fetching hues, furniture inspired by antiques and beautiful tableware.
Christian Lacroix Boutique (2-4 Place St. Sulpice, christian-lacroix.fr). Cool design in a former printing shop with products for the body and home in the designer's bold signature style.
CFOC, acronym for Compagnie Francaise de l'Orient et de la Chine (cfoc.fr) Reopens in September at 260 Saint-Germain-des-Pres, after a successful relaunch on boulevard Haussmann. All things for the home plus clothes and jewelry merge Oriental tradition and craftsmanship (lacquerware, celadon, Vietnamese embroidery) with modern styling and fine design.
Gerard Mulot (76 rue de Seine, gerard-mulot.com). Divine chocolate; the dark with pistachio swoonworthy! And the best pate de fruits (squares of pureed fresh fruit rolled in sugar). Ever. They say they make 6,000 macarons a day in 18 flavors!
Hartwood (40 rue du Bac, hartwoodparis.com). Upscale shop for both genders; superb men's shirts in jaunty stripes, patterns and colors hard to find in the U.S., so cool that some women buy one for hubbies, one for themselves. About half the cost of Ralph Lauren Purple label.
Eric Bompard (31 rue du Bac, eric-bompard.com). High-end cashmere, thick, lush in colors of the rainbow.
Deyrolle (46 rue du Bac, http://www.deyrolle.com). A shop of curiosities dating to 1831. From the stuffed, preserved, fossilized and mounted to vintage prints — botanical and medical. Don't miss the dazzling butterflies; I couldn't resist a pair of brilliant blues, simply framed.
In the Marais
Caravane, 4 rue Saint-Nicolas, caravane.fr. Interior designers love this small treasure trove, especially its lovely fabrics and accessories. Plus you might land a chic scarf in linen, yummy cashmere or wool, alongside throws for the sofa.
Merci (111 boulevard Beaumarchais, merci-merci.com). Uber hip concept shop changes themes (recent ones were connectivity and social networking; food) every few months. Everything from Annick Goutal to Stella McCartney, men's and women's clothing (even vintage). Bohemian, upcountry and modern furniture. And housewares displayed like early Crate & Barrel. Profits are donated to charities.
Crea Concept (2 bis rue des Rosiers, creaconcept.com). Stylish women's designs in a range of neutrals but with punchy seasonal colors. Layered looks are romantic. Architectural as well as flowy lines.
Les Ateliers de la Maille (13 rue des Francs Bourgeois, lesateliersdelamaille.com). Good-quality cashmere sweaters with stylin' details, such as rhinestone buttons on cardigans or pockets on tanks.
Cecile & Jeanne (14 rue des Rosiers, cecilejeanne.com). Showstopping costume jewelry, especially resin in vivid hues such as magenta. Fab leather handbags and gloves sometimes decorated with mini-bows or polka dots.