Paris or Rome? Which is Better?

by M. L. Longworth

At a recent dinner party in Aix (the menu: a starter of scrambled eggs topped with black truffles on artichokes, followed by a lamb ragout), we got into a discussion (it’s never an argument in France) over which city is superior, Paris or Rome. Our hosts had just been to Rome for the first time in many years. They were struck at how multicultural and international Paris is while Rome felt like, to them, a small provincial town. They were smitten.

We talked about many things that evening, but kept coming back to the Paris vs Rome discussion. We were split down the middle of the table, with most of us wafting back and forth between the two. Here are some bits of our discussion/analyses:

Rome is physically more beautiful, thanks to its colorful façades.

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I love this photo, with the statue's foot in the foreground.

I love this photo, with the statue’s foot in the foreground.

 

And yet, at night Paris is stunning:

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and its wide Haussmannian boulevards don’t make Paris a claustrophobic megatropolis:

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We all agreed that Paris is more cosmopolitan. But for me, this was a negative. Do I need Oregon-style craft beers, or Australian-style drip coffee, when in Europe? I love that Italy, and even Rome, sticks to what it knows best, and stays very local (especially when it comes to food). Most of my French friends disagreed with me on this point. Below is the window of a Parisian (Brooklyn-style) bakery, the food offerings written entirely in English. Urgh!

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A plus for Paris, for tourists, is that it is lovely any time of year, even in the summer, when it can be cooler than other parts of Europe, and in August the Parisians are gone (but, that also means that many of my favorite businesses are closed that month). Rome, on the other hand, is impossible for me in July and August: too hot, and too many people. I have definitely felt like these girls below, in Rome in the summer:

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Paris has more contemporary art and architecture. Yes, for sure. But Rome is catching up.

Richard Meier's Ara Pacis in Rome.

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis in Rome.

When Meiers won the competition for the Ara Pacis, he said, “Rome has not seen a modern building in half a century. It is frozen in time.”

Zaha Hadid's MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art.

Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome.

 

And in Rome, the churches are full of Renaissance masterpieces, for free.

Caravaggio's "The Calling of St Matthew", part of the St Matthew cycle of paintings in Rome's San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St Matthew”, part of the St Matthew cycle of paintings in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi.

 

By now, you must think that I am routing for Rome…but it’s not that simple! As we ate dessert, we kept talking…

Paris has more parks, and they are outfitted for everyone.

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The Seine is more user-friendly than the Tiber.

I walk along this bit of the Seine, a sculpture park, to and from the Gare de Lyon train station and NYU's campus on the blvd St-Germain.

I walk along this bit of the Seine, a sculpture park, to and from the Gare de Lyon train station and NYU’s campus on the blvd St-Germain.

Bars and restaurants along the Seine (most of them are closed during the winter months)

Bars and restaurants along the Seine (most of them are closed during the winter months)

 

Both Rome and Paris have a long way to go to catch up with London: 47% of London is green space, accessible to all its citizens.

The bike-sharing program in Paris, Vélib’, has been a resounding success. I think that says a lot about its citizens. In Rome, it was a disaster:

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I recently read an article in Bloomberg Business which tries to understand the failure of the bike-share program in Rome. The city has 978 motorized vehicles — cars, motorcycles, and scooters — per 1,000 inhabitants. That compares with 398 vehicles per 1,000 Londoners and 415 per 1,000 in Paris, which has over 20,000 bikes and 1,800 stations. I laughed out loud when one Roman was quoted as saying, “Romans don’t like to show up for work sweaty.” I totally agree! To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I walk to work or hop on a bus.

Rome has better coffee (I’m talkin’ espresso here). No contest.

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We moved into the salon for digestifs, and I tried to remember the The Venerable Bede quote, “Rome will exist as long as the Coliseum does; when the Coliseum falls, so will Rome; when Rome falls, so will the world.” I still have my university copy of Bede’s book somewhere on the bookshelf. And then a slew of quotes followed about Paris, from Montesquieu to Hemingway to Gertrude Stein, who said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”

I’m never bored by Paris, even having worked there now for eight years. Every time I walk out of the apartment, or NYU’s doors, I discover something new, like the Perigord restaurant around the corner from the school where a generous home-cooked two-course lunch with a glass of wine costs 15 euros. As I paid the bill at the zinc bar I noticed about fifty wooden cubby holes, each one labelled with a name: inside were linen napkins belonging to regular customers. At that moment Paris felt like a small town, or a hometown as Stein called it.

It was late, and time for coffee… Illy, from Italy, of course!

What are your thoughts about Paris and Rome?