The elements of style: a traveler's guide to the pleasures of Paris

An American in Paris -- it still has some of the old ring to it. Going to Paris does something to residents of the New World. Even if you aren't normally chic, or a lover of food and the arts, Paris will inspire you. Stylishness -- fussiness, even -- is a virtue there, which is why the food is wonderful, everyone looks elegant, and the city is gorgeous everywhere you look.

This brings me to my first suggestion for enjoying your stay in Paris: pack your best clothes. Walking up the Champs 'Elys'ees clad in something drip-dry will not make you feel a part of things. You don't need much variety; do what the French do, and wear the same fabulous outfit every day. Timing can help

More than 1.9 million Americans visited France last year -- a 27 percent increase over '83, which was also a record-breaker. Still, ``you can count on August being a slow month in Paris,'' says Nora Brossard of the French Government Tourist Office in New York. The tourists may be there in droves in July and August, but so many Parisians are gone that the hotels and museums are less crowded than usual. (Many small restaurants, on the other hand, tend to be closed, and the city seems less lively.)

September and October are usually beautiful months, weatherwise. The places no one should miss

Most first-time visitors to Paris make a beeline for the delightful Mus'ee Jeu de Paume. And, of course, you won't feel you've been to Paris unless you have a hot chocolate in the Eiffel Tower, and perhaps another in the Place du Tertre in Monmartre.

But my favorite places are the ^Ile de la Cit'e, where the gorgeous Notre Dame Cathedral is located (the Caf'e Notre Dame opposite offers a good view of it); the ^Ile St. Louis (stop at Bertillon's for the best sherbet in the world); the Mus'ee Cluny (home of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries as well as a copy of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri); and the student quarter (for crepes and pommes frites to eat as you walk).

St. Chapelle, the Place des Vosges, and the Rodin museum should be saved for very sunny days. Savvy museum-going

One problem tourists have is coping with the Louvre. You won't just fall over the Mona Lisa; it took me six visits to find it without asking. Unless you have lots of time for repeat visits, you might want to take an English-language tour. These are offered every day except Sundays and Tuesdays, between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Ask at the information desk.

When I go to Paris, the first thing I want to know is: What's at the Grand Palais? This is a museum featuring special exhibits, and it's right off the Champs 'Elys'ees. This year, through April 22, there's a show of Impressionist landscape paintings. Beginning May 15, there will be what was described to me as a ``very important'' Renoir exhibit (through Sept. 2).

These exhibits are popular; go early in the morning. Remember, all major museums are closed on Tuesdays. The fashion houses

The Paris collections are shown in the first week of January and the last week of July. For some weeks after, many of the 25 or 30 fashion houses have video presentations you can watch. (Your hotel concierge might help arrange this for you.)

Christian Dior is at 30, Avenue Montaigne in the 8th arrondissement (telephone 723-54-44). There a film is presented at 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, from the beginning of August to Nov. 16 and from the end of January to May 15.

Yves Saint-Laurent, at 5, Avenue Marceau, (telephone 723-72-71) offers a video every day in September and February. Balmain, at 44, rue Franois-1er (telephone 720-35-34) offers a fashion show every day for a month and a half after the collections. Chanel, at 31, rue Cambon (telephone 261-54-55), has a show every Tuesday and Thursday at 3.30 p.m. from Sept. 1 to mid-November and from the beginning of February to May. Chanel never shows to more than 10 people at a time; reservations must be made two weeks in advance. Tips for the serious shopper

If you spend more than 800 francs ($84.40) at one store, you don't have to pay the sales tax. This can save you from 7 to 33 percent, depending on the item. It's a somewhat daunting procedure: first you ask for the certificat de detaxe, and fill it out in triplicate. This must be presented to the comptoir de detaxe at the airport before you check your bags. One of the forms should be mailed back to the merchant from the airport.

Perfumes can be bought with a small discount at Michel Suisse, at 16, rue de la Paix. Guerlain's products are only available at their shops; a convenient one is at 68, Champs Elys'ees.

Those who are very serious about art galleries, of which there are hundreds in Paris, should pick up a current copy of the Officiel des Galeries which is available at 15, Rue du Temple. Those who prefer to poke around will find many of them in the 6th arrondissement, along the Place F"urstemberg, the Rue Bonaparte, Rue du Seine, Rue des Beaux Arts, Rue Gu'ene'gaud, and Rue Jacob, and in the 8th arrondissement along the Avenue Matignon, the Rue du Faubourg St. Honor'e, Rue de Miromesnil, and the Rue la Boe'tie. Flea markets, city walks

All flea markets seem to be near the old gates of Paris. The most famous, at Porte de Clignancourt is open all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There are smaller ones at Porte des Lilas (Sundays only), and Porte de Vanves (Saturday and Sunday).

Visitors especially interested in architecture might enjoy Meredith Sykes's walking tours of Paris. Ms. Sykes, an architectural historian, can be found at 132, Rue de Rennes, Paris 75006, in the 6th arrondissement (telephone 548-3961). Guides to night life

To find out about night life, the French-language ``Pariscope'' and ``Officiel des Spectacles'' are very helpful, even if you read only a little French. The English newspaper Passion offers a list of selected events.

The music halls offer distinctively French entertainment; two of the best known are the Olympia, 28, Boulevard des Capucines, and Bobino, at 20, rue de la Gait'e. This year's festivals

There are, of course, many special events in Paris throughout the summer. Bastille Day, July 14, is celebrated with fireworks over the Seine.

This year, you might try the Festival du Marais street theater, in churches and courtyards in the Marais district, June 12-July 13 (telephone 887-7431). There's also the Festival Estival, which presents concerts in historic sites around the city. That's July 15-Sept. 21 (telephone 227-1268).

The Pompidou Center is hosting the 23rd International Dance Festival of Paris in October and November. And on July 21 you can watch participants of the Tour de France bicycle race ride up the Champs 'Elys'ees. Best ways to get around

There are several ways to get to Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport. The easiest is the Air France bus, which leaves every 15 minutes beginning at 5:45 a.m., ending at 11 p.m. It takes 30 minutes to get to the Porte Maillot terminal, and costs 27 francs ($2.85).

The best way to get around the city is on the Metro. You can buy a carnet of 10 tickets for less than the straight price. (Remember to hang on to your ticket -- you need it to transfer and when you leave.) Or you can buy a billet touristique: a two-day pass is 44 francs ($4.65), a 4-day 66 francs ($7.00), a 7-day 110 francs ($11.60). Guidebooks that could help

``Paris Walks'' by Alison and Sonia Landes (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York) is an amusing book to travel with, but it will be the slim, light, informative, green Michelin Tourist Guide ``Paris'' volume that you should carry in your pocket as you tour. Where to write

The French Government Tourist Office in New York can send you general information; the drop-in office is at 628 Fifth Avenue, or write 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020.

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