Paris is arguably the greatest city in the world for walking, with all those gloriously Gallic sights and scents, boulangeries and bistros, to indulge your inner-flaneur. And when your legs have had enough, you can always hop on one of the world's best subway systems.
Yet today, on my first trip back to the French capital since the pandemic, I'm embracing another mode of transport, the hottest Parisian trend right now: cycling.
Over the past 18 months, more than 50 kilometres of temporary bike lanes - dubbed coronapistes - have snaked across Paris, with many becoming permanent, joining the many other protected cycleways already installed by City Hall. Re-elected last year after pledging to put people and the environment before cars, socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is looking to propel Paris into the big league of pedalling-friendly European capitals like Copenhagen and Amsterdam - building on the success of the city's Velib' bike sharing scheme, which launched in 2007.
"You can now cycle from one side of Paris to the other in bike lanes, on both sides of the river [Seine]," says Martin Otormin Dall'oglio, my engaging guide. He is a history graduate, who leads me on an e-bike tour through Paris, where the improved cycling infrastructure is persuading locals and tourists alike to swap traffic jams and cramped Metro carriages for the saddle - and better social distancing.
Among the striking changes, once vehicle-thronged thoroughfares such as Rue de Rivoli, a three-kilometre stretch that brushes past the Louvre and department stores like La Samiritaine, are now virtually closed to private vehicles. Five lanes are set aside for bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters - and only one lane for taxis, buses and emergency services.
Whizzing along here is a highlight of our three-hour ride, which began in the Beaubourg district, near the Pompidou Centre. Martin shows me a black-and-white photograph of what the area looked like before this colourful cultural hub opened in 1977. Parked cars sprawled where the Pompidou looms today. "The car park is now underground," says Martin, pointing to footpath-sprouting pipes that control the air circulation below.
After biking through a knot of tight, winding lanes in the adjacent Marais district, passing boutiques, galleries, bars, cafes and kosher restaurants, we shoot across the Seine via the Ile Saint-Louis, the quieter, smaller island next to the Ile de la Cite, where scaffolding still shrouds the Notre-Dame cathedral following its 2019 fire. Arriving in the Latin Quarter on the famed Left Bank, our bikes' electronic boosts come in useful as we climb up to the Pantheon, where iconic French figures like Voltaire and Victor Hugo are laid to rest.
The pleasing thing about this tour is how it highlights both well-known and "hidden" Parisian sights, so while you may have admired the mighty-domed Pantheon before, you might not have visited the nearby Arenes de Lutece. Built by the ancient Romans for open-air theatre and gladiatorial contests, this amphitheatre was rediscovered and partially reconstructed during Baron Haussmann's 19th-century overhaul of Paris. Today it's a serene, secluded spot, where Parisians toss boules on the gravel and relax by the vine-clad slopes.
Cycling in Paris is certainly easier and more enjoyable than ever - but it's not always easy riding. You must be alert to the presence of other bell-tingling cyclists, plus e-scooters, pedestrians, buses and cars (some disapproving drivers may give you a honk or a Gallic shrug). Occasionally, you'll negotiate cobbled stretches that are postcard-pretty but not very comfortable to ride on. Parts of chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres, for instance, are notable bone-rattlers.
Happily, more car-free chunks now line the banks by the Seine. Even the Tuileries Tunnel - part of the Georges Pompidou Expressway opened on the Right Bank in the 1960s - has been permanently closed to vehicles in Hidalgo's "war" on motorists. We hit 25 kilometres per hour through this 800 metre passage, which is asphalt-smooth and faintly illuminated by blue strips of light on the walls.
It's fun, but I'm glad to return to the natural light. Pedalling beside the water, the air seems fresher than the last time I was in Paris. There's renewed joie de vivre, too. Pop-up venues serve food and drink and people are picnicking by the water, their bikes resting beside them or against the trees that provide shade from the midday sun.
Paris Bike Tour runs several themed rides, including the e-bike tour, priced €49 ($78) for adults, €44 ($70) for children. It also rents out bikes. See parisbiketour.net
Steve McKenna was a guest of Paris Bike Tour.