PARIS -- There are those who come here for art, food, or fashion. Some arrive with expectations of romance. But chocolate lovers have their own priority: French hot chocolate alone is well worth the trip. Following the trail of the ultimate hot chocolate experience is a great way to visit this city.
French hot chocolate is not the cocoa powder mixed into warm milk that American mothers dole out to children. It is also not the Italian chocolate syrup and foamed milk concoction so common in coffee shops.
Hot chocolate in France is a serious chocolate experience. Its main ingredient is melted chocolate -- a lot of it -- which is then blended into cream or whole milk. The chocolate contains a high percentage of cacao, which gives it an intensity that can cause true chocolate lovers to fall silent.
In Paris, hot chocolate is usually served in a pitcher with a glass of water on the side, which seems to acknowledge you'll need a chaser to offset the richness. Hot chocolate is different at each place in the city, with the range usually from above-average to sublime.
Angelina. Any discussion of hot chocolate in Paris has to begin with Angelina, near the Louvre and within sight of the Eiffel Tower. The tearoom was founded in 1903 and its Chocolat Africain draws people worldwide.
Chocolat Africain got its name from the Cte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast, a former French protectorate) origin of its cacao beans. It is, by far, the richest, darkest, and sweetest hot chocolate available in the city. It is so thick it could be poured over ice cream.
This is not a quick-gulp experience, so prepare to relax awhile in the tearoom surrounded by the meticulously coiffed French women who meet here for lunch.
L'Heure Gourmande. Cross the Seine to the Left Bank, and you arrive in Saint-Germain-des-Prs, a neighborhood known for its intellectual cafe culture. It could also be considered hot chocolate central in Paris.
A good first stop is L'Heure Gourmande, a cafe tucked into an alley marked only with a small teapot sign that is easy to overlook. With its cozy yellow and maroon walls, the tearoom is an excellent place to stop for quiche or cheesecake and to try the amazing "chocolat l'ancienne."
Although it retains a potent chocolate flavor, L'Heure Gourmande's version has a light and creamy texture that makes it dangerously easy to polish off several cups. The hot chocolate is brought to the table in a tall ceramic pitcher and cafe owner Cathy Roditi churns the drink to froth it using a wooden paddle that fits into the pitcher.
"There is a hot chocolate trend in Paris that has been going on for three or four years," said Roditi. "I think the main reason is because it's very convivial to share a cup."
Caf de Flore and Les Deux Magots. When you ask Parisians for a hot chocolate recommendation, most people will immediately mention Caf de Flore, a legendary Saint-Germain-des-Prs cafe, along with the nearby Les Deux Magots.
Both boast long lists of famous regulars -- living and dead -- including Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway and a parade of French and Hollywood actors. Somehow, the cafes are also so clearly full of neighborhood clientele that tourists fade into the background.
It is easy to understand why Caf de Flore's hot chocolate is the top pick of so many. It is a luxurious cup without being overly rich or filling. The creamy, light chocolate is made with melted chocolate pieces, whole milk, and a touch of caramel.
"The hot chocolate recipe has been the same for ages," says Dominique Leger, a Caf de Flore waiter for 13 years. "The hot chocolate is the reason a lot of people come in here -- especially in the winter."
Le Gastelier. This Montmartre cafe, down a grassy hill below the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, offers a smooth hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon. Montmartre is an artists' village within the city that was recently the backdrop for the blockbuster movie "Amelie."
After a tromp around the charming streets, squares, and stairways that wind around the Montmartre summit, Le Gastelier with its red-checked tablecloths is a pleasant place for a break. The cafe also serves another French classic -- chocolate fondue.
Cacao et Chocolat. While most of the hot chocolate experience in Paris involves sitting at a cafe, for an excellent quick hot chocolate at the center of the city, head for this modern chocolatier with its bright indigo and yellow storefronts. The chain of three shops has been open six years and specializes in chocolate made from South American and African cacao beans.
Each shop has a counter with a few stools where they serve coffee and "Tchocolatl," their version of hot chocolate. It has a slight milky texture softening the richness of the 70 percent cacao content in the chocolate that is melted into the drink.
Although Cacao et Chocolat shops are located in the chic Le Marais and Latin Quarter neighborhoods, for sightseers its best location is likely on Ile St-Louis, the tiny island adjacent to Notre-Dame.
If you take your hot chocolate in a to-go cup (rare in Paris), you can stand on the bridge overlooking both banks of the Seine with a spectacular view of the cathedral. A perfect setting for enjoying a perfect pleasure.
Jennifer Ehrlich is a freelance writer in Somerville.