I once spent a night in the Place des Vosges.
That may sound romantic to those who know the lovely park at heart of Paris’s Marais quarter. But when I say I spent the night, I don’t mean that I slept in a plush hotel in the trendy Jewish district. I spent that night on a damp, uncomfortable bench by a fountain, because I had missed the last metro of the evening back to my hotel and had decided it would be interesting to wander all night in the City of Light. And around 4 a.m. — after hours spent strolling the quiet boulevards, pressing my nose against the glass of darkened boutiques and bakeries — I finally collapsed on that bench and dozed until the sky turned pink.
That night I saw an entirely different Paris from the tourist-thronged, baguette-waving workaday city. It is a testament to the enduring gentility of Paris that I was able to repose undisturbed in one of its most-frequented parks at a most unholy hour, slumbering in the glow of those fin-de-siecle lampposts. I woke to the sight of schoolchildren holding hands in a line: perfectly composed in that maddening way of all French youngsters, they marched solemnly past me in the dewy morn.
It was hardly the most comfortable of nights. Yet I recall it with a vividness reserved for those experiences so far removed from the quotidian that they become indelible. Traveling at night takes many forms, but it is invariably an experience distinct from the daylight routine, and therefore travel at its most intense.
Most people are asleep at night; many are not. To wander the streets of a nocturnal city is to walk amid the altered rhythm of these night-owls — waiters scurrying home after a late shift, street-sweepers with their whirring trucks, drunk, giggling party girls stumbling home on high heels. Even in the most teeming metropolis, the wee hours can be surprisingly vacant; plazas sit dormant in the 3 a.m. shadows, and the few souls roaming the sidewalks are aware of each other.
The Spanish, who have a particular fondness for the hours after midnight, call that space between night and morning the “madrugada.” And when a country has a special term for it, you know it would be a crime to sleep through it. You don’t miss much by turning in early in Sacramento, but Madrid is another story: 3 a.m. is the Spain of Almodóvar’s misfits and Picasso’s harlequins, a starlit, shadowy world of churro runs and smoky flamenco bars.
Exploring by night almost inevitably takes on a desultory feel, freed as one is from the constraint of schedule. There is no train to catch; no reservation waiting at the restaurant; no exhibition to be gotten through before closing time.
With so few practical options, night can be an efficient time to cover ground. If you are one of those lucky people who can sleep sitting up, you can nod off in New York and wake up in Munich or Marrakesh. Night trains are popular on the Continent as a way to save both money and time, but I swore them off after I woke up chugging into Rome without my wallet.
My sister — who must have been a Spaniard in a previous life — famously stays up all night, and manages to find the late-owl hangouts in the sleepiest of cities. In Los Angeles for family visits, she regales us with tales of her nocturnal escapades: 2 a.m. Jewish-deli runs, the last set at a comedy club, a nightcap with bloodshot-eyed screenwriters at Crave in Studio City.
Late night can be the best time to sample a city’s street food. Most of the real restaurants are closed, but a parallel dining world of food trucks and snack bars stays open to feed the hungry hordes as they empty out of bars and dance clubs. There are the aforementioned churros of Madrid, deep-fried fritters dunked in chocolate sauce; falafel in Tel Aviv; döner kebabs in Berlin; and whoopie pies the size of dinner plates on somnolent Martha’s Vineyard, where the Artcliff Diner food truck is like a midnight mirage.
My own late-night vice is swimming. What is perfectly reasonable during the day — slipping into a hotel pool, or bathing in calm bay waters — takes on a certain risqué quality after hours. Night swimming is technically forbidden in most places, but since I have so little company for those 11 p.m. laps, I generally go unnoticed.
Just as I did many years ago in Paris, on a park bench in the Marais.