Off the beaten path in Paris
As regular visitors to Paris, this article uncovers a few of the secret suburbs and the more unusual places in Paris we’ve discovered.
For first time visitors to Paris France, it’s all about seeing the big icons; Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Élysées. Then there’s the Pompidour Centre, the Marais, the artists at Montmarte and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The Opéra Garnier, Palais-Royal, Les Invalides, the Luxembourg Palace, and on and on it goes.
There is a reason why Paris is the most visited capital city in the world. There’s so much to see and do in Paris and one day will never, ever be enough. If you are here for a short time, these are some of the most popular places in Paris.
Paris is very special to us and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit on many occasions. And, whilst of course, we always love stomping back over some of our favourite territory, our familiarity with this great city now means that we can spread our wings a little further and get to know the real Paris.
Canal St-Martin and the Bassin de la Villette
If you’ve been around the Bastille before, you might recognise the Canal St-Martin. It’s the small canal running down to the Seine. Noted for its beautiful footbridges and (in summer) its lush green trees, it is the perfect environment for walking and picnics.
It’s also where the barges and houseboats are moored. Once upon a time I gazed at these boats hoping that one day I too might get to explore the canals of France in a barge.
If you’ve been here before, you’ll know that this part of the canal isn’t exactly “off the beaten path” in Paris. Quite right!
The secret is in the detail, and when it is discovered, it unveils an area of Paris that remains largely unknown to the masses.
With the canal being used extensively once upon a time for the transport of food and other goods, it was a lively port area. But, during the 1960s water traffic started to diminish and the plan was to cover the entire canal with roadways. Luckily, this was not completely carried out. Today, a part of the Canal St-Martin actually runs underneath the city from the Bastille through to Republic, where the water once again can be seen from above the ground.
From here, the canal feeds further north until it reaches Stalingrad, where a double lock separates the Canal St-Martin from the largest artificial lake in Paris, the Bassin de la Villette.
As one of the two ports situated on the Seine in Paris, the Bassin de la Villette area was once an industrialised area. Warehouses, commercial buildings and even abbatoirs lined both sides of the water.
But, as mentioned above, when the waterways became less popular as a means of transportation, this whole area fell into disrepair.
As is often the case with run-down suburbs, this area eventually underwent a revival and today is one of the unsung areas of Paris.
As a nod to its past, here you will find restaurants occupying the sheds, and even the barges, that once housed local industry. It’s a feature that makes this area seem a little more gritty and edgy.
Far enough away from the maddening pace of inner-city Paris, you’ll find people hanging out on the water’s edge, reading books, or cycling along the paths. This is also an area for boating activity, with several businesses established along the banks to hire boats. Kayakers head out for an early morning paddle as well.
The lake has also become the home of some annual events, like the Paris Plage, where each summer, a part of the bank is turned into an artificial beach, complete with deck chairs and umbrellas.
Note: This is an outer Paris suburb, so whilst it is all bright and shiny during the daylight hours, care should be taken in this area at night time, particularly around the Place de Stalingrad.
Not far from the Pompidou Centre, is a little-known street. Rue Montorgueil is one of Paris’ oldest streets. At the end of the street is a large and very elaborate iron entryway, signalling that you are entering this special area.
Those drinking their morning coffees and picking the flakes off their croissants sit alongside the fishmonger who is competing at top voice with the fresh produce stalls, willing those passing by to stop and buy. Fromageries, boucheries, boulangeries, patisseries and chocolatiers all blend in here.
It’s an area that most tourists wouldn’t know about, and it’s a great place to visit for an authentic local neighbourhood experience, and to pick up some gorgeous food.
Boulevard de Strasbourg
Boulevard de Strasbourg commences at Porte St Denis and runs down to Gare l’Est, another of Paris’ stunning railway stations.
This area is not the fashionable area of Paris, and I imagine most visitors would not even consider coming here.
But I can see the winds of change here. Walking down the boulevard offers up glimpses of what life will be like on this street in a few years (possibly). I can almost picture this being like Rue Montorgueil and other streets just like it that have gone through a revival.
Most of the shops here are old, many being run by the same family for generations. But in amongst them are the new stores, bringing new styles and new products into this area. Of course, with development comes an impact on the immediate area and those who reside here, which doesn’t always play out in a perfect way.
For now, I’m content to walk in this busy street, where kids as young as eight are selling coat hangers to strangers, and others are playing a violin just to earn a couple of extra euro. I’m happy to stop and taste some cheese from a local shopkeeper, and smile at absolutely everyone that passes me by who looks at me strangely because they aren’t used to seeing visitors wandering around here.
If any of you have visited the High Line in New York City, you’ll know what this is. This is Paris’ own version of the High Line. Perched above the streets in the 12th arrondissement is 4.7km of tree-lined walkways, taking over what was once a functioning railway line.
Best accessed from the western end at Bastille, it is a pedestrianised area that weaves in and out of residential buildings. It provides an area for quiet reflection, somewhere to eat your lunch in peace and quiet, or to just take some time out.
Underneath the railway line are arts and crafts shops. Offering unique, handmade items, they are beautiful to look at and very expensive to buy.
There are several parks that join onto the promenade. Caution should be exercised around these areas at night.
Place des Fêtes
Place des Fêtes is one area you won’t find when you Google “things to do in Paris”. This is a working class neighbourhood through and through. And, because it’s all in the outskirts of this fine city, the beauty, simplicity and elegance of the inner city Haussmannian buildings are definitely nowhere to be seen.
This is a tough area, with some really ugly concrete, high-density residential apartment blocks dominating the view. So why would you bother to come out here?
Like so much of any big city, there are always quirky little places, hidden amongst the “normal”.
Place des Fêtes is living the good life. Tucked away, almost sight unseen and away from prying eyes, is this gorgeous collection of villas (laneways), all coming off Rue de Mouzaïa. Along these villas sit many small, two-story houses.
Whilst some could do with a little love, the majority of them are well kept, usually covered with ivy, and mostly all with their own colour-matched windows, gates and doors.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Out in the 19th arrondissement, an area which is quite often written off for safety reasons, is the fifth largest park in Paris. It’s a steep walk in parts, but the view once you reach the top is well worth the effort. Once up here, get a great view over the Paris city.
Rue de Mouffetard
One of Paris’ oldest neighbourhoods, it was one of our favourite streets for markets, cafes and plenty of places to eat.
Grand Boulevards and the hidden passages
The Grand Boulevards is a term given to an area of inner city Paris that underwent a huge public works program. It was initiated by one of Napolean III’s men, Monsieur Haussmann, during the mid 1800s. At the time, Paris was known to have overcrowded neighbourhoods, disorganised and narrow streets, and incredibly poor infrastructure (eg sewerage).
Haussmann had grand plans for this area, which included demolition of these neighbourhoods, widening of streets and improvement of services. Whilst Haussmann didn’t get to see his plan through, it was continued by others and the distinctive layout of inner-city Paris is a result of his work. This city layout is immediately obvious from higher vantage points such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.
The Grand Boulevards aren’t just about fancy department stores and multi-million dollar homes. The Grand Boulevards are also home to some of the most amazing hidden passages, like the Les Passage Couverts.
Exposed to the Grand Boulevards only by an entranceway, these undercover passages are quite often missed. But if you can find them, passages like the Passages Jouffrey, Verdeau and Panoramas offer tremendous insight into the world of Parisian shopping from an era long gone.
There are only around 30 hidden passages remaining in Paris.
These passages, often with intricate glass rooftops overhead to let the light in, that you can lose yourself in second hand bookstores, search for a collectible stamp or coin, and drink tea from a teacup in an old tearoom.
Explore Parisian street art
Paris is not dissimilar to other cities in the world where street art is flourishing and an important part of the urban landscape. Here in Paris, it’s popping up in several arrondissements and bringing new life to previously forgotten areas.
If you are visiting the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, head on over to Belleville to discover the latest art. Located halfway between the parc and Père Lachaise Cemetery, this is an old area, largely filled with immigrants, now starting to see some signs of gentrification. It’s one of the best areas to see street art in Paris, with a mix of officially sanctioned art work and some which is most likely pushing the legal boundaries.
Tip: If you have made it to Belleville, take the time to walk up ton the top of Parc de Belleville for another view of the Paris city.
Gobelins is the name for the 13th arrondissement and it’s where you will find the old and the new jostling for position. A strong Asian community lives here in amongst the concrete highrise apartments, seemingly a world away from the Hausmannian styles of the inner city.
There is a rebirth going on here with museums and galleries opening up as well as a flating pool on the Seine.
The aforementioned apartment buildings and various others throughout the area all showcase commissioned artwork as part of a revival program.
The three key areas for viewing street art in the 13th arrondissement are Butte aux Cailles, The Fridges’ Wall and the Giant Murals.
We recommend this street art tour for the 13th arrondissement.
Once a hive of activity along the canals, the advent of motorised transport took the barges off the water and the surrounding areas fell into a rundown state in many areas. Today, most of the canal areas are experiencing a resurgence. For street art and graffiti, head over to Canal St-Denis, or a little further out, Canal de l’Ourcq.
Not comfortable walking around looking for street art yourself? Why not try one of these great tours?
Find the vineyard in Paris
That’s right, there’s a vineyard in Paris. Long ago, this area in the 19th arrondissement was farmland. Today, there is one remaining piece of land left that has retained its agricultural history, and still grows grape vines.
The area is known as Butte Bergeyre. If you are planning on being near Parc des Buttes Chaumont, add a visit to this tiny part of Paris to your trip.
Roman ruins in Paris
Not all Roman ruins in Paris are unknown. Indeed, many of the travel books on Paris mention The Thermes de Cluny and Arènes de Lutèce. However, there are Roman ruins and remnants all over the city. You just need to know where to look.
Near Notre Dame, the Archaeological Crypt showcases the Roman city once known as Lutetia.
Ride on the Dodo Manège
One of the things I especially love about Paris is the carousels. I remember first seeing one near the Eiffel Tower and having never seen them before outside of a daggy circus, I was mesmerised. Even now, whenever I see one of these beautiful carousels, like in Gien and Dijon, I have to stop to watch them for a while.
The Dodo Manège takes French carousels to a whole new level. Designed by a French scientist to highlight growing animal extinction, it can be found in the Jardin des Plantes on the left bank.
Explore the unique places in Paris
This is just a snapshot of some of the best things to do in Paris if you are looking for something unusual to do. Walking around, sometimes aimlessly, is one of the best ways to find things that might not be in any guidebook. We love walking all over Paris. Here’s a great article for a free walking tour of Paris.
Looking for the best area to stay in Paris? Check out this guide to the best arrondissements to stay in Paris.
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