Paris off the beaten path is often better than on the beaten path! Popular doesn’t always mean good and certainly the extra people it brings rarely adds to an attraction. Admittedly some of the biggest tourist traps are well worth a visit but don’t end your search there. What a shame it would be to let the shadows of Notre Dame blot out the “Parc de la Villette”, the “Promenade Plantee”, the hipster 10th arrondissement, the street art in Belleville or the flea market by Porte de Montreuil.
These are just some of the secret wonders of Paris. In the end, I limited myself to the top 12 unusual things to do in Paris to help you on your search for something beyond the ordinary; something extraordinary. When you land at Charles de Gaulle airport or pull into Estación de St Denis train station, decide to do Paris differently. Make off the beaten track Paris experiences to remember!
Top 12: Paris Off The Beaten Path
1. Admire the Wall of Love
Frédéric Baron, inspired by Phileas Fogg, compiled 1,000 “I love you” messages from all around the world. After completing his notebook, he teamed up with the artist Claire Kito and the mural specialist Daniel Boulogne to display his book of love; from this, The Wall of Love (“Le mur des je t'aime”) was born.
The wall is 40m2 and made up of 612 tiles (representing the pages Frédéric Baron used). The fragments of color on the wall symbolize the fractured state of love in the world, but together they form a heart shape to inspire hope and healing.
2. New York meets Paris: The Lady Liberty
In 1886, France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty. In 1889, to mark the 100th anniversary of the French revolution, America gave Paris a smaller version of the same statue. Initially the “Lady Liberty” faced Élysée Palace, but in 1937 it was turned to face its sister statue in New York.
There are many places to view this statue. If you decide to go up the Eiffel Tower, “The Iron Lady”, you will have a good view of the Statue of Liberty at Pont de Grenelle (a bridge on the Seine connecting the 15th and 16th arrondissement). In my opinion, the best view of “Lady Liberty” is from Pont Mirabeau (another bridge further down the Seine). From here, the Eiffel Tower acts as a backdrop to the statue. You can even see the Sacré Cœur in Montmartre (the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris).
3. Stroll Rue Daguerre
The neighborhoods of Paris are called “arrondissements”, and they’re numbered 1 to 20. Rue Daguerre is in the 14th ‘arrondissement’, also called “Observatoire”. This is a peaceful, middle-class neighborhood, best known for its skyscraper “Tour Montparnasse” and catacombs which house the final resting place of 6 million people. Spooky but worth a visit! It is not a particularly touristy neighborhood but there is one hidden gem which tourists in the know will flock to: Rue Daguerre.
At only 630 meters long, Rue Daguerre is packed with market stalls, restaurants, grocery stores, a wine merchant, a honey shop and more. It’s the perfect place to go for a drink, a bite to eat or, even better, a full meal. There are lots of great choices. I highly recommend Café Daguerre, especially for breakfast. Spend a couple of hours on Rue Daguerre. You’ll love it!
4. Boat Tour (Canal St Martin & The Marne River)
(Boating by French Impressionist painter Edouard Manet, 1874)
You’ll find plenty of Paris boat tours
on offer which take you down the Seine river, along with tickets to Notre Dame and a guided tour to a famous Paris museum. If you’re looking for something a little different within the non-touristy, secret Paris, use one of the “less travelled by” boat tours. Book a tour of Canal St Martin
or the Marne river
Canal St Martin
At 7.24 kilometers long, it connects the Seine with Canal de l'Ourcq. A series of bridges will open and close as you float down the river, taking in the sights and sounds of Paris off the beaten path.
The Marne river is my personal favorite! Best of all, they also have boat tours. The Marne is the longest river in France (514 kilometers) and has been the source of inspiration to many of France’s most famous artists, including Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne. If you’re looking for hidden gems Paris certainly isn’t short of them!
5. 3-in-1: Parc André Citreön, Petite Ceinture & Balloon Ride
Parc André Citreön is so-called because it was once the site of a Citreön car factory. Now it’s a 14-hectare public park filled with exotic plants, gardens and greenhouses. Located on the left bank of the Seine in the 15th arrondissement (also called Vaugirard), you’ll find lots of famous attractions including the Tour Montparnasse skyscraper. The park has maintained a cool, industrial edge and it’s a great green space to relax. Be sure to gaze over at the Parisians working in the beautiful, giant, glass offices nearby!
Parc André Citreön also has visible signs of the “Petite Ceinture”: Napoleon III’s secret railway. Although the train tracks have long since gone, you can still walk down the pathways where they ran. The railway line circles the city. Many of the tracks that remain are there for the simple reason that they can't decide what to do with them. Off the beaten track Paris even has a literal track: what more of a sign could you need?
The highlight of Parc André Citreön must be the “Ballon Generali”. This is a tethered helium balloon which can go as high as 300 meters, making it the second highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. It lifts up to 30 people each ride. Roughly 50,000 people a year enjoy the ride. See how unique Paris is from a unique perspective! Adult tickets cost only €12.
6. Paris Picnic
Eating in Paris may conjure up ideas of haute cuisine restaurants with disapproving looks from waiters as you choose the wrong wine pairing, but it doesn’t have to. Going for a picnic in Paris is one of the best ways to experience the city. Have a fun time and save a little money too!
There are great spots in Paris to choose from (wherever you can lay a rug!) but I'll let you in on two of my top picks. First is along the Seine. This is a great place to sit and people watch (or Parisian watch) while gazing at the island of Saint-Louis and City (Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité).
Second is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in northeast Paris. This is one of the biggest parks in the city (24.7 hectares). It has fifty species of trees and plants, sloping green hills and water flowing through a cave, over a grotto and into a lake. Magnifique!
7. Underground Dinner Club
If you want the most authentic experience of French cuisine then where better to eat than at a Parisian’s home? Unfortunately, you can’t just pick any home, but there are some Parisians who will host you for dinner.
The first option is the Underground Dinner Club. This involves fantastic chefs who convert their homes into private dining clubs in the evening. It won’t just be a few people around a family table, there’ll often be 30 or more guests from all backgrounds to mingle with. Prices vary so search around to find the right one for you but two famous examples are “The Hidden Kitchen” and “Aux Chiens Lunatiques”.
The second option is to use “VizEat”, an app launched in the wake of ‘home sharing’. This app allows anyone in Paris to cook and host you for dinner. It might be a little hit and miss but, then again, who dares wins!
8. Climb The Pantheon
When most people visit Paris
for the first time, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower is high up on their Paris bucket list
, if not number 1. That’s fair enough, but for those who have either ‘been there, done that’ or would just like to experience Paris off the beaten path, The Pantheon is a wonderful alternative.
The Pantheon is located in the Latin Quarter of Paris (5th arrondissement). After a 3 year restoration, the dome has been reopened. You can climb the 206 steps to enjoy one of the best views in the city. It has an incredible, panoramic, 360° view and has gained the name the “Balcony of Paris”.
There are two big bonuses with coming here. First, the Pantheon itself has much more to offer than its viewpoint. It also houses religious artworks, Foucault’s pendulum (a device which demonstrates the earth’s rotation) and a crypt with the tombs of Rousseau, Voltaire and Marie Curie. Second, you’ll be in the quaint Latin Quarter. You’ll therefore be near the botanical gardens and one of the finest museums in Paris
, the National Museum of Natural History
. Also the most famous bookshop in the world, the Shakespeare And Company, will be just around the corner!
9. Unique Paris Museums: Tour The Sewers
Paris is often referred to as “The City of Light” and though this is popularly believed to refer to the beautiful lighting in Paris, it does not. Instead, it refers to something even bigger: the enlightenment. France has a rich, intellectual and artistic history. It’s all too easy to get blinded by the ‘light’ of places like The Louvre
(which, incidentally, becomes a hidden gem at night when the square empties) and overlook so many other Parisian treasures.
Tourism in the Paris sewers is not a modern phenomenon. Dating back to the 13th century, these sewers are a great reason to literally see another side of Paris. While people have visited the sewers in carts, carriages and boats, today the Paris Sewers Museum (Musée des Egouts) fulfills this need. There’s plenty of information available; you’ll learn about the processes of drainage (more interesting than it might sound) and most importantly, you’ll descend to the heart of the sewage network!
The Edith Piaf Museum is another you may be interested in checking out. We’ve all heard the song, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, and perhaps at one time or another we’ve been inspired by her words. Few can claim a love for Edith Piaf as great as Bernard Marchois. A fan since the age of 16, he turned his apartment into a museum and filled it with her personal possessions: letters, photographs, books, dresses, furniture and more.
Musée de la Vie Romantique is a mansion at the foot of Montmartre. It was once owned by the writer George Sand and painter Ary Scheffer. It was often visited by other famous Romantics such as the composer Frédéric Chopin (Sand’s lover) and painter Eugène Delacroix. Entry is free (unless there’s a temporary exhibition) all year round, with the exception of winter when it’s closed. Prepare to be transported back to the Romantic era!
10. Explore The Roman Ruins
Paris, as a city, began in the 3rd century BCE when a Celtic tribe called the “Parisii” built a settlement on City Island (Île de la Cité). The Romans conquered Paris in 52 AD and merged their cultures into what is now known as “Gallo-Roman”. The Roman Empire didn’t end for another 424 years. This is a big part of Parisian history and there’s much to see!
One of the best-preserved remnants of this Gallo-Roman era is a series of baths: “Thermes de Cluny”. These baths are connected to “The National Museum of the Middle Ages”, more commonly known as “Museé de Cluny”. Here you’ll find many more Gallo-Roman artifacts.
This museum is also famous for housing “The Lady and the Unicorn” (“La Dame à la Licorne”) tapestries, often referred to as the Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages. There is also a gallery in the Museé Carnavalet which has a Gallo-Roman and early Medieval collection. The hidden gems Paris has never seem to run out!
Many may not connect Notre Dame (built in 1163 AD) as having a Roman connection. Beneath its courtyard, however, are catacombs containing a Roman bath, a port, ramparts and more. You can find many Roman ruins within the city streets, and easily spend your entire trip trying to see them all. One of the most substantial of these ruins is “Les Arènes de Lutèce”, a Roman amphitheater in the Latin Quarter.
11. Cemetery du Montparnasse
Père Lachaise Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Paris and attracts more than 3.5 million visitors every year. Cemetery du Montparnasse, on the other hand, is still the second largest cemetery in the French capital (19 hectares). It is also much less touristy and the resting place of many well-known figures from French history. These include: Charles Garnier, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Charles Baudelaire.
A bit too morbid for a “holiday”? You will be standing meters from some of the most famous people in history. The cemetery may well also be a welcome break from the busy streets of central Paris. You can stop-off at one of the many bistros in Montparnasse, frequented by authors such as Ernest Hemingway!
12. Day Trip To Champagne
A holiday in Paris does not mean you are confined to the city alone. Paris off the beaten path doesn’t get much further from ‘the beaten path’ than a day trip from Paris. Have a guided tour of the Palace of Versailles or a trip to Claude Monet’s house in Giverny? Visit Châteaux Vaux-le-Vicomte or, of course, Disneyland Paris. There are some really great Paris day trips!
One of my favourite day trips is to Champagne. Many people don’t realize you can get to the region in just one hour by train. Going to Champagne is an easy choice. Choosing which region and the vineyards you want to visit is more difficult. It’s a personal choice! A word of warning though: don’t leave this choice till the last minute. Relying on taxis when you get there will be expensive. With a little research (and a Champagne tasting in Paris beforehand?), this could add a welcome new dimension to your trip!
Versailles Guided Tour from Paris with Skip the Line Access (Afternoon)