If you have either been to Paris and “done” the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre, a cruise on the Seine and all the musts and are looking for something different to fulfill your time in Paris, I have compiled a list of alternative, enjoyable places and venues you might like to consider. Even if a first-time visitor, you might find something that will appeal to you here. Having been a consistent visitor to Paris over many years, I have made a point of unearthing new pleasures. Some are cultural, others just enjoyable by being there.
Everyone knows the Bois de Boulogne, the city’s best-known park. I found 3 other parks which I enjoyed walking around and which are less populated. The first one is the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the north-east of Paris in the 19th arrondissement. This park is beautifully laid out with a large rocky hill in the middle rising to a height of 50 metres/163 feet on top of which is the Temple of the Sybille. It’s well worth walking up the hill for just the view of the rooftops of Paris. There is also a grotto with a waterfall, several bridges crossing over steep chasms and an artificial lake. For flora fans, there are over 40 different varieties of trees. For your eating pleasure, there are 3 restaurants. This is a park mainly enjoyed by locals but more inquisitive visitors do find their way there.
The Jardin des Plantes on the left bank of the River Seine in the 5th arrondissement is the principal botanical garden of France and has been open since the 1600’s. It is also home to the Museum of Natural History. It is a pleasure just to stroll through the arbors and view all the different kinds of horticultural items. There are a rose garden, a peony garden and an Alpine garden plus tropical hothouses. This is a great place to commune with nature.
The Bois de Vincennes on the edge of the 12th arrondissement in the east of the city is one of Paris’s best kept secrets. Roughly the same size as the Bois de Boulogne (and 3 times larger than Central Park), it needs time to explore and has many attributes. The best-known venue here is the Chateau de Vincennes, a 17th Century medieval royal fortress which is open to the public. This extensive park boasts 4 attractive lakes which provide boat-rides. There is a large zoo, a botanical garden, an English-style landscaped garden, an arboretum with over 2000 different species of trees, a horserace track, a velodrome for bicycle races and a real working farm where children learn about farming and farm animals. Or you can simply stroll around the park.
The oldest part of the city is Le Marais which straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. This is a neighbourhood that lends itself to discovery by simply walking around it. It is full of trendy boutiques, bars, cafes, restaurants, bakeries, small hotels, small art galleries and a number of interesting museums. The atmosphere among the narrow streets is decidedly medieval. An oasis in the midst of Le Marias is the beautiful Place des Vosges, a charming square in the centre of which is a garden. Two sides of the square have covered arcades which house small museums, restaurants, cafes and shops. There are some interestingly-styled houses most of which have been the past homes of famous French inhabitants such as Victor Hugo and Cardinal Richelieu.
If you enjoy strolling in a neighbourhood which is less commercial and touristy, head to the Canal St. Martin in the 10th arrondissement. This attractive and colourful neighbourhood is frequented by locals who gather here both in the daytime and at night. On Sundays, a section of the banks of the canal is limited to pedestrians and cyclists. You can find street artists performing and orators expounding. There are some excellent restaurants on the canal and on the side streets. You will also discover bookshops, bakeries and all manner of small trendy stores. The architecture of both the canal and the several footbridges crossing over it is in the art deco style. You can enjoy a cruise on the canal but a 2 hour plus boat-ride covers more than just this neighbourhood.
Paris sightseeing with a difference
Three of my absolute favourite venues in Paris are, believe it or not, cemeteries. But these are not typical cemeteries. They are the resting places of famous celebrities such as composers, singers, authors, philosophers, painters, entertainers, politicians and many others. All three are thoughtfully laid-out and there are maps and signs at the entrance to tell you who lies where. A warning – you can spend several hours walking around if really wanting to see the gravestones, tombs and mausoleums of all these famous people.
If you only visit one of them, the principal cemetery is called Pere Lachaise in the north east of the city in the 20th arrondissement. It is the largest cemetery in Paris. Here are just a few of the most famous “residents”: Jim Morrison (1960’s rock star), Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Balzac, Moliere, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Yves Montand, Georges Seurat, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan! And there are many, many more.
Montparnasse Cemetery in the 14th arrondissement is the second largest cemetery and its “residents” include Susan Sontag, Ionesco, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Dreyfus, Samuel Beckett, Maupassant, Baudelaire and Mavis Gallant (the Canadian writer).
Montmartre Cemetery in the 18th arrondissement is the third largest cemetery in the city and contains Emile Zola, Nijinsky, Degas, Berlioz, Offenbach, Francois Truffaut, Alexander Dumas and Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone).
Continuing with the unusual, you can go underground at two different attractions. One is the Paris Sewers Museum situated in the 7th arrondissement on the banks of the Seine. This is not exactly a museum except in the sense of being informative about the city sewer system. You join an organized tour and obtain a fantastic history lesson about the growth of Paris from the late 14th Century to the present. The total length of the Paris sewer system is 2100 kilometres/1300 miles! However, you will only get a glimpse of part of it – and it doesn’t smell!
The Catacombs in the 14th arrondissement are an underground world of carefully arranged remains of around 6 million people dating back many centuries. It is the world’s largest grave contained in halls and caverns which stretch for hundreds of miles. However, this section here has approximately 1.6 kilometres/1 mile open to the public.
The Clignancourt Flea Market in the north of the city in the 18th arrondissement is also known as “Les Puces de Saint-Ouen”. It is the largest antique market in the world and operates every Saturday and Sunday and again on Mondays with lesser stalls. This colourful flea market is extremely popular with locals and visitors alike. Some of the items you can purchase or simply look at include vintage and antique furniture, paintings, antique books, jewellery, decorative objects, vintage clothing and prints. And there are several eateries and cafes to visit for a break in the proceedings.
Some Lesser Visited Paris Museums
In the Le Marais district are 3 museums of special interest. One is the Picasso Museum. Housed in a gorgeous ornate mansion is a vast collection of Picasso’s paintings, sketches and drawings. There are also photos, videos and documents all pertaining to the works of this renowned painter/sculptor. In total, there are around 5000 items. A visit to the Carnavalet Museum is like a journey through time. It is a combination of a history of Paris museum, an art gallery and a trip through the various French architectural styles from the 17th to the 20th Centuries. Officially, it boasts 600,000 objects in over 100 rooms in this museum consisting of two ornate converted townhouses surrounded by beautiful grounds and gardens. What I particularly like about this museum is the way in which each room’s furnishings and style reflect the era of the displays.
In one corner of the Place des Vosges, you will find the Victor Hugo House, now a museum. The writer lived here for 16 years and produced a large part of his masterpiece, “Les Miserables’ while in residence. You can follow the story of his life through 3 periods, before, during and after exile in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. This is told through manuscripts, documents, letters and other memorabilia. There is a library and the museum holds talks.
If you find yourself in Montmartre, do go to the Salvador Dali Museum. You do not need to be a museum or art gallery buff to enjoy this particular museum. Even children will get a kick out of it. It contains over 300 exhibits of this surrealist and whimsical painter and sculptor.
After All This, If You Need a Drink….
I fully realize there are a million and one establishments to have a refreshing drink after a day of Paris sightseeing. However, I would like to recommend one place to which a friend took me and which I have enjoyed ever since. If you are standing almost anywhere along the banks of the River Seine in central Paris, you can hardly not notice two ornate glass-domed buildings which dominate the skyline. They are the Le Grand Palais and Le Petit Palais. The former has a very attractive terrace bar offering wonderful views of the city.
(Could be closed in the winter). And if you want to splurge, check out the wonderfully architecturally designed restaurant next door.
This concludes my Paris with a difference. I now need to go back and find more places to write about. And I know I am going to find many more to unearth and discover.