Off the Beaten Track in Paris: An Insider’s Guide to Seeing the Real City

[This article was first published four years ago in the now-defunct online lifestyle magazine Zarwil].

Anyone lucky enough to be preparing for a trip to the French capital will probably plan to tick off a few tourist boxes whilst they’re there.  Some monuments, like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, are classic tourist haunts.  If it’s your first time in Paris, by all means visit the must-see attractions. It’s difficult to have a bad time in the City of Light and Love.  If you have a bit more time, though, there are plenty of hidden gems and new places to discover.

Having lived in Paris for a year and exhausted all of the main tourist traps, I had the luxury of time to walk around, explore and stumble upon new areas of the city, which is in fact really made up of multiple small villages (‘Arrondissements’), each with a different feel and character.  If you’re planning a trip and fancy exploring a bit of the real Paris rather than spending your time in queues surrounded by English speakers, here’s a list of hard earned tips telling you which tourist attractions aren’t worth the hype and a few places to go which are a little off the beaten track.

Eiffel Tower as seen from the Champ de Mars [image credit: Tony Grist]

First of all: the Eiffel Tower.  For many visitors, a trip to the top of this iconic monument is obligatory. Whilst the views, on a clear day, are spectacular, if you’re limited on time it might not be worth all the crowds and queuing.  A stroll around the Champ de Mars, a large park with children’s playgrounds and plenty of grass to lounge on, affords the best view of the tower in the city.

If you’re interested in the history of Paris, from the Early Modern to the French Revolution and beyond, don’t miss a fantastic museum called the Musée Carnavalet .  Located in two adjoining hôtels with a beautiful garden in the central courtyard, this museum is in the heart the 4tharrondissement (known as ‘Le Marais’), one of the trendiest districts in Paris.  Go for a wander in the Place des Vosges, a beautiful red brick square and the oldest in Paris, where you can visit Victor Hugo’s house or simply take in some of the posh shops and restaurants.  It being the old Jewish quarter, you’ll also find some of the best falafel in Paris around here.

Place des Vosges. [Image credit: LisArt]

Place des Vosges. [Image credit: LisArt]

Moving on to the 5th arrondissement, Shakespeare & Co is worth a visit if you’re into literature.  Located on the Left Bank and a stone’s throw from Notre Dame, this English bookshop has been in Paris since 1919 and at its new premises since 1951.  It used to attract literary heavyweights including Ernest Hemmingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce and has subsequently acquired mythic status.

Whilst you’re in the 5th, go for a wander along the narrow, winding streets heading towards the rue Saint-Jacques where you’ll pass a multitude of restaurants and eventually come across the ancient Église Saint-Sévérin.  A church has stood here in some form since the 11th century, the inviting café just outside not so long.  In the student area of the Latin Quarter, on the rue des Écoles, you will find a statue of Montaigne with one particularly shiny foot.  Students at the Sorbonne have been stroking this foot for many years in the belief that it brings good luck before exams.

Montaigne and his shiny left foot on the rue des Écoles. [Image credit: Frédérique Panassac]

Montaigne and his shiny left foot on the rue des Écoles. [Image credit: Frédérique Panassac]

Close by, across the Pont Neuf (the oldest bridge in Paris despite its name,) you’ll come to the Île de la Cité.  Upon crossing the bridge take a moment to admire the view of the Eiffel tower in the distance and the beateaux mouches passing along the river beneath you.  At the end of the bridge you’ll find a dark green drinking fountain in the form of a sculpture.  This is a Wallace fountain, named after the English philanthropist who financed and designed the drinking fountains in the 1870’s.  Look out for the other 120 dotted across the city, most of which are still in use today from March to November and handy for filling up water bottles.

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A Wallace Fountain. [Image credit: Amy Dianna]

wallace fountain 1911

A Wallace Fountain in use on Bastille Day, 1911. Public domain image.

Turn left into the Place Dauphine for a sit down in what might be the calmest, quietest square in central Paris.  Off to the right, at a lower level closer to the water line, lies a secret garden which isn’t so secret, the Square du Vert-Galant.  Named in tribute to King Henri IV, (whose equestrian statue stands above it) and his many mistresses, this garden culminates in the tip of the Île de la Cité, where a willow tree stands.  The square is now a popular spot for marriage proposals.  Here you can sit on the edge, your legs dangling above the water, taking in a view of the city from a different angle.

Square du Vert-Galant [Image credit: Cristian Bortes]

Square du Vert-Galant [Image credit: Cristian Bortes]

The Île de la Cité houses some of Paris’ most ancient buildings, including the breathtaking Sainte-Chapelle.  This thirteenth century royal chapel is a stunning example of gothic architecture and contains the most extensive and arguably most beautiful set of stained glass windows in the world.  There’s always a queue so booking is essential.  You can book a joint ticket for the Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie here.  If you enjoy classical music, evening concerts are often held in the chapel, providing a magical and unique setting.  You can book tickets here. This is one tourist destination that is definitely worth the hype.

By the metro stop ‘Cité’ you’ll find a flower market which has been around since 1808 and which becomes a bird market every Sunday, alive with chirrups and vivid colours.  It makes for a perfect post-brunch stroll.

La Sainte-Chapelle. Stunning. [Image credit: Trey Ratcliff]

La Sainte-Chapelle. Stunning. [Image credit: Trey Ratcliff]

A stone’s throw away is the Île Saint-Louis, a tranquil area that moves at a slower pace.  Perhaps it’s the lack of metro stops or the one-way only narrow streets, but this part of the city feels truly ancient.  Check out the famed ice-cream parlour ‘Berthillon’, which has been on the island since 1928.  There is sometimes a queue but the ice creams and sorbets- said to be the best available in Paris- are worth the wait and there are up to sixty flavours to choose from.

The 18th arrondissement, specifically Montmartre, is a charming area with a completely different character.  Take the ‘Montmartrobus’, a tiny version of the city’s buses small enough to navigate the tight corners of Montmatre, from Pigalle métro up to the basilica. Many people include a visit to the Sacré-Cœur in their itinerary and whilst the church is visually stunning and historically fascinating, the steps below and the nearby Place du Tertre are often heaving with people.

If you’ve already been to the Sacré-Cœur, the area just below it, called ‘Abbesses’, is simply charming.  Less crowded than the tourist trap at the top of the hill, it’s full of quirky shops, bars, bakeries and cafés. There’s also a small park known as the Square Jehan-Rictus just by Abbesses metro stop (one of the few left in the city with an original art-nouveau roof). In this charming little garden you’ll find the ‘Mur des j’taime’ (wall of love). When I lived in Paris there was a resident ginger cat in this garden who could always be found stalking small birds in the flowerbeds.

Square Jehan-Rictus with the ‘mur des j’taime’ in the background [Image credit: Mbzt]

Down the hill on the other side of the basilica is the rue des Saules (‘un saule’ is a willow tree), immortalised by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and Utrillo.  Stop off on the way down for refreshment at La Maison Rose or to see the old bohemian artist’s haunt, the Lapin Agile.  They still put on a nightly cabaret here at 9pm, but it’s up to you if you think the €24 or €17 for students (including one drink) is worth it. On the right you’ll find the Clos Montmartre vineyard, a miraculous remnant of the twelfth-century Benedictine Abbey which one maintained the grapes here. This is still a working vineyard and the wine, deemed drinkable if not brilliant, is auctioned off for charity every year. Visit during the Fête des Vendanges (the grape harvest) in early October.

La rue des Saules in 1911. Image in the public domain.

La rue des Saules in 1911. [Public domain image]

The same view of the rue des Saules today, showing La Maison Rose. [Public domain image.]

The rue des Saules today, showing La Maison Rose. [Public domain image]

It’s so easy to become a flâneur in Paris because it’s a relatively friendly size. If you have the stamina, and the appropriate footwear, it’s possible to walk across the city in around three hours.  Rather than power walking though, why not take a stroll in no particular direction and see what you stumble across?  With a map in your hand and a metro stop never further than a ten minute walk away you’re never truly lost in Paris, and being slightly off-course might lead you to your favourite square or restaurant in the city.  That’s really the beauty of Paris, the thrill of discovering something new, exciting, historic and beautiful around every corner.  If you’ve been before and seen the sights or you have the luxury of more time than a long weekend affords, going off the beaten track can be very rewarding.

Useful links:

http://www.ratp.fr/plan-interactif/  This interactive map of metro, RER and bus lines in Paris will work out your route and journey time if you type in your start point and destination.  It’s also available as a free app, simply search ‘RATP’.

[Feature Image: Musée Carnavalet garden, by Fanny Schertzer]

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