- 05, Apr 2019
- All things Paris
- Anna Livesey
There’s a little known acronym that we at Theatre in Paris like to live by: YOPO… OMAFMT (You Only Paris Once… Or Maybe A Few More Times). The average non-French person will make it to Paris for approximately one, maybe two or three weekend breaks across the entirety of their lifetime. Which means that when your turn finally swings around, time will be of the essence to get the most of the city. If you're an avid adventurer, you'll make quick work of Paris' Big Five sights (that’s the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre and Orsay Museums, and the Champs Elysées), leaving you plenty of time to explore further afield. To help you cram in a whole load more, and more unusual, tourist activities, we’ve reduced the whole French capital down to one definitive Top 20. Strike these off your list before you kick the (Paris city break) bucket…
1. Float above the City of Lights in the Ballon Generali
Before zoning in on Paris’ quaintest corners and coolest cafés, you’ll want to start with an aerial view. You could fork out and join the hordes to queue for the Eiffel Tower… or you could seek out a cooler, cheaper, less frequented alternative. Our suggestion: try a floating tour in the world’s largest hot air balloon, the Ballon Generali. It was in Paris that the first hot air balloon was invented in 1873 and there’s still no better way to see the city than wafting gently over its rooftops at 150 metres altitude. The view from the balloon also comes at a fraction of the price of most Parisian panoramas, with full price tickets costing just 11€. Best to check the website carefully before booking, however, as the Ballon only flies when weather conditions are permitting.
© Women of Paris
2. Meet Paris’ forgotten heroines on the Women of Paris Walking Tour
What do Paris’ many and various walking tours all have in common? They’re all educational, excellent exercise, and an easy way to bring some context to your city break. They all also tell the tales of a whoole lot of dead white Frenchmen. All except one, that is. Steered by its impassioned founder, expat tour guide Heidi Evans, the Women in Paris Tour recounts a less often heard history of the city: one that brings to light the exploits of its many remarkable women. Swapping Balzac for de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre for Gertrude Stein, the Women in Paris Tour will lead you from the streets of the Latin Quarter up to the banks of the Seine – introducing you along the way to some badass Parisiennes that patriarchal Paris forgot.
3. Book a theatre trip with Theatre in Paris
We like to think of Paris as the dark horse of world theatre: its many sumptuous playhouses can sometimes be overlooked next to the brashness of Broadway or the sheer density of the West End. But the city has a rich offering for theatre-lovers of every kind, whether that mean classic French comedy or Broadway-inspired musicals. And the good news is, you won’t need fluent French to tap into the scene! Theatre in Paris provides a comprehensive list of the city’s English speaker-friendly shows, including various French plays subtitled in English. So regardless of how rusty those long forgotten high school classes have left you, you can still join the French thespians for a theatrical soirée.
© Atelier des Lumières
4. Experience art by immersion at Atelier des Lumières
The first museum in Paris dedicated entirely to digital art, Atelier des Lumières exploded onto the city’s art scene in April of last year. Renovated from a disused foundry in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, the gallery proposes an entirely new way of viewing art. It ditches picture frames and whitewash in favour of sensory immersion, blowing masterpieces up onto the warehouse walls and blending them together with original music. An inaugural exhibition paying homage to Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was a sell-out success in 2018. Vincent Van Gogh is next to the projector: expect sunflowers in glorious technicolour and an even more swirling Starry Night.
© The Telegraph
5. Speed along the Seine by scooter...
Another recent addition to Paris’ tourist offering: the army of app-operated electric scooters that have invaded the city since June 2018. With ever newer flashier brands seeming to pop up on the streets overnight, competition for scooter spots is stiff. Recent surveys now count eight rival operators dotted all across Paris: there’s Lime, Bird, Bolt, Wind, Voi, Tier, Flash, and Hive. Once you’ve chosen your brand and downloaded the app, you can pick up a scooter by scanning the barcode label attached. Then enjoy feeling futuristic as you speed along the Seine: it’s the perfect 21st century update to your average tourist trail.
6. ...Or take a more leisurely stroll by the canal
When you’re weary of the Seine and the fellow tourists who flock there, try out a trendier Parisian waterway: the Canal Saint-Martin. Now a hub for hipster cafés and outdoor drinking, the canal is the perfect spot to visit on a summer evening. Take a barge cruise down the middle, stroll down either side or, when the weather’s really good, lay out a blanket and picnic on the bank. For TiP’s top picks of canalside establishments, try out the leafy bar-cum-gallery-cum-thrift-shop that is Le Comptoir Général, haven for vintage film buffs, Potemkine, or Paris’ classiest Sunday brunch stop, Les Enfants Perdus.
7. Swap traditional galleries for a tour of Paris’ street art
Turn down any of the canal’s side streets and you’ll find an impressive array of street art, just some of hundreds of pieces that can be found all over Paris. Instead of traipsing around with tourists at the Louvre, why not try a more freestyle approach and discover the Parisian art that is plastered to the walls of the city itself? From its world famous space invader mosaics to the metro eyes of street photographer JR, the French capital is covered in eclectic graffiti and guerilla art for your perusal. Other hotspot neighbourhoods include Belleville, the Butte-aux-Cailles, and Rue Oberkampf; to seem them all, take a tour with Street Art Paris, the Street Art Tour, or Explore Paris.
8. See medieval unicorns and illuminated manuscripts at the Cluny Museum
Housed in a gloriously Gothic 13th century town house, the Musée de Cluny is one of the finest remaining examples of medieval Parisian architecture. It’s worth a visit for the turreted exterior alone but inside you’ll find France’s largest collection of medieval artefacts. Alongside stained glass window panes and minutely detailed illuminated manuscripts, the jewels in the Musée’s crown are its Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These dreamy embroidered fantasy scenes are considered some of the greatest works of art to come out of the Middle Ages. And if there wasn’t enough fodder for the history fanatics among you, the museum sits just above the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny Roman Baths, a Parisian monument in their own right.
9. Taste world cuisine on the Rue Mouffetard
Not far from Musée de Cluny lies the Rue Mouffetard, a thoroughfare of Paris’ Latin Quarter and the city’s one stop shop for world cuisine. From oh so French bistros to sushi bars and falafel stands, every corner of the globe is covered here. Not to mention an abundance of bars that spill trendy Parisian students out onto the cobbles. As reliably busy in winter as in summer, the atmosphere on the street and winding alleyways that surround it is vibrant and bohemian. It comes as no surprise that Rue Mouffetard was once a favourite amongst the city’s expat literary types: a meeting place for the likes of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.
10. Watch a cabaret show in the birthplace of the can-can
Where better to watch cabaret than in the birthplace of the artform? Since its Belle-Époque heyday, Paris has prided itself on hosting the biggest, brashest burlesque shows of anywhere in the world. But though most minds will flick instantly to the legendary Moulin Rouge, that infamous establishment immortalised in Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy blockbuster, there are actually a host of other cabarets to sample while in Paris. Check out our Comprehensive Cabaret Catalogue before you decide where to head out for the night…
11. Study French wine… and drink a fair amount of it too
What’s the point of travelling to France if you don’t come back a fine wine expert, right? Paris has a whole list of classes to help you brush up on your sommelier skills, all of them accompanied by a fair few glasses of the good stuff. Les Caves du Louvre is a good place to start: originally designed by the butler of King Louis XV, this cavernous cellar runs guided tours and hour-long ateliers to teach you all there is to know about the art of wine tasting. If you’ve got your hands on a Paris Pass, the classes are completely free. For a more intimate Parisian alternative there are classes at cosy wine bar La Dernière Goutte, or tours of the historic cellars at Bercy.
12. Browse vintage clothes and antiques at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen
Paris attracts tens of millions of shopaholics each year, but not everyone can afford the prices on the Champs-Elysées. For a more vintage shopping alternative there’s the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (‘puce’ being the French for flea), a magpie’s paradise generally recognised as the largest flea market in the world. This sprawling shantytown of antique stalls and vintage clothes boutiques covers seven hectares in the far north of Paris. It’s well worth taking a trip out of the city centre for the treasure trove that awaits: curiosities range from art deco armchairs to novelty alarm clocks, with pretty much any and every object you can think of in-between.
© La REcyclerie
13. Take your coffee on a disused railway at La REcyclerie
Once you’ve indulged your vintage retail cravings at the flea market, you can check out an ethical hipster establishment that sits just around the corner. Le REcyclerie is more cooperative than cafe, adding DIY workshops and an allotment to its standard offering of espressos and café crèmes. Built on the remains of Paris’ disused railway, upcycling is the establishment’s guiding principle: a canteen-style interior of colourful recycled pieces is surrounded by a glorious terrace with street art and foliage. There’s not a styrofoam cup in sight.
14. Discover the city’s greener side: walk the Petite Ceinture or the Promenade Plantée
In-between the bustling boulevards of Paris is wedged a surprisingly large surface area of parkland and green space. Since its closure in 1934, Paris’ disused railway, the Petite Ceinture, has been preserved by the city council as a haven for over 200 rare species of flora and fauna. The railway loops around the city limits like a “little belt” and walking along its tracks is a great way to see a different, more rural side of Paris. You’ll currently find entry points at the edges of the 12th, 13th, 15th, and 16th arrondissements, with more openings planned for the coming years.
Avid walkers will likewise love Paris’ Promenade Planteé, also known as the Coulée Verte. Stretching from Place de la Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes, the larger of two parks known as Paris’ ‘lungs’, the Promenade Planteé traces the path of a former viaduct. Cutting over roads and in-between apartment blocks, this elevated walkway offers a truly unique view out over the city of Paris.
15. Get a flavour of the East at the Grand Mosquée
Situated in Paris’ Latin Quarter but recalling the Moorish architecture of Southern Spain and Morocco, Paris’ Grande Mosquée makes a refreshing change from its Haussmannian backdrop. Instead of slate grey roofs, there are green tiles and a minaret; the main entrance is a gorgeously ornate engraved archway. Inside you’ll find an oasis of fountains and foliage: the perfect place to take refuge in summer months or to absorb some non-European cultural history. Then there’s a beautifully domed hammam for those seeking relaxation and a courtyard café where you can sip mint tea with a Moroccan pastry.
16. Visit the graves of Paris’ greats at Montmartre Cemetery
The Cimetière de Montmartre is another secluded spot, ideal for pausing in the shade before the climb uphill to Sacré-Cœur. Less sought after than its grander graveyard cousins, Père Lachaise and Montparnasse, Montmartre has the benefit of attracting fewer tourists. It’s tucked away below street level, peaceful in spite of the busy Rue Caulaincourt that cuts across on an iron bridge. Amongst ivy and stray cats, you’ll find the graves of several artists who made the once bohemian neighbourhood their home: Degas, Berlioz, Stendhal, Emile Zola and François Truffaut were all laid to rest here.
17. Stargazing at the top of Paris’ oldest university
The Sorbonne University is Paris’ oldest institution of higher education and its ornate interior is rumoured to be stunning. We say ‘rumoured’ because only on very rare special occasions are those not enrolled at the university allowed to set foot inside. But here’s a secret that even many Parisians don’t know: twice a week the Sorbonne’s historic domed observatory opens its doors to the general public. Led by expert volunteers from the French Astronomical Society, these guided tours introduce visitors to the magic of astronomy, with a trial of the Sorbonne’s own telescope and stargazing machinery. You’ll need to book ahead as sessions are limited to groups of five but the effort is more than rewarded by the observatory’s 360° view of Paris.
Note: bookings are made over the phone by calling the French Astronomical Society
18. Don’t panic, have a picnic!
We’ve all heard tell of Paris’ sky high restaurant prices. If you’re worried about the cost of feeding yourself over a weekend in the city, why not save a few sous and have a picnic instead. Grab a baguette from the boulangerie and some cheese from a local market; you’ll end up throwing in a bottle of wine too when you’ve seen the prices at the supermarket. Then choose a spot to set up camp. The options are quite honestly endless, but special shout-outs go to Quai de la Tournelle for its view of Notre Dame, the Square du Vert Galant for making you feel like you’re floating on the Seine, and Buttes-Chaumont park if you’ve got a picnic without any rolling elements (it was built on a hill).
18. Enter an artists' collective at 59 Rue Rivoli
The Centre Georges Pompidou, Europe’s largest museum for modern art, is a must-see for all tourists to Paris. But it’s common knowledge that you can end up queuing for hours before seeing the inside of this architectural oddity. If you want a faster track to some contemporary French art, try 59 rue Rivoli, an equally odd alternative just five minutes’ walk away. Once an illegal squat, now a sanctioned studio space and art gallery, 59 rue Rivoli houses artists in residence on a rotation system: so each time you visit there’ll be fresh work to admire. A winding staircase fully coated in graffiti takes you past four floors of artists hard at work. Finished pieces are displayed in an exhibition space on the ground-floor, and you can often catch concerts and special events here as well.
20. One for the Instagrammers: Rue Cremieux
Another rare splash of colour on the monochrome Parisian palette, Rue Cremieux has become a watering hole for the world’s Instagrammers and bloggers. It’s cutesy pastel-coloured cottages with trompe l’œil decoration (including painted lilac creepers and a cat chasing birds) provide a welcome break from French minimalism and a unique backdrop to your city break snaps. No wonder that social media influencers love to pose here. A word of warning, though: it’s worth remembering that behind the immaculate shuttered facade live actual Parisian residents, some of whom have registered complaints about the flood of smart-phone wielding tourists to their doorsteps in recent years.
Liked these suggestions? Check out other top picks from Theatre in Paris: