We all know Paris as the city of romance, where evening strolls upon the banks of the Seine, candlelit dinners on the Champs-Élysées and long mornings between the sheets of an opulent four-poster are the starters, mains and afters on the menu du jour. Between such moments of intimacy are the obligatory visits to the French capital’s premier landmarks, which are in themselves among Europe’s most handsome. All of this can become quite tiresome, of course, after the first few visits – seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triumphe for the umpteenth time (with possibly the umpteenth partner) can be enough to leave even the most doting of hearts feeling a little disenchanted.
Fortunately there is much more to Paris than an iron spire or stone arch – and we’re not just talking about glass pyramids or suppressed smiles. As you would expect from a city of this size and significance, Paris has plenty of alternatives up its elegantly-tailored sleeves, many of which are lot more interesting (and certainly less crowded) than the usual suspects. So if your relationship with the capital of romance is beginning to founder, why not have a wander off the tourist trail and check out some of these more unorthodox options? Who knows, they might just make you fall in love with this fair city all over again…
Canal St Martin
If you want to do as the locals do in Paris, head up to the boutique-lined banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, just a few minutes’ walk from Gare du Nord. Parisians come here year-round for the quirky cafés, contemporary art galleries and shabby chic bars lining the streets that run parallel to the main waterway, but the best time to visit is in the spring or summer, when al fresco dining, canal cruising and even rollerblading are on the cards and live acoustic music fills the air.
With its pleasant looks and relaxed atmosphere, the area around the Canal Saint-Martin is just the place to get away from the city-centre crowds. Visitors can hire a bike for a leisurely ride along its leafy waterside avenues or take a stroll over the artistic iron bridges that link them together. Boat tours are a particularly good idea if you want to explore more of the area whilst finding out about the history of the canal and the key role it played in bringing goods to the city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Cimetiere du Père Lachaise
A cemetery might be the last thing you would want to see on a trip to Paris, but then the Cimetiere du Père Lachaise is no ordinary graveyard. In fact, this is the world’s most visited necropolis; over two million people pass through its shady gates every year. Why? Because buried here are some of history’s greatest artists, writers, musicians and composers, including Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin and even Jim Morrison of The Doors.
But the Cimetiere du Père Lachaise hasn’t always been the resting place of the good and the great. When its gates were first opened in 1804 there were just 13 ordinary folk buried within its walls; relatives of the deceased didn’t want their loved ones interred here because they deemed it too far from the city.
So to promote the cemetery as a desirable place to be laid to rest, those in charge of it had the remains of writers La Fontaine and Molière transferred here in a very public ceremony that took place through the city streets. Sure enough the plan worked, and suddenly it was the place everyone was figuratively (and not just literally) dying to get into.
Today there are more than 70,000 plots in the Cimetiere du Père Lachaise, so you’ll need a map if you plan on paying your respects to some the more illustrious long-term residents.
Another thing Paris is famous for, of course, is fine food, and one of the very best places to get it is Marché Bastille, an energetic open-air market that takes place every Thursday and Sunday on Boulevard Richard Lenoir. But enter at your waistline’s peril: row upon row of pungent cheeses, freshly baked bread, delectable pastries and scrumptious salamis will have you putting on the pounds quicker than you can say croquembouche.
Don’t worry if you’ve already eaten. Marché Bastille has plenty of stalls proffering inedible wares like books, furniture and ethnic art, and on Sundays there’s usually some street performers serving up some interesting entertainment. Jugglers, dancers and brass bands all add to a clamorous cacophony of munching, crunching, belching and bartering.
There are many fine museums and galleries in Paris, but only one of them is actually about Paris: this is Musée Carnavalet, a collection housed in two adjacent mansions on rue de Sévigné. These buildings, formerly the Hôtel Carnavalet and Hôtel Le Peletier, are beautiful and historic in themselves – the former being one of the few remaining examples of Parisian renaissance architecture, the latter once home to Louis-Michel Le Peletier, the man whose casting vote sent Louis XVI to the guillotine.
But it’s what’s inside that makes a visit to Musée Carnavalet so worthwhile. Spread out across more than one hundred stately rooms are over 600,000 exhibits charting the history of this incredible city from pre-Roman times to the modern day. The story of Paris unfolds through a series of paintings, sculptures and objets d’art from every epoch the capital has ever witnessed.
Look out for The Tennis Court Oath (1791) by Jacques-Louis David, a painting that portrays one of the defining moments of the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly vowed not to disband until the new constitution of France was settled.
Les Égouts de Paris
Want to really get beneath the surface of this famous city? Then consider, if you will, a visit to Paris’s ominous underworld: le Égouts de Paris. Though not quite as disgusting (or smelly) as they sound, the sewers of Paris certainly are a far cry from the beautiful boulevards and handsome hotels that grace the surface, and they allow you to experience the city in a truly unique way.
Spanning the entire area of Paris, these ancient conduits would take weeks to explore in their entirety. But given that some have been in continuous use for more than 600 years, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway. The tour covers only a small 500 metre section – and a remarkably clean section, too. Along the prescribed route are information boards explaining how the sewer network had to be expanded over the centuries to accommodate waste from the ever-growing city above, as well diagrams showing how Paris’s wastewater is recycled today.
As you might expect, admission is to this working museum is rather cheap (about $4.20 for adults), so why not treat yourself to a toy rat from the gift shop?