If you go to Paris, you’ll no doubt be setting aside some time to stroll along the Champ de Mars and climb the Eiffel Tower. You’ll schedule a day-trip out to Versailles to admire the grandeur of the world-renowned palace.
You’ll catch the views from atop the Arc de Triumph, before walking down the glimmering Champs-Elysées towards the Jardin de Tuileries and the Louvre.
If you’re in a museum-hopping mood, you’ll either traipse across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay, or you’ll proceed further east to the lively Beaubourg area, where the Centre George Pompidou provides another set of sweeping city views from atop the distinctive futuristic structure that houses its impressive modern art collection.
Either way, you’ll be sure to stop by the Notre-Dame as the evening mass takes place, before heading on to fulfill your dinner plans at one of the city’s world-class restaurants. Those are the things you simply must do.
When I think about Paris, these famous attractions certainly come to mind. But more than that, I’m reminded of the smell of morning coffee, the grooves in my shoes from lots of walking around among the faded Art Nouveau buildings, and the little moments of delight as you explore the city away from the front pages of your guidebook.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Paris a few times by now, and in this article, I wanted to share some of my favourite spots outside of those well-known points of interest, some of which I had the chance to rediscover on my recent New Year’s Eve trip as well.
Of course, you can never truly get away from the crowds in Paris, but these are my personal favourites for when I’m craving a little bit of respite after I’m done hitting up the bustling must-see attractions.
1. Les Puces, Porte de Clignancourt
Let’s begin at the northern end of the Line 4 on the Métro, where what appears as a normal busy intersection at Porte de Clignancourt is actually the site of Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, a sprawling network of flea markets tucked away in the back-alleys of the neighbourhood.
You could easily spend a morning or even the better part of a day hopping between market stalls and climbing to the upper-level catwalks of some of the bigger complexes, browsing through the vast collection of antiques, furniture, archaeological treasures, and Art Deco masterpieces on offer.
While serious shoppers will have their attention fully occupied, Les Puces makes for a fascinating place to wander through even if you aren’t planning to buy anything. Each of the markets in Les Puces carries with it a long and storied history, so there’s something a little different to look at within each one.
See if you can find the arcade video game shop in Marché Dauphine, where you can indulge in a Space Invaders throwback to your heart’s content. Meanwhile, a visit to the outdoor Marché Biron, known for their vast inventory of artwork and sculptures, feels almost like strolling through an open-air museum. Don’t forget to stop by one of the cafes on the main market road for a coffee break!
From Les Puces, it’s a short walk south into the Clignancourt neighbourhood, where you’ll soon find that the terrain starts to get a little steeper in elevation. That’s because you’re making your way up Montmartre, a large hill that represents the highest point in Paris and atop which the Sacré-Coeur Basilica is perched.
I know this article is about getting away from the crowds in Paris, but to be fair, the summit of Montmartre is still quite popular with tourists, so you’ll likely have to share the south-facing view with the Instagram crowd and quite a few street hawkers to boot.
Nevertheless, the area around Montmartre is one of my favourites in Paris – quaint shops selling everything from handmade trinkets to specialty chocolates, rubbing shoulders with stunning art murals like the Wall of Love, featuring the words “I love you” written 311 times in 250 languages. One of my favourite things to do when in the area is to take a break from walking the hilly terrain by ducking into a classic French bistro for some onion soup and moules-frites (mussels & fries).
3. Les Catacombes
The Catacombs are quite unlike anything else you’ll get to do in Paris. These underground tunnels, created when disused mines were repurposed to solve the problem of the insufficient above-ground burial space in Paris, house the remains of more than six million people.
A visit to the Catacombs, which typically costs around €12 and takes place at the entrance to the tunnel network near Denfort-Rochereau Métro station on Lines 4 and 6, affords you the eerie opportunity of walking among the Parisian souls who came before you and even touching the piles of bones that comprise the tunnel walls.
Needless to say, the experience can be a little harrowing and not quite for the faint of heart, but it’s probably one of the most unique things you can do when in town. Don’t wander off from the marked tourist paths, though – like many major cities in the world, the sprawling network of tunnels underneath Paris is massive, and many overzealous folks have gotten lost among the endless maze of stone and bone, never to be seen again.
4. Père Lachaise Cemetery
In keeping with the rather morbid theme of the Catacombs, continue your journey to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, at 110 acres, is the largest cemetery in Paris and also the most-visited necropolis in the whole world. Come here for a quiet, contemplative afternoon stroll as you seek to track down the final resting places of some of history’s greatest figures.
Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin, Max Ernst, Molière… and countless more statesmen, politicians, scholars, poets, novelists, musicians, and leading personalities from all walks of life. For anyone whose life is connected to France in some way, Père Lachaise evokes the ultimate postcode envy, and a walk along its stone pathways gives you a deep appreciation of the many historically significant contributions of the French nation.
There’s also a massive memorial to the victims of that tragic Air France Flight 447 crash back in 2009, where family and friends continue to pay their respects to this day. The cemetery can be accessed via Père Lachaise station on Lines 2 and 3 of the Métro, and admission is free to the public.
5. Musée Rodin
For me, no art form seems quite as awe-inspiring as sculpture – the sheer creativity, perseverance, and technical skill required to carve a three-dimensional form out of a simple slab of marble is something I can’t even begin to fathom. Well, there’s no better place in Paris to admire the finer aspects of sculpture than the Musée Rodin, which showcases the best of Auguste Rodin’s work.
Of course, The Thinker is the big one you won’t want to miss, but many of Rodin’s other work are sure to leave you bewitched as well, like the 6-meter-high The Gates of Hell, whose tiny details could leave you transfixed for hours on end, or The Kiss, a white-marble emblem of eroticism that’s inspired many reproductions around the world. The gardens of the Musée Rodin also make for a tranquil setting to admire some of the great French sculptor’s nature-inspired work.
Admission to the Rodin is an affordable €12, and you can also get a combo ticket with the nearby Musée d’Orsay for €21. The Varennes Métro station, on Line 13, provides convenient access.
6. Palais du Luxembourg
The Luxembourg Palace sits in the 6th arrondissement and is almost like a mini-Versailles in the heart of the city. Originally built for the queen-regent Marie de’ Medici, Louis XII’s mother, the Luxembourg Palace now serves as the seat of the French Senate.
The palace building is seriously impressive. Drawing upon all the elements of traditional French classical architecture, the building houses the senate chamber, the barrel-vaulted conference hall, and a library containing some 450,000 books. The unfortunate part is that you can’t typically access the building itself outside of a few specific days of the year when all French government buildings are open to the public.
Nevertheless, you can still fully enjoy the Luxembourg Gardens, which is open to the public and acts as one of Paris’s most important green spaces. Escape the hustle of city life and take a few hours to relax, people-watch, and hang out among the immaculately-kept gardens, with trees planted in clear-cut patterns and statues mounted on pedestals. Families travelling to Paris will no doubt want to spend some time here, since there are plenty of kid-friendly activities to help take the edge off in the middle of a long day of sightseeing.
Head to the Palais du Luxembourg and the surrounding gardens by way of Luxembourg station on Line B of the RER, or Odéon station on Lines 4 and 10 of the Métro.
7. La Défense
Paris is a city that has largely retained the look and feel of its historic city quarters, and so a visit to the central parts of Paris might not allow you to fully appreciate its stature as a leading global city in today’s world. That’s solved by a quick trip all the way up to the end of Line 1 of the Métro, though, where La Défense, Paris’s purpose-built central business district, serves up a whole new angle to the city.
Though no less grandiose, the soaring steel and glass buildings of La Défense are a drastic departure from their more storied counterparts to the southwest across the Seine. Perhaps no building exemplifies this more than the Grande Arche at the centre of the cluster, standing 110 meters high as a modern-day futuristic version of the Arc de Triomphe directly down the historical axis of Paris.
Come up to La Défense for a different perspective on Paris – admire the buildings, visit the open-air museum, and get some shopping done at the Quatre Temps shopping centre. When the novelty fades (you probably didn’t come to this city to walk among skyscrapers, after all), the Paris we know and love is simply a quick train ride back into town.
There’s a reason that travellers from around the world all romanticize about Paris, and that’s because it’s one of those cities in the world where no amount of time is ever really enough to discover all that lies within. Every time I’m in Paris, the urge to revisit its world-famous attractions is no doubt irresistible, but so too is the temptation to amble off on a spontaneous journey and discover something new for myself, and I’m always left looking forward to the next time I find myself wandering the charming streets of Paris.