Ah, Paris! Strolling along the Champs-Elysées, the most beautiful avenue in the world; taking in the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, surely one of the world’s most favourite monuments; falling under the enigmatic spell of Mona Lisa at the Louvre; or stealing a kiss whilst riverboating on the Seine: the tourist experience of Paris is legendary and almost inescapable.
But what of the other Paris: the hidden delights just off the beaten boulevard, the forgotten treasures at the end of a concealed cul-de-sac?
Well, we’ve spoken to some people who know Paris intimately, and they’ve agreed to share some of their favourite sights and secrets. And so, in no particular order, here are the 21 best hidden gems in Paris:
Réservoir de Montsouris
One of the five main reservoirs in the capital, the colossal Réservoir de Montsouris supplies the whole of southern Paris with fresh drinking water.
Built in 1869, it was the largest underground construction project at the time and uses over 1,800 stone pillars to support the weight of the reservoir and its 200 million (!) kilos of water. Only gravity is used to transport the drinking water on its journey of over 130km under the arrondissements of Paris. Nicknamed ‘la cathédrale de l’eau’ (‘the water cathedral’), it’s a little-known architectural wonder.
The Hotel Dieu
Right in the centre of the city, and next to the Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s not a hotel – and most tourists walk straight past it.
Founded in 651 AD, The Hotel Dieu is not only the oldest hospital in Paris – it’s the oldest operating hospital in the world, still serving as the emergency medical centre for the first 9 arrondissements. The name Hotel Dieu means ‘Hostel of God’, and it was originally built as an opportunity for many of the bourgeois and nobility to come to the aid of the poor and sick of Paris. It’s free to enter and walk around, and occasionally local workers take their lunch in one of the courtyards – an oasis of calm in amongst the city’s hustle and bustle.
La Liberté Éclairant Le Monde (The Statue of Liberty)
Err…. isn’t that in New York? Well yes, the original is, but there’s one in Paris as well. In fact, there’s more than one…..
New York’s Statue of Liberty was actually built in France – the head was exhibited at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair – and gifted to America by the French in 1886 to celebrate US Independence. It was designed by a French sculptor, Frédéric Bartholdi, and the metal framework was built by Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel).
In 1889, a quarter-scale replica was donated to the city of Paris by the American ex-pat community to mark the centennial of the French Revolution. It’s located on the uninhabited Île aux Cygnes (‘Isle of Swans’) – the third largest island in Paris – and it faces west, towards New York. You’ll also find little ‘ladies of liberty’ at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée des Arts et Métiers and at the Pont de l’Alma tunnel near the Champs-Élysées.
The World’s Largest Rooftop Farm
Currently finalising construction on top of the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles, this farm uses a closed water system, no soil, and is completely organic.
By the time it’s completed, this urban oasis will span approximately 14,000 square metres and will produce around 1,000kg of seasonal fruit and vegetables every day. The brainchild of Agripolis, an urban-farming company, the goal is to create a globally-recognised model for sustainable production that will feed the residents of southwestern Paris through veg-box schemes and via shops, hotels and canteens. Agripolis already have a successful track record in Paris, with an eco-farm along the old railway line at Porte de Clignancourt, and an organic mushroom operation, La Caverne, located in an underground car park.
The Terrace Cafe At Le Printemps Department Store
Le Printemps has been an iconic Parisian store since 1865, but few know that its terrace cafe offers one of the best 360 views in the city. And it’s free!
From the top floor of the store, take the ‘up’ escalator and head outside to the Cafe Déli-Cieux (it’s a clever name – déli cieux literally translates as ‘deli Heaven’, and délicieux means ‘delicious’). From the balcony, you can see all the way from the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower, and there’s a great view of the stunning Palais Garnier.
Other photo opportunities include the tree-lined avenue leading to the L’église de la Madeleine (Madeline Church), and the stone chimneys of the Louvre. You’re also right on top of the ornate gilded domes that are famously part of the Le Printemps storefront. In fact, the only downside is the food: €6 for a coffee that you have to make yourself!
Le Refuge de Fondus
The menu is limited, the seating is cramped, and they don’t even trust you to drink from glasses. We love it!
Like most fondue restaurants, you basically order molten cheese with bread or chunks of beef in boiling oil. But although it’s decent, you’re not really there for the food. Le Refuge just has the craziest atmosphere! The dining room is so tiny that you normally need to climb over a bench, filled by other diners, in order to get to your seat. As a result, glasses kept getting spilled; so they now serve wine in baby’s feeding bottles, complete with rubber teat. And to save on decorating costs, the walls are covered with graffiti, which you’re actively encouraged to add to. Admittedly there are better places to eat in Paris, but most of them aren’t nearly as much fun…..!
The Japanese Garden at the Albert Kahn Museum
If you want a place for quiet contemplation, consider the zen atmosphere of the Jardin Albert Kahn, known as the most exotic garden in Paris.
Albert Kahn was a rich philanthropist who, in 1898, created a garden as a symbol of ‘peace and harmony’ in Paris, with scenes inspired by different cultures. As his centrepiece he featured a Japanese garden with a traditional pagoda-style house, a red bridge with koi carp swimming below, and a tea-room where Japanese tea ceremonies are led by a master from Kyoto.
Kahn lost his fortune during the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the gardens were turned into a public park, but he continued to live and take walks there until he passed away in 1940. His fascinating life, including a world-famous early colour photo collection, was the subject of a 10-part BBC documentary in 2009.
Square Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet
Some of the best pictures of the Sacré Coeur are from a secret garden hidden round the back in the Rue de la Bonne.
The tiny park at the Square Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet is a great place for a pique-nique parisienne, and the nearby Rue de L’Abreuvoir is often regarded as the prettiest Road in Paris. Originally known as Park Turlure, named after an old windmill that used to occupy the site, the terraced steps blossom with wisteria in the Spring, providing a beautiful natural canopy. If you want some photos of the Sacré Coeur that won’t be marred by throngs of tourists getting in the way, this is a great vantage point.
La rue du Chat-qui-Pêche
It’s the narrowest street in Paris with ties to alchemy, devil worship, and cats with nine lives.
La rue du Chat-qui-Pêche is the skinniest street in Paris (less than 5 ft 11 ins at its widest point), with a name that literally translates as ‘the Street of the Fishing Cat’. The boring explanation is that it was named after a fishing tackle shop that had been on the street since 1540.
However, the better story is that a clergyman lived there with a black cat that could catch fish from the Seine by just striking them with its paw. The clergyman was involved in alchemy – associated with the Devil – and so the rumour went around that he and the cat were one and the same. Three schoolboys drowned the cat and noted that the alchemist disappeared at the same time. But days later, he was back – and so was the cat! Whatever you believe, this street is worth a visit – see if you can find the painting of the black cat (it’s there somewhere, we promise!)
The Medici Column
92 feet high and supporting nothing, the giant column in front of Paris’ commodities exchange building hides a secret spiral staircase.
In 1572, Catherine de Medici – widow of Henry II and effective ruler of France – suddenly abandoned the Tuileries Palace which she was having built for herself and her 110 ladies-in-waiting. Her astrologer, Como Ruggirei, had predicted that she would “die near Saint Germain” and the Tuileries was worryingly close to the Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois church. Heeding the warning, she moved east and began building the Hôtel de la Reine, which was to be her new palace.
In front of the palace, as a thank you to her astrologer, she ordered the construction of a free-standing tower with a platform at the top which could be used for astrological predictions, accessed by a spiral staircase inside. Medici died in 1589, and Ruggieri’s prediction was proved correct, as the priest who attended her death was called…… Father Julien de Saint-Germain (!)
The astrologer continued his work until his death in 1615. He was unloved by the church and they refused him a decent burial, instead dragging his body through the streets. The palace was destroyed and is now the site of the current Commodities Exchange, but the tower remains, although the door has long been boarded up. But on stormy nights, locals swear they can see a shadowy figure pacing the platform, gazing up at the stars….
The Abbey Bookshop
It’s not the most famous, and it’s not the prettiest. But it has a certain je ne sais quoi….
There are hundreds of bookshops in Paris (no one’s sure exactly how many, because no one’s ever counted them), and a surprising number deal with books written in English. Probably the most famous is the Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank, but our favourite is the Abbey, which is just around the corner.
Aptly located on the rue de la Parcheminerie (Street of Parchment), the shop was opened in 1989 by a Canadian bookseller and it boasts over 35,000 titles, all in English and covering, well, everything. The shelving is haphazard, the walkways are cramped, and the ladder that you use to reach the high stuff looks like it will collapse at any moment. But that’s exactly how a second-hand bookshop should be! Pop in for a coffee and a chat, and don’t be surprised if you walk out with a book you had no intention of buying…..
The Great Mosque of Paris
Maybe it’s not what you expected to find on a sightseeing tour of Paris, but it’s well worth a visit…
Built to pay tribute to the 100,000 Muslim fighters who died for France in WW1, the Great Mosque was completed in 1926 and is the oldest in Paris. The courtyard is in the style of the Alhambra palace in Granada and is surrounded by majestic, sculptured arcades. Inside, you’ll find intricate decor and plush patterned carpets, and there’s a restaurant and tea shop in case you get peckish. You’ll also find a hammam (the Ottoman version of a steam bath) and a shopping area that reminds us of a souk. If you’re a lover of Middle Eastern architecture, the Great Mosque offers a unique opportunity.
The Lost Windmills of Montmartre
The cabaret at the Moulin Rouge might be named after a fake red windmill, but these are the real thing…..
Paris was once home to over 300 wooden windmills, in the days when rural society depended on the produce of milled grain. Today, they’re mostly gone, but two (well, actually three) still remain and have been the subject of many paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso and Toulouse–Lautrec. Known collectively as Moulin de la Galette, the only one open to the public is the Moulin Radet on rue Girardon, which now houses one of Chef Antoine Heerah’s many Parisian restaurants.
You’ll find the second one, the Blute-Fin, on the rue Lepic (also the birthplace of Renault cars), but it’s built on private land and can only be viewed from street level. And the third? Well, here’s a clue: look for the grave of a soldier who defended Paris against the 1814 Russian invasion…..
Julien Aurouze and Co.
Here’s a strange question for you: what’s the connection between Parisian pest control, stewed vegetables and a Disney/Pixar film?
Did you guess? Yep, it’s rats. In this case: dead rats. Julien Arouze started his pest control shop in 1872, and the storefront display is one of the craziest in Paris as it features 21 dead, stuffed rats that have been hanging there for almost a century. And the owners have vowed to never take them down. The shop was briefly featured in the Disney film ‘Ratatouille’, when Remy’s wise old father looked up at the window and warned: “This is what happens when a rat gets a little too comfortable around humans.”
Now run by the founder’s grandchildren, Julien and Cecile, the business plays an essential part in Paris’ pest control as, by law, every basement in Paris must lay down rat poison. And as for the creepy display: well, what do you expect in the window of a rat killer’s shop? Flowers?
La Petite Ceinture – Paris’ Abandoned Railway
Before the Paris Metro , steam trains carried people around Paris. Now, the railway lines are all but abandoned.
Commissioned in 1852 by Napoléon III, Emperor of France, La Petite Ceinture (‘the little belt’) was originally conceived as a way to move military arms across the city. Later, it started to carry people and by 1889, in the run-up to the World’s Fair, 20 trains ran in each direction every hour, carrying 39 million passengers. In 1934 the service was officially withdrawn, and wildlife took over.
Nowadays, the tracks are covered with grasses, old man’s beard, marrow plants and saplings, whilst the deserted goods yards are daubed with graffiti and street art. Some of the former stations have been repurposed as trendy restaurants and venues for chic ‘happenings’, but most of the line remains an abandoned wasteland with a magnetic mystery. Access to most of the line is technically illegal, but as it’s not actually guarded per se……
The Colonnes de Buren at the Palais Royal
These simple striped columns caused plenty of controversy when they were built to hide an ugly ventilation shaft.
Also known as ‘Les Deux Plateaux’, these variable height columns were created by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, known for his simplistic, single-colour stripe designs. Commissioned by culture minister Jack Lang in 1985, the work replaced the courtyard’s former parking lot and was designed to conceal some ugly ventilation shafts. But from the start, it was a bone of contention. There were hundreds of damning newspaper articles and petitions, and a legal action by Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, tried to have it stopped. After the artwork had been completed, the new minister for culture even tried to get the whole installation destroyed.
Thankfully, the work was allowed to stay
and later, in a masterclass of understatement, Jack Lang said “given the harmlessness of the result, all the fuss seemed a little excessive”. Today, the columns are free to visit and it’s considered good luck to toss coins into the pools of water that form at the base of the columns.
Marché aux Fleurs et Oiseaux (Flower and Bird Market)
It’s an odd little slice of Paris where the flowers can be heard tweeting…..
Dating from 1808, the colourful Marché aux Fleurs on the Ile de la Cité (one of the two natural islands in the Seine) is the oldest flower market in Paris, selling every kind of bloom you can imagine from Monday to Saturday. But on Sundays, the flower sellers get a well-deserved lie-in and the bird traders take over. Cages upon cages and of canaries, budgies and parrots cheep, squawk and chirp to provide a soundtrack very different to the usual bustle of Paris.
Once you’ve had your fill of birdsong, you can head over to the plaque that marks Point Zero – the geographical centre of Paris – which is less than 6 minutes’ walk away. There you go, that’s two landmarks for the price of one – no one could ever accuse us of being cheep. (Cheep! See what we did there?)
The Stained Glass Windows of Sainte-Chapelle
Quite simply one of the best hidden gems in Paris, but every day thousands of casual tourists just walk straight past it.
When you hear the word ‘gothic’, you instantly think of dark, primitive and brooding. But this amazing interior, built in only 6 years and finished in 1248, will change your mind in an instant. The Sainte-Chappelle is only a few steps from the famous Notre Dame cathedral, but the entrance is hidden away inside the courtyard of the Palais de Justice and easy to miss.
After going through rigorous court security checks you’ll find yourself in the lower chapel, which is stunning in its own right. But in the corner of the room is a narrow, winding staircase which takes you to the upper chapel, and…..BAM! Suddenly you feel like you’re standing inside a crystal. The 15 soaring stained glass windows, each 50 feet high, contain over 1,100 biblical scenes; and when the sunlight illuminates them you’ll understand why Parisians call this ‘la vue sur le Paradis’.
Although it’s never too crowded, there is often a long wait to get in so we recommend buying one of those ‘skip the line’ tickets which are available online.
The Lavomatic – Best Laundrette in the World
This is supposed to be a list of interesting places in Paris. So why have we included a boring laundromat?
The first thing you’ll notice is that this particular laundrette has a bouncer on the door, who will check on his walkie-talkie (which is called a talkie-walkie in France!) before allowing you in. After that, it’s just a question of finding the right machine and hitting the correct combination of buttons. And when you do, a secret passage will be revealed that leads to one of the coolest ‘speakeasy’ bars in Paris. The tiny, colourful interior is deliberately kitsch – all low seating and scatter cushions – and it’s not the cheapest bar in the world but, hey, it’s a bar hidden behind a laundrette! Oh, and BTW, the washing machines actually work, so if you need a good excuse….
The Musée des Vampires – Paris’ Creepiest Museum
Every Sunday, the curator of the Musée des Vampires et Monstres de l’Imaginaire hosts a picnic near a cemetery and tells ghost stories.
Jacques Sirgent is a professional Bram Stoker translator, and his knowledge of all things vampiric is unrivalled in France, perhaps in the world. Over many years he’s been a passionate collector of the creepiest, spookiest and most downright terrifying objects he can find – rumour has it that one item was stolen from a coffin buried in unholy ground – and his museum is a homage to his passion. His pièce de résistance is a real anti-vampire protection kit that dates back to the 19th century. This museum certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy being scared by stories of things that go bump in the night, maybe you should give it a try. Tours are by appointment only, including the cemetery visit. But don’t say we didn’t warn you…..!
Le Pouce (The Thumb) at La Défense
There’s not much to say about a giant sculpture of a thumb. It’s big. And it’s a sculpture. Of a thumb.
This unusual tourist attraction is often known as Le Pouce de César after the artist César Baldaccini, who was a noted French sculptor at the forefront of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. His original piece was sculpted back in 1965 for an exhibition called ‘The Hand’, and at that time it was only 40cm tall and made of pink translucent plastic. It was a bit of a hit, and led to many reproductions throughout the world.
The one displayed at La Défense, made of bronze, is the largest ever version at over 12 metres high and a weight of over 18 tons. It was installed in 1994 and Cesar died only 4 years later, but not before designing his own grave which is suitably bizarre and can be seen at the Montparnasse Cemetery. The thumb sculpture can be found at the Place Carpeaux, so why not visit and give it, err, a thumbs up….
Hidden Gems in Paris: En Conclusion….
They say ‘see Paris and die’. We’re not suggesting you go that far, but the city certainly should be on everyone’s bucket list. And when you do make it there, we hope you’ll have a chance to visit some of the hidden gems in Paris that we’ve listed. But for now, au revoir!
We’d like to apologise for the terrible puns in this article and, in the interests of good taste, we’ve found the author and sent him to Paris to be the next model for Julien Aurouze’s shop window……
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