The alternative city guide to Paris
Although Paris nurtures its archetypal grand avenues, bistros, pavement cafes and boulangeries, its urban character continues to evolve. Major arts projects propel the city as a catalyst of culture, exciting international chefs join iconic restaurateurs here, and time-honoured landmarks neighbour the visionary architecture of more recent years.
Hannah Frances is a freelance writer and creative strategist. She’s lived in Los Angeles, Paris and Bologna, but can now be found in Liverpool writing about travel and working on an ambitious travel planning app called Palette. hannahfrances.co.uk
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Paris balances its esthetic grandeur with an intimacy afforded by its relatively petite size, hemmed in by the boulevard periphique in a way that cities like London are not. Keeping a further eye on urban sprawl are the city’s village-like neighbourhoods which each have a distinctive character.
In these residential environs, we find walls tattooed with monumental street art, old jazz cafes, and street markets bursting at the seams with fresh fruit and veg, flowers and bric-a-brac. Come and explore these areas with the help of our alternative city guide, ordered by arrondissement.
Merci is an eclectic concept store in an old wallpaper factory in the heart of the trendy Haut-Marais. Look out for the little red Fiat outside – it’s become quite iconic. The huge selection of fashion, beauty and homeware products is immaculately presented, and the store, which also features two cafes and a restaurant, donates its profits to a charity that supports women and children. This store is a must-visit when shopping in Paris.
Near the Jardin des Plantes botanical garden is another gorgeous haven on the right bank.
The Great Mosque of Paris houses one of the prettiest cafes in the city. La Mosquée Café is set in a leafy courtyard of mosaics, jasmine, and chirruping birds. Waiters circulate the courtyard with silver trays of sweet thé à la menthe and delicious, syrupy pastries.
The nearby stretch of river comes alive on warm summer nights, with people strolling, picnicking and ballroom dancing. Every evening from June thru August, dancers gather in the Jardin Tino Rossi and waltz, salsa, tango and swing long into the night. Pick up a bottle of wine, a fresh baguette and a chunk of brie, and join the party on the Seine – it’s magical.
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Once an elevated railway track, the Promenade Plantée is Paris’ answer to New York’s high line. The verdant walkway stretches from the entrance of the Bois de Vincennes eastwards to Bastille. Down at street level is the Viaduc des Arts, where cafes, galleries and ateliers occupy the vaulted arches below the garden. Head for the main drag at Avenue Daumesnil, near Bastille.
While you’re in the 12th arrondissement, the Marché Aligre is worth a visit – especially if you’re staying in a self-catering apartment. The bustling neighbourhood market is open six mornings a week, though at the weekend you’ll find that the produce is a bit more expensive and it’s much busier. Find the stalls at Place d’Aligre and along rue d’Aligre.
Palais de Tokyo is an experimental institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Originally built for the Paris International Exhibition in 1937, the building today comprises two wings: the east wing houses the Musée d’Art Moderne, with Palais de Tokyo located in the west. The patio cafe between the two overlooks Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower, making for a jaw-dropping view to admire over coffee on a sunny day.
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A short ride on Metro line 9 from Iéna will get you to Molitor. Once the most popular indoor swimming pool in the city, the legendary art deco pool closed in the 80s and fell into disrepair. It was recently reopened after being carefully renovated to replicate its original 30s interior, which is something to behold. There’s a spa by Clarins, and plush hotel rooms overlook the pool through round portholes – but it’s the post-swim cocktails on the roof that I’d recommend.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont is one of the prettiest parks in Paris. Hidden away in the north east, it’s luscious and undulating, with beautiful views over the city. At the heart of the park is a lake with a huge rocky island, reached via two bridges. A steep stairway leads up to a miniature version of the famous ancient Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli. The park is also home to Rosa Bonheur, which is a hip guinguette — the French equivalent of a beer garden — where locals go to drink and dance.
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As legend has it, Edith Piaf was born in the doorway of 72 rue de Belleville in 1915. In her day, Belleville was a gritty neighbourhood and it hasn’t changed much. When Piaf was young and poor, she would perform at a tiny cafe down the street called Aux Folies, which endures as an art deco relic with its distinctive neon lettering above the counter, and pillars plastered with posters for shows dating back to the 20s. This is the real Paris, don’t miss it.