See the Cool Side of Paris with These Unexpected Escapades
Appreciate the cliches without being a cliche.
Of all the great cities I’ve lived in across the world, it’s hard to argue that any of them stir as much longing and adoration as Paris. The streets overflow with grand old buildings, ornate yet simple chairs and tables on the sidewalks, troves of art, and (of course) richly decadent food… this list could go on and on. The point that hardly needs be made is that Paris is fantastique.
But the most common complaint usually involves the overcrowded tourist sites. It is true, for example, that the wealth of beauty afforded by the Louvre can get obscured behind the hordes of line-wearied visitors aggressively vying for the best selfie position.
But your experience doesn’t have to be tousled by such touristic tempests. Paris has plenty to offer if you’re looking to escape the crowd and venture further off the radar, whether you’ve already seen the highlights, or if you’re looking to do a mix of your Eiffel Tower whatnots with your dive bars and funky markets. Luckily, we have here for you suggestions ranging from slightly less frequented alternatives to the usual hotspots and hidden corners where few tourists roam.
Stay in newly trending neighborhoods
There are many beautiful districts or arrondissements throughout Paris, with the most popular among visitors being those nearest the river such as Montparnasse, the upper Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain, and Les Halles, as well as Bastille and lower Montmartre. But if you’re willing to find accommodations in lesser known regions, you’ll not only avoid the crowds, you can ease the strain on your wallet too. Less cost and crowding don’t mean less in the way of things to do, either. These neighborhoods are rich with delicious restaurants, artistic experiences, pretty parks and streets, and everything else that brought you to Paris in the first place.
Jaures, for example, is located in the north-central part of the city, and it offers art galleries, outdoor markets, the Rue LaFayette thoroughfare painted by Van Gogh, and traditional French diners mixed in with flavorful eats from the immigrant community. It also provides convenient access to the rest of the city via the Stalingrad and Juares metro stops.
Meanwhile the lower Latin Quarter and upper Montmartre areas provide easy access to these popular districts while avoiding some of the bustle and expense. And the eastern segments of the city like Charonne, Pere Lachaise, and Bel-Air are gaining more buzz, as more and more businesses are pushed outward by rising rents in the city center.
Experience arts beyond the Louvre
As mentioned, the Louvre can be an intimidating and draining destination. Located just over the river, however, is Musee D’Orsay. While it’s certainly popular in its own right, D’Orsay isn’t quite as overrun as its more famous cousin. It’s also more compact and focused, making it a somewhat less daunting collection. But that doesn’t mean it skimps on the amazing art.
From celebrated painters like Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Courbet, and way too many others to list, the collection is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Plus there’s an array of sculptures by Rodin and an expansive selection of classical sculptures portraying figures and scenes from myth and history. The museum is housed in a historic train station that is uniquely gorgeous.
If you’re looking for some artist haunts with a current lively kick, the discrete Au Lapin Agile is a cabaret club that has existed since the 1860s, located on the upper shoulders of Montmartre. During its heyday of the early 1900s, it became the hangout of artists like Picasso, Apollinaire, Modigliani, and more, and there’s an apocryphal story that Picasso used to pay for his meals with drawings on napkins. Today you can still go to Au Lapin Agile for drinks and to watch performances by poets, singers, and cabaret troops.
For some bookish arts, there’s Maison de Balzac. Long before there was an MCU, Honore de Balzac created the shared universe of La Comedie Humaine, a sprawling collection of over 100 novels that is widely considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. Maison de Balzac is the author’s home, where he did much of his writing. Located just over the river from the Eiffel Tower, it’s a quiet place to take a break from the throngs of the more crowded sites nearby.
Eat duck, pastries, and North African delicacies
In the heart of Montmartre you’ll find (or smell) Pain Pain, a traditional French bakery and patisserie that is famous for its baguettes and wide-ranging pastries. The baguettes are, of course, a must (you know, Paris). As far as pastries go, choose whichever looks the most delicious, and you can’t go wrong.
Tucked away on the eastern edge of the Latin Quarter is Al Mosaic, a North African spot that offers traditional dishes from Tunisia and Morocco. This is an outstanding place to get a hardy meal after a day of exploring the city’s Left Bank. The lamb, in particular, and couscous are a must.
Over in the Juares neighborhood, Le Jaures Café offers a lovely old-Paris vibe, top-shelf service, and a delicious menu, all at a surprisingly affordable price. The duck with green pepper sauce is drool-worthy, though don’t thumb your nose at the steak with mushroom sauce, either. And don’t forget to get a round or two of escargot.
Le Jaures Café has a surprisingly low rating on Google, but ignore that. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Over 15 years of eating here has consistently shown a delightful dining experience.
Haunt the Paris cemeteries
Through the centuries, Paris has been home to many of history’s greatest figures, both during their lives and afterwards. Accordingly, the city boasts several impressive cemeteries.
The most renowned is inarguably Pere Lachaise, the most famed residents being Jim Morrison, Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Moliere, Chopin, and Richard Wright, among many others.
Less frequented are the cemeteries Montmartre and Montparnasse, which respectively host the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Dalida, Truffaut, Stendhal and Charles Baudelaire, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Serge Gainsbourg, and Samuel Beckett, and on and on.
These are not only photogenic and historic places to spend an afternoon, they provide a quiet place to escape from the cacophony of the city. It’s easy to spend hours on end exploring their chaotic hodgepodges of elaborate statues and tombs overflowing with ivy and drooping trees.
Go for classy cocktails or dive-bar tropical
Bisou. (the period is part of the name) is a sweet little place in the extremely popular Oberkampf district. Its decor leans hard into the color pink, and it has quintessential outdoor seating for people-watching. It also has a delightfully eccentric cocktail menu. Let’s put it this way: here you’ll find some uber-Instagrammable drinks to wow your people back home.
Located a few dozen meters south of the metro station in the infamously, delightfully sleazy district Pigalle, Dirty Dick is a dark tiki-dive where you’ll find an affable blend of local boozers and international visitors. It’s primarily known for its unique, tropical-themed drink menu and dimly-lit Hawaiian décor. Fun historical note: the bar was first launched in 1936 as a sex club operated by the Corsican mafia, hence the name.
I’ll say outright that you’re not coming to New York Cafe for the bar itself, which is merely adequate. What you are coming for is the opportunity to croon (or caterwaul) some karaoke with the locals. This is an exceedingly fun place to drink late into the night, sing a few tunes, and make some new friends. As an added bonus it’s in the fun Rue Mouffetard neighborhood.
Stop to smell the flowers at Jardin des Plantes
Paris has no shortage of wonderful places to sit outside and enjoy a sunny day, with the Luxembourg Gardens perhaps being the most visited park. Just east, however, is Jardin des Plantes, a stunning botanical garden that offers paths to meander through the flowers, plots of grass and benches for kicking back, a zoo plus collection of dinosaur bones, and a restored 19th century hothouse lush with tropical flora.
Shop the markets of Barbes-Rochechouart
On the eastern shoulder of the Montmartre bluffs is the neighborhood Barbes-Rochechouart, a largely immigrant-inhabited district that’s thick with food and clothing markets. Marché Barbes is probably the most highly-regarded of these, as it is where many of the city’s top chefs go to acquire their ingredients.
Admittedly the neighborhood has something of a bad reputation, but I’ve spent a lot of time here during all hours, and found it to be just like any other city environment. As in any major urban area, be aware of your surroundings and you shouldn’t have issues.
Hit up late-night river parties
While the Parisian stretch along the Seine tends to be its most tourist-infested region, if you know where to go late at night (we’re talking 2-4 am late) you can stumble upon some uniquely local after-parties that can include (but are not limited to) live music, drum circles, Romani dancing, and general boozery.
The most lively version I’ve seen has been at the Arenes amphitheater in Jardin Tino Rossi. Pont Neuf on Ile de la Cite also has its moments, though you should only venture there late at night if there’s already a crowd and you’re with people. A more regulated version of this can be found along Promenade Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Promenade Edouard Glissant, though in these cases you’re leaning into more popular fare.