The Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees. What do all three have in common? Yes, they are indeed gorgeous – but that’s not what I was looking for. All three plus lots more, are where most visitors will head off to when visiting the City of Lights. But you’re not the average traveler, are you? In this post, I’ll share with you my list of the top off the beaten track things to do in Paris.
We’ll venture to the far reaches of eastern and western Paris to experience the best of local life. We’ll even venture deep underground and visit some of the creepiest and smelliest places in town. So let’s go and explore off the beaten track Paris!
Roland Garros – The French Open
The French Open, commonly known as the Roland Garros, is the second tournament of the Grand Slam tennis season. Every May & June, the best male and female players from around the world arrive in the City of Lights for a magical two weeks. Even if you’re not a tennis fanatic, visiting the French Open is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it’s definitely one of the unique things to do in Paris. Getting tickets is not as hard as you might think; it just requires a bit of planning and a bit of luck. You might even get tickets to great matches for just €20. So if you want to see Rafael Nadal chase down a Roger Federer serve, keep this in mind for a spring visit to Paris (which is the best time to visit anyway).
Read more about the best ways to catch a match at the French Open
There’s no better way to experience the ‘local side of Paris’ than by paying a visit to one of the top-notch food markets spread around town. Of those, the Marché Aligre is the most animated of them all and my personal favorite. It’s in the Bastille area of Paris, a little further east than most visitors would venture to. As the saying goes, good things are worth the effort and this is one of them. Come here on a Saturday morning, when the market is at its liveliest. The market is known for its mostly Algerian traders, who pretty much all sell fruits and vegetables. So what can you do to attract customers when your competitors sell the exact same thing? Have a look at this video and you’ll understand why this is a fun place to visit.
When you’ve bought what you need for that Parisian picnic, head over for a glass of wine in one Paris’s legendary wine bars – Le Baron Rouge. There’s a ton of choice for wines by the glass and the vibe is great.
There are lots to see around the Aligre Market! Read more about exploring the Bastille area of Paris.
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
What do you do when there’s an abandoned quarry right in the middle of town? You turn it into a park, of course! That’s exactly how Parc des Buttes-Chaumont came to be, and on a sunny day over the weekend, it’s an oasis for local Parisians. Opened in 1867, the park’s main feature is a towering rock rising out of a central lake. You can get there via a suspension bridge or just grab a spot on the grass with your picnic lunch and kill a few hours.
Spend the day exploring the Canal Saint Martin and visit this locals’ park.
The Paris Flea Market
Not many tourists head out to the rough suburb of Saint Ouen, but one of the world’s largest flea markets is certainly worth the short trip on the Metro. Known as the Marché aux Puces, the Paris flea market is actually a complex of several markets spread out across several blocks. Each market has its own specialty, ranging from antique books and all the way to super expensive 19th-century furniture. If you’re looking for cool, off the beaten track things to do in Paris, this is one of the best!
Whatever it is that you do, just be sure to pay a visit to Chez Louisette. You might even get to see the reincarnation of Edith Piaf, turning the wheels of time back to ‘a more classic Paris’, with those timeless chansons. Here’s a video that takes you inside.
A great idea for a rainy day itinerary in Paris, have a look at this guide and plan your visit to the Paris flea market.
Bois de Boulogne
Modeled after London’s Hyde Park, the Bois de Boulogne is a place where Parisians flock to if they want to visit the countryside without leaving town. Miles and miles of tracks snake their way across this massive park, that seems to be more like a forest at times. The highlight is no doubt renting an old-fashioned rowboat and hanging out with the swans in the giant lake. The City of Lights is just a few steps away, but inside the park – you’ll feel miles away. Rent a bike, rent a boat or just bring a picnic lunch – this is the place to get away from it all.
Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis
If you’re one of those people that are amazed by those magnificent old European cathedrals (like me), you simply have to make the trip to the ‘mother of all French cathedrals’ – the Basilica of Saint-Denis. This is the site where French kings have been crowned since the 7th century, and where French royal families are buried. The cathedral is simply out of this world. In fact, it made such a huge impression on opening day (sometime in the 12th century) that all cathedrals to be built, followed suit (including the Notre Dame). Saint-Denis may not be the best Parisian suburb these days, but a visit to the basilica is totally safe and you’ll be rewarded with a fraction of the crowds you’ll find in the center of Paris.
Do you like visiting old European cathedrals? Have a look at some of the best cathedrals in Paris.
The Claude Monet House & Garden in Giverny
Most visitors to Paris will dedicate one day to head out on a day trip and see the palace and gardens of Versailles. But if you’re looking for something unique, or want to see where the heck those beautiful paintings you saw at the Musee d’Orsay came from – head out to the tiny village of Giverny. The village is 80 km’s outside of Paris and can be reached by train from Saint Lazare station (though you can use this opportunity to rent a car and drive through the countryside). Claude Monet, the father of the Impressionist art movement, built his home here along with beautiful gardens that inspired many of his famous works. Your visit to the Monet House & Garden will include a stroll through the colorful grounds and a look inside the house.
Read more about taking a day trip from Paris to Giverny
The Paris Sewer System Museum
The biggest Paris underground adventure awaits you at the very end of this post. But to start things off, we’ll head over to the Paris Sewer System Museum. It’s surprisingly not too smelly down here, especially considering you’re walking along an open sewer that’s running right beneath major Parisian boulevards. The underground museum tells the tale of how Paris has coped (and still coping) with water & waste management. It’s fascinating to learn how the city overcame huge challenges, some of which threatened its very existence. If you love those ‘how to’ shows on the Discovery Channel, you’ll love this place. And for a mere €4.50 entrance fee, the Paris Sewer System Museum definitely ranks high on my list of the top off the beaten track things to do in Paris.
Read more about visiting the Paris Sewer System Museum
The ‘Celebrity Cemetery’ Of Père Lachaise
On the edges of eastern Paris, lies one of the coolest places to visit in town. It’s quite out of the way from central tourist hotspots but quite easy to get to, and can be visited rain or shine. The Père Lachaise Cemetery is the final resting spot for city’s celebrities over the years. These would include old timers like the fabulous painter Eugene Delacroix, the French playwright Molière and Irishman Oscar Wilde – but also some more modern celebs like Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison, who died while visiting Paris as the age of 28. They are all buried on beautiful grounds, crisscrossed by confusing cobblestone lanes and dirt paths. Some of the graves are more like miniature mausoleums, complete with their own stained glass windows. It’s super difficult not to get lost in the maze of lanes but that’s also part of the fun. You’ll find yourself in a kind of weird ‘scavenger hunt’, trying to pinpoint all the famous cemetery residents. Say hi to Jim Morrison for me, will you?
Plan your visit to the Père Lachaise Cemetery with this itinerary guide
The Underground Catacombs of Paris
The jewel in the crown when it comes to off the beaten track things to do in Paris, is the underground cemetery known as the Catacombs. Can you imagine seeing the world’s largest underground cemetery right beneath the streets of Paris? They say Paris is like a huge Swiss cheese and that’s because the land beneath the city was quarried for centuries when these parts of town were a desolate place. The result is hundreds of miles of tunnels, many unmapped until today. So how did the bones get here? Well, in the late 18th century the cemeteries of Paris were overflowing and the city was already facing a sanitary crisis. So the king decided to make use of the abandoned quarries and transfer the cemeteries below ground. Today, you can visit a small portion of the underground cemetery for an eerie trip down memory lane.
Read more about visiting the Catacombs of Paris, including one incredibly useful tip!
So these are some of the top off the beaten track things to do in Paris. As you can see, there’s lots to do beyond the usual hotspots, with just a bit of extra effort.