41 Unusual Things to do in Paris – PART I

Paris is quite possibly Ellie’s and my favourite big city in the world. It will never be as mad and exciting as Tokyo, never as exotic as Cairo or Kathmandu, never as relaxing as Sydney. Paris will never have a skyline like New York City or Hong Kong, never feel home like London does to us, or make us think that we time-travelled back two thousand years, like Rome. Paris is just so different from all other big cities we know. (Vienna might come closest.)

We love all the wide boulevards and the elegant buildings lining them. Culturally, Paris has so much to offer, and of course the food is among the best in the world.

WHY I WROTE THIS BLOG POST

We usually visit at least once per year. I used to visit for work every now and then. In short, we’ve done most of the major tourist sights plenty of times and often end up having meals at the same restaurants we’ve dined at for years.

To keep things exciting, we gradually had to add more unusual things to do in Paris during our stays. We’ve done most of the items on the following list. Where we’ve not gotten around to doing them yet, it will be clearly indicated and our recommendation is based on recommendations by knowledgeable friends of ours, such as local expats, and a fair bit of research.

WHAT DOES ‘UNUSUAL’ MEAN?

To pre-empt harsh remarks in the comments: Our definition of ‘unusual’ is intentionally vague and wide, and pretty much includes everything that isn’t the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, or Notre Dame.

 

 

All pics (c) BerkeleySqB, except where indicated otherwise

 

HOW TO QUICKLY GET A GOOD IDEA ABOUT THE LOCATION OF EACH ‘THING TO DO’

Where possible, I tried to include the full address of each location under the item’s heading. The last two digits of the post code indicate the arrondissement. If you’re staying for more than just a long weekend or if you’re planning on returning again and again, then I highly recommend trying to memorise the location of the different arrondissements. It is a spiral-shaped sequence and fairly easy to get your head around.

ARRONDISSEMENTS VERSUS NEIGHBOURHOODS

A lot of the information about Paris, online just the same as when speaking with locals or expats, will reference the arrondissement, not the neighbourhood or landmarks. Neighbourhoods can be bigger than the arrondissements around them, like the Marais, which stretches over most (but not all) of the 3rd and 4th arrondissement, or smaller, like the Les Halles neighbourhood, which covers a small part of the 1st arrondissement. The Île de la Cité is tiny, but covers part of the 1st and the 4th arrondissement.

 

 

Map (c) maps-paris dot com

 

CARDINAL DIRECTIONS

For those used to cardinal directions, I included an abbreviated indicator (NW=northwest, SE=southeast, Central=Central, etc.) after the address. Where no address is given, I simply state the cardinal direction unabbreviated. Central includes the first four arrondissements, and those parts of adjacent arrondissements that are within easy walking distance from the first four arrondissements.

 

THIS BLOG POST HAS BEEN SPLIT INTO THREE PARTS

 

Due to its length, I’ve split this blog post into three parts. This is part I. For part II click here. For part III click here.

 

 

 

41 UNUSUAL THINGS TO DO IN PARIS

 

PART I

 

[1] Go on a Balloon Ride

[2] Do an Indoor Parkour / Freerunning Session

[3] Sing some Chansons

[4] Go Climbing or Bouldering at the World’s Biggest Indoor Climbing Gym

[5] Do an Absinthe Tasting Session

[6] Go inline skating with thousands of others on public roads with Pari Roller

[7] Visit the oldest English bookstore on the Continent

[8] Check out Paris’s best hot chocolate

[9] Have a bite at a traditional Paris Bouillon

[10] Keep your eyes open for the street art everywhere in town

[11] Explore the street art at a formerly illegal artist squat

[12] Into stuffed rats? (And who isn’t.) Look no further.

[13] Enjoy a stroll past the skeletal remains of 6 million dead people

[14] Run around Paris along the Ring Road

 

PART II

 

[15] Stock up on delicacies at the local supermarket

[16] Have a picnic in a park or square

[17] Grab a coffee & some pastry from Carette

[18] Enjoy frog legs at Picasso’s favorite haunt

[19] Join a Paris food tour

[20] Join a Segway Tour

[21] Visit one of the last few remaining vineyards of Paris

[22] Have a selfie or couple shot taken at the vintage photo booth

[23] Visit one of the last few remaining windmills of Paris

[24] Dance in the street

[25] Dance in underground vaults

[26] Be blown away by the spectacular architecture of Fondation Louis Vuitton

[27] Have home-cooked dinner at one of the many supper clubs in town

[28] Watch people letting their miniature sailing boats cruise around a pond

[29] Celebrate the gay culture of the Marais with a penis-shaped burger

 

PART III

 

[30] Stroll along the Coulée Verte René-Dumont

[31] Go for a walk along the Petite Ceinture

[32] Go for a swim in a floating pool on the Seine

[33] Visit the grave of Antoine Augustin Parmentier, the Potato King

[34] Enjoy a glass of sparkly on the roof top of Paris’s tallest office building

[35] Take in the views from the roof top of BHV Marais

[36] Taste some French fart sausage (Andouillette)

[37] Explore the area around Canal Saint Martin

[38] Take a few snaps in the colourful Rue Crémieux

[39] Do a French baking course

[40] Wander around a Roman amphitheatre

[41] Write a poem about Paris

 

 

 

[1] GO ON A BALLOON RIDE

Parc André-Citroën, 2 Rue Cauchy, 75015 Paris [SW]

 

The Ballon de Paris Generali is based in and above Parc André-Citroën in the 15th arrondissement (the far southwest). As with all balloon rides, everything depends on the weather. We’d recommend the following approach:

  • Decide on 3 to 5 preferred possible time slots for the ride during your stay
  • Check the operator’s website regularly for updates & check local weather forecasts
  • Once you’ve confirmed that the tour operator is planning on operating the balloon at the time of one of your preferred slots, hop onto the Metro (~25mins from central Paris + 10mins walk).
  • If everything is still going ahead, once you’ve arrived at the location, that’s when you should buy your tickets online on your smartphone. Tickets start from ~€14 for children, from ~€17 for adults. We paid €19 and no booking fee on PlaceMinute. Once you’ve got your electronic tickets, you should get them exchanged for ‘boarding passes’ at the on-site ticket office.

Rides take 10 minutes. Take-off and landing can be quite rough, even when there’s next to no wind, so hold on tight and prepare to be shaken around a bit. Maximum height reached is 150m.

For safety, it is required that the passengers spread somewhat evenly around the ring-shaped passenger area. This means, that unless there are only a few other passengers and those are being considerate, you might end up stationary on the side that points away from the Eiffel Tower. You’ll still be able to catch a few glimpses, but nothing more.

That said, the views towards La Defense, the financial district, are pretty cool, too. Because the balloon rotates randomly and mildly, there is a good chance you’ll either have great views of La Defense or of the Eiffel Tower, at least for a minute here and there. And balloon rides are always fun.

Because there can be long queues during busy times, it’s best to go during the shoulder or off-season and early in the morning. The latter also makes sense, because that’s usually when the winds are the calmest.

 

 

 

[2] DO AN INDOOR PARKOUR / FREERUNNING SESSION

Centre sportif Suzanne BERLIOUX, Forum des Halles, 4 Place de la Rotonde, 75001 Paris [Central]

 

If you are physically fit and feeling adventurous, then why not book yourself onto a parkour / freerunning session with Fabrique Royale (I booked through Manawa, blog post here). Officially people of any fitness levels are welcome, which is great. However, unless you get a kick out of watching from the sidelines while other people are having all the fun, or unless you’re under the age of 30 (your body can probably take it), then I’d say the activity does require a good level of fitness.

The interior of the indoor parkour gym is custom-built for freerunning. It is located in Les Halles. But don’t be mistaken, it is not in the main building. Instead you’ll find it in an underground section several hundred metres away, several floor levels under Place de la Rotonde.

My instructor, Lucas, is knowledgeable and fun. We started with 10mins of warm-up, mainly zigzagging around various obstacles and doing jumps. Then he showed me how to climb over the top of the scaffolding. “Keep your eyes on your feet while you’re climbing. Try to use your hands as little as possible.” Then I learned how to jump off heights. How important it is to bend your knees ‘a lot’ to minimise the impact, when landing.

 

 

Pics (c) Manawa / Fabrique Royale

 

Next up Lucas showed me the different methods of jumping over roughly waist-high blocks. Inside leg goes up first, outside leg goes up first, both legs at the same time. Push your bottom away from the block when you land. How the sequence of placing your hands and lifting your feet is important. One move involved pretending to run along an imaginary vertical wall to your side while you’re hopping over the block, and so on. It’s all about the flow. Always keep on moving and make each movement follow the previous one as smoothly and effortlessly as possible, retaining and minimizing the energy.

I could tell that Lucas would’ve liked to show me more moves, like jumping from block to block, running up walls, doing flips, backward flips, and whatever. However, I had had very little sleep the previous night (it’s Paris, after all, can’t go to bed at nine), and I wasn’t quite up for it. That said, I feel like I learned a lot and I certainly enjoyed the training session.

Googlemaps will lead you to the location reasonably reliably. Just beware that the entrance is through the same set of doors that lead to the public pool, one floor below the actual parkour venue, and 15 metres horizontal distance. It won’t look very inviting. Concrete set of stairs leading up to the gym, with a non-descript, locked metal door, blocking it. No doorbell. Someone will come and pick you up.

 

 

Pics (c) Manawa / Fabrique Royale

 

Plan to arrive well ahead of time. You might get lost more than once. Also, the gym does not have changing rooms or toilets. The swimming pool only has two unisex cubicles. So there might be a queue to access one of them in order to get changed for your session. Bring a one-Euro coin, as you’ll need it for the locker, to store your valuables and regular clothes and bag.

Group sessions are €35. I paid €55 for a one-to-one session. Both sessions are 1.5h.

 

[3] SING SOME CHANSONS

 

Lately, Ellie & I have discovered karaoke for us, here in London. So we knew we wanted to do some singing during our recent trip. Luckily, Paris’s most highly ranked establishment is located a mere 20mins walk from the hotel where we were staying: BAM Karaoke Box Parmentier, in the hip Canal Saint-Martin neighbourhood.

Mind you, though, there are plenty of other BAM Karaoke Boxes, other karaoke bars, singalong venues, and regular music bars that have singalong nights on occasion. With a bit of research, you’ll find something suitable.

 

 

 

[4] GO CLIMBING OR BOULDERING AT THE WORLD’S BIGGEST INDOOR CLIMBING GYM

Climb Up, 111 avenue Victor Hugo, 93300 Aubervilliers; Access via 1 quai Lucien Lefranc [just outside of Paris, to the northeast]

 

With Paris hosting the summer Olympics this year, and with climbing now being a part of the games, naturellement Paris couldn’t be without a top-notch climbing gym. So they built Climb Up, the world’s biggest indoor climbing gym, just North of the city, within easy reach via the Metro.

I had been telling all my climbing buddies for months how I was going to visit the gym. How it was going to be amazing. I had been so excited. Then, when the day came, a passenger incident caused all metro trains going to Aubervilliers to be halted for more than an hour. So I missed my chance.

 

 

Pics (c) Climb Up, Walltopia

 

I guess I’ll have to visit next time around. However, speaking with several people who have visited, you can’t go wrong giving it a go. You don’t have to be a climber. Just hire climbing shoes on location, then practice your moves on the easier routes of the bouldering walls. Bouldering is climbing without rope on walls that typically do not exceed 6m in height.

For experienced top-ropers and lead-climbers, this place will be fabulous, no doubt. If you don’t have any previous experience top-roping, and you want to get started, Climb-Up might not be the best place to do so. Unless you do one of their longer courses.

Their standard minimum requirement for complete beginners is to do a 2h group course with more than ten participants (€30). In my humble opinion, that’s not enough to get you where you need to be to be able to climb safely. You should do a full day climbing induction (5h bare minimum, if small group and 2+ instructors), not just 2h.

Needless to say that there are risks involved, so only go for it, if you understand the risks and you are willing to accept them.

 

[5] DO AN ABSINTHE TASTING SESSION

 

We stayed at the Hotel Litteraire Arthur Rimbaud during our last stay. The whole hotel is Rimbaud-themed. Literary readings and talks. Libraries. Paintings. Manuscripts. And of course, they have to offer absinthe tasting sessions. Simply because absinthe was such an essential part of Rimbaud’s diet. He usually started the day with absinthe, before moving on to opium, as you would.

 

 

 

[6] GO INLINE SKATING WITH THOUSANDS OF OTHERS ON PUBLIC ROADS WITH PARI ROLLER

Pari Roller, Métro Montparnasse-Bienvenue, 75014 Paris [S]

 

Every Friday evening of the year, when weather permits (i.e. when roads are dry & no rain forecast), thousands of inline skaters, skateboarders, roller-bladers, scooter-enthusiasts, cyclists, and gyrowheelers meet at Montparnasse station at 9:15pm.

At 9:30pm they embark on a three-hour ride around closed public roads in Paris. They return to the starting point at around 00:30am. The event is guided and completely free of cost. Unfortunately, Ellie & I missed it every single time we were in town, so far. Friday nights are usually reserved for good food and some dancing.

 

 

Pics (c) Pari-Roller and The Rider Post

 

[7] VISIT THE OLDEST ENGLISH BOOKSTORE ON THE CONTINENT

Librairie Galigani, 224 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris [Central]

 

Librairie Galignani on Rue de Rivoli claim to be the oldest English bookstore still in operation in continental Europe. They opened their first Paris shop in 1801 and moved into the current location in 1856. The current interior decor is all from the 1930s. The name Galignani has been associated with publishing and book selling since the early 16th Century, when they set out in Venice.

Their Geografia by Ptolemy was one of the first international bestsellers over the two centuries following its publication in 1597. Silvia’s Trips has a great blog post about all the other famous bookshops in town. Some of them are less than 10mins walk away.

 

 

 

[8] CHECK OUT PARIS’S BEST HOT CHOCOLATE

Angelina, 226 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris [Central]

 

Right next door to Galignani you will find Angelina, which is widely celebrated as the purveyor of the best hot chocolate in town. To this day this famous Belle Epoque tea house resides in its premises opposite Jardin des Tuileries, where it first opened its doors in 1903. There are now various branches in France and abroad, but if you want to get the full experience, it will have to be at its original site, despite the long queues.

 

[9] HAVE A BITE AT A TRADITIONAL PARIS BOUILLON

 

In the mid-19th Century a butcher in the Les Halles neighbourhood, Louis Duval, came up with a great idea. Why not use the cheapest cuts, the ones his clients wouldn’t be willing to pay for, to make bone broth (‘bouillon’ in French). And then serve the broth in his brasserie to those with a smaller wallet. Soon he headed a whole network of brasseries, which became known as ‘Bouillons’.

Almost half a century later, in 1896, the Chartier brothers took Duval’s idea and gave it a turbo-boost. They opened the first Bouillon Chartier in the Grands Boulevards neighbourhood. Their bouillon had a sizeable menu of popular and mostly relatively basic dishes at very affordable prices in a stylish atmosphere. The restaurant served food non-stop from late morning to midnight every day of the year. No reservations.

Many of the remaining bouillons are famous for their beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and interior décor. Apart from the original Bouillon Chartier, other famous ones are Bouillon Pigalle and Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse.

Ellie & I have not visited a Bouillon so far. We really like the concept and we are sure that we’d enjoy the atmosphere. However, unsurprisingly, none of the Bouillons are ranking particularly highly. The quality of the food at the ones mentioned above seems decent, even good, though.

 

 

 

[10] KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN FOR THE STREET ART EVERYWHERE IN TOWN

 

We usually prefer exploring street art by booking a specialised tour with a knowledgeable guide who knows exactly where the best bits can be found. For some reason, we always seem to be busy, when the best tours are available, so we end up exploring on our own.

Examples of popular areas are: Canal Saint-Denis, Belleville (especially Rue Dénoyez), Vitry-sur-Seine, and the monumental murals that line Boulevard Vincent Auriol in the 13th arrondissement. We didn’t visit any of those areas on our last trip, but still spotted plenty of great graffiti in central Paris, Montmartre, Montparnasse, and many other locations.

The most popular street art tours appear to be the Belleville Street Art Tour with an Artist, and the Murals XXL Street Art Tour, both by Street Art Tour Paris.

 

 

 

[11] EXPLORE THE STREET ART AT A FORMERLY ILLEGAL ARTIST SQUAT

59 Rivoli, 59 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris [Central]

 

59 Rivoli started out in 1999 as an illegal artist squat. In 2006 the borough council legalised it and enabled the establishment of various artist residences and galleries. There is some very cool street art along many of the walls, in particular in the central spiral staircase.

 

 

 

[12] INTO STUFFED RATS? (AND WHO ISN’T.) LOOK NO FURTHER.

Julien Aurouze and Co., 8 Rue des Halles, 75001 Paris, France [Central]

 

Since 1872, Julien Aurouze & Co, only a few minutes’ walk from 59 Rivoli, has been the premier pest control business in town. Their shop windows display dozens of stuffed rats. The store makes a short appearance in the famous animated movie Ratatouille. Remy’s wise old father shows him the storefront window, remarking “This is what happens when a rat gets a little too comfortable around humans.”

 

 

 

[13] ENJOY A STROLL PAST THE SKELETAL REMAINS OF 6 MILLION DEAD PEOPLE

Catacombes de Paris, 1 Av. du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris [S]

 

Strictly speaking, the Paris Catacombs are not catacombs, but a former quarry filled with the remains of 6 million people, whose cemetery resting places had been repurposed. The Catacombs are now so popular that you should book well in advance. More than 550,000 people visit the sight each year. Check out my blog post about the Catacombs.

 

 

 

[14] RUN AROUND PARIS ALONG THE RING ROAD

 

The ring road around all 20 arrondissements of Paris is only 34km in length along the Boulevard Périphérique, or Périph, for short. If you’re into long-distance running, like I am, then this might be of interest. Don’t run right next to the ring road, but on the parallel boulevards right next to it. One level closer to the town centre. Typically those roads will be about 100 to 300m away from the Périph, but much more pedestrian/runner-friendly.

 

 

 

While you’ll save on some of the distance, because the radius of your route is shorter, you’ll add an equal amount of mileage because your roads will not be as straight as the ring road. The distance will still be 34km. It took me 4h45m. A faster runner could easily do it in well under 3h15m.

The loop has more than 300m elevation gain. There will be extremely few spots along the way with any views worth mentioning. Mostly you’ll be running along social housing estates, military compounds, factory grounds, warehouses, or simply along narrow pavements between tall walls and very busy roads.

Especially in the northeast, I had to run past many dozens of prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers, homeless people, and the like. On one occasion I was almost run over by a drunk driver, who was driving his car at speed on the pavement. There are more than 100 traffic lights along the way. During the day and in the evenings, it would be too busy, so you have to run in the early hours before the city awakes.

So while none of this sounds very attractive to the vast majority of people, and while it doesn’t come without risks, I’m glad I’ve done it. I like the idea of running loops around major cities and am planning to do the same with other cities, like London & Munich. Everyone at their own risk, obviously, this is no recommendation.

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2 Comments

  1. I love that freerunning idea; it’d be right up my alley. Paris offers far more to do then traditional tourist stuff. I dig it. Tourist stuff is OK to do but gets bland, sometimes. Rocking post my friend.

    Ryan

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