When I was asked to produce a list of myTop Ten Offbeat Things To Do In Paris for theGotSagawebsite, I thought, 'Easy-Peasy, Lemon... Squeezy!'. I was wrong.
For a start, Paris is SO famous, even what seems to be offbeat, if you look into it, actually has about a hundred articles written about it already out there.
I mean, there are entire books written about 'The Secret Paris' and 'The Unknown Paris' and 'The Hidden Paris' and the list goes on.
So in the end I thought, worrying about it ain't gonna get the piece written; just get started and forget what's gone before, and see what happens. That's what I did, and this is the result: a totally personal selection of places or ideas for doing something just a little different in the so-called City of Light.
You'll find most of these offbeat attractons involve discovering the city through walking, and are things that can be enjoyed outside. There are vast armies of people who talk about restaurants and cafés and bars and clubs and boutiques far better than I ever could, so I stick to my thing: the streets of Paris.
Here's a video I made where I basically talk you through each of the Ten Things To Do. It seems to take quite a while to load, so you could open it in You Tube, let it charge up happily with the sound off, and watch it after you've read the article. Just an idea :-D
Oh yeah, and almost everything in the list doesn't cost a thing. Offbeat, fascinating and free! What more could you possibly ask for? Bonne visite!
Sab's Top Ten Offbeat Paris Things To Do
1) Come on Down to the Catacombes
OK, OK, I know that this might be considered one of the biggest clichés of all. But then again it's not quite up there with the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, and it's weird. I mean, TOTALLY weird. Imagine heading down a twisting hole in the ground to wander a couple of kilometres of passages to end up in a spooky labyrinth of bones, bones and more bones, all lined up nice and neat in aesthetically pleasing patterns and pictures.
There are other surprises down there too: countless enigmatic inscriptions line the walls, strange sculptures are hidden away in recesses, deep deeeep subterranean water holes get you wondering and cave ceilings arch up so high you worry that a Parisian apartment block might come crashing through the roof at any moment. Which is precisely what used to happen on a regular basis before some consolidation work. So worth doing, either just to say you've done it, if you're the box-ticking type, and to experience something really unique if you're the adventurous kind. Put it at the top of your list please, like I did, and report back. Thank you. (This is the paying one, by the way, about €8 I believe, plus a queue)
We need to distinguish between street art, and graffiti or 'tagging' here. Paris has a ton of both, but it's the street art which is really exceptional. I'll lump graffiti and tagging together as the stuff which we generally think of as ugly and not particularly creative. This includes big colourful names which may show some artistic ability, and scrawled slogans which usually don't.
Street art, on the other hand, is where people genuinely offer meritworthy works to the world for free, try to make the urban landscape a more interesting place than before, often make us think, and theoretically respect people's property and historical monuments, as they'd like people to respect their art.
In this latter camp are a whole bunch of Parisian street artists who have now become famous and you can have great fun looking out for their work all over the place. Check out Miss.Tic, Jerôme Mesnager, Rue Meurt d'Art, Jef Aerosol, Mosko et Associés, Nemo, Speedy Graffito, Lézarts de la Bièvre, Jana und Js, Space Invader, Gregos and infini2, to name a few, whose work is particularly in evidence in Belleville and Ménilmontant, Montmartre and the Butte aux Cailles, amongst plenty of other places.
The Paris passages are one of those extremely pleasant, intriguing and somewhat hidden away aspects of the city which take a little while to notice if you don't have them specifically pointed out to you. They're rarely on 'Top Ten' lists of things to do and yet some of them would almost merit the epithet 'spectacular' in terms of atmosphere and otherworldly charm. I'm thinking of places like splendid Galerie Vivienne and quaint Passage Jouffroy.
Those that don't merit 'spectacular' are actually just as good in my book. Offering another ambience entirely are Passage des Panoramas and Passage Brady. The first is a coin, stamp and old postcard collector's paradise, and the latter one of the top spots for curries and... incredibly cheap haircuts (see any photo of mine for evidence of this ;-).
Hey, looking for cool things to do in Paris? Well what about... getting out of Paris?! Only a little bit, you understand. We're still on the metro system, which is my personal 'loose' definition of what Paris is anyway.
This place is a marvel among marvels. It's basically the fantasy of a rich philanthropic banker who fell in love with photography, gardens and the planet in general, and funded various trips to far off places to record them on the 'latest technology' (stereoscopic plates and others). He was one for peace, whatever that is, and decided to symbolically represent this in the form of a 'garden of gardens'.
We have a truly beautiful Japanese garden (originally created by an imported master gardener donated by the Japanese Emperor himself) sitting comfortably next to a delightfully haphazard English garden and a regimented French one. Further on there are wilder areas consisting of two distinct types of forest of sentimental significance to Mr.Kahn. I was missing a pic of all this, so I stole one from the Internet - I'll replace it with a proper one of my own shortly. (It cost's a couple of euros come to think of it, but cheap at the price)
Be they architectural, statuesque, historical or just good old plain weird, Paris is absolutely packed full of curiosities, and I think anyone who wants to say they truly know this city needs to get out there and find a few! Of course, I'm a bit obsessed by them myself, but to get you started I would like to share with you my series of 20 absolutely fascinating Parisian curiosities for free, and that's just the tip of the iceberg!
As a taster, when you start receiving the articles, you'll get answers to these intriguing questions, which you can immediately go and discover yourself in the streets of Paris, amongst many others... 1) When is a door not a door?
2) Who exactly is the 'woman without a head'?
3) Where is the man who can walk through walls?
4) What is the Louvre's most astonishing carving?
5) The 'work' of a true Napoleon hater, or just an idiot?
6) What's does the mysterious medieval carving 'FDT' signify?
7) A sickeningly racist anacronism or a quaint reminder of yesteryear?
8) What's the surprising secret of the ugly-looking fountains?
9) Where is the statue that watches you pass? 10) Just how authentic does the last Paris Vespienne smell? 11) What is the magic that happens on a certain bridge at sunset?
12) Ever seen a ghost station? I'll show you one.
And specially for those of you who think you are clever for knowing where the 'other' Statue of Liberty in Paris is...
13) Where exactly can you find the FIFTH version of this statue I know of in the French capital?! ;-)
All around Paris there used to run a little train, and remnants of its tracks can still be glimpsed all over the city... if you know where to look. Deep cuttings terminating in spooky tunnels can be spied in several of the outlying parks, and you'll occasionally be wandering under a dubiously darkened bridge if you're the wandering type like me, and suddenly realise that is seems to be serving no purpose whatsoever, if it isn't to provide dubiously darkened bridges for wanderers like me to wander under. Another vestige of the circular Parisian 'Little Belt' railway of yesteryear.
The good news is, if you get yourself out to the 16th arrondissement of the city, wrongly dismissed as merely a boring bourgeoie backwater, there's a good kilometre chunk of the old tracks in the open air free to walk along if you wish. A perfect place for thinking about how a city changes and doing something probably fewer than one in a million visitors to Paris ever does. You're one in a million - félicitations! And talking of millions...
And talking of millions... of the many millions who visit France's most famous religious edifice, only a tiny fraction of those are even aware that just behind this tourist trap lies a far more touching monument: the Mémorial de la Déportation.
In a tiny park on the tip of Ile de la Cité, literally across the road from Notre Dame, a moving experience awaits at the bottom of a steep flight of austere steps. This place is to the memory of all those who were rounded up and sent away to the concentration camps by the Nazis during the Second World War. Don't miss the explanation panal at the entrance, explaining the coloured star system used to identify and stigmatise all the various despicable miscreants from the Hitlerites' point of view. It won't leave you indifferent.
"A mountain in Paris - are you kidding me?" you ask. No, I'm really not, and I don't mean 'Mount' Parnasse or 'Mount' Martre either! OK, it's not an enormous mountain, but it is high in relation to what's immediately around it, it's in the middle of a lake, it has two definite bridges spanning impressive drops to get to it, one of which sways a little if you jump up and down on it, so... don't!
I'm talking about the spiky little mountain in the middle of Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and if you know it, fine, but I'm always amazed by how many people have never discovered this stunning place, just because it's not in the centre of Paris.
On top of the peak is the Temple of Sybil, no less, which offers a lovely view over some of Paris,especially to the north and north-east, which is where Sacré Coeur and its milky domes live, so that's pretty.
The park itself is also great - lots of ups and downs and grassy slopes and little grottos to explore with streams and the odd waterful to admire, not to mention all the botanical interest if that's your thing.
This one might require a bit of research, but I just typed 'Philippe Auguste Wall map' into Google and found all you need on the very first page (and a link to a great site in English is below too).
Paris grew outwards organically and somewhat concentrically, like a lichen on a wall, continually building defensive boundaries, bursting through them, building new ones, tearing through those, and so on, until we have what we see today. The Philippe Auguste wall was one of those defenses, encircling the city on both the left and right bank over 800 years ago, and we are lucky today that we can still more or less follow its path and see quite a few intriguing remains, including several towers, well, bits of towers, along the way.
King Philippe Auguste built his big wall, wisely so as it turned out, to protect the city whilst he was away with Richard the Lionheart killing non-Christians who only had little walls to protect themselves.
I recently did a fantastic walk right the way around the thing, and I think I've managed to find most of the remaining... remnants. You have to do it in stages really, as it takes a while, but is thoroughly rewarding in the end... if you like seeking out stony ghosts of the past, of course.
Ending on what will be a high point for some, I suggest a good session of Parisian shooting. With cameras, obviously. Humanistic street photography was practically invented in this city, by the likes of Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Luckily for us, Parisians themselves show no signs of letting up on their eminent photographability just by going about their daily baguette buying, cigarette smoking and dog walking duties.
Indeed, the average city stepper positively revels in seeing and being seen; just witness any café terrasse for evidence of this. And you are free to get some classic street shots of your own with whatever gear you're packing. I always tell my photo tour clients that I don't care if you have the latest digital SLR or a throwaway point and shoot or a fancy iPhone. The great street photographers of the past had none of that and look at the results.
It's truly the eye that counts in street photography, and yours can be as good as anyone else's so get out there and have fun. Great places are Montmartre, Belleville and Menilmontant, the Seine and, well, all of Paris really. Make sure you do something useful with your pictures afterwards, like put them on a free Flickr page so that we can all enjoy them. Themes help a lot too, like 'Paris', or better 'walls', 'people', 'cafés', 'parks' and so on. It focuses the mind (and the eye). And only one shot of each subject. And... oh, don't get me started!
Click on my Paris Set Me Free blog or my You Tube page to access over 130 free videos of friendly and constructive Paris street photography commentary on some of my clients' photos and a lot of my own stuff too.
By the way, almost all of the photos in this article (not Nos.4,8,9) were shot with my humble little iPhone camera to give you an idea of what's possible with a very simple device (and a little help from some Apple apps afterwards, admittedly - the iPhone's fancy, but the camera most certainly isn't). Happy shooting, and be nice to the locals - a smile and a 'Bonjour!' normally does the trick!
* Sab Will runsPhoto and Curios Tours in Paris, and also manages a variety of Paris and photography-themed sites and blogs. He writes an illustrated Paris Chronicle every day, runs a Meetup group for Paris lovers, interviews Paris personalities and reviews Paris books (on this blog), and even contributes to the city's street art (shh), so feel free to browse some of the links below and in the right-hand column to find out more about what he gets up to out there...