Alternative things to do in Paris

Paris Louvre museum

Paris is full of world-famous buildings and attractions – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre. But what about on your second visit, or third or fourth? When you’ve seen the big names there’s still plenty more to see off the beaten track in the City of Light. Here’s my pick of some of the best alternative and unusual things to see and do in Paris.

Climbed the Eiffel Tower? See it from the Montparnasse Tower

Climbing up to the top of the Eiffel Tower is a Paris must-do, but the only problem is when you’re up there you can’t see the city’s most famous building – because you’re in it. So instead head to the top of the Montparnasse Tower, the city centre’s only skyscraper. The rootop viewing platform is a bit lower at 210 metres compared to the 275 metres of the Eiffel Tower’s upper level, but you get a prime view of the Tower. You also don’t normally need to queue and if you don’t want to pay for the viewing platform you can just head to the bar on the 56th floor and get a free view with your drink. The best time to go is around dusk when you can watch the lights come on over the city and the Eiffel Tower sparkle on the hour.

Montparnasse Tower view

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Seen the Mona Lisa? Explore the city’s unusual museums

The Louvre and Musée d’Orsay are Paris’ biggest and busiest museums. But once you’ve seen the Mona Lisa and Monet’s waterlilies, there are a whole host of smaller – and in some cases weirder – museums across the city to explore. If you’re interested in science and industry, you could try the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and make sure you don’t miss the amazing steampunk-style Metro station beneath the museum. If you’re interested in natural history you could check out the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle next to the Botanical Gardens, or for anthropology try the Musée du Quai Branly. Or if that’s all a bit too mainstream there are also museums dedicated to fairground rides, perfume, the police and erotic art.

Arts et Métiers metro station

The steampunk-style metro station at Arts et Métiers

Strolled along the Seine? Cruise the canals instead

A walk along the Seine takes you past some of Paris’ most famous sights, but you might have to dodge people selling knock-off handbags and flashing Eiffel Towers. For a more low-key waterside experience head to one of Paris’ canals. Closest to the city is the Canal St Martin, a 4.5km waterway that links the Seine to the Basin de la Villette. There are trendy cafés, boutiques and bistros along the water’s edge and the shady banks are packed with picnickers on summer evenings. You can walk or cycle along the towpath or take a boat trip along the canal – part of which goes underground. Or if that’s sounds too busy head further out to the Canal de l’Ourcq, which runs for 100km through 10 locks up to the north-east of the city.

Canal St Martin, Paris

Along the banks of the Canal St Martin

Been underground at the catacombs? Tunnel into the sewers

Not your usual tourist attraction, the creepy tunnels of the catacombs are piled with human bones. The skeletons of six million Parisians were moved underground when the city’s cemeteries ran out of space in the 1780s. And now people queue down the street to go and see them, but they’re not Paris’ only underground attraction. You can also get under the surface of the city at the Musée des Égouts de Paris – aka the Sewer Museum. The sewerage system was built in the 1800s and mirrors the streets above, right down to the road signs. Years ago you could take a boat trip along the sewers, but it’s all a bit more hygienic now, and surprisingly unsmelly. It’s worth a visit if you’re interested in engineering, a Les Misérables fan who wants to follow in the footsteps of Jean Valjean or looking for a cool spot on a hot day.

Sewer museum in Paris

Exhibits down in the tunnels at the Sewer Museum

Visited Oscar Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise? See Rin Tin Tin’s at the dog cemetery

Paris’ cemeteries are more like parks, with lawns, ornate tombs and statues. The most famous is Père-Lachaise, where you can leave a lipstick mark on Oscar Wilde’s grave and a cigarette on Jim Morrison’s. But just as beautiful and much quieter are the cemeteries at Montparnasse and Montmartre, built around the same time and with their share of famous names too. Or for something different, head out to Asnières-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris to the Cimetiere des Chiens, or dog cemetery. It opened in 1899 for rich Parisians to pay tribute to their pets – and not just dogs either, you also find graves for cats, birds, horses, monkeys and the occasional lion. It even has its own famous resident, TV star dog Rin Tin Tin.

Montparnasse cemetery

Ornate tombs in the Montparnasse cemetery

Wandered through the Luxembourg Gardens? Take a walk along the Promenade Plantée

Paris’ parks are a great spot for a bit of people watching. But when you’ve seen the Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries, head to the east of Paris to the Promenade Plantée – or planted walkway. Like the High Line in New York, this narrow urban park is raised above the ground on an old railway line. The old Vincennes railway line was closed down in 1969 and scheduled for demolition until it was saved and turned into a public park. The Promenade Plantée starts at the Viaduc des Arts, where the arches underneath the tracks are used for arts and craft studios. It then runs for 1.5 km as far as the Bois de Vincennes, with bamboo, roses, wisteria, cherry and maple trees mixed in with archways, benches and ponds.

Promenade plantee

Autumn colours on the Promenade Plantée

What are your favourite Parisian hidden gems and unusual attractions?

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When you've seen the Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, here's my pick of some of the best unusual and alternative things to do in Paris – ontheluce.com

Comments

  1. says

    Absolutely loved Paris when I went in late 2013! Am hopefully going back next year, can you recommend any local parks that stood out you, and also any cute alleyways or lanes with eatery places?

    • says

      Rue Montorgueil is a good street for lots of restaurants and great food stalls. And park wise I love the Luxembourg Gardens but for something a bit different you could try the Parc Andre Citroen on an old industrial site or the Parc Monceau. Have a great trip!

      • says

        My blog has been going for nearly four years now but it was a very slow start! (and probably even more so now as there are more and more bloggers) – just keep writing and practicing as it takes a while to find your style, look out for opportunities to take part in guest posts or collaborations with other bigger bloggers (Facebook blogging groups are good to find out about these) and courses like Travel Blog Success can be really useful to learn blogging and promotion skills. Good luck!

  2. says

    Paris is such a beautiful place and want to go back someday. Your post for alternative things to do in Paris is really useful and reminded me of so many things I still have to do in Paris.

    • says

      I’m lucky enough to visit Paris most years now but don’t think I could ever get tired of it or run out of things to see there!

  3. Verna Westwood says

    Lucy love your blog though I’m not a blogger usually. Place des Vosges in the Marais is beautiful – the arched arcades are stunning, and there’s a nice parfumier there. Also for more Monet a visit to the Marmottan-Monet muséum Is a must. Largest collection of Monet in the world and via lovely Rue de Passy. There’s so much to see!

    • says

      Thanks so much Verna, and thanks for the tips, I’ve not visited the Marmottan-Monet Muséum yet so it’s one I’ll look up for my next trip.

  4. says

    Hi Lucy — thanks for this article! If you’re interested in off-the-beaten-path areas of Paris, please feel free to contact me for a walking tour of Belleville (in English). Thanks! Allison (Paris on the Edge)

  5. says

    Good ones, Lucy. Real locals-only options. (Dog cemetery? Who knew?) Only problem: The secrets are out! Oh well, better to have shared and help create a more savvy tourist. 😉

  6. says

    Ah, yes, Paris. Love it! Thanks for a few suggestions that I’ve missed. I’d also suggest a visit to the Grand Mosquee for a steamy hammam or a great cup of tea. Just bring your own swimsuit…

    • says

      I love the Mosquee! Not visited the hammam yet but the gardens are so beautiful and such a peaceful escape when Paris gets a bit too hectic.

  7. Pheonix says

    Planning a surprise trip for my daughter’s birthday…..Never been to Paris so i thank you very much for giving me a list. Can’t wait I’m so very excited

  8. says

    Great post Lucy. I lived in Paris for over 25 years and I have done everything you have mentioned in your article and I am sure my friends haven’t done those unusual things because Paris has so much to offer and so much to do. Most people don’t really want to visit places which are out of their comfort zone.

    • says

      Thanks Marc, I love Paris and am always looking for new things to see and do there, hopefully some readers will get some new ideas from the article and head out and see something new!

  9. says

    Hi Lucy,

    As soon as I saw the title of this post, my first thought was “Tour Montparnasse” (I spent 7 years in Paris – and would always take friends up Montparnasse instead of the Eiffel).

    The Eiffel tower is great if you like crowds and waiting for hours in queues. And once you finally get to the top, the view IS wonderful. All of Paris can be seen. EXCEPT the most amazing sight in Paris. You are standing on it!

    So I was rather pleased to see that Montparnasse was your FIRST recommendation.

    I SO want to be in Paris now.

    Iain

    • says

      Great minds think alike! Love the view from the Montparnasse Tower – the friends apartment I stay in normally is just down the road from there so I’ve been a few times. Getting the urge for another Paris trip soon too, most years I get out there at least once but missed out in 2015.

      • says

        The first time I went up, I looked down on the Luxembourg gardens – and was amazed at how clear they looked (normally there’s loads of dust kicked up on the paths). It took me a few moments to realise why. All the city parks had been closed to the public for health&safety reasons (the paths were very icy – and the snow that had fallen in the previous days had melted and re-frozen. So paths were treacherous.

        So the park was empty! And because the air was so cold, the light was amazing.

        One of those magical moments that just happens. One of my best memories of Paris.

        Followed by the best crepes in Paris.

        Iain

        [and they sell half bottles of Champagne up there – which definitely helped conjure up the magic 😉 ]

  10. Frank T. Mikos says

    My wife & I have been to Paris 30 times, in recent years we have visited Promenade Plantee at least a half dozen times. This past September as we entered the garden via the stairway next to the opera house the first thing we noticed was a large amount of litter on the ground, the next site was at least 6 or 7 rats enjoying the midday sun, needless to say we went back from where we came; if you go be careful.

    • says

      Oh dear, that does not sound so nice! We didn’t see much litter when were there so hopefully they can get the problem sorted before it ruins the walkway.

  11. says

    Musee Nissam Comando and Musee Jacquemar-Andre ( both near Parc Monceau) are fabulous. Like going to a soirée at these beautiful homes. And they are not crowded! St. Sulpice with the chapel painted by Delacroix is amazing. The Panheon and nearby St. Etienne du Mont are beautiful. Our favorite restaurant is the Petit Pontois on Rue Pontois ( left bank ). Best site for photography is the roof of Printemps Home store.

    • says

      Thanks for the tips, I usually stay near St Sulpice so know it well but some new ones to me there so I look forward to trying them out on my next Paris trip!

  12. says

    The Eiffel Tower has a bit of a “hidden gem” during the winter months when they open their public ice skating rink on the second level platform. It wasn’t really that busy when I was there in January 2011 with a few of my friends. It’s one thing to say that you have been to the Eiffel Tower. But, it’s another to say that you’ve actually skated on it!

    • says

      I actually did a Christmas guide to Paris and mentioned the ice rink – such an unusual place to have one, definitely a unique experience!

  13. Barbara Miller says

    I love Montmartre. It is the best place to window shop in the world. There is a carousel at the foot of the stairs where musicians entertain for free. Aside from the fitness benefits of NOT using the funicular railway, there are some lovely tiny stores leading away from the Place de Tertre (tourist trap, avoid at all costs!) one of these sells tiny wind up music boxes in little matchboxes. So unusual and very cheap. Pretty much at the bottom of the hill you will find a huge fabric store called Dreyfus (painted a lurid blue) which is fabulous. Opposite Rue D’Abbess metro is a little Italian restaurant run by two brothers. If you’re finding the French food a strain, this place is the absolute best eatery in the 18th A. Take your appetite though, they won’t hug you unless you eat everything!

    • says

      Montmartre’s lovely – I stayed in an apartment there a few years back and really enjoyed exploring all the little backstreets. The Italian place sounds great too, one to remember for next time!

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