Everyone knows the big ticket items you need to see in Paris – the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Couer, Cheese! but, what if you’re looking for some more fun and unusual things to do in Paris to add to your trip.
Well, we have to admit that we at Differentville aren’t necessarily the best people to ask. Despite having been to Paris about six times, I wasn’t blogging during any of them, and so my knowledge of the fun or quirky sights in Paris is a bit more limited than I’d like – however, I know a man who does know about such things and so, for this post, we’re joining forces with guest poster – Jonny from the team over at The Secret City (a fun scavenger hunt that sees you solving clues while you explore cities like London, Manchester and Sydney) who lived in Paris for many years.
So, with no further ado – here’s our list of fun and unusual things to do in Paris…
1. Witness Art Being Made At 59 Rivoli
59 Rivoli is an abandoned bank turned studio, exhibition and living space for artists.
Its six storeys are connected by a central spiral staircase surrounded in colourful murals. Each floor is home to several different artists.
As you wander them you get to experience artworks being made; you get to see the artists at work, to hear the music they listen to, to smell the aromas of their coffee.
The space was conceived as an alternate way of displaying art. Its life began in 1999 when a group of artists broke open its cemented-over doors and cleared out the dead pigeons, rubble and syringes inside. Before this, it had been left abandoned for 15 years. The artists revitalised the building, turning it into their home and workspace.
When the French authorities got wind of what was happening they scheduled an eviction.
Thanks to a combination of legal efforts and media interest in the ‘squart’ (squat-art) phenomenon however this was pushed back and eventually 59 Rivoli was made legal.
It’s open to the public between 1-8pm, Tuesday-Sunday, and hosts concerts every Saturday and Sunday starting at 6pm.
Find More Cool Art
For those interested in the ‘squarts’ it’s also worth looking into Les Frigos, a storage depot turned art space in Paris’ Quai de Bercy area.
Les Frigos isn’t available to visit year round but does feature select open days, usually some time in May.
2. Get Spooked at the Catacombs
This is one of the few unusual things to do in Paris, that I (Helen) have done – and it’s fantastic.
The Catacombs were created in the late 18th century when the bodies from Paris cemeteries were moved underground and they’re now the final resting place of thousands of souls.
Originally the bones (for that was pretty much all that was left of the bodies moved) were simply piled in the tunnels of the Catacombs, but, when, in 1809, it was decided to open the subterranean spaces to the public, the bones were arranged into more artistic shapes – and it makes for eerie viewing.
Only 200 people are allowed in the underground space at a time which means that queues for the catacombs can be long – when I went some years ago, I stood for about 2 hours – and I’d got there shortly before it opened at 10am.
Skipping the Queues at The Catacombs
Having stood in the queue for the Catacombs for a VERY long time, I’d firmly suggest buying your Catacombs ticket in advance as this saves you some amount of queuing time.
There’s a few options for doing this…
The DIY Tour
This option lets you buy your ticket in advance, and comes with an audio guide to fill you in about what’s around you as you wander through the catacombs.
However, if you don’t mind spending a little bit more money, there are also a number of tours of the Catacombs you can book that not only help you skip the line, but also have a guide to tell you what you’re seeing – and some even allow you access to some more restricted areas of the site.
The Basic Guided Tour
Skip the queues and have a guide to show you around this amazing site.
They’ll tell you more about the history of the site, but also pinpoint details you might miss as it’s pretty gloomy down there!
Restricted Access Tours
These tours not only offer skip the line access and the services of a guide while you visit the Catacombs, you also get access to areas that aren’t normally accessed by the general public.
3. Explore Parc Buttes Chaumont
Paris is rightly famous for its great parks but Buttes Chaumont is a cut above the rest.
Where else in the city can you find a temple perched on top of a cliff overlooking a picturesque lake, a waterfall and a cave full of stalactites? Put simply, Buttes Chaumont is stunning.
It wasn’t always this way however.
Before being made into a park the place was used first to display the bodies of hanged criminals and then as a refuse dump, a depository for sewage and somewhere to cut up horse carcasses.
It was only through the labour of 1,000 workers, not to mention a hefty dosage of explosives, that its lake, lawns and all the rest was created.
The park first opened in 1867, during the reign of Napoleon III, and has been a hit ever since. So much so that I’d recommend going in Springtime if possible. It is very popular with the locals and can get pretty busy in the Summer.
If you visit, be sure to check out Rosa Bonheur whilst you’re there, a dancehall/restaurant intended as a modernised version of a traditional 18th century guinguette (or drinking hall).
4. Shop for Gaga’s Favourite Tea
The shops of French teamaker Kusmi are full of pots of pretty tea with varying effects on your health, mood, energy and what not – and, it’s said that when Lady Gaga wanted to give up smoking, she turned to the Kusmi Detox Tea to help her quit.
She’s also said to be a fan of the Sweet Love tea which blends guarana and pink peppercorns.
Other celebrity Kusmi fans include Kendall Jenner, Salma Hayek and Adriana Lima
They have a few different stores in Paris, so use their store locator to find the nearest one to where you’re shopping that day.
5. Walk The Coulée Verte
The Coulée Verte is an abandoned railway line turned public park in South West Paris.
It begins near the Bastille with a raised section that alternates between showing great views of the city and slicing between the walls of tall old buildings.
It then descends into the Jardin de Reuilly, via cable bridge, and proceeds on street level through Bel Air and to the city’s edge, heading through several railway tunnels along the way.
Here, it meets with the Petite Ceinture, another abandoned railway that wraps right around the perimeter of Paris and has also, in part, been converted into public parks.
Both these railway lines offer unique and varied perspectives on the city, from the pristine gardens of the Coulée Verte, to the restricted sections of the Petite Ceinture that, for the most adventurous, offer a secluded experience at odds with the surrounding metropolis.
There’s also plenty to do nearby, including the Viaduc des Arts (railway arch showrooms near Bastille featuring everything from violin makers to glass blowers to tapestry restorers) and Ground Control (see below).
6. Enjoy The Community Market At Ground Control
Ground Control is a former rail depot turned market and performance space.
It started out as a Summertime pop-up in 2016 but was so popular that it has since been expanded into a year round thing.
It boasts a craft beer and biodynamic wine bar, galleries, boutiques, an organic grocery shop, a coffee shop, ping pong, table football and a speakeasy in a mock cockpit, but its crowning jewel is its diverse array of food trucks.
Here, you can sample dishes from across China, Mexico and Africa, alongside the ever-changing offerings of La Residence, a refugee kitchen that gives its cooks a chance to present their local ethnic cuisines.
To top it all off Ground Control also holds regular live music concerts and DJ sets, as well as the occasional festival.
7. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Invaders
No not in a Napoleanic way, I mean the little space invaders that are the signature of French street artist Invader.
Invader aims to add 20-50 of his signature tiles to every city he ‘invades’ and so you’ll find a fair few of them around Paris if you keep your eyes peeled.
8. Take A Stroll Along The Canal St Martin
Canal St Martin is an early 19th century canal with murals along its banks and plenty going on in the surrounding neighbourhood.
It was made by order of Napoleon I, to connect the Canal Ourcq to the Seine, and was funded by a new wine tax.
Half of it is underground but the stretch between Place Stalingrad and Republique is a lovely walk.
The graffiti and art installations frequently found around it offer plenty to look at and, on Summer weekends, it isn’t unsual to find a boat parked up on its banks, serving beer and playing reggae.
Even if there isn’t one however, Point Éphémère (see below) on the North-East side is another great option for a drink.
9. Experience Multimedia Art at Point Éphémère
Point Éphémère is a former fire station and another relic of Paris’ squat-art movement.
Over fifteen years it was gradually transformed from squats into a cluster of temporary art spaces.
Since opening in 2004 it has grown into a cult favourite. It hosts everything from painting exhibitions to alt rock concerts to ritual dances to experimental theatre performances.
As you approach, be sure to check whether the green flag is flying alongside its peculiar tower. If it is, you’re in luck. The rooftop bar is open.
If not, don’t fear, the quayside terrace is a great back-up option for a drink.
Here’s where to find what’s happening at Point Ephemere during your stay.
10. Discover The Hidden Passages Of Grands Boulevards
Near Grands Boulevards metro station there is a trio of gorgeous covered passages, the oldest of which dates back as far as 1799.
I’d recommend starting with the Passage Verdeau with its neoclassical ceiling and pink and grey stone floors.
From here you can head straight across the Rue de la Grange Batelière and into the Passage Jouffroy, an iron and glass structure that contains the Musée Grévin, a waxwork museum which is also well worth a visit.
Last up is the 18th century Passage Des Panoramas.
This will drop you off not far from the lively alleyways around Rue Leopold Béllan, a great place to stop off for a drink if you’re looking to avoid the usual Paris price tags.
Also nearby is the square in front of Les Halles and the stunning Église Saint-Eustache, as well as the Centre Pompidou (see below) and the world famous Louvre.
11. See the Inside Out Building
The Centre Pompidou is a 1977 art gallery/community library and the first major example of an inside-out building.
It’s a bizarre looking place with colour coded pipes wrapped around the outside and an exposed circulation system, and things only get stranger inside.
Its’ eclectic array of permanent exhibitions broadcast a fantastic range of modern and contemporary art.
Its’ cinema has multiple daily showings of intriguing and often baffling art films, as well as a supplementary computer room with archives to be perused at leisure.
The top floor offers a great view out over the city and the square out front is a great place to unwind and watch street performers before continuing with your sight-seeing.
There is an entrance fee to go inside the Pomipidou, and to head to the roof. It’s free on the first Sunday of the month, so if that’s when you’re in Paris, save yourself some cash and go then.
If you’re not lucky enough to be there then, but want to go inside, you can at least save time by booking in advance.
The art around the back of the building is also worth a look.
12. Visit A Site Of Literary History At Shakespeare & Co
Named in honour of Sylvia Beach’s famous Paris bookstore, and the publishing house of Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare & Co is an international bookshop in central Paris that has been a focal point of literary culture for over 50 years.
In the past it was often frequented by the likes of Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs and it has over the years served as a haven for struggling artists.
Which brings it to a quirky touch not to miss…
Beds can be found amidst its shelves, places where aspiring writers can sleep in exchange for help around the shop.
Keep an eye out for the events and literary festivals the shop runs throughout the year.
13. Head to Meet Mickey
So, so far, we’ve done pretty well on the unusual things to do in Paris – so, let’s cover the most fun thing to do there … take a trip just outside Paris to the magical world that is Disneyland Paris.
Yes, yes, I know we’re all about the ‘less known attractions’ here on Differentville – but we are also massive fans of wearing glittery mouse ears in public so, if we get a chance to mention a Disney, we’re going to!!!
I mean come on, what’s not fun about rides, parades full of characters – and did I mention the glittery ears!
My friend Helen over at PassportStamps is the Queen of all things Disney and so, if you want detailed descriptions of all the things you can do at Disneyland Paris, I’m going to send you straight to her site.
If however, you were already convinced at the words ‘glittery Mickey ears’, then proceed straight to ticket buying and do not pass go!
14. Meet The Emperor Of The French At Les Invalides
Les Invalides is a former hospital for old and disabled soldiers, dating back to the 17th century.
It is unmistakable for its stunning golden dome, beneath which the body of Emperor Napoleon I rests inside of a huge and ornate mausoleum.
Beyond the chapel, the rest of the complex now serves as a military museum, the former hospital having been moved elsewhere in the early 20th century.
Les Invalides is also famous for having had its arsenal looted by rioters on July 13th, 1789. One day later those same rioters used the weapons they had taken to storm the Bastille in an event that is now remembered annually as ‘Bastille Day’.
Skip the Lines
While it might not be one of the headline sights in Paris that you’ve dreamt about since childhood, Les Invalides is still very popular (look at all those coaches in the picture above)
Which means, if you do decide to visit, it’s a good idea to buy your ticket in advance which lets you skip the queues.
15. Discover the Dark Side of Paris
Yes, yes, it’s all lovely and romantic and all – but, if you’re more interested in the gritty side of Paris, you can take this night time tour which promises ghosts, gargoyles, curses and corpses.
You might never look at all those cute buildings and gothic frescoes the same way again.
Oh and don’t forget to ask your guide for some suggestions of great bars and restaurants to visit.
If you want to find the best food in Paris you should always ask a local.
16. Cutting Edge Culture At The Palais De Tokyo
The Palais De Tokyo is the largest contemporary art gallery in Europe and a place devoted to celebrating living artists across disciplines.
Other than the large-scale graffiti murals in the tunnels below it features no permanent collections, preferring instead to promote an ever-changing spread of paintings, sculptures, performances and videos.
When you visit the Palais de Tokyo you know you’re in for something fresh. Last time I went I got an immersive audio-visual deep dive into nightmares, complete with mannequins and creepy dolls.
17. Pay Homage To One of France’s Great Writers
The Maison De Victor Hugo is an early 17th century building that was the home of Victor Hugo between 1832-48.
It’s a great example of what a Parisian townhouse might have looked like centuries ago and, its rooms having been decorated with Hugo’s belongings, offers a fascinating insight into the man himself.
Spookily, the master bedroom has even been made up to look like the one in which he died.
The house itself is on a grand 17th century square in Paris’ historic Marais neighbourhood. The surrounding streets are well worth exploring after, particularly those around the Rue des Rosiers, which has become a great place to grab a bite in recent years.
So, there you have it. A starter list of 17 fun and unusual things to do in Paris – but I know there are sooo many more fun things to do in Paris that we could add here, but I need to get there to try them all – so, watch this space. I’m sure this post will grow in the future.