Every visitor to Paris has a list of must-visit places—from the Eiffel Tower to Sacré Coeur, the Louvre Museum or the Jardins de Luxembourg. And it’s true that these sights should not be missed. But if you’re lucky enough to visit Paris for a second time, or a third, the city begins to reveal its secrets, piece by piece. They are to be found, not along the major boulevards, but in hidden corners of the city best explored on foot. Paris is one of the world’s most walkable cities after all.
We asked Christine Polini of Be Smart in Paris – a native of the city who has been leading Paris walking tours and sharing her passion with visitors for many years – to let us in on five charming neighborhood walks that reveal the true character of the City of Light.
1. La Coulée Verte
Stretching three miles along a former railway line from Bastille through Bercy and the Gare de Lyon to the western entrance of the Bois de Vincennes, you’ll find a path known as La Coulée Verte or the Promenade Plantée. The last steam train went out of operation in the late 1960s, and the area was left untended for 20 years before the city decided to transform it into an urban park. Opened to the public in the early ‘90s—before the High Line was even a thing—the elevated trail filled with trees and flowers, gives you a unique perspective on the city.
Start your walk at Bastille metro, where you can spend a little time at the Viaduc des Arts along Avenue Daumesnil – where the vaulted arches of the old viaduct have been turned into artist’s studios filled with unique artworks, then climb the stairs to the elevated walkway. As you stroll along you’ll see Paris from a new point of view—taking in the beautiful roofs and decorative plasterwork at the tops of buildings. Christine says: “You’ll enjoy walking the elevated gardens and seeing the vaulted arches and their numerous shops.”
Pro Tip: Pick up some delicious baguette sandwiches for a picnic lunch along the way. The Jardin de Reuilly is a lovely place to stop—and also houses one of Paris’ first public fountain with sparkling water. Très chic!
2. Paris Meets Rome
On the famous Left Bank, just off the fashionable Boulevard St Germain, you’ll find traces of the ancient Roman city of Lutetia, first established almost 2,000 years ago in the 2nd century AD. Start your walk back in time at the Musée de Cluny (the museum itself is housed in a building that is 500 years old) to see the ruins of the former Roman Bath complex that served the ancient city. Around one third of the massive complex still remains, and you can walk through the ruins to explore. The best-preserved area is the Frigidarium, where the cold plunge pool would have been housed.
After the musée, head over to Ile de La Cité and the monumental Notre Dame cathedral. The building is absolutely spectacular, but you’re here for a different reason—one that’s underground. The Archeological Crypt, underneath the main square of Ile de la Cité, reveals the many different eras of the city layered on top of one another in fascinating fashion. You’ll see Roman foundations, a street from the middle ages and Medieval remains, all the way up to changes made to the city by Haussmann in the 19th century. Christine says: “People visiting Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité don’t realize they have the old Roman city of Lutetia right under their feet.”
Finish your walk by crossing back over to the left bank and the Arènes de Lutece, the former Roman Amphitheater. Once home to gladiatorial battles with up to 15,000 spectators, and the longest stage of any Roman theater, the exact location of the amphitheater was not known until the 19th century when the ruins were discovered during excavations for a tram depot.
Pro Tip: Reward yourself with a coffee at the recently opened Shakespeare and Company cafe at Rue de la Bûcherie, and a browse through the many titles at one of the world’s most famous bookstores next door.
3. The Covered Galleries
Paris is beautiful come rain or come shine, but if you don’t want to join hundreds of tourists cramming the city’s museums when the weather turns, head out instead on a window-shopping wander through the city’s many charming covered shopping galleries. Built in the 18th and 19th centuries, these covered walkways filled with shops and cafes are a precursor to the modern mall, just a whole lot more stylish. Christine says: “Sheltered from the weather and bathed in natural light, you will find yourself right back in the Belle Epoque.”
Start your stroll at Passage du Grand Cerf just above Les Halles, then make your way to Galerie Vivienne, one of the prettiest of all the 30 galleries in the city, bathed in natural light, with yellow painted woodwork and a beautiful mosaic floor. There’s even a tearoom so you can stop for refreshments. Next up is Galerie Vero Dodat, which, with its dark wood and globe lamps, resembles a Toulouse Lautrec painting come to life. Finally, make your way to Passage des Panoramas, one of literary Paris’ most iconic spots. Locals have been coming here to dine in the lively bistros since the 1830s, and the gallery was even featured in Emile Zola’s classic tale of a Parisienne turned courtesan, Nana.
Pro Tip: The shops in the passages couverts don’t open until 11 am, so don’t set out too early. Rainy days are lazy days, after all.
4. Père Lachaise Cemetery
It might seem unusual to recommend spending several hours wandering around a cemetery, but Père Lachaise is a beautiful, peaceful place, and an important cultural landmark, part of the many layers of artistic endeavor that make Paris so special. Many of the city’s most famous residents are buried here – from Oscar Wilde to Edith Piaf, Molière to Chopin. At over 100 acres, the cemetery resembles a landscaped park, with cobbled pathways and many trees. As you walk, enjoy the beautiful sculptures that adorn the mausoleums. Christine says “There’s not any sadness at Pere Lachaise, just beauty, and respect.”
Pro Tip: Take a free map when you enter the cemetery so you can find your way around, especially if you want to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde or other luminaries.
5. Street Art Tour
The Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement is one of the hottest spots in the city for street art, and when the sun shines it’s a wonderful way to spend the afternoon and gain an appreciation for a new form of expression in one of the most artistic cities in the world. This former working-class neighborhood, immortalized in the classic film noir Hotel du Nord, has thrived in recent years with boho coffee shops and stores selling a mixture of vintage and designer clothing.
Start your tour at Place de Stalingrad in the 10th arrondissement, then simply wander down the Quai de Valmy (crossing over to the Quai de Jemmapes on the opposite side of the canal whenever you choose), all the way down to République metro. Keep your eyes up as you go and you might spot one of Invader’s famous pixelated space invaders made of tile high up on the corner of a building or one of the many wheatpaste works (where paper cutouts are glued to the walls of buildings) of Parisian couples posing under umbrellas by Parisian collective Le Mouvement. Christine says “The Canal St Martin is a great spot for a graffiti-viewing walk, by yourself or with a guide.”
Pro Tip: Stop for lunch at Le Verre Volé in Rue de Lancry. The tiny wine shop might not look like much, but it’s considered one of the best bistros in Paris by those in the know.