If you’ve visited Paris as many times as I have you’ll have checked off all the essential tourist hubs and now want to experience the nitty-gritty of the real Paris.
Far from the tour buses that run through Place de la Concorde and the groups taking selfies on Île de la Cité, the outskirts of Paris are home to cultural charms that are worth every minute of the metro ride. Or, if you’re up for it, a journey along a different set of tracks.
The defunct 19th century railway La Petite Ceinture (little belt) once encircled Paris, linking the city’s margins. The 30km (19 miles) line was constructed between 1851 and 1867, but fell into disuse in the 1930s, after which its walls were tagged with graffiti, and rare plants and animals moved into the abandoned space. Today, the city is working to repurpose La Petite Ceinture as a biodiverse pathway across the capital.
The railway’s first refurbished section, located in the upscale 16th arrondissement, was opened to pedestrians in 2007. Here at the most western edge of Paris is the sprawling Bois de Boulogne, home to the Longchamp Racetrack, the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Jardin d’Acclimatation. On the park’s border, the Musée Marmottan Monet was once the hunting lodge of the Duc de Valmy, and now houses the world’s foremost collection of Claude Monet paintings. The painter’s second son, Michel Monet, bequeathed his entire collection to the museum in 1966.
In the adjacent 15th arrondissement, a one and a half kilometre (one mile) stretch of La Petite Ceinture is also open to the public. Beginning at Rue Olivier de Serres, the tracks run up against Parc André Citroën. On the other side of the park sits La Javelle, a popular hangout and open-air concert space on the western bank of the Seine.
Follow La Petite Ceinture farther south east to 13th arrondissement, and there’s a reconstructed part of the railway that connects the Jardin Charles Trenet to Le Jardin du Moulin de la Pointe. This neighbourhood is known as the Chinatown of Paris – the Quartier Asiatique – and showcases an eclectic mix of newly constructed high-rises and traditional Haussmann-style architecture. With Chinese grocery shops, restaurants and businesses, the atmosphere here is unlike anywhere else in the rest of the city.
In the neighbouring 12th arrondissement, La Petite Ceinture is raised above ground level, similar to The Highline in New York City, offering expansive views of the surrounding quartier. A small park with community gardens has been constructed around the tracks and merges into Square Charles-Péguy. You can look out across the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s largest park which stretches for almost 2,500 acres and encapsulates the Parc Floral de Paris and the Parc Zoologique de Paris.
From here, La Petite Ceinture cuts through a large park that runs up to the border of 19th arrondissement and right across the Villette Canal, where one of the most unusual bookshops in Paris can be found floating in the water. Anchored towards the canal’s middle section, L’Eau et les Rêves stocks a collection of marine-inspired literature, fiction, nonfiction and guidebooks in an old barge.
Now trace the tracks of La Petite Ceinture all the way to 18th arrondissement, where there are further rehabilitated sections of railway, but also refurbished train stations, such as Le Hasard Ludique. Originally the Gare Saint-Ouen, the building was a train station from 1863 until 1934. It has gone through several reincarnations since then, and is now a restaurant, concert venue and arts space. During the autumn, spring and summer months, the tracks here are open to the public.
Farther down the road, housed in another abandoned station, is La REcyclerie, an eatery dedicated to “upcycling” – in addition to its café and bar space, it offers educational classes, talks and film screenings.
This now leads to Paris’s famed Boulevard Péripherique, the road that marks the city’s borders. Cross at Porte de Clignancourt to reach the Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen, Paris’ largest flea market.This sprawling mishmash of open-air and covered shops has been drawing antiques collectors for centuries. It’s ideal for picking up one-of-a-kind mementos, window shopping or just people-watching.
The most rewarding part of wandering around Paris is that you never quite know what you might come across along Paris’s labyrinthine streets. It could be a rare book from a bouquiniste (bookstall), the spotting of a particularly chic Parisienne or perhaps stumbling upon one of only four Wallace drinking fountains in the entire city that aren’t painted green. It’s what makes Paris endlessly enthralling to its residents, and what makes all visitors fall in love with it.