Paris off the beaten path

Not your first rodeo in the French capital? Time to venture away from the obvious hotspots.
The Louis Vuitton Foundation building, designed by Frank Gehry.

360-degree view of all Paris – check. Lush trees in the foreground of the mesmerising geometric architecture – check. View of the Eiffel Tower in the distance – check. The terrace on top of the Louis Vuitton Foundation building is nothing short of spectacular, totally worth the morning’s 30 minute drive out of the city centre. 

Located on the 16th arrondissement, the LVF building often passes under the radar of many, which is a shame. But not under mine. I’m on a city break to uncover the less immediately obvious sights, museums and restaurants in Paris, those that don’t necessarily come up on a tourist’s top three but that should be on your itinerary, especially if this isn’t your first time in the French capital.

For this reason, you won’t find obvious landmarks like the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, or the Jardins de Luxembourg on this guide to Paris. If you’ve never been, these are obviously must-dos and you don’t need me to wax lyrical about them. This is more of an off-the-beaten path list if you’re visiting and you’re not quite up to starting at the top of people’s heads in front of La Giaconda for yet another time. And quite frankly, I don’t blame you. So, onto more details.

Louis Vuitton Foundation, 16th arrondissement

If you opt to get to this museum by Metro, Line 1 will get you as far as La Sable which is about 1km away. We preferred to save our steps to explore the building, and a cab from the first arrondissement won’t cost a lot more than two metro tickets anyway. 

The Louis Vuitton Foundation building is the sort of place that will have you mesmerised immediately, as soon as you spot it rising from behind the Jardin d’Acclimatation. The building was designed by Architect Frank Gehry and is a stunning concoction of steel and glass. The large water feature in front of it makes it look like a boat with full sails, but maybe that was just me being fanciful.

The attractions when you go inside are plenty. During my visit there was a Rothko retrospective spread across several rooms. All the major works are present, including the entire room at the Tate in London, which has been meticulously recreated. This exhibition runs until April 2024, after which I have no doubt it will be replaced by another major collection. 

The permanent collection features some notable works too, including by Andy Warhol and Giacometti. But it is the architecture that’s truly jaw-dropping. When you finish viewing the art, don’t be too lazy to climb the extra two floors to the terrace. The space is an exercise in beauty and sustainability, using natural materials, trees and greenery aplenty and providing ample reading nooks should the weather be favourable. 

The beauty of the Louis Vuitton Foundation is that it’s not as busy as other museums that are closer to the centre, so it’s perfectly possible to spend a peaceful morning reading. After you leave, the nearby park is also worth a visit. But first, watch out for the peacocks casually meandering near the exit cafe at the LVF.

The Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs, 14th Arrondissement

These also require a bit of schlepping outside the city centre, but the metro will drop you right opposite to the entrance at the Denfert-Rochereau station. More to the point, although they’re technically off-the-beaten-path they are actually very popular, particularly with the French themselves. Forget walk-ins. You need to book online here and bookings open week by week to avoid overcrowding. 

My advice is to get there at least 30 minutes ahead of your scheduled booking. If there happens to be a line that goes round the block (which there was, when I was there) and you miss your timeslot, you’re screwed. There’s a very serviceable Paul right opposite so take your headphones and grab a takeout noisette and croissant, and you won’t need to stress out.

Once you get inside, be aware you won’t be allowed to wear your backpack in the usual way. You’ll be walking through narrow corridors with human remains (read, lots of exposed bone) on either side of you and it’s only too easy to cause damage.

Rather than macabre, the walk itself is wonderfully therapeutic. Make sure you take the audio guide so you can follow what’s happening in each section, as each area comes with some very intriguing anecdotes. And take your time to read the poetic inscriptions on the wall.

My favourite part? Reading about the illegal party that took place there on April 2, 1987. The older day equivalent of the underground rave, this party saw some 50 musicians and the city’s most illustrious revellers, with the proceedings kicking off to Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre (of course). The exploit was repeated in a much less endearing way in summer 2022, when about 100 people attended an ‘Ethereum techno party’ as reported by CNBC.

The Montparnasse Cemetery, 14th Arrondissement

The Cemetery of Montparnasse comes with the bonus that it’s a mere 10 minute walk away from the Catacombs, and a very pleasant walk it is, through the leafy suburban streets. Don’t let the fact that this is technically ‘more death’ put you off, as this cemetery is more like a beautiful park than anything else.

It is vastly overshadowed by its more famous sibling, of course, Pere Lachaise. And I’m not suggesting that you miss out on Pere Lachaise. If there’s only space for one cemetery on your itinerary, make it that one. But if you’ve already done the premiere dead celebrity hunting spot, Montparnasse is also pretty as a picture and if you’re into literature and philosophy you’ll find Simone de Bouvoire and Jean Paul Sartre buried together here. There’s also Jacques Chirac, but I’m not gonna lie I found that a lot less interesting.

My suggestion is to enter immediately through the northern gate, so that as soon as you take a right you’ll find Simone and Sartre right there. Naturally, I’m assuming this is likely to be the main ‘attraction’ (for want of a better word) for you. After that, meander at will. The cemetery is small, compared to Pere Lachaise and you’ll cover it in 40 minutes max at a leisurely place. It’s a good spot for a picnic, but remember that this is a resting place and do behave respectfully.

Bistroy Les Papilles, 5th Arrondissement

So this isn’t geographically off the beaten track, as it’s actually adjacent to the Latin Quarter, but it’s largely undiscovered by tourists and attracts a mostly French clientele, eager to see what the kitchen has in store for the day. 

The decor and ambience is very much what you’d expect of a traditional Parisian bistro, the kind that aren’t so easy to find nowadays as they’ve kind of been replaced by pretty homogenous offerings. It’s cosy (you can swipe your neighbour’s wine), laidback and very Parisian – in the sense that you don’t get to choose what to eat, you take whatever’s on the menu of the day.

Sounds wacky? It’s worth the gamble as the food is genuine, well-priced and  very, very filling. Think of it as going over to your very posh grandma for dinner. The deal is this: you get a starter, a meat main (don’t bother if you’re vegetarian or vegan) and a dessert.

When we visited there was an amazing lentil and bacon soup on offer, followed by pork stew and finished off by what must have been the most exquisite creme brulee I’ve ever tasted. Oh yeah and we got a lovely cheese serving right before the sweets – on the day it was a milder version of Roquefort. 

You pick the wine from the shop display (the place doubles as grocery/wine store during the day) and you add on a E20 mark up. Which still made the final bill more fair than many inferior places I’ve visited in Malta.

La Maison Favart, 2nd arrondissement

This is not an attraction, but presumably you’ll need a place to stay while on your Parisian getaway. Most hotels in Paris are the pits, including the four-stars that cost an arm and a leg but somehow still expect you to sleep in the equivalent of your nanna’s closet. Unless you’re happy to be based on the outer arrondissements, of course, which we weren’t.

La Maison Favart was a happy discovery. A boutique hotel that’s not part of a famous chain and offers actual personalised service. It didn’t come up on Booking.com, although it is available there. And it didn’t come up as a sponsored post, so we almost had to make do with a decidedly pleb and unParisian CitizenM. Which still cost an arm and a leg and expected us to sleep in a closet, but we would have been allowed to keep our kidneys.

Cut a long story short, I discovered La Maison Favart following a deep-dive into some obscure travel blogs. All the Tripadvisor reviews were excellent or good. The photos were pretty. And it was bang in front of the Opera Buffa, on the second arrondissement. Cuckoo, Paris.

The hotel itself is gorgeous, decorated in 18th century style complete with a ‘French parlour’ with chess boards and books where you can actually hang out and enjoy a coupe de champagne from the honesty bar. The bar was well-priced and covered all the basics, plus we also helped ourselves to complimentary coffees and cake in the afternoon. Unheard of.

The room was big enough for two grown people and their luggage to fit comfortably, breakfast was small but fresh and yummy, and the hotel itself is located on a quiet square off the Grands Boulevards, so it was peaceful while still central. Cherry on the cake: a sauna and an indoor pool. 

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