Did you know Paris is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, actually beating out claustrophobia, inducing metropolises like Mumbai and Cairo? Couple that with the fact that the City of Light is the world's top urban tourist destination, and it's little wonder that it can feel overwhelming to walk down the street or navigate sardine-tight conditions in the Paris metro.
Luckily for the crowd-shy among you, however, the city counts several charming havens away from the urban grind: tranquil pockets resembling little French villages that, well, you probably have never heard of.
Where might one find a natural spring bubbling up in a quiet square, Art-nouveau and Alsatian-style houses on leafy, narrow old lanes, and sidewalk cafes spilling out onto cobblestone streets where nary a car passes? Welcome to my favorite of Paris' little villages: The Butte aux Cailles. Located in the south-eastern 13th arrondissement, just a few blocks away from the city's most bustling Chinatown, this unassuming enclave, once solidly working-class, is popular among artists, evidenced in the area's abundant murals and street art.
An afternoon strolling, cafe-going, and wandering in this anything-but-touristy part of the city will make you feel like you've taken a day trip away from the urban grind.
Charonne, Rue St. Blaise and Environs: An Offbeat Haven in the Northeast
This area's so neglected by visitors, you rarely even see it mentioned in many popular guidebooks. The former Charonne Village on Paris' northeastern end-- in close reach of gritty, arty Belleville and Gambetta-- has retained a great deal of its countrified charm. Walking on and around the main artery of Rue St Blaise-- lined with cafes, restaurants, and undergoing slow gentrification due to the area's low rents and popularity among young artists and professionals-- one can be forgiven for forgetting this isn't a small town somewhere in the French campagne. There aren't any heart-stopping monuments or first-class museums here. But quiet, understated charm? Oodles of it.
Across from the Rue St Blaise, the humble, storybook-like charms of the Eglise de Charonne, with its modest belltower, beckons you to take a quick look at the tiny cemetery still in use at the rear.
Moving westward, we next come to Passy, an unassuming and remarkably unpretentious little village in the chic 16th arrondissement. Located just a hop, skip, and a jump away from some of the ritziest real-estate and pomp-filled old boulevards of posh Paris, Passy offers some quiet respite from the luxury shops and crowds around the Palais de Tokyo or Trocadero. Sinuous passageways, tiny little museums like the Maison de Balzac (dedicated to the French writer), and one of the city's prettiest old cemeteries-- Passy has much to offer that won't set back a budget-conscious traveler.
Batignolles: An Old-World Getaway in the Northwest
Not far from the traffic and noise of Place de Clichy and the debauched red-light district of Pigalle lies yet another area that nary a tourist has ventured into: the old district of Batignolles.
Known as the former stomping grounds of French Impressionist painters such as Degas, Pissarro, and Renoir, who frequented the nearby Rue de Clichy, the Batignolles district merits an afternoon if you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience.
Along with Rue Montorgueil (scroll down for more), this is probably the Parisian village of choice for market-goers and food lovers. There are some very good bakeries, traditional markets, and food shops in the area, and eating out in a brasserie on one of the area's leafy squares is always pleasant.
For a walk in the park, the Square des Batignolles is a small green area featuring a duck pond, pleasant places to picnic or dream away on a park bench.
Only a few blocks from the ultra-busy Chatelet/Les Halles district, this area isn't always quiet-- it's generally pretty bustling. But with its traditional markets and bakeries, excellent restaurants, trendy boutiques, and terrace cafes spilling out onto the streets, it manages, rather astonishingly, to preserve a distinctive sense of old-world French life. There's even an old fortified medieval tower standing on its border: climb it to look over the area from an Impressionist's vantage.