Best Unusual and Off-the-Beaten Track Things to Do in Paris

Odd and Wonderful Ways to Enhance Your Trip

Millions of people throng on Paris every year, so you'd be forgiven for assuming there's no stone left unturned here; no unexpected or quiet places to stumble upon; no oddly charming corners that haven't been photographed and shared a thousand times over on social media. Yet for all its astounding popularity, the French capital retains any number of mysteries, refusing to be entirely catalogued or pinned down. It's a wonderfully complex place with, as I point out in this piece, a messy and often dark history. This guide isn't some misguided attempt to crack the city's mysteries entirely-- that would defeat the purpose and ruin all the fun. Instead, I offer you a few good starting points to carving out a unique experience on your next trip by pointing to some unusual, weird, and offbeat things to see and do in the city. Read on. 

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    Neighborhoods like La Butte aux Cailles boast almost no well known attractions, but are well worth a visit anyway.
    ••• Neighborhoods like La Butte aux Cailles boast almost no well known attractions, but are well worth a visit anyway. Courtney Traub/Licensed to About.com

    So you've chased the ghosts of Sartre and De Beauvoir in the Latin Quarter, and tried to capture a bygone magical feeling by strolling along the Champs-Elysées. You've even gone people-watching, falafel-eating, and boutique shopping in the Marais, and maybe even scoped out some of the quieter streets behind the Sacré Coeur (away from the hordes of tourists and landscape painters). Despite all this, you find yourself thinking, "Is that all there is?"

    Luckily, no. Explore our guides to some of the more un-touristy neighborhoods in Paris to pull yourself firmly off the beaten track. Also see our feature showcasing 5 Parisian villages most tourists have never heard of

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    Sure, the Louvre has its undeniable appeal-- but massive crowds and overwhelmingly large collections certainly don't contribute to it. Why not take a breather by delving into some of the decidedly odd collections at these weird Parisian museums? From uncannily realistic wax figures to medical instruments straight out of a horror film, automata, early model airplanes, steampunk-style instruments like those pictured here at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, to sewer tunnels and catacombs filled with millions of human remains, these odd collections will either have you grinning with delight or wincing in terror-- or maybe somewhere in between.  

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    ••• At Arouze Deratification near les Halles, the grotesque is brought to impressive heights. Adam Mayer/ Creative Commons.

    To continue your self-guided tour of all that is weird and wonderful in Paris, consult our guide to some of the city's strangest shops and old-world curiosity cabinets. Let's face it: You won't likely come home with a taxidermied rat or ostrich, nor with a collection of rare beetles in your suitcase; but you might find a rare edition of a medieval cookbook from a local bookseller, or an odd trinket from a vintage shop or flea market. These are some great, endearingly old-fashioned places to gawk, even if you have no intention of ever pulling out your wallet....

    Read related: Where to find unique gifts in Paris?

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    ••• The Canal St Martin features an intriguing lock system. Courtesy of Canauxrama.

    As I detail in my list of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, boat tours of the Seine river rank high among activities visitors find the most appealing, especially on a first visit. And I'm certainly not knocking it. But particularly on second, third, or thirteenth trips to the city, it's far more worthwhile to take a tour of Paris' extensive network of canals and waterways. I especially recommend booking a cruise further afield to explore the Marne river, the banks and "guinguettes" of which Impressionist painters immortalized in many of their works (Read related: Best Impressionist Museums of Paris).

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    St Denis Basilica is a stunning place of worship and burial site of kings and queens-- but almost no one's heard of it.
    ••• St Denis Basilica is a stunning place of worship and burial site of kings and queens-- but almost no one's heard of it. ECMD/Licensed to About.com

    So you've already been to Versailles, and Monet's gardens, and they were memorable enough. What next? Why not visit Provins, a UNESCO World Heritage medieval village just an hour from Paris? Or Vaux-le-Vicompte, a sumptuous chateau rivaling Versailles? Or, as pictured here, St-Denis Basilica, a stunningly beautiful gothic-style pilgrimage site and burial place for dozens of kings and queens, located just north of the city limits? Get out of the city to see something most tourists have never heard of-- it's easier than you think. 

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    The Cinematheque francaise is a film center and museum hosting retrospectives and exhibits
    ••• The Cinematheque francaise is a film center and museum hosting retrospectives and exhibits. Ashley Byock/Licensed to About.com

    If you've been exploring my site in any depth, you'll likely have gleaned by now that I'm a film lover. One of the things I always recommend adventurous visitors do is spend some time exploring the city's rich cinematic offerings (literally hundreds of new releases and retrospectives every week!), as well as its oh-so-charming old "picturehouses". It's a way to get away from the crowds, the heat, the cold, and the banal "best of" lists. Parisians take cinema very seriously. You can enjoy this hallowed pastime of theirs, too. If you're interested in film history and the origins of celluloid, I especially recommend a visit to the Cinematheque francaise film center (pictured here).

     

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    Events like the annual
    ••• Events like the annual "Ganesh" festival in Paris attract nary a tourist.

    Paris hosts an extraordinary number of annual events-- many of which are free or quite accessible from a budgetary standpoint-- that are well-known to locals, but remain curiously off-radar for visitors. From the "Ganesh" street festival celebrated by Paris' Sri-Lankan community, to the Banlieues Bleues Jazz Festival taking the northern Paris suburbs by storm every year; to open-door events in artists' studios in Belleville, and wine-harvesting (vendanges) in Montmartre, there are many ways to experience the city and joyfully connect with others in ways you'd never think of. Explore our complete events page for additional ideas and details. 

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    To take a break from the doldrum fare of your typical Parisian brasserie, why not jump aboard the bandwagon of pop-up restaurants or dining with a local host? As foodie site Paris by Mouth charts, the pop-up restaurant phenomenon has been gaining ground in recent years. Meanwhile, local hosts such as Jim Haynes open their tables to tourists for convivial, traditional French meals at "supper clubs" in Paris. While we haven't yet vouched ourselves for the quality of these services (reviews to come), adventurous travelers and eaters will likely appreciate the concept.

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    ••• Hoffbauer's illustration of the Cimetiere des Innocents, circa 1550. Public Domain

    City of love. Sparkling. Gorgeous. Idyllic. Some might seek to get beyond Paris' glossy veneer to probe a bit deeper, and get to the dark, grimy underbelly of the story. Read our fascinating guide to some of the city's less savory historical events, including sites and places you can still visit today, to get a better sense of how bloody and awful events shaped the French capital just as much as nice ones did. 

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    The funky garden at Rue Fessart and Rue Clavel is in close reach of many cafes and bars.
    ••• The funky garden at Rue Fessart and Rue Clavel is in close reach of many cafes and bars. Colette Davidson

    Seeking a bit of bucolic peace laced with urban grit? Check out one of these quirky urban gardens. Scattered around Paris, but concentrated in the city's arty, bohemian northeastern districts, these small plots-- some qualify as bona-fide little farms-- mingle greenery, animals, and sometimes, street art or other forms of local expression. 

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    ••• Wine bar in Paris, France. Owen Franken/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty

    If you're a wine fan, you're in luck: Even if Paris isn't a noteworthy vintnering region  (and never really was), you can still enjoy fantastic tastings (sometimes along with cheese) led by convivial expert hosts, learn all about the history of winemaking at dedicated museums, and strike out on your own in some of the city's best wine bars. Don't bother with tourist-trap places and their mediocre bottles: go straight for the good stuff by exploring our guide.