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

The French capital still retains a number of mysteries

Millions of people visit Paris each 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. 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 a messy and often dark history. Carve out a unique experience on your next trip by seeking out some of the unusual, weird, and offbeat things to see and do in the City of Light.

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    La Butte aux Cailles
    ••• Neighborhoods like La Butte aux Cailles boast almost no well known attractions, but are well worth a visit anyway. Aurélien Michaud / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    After you've chased the ghosts of Sartre and De Beauvoir in the Latin Quarter, tried to capture an old magical feeling by strolling along the Champs-Elysées, and gone people-watching, falafel-eating, and boutique shopping in the Marais, it's time to scope out some of the city's quieter streets and neighborhoods.

    Explore our guides to some of the more un-touristy neighborhoods in Paris to pull yourself firmly off the beaten track. Plus, the city even has five isolated villages that most tourists have never even heard of.

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    Musée des Arts et Métiers
    ••• Musée des Arts et Métiers. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    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 tools (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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    Aurouze Deratisation
    ••• At Aurouze Deratisation near les Halles, the grotesque is brought to impressive heights. Adam Mayer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    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 limited edition of a medieval cookbook from a local bookseller, or an odd trinket from a vintage shop or flea market. There are some great, endearingly old-fashioned places to gawk, even if you have no intention of ever pulling out your wallet.

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    The Canal St Martin is a favorite place to stroll among Parisians.
    ••• The Canal St Martin is a favorite place to stroll, eat and drink among locals. Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Getty Images

    Boat tours of the Seine River rank high among activities visitors find the most appealing, especially on a first visit. But on second, third, or thirteenth trips to the city, it's far more worthwhile to take a tour of Paris's extensive network of canals and waterways. If you don't mind going further afield, explore the Marne River, the banks and "guinguettes" of which Impressionist painters immortalized in many of their works.

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  • 05 of 11
    St Denis Basilica
    ••• Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

    If you've already been to Versailles, why not visit Provins, a UNESCO World Heritage medieval village just an hour from Paris? Or Vaux-le-Vicompte, a magnificent chateau rivaling Versailles? Into cathedrals? Try 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

    Adventurous visitors will be rewarded if they spend some time exploring the city's rich cinematic offerings—there are hundreds of new releases and retrospectives every week! The city's charming old "picturehouses" are a great getaway from the crowds, the heat, the cold, and the banal "best of" lists. Parisians take cinema very seriously. If you're interested in film history and the origins of celluloid, visit the Cinémathèque Française film center.

     

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    Ganesh festival Paris
    ••• Events like the annual Ganesh festival in Paris attract nary a tourist. Philippe Lissac / GODONG / Getty Images

    Paris hosts an extraordinary number of annual events, many of which are free or quite accessible from a budgetary standpoint and many that are well-known to locals but remain curiously off-radar for visitors. Paris's Sri-Lankan community celebrates a unique "Ganesh" festival, while the Banlieues Bleues Jazz Festival takes the northern suburbs by storm each year. Whether you're visiting artists' studios in Belleville or 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.

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    Friends having dinner outside
    ••• wundervisuals / Getty Images

    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 food website 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 hearty, traditional French meals at "supper clubs" in Paris. Adventurous travelers and eaters will devour the concept, pun intended. 

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  • 09 of 11
    Paris catacombs
    ••• The Catacombs of Paris. chiefhardy / Pixabay

    The City of Love might seem sparkling and idyllic, but there's a tumultuous and dark history lurking underneath. If you seek to get beyond Paris' glossy veneer to probe a bit deeper, you'll find unique sites and places you can still visit today, like the Catacombs. All of these places will give you a better sense of how bloody and awful events shaped the French capital just as much as nice ones did. 

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    Rue Clavel
    ••• The funky garden at Rue Fessart and Rue Clavel is in close reach of many cafes and bars. Oxxo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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 bonafide little farms—mingle greenery, animals, and sometimes, street art or other forms of local expression. 

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    Wine tasting at an outdoor market in Paris.
    ••• Wine tasting at an outdoor market in Paris. Stuart Dee/The Image Bank/Getty Images

    If you're a wine fan, you're in luck: Even if Paris isn't a noteworthy wine-making region (and never really was), you can still enjoy plenty of great wine at local museums like the Musée du Vin, or strike out on your own in some of the city's best wine bars, like the jovial, rollicking
    Au Rendez-vous des Amis. Don't bother with tourist traps and their overpriced, mediocre bottles.