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 cataloged 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.
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.
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 some weird Parisian museums? From uncannily realistic wax figures at the Musée Grevin to medical instruments straight out of a horror film, automata, early model airplanes and 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.
To continue your self-guided tour of all that is weird and wonderful in Paris, check out some of the city's strangest shops and old-world curiosity cabinets. Let's face it: You won't likely come home with a taxidermy 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.
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.
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-Vicomte, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Seeking a bit of bucolic peace laced with urban grit? Check out one of the city's 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. At Jardins Passagers de la Villette you'll find both well-manicured flower boxes and open, untamed green space, filled with native plants.
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.
Stroll Along "the Green Walkway"
Fans of New York City's High Line Park will love Paris's equivalent, La Promenade Plantée. Like the High Line, this three-mile-long green space was built atop an abandoned viaduct in 1993. Today, it's a beloved part of the city and its shaded canopies make it a prime spot for picnicking, napping, or reading a book. In the morning, it's a popular spot for joggers. La Promenade Plantée begins in the 12th arrondissement and exits in the Bois de Vincennes.
Pay Your Respects at Père Lachaise Cemetery
If you expect a visit to a cemetery to be macabre and depressing, you haven't been to Père Lachaise. Located in the 20th arrondissement, the stunning cemetery is home to the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust. The cobblestone paths are lined with trees and it's especially beautiful during the fall.
Explore the Paris Sewer System
There aren't very many cities where we would recommend touring a sewer system, but Paris is one of them. The Sewers of Paris Museum, located in the 7th arrondissement, is an unusual museum that delves into the history of this engineering marvel. When the city streets were paved in 1200, a central drain was installed. Then, in 1370, the first stone-walled sewer was built in Montmartre. Today, you can tour approximately 500 meters of damp, dark sewer.
Tour Real Artists' Studios at 59 Rivoli
This notorious artists' squat has been revitalized as a cool art space that's open to the public. The Haussmann-era building illegally housed artists in the 19th century, but now 30 artists (15 permanent and 15 temporary) call the 59 Rivoli their home studio. Since the space opened, more than 500 artists have contributed their talents.
See the Eiffel Tower's Secret Apartment
When Gustave Eiffel built his eponymous tower in 1889, few people knew that he had also built a secret apartment for himself within. Perched nearly 1,000 feet in the air, the hidden apartment is a departure from the tower's industrial style, rather decorated in warm wallpaper and dark woods. Eiffel intended it to be a respite for the respected scientific community, but today the apartment is perfectly preserved for visitors to peer into.
Go for a Hot Air Balloon Ride in Parc André-Citroen
But not just any hot air balloon! The balloon in André-Citroën Park, in the 15th arrondissement, is officially the largest hot air balloon in the world. A ride is just 14 Euro for adults (as of 2020) and will take you nearly 500 feet above Paris.
Pick Up a Souvenir at the Flea Market
Paris has countless flea markets to browse and while it may be tempting to go to Paris's largest Marché aux Puces, in St. Ouen, there are tons of smaller markets, specializing in more unique wares. Try Marché du Livre Ancien et d'Occasion, which specializes in ancient and rare books, or Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves, a less-overwhelming version of the original.