10 Unusual Things to Do in the City of Lights
Paris is one of the world’s most popular destinations, and for good reason. Between history, romance, art, architecture, food and culture, the French capital has something for everyone.
Visualize Paris and you’ll more than likely see images of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe. It’s these iconic monuments that make the city so famous, and they are obviously must-sees for every visitor. But there is far more to the French capital than the average tourist will usually encounter – a world of sights and experiences that might not be quite as well known as the stuff on the postcards, but that is often far more interesting. This is Paris off the beaten path.
But of all the unusual things to do in Paris, which are the best? Which Paris hidden gems will turn a simple trip away into the holiday of a lifetime? Let’s take a look at 10 of the more unusual Paris attractions that’ll make for a truly unique and memorable stay.
This is one of the best hidden things to do in Paris – and when we say hidden, we mean it. While lovers hold hands and tourists click cameras on the streets above, there’s a far darker side of Paris waiting to be explored beneath the earth. When Paris cemeteries began to overflow in the late 18th century, the decision was made to transfer the bulk of human remains to an ossuary in the south of the city center. The remains of approximately 6 million people were dumped in the catacombs over the next couple of decades, and in the two subsequent centuries the site has slowly developed into a macabre showcase of humanity. The bones have been fashioned into fascinating displays that will either disgust or delight, depending on your constitution.
For fashionistas, off the beaten path things to do in Paris don’t get much better than this. In 1950 Gaston-Louis Vuitton – no prizes for guessing who his grandfather was – passed on an ornate building in the 16th arrondissement to UNIFAB, a French association which protects intellectual property. As the organisation’s headquarters, a steady stream of counterfeit goods began to flow through its doors, procured by customs, the police, and members of the association. Such was the stockpile of knock-offs that UNIFAB soon set up a counterfeiting museum in the same building, which showcases the often impressive work of those making a quick buck off of somebody else’s brand. Good luck picking the real from the fake!
Fun fact: According to the city’s official website, Paris is home to the world’s largest hot air balloon! And it’s honestly surprising that it makes it onto a Paris off the beaten track guide – if it were anywhere else, it’d probably be the main attraction. Setting off from Parc André Citroën, the Generali Balloon sends tourists high up into the Paris air, gifting them arguably the best view of this famous city. But there’s a catch – it never really gets off the ground, in that the balloon is tethered to the earth via guidewires to ensure it only goes up and down, rather than flying off into the countryside. You’ll nevertheless get to journey 150m into the air, and enjoy an unmatched photo opportunity in the process!
Time to add another ‘world’s largest’ to the list. Les Puces de Saint-Ouen market (simply called ‘Les Puces’ or ‘the fleas’ by locals) is often cited as one of the largest flea markets in the world, and lovers of antiques, oddities and bargains won’t be disappointed. This sprawling area is divided up into a series of smaller markets, covering everything from furniture and collectibles to fashion and electronics. Antiques are the main drawcard however, with Les Puces boasting the highest concentration of antique and second-hand furniture dealers on the planet. Unusual Paris tours often cover the ground of the market, but whether you’re being guided or going it alone just be mindful: your whole day and your whole wallet can be very quickly chewed through here!
Of all the unusual places in Paris, this might be the unusual-est. Vegetarians, PETA members and any other type of animal lover beware: Deyrolle is probably not for you. That aside, it is one of the most unusual sights in Paris. Like a trip to the zoo on pause, here you’ll see the planet’s most unique and intimidating beasts up close and personal, but without a heartbeat between them. Founded in 1831 Deyrolle is a taxidermy studio, although it’s one that is now more focused on education and conservation than filling the smoking rooms of the wealthy. Far more than exotic stuffed animals, here you’ll find a full complement of natural wonders, everything from flora to geology. And if you leave wanting more of the same, all you need to do is head to the nearest exterminator, as it’s a Parisian tradition to taxidermy rats and display them in your storefront as proof of your expertise, as you might’ve seen in the animated film Ratatouille.
Just as the street arts scenes of London, Berlin and other European capitals have exploded, so too has that of Paris. And one of the best things to do in Paris off the beaten path, particularly for those who are happy to guide themselves, is to go graffiti hunting. What’s more satisfying than stumbling across a masterpiece all by yourself, after all? The districts of République and Belleville are awash with street art, and it is most concentrated around Canal St Martin, which splits the two areas. Works range from the tiny – little stencils painted onto the pavement and gutters – to the monstrous – murals that cover the entire side of a building. Keep your eyes peeled for Banksy – he did a graffiti blitz across Paris in 2018.
Looking for the best Paris attractions off the beaten path for families? The Musée des Arts Forains has you covered. Visitors experience all the joy of the fair, but served up in a fascinating and at times educational way. Created by Jean Paul Favand, an exhibition designer with strong fairground heritage, it chronicles centuries of fairground fun in one enormous space. The kids can test out the rides, gawk at the recordings of old performances, and enjoy over 50 interactive exhibits spread throughout the space. The adults, meanwhile, can soak in the history, before hitting the themed museum bar!
Looking for a fright? Le Manoir de Paris has been handing them out to happy customers for years! The most famous haunted house in Paris, Le Manoir uses real history to create a truly scary and almost believable haunted house experience. The stories are as fascinating as they are frightening, from the man in the iron mask to the time a Nile crocodile was found in the city’s sewers. And if your heart isn’t pumping enough from the walk-through, Le Manoir also has escape room experiences, all of which have a sinister edge.
The flavors, the textures, the ingredients, the preparation… many tourists visit Paris to do nothing more than sample French cuisine. And if you’re a true foodie, there’s no purer experience than focusing entirely on the food by dining in darkness. Dans le Noir – literally in the dark – is a dining experience with a difference. Once everyone is seated the lights go out to create the most pitch black setting possible, removing visual distractions to leave diners focusing on two things – the food and the company. Established in 2004, the Dans le Noir concept that has spread across the world, but we still think the original is the best (and more than deserving of a spot on a list of Paris’s unusual things to do).
Are you a fan of Jim Morrison? Oscar Wilde? Edith Piaf? Perhaps Chopin or Colette? No matter whether you’re a fan of music, literature, politics or the arts, the most famous cemetery in Paris, Père Lachaise, is probably home to one or two of your idols who now rest in peace. While most other cemeteries can feel a little macabre and morbid to walk around, the beauty and importance of Père Lachaise makes it an absolute joy. While it might not count as Paris off the beaten track (it’s quite close to the center of town), it certainly makes for an unusual, and beautiful, Parisian experience.