Undiscovered Paris: the secret places you need to know about

Countless films, novels, and envy-inducing Instagram posts have made Paris familiar to us all. But there’s a more hidden world of immersive art exhibitions, atmospheric arcades, floating swimming pools and edgy jazz nights to explore

Explore an under-the-radar art institution

One art space on every trendy Parisian’s lips is the child-friendly Atelier des Lumières, a former iron foundry that hosts exquisite projection shows based on the oeuvre of a single artist – so far, it has featured Gustav Klimt and Vincent van Gogh. Expect all the walls, floors, ceilings and attendees’ faces to literally light up. The Cent Quatre cultural centre is where to head for cutting-edge contemporary art and live hip-hop, plus bargains from the on-site Emmaüs Défi store. If you’re into photography – and have a day or two to spare – the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, the Jeu de Paume and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson make a truly world-beating trio.

Survey the skyline

That lineup of magnificent sights stretching from Notre Dame to Les Invalides is best viewed not from the Eiffel Tower, but from the north-eastern Parc de Belleville. Climb up to the graffiti-clad Belvédère Willy Ronis on a weekday and chances are you’ll be the only one there. Another underappreciated panorama, this time facing Sacré-Cœur, can be found 20 minutes’ walk away, from the Temple de la Sybille folly perched 50 metres above the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont’s artificial lake. Jean Nouvel’s epic Philharmonie de Paris offers both an exemplary concert programme and photo-worthy rooftop views. More adventurous types will take to the left bank’s Parc André Citroën, where you can float 150 metres up beneath a helium-filled balloon.

Get up close with Paris’s avant garde

Surrealists may have dominated Montparnasse in the 1920s – Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí and Man Ray were regulars at its salons and cafes – but Russian émigré Ossip Zadkine still hadn’t let cubism go. His tranquil studio and garden on the Rue d’Assas brim with angular, African-inspired sculptures in red wood, plaster, stone and clay. The Musée Zadkine is one of several well-preserved former artists’ studios and homes that hark back to yesteryear Paris. Just around the corner, the Musée Bourdelle is both homely atelier and sprawling art museum, while the Fondation Giacometti houses a reconstruction of his storied studio and an exhibition of some of his greatest works, including the Grande tête mince. Up in Pigalle, the cavernous top levels of the Musée National Gustave Moreau shouldn’t be missed, and the same goes for the Musée de la Vie Romantique, a quaint villa built by Dutch painter Ary Scheffer that’s now a museum dedicated to the Romantic era.

Reclaim the city’s abandoned railways

Abandoned to nature since 1934 and encircling pretty much the whole city, La Petite Ceinture (External link) railway network will probably never run again (though, some think it should). These days, the public parts of the 12-mile route – in the 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 20th arrondissements – make for an unexpectedly lush urban ramble. One former station in the north has been converted into urban farm and eco-friendly restaurant La Recyclerie, and another’s become Le Hasard Ludique, a multipurpose arts space that hosts everything from tango lessons to drag nights. Train stations, it seems, are Paris’s new cool: two recent openings – experimental music venue La Station Gare des Mines and jazz club La Gare – put on the city’s edgiest nights out.

Duck into an old-world arcade

Should it sheet down – which, frankly, isn’t all that unlikely – the city’s hidden network of passages couverts make for the ideal atmospheric escape. You could spend days browsing these “covered passages”, with their quaint boutiques and tasteful teahouses. Snaking through the Grands Boulevards area and down towards the Louvre, the Passage des Panoramas (External link) is best for lunch, Passage Verdeau for antiques (and waxworks at the Musée Grévin), and Galerie Vivienne (External link) for high-end fashion. Don’t miss Galerie Vivienne’s gorgeous glass roof and beautiful mosaicked floors. And when you’re done, head to the Rue des Lombards for live jazz at one of the strip’s handful of legendary clubs, such as the Baiser Salé, the Duc des Lombards or Sunset/Sunside.

Take the plunge at a scenic swimming spot

You might not be able to swim in the Seine, but you can swim on it. Moored next to the imposing Bibliothèque François Mitterrand in the south-east, the Piscine Joséphine Baker is a floating pool complete with saunas, hammams, a jacuzzi, and to-die-for Seine views, preserved in winter by a sliding glass roof. Built in the 1920s, the Butte-aux-Cailles swimming pool is another option for those looking to go for a dip in the great outdoors (there’s an indoor pool and two outdoor pools). And don’t worry about getting chilly; the water is a balmy 28C.

Pay tribute to the city’s illustrious dead

If you haven’t already been on a teenage pilgrimage to pay Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde your respects, then it’s well worth spending a day trying to locate them in the 44-hectare Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Molière, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Colette, Édith Piaf: it’s easy to stumble upon recognisable names here. Take a map, or don’t – this place lends itself to an aimless gander. Less likely to throng with tour groups are the low-key Cimetière de Montmartre (Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, François Truffaut) and Cimetière de Montparnasse (Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir). Serge Gainsbourg is buried in the latter, but his former home by the Seine is where his fans gather en masse. For some light relief, the Deyrolle is an eccentric taxidermy museum and shop where you’ll find curiosities of a very different sort, while the Musée des Arts Forains feels like a gaudy graveyard of disused funfair rides.

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