In 1895, Henri Rousseau painted a piece entitled, On the Outskirts of Paris. Now a part of the Barnes Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the painting shows a quiet street in a quaint-looking neighborhood with a few scattered figures walking in various directions.
Today, if you type “outskirts of Paris” in the Google search bar, you will mostly find TripAdvisor posts about why visitors shouldn’t stay on the edges of the city and links to day trips to Versailles and Giverny. But contrary to what the internet might say, Paris has so much to offer outside of its central hub. After a friend told me about La Petite Ceinture, an old railroad track that encircles the city, I made it a mission to explore the outposts it runs through.
If you’ve been to Paris before, chances are you’ve already taken a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, seen the Louvre, walked down Champs-Élysées, looked up at the gargoyles of Notre Dame and looked down on the expanse of the city from the hill of Sacré-Cœur. You’ve checked off all the essential tourist hubs and now you want to get a sense of the real Paris. Far off from the tour buses that run through Place de la Concorde and the groups taking selfies on Île de la Cité, the outskirts of Paris are home to endless cultural charms that are worth every minute of the subway ride.
La Petite Ceinture, which translates in English to ‘the little belt,’ is a now defunct railroad track that is slowly being rebuilt into park space à la The Highline in New York City. Instead of raised tracks like The Highline, La Petite Ceinture is a grounded rail that links the margins of the city. There are only small pieces that have thus far been transitioned completely into park space, but many of the unfinished areas are also some of the most interesting.
In my effort to explore the outskirts, I used the belt’s line as my starting point and let it guide me through unfamiliar neighborhoods. I decided to begin this journey in the 13e arrondissement, historically the Chinatown of Paris. At the very base of the arrondissement is one of the first reconstructed pieces of La Petite Ceinture. The neighborhood is a mix of new construction, high-rises, and more traditional Parisian architecture. Chinese grocery stores, restaurants and businesses line the streets and red banners hang from the street-lamps in preparation for Chinese New Year (2019 – year of the pig!). It feels completely distant from the rest of the city and is an interesting area to explore if you want to get a feel for the ways in which the urban environment is changing.
One place to check out is Patisserie de Choisy, a traditional Chinese bakery with French flair. Every item is made in-house and authentic, very different from what you might come across in the centers of the city.
La Petite Ceinture in the 13e has been refurbished as you get closer to the 14e, but if you walk down Rue Damese you can take a peek at what the untouched parts still look like. Many graffiti artists have claimed the space and left their tags along the railway. Walking west, you can come level with the tracks into a new park area where benches and chairs have been installed and the area is maintained by the city. This area is flat, but graffiti art remains visible along the sides of the bordering périphérique.
On the opposite end of the city, northeast by Porte de la Villette, a large park runs up to the edge of the 19e. The Villette Canal cuts through the entirety of the space and one of the most interesting bookshops can be found floating in the water. Peniche Librairie, or L’Eau et les Rêves, is a bookshop and cafe on a boat at the middle of the canal. It has an interesting collection of marine inspired literature, but also a wonderful selection of fiction, nonfiction and guidebooks. The cafe is both indoors and outdoors, perfect for any kind of weather.
Down in the 12e at the most eastern point of the city, La Petite Ceinture is raised above ground level. A small park has been constructed around the tracks with community gardens and some interesting views of the quartier. It was my first time in the area, and I enjoyed looking out from above. The tracks are connected to a larger park, Square Charles Péguy.
The 12e arrondissement is bordered by the Bois de Vincennes, which houses the Parc Floral de Paris and the Parc Zoologique de Paris. The park is huge, a total of 2,459 acres, making it slightly larger than the Bois de Vincennes on the western part of the city. It feels much less manicured than the Bois de Vincennes and has several walking trails and paths through untouched forest.
If you follow the tracks of La Petite Ceinture all the way north to the 18e, you will come across Le Hasard Ludique. Originally la Gare Saint-Ouen, the building was a train station from 1863 until the closing of La Petite Ceinture in 1934. It has gone through several reincarnations since then, and is now a restaurant, concert venue, and arts space open to all. During the fall, spring and summer months, the tracks of La Petite Ceinture off Le Hasard Ludique are open to the public. You can dine along the tracks or take a walk to see the murals and graffiti art that have come to define the rail line.
Continuing past Le Hasard Ludique, you will dead-end into le périphérique. Just past the most northern point of the périphérique is the infamous Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen, the Parisian ‘flea market’. The market is a sprawling combination of open-air and contained shops and stalls, an antique collectors dream, that has been around the area for centuries. There is an interesting mix of high and low items and good cafés and eateries around the markets. Anyone will enjoy walking around the stalls, window shopping and people watching throughout the labyrinthian quarter.
At the most western edge of the city, bordering the high-end 16e arrondissement, is the Bois de Boulogne. This park is slightly smaller than the Bois de Vincennes on the opposite end of Paris, but an infamous landmark. It houses the Longchamp Racetrack, the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
La Petite Ceinture runs just inside the edge of the Bois de Boulogne and borders another cultural must-see, Musée Marmottan Monet. Housed in a former hunting lodge, this small museum has the foremost collection of Claude Monet paintings in the world. This is largely due to the painter’s second son, Michel Monet, who bequeathed his entire collection to the museum in 1966. This hidden gem alone is worth a trip to the outskirts, not to mention the various other attractions it borders.
The last unexpected bonus of my wanderings? Stumbling across the blue Wallace fountain, one of only five in the city that aren’t green, by complete accident. The dark green versions of these fountains can be found everywhere, a gift from Richard Wallace to Napoleon III. The mairie of the 13e recently allowed several to be painted in different colors: red, pink, yellow and grey along with the bright blue. You never know what you might come across while playing the part of flâneur. It’s what makes Paris endlessly interesting to its residents, and what makes all visitors fall in love.