Paris is an overwhelming place in more ways than one, and it’s extremely easy to feel overloaded with tourist spots. This was hard for me, because while I loved walking around the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, I’m someone who likes to find unique things to do while I’m on vacation, or at least see the lesser known spots. I don’t know if I accomplished that in Paris, but nonetheless, I found some great spots in my few days there and wanted to share seven of my favorite experiences in Paris with you.
1. Grande Mosquée de Paris
There is a beautiful mosque in the middle of Paris’ 5th arrondissement. This moorish-style mosque’s minaret stands out in Paris traditional architecture, and exploring it was honestly one of my favorite parts of Paris. The sahn or courtyard is decorated with beautiful and intricate tilework. There are two gardens which are absolutely breathtaking. They’re small, but I spend an hour just walking around them again and again it was so peaceful and scenic.
The mosque was build in the 1920s as a gift from France to the colonized North African Muslims that fought and died in World War I. During World War II, it was used to hide European and North African Jews from deportation. They even issued fake Muslim birth certificates to help them hide. A post for another day!
The fee to get in is 2 Euros for non-muslims and free for muslims. There isn’t really a dress code, but just like with any religious site, to be respectful I’d suggest pants (or at least something down to your knees), and a shirt that covers your shoulders, chest, and torso. I usually lump all my church and mosque visits to one day so I only have to wear pants and long sleeves one day.
2. Le Comptoir General
This hidden bar/cafe along Canal Saint-Martin is a celebration of Afro-French culture and a truely unique place to grab a drink after a long day. It feels like you’re lounging in an African Museum as you enjoy delicious cocktails (or mocktails!). We went in the evening when the space is transformed into a full on bar with an awesome, unique playlist. However, during the day time I hear they have great coffee and cafe food. If I was back again, I’d probably go during the day — Cool Hunting has a great piece explaining all the different aspects of Le Comptoir General that I didn’t get to experience.
While it’s not a secret, this spot is easy to miss. I didn’t see any signs outside the gate, but once you find it, you walk through a pitch black walkway with only the lights from the bar to guide you. Felt kind of speakeasy-ish.
Address: 80 Quai de Jemmapes, Paris
11AM to 2AM daily
3. Glace Bachir
Ya’ll. This is a must if you’re in Paris — this ice cream was life changing! Glace Bachir is a Lebanese ice cream shop near Les Halles serving up fresh, quality house made ice cream. This is a new Paris branch of a well-established ice cream company in Lebanon, Bouza Bachir. The company was founded in 1936 in the town of Bikfaya by brothers Maurice & Edward Bachir. The brothers married two sisters, Marie-Antoinette & Yvette Bejjani, and they all began making ice cream together in their backyard. Today, there are shops all around Lebanon and now Paris.
Now look, the ice creams are great alone, but if you go you need to pay the extra few euros to get a scoop of frozen ashta and a coating of pistachios. Ashta (pronounced more like ushta) is a heavenly Arabic custard infused with rose water and orange blossom water. I first had it at a Lebanese friends house in high school and it instantly became one of my favorite dessert/fillings — I didn’t even consider freezing it and serving it like ice cream. It was amazing. I know its expenses, but if the long line out the shop wasn’t enough indication, it’s worth every penny.
58 Rue Rambuteau
12pm to 11pm daily
4. Montmartre and Sacre Coeur for Sunset
Montmartre is the equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village and the setting for the hipster-classic Amelie. It was once a spot for artists now turned tourist hub. Even though some parts of it are super commercial, it’s a lovely place to walk around, shop and check out artwork. For killer views of Paris or a beautiful sunset, go to Sacre Coeur.
Be forewarned, the views come with a price. Montmarte is extremely hilly and my weak swamp lungs were about to give out on me as we climbed some of the stairs to get places. BUT, if you want to waste some euros, at the bottom of Sacre Coeur there is a ski lift type thing that will bring you to the top of the hill that Sacre Coeur is on…from there it’s easier to walk around Montmartre and a lot more downhill involved.
This small chapel is right next to Notre Dame and worth every penny. Notre Dame was amazing, but the stain glass at this small chapel blew my mind. Sainte-Chapelle is inside Palais de le Cite which was the residence of French kings up until the 14th century. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking on why you need to see this place.
6. The Area around Gare du Nord
Alright, some of you snobs will definitely disagree with me here, but if you’re not a traveler that enjoys the gritty sides of cities, this isn’t for you. The area around Gare du Nord was our first stop when we got to Paris because we were dropping off our luggage at a luggage locker nearby. Its known to be “dangrous” by some and definitely a bit on the rougher side than other places we went to — tourists, as always, should be vigilant especially around the train station. However, we loved this area and thought it was super unique becuase it was a colorful blend of cultures which means its an excellent spot to walk around and just explore — I wish we would have more.
Paris’ immigrant population in general amazed us, but it was extremely apparent in this area because of the larger African and South Asian Immigrant population. Something special about Paris that I haven’t seen in the United States as much is how a large number immigrants retain their cultural dress in every day life and not just special occasions. There were people walking around everywhere in beautiful, colorful saris, kurtas and West African kaftans and head wraps. I think it’s pretty awesome and got me thinking a lot about the difference between immigrants in the US vs France. From what I’ve heard, assimilation is demanded by France, and in order to be French, you must totally embrace that identity; while in America, the “hyphenated identity” is okay. Which makes sense, the U.S. has a strong tradition of immigration and an undefined culture, while France has had a defined French identity. But the dress thing confused me — is it that those people decided to forgo french identity or were they more comfortable to express themselves than in the States. I dont have the answers, im not an expert, but after seeing that, it’s something im interested in understanding better. Sorry for my cultural musings…back to the guide.
Though I didn’t get to try any, there were tons of South Asian and African food options, and if you go in the evening, there are many South Asian food carts selling roasted corn on the side of the road.
7. The Panthéon
The Panthéon was originally a church dedicated to France’s patron saint, Saint Geneveive. Today, it’s a secular monument to France’s history and a mausoleum for distinguished, highly-honored French citizens. While I know this is a popular tourist destination, I didn’t know about it and wouldn’t have gone unless a friend suggested it.The upper level is filled with murals and sculptures representing historical French figures and values of the Enlightenment that are the cornerstone of French values. the building and art is absolutely beautiful and I learned a lot being there. I didn’t think I was that interested in French history until I got there and realizing how cool it all was.
Oh, and the History/Poli Sci geek in me was geeking out seeing the graves of Voltaire and Rousseau. Marie Curie is also burried here.