Rotonde de la Villette (Photo: Holger Eilhard/Flickr)
Wherever I travel, however exotic or far-flung, there’s a point at which I seek a touch of the familiar. No, I don’t mean McDonald’s. Usually, it’s a subtle but comforting reminder of something recognizable. In Paris, that place is the 19th arrondissement, a spot that feels a bit like the New York City neighborhood in which I live: the multifaceted Lower East Side.
It’s 20 minutes by Metro outside of the city center, so some say the 19th is a suburb. I disagree.
The19th is an up-and-coming urban neighborhood, gritty yet sparkling, with fewer tourists than the 1st (which houses the Louvre). Here are eight reasons to add it to your Parisian itinerary:
Parc de la Villette (Photo: Christophe Alary/Flickr)
These 135 acres just burst with French charm. There’s the wondrous Jules Verne carousel, which is like something out of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” Turn left for a few minutes and you’re in one of the park’s themed gardens, a bamboo forest. Spend time in the Garden of Trellises with its 90 fountains. Amble up and down the stairs to get over the Ourcq Canal to see a summer circus. At night, saunter over to a show at Le Zénith, a 6,000-seat theater. Upcoming performers include Beck, Lily Allen, Pharrell, and Lady Gaga. Day or night, there’s always something happening here.
Because it’s Europe’s largest science museum, the City is the one place in the 19th where you’ll see a ton of tourists, especially on weekends. So go early in the morning before the crowds teem to witness the sprawling robotic arts exhibition, which runs through next January. Down in the basement, there’s a small, free aquarium.
Related: The Ultimate Dining Guide to Paris
Sacre-coeur from the Parc des Buttes Chaumont (Photo: Philippe Lejeanvre/Moment Open/Getty Images)
This 61-acre bucolic wonder is about a 20-minute walk up a hill from Villette. But you’ll encounter everything from tiny bakeries to hip street murals along the way. And the breathtaking view of Paris from the Temple de la Sibylle is worth the huffing and puffing. So is the grotto, replete with a small but rushing waterfall, which gives you a zen feeling of sweet calm. You might even want to join the tai chi group found each morning at the park’s entrance.
Drink, Dine, and Play
It’s Paris, so stellar restaurants and bars abound. At the midsized, canal-side La Plage, I found the tastiest strawberry tart I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. During that first bite, I felt lifted off the floor in a kind of dessert nirvana of weightlessness. Not far away is the hip BarOurcq, a friendly local hangout with inexpensive sandwiches, toe-tapping live music, and pétanque, a game kind of like bocce ball (but don’t make that analogy to the serious players).
Sunday afternoon dance in the Centquatre (Photo: Roberto Maldeno/Flickr)
A hundred years ago, this storied building housed Paris’s undertakers. Every day, 150 funeral processions began here. Now, it’s a cultural center devoted to the arts (including one for kids). With dance troupes, live music, a 20,000-book library, and constant art openings and installations, a few hours here slip by like an instant.
Even the convenience stores like Marché Franprix sell terrific French strawberries, baguettes, ham, and cheese. They’re great in a pinch, but the markets on Corentin Cariou feature lip-smacking meats, baked goods, and fresh fish (particularly, the pristine Koskas and Son). Start where Corentin Cariou meets Quai de la Gironde. Near the corner, you’ll find a Jewish market that butchers what it sells in the back of their large establishment.
There are few things as romantic as a midnight stroll through Paris. (Photo: sylvain.collet/Flickr)
Forget those crowded canal boats and try a midnight stroll instead. Couples walk hand-in-hand down the Quai de la Seine along the Canal de Ourcq after late dinners while farmers ready their stalls for a morning market. The black water glistens with the reflection of Parisian lights as accordion players show off their skills. I almost expected to run into the ghost of Édith Piaf.
The big Mercure la Villette is decent but showing its age. For about the same price, I rented a pristine, sizable Airbnb apartment on one of the canals with a view of the park, a verdant balcony, and full kitchen for $152 a night. The affable owners left flowers to welcome me. After it rained, I saw a mighty rainbow that spanned the length of the park. What a welcome bargain, compared to the pricey rooms near the Eiffel Tower.