The Inside Track: Exploring Paris via its Abandoned Railway

Montmartre? Been there. Eiffel Tower? Done that.
Champs-Élysées? Next please. There’s much more to Paris than its
tourist attractions. Navigating the former La Petite Ceinture
railway line illuminates a different side of the City of

If you’ve visited Paris
before, the chances are that you’ve already taken a picture in
front of the Eiffel Tower, seen the Louvre, walked down the
Champs-Élysées, looked up at the gargoyles of Notre Dame and gazed
across the city from the hill of Montmatre. You’ve likely checked
off all the essential tourist hubs and now you want to get a sense
of the real Paris.

Far 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 cultural charms that are worth every minute of
the metro ride. Or, if you’re up for it, a journey along a
different set of tracks.

The defunct 19th-century railway La Petite Ceinture once
encircled Paris, linking the city’s margins. Meaning “the little
belt” in English, the 19-mile line was constructed between 1851 and
1867, but fell into disuse in the 1930s, after which its walls were
tagged with graffiti and rare plants and animals moved into the
abandoned space. Today, the city is working to repurpose La Petite
Ceinture as a biodiverse pathway across the capital.

The railway’s first refurbished section, located in the high-end
16th arrondissement, was opened to pedestrians in 2007. It’s at
this most western edge of the city that visitors will also find the
sprawling Bois de Boulogne, home to the Longchamp Racetrack, the

Fondation Louis Vuitton
and the Jardin d’Acclimatation. On the
park’s border, the Musée Marmottan Monet was once the hunting lodge
of the Duc de Valmy, and now houses the world’s foremost collection
of Claude Monet paintings – the painter’s second son, Michel Monet,
bequeathed his entire collection to the museum in 1966.

In the adjacent 15th arrondissement, a one-mile stretch of La
Petite Ceinture is also open to the public. Beginning at Rue
Olivier de Serres, the tracks run up against Parc André Citroën. On
the other side of the park sits La Javelle, a popular hangout and
open-air concert space on the western bank of the Seine.

Follow La Petite Ceinture farther southeast to the 13th
arrondissement, and you’ll find a reconstructed part of the railway
that connects the Jardin Charles Trenet to Le Jardin du Moulin de
la Pointe. This neighbourhood is known as the Chinatown of Paris –
the Quartier Asiatique – and showcases an eclectic mix of newly
constructed high-rises and traditional Haussmann-style
architecture. With Chinese grocery stores, restaurants and
businesses, the atmosphere here is unlike anywhere else in the rest
of the city. When exploring, make sure to visit Pâtisserie de
Choisy, a traditional Chinese bakery with French flair, and
Restaurant Raviolis Chinois – its house-made “raviolis” (dumplings)
are a must-try.

In the neighbouring 12th arrondissement, La Petite Ceinture
becomes raised above ground level, similar to The Highline in
City, offering expansive views of the surrounding
quartier. A small park with community gardens has been constructed
around the tracks and merges into Square Charles-Péguy. Look out
across the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s largest park which stretches
almost 2,500 acres and encapsulates the Parc Floral de Paris and
the Parc Zoologique de Paris.

From here, La Petite Ceinture cuts through a large park that
runs up to the border of the
19th arrondissement
and right across the Villette Canal, where
one of the most unusual bookshops in Paris can be found floating in
the water. Anchored towards the canal’s middle section, L’Eau et
les Rêves stocks a collection of marine-inspired literature,
fiction, nonfiction and guidebooks in an old barge. Browse its
titles before taking a break in its indoor-outdoor café.

If you trace the tracks of La Petite Ceinture all the way to the
18th arrondissement, you’ll not only come across other
rehabilitated sections of railway, but also refurbished train
stations, such as Le Hasard Ludique. Originally the Gare
Saint-Ouen, the building was a train station from 1863 until 1934.
It has gone through several reincarnations since then, and is now a
restaurant, concert venue and arts space. During autumn, spring and
summer months, the tracks here are open to the public; dine along
the rails or peruse the murals and graffiti art that have come to
define the line. Farther down the road, housed in another abandoned
station, is La
, a hipster eatery dedicated to “upcycling” – in
addition to its café and bar space, it offers educational classes,
talks and film screenings.

This leads us to Paris’s famed Boulevard Péripherique, the road
that marks the city’s borders. Cross it at Porte de Clignancourt
and you’ll come upon the Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen, the
largest flea market in Paris. This sprawling mishmash of open-air
and covered shops has been drawing antiques collectors for
centuries. It’s ideal for picking up one-of-a-kind mementos, window
shopping or people-watching.

The most rewarding part of playing flâneur, is that you never
quite know what you might come across along Paris’s labyrinthine
streets. It could be a rare book from a bouquiniste (bookstall),
the spotting of a particularly chic Parisienne or perhaps stumbling
upon one of only four Wallace drinking fountains in the entire city
that aren’t painted green. It’s what makes Paris endlessly
enthralling to its residents, and what makes all visitors fall in
love: the prospect of wonder.