There are many bits of history tucked away inside the 13th arrondissement. This walk along the long-dried-up course of the Bièvre, a river that once flowed through this area, takes you through picturesque lanes and former manufactories in a part of Paris that still retains a village feel.
Originally an industrial suburb, the 13th arrondissement has undergone a sea change since it was annexed by Paris in 1860. Woods, fields and mills once stood where today there are streets and buildings. In the 14th century, the area became Paris’s manufacturing hub because of the presence of water from the Bièvre river, which then ran through the southern part of the capital. Shoemakers, laundry workers, tanners, weavers and dyers modified the river’s course to develop their activities, and contributed to Paris’s industrial progress.
By 1912, the Bièvre had been covered up, but if you follow the little bronze medallions placed on the ground to show where the river once flowed, you will find yourself in the historic part of the 13th. From the Manufacture des Gobelins and the Petite Alsace to the beautifully preserved Butte-aux-Cailles neighbourhood, you can meander along quaint little streets, some filled with flowers, others dotted with street art, and relive a slice of Paris history.
Start from the Gobelins metro station (Line 7). As you walk up the avenue, you will come to the Manufacture des Gobelins.
1/ La Manufacture des Gobelins
The Manufacture Royale des Gobelins – easily spotted because of the bas-relief sculptures of weavers on its façade – has produced tapestries for the decoration of France’s royal palaces and public buildings for over four centuries. It is now part of the Mobilier National, the agency that furnishes all state buildings.
Founded by King Henry IV in 1601, when Flemish tapestry weaving was at its height, the workshop was transformed some decades later into the Manufacture Royale des Gobelins by Louis XIV to create designs celebrating his glory. Royal commissions came in thick and fast, from France as well as abroad. The prestige of the Gobelins is intact even today. The finest weavers still create magnificent tapestries, occasionally working in tandem with contemporary artists. To see the collections at the Mobilier National, pay a visit to the Galerie des Gobelins.
Good to know: ‘Gobelin’ was the name of a powerful family of dyers of the time who were reputed for their scarlet dyes.
Manufacture nationale des Gobelins - 42 rue des Gobelins, Paris Paris 13th
Gallery open from 12:30pm to 6:30pm
More info on the Manufacture des Gobelins
Return to the metro station. Turn into Rue des Gobelins (one of the oldest streets in Paris) on your left, then into Rue Gustave-Geffroy.
2/ Îlot de la Reine Blanche
In 1290, Queen Margaret of Provence had a house built on the banks of the Bièvre. The house and the buildings around it became collectively known as the Ilôt de la Reine Blanche, or Islet of the White Queen – presumably because Margaret had worn white mourning dress since the death of her husband, King Louis IX. Her house was demolished in the early 15th century, and the Gobelin family built a mansion of their own on the site, together with their workshops. From Rue Berbier-du-Mets (once the bed of the Bièvre), you can glimpse the building which housed the original dyeworks founded by Jehan Gobelin.
The Hôtel de la Reine Blanche was later used for different purposes: it was a brasserie, the seat of a local Jacobin Club during the Revolution, and then a dyeworks once again. Industrial buildings including a tannery and a tilery subsequently came up around the mansion. This listed monument is open to the public, and well worth visiting.
Îlot de Reine Blanche - 6 rue Gustave-Geffroy, Paris 13th
Once you have looked around the buildings, continue along Rue Berbier-du-Metz. You will pass the Mobilier National on your right. Along the way, stop to take a look at a more recent monument: the Tour Albert, the very first residential high-rise building in Paris, dating to 1958.
3/ Square René-Le Gall
It’s nice to find a quiet place to sit and rest your feet when you’re walking around Paris. The Square René-Le Gall is one such place – a peaceful spot filled with roses, and four gazebos characteristic of the 1930s.
The square was built on the site of a former island between two branches of the river Bièvre, known back then as Île aux Singes (Island of Monkeys). The workers at the Gobelins factory had a community vegetable plot here. Since wine was exempt from taxation on the island, it soon became a gathering spot for entertainment, with open-air dance halls and brasseries. The organ grinders would set their monkeys free to amuse the merrymaking workers. This might explain how the island got its name.
Square René Le Gall - 28 rue de Croulebarbe, ParisParis 13th
Open every day from 8.00 am to 9.30 pm and on weekends from 9.00 am to 9.30 pm.
More info on the square René-Le Gall
Come out of the park and take Rue Paul-Gervais on the left. The headquarters of the French daily Le Monde are located at the intersection with Boulevard Auguste Blanqui. At Passage Barrault, you will enter the Butte-aux-Cailles.
4/ Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
This neighbourhood, formerly a village on the banks of the Bièvre, escaped Haussmann’s urban renewal. The eponymous street lined with cafés, restaurants and shops is the area’s main thoroughfare.
You can pick up a souvenir of Paris at Abeilles, a shop selling all kinds of products from beehives in the Paris region – honey, soap, gingerbread, sweets and more. A great way to buy local!
Les Abeilles - 21 rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles,Paris 13th
If you’ve never been to a knit café, then pay a visit to Oisive Thé, where you can choose from among more than 70 varieties of tea and knit something while you have a coffee, hot chocolate or pastry. In summer, you can sit out on the terrace. And if you like crocheting, you can have a crochet lesson over brunch!
Oisive Thé, 1, rue Jean-Marie-Jego, Paris 13th
Feeling thirsty? Push on to Place Paul Verlaine, where you can drink spring water from the large taps of the Butte-aux-Cailles artesian well. The well pumps up water from aquifers dating back several thousands of years.
5/ The Butte-aux-Cailles swimming pool
The same underground source also feeds one of the two listed Paris swimming pools, where the vaulted ceiling is supported by art deco arches. Opened in 1924, the Butte-aux-Cailles pool is still very much in operation. You can have a swim in the outdoor pool at any time of year, as the underground hot spring feeding the pool keeps the water at a comfortable 28 degrees Celsius.
Good to know: The indoor pool’s basement served as a set for some 1950s French gangster movies featuring Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura. The basement’s brick pillars and the conveyor belts used to stoke the coal boilers made this an atmospheric location for a film noir.
Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles - 5 place Paul Verlaine, Paris 13th
Check opening hours on the City of Paris website.
More info on the piscine de la Butte aux Cailles
6/ Residential streets in the Butte-aux-Cailles
The picturesque streets in the Butte-aux-Cailles escaped urban renewal because the area’s underground limestone quarries made it unsuitable for large-scale modernization projects such as Baron Haussmann’s.
This means you can stroll through cobblestone streets that give the area the feel of a village, lined with former ateliers, charming houses once occupied by workers, and flower-filled gardens. The architecture of the houses is typical of the old Paris suburbs: in Rue du Moulins-des-Près, you will still find stone houses with mosaic-decorated façades. It is a quiet district, so do ensure you respect the privacy of the residents as you walk around.
Good to know: There was a mill called the Moulin des Près at the crossing with Rue Henri-Pape. It was built in the 16th century and demolished in the 19th.
Take Rue Henri-Pape, then turn left into Rue Dieulafoy, where you can admire some 1920s bourgeois mansions in pastel colours. At the end of the street, turn right into Rue du Docteur-Leroy, then take Rue de l’Interne-Loëb.
7/ La Petite Ceinture
Sections of the Petite Ceinture can be found in the 13th, as in other outlying districts of Paris. Like the ring road today, this railway line once circled Paris. It was built in the 19th century, but later fell into disuse. These days, it is gradually being redeveloped into green spaces and gardens to give Parisians a refreshing break from the bustle of the city.
Petite ceinture - 27 rue de l’Interne-Loëb, Paris 13th
Open every day from 8.00 am to 8.30 pm except weekends from 9.00 am to 8.30 pm.
More info on the Petite Ceinture
Walk along Rue Brillat-Savarin and cross Place de Rungis.
8/ Cité Florale
The Cité Florale is an oasis of nature in the middle of the city. Built in 1928, this neighbourhood comprises six greenery-filled streets with names deservedly inspired by flowers (Rue des Iris, Rue des Orchidées, Rue des Glycines …).
Cité Florale - entre les rues Boussingault, Brillat-Savarin et Auguste Lançon, Paris 13th
More info on the Cité Florale
Now walk up Rue Auguste Lançon, turn left into Rue Barrault and right into Rue de l’Espérance, where you can browse some beautiful objects and items of clothing in the consignment shop Marcel.
Marcel - 10 bis rue de l'Espérance, Paris 13th
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm
Turn left on Rue Michal, then right on Rue Barrault and left again into Rue Daviel.
9/ Petite Alsace and Villa Daviel
Here you will find one of the most unexpected sights in Paris: the half-timbered houses of ‘la Petite Alsace’, or Little Alsace. Built in 1912, they were formerly the homes of workers with large families (of up to 12 members).
Petite Alsace, 10 rue Daviel, Paris 13th
Near here is the ‘Petite Russie’, once mainly inhabited by Russians. Sadly, this tiny residential area is rarely open for visits by the general public. The Villa Daviel across the way is a charming street: a peaceful place with lovely gardens.
Villa Daviel, rue Daviel, Paris 13th