It’s quite common to stumble upon some well-hidden oddity in the course of a stroll in Paris, be it a Chinese pagoda, a 400-year-old tree, or some mysterious medallions on the ground. There’s usually a story attached. Set off to track down these little treasures in various parts of the city.
The art nouveau building on Avenue Rapp
This eye-catching, asymmetrical 6-story building is located in the tranquil neighbourhood around the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1900 by the architect Jules Lavirotte, the building’s design is reminiscent of Gaudí’s work in Spain. Curved lines, dissimilar windows, unusual colours and, above all, beautiful mosaic cladding and an intricately sculpted door (featuring a naughty detail) make this a true architectural masterpiece that one never tires of gazing at.
Where to see this: 29 Avenue Rapp, 75007
The RATP’s fake façades
At first glance these building façades resemble all the surrounding ones, until you realize the doors, windows are balconies are trompe-l’œil. They were created to maintain the architectural continuity of the street. Many of them hide the electrical systems and ventilation shafts used by RATP, Paris’s public transport company, from view. To spot which façades are optical illusions, go up to them and take a closer look: none of them have door code plaques or handles. Some are very realistic, like the ones on Rue Lafayette, while others, like the building on Rue Quincampoix, are quite basic.
Where to see this: Several places in Paris, including 145 Rue Lafayette, 75010 and 29 Rue Quincampoix, 75004
The oldest public clock in Paris
Commissioned by Charles V in the 14th century, the clock in the Palais de la Cité features elaborate gold embellishment, and has been keeping time since 1371. The clock face has undergone changes and additions dictated by the wishes of various French monarchs over the centuries. Look up at the clock between the two allegorical figures representing the law and justice and you will spot the initials of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, some Latin inscriptions, and the dates of the clock’s restoration.
Where to see this: Boulevard du Palais, 75001
The 5 Statues of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty – a symbol of the United States, and of New York City in particular – was in fact created by the French sculptorAuguste Bartholdi, and given to the United States by France to commemorate the friendship between the two countries. The statue on Liberty Island is the biggest one, standing 97 metres high (pedestal included), but there are 5 replicas in various parts of Paris, including the one inside the breastplate of the French sculptor César Baldaccini’s’ centaur statue. See if you can track down all five, and also the Flame of Liberty on Pont de l’Alma: it’s an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame.
Where to see this: On the Île aux Cygnes, Pont de Grenelle, 75015; at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, 292 Rue Saint-Martin, 75003; in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Rue Guynemer, 75006; at the Musée d’Orsay, 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007; and inside the centaur statue (Centaure de César), Place Michel Debré, 75006
The oldest house in Paris
The oldest house in Paris is located in the Marais. Built in 1407, it is now a traditional bistro named Auberge Nicolas Flamel after its original owner, a famous alchemist who is believed to have discovered how to transform lead into gold. It served for many years as a refuge for the destitute. Flamel provided them with a roof over their heads in exchange for a few prayers. The building’s façade bears witness to the house’s long and fascinating history. The house located at 3 Rue Volta was long considered to be the oldest one in Paris, until this one usurped the title.
Where to see this: 51 Rue de Montmorency, 75003.
The smallest street in Paris: Rue des Degrés
Rue des Degrés is the smallest street in Paris – it is only 5.75 m long and 3.30 m wide. In fact, it merely consists of a staircase with 14 steps! Built in 1634 following the demolition of the wall of Charles V, the street played a role in the French Revolution, as a commemorative plaque reminds us: ‘It was here that the Baron de Batz and his friends attempted to enable Louis XVI’s escape on the morning of 21 January 1793.’ Nowadays it is a brightly painted little street featuring street art murals.
Where to see this: Between 50/52 Rue Beauregard and 87 rue de Cléry, 75002
An Asian pagoda in the middle of the 8th arrondissement
It comes as quite a surprise to see a building in the Chinese architectural style right in the middle of the stylish 8th arrondissement of Paris. The Maison Loo was built by Ching Tsai Loo, an idiosyncratic art dealer of Chinese origin, who decided to transform a classic Parisian townhouse into a Chinese pagoda to house a private museum. He entrusted the job to the architect François Bloch in 1925. Nearly one century later, this house with its curved tile roof and red façade is a listed monument, and one of the chief attractions of the area.
Where to see this: 48 rue de Courcelles, 75008
The most artistic street: Rue Dénoyez
If you’re exploring the Belleville district, don’t miss out on the area’s street art hotspot: Rue Dénoyez. Street artists give their creativity free rein all along this 150-m long street, where art events are frequently held. Huge murals, graffiti, tags, vibrantly coloured flowerpots … and, since street art is constantly changing, you’ll see something different each time you visit.
Where to see this: Rue Dénoyez, 75020
The Arènes de Lutèce
Built in the 1st century AD, after the Roman conquest of Lutetia, as Paris was then known, the Arènes de Lutèce are the earliest vestige of the city’s history. These days they are a place where people come to relax, but in Roman times they served as a theatre and arena holding up to 12,000 people. This architectural gem was nearly demolished in the 19th century, but was fortunately saved as a result of a successful petition spearheaded by Victor Hugo.
Where to see this: 49 rue de Monge, 75005
Paris’s greenest façade: the plant wall at the Musée du Quai Branly
The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac designed by Jean Nouvel was planted in 2004 with the capital’s biggest and most beautiful living wall. This stand-alone masterpiece was composed by the botanist Patrick Blanc, who pioneered the concept of the vertical garden. The wall is 22 m high and 47 m long and includes plants from around the world, a nod to the museum’s own collections from far and wide. In all, 15,000 plants from 376 different species were planted to embellish the museum’s façade; a riot of greenery facing the Seine. Another plant wall can be seen on Rue d’Aboukir.
Where to see this: 37 Quai Branly, 75007
The oldest tree in Paris
When strolling through the Latin Quarter, you might come across a vestige of a long-gone era – a living monument in Square Viviani dating back to 1601, i.e. more than four centuries ago. This miracle of Nature is Paris’s oldest tree: a majestic locust tree, more than 15 metres tall. It was imported from North America and planted here by Jean Robin, gardener to Henri IV. Although it still flowers every spring, it is now propped up by a concrete structure. It was there when Versailles and the Eiffel Tower were built, and will no doubt continue bearing witness to significant events in Paris’s future.
Where to see this: Square Viviani, 75005
Lawnmowers with a difference
Here’s an interesting fact about Paris. The city’s gardeners outsource the upkeep of hard-to-reach areas in green spaces to some rather unusual employees – sheep and goats! You might see them peacefully grazing on sloping areas of the Jardin des Tuileries, or the grassy embankments of the ring road. Look out for these four-legged lawnmowers on sunny days.
Where to see this: In the Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, 75001
The Zouave statue on the Pont de l’Alma
Built in the reign of Napoleon III, the Pont de l’Alma originally had 4 statues paying tribute to the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War, including a statue of a zouave (a North African French Army soldier). In 1910, the waters of the Seine came up to the zouave’s shoulders during a record flood. Ever since, Parisians have looked at the statue to judge the level of the river whenever there is a risk of flooding (its head has so far never been submerged). When the bridge was rebuilt in 1970, the other statues were moved elsewhere, but the iconic zouave was replaced on the bridge only a few centimetres from his original location.
Where to see this: Quai de la Seine, 75008
Paris’s zero point
In the courtyard outside Notre Dame Cathedral, a brass plaque embedded in a concrete slab bears a rose compass and the inscription Point zéro des routes de France (kilometre zero for roads in France). Under Louis XV, this symbolic point became the marker from which distances to all other French towns were measured. The slab was added in 1924. Legend has it that if you walk over this point, your footsteps will always bring you back to Paris.
Where to see this: The courtyard of Notre Dame Cathedral, Place Jean-Paul II, 75004
The Montsouris water reservoir
The attractive glass pavilion that catches your eye a stone’s throw from the Parc Montsouris is not merely decorative, it’s a public utility building. It sits atop one of Paris’s largest reserves of drinking water – the Montsouris reservoir, built in the late 19th century to supply Parisians with clean water. Roughly 200,000 m3 of water is stored at an ideal temperature of 12°C in this two-story underground reservoir. The place attracts far fewer visitors these days, but is well worth seeing. If the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate! You’ll be fascinated as you look down at this ‘cathedral’ of water – 1,800 arch-shaped pillars supporting a huge volume of water that is the clear blue of a lagoon.
Where to see this: Pavillon de la Porte d’Arcueil – 113-115 Rue de la Tombe Issoire, 75014
Railway tracks in the Place des Vosges
With its elegant red brick townhouses, symmetrical arcades and beautiful park in the middle, the exquisite Place des Vosges (one of the five squares in Paris built for royal inhabitants), is a Paris must-see. Look down when you reach Number 5: the railway tracks inside the carriage entrance will transport you back to the early 20th century. The building was the headquarters of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which operated railway sleepers and dining cars). This door once led to the kitchens that supplied railway stations with prepared meals. The meals were transported in rail wagons to the square, where they were transferred into trucks to be taken to the stations.
Where to see this: 5 place des Vosges, 75004
Medallions paying homage to Arago along the Paris meridian
Look down once in a while when you are walking around in Paris and you might see an unexpected sight: one or more of the 135 bronze medallions, all bearing the name Arago, that dot the city’s streets along the Paris meridian line. This symbolic line, created in 1994 as a tribute to the famous scientist François Arago, extends for 9 km across the city, from Porte de Montmartre in the north to the Cité Universitare in the south. It runs through the Paris Observatory, the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Louvre, among other places. See how many you can spot!
Where to see this: On the ground in places all over Paris
The façade of the Comédie Italienne
This little theatre devoted to Italian-language plays opened in 1980. It is housed in a former police station, and the Baroque façade of the building gives the theatre an appealingly vintage charm. Previously painted red, then in the traditional colours of the Harlequin and finally in the flashy blue it currently sports, the façade features some intriguing details, like little statues of cherubs and the Latin inscription Cadtigat ridendo mores, meaning ‘One corrects customs by laughing at them’.
Where to see this: 17 Rue de la Gaité, 75014
The oldest pastry shop in Paris
The Pâtisserie Stohrer has a long history – it dates back to the 18th century! Nicolas Stohrer, a young man from Alsace, learnt his trade in the kitchens of the King of Poland and later followed his daughter Marie to Versailles when she married Louis XV. After working at the court for 5 years, the pastry-maker opened a shop of his own on Rue Montorgueil. It was here that he invented the rum baba. Everyone who is anyone in Paris has flocked here since 1730. It is still one of the city’s most famed pâtisseries.
Where to see this: 51 rue Montorgueil, 75002
The Fontaine Médicis
Tucked away at the eastern end of the Jardin du Luxembourg, this fountain is named after Marie de’ Medici, a former Queen of France who had it built in the gardens of her palace in 1630. Initially an Italian-style portico, it underwent various transformations over time, including the addition of a 50-metre basin. The current version, representing Polyphemus surprising the nymph Galate in the arms of the shepherd Acis, is the work of the sculptor Auguste Ottin. With its beautiful basin and lush greenery, this is one of the most romantic fountains in Paris.
Where to see this: At the Jardin du Luxembourg, Boulevard Saint-Michel, 75006