Paris is a city with endless secrets to discover. Visitors to the city naturally start their trip by exploring their favourite artworks in the Louvre, photographing the Eiffel Tower, and shopping in the Marais. But, for those looking for some more interesting, quirky, and lesser-known things to see, Paris has much more on offer. The streets of France’s capital are endlessly walkable for visitors willing to take the time to explore, and there’s always surprises to be had with hidden flower gardens, public artworks, stunning architecture and cute cafes that don’t appear on your map.
This is a list of some of Paris’ most interesting secrets which are easy to find in the city. Many of them are free to find, and while these sights may just take a moment to appreciate, it is the hunt for them which is where the fun is, allowing you to really immerse yourself in this great city. From one-ton mechanical clocks hiding in alleyways with fighting warriors and dragons, pétanque matches in ancient Roman ruins, outrageous orange and purple basketball courts, rooftop beehives buzzing above your head, and even Napoleon’s weird taxidermied horse, here are just some of the many hidden treasures to track down in the streets of France’s capital.
Hidden Public Artworks In Paris
As one of the art capitals of the world, Paris is a dream destination for art lovers. Some of the finest museums and galleries are located in Paris, with many visitors taking the time to appreciate La Joconde in the Musée du Louvre, impressionist masterpieces in the Musée d’Orsay and the eyebrow-raising modern art at the Musée Georges Pompidou. But outside the museums, in metro stations and on street corners, there is plenty more art to see if you know where to look!
The line 11 platform of Arts et Métiers is an unexpected sight to behold. Probably the most fantastical of all the Paris Metro stations, the platform was redesigned in 1994 by Belgian comic artist François Schuiten. Himself inspired by the stories of Jules Verne and surrealist artworks by René Magritte, Schuiten is known for his depiction of fantastical futuristic cities. The metro is completely covered in riveted copper plates to look like a steampunk submarine, or Jules Verne’s Nautilus. There are ship-style portholes featuring dioramic scenes of inventions and landscapes, tiny copper seats, even wheels and gears hanging from the ceiling. The effect is topped off with dim, low lighting for mood. Whether you seek it out intentionally, or stumble across the platform by accident, Arts et Métiers is surely one of Paris’ most amazing stations.
There are at least 5 different Statue of Liberties waiting to be discovered in Paris, of different sizes and colours. They’re not just replicas for the sake of decoration, either. Some of them are the actual maquettes used to plan the construction of the final work that stands in New York City today.
- The most famous (and the largest) is a quarter-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, given to the French by the Americans just 3 years after the French gave the original. It’s located on Île aux Cygnes, an artificial island in the Seine.
- Crafted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi himself (the sculptor of the original in New York City), a small version stands just outside the Musée d’Orsay. It was previous in the Jardin de Luxembourg.
- Where Bartholdi’s Musée d’Orsay replica used to stand in the Jardin de Luxembourg, there is now a small bronze version.
- There are two in the Musée des Arts et Métiers. One is the original plaster maquette used by Bartholdi, and in an outside courtyard is the other, a bronze copy.
The Flame of Liberty is an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame, covered in gold leaf. It is 3.5 metres high, located near the Pont de l’Alma, not far from where Princess Diana died. It was given to France from international donors as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. It is now also an unofficial memorial to Princess Diana, whose fatal car accident occurred in the road tunnel beneath in 1997.
Le Nageur Rouge Sculpture
On the outskirts of Paris, just in front of the Palais de la Porte Dorée museum and aquarium, is this interesting sculpture of a giant red man breaststroking through a garden bed. It’s not easy to find, as Porte Dorée is on the very edge of the city of Paris. This huge sculpture is an interesting juxtaposition between modern art and the art deco building behind.
This massive, one ton motorized clock has sculptures of a warrior fighting off a dragon, a bird and a turtle with a sword. It is in a backstreet in the Quartier d’Horloge, not far from the Musée Georges Pompidou. The clock is an art installation by French artist Jacques Monestier, who created the piece in 1979. Originally, the clock was fully motorised, with the animals attacking the warrior (and sometimes all three at once!) every hour. It was accompanied by sound effects as the short animation took place. Sadly, due to lack of funding to keep it operating, it no longer moves. However, at 4 metres high, it’s still an impressive sight to see, if you can find it.
In the quiet backstreets of Montmartre, there is a statue of a man walking through a wall, La Passe Muraille (the walker-through-walls). Based on a short story by French author Marcel Aymé, the character named Dutilleul discovered that he had the ability to walk through walls. After causing mischief such as robbing banks and sleeping with a married woman, he took a pill that stopped his power. It took effect while he was in the middle of a wall, where he remains to this day. La Passe Muraille is located at Place Marcel Aymé on rue Norvins and rue Girardon.
In Bercy Park, there is a collection of 21 incredible metal sculptures to be discovered. Les Enfants Du Monde features figures based on 21 different nationalities, each one constructed by the imprints of manhole covers, cobblestones and other street materials from that country. The statues are the work of Rachid Khimoune, installed in 2001.
The statue of Victor Noir commemorates a French journalist, who was killed in a duel with Napoleon’s nephew, Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte. His effigy in Pere Lachaise cemetary now has the unusual reputation as a fertility symbol, and many people visit to kiss the statue’s lips, and rub his crotch, which can grant a baby within a year, or a great sex life!
This statue of a light infantryman from North Africa was sculpted in 1855. Positioned close to the waterline at the Pont de l’Alma, the Zouave is often used as a flood marker for the Seine. While he normally stands on a tall pedestal and rarely gets wet, floodwaters in 2016 submerged the Zouave up to his waist.
Paris has existed for almost 2 thousand years, and evidence of this history can be found all around the city. Sometimes, these are artefacts in a museum, and other times they are the buildings and streets themselves.
Vizir, Napoleon’s last horse, is on display in Les Invalides museum. Not far from Napoleon’s tomb itself, the surprisingly skinny horse is located within the museum itself. Vizir was a white Arabian stallion, sporting a huge ‘N’ brand, with a crown on its rump. In 2016, $30,000 was raised to re-stuff and restore the aging 200-year old stallion.
The Hôtel de Sens is a beautiful building in an of itself, a Gothic masterpiece located in the Marais. It was built in 1345 for the archbishops of Paris. It was destroyed and rebuilt in 1519, serving as a home for many noble guests. The most curious feature is the cannonball, lodged directly in a solid stone brick. It was fired in 1830 during the Trois Glorieuses street fights, where it remained ever since. It is marked with an engraving of the date.
The 5th arrondissement is home to one of Paris’ oldest structures, a 1st-century Roman colosseum, built in what was then known as the town of Lutetia. This amphitheatre is completely hidden from the road, yet easy to reach on foot, if you know where to look. The shape of the arena is well-preserved, as are many of the seating areas. It’s wonderful to see Haussmann’s buildings peering overhead, just next door.
Interesting buildings and sites
Between offices and residences, there are some very interesting shops on the streets of Paris. Lesser-known museums and galleries, too, can have some very strange themes.
Paris’ most beloved old bookstore isn’t really a secret to discover, but it’s worth checking out if you’ve never seen it before. Opened in 1951, The Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore is the sister shop to the original 1919 shop frequented by such aspiring writers as Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.
This newer shop, still open today, is a great source for new and used books, and even houses aspiring writers who sleep in beds tucked between the bookshelves in exchange for helping out around the store.
The Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy
In the Jardin des Plantes is one of Paris’ most underappreciated museums. The Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy has nearly 1000 different animal skeletons to observe. Walking into the huge open space, greeted by a colossal horde of skeletons is an incredible sight. And it’s usually so quiet that all you hear are the creaking wooden floorboards as you admire the animals on display.
Near Chatelet is the historic rat trap shop, Julian Aurouze and Co, opened in 1872. It has a very unusual store front window; with taxtidermied dead rats hanging lifeless from rat traps in the window. The shop gained recent fame after appearing in the Pixar film Ratatouille, where the character Remy is shown the dead rats and is warned not to trust humans.
Paris’ most funky basketball court is surely Pierre Duperré, tucked in a block between buildings. Working with Nike, the basketball court was painted in a brilliant pattern of red and blue geometric shapes. It was re-painted again in 2017 to be even more crazy, with purple, pink and orange gradients that are stunning to behold (but concerning when you consider they camoflaged a nearby staircase too)!
One of Paris’ most underrated parks is an unconventional one. Before New York had its High Line, Paris built the Promenade Plantée, sitting atop a section of abandoned railway line, and running from Opera to the park at Vincennes.
Le Musée des Vampires
A part-time vampirologist is behind this weird museum on the outskirts of Paris, in the north-east near Porte des Lilas. It’s a private collection of objects such as a genuine 19th-century anti-vampire protection kit, a vampire-slayer’s crossbow, books, toys, and even mummified cats. There’s also a cemetery-inspired courtyard to get some fresh air.
The strangest themed carousel is in the Jardin des Plantes. Only extinct (and some endangered) animals are presented for people to ride. The dodo, thylacine, triceratops and horned turtle are all on show. The carousel, also known as the Dodo Manège, is linked to the nearby Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy.
Unbelievably, in the middle of Paris, there is a small vineyard that produces bottles of wine. On the corner of rue Saint-Vincent and rue des Saules is this small plot of land. It was set up in 1933 as a form of protest against property development (which states that a structure cannot be built if there is a vineyard on the land). Every season, 1000 to 1500 bottles of wine are produced.
Moulin de la Charité
A 12th century windmill is hiding in Paris, located in Montparnasse cemetery. The windmill arms are long gone, so all it looks like today is a round tower.
Beekeepers in Paris work in the only space safe from pedestrians – from high up on top of buildings and momuments! That’s right – there is honey being made in Paris! And there are a LOT of them, over 700, in fact! There are hives on top of the Musée d’Orsay, Invalides, Opéra Garnier and Bastille, Assemblée Nationale, and many more. And it’s possible to buy this delicious honey, too, which is said to be better than countryside honey due to its lack of pesticides in the pollinating plants.
The most bizarre building decoration goes to 59 Rue Rivoli. This former artist’s squat is now a free-entry gallery and studio, with 30 studios to visit. The building itself is one of the most weirdly decorated buildings in Paris, with constantly changing outdoor art such as a creeping snake, and a huge face. Inside, wonderful psychadelic graffiti follows the staircase all the way up the building.
Tiny hidden treasures in Paris
Blink and you’ll miss it, or mistake it for street art! Salvador Dalí designed this (non-functioning) sundial, located on 27 Rue Saint-Jacques, just south of the Ile St Louis. It was installed by Dali himself, and features his trademark moustache, and the shell symbol of the St. Jacques de Compostella pilgrimage.
The exact centre of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, is a pointed-star geographic marker set in the ground. It is supposed to be the exact centre of Paris (at the time – although nobody can agree when it was installed). It was also used a marker for measuring distances from this standard point, and even today (search for Paris on Google Maps. It will locate you almost to this exact spot).
There are some rituals you can do here – spin in a circle on one foot means your heart’s desire will be granted. Kissing your partner provides eternal love. And throwing coins on top, a classic, grants you a wish.
There are 135 Arago medallions, which mark the path of a meridian line proposed by François Arago. Although now the Greenwich meridian line is accepted, you can find these 12cm coins running from north to south. One of the easiest to find is located just out the front of the Musée du Louvre.
Whether you find yourself admiring historic buildings or out-of-place wineries, museums filled with skeletons, sculptures in alleyways, or fluoro basketball courts, Paris is full of curiosities. And that’s on top of the classic sights, monuments, museums and food! It’s what makes this city so much fun to explore.
What Parisian secrets and sights do you think belong on this list? Let me know in the comments!