Offbeat Paris Neighbourhoods
Historical Buildings And Fabulous Architecture
Attractions And Fun Things To Do In Paris
Galleries And Unusual Museums Of Paris
Paris is such a glorious city that even its most mundane corners can reveal secrets. There are rooms we haven't visited in the Louvre, views we haven't seen from the Eiffel Tower and streets we have yet to explore in any of the city's 20 arrondissements.
Here are a few of those less visited corners, a few things to see or experience in Paris off the beaten path.
The beauty of Paris is that it is so many villages bundled into one, with every neighbourhood different from the next, sometimes from street to street — or even on the same street. Below you'll find a very subjective Paris off the beaten track guide, a selection of bits and pieces of the city that may be just a little less frequented than the more popular venues. Goodbye crowds!
It's hard to imagine these days but bustling Paris was once upon a time a vast farmland covered in vineyards. While all the vineyards have long been replaced with the grand 19th-century buildings and monuments we admire today, one Parisian vineyard remains. Any wine lover will want to discover this unique spot in Paris.
It's the Clos Montmartre, and while today it's not producing the famous wines like those of Bordeaux or Burgundy, you can go for a visit of this unique vineyard right in the heart of Paris.
The Clos Montmartre is seeped in history, with the planting of the vineyards dating back to Roman times. It's endured the French Revolution, phylloxera, the World Wars and the urbanization of Paris. The vineyard was replanted nearly 100 years ago in 1933 and it has been producing a vintage every year since.
Tucked away in the shadow of Sacré-Coeur, the Montmartre tourism office offers guided tours of the vineyard with a tasting. Or you can also visit during the annual Fête des Vendanges, which takes place during the harvest in October. During the festival, the wine is auctioned off and the bottles are collector's items with their local artist designed labels.
While you're here, do drop by the Montmartre Museum (in which several famous artists lived at the time, including Auguste Renoir) and the Renoir Gardens. The Musée de Montmartre is home to paintings by many of the bohemian artists who gravitated to Montmartre beginning in the late 19th century, while the gardens provide fabulous view of the vineyards.
Rue des Saules, Paris 18
(by Jennifer from Luxe Adventure Traveler)
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Parisians' desire for some green space stretches to its cemeteries, and most people choose to visit the Père Lachaise, the resting place for many celebreiies.
Why not visit Montmartre Cemetery instead? It is similar to Père Lachaise, but with a more local atmosphere and without the crowds.
Montmartre Cemetery is in a touristy area of Paris but it is far enough from sights like the Sacré Coeur, Place du Tertre or Moulin Rouge to be considered off the beaten path. It also happens to be crossed by an elevated street, the Rue de Caulaincourt, in the form of a metal bridge that dates back to the 1880s.
Montmartre Cemetery boasts its own celebrity graves and a map at the entrance provides their exact location. You'll find those belonging to legendary singer Dalida, the 19th-century novelist Stendhal, the physicist Ampère, the composer Berlioz, German poet Heinrich Heine, Nijinsky the ballet dancer, and many more.
So if you happen to have, say, 3 days in Paris or more, head off to the lesser-known attractions once you've seen the main sights.
20 Avenue Rachel, Paris 18
(by Elisa of France Bucket List)
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The Promenade Plantée, also known as the ‘Coulée Verte René-Dumont’, was once part of the Vincennes line, a steam railway running through the heart of 19th-century Paris. The abandoned structure has been converted into the world’s first elevated park — and was also the inspiration behind New York’s famous High Line.
The train tracks, formerly covered in steel, have now blossomed into a beautiful park filled with trees and flowers. Locals and tourists alike stroll the 4.5km-long pathway and admire the maples, roses, and lavender – all with a bird’s eye view of the bustling streets 10 meters below. Yet along the street, if you didn't know it was there, you might miss it altogether.
Located in the 12th arrondissement near the Bastille Opera House, you can access this elevated park by climbing the stairs near the beginning of Avenue Daumesnil. You'll be rewarded with a closer look at many Haussmann-style buildings and wrought ironed balconies you might otherwise not notice at street level.
One of the more offbeat sights along the route is the police station at the end of Avenue Daumesnil. Here you’ll spot the art-deco sculptures jutting out from the top floor balconies – certainly a proper end to this little-known gem in Paris!
If you've had enough of the city and need a break, you'll find plenty of green beyond the city limits on day trips from Paris — and you won't necessarily have to go too far.
1 Coulée verte René-Dumont, Paris 12
(by Sara of Browns Voyage)
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The Promenade Plantée is not the only railway refurbishment project in Paris: there's also La Petite Ceinture, or Little Belt, a 19th-century railway that circumnavigated the city.
In the beginning, La Petite Ceinture only transported goods but it soon became a means of city transportation for Parisians. The railway's decline started with the inauguration of the Parisian Metro in 1900 and it finally ceased carrying passengers in 1934. By the 1970s, la Petite Ceinture had stopped working and its stations were abandoned abandoned.
This became fertile territory for street artists and rave parties until the city of Paris eventually decided to restore part of the Petite Ceinture and convert them into green spaces, adding informative panels to highlight its historical importance. Today, you can walk those sectors converted into public spaces in the 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th arrondissements. The best preserved? Probably the 15th arrondissement, with its railway tracks and a secondary station.
Between rue Rottembourget and rue de Montempoivre, Paris 12
(by Elisa of France Bucket List)
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The Canal Saint-Martin has become one of the trendiest parts of Paris, a combination of peaceful waterfront with buzzing cafés and boutiques. At night, it turns into party central and throngs of young people gather here for a drink or two before supper.
Walking along the canal is a delight but perhaps the best way to see it is by taking a Canal Saint-Martin cruise. If you've cruised along the Seine, you'll know how different the view and experience can be when this magical city is seen from the water.
Whereas the Seine is perfect for the city's major sights, the Canal Saint-Martin is where you'll see Parisians enjoy their everyday lives, heading off to work, stopping off for a quick coffee or simply dawdling along the short to watch the world.
The fact that it is a canal means it has locks, four of them, a fun part of the cruise as your boat rises and gently falls with each water level.
The 2.5-hour cruises run up to three times a day in both directions. If you leave from Villette (Jaurès metro) and finish in Bastille, you'll be following the water's natural course. But nothing says you can't do it the other way around!
(by Kenza of Cups of English Tea)
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If the bubbly nature of Paris compels you to dive more deeply into the city, spend a bit of time in Belleville, where multicultural energy explodes and where immigrants from around the world coalesce to create a cosmopolitan face of the city.
In addition to sweeping views of Paris, this is where you'll find world class street art, especially along Rue Denoyez and the Place Frehel, definitely one of the best off the beaten path Paris neighbourhoods.
This is also where you'll find an essential Paris that is not overrun by tourists — not to mention the birthplace of Edith Piaf, the singer. According to one rumour, she was born on the sidewalk in front of 72 Rue de Belleville, with a plaque to honour the event. The truth, however, is unknown... (More about the Edith Piaf museum below.)
This part of town is also the site of Belleville Market, where locals who once came from other continents all shop for their fresh fruit and vegetables.
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Another working-class district turned street-art-trendy is la Butte aux Cailles, which translates into Quail's Hill (there is a hill which rises majestically to a whopping 60 or so meters above sea level). It is in the Left Bank's 13th arrondissement and graced with cobblestones and picturesque houses, its streets quiet and its atmosphere that of a village which hasn't really changed in years.
A fun thing to do while you're here is to swim in the lovely Art Deco pool which is now a national monument.
The area has maintained its village feel despite the arrival of artists, mostly because quarries beneath ground make it impossible to build anything taller.
Metro: Place d'Italie
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Paris isn't generally known for its South Asian heritage but if you're feeling the urge to double down on some authentic naan or curry, we've got you covered. Same thing if you need to buy spices or incense.
The Passage Brady is split in two by the Boulevard de Strasbourg, one half under a glass roof and the other half outdoors. This is where you'll find your South Asian fix, taste, smell, sight — it's all here.
Built in 1828 by a certain Mr Brady, the arcade started life as an everyday working class string of second-hand shops and public baths — and eventually deteriorated. Within 100 years of its inauguration, it had fallen into disrepair.
And then, sometime in the 1970s, the low rents attracted an Asian businessman from Pondicherry, who decided to open an Indian supermarket. The die was cast. Fellow Asians followed and soon, the entire passage had turned into Little India.
Close your eyes for a moment and the smells will lift you halfway across the world, as will the colourful saris draped on mannequins and the tinkling sound of Indian music drifting through the air.
And then, grab some lunch!
Metro: Chateau d'Eau
If you're a lover of architecture and beautiful buildings, one of the more fun things to do in Paris off the beaten path is stick your nose up in the air, not because you're snooty in any way but because that is where you'll find much of the best Paris architecture. You could spend a decade in Paris and never see it all!
Some buildings are nearly 1000 years old — Notre Dame (1163), Sainte Chapelle (1248) or the Sorbonne (1257), but the city is graced with a full range of styles, from the Napoleonic era to the destruction and reconstruction of part of Paris by Baron Haussmann in the second half of the 19th century. Whether you're in love with Art Nouveau, Art Deco or contemporary architecture, you'll find it in Paris.
Here are a few of the less visited ones.
Another strong connection with the Arab world is the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), which is still an unusual destination but which is becoming more popular with visitors to Paris.
Links with Arab countries date back centuries so it is really no surprise that a trip to France would involve interaction with Arab history and culture.
It's a stunning building, in which architects Jean Nouvel and Pierre Soria combined Islamic geometrical designs with a modern glass façade. The metallic iris shutters control the entrance of light, which is reminiscent of ornamental mashrabiya, a typical Islamic architectural feature of latticed wood But they also symbolically function as hundreds of tiny windows into the Arab world.
The institute houses a library, bookstore, museum, restaurants and meeting rooms. To immerse yourself in the history and culture of the different Arab countries, visit the permanent collection between the 4-7th floors. But the temporary exhibitions are just as fascinating and informative. And if you spend more time in Paris you can even take Arabic classes at the institute!
One of the unexpected highlights is the fabulous bookstore, which features the most interesting works connecting the Arab world and Europe. Whether you're looking for a book listing Spanish words of Arabic origin or are curious about calligraphy, this is so much more than a regular museum shop.
The Institut is an absolute must for anyone interested in the Arab world. It also happens to have the most amazing view over Notre-Dame...
1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Paris 5
(by Nina of Lemons and Luggage)
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Another link with the Arab world may not be the most obvious destination for the visitor, but the Great Mosque is both fascinating and just happens to be one of the most instagrammable places in Paris.
This is the biggest mosque in Paris and the third-largest in Europe.
Its outdoor garden, mosaics and characteristic arches might make you feel you've walked into a distant land for a moment. In fact, it was inspired by the al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, one of that country's most important and one of the oldest in the world. The links with Morocco are strong: Sultan Yusef of Morocco attended the inauguration in 1926 in person.
In addition, its 33meter minaret found its own inspiration in the Al-Zaytuna Mosque, in the heart of Tunis, in Tunisia. For the best view of the minaret, head to the mosque's gardens. The garden is surrounded by traditional arches and has beautiful tile work and mosaics.
Not only is the design inspired by Maghreb architecture, but specialized craftsmen were brought in from North Africa to build it in a way that would respect its original inspiration.
The mosque is located south of the Seine river, not far from the Pantheon and Jardins du Luxembourg.
2bis Place du Puits de l'Ermite, Paris 5
(by Maartje of The Orange Backpack)
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Paris is full of magnificent churches, from Notre-Dame (until the tragic fire, at least) and the Sacré-Coeur to the Sainte Chapelle or la Madeleine — but one of the most fascinating is the Gothic-style Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, the final resting place of the kings and queens of France.
This building sits on the grave of Saint Denis, a third-century Bishop of Paris. By the 7th century, it had become the resting place of French royals from King Dagobert in 639 until the 19th century, once revolutionary currents had ended French monarchies once and for all.
In total, Saint-Denis contains the tombs of 43 kings, 32 queens and 10 loyal servants of the crown, and many of these are covered in sculptures that are works of art. In fact Saint-Denis has the largest collection of funeral sculptures from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
The tombs themselves were emptied during the French Revolution, which sought to eradicate all traces of the monarchy. All remains were exhumed and buried in mass graves. After the revolution, when monarchy was temporarily restored, some of the remains were found and transferred to the Basilica, where they still lie today.
1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis
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Have you ever wondered what Marie Antoinette wrote in her last note before she... lost her head? Or what Joan of Arc's handwriting looked like?
Look no further because you'll find all of these and a lot more in France's National Archives, set up in 1790 during the French Revolution and covering documents from the 7th century to the present.
A visit to this little-known section of the Marais is definitely one of the more interesting non-touristy things to do in Paris, at least if you happen to be smitten with French history (as I am).
Think about it: more than 400km of archives — or almost as far as the distance from Paris to London, if you put all the shelves side by side. But at the risk of overwhelm, go during one of the special thematic exhibitions to really delve into a specific period.
The old archives building, which is the one we are talking about (there are two modern additions in the suburbs), looks just like a centuries-old archive should, with old notebooks and papers stacked from floor to ceiling, separated by wrought-iron railings and spiral staircases. Anything before the French Revolution, whether Medieval or from the Ancient Regime, is stored here, whereas the more modern documents are in the suburban satellites. The archives are, in a sense, guardians of France's written history.
The building itself was the home of the Princes of Soubise (she was reputed to have had an affair with Louis XIV), built over a former Templar fortress. A museum now shows off the most important historical documents as well as a few beautifully decorated rooms of those times. A stroll through the gardens is perfect on a sunny day!
The beauty of these archives is that they are accessible to anyone with enough interest to want to see them — some in microfilm format, others on paper. Reading the documents, however, will require a knowledge of French, but following the curlicues of ancient regal signatures requires only an admiring eye.
Visit the National Archives website in English.
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Part way up the wall of 27 rue Saint-Jacques sits an unusual work of art, with strange numbers and eyes on fire.
You'd be forgiven if you had to look twice to see it was a sundial — but not just any sundial. The eyes are part of a face shaped like a scallop shell, and for a reason: the name of the street hints that pilgrims might have come this way, that this could be part of the French Camino, the Way of St James, or Saint-Jacques in French.
Knowing it was designed by Salvador Dali prepares you to look at it in certain ways, to search for hidden meanings or for stretching of the truth. Or if you look at the neck, you might recognize Dali's mustache and align yourself with those who interpret this as a self-portrait.
Whatever the meaning, its inauguration in 1966 remains a legend: an elaborate and highly publicized ceremony had the artist signing his name to the bottom right-hand corner of the sundial after arriving in a pickup truck with his pet ocelot. It seems this was a gift to the owners of the building, friends of his who owned a shop here.
Curious about the sundials of Paris? Here are some of them.
27 rue Saint-Jacques, Paris 5
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Tucked away on a quiet street in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris sits the oldest domestic building in the city.
Not only is the stone house notable for its age, but it was originally home to a very famous resident: the alchemist Nicholas Flamel.
Though Flamel gained recent notoriety for his role in the initial Harry Potter novel, Nicholas Flamel was indeed a real person and a real alchemist — though admittedly, unlike his reimagined fictional self, he didn't live to be 665 years old. Flamel did, however, carry out many experiments in his house in Paris, the very one you can still seek out today.
Built in 1407, Flamel's Parisian home is distinct and worth visiting when exploring Paris on foot: the front facade is covered in carved symbols, immediately setting it apart from the other buildings nearby.
Today, the building contains a restaurant named after Flamel, but you don't need to sit down for a meal in order to appreciate the unique building.
Ready to find the house for yourself? It's located at 51 Rue de Montmorency.
(by Kate of Our Escape Clause)
There's enough in Paris to keep you entertained for a decade! But here are a couple of possibilities you might not know about...
Now this really IS one of the most unusual things to do in Paris. In this city steeped in history and art and beauty, prepare to be... horrified!
That's right, a horror show. Now before you wave this off in distaste, please give me a moment to convince you.
If you're fascinated by Paris, wouldn't you want to know about its legends? Its criminals and assassins? Its haunting crimes?
Le Manoir de Paris gives you all of this. Several dozen actors working in French (and often in English) bring these scenes to life, re-enacting the legends that illustrate the underbelly of Paris — legends like the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame or the crocodile in the Paris sewers, and more than a dozen others which unfurl before you in 23 interactive rooms (once you get past the gargoyle at the door, that is).
It's different, but it won't leave you indifferent.
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If you happen to be in the 15th arrondissement near the Tour Montparnasse and want to relax, head for the Parc André-Citroën, a green pocket in Paris filled with fountains and rare plants. On a hot summer day, you'll be in heaven and you'll be doing one of the more non-tourist things to do in Paris (yes, there are visitors, but this is a place local people love).
It's an intriguing park: built on the site of an old Citroën car factory, it still has a bit of an industrial vibe, with vegetation arranged geometrically and water features aligned with precision.
While the park itself is an attraction, what you're really looking for is the Ballon de Paris, a hot air balloon that rises about 150m above Paris for a short quarter of an hour that provides you with amazing views across the city.
You won't be going up very high, but you'll be high enough to see Paris from a unique perspective. The only place you can get a higher view of Paris is from the Eiffel Tower itself — but you won't be able to see the tower if you're on it...
The balloon is of course dependent on the weather so it can't always fly (best to check so you won't be disappointed).Find out if the balloon is flying today!
Paris is full of world-class museums, 136 at latest count. Some are so famous their names are household words, but others, just as good, are less known. They are smaller, a little hidden perhaps, or highly specialized.
Here is a selection of the not-so-famous but absolutely-worth-seeing offbeat or smaller museums of Paris.
If you're a fan of the most recent art and the best contemporary artists, swing by the Palais de Tokyo, as much for its rotating exhibits as for the building itself.
Europe's largest center for contemporary arts is a work of art itself: rather than the sober, discreet backdrops we've become accustomed to, the Palais de Tokyo uses its space as art — with lights, sounds, textures, shapes, performance, anything that can enhance our artistic experience and definitely one of the unique things to do in Paris. It's no wonder it's been called the 'anti-museum'...
The Palais de Tokyo has some intriguing architectural features that are just as fascinating as its exhibits. Room 37, for example, was once a cinema but with the building's various renovations it somehow "disappeared", or was mislaid and eventually walled off. It was "rediscovered" in the 1990s and you can now visit.
The underground walls of the Palais are full of graffiti and street art, not painted stealthily during the night but with the full support of the Palais, which invited the artists in.
The many renovations also uncovered plenty of 1930s industrial architecture and rather than plaster over everything, it was decided to leave the spaces as they were — soaring, bare, concrete.
An amusing anecdote is that the Palais is named after the street it is on, which was once called Tokyo Avenue... until it changed its name to New York Avenue. But no, the Palais has no intention of changing its name to the Palais de New York!
This is the museum to visit if you want your mind to bend a little... and if you want a pretty good view of the Eiffel Tower.
13 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris 16
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Most French children — and many non-French ones — knows the story of how Marie Curie (and her husband Pierre, who died young) discovered radium and the eventual use of radioactivity in treating cancer. It was and remains a family of respected scientists; the couple's daughter, Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie would end up winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
The museum is housed in the Radium Institute and traces the fascinating history of the Curie family, who won a total of five Nobel prizes, through gender discrimination, war and scandal.
Walking through the museum and looking at all that century-old laboratory equipment, it's hard to even imagine how such mechanical, non-electronic means could have yielded such imposing results.
Particularly endearing is Marie Curie's original office, with its wood and glass book cabinets and an unimaginably adorable but ancient telephone, which would certainly have required the intervention of an operator.
Interestingly, her business card from those years, while carrying her title of Professor of the Science Faculty — the first woman to hold that title at a French university — still listed her as Mrs. P (as in Pierre) Curie... and her career built at a time when women in science were few and in some countries not even allowed into university.
She was also the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, although initially only her husband had been included. To his great credit, he complained and the committee recognized that all their work had been undertaken jointly.
For more information, visit the Musée Curie website.
1 Rue Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris 5
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There are many small museums in Paris and the Musée Rodin is among the best.
The museum has two sites. One is on the outskirts of Paris, in Auguste Rodin's former home at Meudon, but the one we're talking about here is the Hotel Biron, in the 7th arrondissement, which served as Rodin's studio-cum-storage space. He successfully advocated to turn the building into a museum featuring his works, donated to the French state, and that is what we have today.
If you are not familiar with the name Rodin, you may still be familiar with his most famous work: a sculpture called "The Thinker". It features a heroic, naked man sitting hunched over, thinking hard about something. You'll find this and many other impressive sculptures both inside the museum and outside, in the gardens, where you can wander in the shade and admire works of art (not to mention a great view of the Invalides).
The building itself is also noteworthy, especially when you think it was almost destroyed to make way for an apartment block. At one point it was a girl's school but the Catholic nuns removed all the interior decorations and sold them off. Eventually the school closed and much time and money has been spent tracking down the house's contents and restoring them.
The results are a fairytale museum with high ceilings, tall windows, chandeliers and an imposing spiral staircase.
77 Rue de Varenne, Paris 7
(by Laura of What's Hot?)
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If you love sculpture, the Musée Zadkine should also be part of your Paris wanderings.
In case you aren't familiar with him, Ossip Zadkine was born in Russia but arrived in Paris in 1910, where he worked between the wars until 1967. He represents many of the artistic streams of the 20th century, from primitivism to Cubism and everything in-between.
Zadkine lived and worked in what is now the museum. He moved here after his earlier studio almost collapsed under the weight of his sculptures. Because of this, the museum has a special feeling, not only as an exhibition, but as a proper working studio.
To visit the museum, click here.
100bis Rue d'Assas, Paris 6
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Edith Piaf is as much a monument to France as is the Eiffel Tower.
The diminutive singer (1m47 / 4' 8") became world famous for her emotional renditions of French ballads. She had a difficult life which culminated in worldwide success with the global hit "La Vie en Rose".
One of her life-long admirers, Bernard Marchois, began collecting mementoes of her life and turned two of his four rooms at home into an intimate private museum in Piaf's honour.
The apartment, in the neighbourhood of Ménilmontant, is crammed with the singer's personal memories, from emotional private letters to the little black dresses in which she performed. It's a different kind of museum, made all the more personal by the nature of the exhibits and their loving placement in a home setting.
The museum has limited opening hours and you'll need an appointment to visit.
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One of the more unusual things to do in Paris is to visit the fun and enlightening Counterfeiting Museum, which is stuffed with hundreds of imitation items — everything fake, from pseudo-BIC pens to Vuitton bags to, more dangerously, medicines. These days the museum also contains fake electronics, which didn't exist back when it was inaugurated.
Sometimes the difference between the real and the fake is major, but other times it's almost impossible to see — a typeface might be thicker on a box or there might be an element missing on a logo.
According to Customs, the most counterfeited goods are toys and games, particularly dangerous since they are manufactured with no or unchecked safety standards. Next are sports articles, clothes and body beauty products.
All of this is documented in the museum, which is housed in a posh building once owned by the Vuitton family in the posh 16th arrondissement. They donated it to the French Manufacturers' Association and the museum was opened in 1951. The building is also the association's headquarters and the warehouse which holds legally confiscated goods.
The museum's pieces are on loan from either the French Customs office or the manufacturers themselves. They do want to educate us, after all.
You'll find its website here.
16 Rue de la Faisanderie, Paris 16
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Paris wouldn't be Paris if it didn't glorify romance and romanticism, right?
Hidden behind a metal gate down a shady alley, the building itself screams romance, with its pale green shutters and climbing greenery. Its owners once hosted get-togethers for such luminaries as Ingres, Liszt, Charles Dickens, Stravinsky and Chopin (and, fittingly, his lover George Sand).
You can visit the room in which Chopin played for George Sand and the garden in which the who's who of Romantic artists met to discuss their work
Opened in 1982, the museum highlights George Sand's memorabilia but also art and mementoes of the mid-19th century Romantic period with paintings, sculptures and everything in-between.
It is a haven where literature, poetry and art crossed paths and you can recreate some of their conversations in the garden or the Tea Room. And imagine you're hearing bars of Chopin cling to the air.
16 Rue Chaptal, Paris 9
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—6 August 2020