Everyone has a favorite Paris secret—a small pleasure, a private place or a special discovery. Here are my five choices for the city’s best hidden haunt.
1. Albert Kahn’s Gardens
10–14, rue du Port, Boulogne-Billancourt
Within yards of exit from Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud on metro Line 10
These amazing gardens really are a Paris secret. At four euros’ admission, they are also one of its biggest bargains. There is a Japanese garden (as well as a “Japanese Village”), a rose garden, a jardin à la française and an English garden. But there’s also a Marais (“swamp”), a Blue Forest, a “winter garden,” a prairie and a mountain forest. All of it was created by banker Albert Kahn (1860–1940), one of 20th-century Europe’s wealthiest men. Khan was notable for his pacifism, his philanthropy and his photos—he funded the world’s first collection of color photography. Along with miles of early film, the museum here has much of it on display. It will astonish you as much as the gardens. Visit before December 21, 2013, when the museum shuts for renovation.
2. Guignol du Rond Point des Champ-Elysées
Angle avenue Matignon and avenue Gabriel, in the 8th Arrondissement
Wed, Sat, Sun, €4
Guignol (puppet) shows are a French tradition. I love their anarchic violence. This is the city’s oldest Guignol theater, hidden in those bushes behind the Marigny Theater. Created in 1818, it was featured in the 1963 film Charade. At that point it was run by Auguste Guentleur, a descendant of the founder. Since 1978, however, its Monsieur Guignol has been José-Luis González. Gonzalez, who came to France as a refugee from Franco’s Spain, was immortalized in photos by Robert Doisneau. He’s also written two books on Guignol. This scrappy little theater is a treasured local favorite.
3. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
62, rue des Archives, in the 3rd Arrondissement
The Museum of Hunting and Nature is both funky and surprisingly elegant. It’s housed in adjoining 17th-century buildings, which belonged to a wealthy couple, François and Jacqueline Sommer. Here, historic firearms nestle side by side with stuffed animals—while contemporary artists contribute installations in situ. Each room is like a cabinet of curiosities and there is a period hunting lodge by artist Mark Dion. There’s even one room devoted to the unicorn.
4. La Filmothèque du Quartier Latin
La Salle Bleu et la Salle Rouge (Blue and Red Rooms)
9, rue Champollion, in the 5th Arrondissement
The Filmothèque du Quartier Latin is a vital feature of rue Champollion—one of the great cinema streets of Paris. Its programming is all classic and draws hard-core film fans. But its most romantic feature is the theater’s retro salles. The larger screening room is all scarlet and known as Marilyn; the smaller one is all-blue (it’s called Audrey). Everything from the light fixtures to the curtain is richly retro.
5. Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève
10, Place du Panthéon, in the 5th Arrondissement
Architecturally, this library is the work of Henri Labrouste. He created a symphony of glass, iron and stone. Functioning as both an academic and a public resource, it houses some of the oldest, rarest writings in France. The hardest thing about visiting is the building’s popularity. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. But to beat the crowd you have to join the line either before opening or after 6 p.m. Once through this security queue, you go to Accueil, fill out a fiche and submit it with your passport at the registration desk. You’ll be rewarded with a one-day pass.
Musée et Jardins Albert Kahn
Guignol du Rond Point des Champ-Elysées
Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
Filmothèque du Quartier Latin