This is a city with endless hidden treasures, but which are most intriguing? Here are my current five favorite Paris secrets.
Our Lady of Work
59, rue Vercingétorix, in the 14th Arrondissement
Built for the workers of the Universal Expositions, Notre Dame du Travail (Our Lady of Work) is unique in Paris. Its beauty, although breathtaking, is ultra-industrial. This is the work of activist Father Soulange-Bodin, who demanded a church that would feel like home to laborers. He got it—despite its soaring roof and steely “ribs,” the space remains warm. It’s also a lovely church to visit at Christmas.
Montparnasse Cemetery (Section 22, Division 22)
3, boulevard Edgar Quinet, in the 14th Arrondissement
Brancusi’s sculpture The Kiss is a classic vision of love. Romanian-born, the artist spent most of his life working in Paris’s 15th Arrondissement. He left his atelier there to the French state, and you can now visit it at the Pompidou Center. (It’s open, free of charge, 2–6 p.m. every day except Tuesdays.) Yet there’s a more personal version of The Kiss in Montparnasse Cemetery. There it adorns the grave of Tatiana Rachevskaia, a Russian girl who killed herself for love at 23.
A Paris Pagoda
48, rue de Courcelles, in the 8th Arrondissement
The bit of rue de Courcelles near Parc Monceau has a swanky history. Most of its buildings are linked with nobles or with great fortunes of the Second Empire. But among them is a surprise: this giant red pagoda. During the 18th century, it was an hôtel particulier. But in 1929 it became la Pagode Rouge. Architect Fernand Bloch created the fantasy for Asian art dealer Ching Tsai Loo. Loo’s art company is still in business—and owns it today.
Lips in the Metro
Metro Saint-Lazare, in the correspondence tunnel between line 14 and line 9
In 1966, the Paris transit authority loaned Montreal one of its art nouveau metro entrances. The Canadians wanted to keep it—so they suggested trading it for a “gift of art.” When Paris agreed, the city created La voie lactée (The Milky Way), by the Quebecois Geneviève Cadieux. Playing with that image of lips usually seen in commercials, Cadieux created some as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s.
The Secret Garden
Paris’s School of Pharmacy owns this jardin des simples: it is its official Botanical Garden. It was actually started in the 16th century, by the apothecary Nicolas Houël. In 1884, when the school moved to this site, it carefully transferred his 400 species. (The school’s students were once required to know every plant.) The garden closes through March 15, in order to protect its rarities. But, otherwise, it is open to the public. Gustave Eiffel’s studio made its original serres, or glasshouses.
Open March 15 to November 1, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 7pm. Go to 4–6, avenue de l’Observatoire, in the 6th Arrondissement (the Faculty of Pharmacy, Université Paris Descartes). Enter the courtyard and take the central door, then walk straight ahead and out the back of the building. Descend the stairs and the garden is in front of you.
While the garden is closed, try a different Paris surprise: the Sound Shower (Douche Sonore) under Pont de la Concorde. Part of les Berges, the Seine’s riverbank promenade, it uses the acoustics of the massive bridge. Beneath its mass, speakers pump out a great playlist. But: you can also hear your own music. Just connect to: bluetooth iPLUG-BTR. Underneath Pont de la Concorde on the left bank (Invalides).
Notre Dame du Travail
La Pagode Rouge
Botanical Garden of the Ecole du Pharmacie