We didn’t climb the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t eat in a bistro. We didn’t step foot inside an art gallery.
Instead we stayed in a bohemian sunlit studio apartment in Belleville. We ate indulgent breakfasts of flaky pain au chocolat and moist pain au raisin. We bought warm baguettes from a boulangerie and munched on the ends as we walked back home. We sunbathed alongside locals after leisurely picnics in the neighbourhood’s parks. We drank tiny cups of strong coffee standing at the counters of cafes. We pretended we spoke French as we bought a block of comté from the fromagerie down the road. We fought our way through the crowds in Belleville’s market past mounds of peaches and plantains, olives and spices. We wandered down graffiti covered alleyways and through hidden courtyards. We marvelled that Parisians weren’t rude at all, as we’d heard.
We had a taste of what it was like to live in Paris yet we were only there for three nights. We’d visited Paris before, 13 years ago, and had seen the classic sights then, and on this trip, in August, we couldn’t face the crowds of the tourist attractions and we wanted to experience a different side to the city.
We ended up in Belleville by chance. It was the cheapest apartment we could find on Airbnb, far cheaper than a hotel, and it provided a comfortable place to work and allowed us to make our own food. Staying in Belleville turned out to be a blessing, not an inconvenience. We did make the 45 minute walk into the centre one evening to walk along the Seine and over to Notre Dame, and eat falafel sandwiches in the Marais, but we were happy to leave the crowds behind and return to our neighbourhood.
Belleville is a working-class neighbourhood of immigrants and artists on a series of hills in the north-east of the city. You’ll find Chinese shops, Vietnamese restaurants, French fromagerie, Algerian bakeries, and Jewish-Tunisian couscous restaurants. It’s grittier than the centre of Paris, the architecture isn’t as grand, and graffiti covers the streets, not all of it good.
You don’t forget you are in Paris though. As you walk down Rue de Belleville people of all cultures clutch their baguettes and you get glimpses of the Eiffel Tower down below. For the best views of the city skyline head to the flower filled Parc de Belleville. Parc des Buttes Chaumont is another good spot for a picnic.
To get to know the neighbourhood better we took a self-guided Soundwalk audio tour ($1 to download as an mp3). The premise was that we were helping the guide Florence find her missing musician boyfriend Spleen by visiting their old haunts. Involving music and spoken word it was more of an immersive story telling experience than a tour and we just happened to explore the neighbourhood along the way.
We stopped in cafes, passed mosques, bakeries, Arabic bookshops, the morning market, graffiti lined streets, and leafy squares. She even gave us access codes to apartment buildings so we could (pushing our comfort zone) gain access to explore their hidden courtyards. The tour is from 2009 so not everything was up to date (one access code didn’t work and a few businesses were closed) but it was a unique way to delve deeper into the area.
Exploring Belleville was the kind of travel we love. We’ve written before about the benefits of slow travel, about freeing yourself from the pressure to see everything and just experiencing a place. You don’t need months to practice these slow travel ideas, for us it was the perfect way to spend our few days in Paris. Not that we don’t want to return for longer of course…
We weren’t in Belleville long enough to claim to know it well but here are a few tips.
- We rented our apartment on Airbnb for £40 a night (including Airbnb fees). The apartment is no longer available but there are plenty more. Sign up for Airbnb using this link and get $35 credit.
- There are plenty of excellent boulangeries down Rue de Belleville but one of the best and with a wider selection is Boulangerie 140 at 140 Rue de Belleville. It is more expensive than usual at €1.40 for a baguette, but still a bargain for such tastiness. The pastries are also delicious here.
- We bought our pungent chunk of comtè at Fromagerie Beaufils at 118 Rue de Belleville.
- The market is held every Tuesday and Friday morning along the Boulevard de Belleville.
- You can reach Belleville by bus 26 in about 20 minutes from the train stations Gare du Nord and Est. It’s €2 on the bus (you need change) or €1.70 if you buy a metro/bus ticket in advance.
- There are also a couple of metro stops in Belleville. From Belleville station it’s only five stops from Hôtel de Ville in the centre.
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