Paris, France: How to beat the queues at 7 great sites

Fondation Louis Vuitton.
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Fondation Louis Vuitton.

The Louvre and La Sainte-Chapelle are fabulous, but those queues and crowds…don't they get you down? Here's an introduction to some of the hidden delights of the French capital, attractions that are both offbeat and off the beaten track.  

BUTTES-CHAUMONT

Grass slopes planted with leafy mature trees drop down to a circular lake. From the lake's centre rises an island with crags, pinnacles, grottos and waterfalls.

It is crowned with a small domed classical temple.

It's as faux as it gets and yet pre-dates Euro Disney by more than a century.

It is the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, one of those design follies they were partial to in mid-19th century Europe (Bavaria's Ludwig II being the movement's high priest).

Wacky architectural touches and the English-style informality of the planting and lawns sets Buttes-Chaumont apart from other Paris public parks, and its location up in the 19th Arrondissement is also off the beaten track.

But it should not be missed.

It's not vast (a comprehensive walking tour will take less than an hour) and is an excellent place to picnic.

For provisions, Botzaris Gourmet is a very good traiteur, or deli, at 6 rue Botzaris near the southern tip of the park. Try the goose rillettes.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumonts, 19th Arr. (Metro stations: Buttes Chaumont, Laumiere and Botzaris)

AU LIMONAIRE

This is the Paris you may have thought you were too late to see.

It's a daggy little haunt, tucked away in the dog leg that is the Cite Bergere.

Au Limonaire is what the French call a "cafe concert".

It serves up a meal followed by a dose of la chanson francaise (a live music act).

The food does not scale any culinary heights – the night we were there the mains on offer were sausages and mash or an indifferent risotto, but nor do you pay much for it.

The point of Au Limonaire is the ambience, above all the music.

Diner density is such that it's hard not to get to know your neighbours.

At 10pm the show begins on a little stage.

We were treated to an hour of Jeanne Plante, a singer in the Brassens-esque, comic music hall tradition.

She was easy on the ear and very funny, the highlight being the rendition of her own song, La Chieuse des Vacances (I'm the Holiday Shit Stirrer).

At the end of the show a hat goes around for the benefit of the artist. Be sure to book.

For information including the upcoming programme go to limonaire.free.fr.

Au Limonaire, 18 Cite Bergere, 9th Arr. (Metro: Grands Boulevards)

The Bibliotheque Nationale.
Rolla Norrish

The Bibliotheque Nationale.

BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE

France's venerable national library (the "BnF") is housed in an extraordinary, though contentious, piece of modern architecture.

Four huge glass tower blocks resembling standing open books stake out the ground, overlooking a sunken forest courtyard.

It opened 20 years ago amid controversy (it cost a bomb with not enough thought given to the storage of fragile books and papers).

The scale and starkness of the exterior aren't for everybody, but inside it's intimate and there's always an exhibition or two worth seeing.

An excellent Piaf exhibition is on until 23 August. 

Bibliotheque Nationale de France, 1 quai François Mauriac, 13th Arr (Metro: Bibliotheque)

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PLACE DE LA CONTRESCARPE

In high season this can get a bit touristy, but it's still a great place to hang out in one of the city's loveliest quarters.

It's a small cobbled square up on the Pantheon hill with cafes on all four sides and in the middle, a fountain with trees.

The scale is village-like, though the waiters and their clientele could only be Parisian.

Ernest Hemingway used to frequent the square (it's mentioned on the very first page of his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast).

You may also recognise some of the surrounding streets from the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris, which features a young Hemingway.

You'll get good bistro food at La Contrescarpe on the shady side of the square. 

Place de la Contrescarpe, 5th Arr (Metro: Place Monge)

FONDATION LOUIS VUITTON

I'm including this recent ravishing arrival to the city's art circuit because it hasn't been around long enough to be on the beaten track.

It's impossible not to be awed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry's building, which opened late in 2014.

Here is contemporary architecture that is at once monumental, playful, user-friendly and very beautiful; corporate money put to stunningly good use.

Incredibly, the building trumps the art it houses, and that's saying something.

Inside you'll find a rich offering of modern art, mostly from the collections of Bernard Arnault (France's richest man) and the LVMH group which he heads. 

Fondation Louis Vuitton, 8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 16th Arr (Metro: Les Sablons)

CHAPELLE EXPIATOIRE

Between Boulevard Haussmann and Rue d'Anjou is a small verdant square, the centrepiece of which is a compact neo-classical temple.

If your visit coincides with a significant anniversary, such as that of the guillotining of Marie-Antoinette, a small knot of placard-bearing royalists might be in attendance.

This was the site of the old Madeleine Cemetery, where Louis XVI and his queen were unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves after their executions.

Twenty-one years later, when Louis XVIII was on the throne, their bodies were exhumed (plus heads – the writer Chateaubriand was present and bizarrely, said he recognised the queen's smile) and reinterred at the Basilica Saint-Denis in the north of Paris.

This "expiatory chapel" was erected to consecrate the original burial site.

Inside there are marble statues of the royal couple (the pedestal of Marie-Antoinette's is engraved with the last letter she wrote) and a black marble altar.

It's a peaceful, contemplative place.

Beneath your feet lie the remains of thousands of other victims of the revolution. Open Thursday to Saturday,11am-5.30pm. 

Chapelle Expiatoire, 8 Rue Pasquier, 8th Arr (Metro: Saint Augustin)

NOTRE DAME DU TRAVAIL

Paris can do ugly too. This has to be one of the most unattractive churches you'll ever see, but its backstory is up there with the best.

Notre Dame du Travail (Our Lady of Labour – a name pregnant with possibilities) was built for the Italian and Portuguese labourers who immigrated to work on the great international expos Paris hosted towards the end of the 19th century.

From their workers' ghetto in the 14th arrondissement, they set off each day to build such leviathans as the Eiffel Tower.

A local priest felt these men and their families should have a church inspired by the nature of their work.

When you enter Notre Dame du Travail you find yourself in a web of exposed structural steel, reminiscent of the city's old railway stations or the Eiffel Tower itself.

The lateral chapels are dedicated to the patron saints of different trades. (Who knew Saint Eligius was the patron of metallurgists?).

A number of art nouveau features, including the organ, leaven the hardcore industrial chic.

Notre Dame du Travail, 59 Rue Vercingetorix, 14th Arr (Metro: Pernety or Gaite)

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Air Tahiti Nui flies from Auckland to Paris two or three times a week, depending on the season, from $2395 return. The airline's French Connection, which offers access to Europe with Tahiti and Los Angeles as optional stopovers, extends to 25 cities including Bordeaux, Nice and Lyon through codeshare agreements with Air France and the country's high speed train network. See airtahitinui.co.nz

STAYING THERE

Brilliantly located on the Left Bank, just a quick walk from the Ile de la Cite, is the recently opened Hotel Les Bulles, which has a champagne theme. Everywhere you look, you see the

bubbles motif pop up in some different way. Four stars, great staff and very comfortable. Double rooms start at around 185 Euros NZ$300). Hotel Les Bulles, 32 Rues des Ecoles, 5th 

Arr (Metro: Grands Boulevards). See lesbullesdeparis.com

The writer travelled courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui and the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.

 - Stuff

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