Away from the tourist traps of the French capital bustling with hoards of tourists, a pocket of local Parisian charm still exists in the popular – but less populated – thoroughfare of the Grands Boulevards and Bonne Nouvelle district. Located close to the heart of Paris, this trendy stretch is dotted with theatres, lively clubs and colourful cafes. Perfect for a picturesque stroll, a spot of shopping, or simply to recline with a hot espresso on a terrace as conversation curls away into the air.
Looking west on Boulevard Poissonnière. (Photo: P. Bard via Flickr)
The Grands Boulevards area spans roughly from Opera in the 9th arrondissement to the Porte St Denis Triumphal Arch in the 10th district, although the area is best known for the corridor between the metro stations of Richelieu Drout and Strasbourg Saint Denis.
Perhaps a lesser known area a decade ago, the Grand Boulevards/Bonne Nouvelle district has since undergone some serious hipsterfication, with boutique shops and novelty American-style eateries sprouting between the more established throng of commercial stores and tourist shops.
An ideal alternative to the shopping squeeze of the Champs Élysées, here you may enjoy retail therapy with some extra legroom, as you wander along the boulevards of Bonne Nouvelle and Boulevard Poissoniere. But be sure not to blink or you might miss one of the greatest aspects of the boulevards – its gorgeous arcades.
By sundown, the boulevard is positively buzzing, as bars brim and spill out onto terraces, queues snake into the streets from outside various theatres and a number of nightclubs offer the chance to ‘faire la fete’ and party, Parisian-style.
Step, and shop, back in time
A popular tourist pit-stop in any good guide book, the area showcases the iconic Parisian urban landscape, with large tree-lined roads and towering Haussmann-style buildings. This quintessentially Parisian style was first created when Georges Haussmann was directed to reconstruct the boulevards in the early 1850s by Emperor Napoleon III.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries some 150 passages were also created to allow the rich to continue their leisurely shopping, come rain, hail or shine. With cast-iron glass roofs, encasing a bevy of boutique shops and quirky restaurants, these hidden passageways are like stepping back in time. Aside from the odd umbrella-chasing tour group, the arcades are a much calmer shopping alternative, and one where you’ll be sure to uncover a few treasures along the way.
Take a peek into Paris’ secret passages
Today, only about 15 secret passages remain, including the more notable, ‘Passage des Panoramas’. Through its ornate entrance awaits a charming couloir filled with traditional and modern restaurants, jewellery and book shops, and a number of stamp-collection stores.
Directly opposite and just across the road is the elegant ‘Passage Jouffroy’, which wafts with the distinct smell of old hardcovers, thanks to the arcades numerous antique bookstores. It is a great place to find a unique souvenir from Paris’ belle-époque, or a wooden gift at the charming old-world toy store, ‘Le Pain d’Epices’. Feeling a little peckish? Then an absolute must is a seat at the traditional tea room and chocolaterie of ‘Le Valentin’, where you can enjoy chocolate, pastries and tea to your heart’s desire.
Another spot worth the detour is ‘Passage Verdeau’, which is a continuation of ‘Passage des Panoramas’ and ‘Passage Jouffroy’. Built in 1847, this charming passage holds a number of fascinating old-fashioned stores, filled with everything from antique cameras to pristine collectors’ items. There is even a darling embroidery shop, ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’, for those wishing to try their hand at a spot of haberdashery, with embroidery classes also available.
Gastronomic game-changers: The must eats
After exploring the area’s retail side, rest your feet and reward your tastebuds with some renowned French gastronomy. While many of the restaurants in the district largely cater to international tastes, there are a selection of local haunts sure to keep you coming back.
One such favourite is ‘Bouillon Chartier’, or simply ‘Chartier’ as it is known. A Parisian institution for traditional French plates (without the hefty Paris price tag), Chartier is housed within a former railway station. Its enormous yet elegant 19th century dining room, complete with dozens of rushing waiters, recreates the authentic atmosphere of a bygone era. The restaurant was founded in 1896 by brothers Frédéric and Camille Chartier, originally as a cheap workers’ eatery that served up stew. Chartier’s reasonably-sized plates and prices, costing from €2 for a starter, has seen it remain popular with locals and tourists alike for almost 100 years. Though if you’re looking for some intimacy, this may not be the place, with singles and couples often grouped on the same tables.
Another must-try is the little-known, yet popular, Japanese gyoza bar, aptly named Gyoza Bar. It’s true that when in France you should make an effort to eat local cuisine. But as the French say, ‘There is always an exception to the rule’, and if you can make one exception then it should be Gyoza bar. Located down the ‘Passage des Panoramas’, a seat at Gyoza Bar will be sure to deliver fresh, authentic, and affordable fare.
If you’ve stopped and tasted all the wonderful sweet delights of Paris, why not try your hand at making your own, at Paris’ chocolate museum – Chocostory. The gourmet chocolate museum that opened almost five years ago explains the history, process and techniques of chocolate-making, as well as tastings.
For something a little different…
Back along the Boulevard Poissonniere, the towering art deco building of the Grand Rex theatre stands as an impressive sight. The oldest movie theatre in Paris, the Grand Rex is the brainchild of Tunisian immigrant, Jacques Haik. But it was the architects, Frenchman Auguste Bluysenand and American John Eberson, who brought this majestic building to life. By night its bright, neon-red sign lights up the sidewalk, and becomes a great place for star-spotting, with a number of celebrities arriving for movie premieres throughout the year. Though you may not be able to catch the latest blockbuster film, as the Grand Rex is still very much steeped in tradition, with all films dubbed in French.
For guaranteed celebrity selfies, head to the corner of ‘Boulevard Montmartre’ and the entrance of ‘Passage Jouffroy’ to find the rather peculiar attraction of ‘Le Musée Grevin’. Similar to the world famous Madame Tussauds, it is one of the oldest wax museums in Europe, with more than 400 life-size wax figures. Pose alongside Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna, through to historical leaders like Napoleon III. And if you happen upon Mozart, take note of his harpsichord, as it’s widely considered to be the original instrument he actually played. One thing you must be sure not to miss is the ‘Hall of Mirrors’, created in 1900s, displaying an opulent circular ballroom and grand marble staircase.
For the night owls: Theatre shows and bars galore
As the crowds begin to clear along the thoroughfare, the rich nightlife of the Grands Boulevards/Bonne Nouvelle area comes to life. If looking for a good place to have “un verre” there are always the typical tourist watering holes, like Corcoran’s, O’Sullivans and Cafe Oz. But for those seeking a more authentic spot to whet your whistle, then head to Cafe Delaville. An atmospheric bar and former brothel during Napoleon’s Paris in the 19th century, Cafe Delaville one of the most beautiful bars in the capital. Try to stay until the later hours when salsa classes start, followed by the resident DJ who transforms the cafe into a lively bar.
Further down the road, pull up a chair at the sports bar of Sunset Boulevard. Enjoy a beer and game, in a rather grungy but colourful setting, with movie posters plastered across every inch of wall space.
For something a little more high-brow, why not take a seat at a stage show, with the area positively brimming with theatres big and small, such as La Gymnase, Theatre de la Porte Saint Martin, Renaissance Theatre, and Theatre Royal Palace. Here, you can catch a musical, drama or comedy for a reasonable price. There’s one catch, most are in French. There are, however, a handful of popular comedy shows that are fully in English and wholly entertaining.
One such option features the loveably goofy Frenchman Olivier Giraud, in his one-man show, ‘How to Become a Parisian in an Hour’. His very funny, albeit extremely touristic show explores the culture and compulsions of Parisians. Giraud delves into the everyday life in Paris; on the metro, shopping and nightclubs, and contrasts it to American culture. While the jokes are slightly stereotypical, Giraud’s energy is infectious and will be sure to give the abdominals a good workout.
So why not venture off the traditional postcard track and take a Parisian promenade down this truly grand boulevard.