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CULTURE

Ten unusual Paris museums you should definitely visit

The outdoor weather is clearly over, so why not check out some of the best indoor treats in Paris? Here are some museums you may not have heard about before.

Ten unusual Paris museums you should definitely visit
Photo: Musee de Magie

The Musée des Arts Forains (Carnival Arts Museum)

This one takes full advantage of the sinister mystery of an old-time carnival. Think grimaces on the faces of carousel horses, ageing mechanical games and creepy organ music. But it’s also very interesting in that it documents a dying art and a tradition most people only know from movies. The museum is on the Avenue des Terroirs de France in the 12th arrondissement.

Entry: €16

The Catacombs

How could we not mention the Catacombs?! It’s a series of chilly underground chambers with low ceilings and the neatly stacked bones of some six million Parisians. There is an incredible explanation for this remarkably macabre sight. In the late 18th century Paris’s graveyards were gradually being closed because they presented a health risk to the living population, so the authorities ordered the remains transferred underground. You can find it on Avenue Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy in the 14th arrondissement.

Entry: €13

The Sewer Museum (Musée des égouts)

Paris is so proud of its sewer system that the city has created a museum in its honour that is in an actual sewer tunnel. It doesn’t smell as bad as you’d think and it's actually pretty cool. One of the highlights is a display showing the brilliantly simple system engineers devised to clear blockages in the 19th century vintage system. It’s at the Pont d’Alma (Alma Bridge) on the left bank of the River Seine.

Entry: €4.40

Photo: Ignis/WikiCommons

Musée de la Magie (Museum of Magic)

If the magic of the City of Light starts to wear off you can head underground to this spot for a bit of refuelling. This pleasantly creepy spot traces the history of magic and illusionists using antique props, old posters and magic paraphernalia. For a slightly more expensive entrance ticket you can also get into the wind-up toy museum around the corner, which is run by the same people. The Magic Museum in on Rue Saint Paul in the 4th arrondissement.

Entry: €10

Photo: Musee de Magie

Police Museum

Paris’s top police authority, the Prefecture de Police, has its own museum filled with odd weapons, mementos from grisly crimes and lots of photos tracing the City of Light's best-known crimes and the growth of its police force. It’s not a large museum and it is entirely in French, but for crime and history buffs it’s got a great collection of odd antiques. You can find it on Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement.

Entry: Free

Musée de la Chasse et la Nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature)

Set in the midst of Paris’s stylish Marais neighbourhood is a museum that might seem out of place among the fashion boutiques and chic eateries. But the Museum of Hunting and Nature has an aristocratic feel to its huge collection of mounted animals and bizarre hunting equipment like some rather severe-looking dog collars. There’s also the chair made of elk antlers. Find it on Rue des Archives in the 3rd arrondissement.

Entry: €8

The Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine (Medical History Museum)

This is a reminder that no matter how much you may dislike going to the hospital, the profession has come a long way. The terrifying bone saws and velvet lined cases full of stained, sharp-edged metal tools you’ll see at the museum were at one point the latest technology. There’s also a table made with petrified human parts and liquids. It’s located on Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine in the 6th arrondissement.

Entry: €3.50

The Vampire Museum: Musée des Vampires 

There is something about Paris’s ancient stone buildings and museum-like preservation that makes the thought of a primeval race of blood-drinking creatures seem not totally ridiculous. Perhaps that feeling is what gave birth to the Vampire Museum in the town of Les Lilas, which borders the city. It’s a dense collection of old posters and books, cheesy Halloween props and spooky fine art objects. The museum on Rue Jules David is open by appointment only.

Entry: €9


Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

Dermatological museum

The Hôpital Saint-Louis – Musée des Moulages Dermatologiques (Dematalogical Museum) hosts four collections of nauseatingly realistic wax casts of different types of skin diseases.

The museum, which is located on Avenue Claude-Vellefaux in Paris's 10th arrondissement, has more than 4,800 casts.

Entry: By donation

The Musée de la Contrefaçon (Knockoff Museum) 

This one is a bit of a reprieve from the ghoulish and creepy, however it still has an odd edge to it. The museum, which is run by a French trade association, notably puts brand name, everyday objects next to the fake ones churned out by forgers. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to tell the real from the ripoffs. The museum is on Rue de la Faisanderie in the 16th arrondissement.

Entry: €6

 

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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