By Bryan Pirolli in Paris—
Paris’ Belleville neighborhood is not exactly on the beaten path, but it’s a great opportunity for travelers to experience a less touristy side of the City of Lights. Of course the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre are must-see sights, but graffiti art and Vietnamese food can offer a different kind of insight (and be a reprieve from the tourist crushes).
Belleville was actually a wine-growing town outside of the Paris city limits. Incorporated into the city during a geographic growth spurt in 1860, its working class population rebelled actively against the government, especially during the Paris Commune of 1871.
The generally liberal neighborhood welcomed a slew of immigrants during the last century, notably Armenians, German Jews, Algerians, and Tunisian Jews. A heavy concentration of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants gives the entire area a “Chinatown” vibe, although the multicultural influences remain present in stores, religious establishments, and restaurants.
A cheap place to live for many students and immigrants, Belleville also offers the budget-conscious traveler plenty of ways to enjoy an afternoon in Paris. Head up rue de Belleville from the Belleville metro station, serviced by lines 2 and 11, and let the exploration begin!
Local eateries in Belleville reflect the various ethnicities of its inhabitants, but the Asian cuisine is one of the biggest draws. Just below the metro station Belleville, on rue Louis Bonnet, several Vietnamese/Chinese restaurants (because one ethnicity is just too limited) offer classic dishes like pho and bo bun for well under €10. Tin Tin (17 Louis Bonnet, 75011) is a personal favorite.
Heading up the rue de Belleville, there are countless Asian places to choose from:
Restaurant Gui Xing (47 rue de Belleville, 75019) offers homemade dumplings, called raviolis. A filling plate of 15 pieces costs just €6 and you can watch them be made by the grandmother in the kitchen.
Chez Yu (40 rue de Belleville, 75020) offers €3 sandwiches packed with meat and vegetables if you want to eat on the go.
Rouleau de Printemps (42 rue de Tourtille, 75020) serves up filling dishes for around €5-7 off the main drag.
The Little Sparrow
One of the most iconic cafés in the neighborhood, Café aux Folies (8 rue de Belleville, 75020), is a happening place on weekends, especially in warmer months when the terrace fills up. France’s most famous singer, Edith Piaf, known as the “Little Sparrow,” once performed here early in her career.
A local celebrity in Belleville, Piaf was allegedly born under a lamppost at 72 rue de Belleville in 1915. Her legend lives on through her music (and in Marion Cotillard’s 2007 Oscar-winning performance in La Vie en Rose) but, sadly, the lamppost is gone.
A Bit of Culture
Soak up a little culture by exploring the bohemian vibe of Belleville. The rue Dénoyez is a legalized haven for graffiti artists with ever-changing murals and installations. The small street is home to several galleries and tucked away cafés as well.
Just up the street is the Cabaret Populaire (103 rue Julien Lacroix, 75020, Web site), a creperie, bar and slam-poetry venue. English speakers are welcome to perform or just kick back and listen with relatively cheap drinks in a friendly environment. Performances range from dance and poetry to acoustic blues and stand-up.
Shopping and Markets
Every Tuesday and Friday the boulevard de Belleville, starting at the Belleville Metro station, becomes a huge outdoor market. Influenced heavily by its Asian and North African residents, the market offers an enormous selection of food from all over the world, but the prices are what attract most market-goers. Incredibly inexpensive fresh produce and fish packs in the crowds, but the pushing and shoving doesn’t seem to bother the locals very much.
Heading up rue de Belleville, the street is lined with stores and bazaars selling everything from cookware and Asian decorations to art supplies and American-style Halloween costumes. If you need something, you’ll probably be able to get it at one of these stores for the best price in town.
At the end of the adventures, if you aren’t too tired from walking up and down the steep rue de Belleville, head to the Parc de Belleville, a tiny patch of green. Take a seat and soak up the city’s rooftop views. It’s a great way to round off the afternoon.