The railway La Petite Ceinture, or Little Belt, was the brainchild of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, who together razed much of France’s capital to the ground creating what is now quintessentially Paris with its grand boulevards, butter-hued buildings, trees, and open spaces.
The idea was not only to have a means of carrying goods all around Paris without having to cross the busy city, but also to connect the outlying suburbs with central Paris’ grand railway stations.
In December 1851, upon Napoleon III taking office, the first section of this intramural rail track circling Paris was granted. At its peak, in its 1.5-hour-long circumnavigation of the city, the Petite Ceinture carried up to 90,000 passengers a day in six scheduled trains per hour, and tonnes of goods around and into Paris.
Alas, it was the metro, the first station of which was opened in 1900, that gave the Petite Ceinture the kiss of death. Soon most abandoned stretches started being reclaimed by nature, while a few cargo lines still continued on into the 1980s before being given up on.
Over the last few decades though, the old lines have been slowly rediscovered as vital green spaces, and many stretches are open to the public as walkways, making for a great addition to the more unusual sights in Paris. Of the originally 29 stations 17 remain, and a handful have been reimagined as cafes, restaurants, and music spaces.
When I lived in Paris, I walked the entire perimeter, roughly 20 miles, of the Petite Ceinture, discovering this old railway and stopping along the way at the various restaurants. Here are my favorites, as usual, in no particular order.
1. La REcyclerie
As you step out of the metro at Porte de Clignancourt, you look straight up at the gigantic Red Heart, an installation by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, a sparkling reminder of the cliché of eternal romance in Paris. On your left, you will see what was clearly a former railway station, very unromantically right next to a KFC.
La REcyclerie is one of the earliest reinventions of former Petite Ceinture stations, made, as the name suggests, mostly recycled bits and pieces. Inside, your eye is drawn not only to the enormous windows looking out across the railway tracks, but also to the right, where empty window and door frames make for superb wall decorations.
The seating is a mix of tables and chairs, as is the crockery, as recycled things tend to be. If the weather is good, head outside and try and get a seat by the limited outdoor spaces, which hem the tracks and extend into the restaurant’s own veggie plot complete with beehives further down.
This is a place to eat and drink, with coffee, beer and wine, sandwiches, cakes and plates of risotto, pasta, and a lot of vegetarian meals. Not fine dining, but great fun and a very quirky setting, and perfect for lunch or afternoon drinks outside.
Pro Tip: Cross the main junction and keep walking and you’ll get to the famous Puces de Saint Ouen flea markets.
Formerly the La Gare restaurant whose name is still emblazoned on the old building, this space is now occupied by the Latin American ANDIA. And it has a surprise in store. The pretty little station house simply does not look big enough for a restaurant, but step inside, and you head down to what formerly were the tracks and platforms, now making for a huge dining space under the high roof decorated with great light fittings. The venue is often used for large private bashes such as weddings because the space is perfect for larger groups. That said, you can find a cozy corner for your meal without problems.
The menu spans Latin America, from tacos and ceviche to fish, beef, and staples such as burgers — with guacamole, of course. A must-try, in my book, is the tuna & truffle ceviche, so good! Or, you could just sit by the window of the bar upstairs with a cocktail, and some snacks, popping out on the hour every hour, to catch the Eiffel Tower doing its twinkling thing just down the road, and easily seen from the entrance.
Pro Tip: If you happen to have lunch here, afterward, you can walk along a stretch of the Petite Ceinture starting right behind the restaurant (although the entrance is roughly 150 yards further on), through an enchanted forest, all the way to the next station, which has been turned into the Brasserie Auteuil, see next.
3. Auteuil Brasserie
This sprawling former railway station is a fabulous place to meet friends, sit outside in summer, dance the night away on the roof terrace, or enjoy the cozy interior, the mostly Italian food, and the extensive cocktail menu. Auteuil Brasserie is not a typical brasserie, being a jack-of-all-trades, from a great terrace in the summer looking out across the bustling square in the 16th arrondissement, to its modern restaurant inside, with some lovely interior design notes, such as the leopard wallpaper in the bathrooms, and a hopping roof terrace in all seasons.
In winter, in addition to all the above, it turns itself into a ski chalet complete with snow, polar bear, and ski décor. In summer, try the burrata, between seasons you cannot beat the mushroom pasta with truffle, or the Auteuil pizza, and in winter opt for all the above, just with a glass of vin chaud in attendance.
Pro Tip: From here you have easy access to the Bois de Boulogne, the vast forest with several lakes and ponds, and great walkways. Cross the main boulevard and head past the horse racecourse via the Route d’Auteuil aux lacs to Lac Superior and Lac Inferieur, one of my favorite European lakes; by the way, the names imply upper and lower lakes, not better and less so.
This gorgeous re-invention is one of the latest and one of the prettiest. And one of the furthest away from the center, but I will give you a few good reasons to head down to this spot. In the south of Paris, around Porte d’Orleans, is the station which is now home to Poincon, another multi-faceted venue.
The restaurant is in the open space that used to be the entrance to the station, complete with a mezzanine floor, and is lit through the enormous, floor-to-ceiling rounded windows. You come here for lunch (Wednesdays to Saturdays only), with a small set menu at a great price, or dinner, which takes the shape of sharing platters, little snacks, and bites to be nibbled with some drinks. But what you really come for is the Sunday Jazz Brunch. For 35 euros, you get a selection of breakfast plates, juices, hot drinks, and a lot of live music.
The atmosphere is great, and the setting is even better. There is a little history of the building and before and after pictures at the entrance, showing you just how well they have done to make this venue so nice after some 74 years of being abandoned.
Pro Tip: Poincon lies between Porte de Vanves, with its great weekend flea market along and around Avenue Marc Sangnier, a wonderful market with all sorts of treasures, and Parc Montsouris, one of my favorite parks in Paris. You can easily walk between the three venues, or hop onto the tram for a couple of stops. Did you even know that there are trams in Paris? And they pretty much follow in parallel to the Petite Ceinture as a more modern version. Normal metro tickets work with the trams.
5. Le Hasard Ludique
In the north of Paris, near the metro stop of Porte de Saint-Ouen, one stop anti-clockwise from La REcyclerie’s Petite Ceinture station, lies Le Hasard Ludique, a very different concept from Poincon, if also a brunch hotspot. A great place to grab some good food, just not necessarily in a fine dining setting. Instead, this mix of café, restaurant, and music venue, offers a hip, young vibe and is absolutely bursting at the weekend for Le Brunch and in the evening for light meals, drinks, and some live music.
Set in one of the smallest station buildings of the lot, the venue also uses the stairs down to the platforms, which offer additional space. And it is in this space that in December, a little Christmas market takes place. On the platforms of the former Petite Ceinture, making for quite a unique setting. The market is more alternative than traditional, more local arts and crafts than mass-produced, but, if you find yourself nearby around Christmas time, it’s worth stopping at.
Pro Tip: A brief walk away lies the romantic, and utterly hidden away Cité des Fleurs, a must-visit spot for a dreamy stroll while looking at some wonderful Parisian real estate that even comes complete with gardens. Right there in Paris!