When most people think of views over Paris, they think of the thousand-foot Eiffel Tower, or the top of Montmartre. I beg to differ. My favorite perspectives are the ones I get from about twenty feet in the air. At this level, invisible to those below, I see the detail of life on the street, plus sights not available at ground level. How to get this point of view? My favorites are the elevated walkway of the Promenade Plantée, and L’OpenTour, a hop-on-hop-off double decker bus line.
The Promenade Plantée (officially, Coulée Verte René Dumont) is a re-purposed elevated rail line, the inspiration for New York’s High Line. Built in 1859, abandoned in 1969, the line was saved from demolition in the 1990s by citizens inspired by its architecture. I discovered it by accident a few years ago when I tried to circle the Opéra Bastille building. There was no way around: The south side of the Opéra building merged into a row of brick arches with an inconspicuous staircase on the left. If I hadn’t seen a few people ascending, I never would have climbed it.
At the top of the stairs, a landscaped path extended into the distance. I followed it along rose-covered arches, bamboo groves and water pools. Looking over the side, I watched as, unawares, people chatted in cafés, drivers made their way to the nearby Gâre de Lyon, and cyclists wove among them. I saw surprising architectural details, too, like the sculptures along the roofline of the Hôtel de Police, or the place where the Promenade cuts right through an apartment building.
The variety of people, foliage and weather, and the multiple exits, make every walk different.
In a different vein – if you want to sit down while overlooking Paris, L’OpenTour is the way to do it. Generally, I hate bus tours; I took L’OpenTour because its bright yellow buses made me curious. It was simple: I got on at the stop nearest to my apartment, bought a ticket and picked a seat on the open top. Suddenly, monumental Paris came closer to human scale. I could see the sculptural detail on the Arc de Triomphe, look into the face of the lion statue at Place Denfert-Rochereau, and watch workmen on the sides of buildings.
L’OpenTour has no human guides – riders are outfitted with individual ear buds that plug into jacks at each seat. Its commentary has eight language choices, with depth, attitude, and even songs. My friends listened to the action-filled children’s commentary, hosted by pirates, street urchins and princesses. “It’s a hoot,” said Haley. “Did the adult version have the story about the dead cat?” (Nope!) And what fun it was to peek in upstairs windows.
For me, the magic of L’OpenTour and the Promenade Plantée is the air of invisibility – I’m in the fourth dimension, a clandestine observer of street life: A woman ogles a handsome man; a beggar makes a rude gesture behind a shopper’s back; a workman furtively sneaks a cigarette.
And once in a while someone looks up, spots me watching, and waves hello.
OpenTour Paris has four routes that go to famous and lesser-known sites. It’s good for first-day orientation or more in-depth touring. Some travelers find the lack of a live leader disconcerting, but I love it because I can control my own experience. The cost is 33 euros per day, with children’s and multi-day discounts. For the “above Paris” experience, go on a sunny day and sit on top.
Promenade Plantée is just off the Place de la Bastille. Follow the rue de Lyon on the right of the 1980s Opéra Bastille, to its intersection with avenue Daumesnil. Climb the stair on the left. You can take a short stroll or walk all 4.7 kilometers to the Bois de Vincennes. When you’re done, descend and return at street level, along the Viaduc des Arts. These 71 brick arcades that support the Promenade contain workshops for artisans of the performing arts – costumers, instrument makers etc.
This photo shows the unobtrusive entry to the Promenade. There is a big sign for the Viaduc des Arts, but just tiny ones for the upstairs walk.