Cool off in the sticky Parisian summer by exploring one of the French capital’s historic waterways or relaxing by a 19th-century pleasure lake
Paris in the summer is seriously sticky. Most native Parisians flee the city for the coast. But if you are in the French capital in the summer there are plenty of options for cooling off and relaxing by the water.
The first option, and a favourite for Parisians who don’t have a second house in the south of France, is the Paris Plage. In July, the busy roads on the right bank are closed to traffic and covered in 2,000 tons of sand, deck chairs and – soon after - semi-naked French people. You don’t have to lie in the sun and slowly roast. You can play volleyball, take part in a dance class, play pétanque or even do some t'ai chi. Plus there are showers and ice creams for staying cool. The main Paris Plage runs from the Pont des Arts along the voie Georges Pompidou.
There is an alternative plage at Bassin de la Villette, a newly refurbished canal basin with trendy bars looking out onto the water and a new arts cinema. It’s a little further from the centre and so a bit quieter, with a younger crowd. If you want to get onto the water you can here – rent a kayak and explore the canal network going right up to the Cité des Sciences, where there are open-air concerts and free cinema screenings in the summer.
If you don’t fancy canoeing, you can explore the canal network on one of the tours that run up and down the canal de l’Ourcq and the canal St Martin. Paris’s fluvial network of canals was developed by Napoleon Bonaparte, firstly as a way for all to have clean drinking water – or so he thought – and secondly as a way to move produce across the capital. Today, pleasure cruises start at the Bassin de l’Arsenal at the Bastille. The first 10 minutes of the cruise are underground, going right under the Place de la Bastille, where you can see into the hollow base of the huge column that sits in the centre of it. The base houses the remains of victims of the two revolutions and from the boat you can see stained glass windows and a secret entrance.
The cruise emerges into the sunshine and then takes you past the 400-year-old Hôpital St Louis, the oldest in Paris, with its beautiful entrance arch. You can also spot the famous boutique, Antoine et Lili and stop afterwards to have a snoop around and a coffee in their café. On the right you pass the Hôtel du Nord that appears in the 1938 Marcel Carné film of the same name. The hotel was actually modelled on the one created by the set designer of the film, rather than the film taking the scenery from real life. It’s no longer a hotel but you can eat at the restaurant, which has views over the canal.
You’ll also pass the former site of the gruesome Montfaucon gallows (where up to 60 prisoners could be hung simultaneously) as you continue up to the Rotonde de la Villette. This was a gatehouse and one of the last remaining revolutionary buildings in the capital.
This canal tour is a real taste of bohemian Paris that you can enjoy in the leafy shade of the canal St Martin whilst you listen to 40s music and soak up the sights. It’s not nearly as touristy as the Seine cruises and is a great way to see another side to the capital.
For some waterside relaxation away from the centre of town, you can hop on the metro to Porte Dorée for the Lac Daumesnil in the Parc de Vincennes, to the east of Paris. This artificial lake was created in the 19th century and has two islands, Île de Bercy and Île de Reuilly, accessible by two small footbridges.
On the banks of the Île de Reuilly there is a white rotunda with doric columns, on top of a false cave with lots of stalactites and a waterfall tumbling through it. The scene was designed to mimic the style of the French romantic painter Hubert and is framed with weeping willows. Although it’s quite bizarre to find scenery like this just outside Paris (it’s like something out of a Greek myth), it really is beautiful. The best way to enjoy it is to rent a boat and paddle out onto the lake. But if you want to stay on dry land, swing by a patisserie, get some things for a picnic and nab a spot on the grass next to the water.