Canal Saint-Martin is both a waterway and a trending area of Paris. The former is a 4.5 kilometre long canal that connects the waters of northeast Paris to the Seine via nine locks. Canal Saint-Martin begins where Canal de l'Ourcq pours into Bassin de la Villette up in the 19th Arrondissement, and the first lock is beneath Metro Line 2 at Stalingrad.
Canal Saint-Martin also describes an up-and-coming neighborhood filled with younger Parisians who are attracted to the cheaper rents, la branché (that's trendy in French ), the restaurant scene, and the canal itself. This happening quartier straddles the canal in the 10th and 11th Arrondissements, from the border of the 3rd Arrondissement over to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The streets spreading east and west of the canal are peppered with cafes, ethnic restaurants, and old favorites like Le Verre Volé, Chez Prune, and Hotel du Nord.
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In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the construction of Canal Saint-Martin. His vision was for this canal and others it connected with to become supply routes for Paris bringing in food, fresh water, and other goods. Under the guidance of of Pierre-Simon Girard, a top notch mathematician and road engineer, the canal was completed in 1825.
Barely half-a-century later, Napoleon's nephew, Napoleon III, undertook another massive modernization of Paris by building boulevards, parks, and sewers. When nephew's own engineer, Baron Haussmann, was in the process of creating the new straight-as-an-arrow boulevard Voltaire, instead of just building a bridge over the famous waterway, he sent the canal underground to create Boulevards Jules Ferry and Richard-Lenoir that now run above the subterranean canal.
If you've ever seen the classic 2001 French film Amelie, you may recall the heroine, Amelie herself, skipping stones from an iron bridge that overlooks the canal. Like her, other Parisians love to relax along the canal's tree-shaded banks and you'll often see picnickers, poets, philosophers, and pêcheurs (fishermen) waterside. As a place to see and be seen Canal Saint-Martin is especially popular with the under-30 crowd. Despite its influx of flaneurs (strollers & pedestrians, like us), the canal remains charmingly calm.
As for the fishermen, we hesitate to guess what they might be catching!
It was an odd decision by Haussmann to send the canal underground. In fact, he had to dig the canal lower and modify some locks to accomplish this. Coming from the north, the canal now dips underground near Place de la République and continues on to pass beneath Boulevard Voltaire all the way to Place de la Bastille (passing pretty much directly under the column), dumping out at The Arsenal, where private boats are docked.
This cavern-like passage makes for an extremely interesting canal boat ride. Another positive result is the narrow strip of parks created on Boulevard Jules Ferry and on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. There are paths to stroll along, benches where you can rest, and play areas for children.
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This is a wonderful way to experience both the canal itself and the quarter it flows through. As a bonus, you also get to cruise along the Seine River. It's a leisurely boat ride on the canals built by the two Napoleons, underneath Place de la Bastille, through The Arsenal, and out along the Seine.
We like the afternoon version of this cruise that starts off on Canal du Ourcq in the middle of Parc de la Villette in the 19th. We recommend you take Metro Line 5 to Porte de Pantin and walk through the parc. If you've timed it right you'll be able to stop for lunch at Café de la Musique.
It's a real pleasure to be able to sit back and watch this part of Paris pass by. You'll go through the former port of Bassin de la Villette, through all locks on the canal, and go underground to Place de la Bastille before finally emerging into the Seine and eventually docking near Musée d'Orsay. Two-and-a-half hours of pure relaxation. (The morning tour goes in the opposite direction.)
This historic covered food market — established in 1854 and one of only five covered markets remaining in Paris — is open Tuesday to Saturday from morning till night as well as Sunday mornings. This is the place to stock up on everything you need for your picnic along the canal — cheeses, hams, sausages, prepared fine foods, and a good selection of fresh fruits & vegetables.
Hôtel du Nord was made famous by the 1938 French film of the same name. It's worth seeking out to have a glass of wine by the authentic zinc counter or on the outdoor patio or have lunch in the classic bistro. The young owners have infused a new life into this cafe and restaurant that was once slated for demolition. (Not to be confused with the many accommodations that have "Nord" in their name, such as Hotel at Gare du Nord.)
Le Jardin Villemin
Le Jardin Villemin is a small but lush park on the banks of Canal Saint Martin at the corner of Rue des Récollets and Quai de Valmy (which runs along the west bank of the canal). Head there on a Saturday to see young families enjoying a picnic and sunbathers soaking up the rays. You'll also find a playground, a pond, water fountain and bandstand.
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Le Point Ephémère on Canal Saint-Martin
Also along Quai de Valmy, but closer to the top of the canal, is Le Point Ephémère, a popular Canal St Martin venue for exhibitions, concerts, and events. It also has a lovely rooftop garden restaurant open during the summer months.
Canal Saint Martin by Alfred Sisley, 1870
Born to British parents in Paris, Alfred Sisley was sort of at the tail end of the Impressionists. Even though he spent most of his life in France, you can see in some of his work the influence of those British landscape painters of the 19th century. But Sisley was also influenced by, compared to, and overshadowed by Claude Monet.
Sisley was particularly attracted to water scenes — seasides, bridges, rivers, and by Canal Saint-Martin, and it's his 1870 painting of the canal that's shown here. But that wasn't the only time he painted the waterway. There's another 1872 Sisley of Canal Saint-Martin in Musée d'Orsay. Given that he produced over 900 canvases, it's likely that he did one or two others of the canal.
By the way, one of Sisley's paintings hold the dubious distinction of having been stolen three times, from the same museum, and recovered three times. Allée des peupliers de Moret, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice was first stolen in 1978 when it was on loan to Marseilles (recovered in a sewer), again in 1998 (stolen by the museum's curator!), and again in 2007 (recovered once more in Marseilles). The lesson? Keep your valuable paintings away from Marseilles!
Author Georges Simenon in Paris
Long before the area was trending, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire lived right on top of Canal Saint-Martin, or as near as one can get, on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. Georges Simenon's fictional detective prowled the streets of a Paris that seems locked in the 1930s, even though the books were written right up until the 1970s.
Where exactly on Richard-Lenoir did Maigret live? Ahh, but that is the question that continues to intrigue readers.
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With a great location near Square Jules Ferry in the happening 11th Arrondissement, there's a zen-like vibe at the Gabriel. The common spaces are welcoming with a clean design and relaxing colors. The modern rooms are decorated in a white-on-white palette and the minibar offers antioxidant drinks and teas. It's an easy walk to the Marais.
"Great hotel — probably best value in Paris," a guest opines. She may just be right!
Our Rating — Highly Rated Plus
• 25 Rue du Grand Prieure
• 11th Arrondissement
Despite the name, it's neither in the Marais nor at Place de la Bastille, but near to both on tranquil Boulevard Richard Lenoir. This Canal Saint Martin quartier affordable hotel features a rooftop terrace, garden, and a library. It's just steps from the Metro (Bréguet-Sabin) with easy access to the Marais, the Bastille, and even the train stations Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est.
"Immaculately clean, wonderful staff & delicious breakfast," reads a typical review.
Our Rating — Highly Rated Plus
• 36 Boulevard Richard Lenoir
• 11th Arrondissement
On a quiet street right near Boulevard Richard Lenoir is this homey, comfortable, yet thoroughly modern hotel. This former textile factory was only converted into a modern hotel a few years ago and everything still seems spanking new. It's a good location, near the Metro, and a great value for a comfortable sleep.
"An excellent location whether staying for business or pleasure; warm, friendly, efficient and helpful staff; beautiful ambience and decor. Will definitely be a first choice when returning to Paris." And we give it one of our highest ratings.
Our Rating — Superb
• 31 rue de la Folie Mericourt
• 11th Arrondissement
At Pont Crimée, heading into Le Bassin, photo by Mark Craft
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