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Les Halles used to a bustling hub of activity, famous for its extensive covered markets full of fresh Parisian produce, cheeses, meats, and pastries. It was once described by Emile Zola as “the belly of Paris.” But a modernization project in the 1970’s led to the tearing down of the beloved Les Halles marketplace, replacing it with a garish shopping mall. A visit to the Les Halles neighborhood in Paris will give the visitor a glimpse of a community caught between the glory of the past and a quickly deteriorating modernization project that has led to the infestation of the area with drug dealers, estranged groups of young people, and an overall gritty atmosphere.
Despite its reputation, it’s still possible to find some Parisian charm on the streets of Les Halles during the day, especially if you’re ready to forgo the chic and elegant for the slightly gritty. The remnants of the once bustling market at now contained largely to the area on Rue Montorgueil and its side streets, north of the metro stations. Here you can find some great Parisian clothes and cooking shops.
The area is well known for French cookery shops, with authentic supplies for aspiring cooks and pastry chefs. Try Mora on Rue Montmartre or E. Dehillerin on the corner of Rue de Rivoli and Rue Coquillière for authentic French copper pots and other kitchen supplies. If you’re willing to enter the enormous shopping complex in the neighborhood, look for hand-sewn creations by up and coming Parisian designers at Espace Creatures on the basement level.
Save your fancy dinner out for another time and place, but Les Halles is a great neighborhood for sampling Parisian street food. Grab a sweet or savory French crepe along the Rue Saint Denis.
If you’re looking for a glimpse at the grittier side of Paris, but still want a central starting point for a day of sightseeing, starting at Les Halles may be perfect. The neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by the most famous museums in Paris. Walking southeast of the metro stations, on the right bank of the River Seine, you’ll find the Louvre, and a visit to Paris’ most famous museum isn’t complete without a walk through the adjacent Jardin des Tuileries. Walk across the bridge to the left bank, and you’ll be poised for a visit to the Musee D’Orsay.
If you’re in the mood for more contemporary works of art, walk west from the metro stations and visit the Le Centre Pompidou.
Getting There and Around
Navigating your way out of the Chatelet-Les Halles metro station may prove to be the greatest navigational feat of your trip to Paris. Like a virtual anthill of commuting Parisians, it is one of the largest stations in the city, with underground tunnels connecting multiple metro lines as well as a number of regional RER lines. Depending on what part of the city you’re traveling from, you’ll arrive at either the Chatelet or Les Halles stations via lines 1, 4, 7, 11, or 14. Pay very close attention to the signs, and if you’re conversational in French, ask a passerby for directions, as the stations are connect underneath multiple city blocks, and any number of exits will bring you out to different points in the neighborhood.
It’s worth noting that this station is rife with drugs and pickpockets, and it’s recommended to travel in groups during the evening hours. Ignore unsolicited help from shady characters who often lead tourists astray to abandoned hallways where anything can happen. Women walking alone at night should avoid the garden surrounding the entrance to the metro stations and the metro tunnels altogether and opt for one of the many taxis that line up outside.