Be a Parisian for a Day—Take the River Less Traveled

Port de l’Arsenal and entrance to the tunnel beneath Place de la Bastille. 

We have Napoleon to thank for Canal Saint-Martin. Today, after traditional Sunday family luncheons, many Parisians take une croisière, a leisurely cruise on this idyllic waterway. For about $25, visitors too can float through trendy neighborhoods in the residential 10th, 11th, and 19th arrondissements, where few tourists venture.

The canal still serves as a shortcut from the northern waterways to the Seine, eliminating about 15 navigable miles. Originally, the conduit satisfied Napoleon’s other quest to quench the thirst of 19th-century Parisians and protect them from waterborne diseases.

Upon boarding the barge at Port de l’Arsenal, you’ll enter a convivial atmosphere much like an afternoon pique-nique—a floating one. Kick back, sip a glass of Bordeaux, and watch river-life unfold on houseboats, complete with poodles, lavender-filled window boxes, and péniches, commercial craft laden with freight.

Just as the waves lull you to relax, a traffic light will turn from red to green—meaning you’ll have 18 minutes to make it through an alternating one-way tunnel. The captain urges passengers on the top deck to remain seated. Cruising through a mile-and-a-half long vault beneath Place de la Bastille, site of the prison that sparked a bloody revolution, may seem like a gloomy way to spend a sunny afternoon, but au contraire.

Just a meter or two above the barge’s top deck, sunshine spills down large ventilation shafts, placed every ten feet in the tunnel’s roof. Beams of light reflect upon the water, which radiate golden arcs that illuminate the ceiling like a subterranean aurora borealis. 

Upon departing the tunnel, the vessel enters a watery staircase—a series of nine locks. At each step, doors creak closed behind the stern as the boat snuggles up to louvered gates that loom beyond. Ahead, slats wind open and powerful jets of water gush forth raising the barge approximately ten feet until it is level with the river beyond. The gates crank open, and the cruise continues. This slow, stately ascent of 86 vertical feet—past an 18th-century swing bridge, crescent-shaped footbridges, and ancient horse chestnut trees—consumes much of the 2.5-hour, 3-mile journey.

Converted warehouses and 18th-century buildings along the quai intrigue and the aroma of baking bread entices passengers, anglers, and strollers. Like Amélie, in the eponymous film, a few students skip stones across the water’s surface. 

After you disembark at the Parc de la Villette, a few options await. Leave this tranquil hamlet to return to the role of tourist at Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the largest science museum in Europe. Or stroll among 35 scarlet follies, architectural gems created for no other purpose than amusing decoration. 

Perhaps, like Aimée Leduc, Cara Black’s protagonist and detective in “Murder in the Rue de Paradis,” you might explore nearby immigrant neighborhoods that tourists have yet to discover. To remain a Parisian-for-a-day, choose one of the many bistros and cafés that line this flowing bit of history—no easy task.

You may fall so in love with Canal Saint-Martin that instead of booking a hotel on your next visit, you might rent a barge to explore the many inland waterways of France. Or, like the English Impressionist, Alfred Sisley—view his canalscape at Musée d’Orsay—you may stay to paint landscapes en plein aire, and never leave. 

If you go

Rates for cruises on Canal Saint-Martin range from 15 to 20 euros with discounts for children and seniors. Reservations required. Web sites offer reduced fares for online bookings. Credit cards not accepted. Concessions are sometimes available; bringing your own picnics and beverages is permitted.

Paris Canal | | Phone: 01 42 40 96 97 

Canauxrama | | Phone: 01 42 39 15 00

Departure Points


Port de Plaisance near Place de la Bastille (Metro 1, 5 or 8 to Bastille)

The Seine near the Musée d’Orsay (Metro 12 to Assemblée Nationale or 13 to Invalides)


Bassin de la Villette (Metro 2 or 5 to Jaurès) 

Related reading and viewing

“Murder in the Rue de Paradis,” by Cara Black, a murder mystery set in the Canal Saint-Martin district.

“Amélie” (2001, available on DVD), nominated for five Academy Awards stars Audrey Tautou.