Each year millions of visitors flock to Paris with itineraries centered on a three-mile stretch along the Seine River, flanked by renowned monuments: Notre-Dame cathedral, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. But there’s much more to the French capital than such familiar postcard sights.
Greater Paris, with a population of 11 million, is one of the biggest cities in Europe. As such, it offers a world of discovery beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, the ring road completed in 1973 that has become as much a mental barrier as a thoroughfare, shrinking Paris to a Seine-centric perspective.
A project called the Sentier du Grand Paris (“Greater Paris Trail”) helps break down this barricade, enlarging the map to suburban places often overlooked—or misunderstood—by both visitors and locals. Inaugurated in 2020 after three years of mapping, this network of urban hiking trails now stretches more than 320 miles in 39 stages, or sections, throughout greater Paris, each designed as a day hike.
Detailed in a (French) guidebook and the Avenza Maps app, the sections are in the shape of a clover and easily accessed by metro and suburban RER trains. In fact, the Sentier’s creation coincides with the ambitious public transport expansion known as the Grand Paris Express, slated for completion in 2030 at an estimated cost of 23 billion euros.
The trail was the brainchild of a philosophical quartet: Jens Denissen (urbanist and landscape designer), Denis Moreau (artist), Baptiste Lanaspeze (book publisher), and Paul-Hervé Lavessière (urbanist geographer). As part of Metropolitan Trails, the project aims to create a new type of public space, “an open-air cultural center,” via urban hiking.
“Walking is both a way of discovering a place and also being part of its fabric,” explains Denissen, who’s led collective public walks in the suburbs since 2014. With a sense of curiosity and observation, the walker can perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary. “It’s a process of permanent exploration.”
As a Paris resident, I’ve embraced walking as both a pastime and practicality. But I had never kept hiking beyond the beltway. Walking portions of the Sentier over the course of several months, I discovered that the trail prompts us to rethink the long-standing historical narrative about Paris’ origin story on the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine where the Romans established the city of Lutetia atop a settlement built by the Parisii tribe.
After the archeological discovery of a prominent Celtic site in Nanterre, some scholars argue that the Celtic capital was not in present-day Paris—but in today’s suburbs.
A walk through history
On each hike I traversed the centuries, the Sentier illuminating a cross section of French history and society. Place names themselves allude to antiquity: the river Marne has Celtic origins, as does Créteil, later absorbed into Latin under the Romans.
I saw a mosaic of landscapes peopled by diverse communities and studded with innovative architecture, from the Palace of Versailles (17th century) to architect Emile Aillaud’s noodle-like Les Courtillières housing complex in Pantin (1950).
On Stage 20, I explored the medieval Chateau de la Madeleine, a fortified hilltop castle overlooking Chevreuse village and the bucolic countryside. On Stage 9, I learned about the transformative effects of industrialization on what had been a major hub in the Middle Ages through sites like Basilica Saint-Denis.
The centuries-old necropolis for the French monarchs was the birthplace of Gothic architecture and the inspiration for Notre-Dame cathedral. Even earlier, the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis was an important gathering place for Celtic tribes. “Historically it was central and now it’s been marginalized,” explains Denissen.
On Stage 11, I walked sidewalks, Marne-side footpaths beneath weeping willows, and even pedestrian tunnels under autoroutes to discover the École du Breuil. Tucked at the eastern end of the Bois de Vincennes park, this 19th-century training academy for the city’s gardeners holds magnificent gardens facing the Paris Arboretum with hundreds of tree species.
But Stage 24 became my favorite. I began the day at Josephine Bonaparte’s Château de Malmaison, the lovely country estate the empress shared with Napoleon. Following the Seine, I passed the shuttered paper factory once famous for printing Le Petit Parisien (the world’s biggest circulation newspaper with 1,300,000 copies in 1904), now being converted into an eco-friendly business district called the Campus Arboretum.
From Nanterre University, the heart of France’s 1968 student uprising, the path leads through the Parc André-Malraux, constructed in 1971 on what had been a slum inhabited by Algerian workers, and concludes at the monumental Grande Arche in the skyscraper bastion of La Défense.
An extension of the historic axis of Paris, just to the west of the Arc de Triomphe, this arch, a “window open to the world,” took 2,000 workers four years to build. It was inaugurated in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Mapping the megalopolis
During the surveying process (the step before plotting the map), the Sentier’s founders worked with local communities to ascertain the best route and sites to include. “It wasn’t just a line on a map,” explains Denissen. “An important dimension was the story of the people we met along the way.”
“We called it the grande caravane,” Lavessière says of the survey process. It had morphed to include photographers, journalists, and sound designers who embarked on two-day expeditions to trace hypothesized sections of the Sentier, testing and modifying the route as they went.
The first version of the map was a triangle connecting Saint-Denis, Creteil, and Versailles. It was enlarged to include the five so-called Villes Nouvelles (New Towns), symbols of the region’s 20th-century urban development representing the dawn of Greater Paris. A utopian effort to create self-functioning cities in the suburbs and thereby contain sprawl, the New Towns were linked by the newly built RER trains.
The final Sentier map is shaped like a trilobe, the three interlocking arcs paying homage to both the Celtic origins of Paris and medieval Gothic architecture found along the route. Soon the Sentier team will create trail links into the heart of Paris at Châtelet-Les Halles—a central train hub connecting several lines. There’s hope that signage, despite the administrative challenges, could eventually be added on the trails.
Along the way, the Sentier exalts the history of hiking culture by crossing other paths, including the Grande Randonnée (GR) routes that traverse France. “We make an open door to existing trails as a tribute to the hike and its history. Hiking was invented in the 19th century as a way of getting out of the industrial city, by [community] groups like ‘Les Excursionnistes’ in Marseille who would go to the Calanques [a national park],” says Denissen.
The Sentier builders also found inspiration in 20th-century figures, such as American land artist Robert Smithson, who organized guided industrial tours of New York, and the Stalker collective, which began exploring the abandoned wastelands around Rome in the 1990s.
The real Paris
Over time as Paris grew, it externalized its functions: defensive fortifications in war, agricultural fields for food, and death itself as graveyards were moved outside the city limits. As such, the Sentier doesn’t shy away from the industry and infrastructure that has made Paris what it is today: the highways, Napoleon’s canal system, the factories.
There’s a philosophical approach in encouraging walkers to rekindle the connection to what’s around us. In some ways it’s also political. “Walking is a way of taking care of this land, raising consciousness of hidden natural areas … pondering how to protect fertile fields from mega development,” says Denissen.
It was under Baron Haussmann in the 19th century that urban planning incorporated reflection about the city’s metabolic life: a new sewer system channeled wastewater to fertilize fields on the Plaine Saint-Denis, while aqueducts carried fresh water from sources far away.
One fine spring day on the Sentier I found myself walking for the first time next to the Vanne Aqueduct south of Paris. In its design, engineer Eugène Belgrand was inspired by ancient Roman aqueducts, a straight stone conduit channeling water for more than 107 miles from Burgundy.
The aqueduct slices through the landscape, much like the trains speeding Paris-bound passengers through the “ride-over” country of the suburbs. But on that day, I was in no hurry as I strolled alongside the looping stone arches of the 19th-century landmark. Flowers and plants had taken root beside it, yet another example of how beauty, history, and industry merge on these trails.