I discovered Paris's Parc de la Villette on a boat trip run by the Canauxrama company. Starting from the banks of the Seine, our boat headed up the canal past Bastille and Saint Martin before emerging into a world of shiny metal, strange red towers and endless bridges. Yet we were still in Paris- how could this be?
Built on the former site of the city abattoirs, the park contains 33 hectares of green space making it the largest of its kind in Paris. The park is also home to a concert facility (the Cité de la Musique) and a science and technology museum (the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie). As most of the park was built in the mid-1980s, it's a marked contrast to the nineteenth-century architecture of Paris but if you're tired of queuing to get into silly red windmills and tall iron girders (as I was), Villette provides the perfect escape.
Metro- definitely the fastest and most convenient option as Parc de la Villette is reachable on two of Paris's metro lines. Metro line 5 (the orange one) stops at 'Porte de Pantin' while metro line 7 (the pink one) stops at 'Porte de la Villette'. Both stations are conveniently situated within the park.
Bicycle- the park has plenty of parking points for Velib' bikes (Paris's communal bike hire scheme). The park can be accessed via the cycle path that runs alongside the Ourq canal and links the park to more central parts of Paris.
Bus- the 75 bus terminates at the park and serves areas of central Paris such as Pont Neuf, Chatelet, Hotel de Ville and République.
Boat- Canauxrama offer cruises that take 2 and a half hours to travel from Port de Plaisance near Bastille to the park via the canal Saint Martin. The journey is done at a very leisurely pace and the tour guide will regale you with anecdotes about Paris (he might even play his clarinet if you're lucky). See www.canauxrama.com for further details.
What is there to see ?
L'Argonaute- a submarine of the French navy that's open to the public. You can have a look inside for 3 euros and while it's not an activity for the claustrophobic, the interior of the sub' has been preserved in pristine condition.
La Géode- a giant steel sphere that houses an IMAX theatre. Tickets start at 10Euro50 for adults.
Architectural follies- the park is full of crazy constructions that often serve very little purpose. You'll find an ornamental waterwheel, a giant satellite dish, raised walkways and a huge slide with the head of a warthog. For even an greater effect, come at night when everything is lit up beautifully and street entertainers mingle with those out for an evening stroll.
Exhibitions- the Cité des Sciences has exhibitions that change every few months. When I was last there, they had one about the Gauls- useful if your knowledge of early France is mainly based on Asterix comics! Exhibitions tend to have steep admission prices (at around Euro15) but tend to be very interactive and fun for all ages.
Stuff for the kids- the park is very child-friendly, unlike many attractions in Paris that involve crowds, queues and traffic. Here they'll have plenty of open space to run around in, without a car in sight. There's even a little fairground in the centre of the park with a carousel and candyfloss stall, as well as an adventure playground with giant trampolines.
Gigs and concerts- Villette has some of Paris's premier concert venues including Le Zenith (for the really big names) and Le Trabendo (a more intimate venue). A symphony hall is also scheduled to open in 2013.
Where to eat and drink?
Hamburger Quick, which is France's answer to McDonalds has an outlet next to the Géode. For something a little more refined, Le Hublot (situated on the 2nd floor of the science museum) has traditional French cuisine for around 8 euros for a main course. As Villette is best seen in the summer, my advice would be to take a picnic and enjoy the pleasant surroundings.
Why should I visit?
If you're full up with the delights of Haussmann's Paris, then Parc de la Villette shows that the city has plenty of more modern attractions to offer. It's a chance to see a part of Paris that tourists often miss- the dividing line where the boulevards of old Paris meet the modernity of the banlieues (suburbs). Most of the activities on offer are entirely free and you certainly won't feel like you're in the middle of a crowded world city. Overall, Villette is Paris's guilty pleasure- a place where architectural creativity runs riot and your vision of the city will change forever.