Parisians are drawn to the water. But so, too, are tourists. Boatfuls of them are ferried north, south, east and west throughout the year, with a steady soundtrack of tour guides indicating “to your left, you will see…”. Give the “Bateaux-Mouches” a wide berth this summer and experience the Seine and Napoleonic canals like a true local. The city’s multi-purpose barges remain stationary during opening hours, so you can come and go as you please with no fear of having to find your sea legs. Whatever floats your boat, there’s a péniche (houseboat) for you, guaranteed.
1. All aboard the Showboats
There are few corners of the City of Light untouched by drama. As far as French culture vultures are concerned, every door is a red curtain. So the quantity of theatre boats in Paris should come as no surprise. La Nouvelle Seine, stationed directly below the Notre Dame, hosts a wide variety of original scripts ranging from stand-up shows to burlesque to more classical forms of theatre. (3 Quai de Montebello, 5ème; Lanouvelleseine.com)
If comedy is your cup of tea, head further along the river to Jardin Sauvage for open mics, WIPs and the occasional English-language set. (10 Quai d’Austerlitz, 13ème; lejardinsauvage.fr)
Along the Paris canal, Péniche Antipode doubles up as a local’s favourite dive bar and the Abricadabra theatre, which is hidden in its hull. Here, you can catch anything from a live flamenco concert on Sundays (from September-May) to experimental theatre. And you can buy half a litre of wine for 7€ – that is, if you’re not fussy about your wine. (55 Quai de la Seine, 19ème; penicheantipode.fr; open every day for lunch and dinner)
Without leaving the 19th arrondissement, you can go to Colombia, Venezuela or even Nantucket, depending on which night you visit Péniche Anako. Named after one of the last surviving members of an Amazonian tribe, this barge strives to explore world cultures through music with a lively schedule throughout the year. Events are all about transmission of song and dance, so be prepared to join in! (Bassin de la Villette face au, 34 Quai de la Loire, 19ème; penicheanako.org/agenda)
2. Books & Biscuits on a Boat
Stop by L’Eau et les Rêves to leaf through a curated selection of books on nature and travel. You can plant yourself down in a cosy corner of this floating library and while away an afternoon in its tranquil hull, watching the canal splosh around through the porthole windows.
As with all good book shops, you’ll find a café serving juice, coffee, biscuits and cakes by day, and wines and beers come the evening. (9 quai de l’Oise, 19ème; penichelibrairie.com)
3. Come on in, the water’s lovely
While it may seem counter-intuitive to build a boat only to to install a swimming pool on it, that is precisely what you can find at not one, but two locations in Paris. The first floating hotel in France, OFF Paris Seine boasts fifty-eight contemporary rooms and a very tempting plunge pool running the length of the restaurant and bar. Hotel guests of the purpose-built barge have private access to the pool for most of the day, but from 5.30pm until 1am, we’re invited for poolside cocktails with the resident golden swan, Marcel (a name we bestowed upon the hotel’s floating blow-up duck).
(20-22 Port d’Austerlitz, 13ème; +33 1 44 06 62 65; offparisseine.com)
Piscine Joséphine Baker is one of the last remaining examples of Paris’ once-beloved floating pools. With views across the river and the roof rolled back in summer, this municipal swimming pool allows you to practice your front crawl on – but notably not in – the Seine. Complete with a dedicated sunbathing spot on the deck for that all-over tan. (Quai François Mauriac, 13ème; piscine-baker.fr/uk)
4. Stock up on supplies
The Marché sur l’Eau is a rare example of using the canal system for its intended purpose: to bring supplies to the city. The actual boat is little more than a platform with a rudder, soon to be pimped out with solar panels. It may not be much to look at, but loaded up with wooden crates it transports fresh produce grown within a 100km radius of Paris to the northern limits of the city several times a week as part of a subscription-only service. (marchesurleau.com)
5. Bottoms up!
There is an abundance of choice when it comes to boat bars in Paris. Of the dedicated drinking establishments, Rosa Bonheur sur Seine is the go-to on the rive gauche. Spread over two levels, its curvy glass façade complements the spectacular turn-of-the-century roof of the Grand Palais on the opposite side of the bank. By day, you can limber up for the dance floor by attending Rosa Bonheur’s newly instated bi-weekly yoga class hosted by Cosmic Yoga France. By night, reflections of the bar’s colourful lights bounce off the river, adding to the party atmosphere where visitors slurp rosé, get down to live music and order pizza from the eighth largest wood-burning pizza oven in the world! (Port des, Quai d’Orsay, 7eme; Rosabonheur.fr/rosa-seine)
For an unexpected evening, track down the Barboteur. This pint-sized péniche bobs up and down the canals throughout the summer months, turning the quays into ephemeral terraces along the way. You can order drinks directly from the upper deck, which it occasionally shares with live musicians or DJs spinning funk LPs. Wherever it does weigh anchor, it’s not hard to spot: its cartoonish proportions and mustard yellow paint job wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson movie. (140 Quai de Jemmapes, 10eme; canal-barboteur.com)
Along the eastern stretch of the Seine, you’ll find no shortage of throbbing DJ sets, cult band-themed nights and live concerts. Despite the sudden closure of veritable nightlife institution Concrete, you can still let loose on the dance floor at Petit Bain until the metro re-opens in the morning. (7 Port de la Gare, 13eme, petitbain.org)
Alternatively, hit up the Bateau El Alamein for an eclectic mix of live performances in an offbeat setting. (Quai François Mauriac, 13eme, bateauelalamein.com/le-bateau)
6. Lights, camera, anchor!
Seafaring cinephiles, rejoice La Péniche Cinema projects independent, international short films, often concluding with roundtable discussions with the directors. What you might end up seeing is a real mixed bag: this institution welcomes all budding filmmakers and cinema collectives to present their work – plus live concerts are sandwiched into the busy screening schedule. (7 rue Jules Valles, 11eme; penichecinema.net/peniche/peniche1.html)
7. Sounds from the deep
Formerly a performance péniche dedicated to opera, La Pop is now a petri dish for sound experimentation. Not only will you find an eclectic array of live artists and sound installations, but you can also attend talks (in French) pertaining to all things audio, posing questions such as “how can a city sculpt a sound identity?” and “what will music sound like in 2050?” (61 Quai de la Seine, 19eme; lapop.fr)
8. Lose the Paris Blues and Sing in the key of sea
If you’re more of a join-er-in-er than a mere spectator, check out the Paris Gospel Choir. The chorus is made up of over 100 members, and audience members are strongly encouraged to join in during their concerts, which take place at locations across the city. Rehearsals, however, are aboard the Péniche l’Alizé on the Seine. While you decide whether or not to sign up for the year, why not linger on the quay nearby to catch snippets of the choirs’ vocal warm-ups. (Péniche Alizé, 11 Port de la Rapée, 11eme; Parisgospel.com/accueil-2)
9. Hunker down in the captain’s quarters
Hotels the world over struggle to achieve a true balance of cool and quirky without compromising on luxury and comfort. A shortcut to all of the above? Stick it on a boat. A surprising number of hotels and guest suites are moored along the river. At one end of the scale, you can spend the night in a homely self-catered apartment with a garden that boasts a barbecue, something that is hard to come by in Paris, let alone central Paris. Or, rarer yet, check into even swankier digs and clink champagne glasses in the six-person rooftop Jacuzzi.
What you get at the other end of the scale depends on whether you’re one of the haves or the have yachts. Le VIP Paris has pulled out all the stops to ensure it offers the utmost luxury. As well as 24 guest rooms, it comprises six suites with their own spa facilities. Every evening from Thursday to Sunday, guests are treated to dinner and a show: the VIP sets sail for a two-and-a-half hour cruise up and down the river during dining hours. The restaurant is also open to punctual members of the public.
10. Take the Captain’s Wheel
Okay, technically this one isn’t a peniche, but for a summer celebration during the day, why not rent a private boat (or two) on the Canal Saint Martin – no boat license is needed! It’s far more affordable than you would think. Rent your own electric boat for up to five people from €40 an hour, or one for seven people for the entire day at €28 a head. They’ll also provide a party hamper with cakes, sweets and refreshments for €7 a head.
(Bassin de la Villette, 37 quai de la Seine, 19ème; find the details at boating-paris-marindeaudouce.com/birthda; open every day, 9.30am-10pm)