What to see in Saint-Denis? If you ask yourself this question, here you have all the keys to know the most attractive corners of this locality located to the north of Paris that proposes us a series of experiences less known and hackneyed, but tremendously interesting. Coming to Saint-Denis is a perfect getaway for travellers who already know the French capital, in addition to the vast cultural offer of the historic centre. In short, a journey beyond the Paris of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre or Le Marais that we all know, and that brings us closer to that other Paris, that of the Parisians, through different cultures and ways of life.
Saint-Denis: a multicultural portrait of the Grand Paris
Whoever looks for more vie en rouge has the wrong itinerary. In Saint-Denis, where tourists are just an anecdote, life is off-road, without artifice and seductively everyday. Without stereotypes, with an attractive mestizaje fruit of 150 nationalities that reflects the diversity and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Grand Paris. Why not visit this part of the Parisian periphery? Paul Éluard, considered the master of surrealist poetry, and the painter Claude Monet already did it in his day.
Where’s Saint-Denis? A stone’s throw from the centre of Paris
Saint-Denis is one of the districts that form part of the Grand Paris, an administrative unit that belongs to the Île-de-France region and encompasses the capital and its metropolitan area. It is therefore located outside the Peripheral Boulevard, the great motorway that surrounds the capital along 35 kilometres and which, with more than one million vehicles a day, is one of the busiest stretches in Europe, and is part of the Seine-Saint-Denis department.
What to see in Saint-Denis: the Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica
The first proof that moving to the outskirts of one of the great ladies of old Europe has great rewards is the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis, a treasure of French history and art. This ancient Benedictine abbey, dedicated to Saint Denis, one of France’s most famous saints and the first bishop of Paris, is considered the cradle of Gothic art as it marks the guidelines for a new way of understanding religious architecture that would soon be replicated in other European cathedrals.
The main precursor of this masterpiece of early Gothic art was Abbot Suger, an influential personage of the time who rebuilt it in the 12th century, turning it into an impressive hymn to light, the means by which the divine reaches the earthly. Exceptional stained glass windows, ribbed vaults, ogival arches that allow greater spaces to be saved, the absence of walls between the chapels of the presbytery, rosettes…
According to legend, Saint Denis was tortured and beheaded in the year 272 in Montmartre – in the current street of the Martyrs – by the Roman authority that feared the advance of Christianity. After his execution, he got up, picked up his head and walked six kilometers to the current basilica that houses his burial. Be that as it may, the abbey became an important centre of pilgrimage that led to the development of the city around it.
Another unique feature of this basilica, which became a cathedral in 1966, is that it houses a necropolis in which most of the kings and queens of France are buried, including Charles V, Catherine de Medici, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In fact, its collection of funerary art is unique in Europe and allows us to see its evolution from the 12th century to the great works of the Renaissance.
TRAVELLER ADVICE → In order not to miss a detail of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis, you can contract with Explore Paris a thematic tour led by an expert of 1h30 duration. And if you want to make the visit for free and avoid the queues that usually form to access the temple, here you can buy tickets without surcharges or hidden costs.
What to see in Saint-Denis, Paris: the Saint-Ouen flea market
In the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, the Saint-Ouen flea market, the largest antique market in the world, also claims our presence. Rather than talking about a market, we could define it as a market of markets that extends over 7 hectares. The best known are Dauphine, Paul Bert-Serpette, Malassis and Biron, but there are many more such as Antica and Cambo -both specialized in furniture- or Le Passage, with second-hand clothes.
In this universe for fashion hipsters and treasure hunters, you can buy all kinds of products from different styles and periods: antique jewellery, decorative objects, furniture, books, collectibles, records, vintage clothes… Visit contemporary art galleries, see interesting samples of urban art, eat, have a drink or listen to a live jazz band are other temptations offered by Saint-Ouen, an essential stop on this tour that gathers what to see in Saint-Denis. A curiosity? It is said that this is where the nickname “flea market” originated. There are two versions of it. The first has to do with the hygiene of both vendors and goods, and the second with the burden of a visitor who, seeing so many people gathered in the same place, compared it to a colony of fleas.
If you don’t want to get lost in its winding alleys and corridors, but you do want to know all its secrets, you may be interested in hiring a 2-hour guided tour. Access: Porte de Clignancourt station (line 4).
In Saint-Denis, life is shown off-road, without artifice and seductively everyday.
What to see in Saint-Denis: the Stade de France
Every footballer who prides himself knows that the Stade de France is an icon of French sport. Inaugurated in 1998 with a France-Spain match, it has more than 80,000 covered seats and hosts all types of sporting events and shows.
If you want to know the backstage of this mythical stadium, sign up for this guided tour. You will be able to enjoy a wonderful panoramic view from the stands, enter the players’ locker room, cross the tunnel that leads to the field, visit its museum, and listen to all kinds of anecdotes about its history, its architecture and the stars that have stepped on its lawn.
The Saint-Denis canal and the Parc de la Villette
As well as strolling along charming streets such as Rue du Farbourg Saint-Denis or Petites Ecuries, enjoying concerts and exhibitions or browsing through markets of all kinds, Seine-Saint Denis also invites us to connect with nature in its parks and green spaces. Two examples? The Parc de la Villette and the canal de Saint-Denis, two essential dates in this compendium of what to see in Saint-Denis.
The park of La Villette, located between Porte de la Villette and Porte de Pantin, is an immense and innovative urban park designed by Bernard Tschumi in which nature, science, art and culture go hand in hand. The City of Science and Industry, the Géode – an exceptional cinema with a hemispheric screen of 1000 m² located in a gigantic steel sphere -, the City of Music or the Cabaret Sauvage are some of its attractions, in addition to children’s playgrounds and paths that are perfect for disconnecting from the frantic rhythm of the city.
For its part, the Saint-Denis canal, which connects the Villette with the Seine, has become a pleasant place to relax, whether walking, cycling or boating. Notice for sailors: from the beginning of July to the end of August, the Festival Verano del Canal (L’Été du Canal) animates the banks of the Saint-Denis and Ourcq canals with cruises, activities for the whole family, workshops and concerts.
A great way to get a feel for the atmosphere in this area is to take a two-hour guided tour of Rue Saint-Denis, an ancient royal axis that connects the central Grand Châtelet with the city of Saint-Denis. You can book it here with Explore Paris. Access by public transport: Châtelet (Metro, and RER).
Where to eat in Saint-Denis?
My recommendation is right in front of the Basilica of Saint-Denis and it’s a classic. This is Le Mets Du Roy, a cozy restaurant decorated with exquisite taste whose name could be translated as “The King’s Foods”. What are we going to find in its menu? Well, basically traditional flavors made with a lot of care. Among its indispensable: the duck magret, the tenderloin of veal Aubrac and the tart Tatin with caramel ice cream. (Rue de la Boulangerie, 4. Metro: Basilica, line 13).
Is it dangerous to visit Saint-Denis?
Although this city is sadly known for the terrorist attacks of November 2015, from my own experience I can say that it is not dangerous to visit Saint-Denis and much less during the day. However, as common sense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself points out, it is advisable to take a minimum of precautions such as not carrying all the documentation, money and cards in one place, being alert when using an ATM, no backpacks on the back or wallets in the back pocket of the pants, avoiding less crowded areas … In short, act with the same caution that you should have around the Eiffel Tower, to give an example. Everywhere there are scoundrels trying to take advantage of the tourists’ absent-mindedness.
How to get to Saint-Denis by public transport?
You can consult all the information on the different metro, RER and tram lines in real time on the website of the public company RATP. These are some of the options you can use to get to Saint-Denis:
Subway line 13 →, Basilique de Saint-Denis
RER D → Saint-Denis station
Tram line T1 → Basilique de Saint-Denis station
Tram line T5 →Estación Marché de Saint-Denis
And so far this journey through the northern periphery of the French capital in search of new cultural proposals and diverse urban geographies. Now that you know what to see in Saint-Denis, would you like to discover what will be one of the venues for the Paris 2014 Olympic Games?