Last Updated on 30th May 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
Few have heard of it and even fewer have ventured along its rusting tracks. Abandoned and left to the elements, the Petite Ceinture is one of those ‘hidden gems’ that remains a genuine secret to this day. The Secret Paris Railway line loops around the city, hence its name (‘ceinture’ is literally translated as ‘belt’ in English).
Once upon a time, Napoleon III wanted a way to encircle the city by rail so that he would be able to easily transport goods and the like around the French capital. And so, the Petite Ceinture, Paris’ secret railway was constructed during the 1860s…
It was so quiet that I could hear my heart beating. Everything was silent asides from the occasional drip, drip of overhead water and the crunch, crunch of gravel beneath our boots. The silence was deafening. And the darkness. I’ll never forget the darkness.
All I could see was the light at the end of the tunnel, tantalizingly close yet so far away at the same time. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, let alone the worn wooden tracks I was traipsing along. It’s hard to believe that all of this was happening in the centre of a capital city. Well, underneath it, to be precise…
What is the Petite Ceinture?
The Petite Ceinture (literally translated into English as ‘the little belt’) is a 19th Century abandoned double track railway that loops over 30km around the city. It trails both above and below ground, some of the longer tunnels stretching for kilometres at a time. So long, in fact, that I have been told on good authority that phosphorous mushrooms grow within the darkest recesses of some.
Glowing mushrooms are not the only secret the walls the Petite Ceinture tunnels harbour: the algae lined walls contain doors, some lead to the outside world above, others down to the hidden world of the Paris catacombs below.
A history of the Petite Ceinture in Paris
The Petite Ceinture had a pretty large role in the fabric of Paris’ history and growth during the late 19th-Century. The steam railway was constructed in 1862 under the direction of Napoleon III’s government and loops a distance of 20km around central Paris.
The railway was officially closed in 1934, and no one has been quite sure what to do with it since. The arrival of the metro and much needed costly repairs put an end to this Haussmannian feat of engineering. In fact, lines 2 and 6 of the Parisian metro approximately cover the ground which the Petite Ceinture had done for the half century previously.
The railway was used until the mid 20th Century to transport goods before being abandoned completely, so no danger of being hit by oncoming trains… It follows roughly the same route as metro lines 2 and 6 today.
Since the 1930s, parts of the railway have been removed, the steel construction melted down for scraps. Parts of the Petite Ceinture have been transformed into the green space of Promenade plantée. Other stretches of track have been converted into wildlife areas and places where members of the public can enjoy a stroll in the silence.
And by silence, I mean it’s really really quiet in some parts of the tracks. Despite standing in the very midst of one of Europe’s busiest capital cities, it’s eerily silent. With tunnels stretching for hundreds of feet under the earth, and much of perhaps this isn’t at all surprising.
How to visit the Petite Ceinture
You could live in Paris for years without even scratching the surface of the city and this is one of those ‘open secrets’ that everyone seems to know about and few seem to explore.
A haven for nature lovers and hipster artists alike, not all parts of the track are accessible to the public (although you will find a number of websites with official and unofficial entry points listed).
Once you leave the track to skip a particularly overgrown passage or an extra long tunnel, it is often difficult to re-find the tracks on the other side… although this is arguably part of the fun (or scary, depending on how you look at it) of walking the tracks.
There are officially three entry points onto the tracks that are legally accessible. Other entry points are not marked ‘forbidden’ or ‘do not enter’ but require scrambling over fences of varying difficulty and climbing through metal gratings.
Tips for visiting the Petite Ceinture
Never ever go to explore the Petite Ceinture on your own: I say the more the merrier! Petty crime isn’t uncommon along the petite ceinture and the dark tunnels can be pretty creepy. It’s also worth noting that decades of neglect mean that some of the tracks are littered with rubbish, while rats are present pretty much everywhere.
When heading out to explore the abandoned railways, be sure to tell someone where you’re going. Lots of the tunnels are underground and so have limited or no phone signal. If you want to explore the tunnels, then be sure to bring a torch.
When we explored the tracks, we had no light and no phone. As such, we literally couldn’t see where we were walking… or what we were walking on! It should also go without saying that you should wear suitable shoes. I personally wore heels and reaaaallly struggled with both the gravel and the tracks!
How to visit the Petite Ceinture Legally
Ever since visiting the Petite Ceinture (the secret Paris railway) for the first time last year with my boyfriend, and subsequently visiting on my own numerous times, there’s been a post I’ve been wanting to write: how to visit the Petite Ceinture legally.
Although large swathes of the Little Belt are illegal and known for petty crime, there is a part that is completely legal to visit, and free as well! There are also two outdoor lifts on site, making the space pretty accessible.
If you don’t feel like climbing over fences, there’s the option to visit for free and completely legally. There are even accessibility lifts on this family friendly part of the abandoned railway.
On the fringes of Parc Georges Brassens (home to one of the last surviving vineyards in the city), you’ll find a little stretch known as the ‘Passage de la Petite Ceinture’ in the 15e arrondissement.
France Travel Information
France uses the Euro (€)
The main language spoken in France is French. Though you can get by with English is more touristic places, it’s always a good idea to learn some of the local language. Bring along a simple phrasebook like this one to help make your travels easier.
The capital of France is Paris. For more information and inspiration, check out our best Paris travel tips.
France uses plug types, types C and E. As such, if you’re travelling from the UK, USA, Canada, and many other destinations, you’ll need to buy an adapter. I recommend buying a universal travel adapter that you can use for multiple destinations (rather than buying a new adaptor for each place you visit).
As one of the most popular destinations in the world, you should always consider booking your accommodation well ahead of time. Check out this website for price comparison details and detailed reviews.
Be careful with your belongings. I also highly advise to avoid wearing a backpack and to instead opt for a crossbody bag like these ones. I personally use a crossbody bag by this brand and love its shape, size, and versatility.
Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A Francophile at heart, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She splits her time between Paris and London and travels as much as she can! Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.