In a city that seems to be globalizing at breakneck speed, the Viaduc des Arts is a uniquely Parisian place to visit. Located in the Bastille district of the 12th arrondissement, it’s an excellent example of urban redevelopment and a successful transformation of an old infrastructure into a cultural landmark.
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A Bit of History
The Viaduc des Arts was originally part of the Vincennes railway line that ran from the train station at the Place de la Bastille to the eastern suburbs of Paris past the Bois de Vincennes. However, as traffic on the line diminished, the railway became obsolete and was decommissioned in the 1960s.
Following the closure of the railway, the viaduct and surrounding areas fell into disuse and decay. In the 1980s, the City of Paris decided to repurpose the space instead of demolishing the structure (although the train station had to go to make way for the Bastille Opéra, opened in 1989 for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution).
The old railway viaduct, however, became the center of two major projects: the Viaduc des Arts and the Promenade Plantée. Architect Philippe Mathieux and landscape architect Jacques Vergely were instrumental in the transformation of the viaduct into an elevated park and, beneath it, a row of studios, galleries, and boutiques. The project was completed in 1994.
The Viaduc des Arts
Today the Viaduc des Arts is a 1.5-kilometer stretch housing artisan workshops, boutiques, and galleries under the 71 arches of the former railway line. In keeping with the historic legacy of the artisans from the nearby Faubourg Saint-Antoine, it has become a place to showcase Parisian arts and crafts, hosting various trades such as weavers, instrument makers, tapestry restorers, gilders, woodworkers, and furniture designers.
It’s hard to overstate how rare it is for places like this to avoid becoming nothing but pretty settings for the same luxury retail and chain shops seen everywhere else around the world. It doesn’t hurt that the Mairie de Paris (City Hall) manages the property, so they have an interest in keeping artisans front and center. The shops at the Viaduc des Arts are about celebrating the art of making things by hand, preserving traditional craft techniques, and offering one-of-a-kind, high-quality products. It’s an exciting place for those who appreciate art, craftsmanship, and creativity.
The workshops all have large windows overlooking the sidewalk, allowing passers-by to observe artisans at work (which is nice if you’re too shy to step inside). Here’s an idea of what you’ll find at the Viaduc des Arts:
There are many artisanal workshops featuring specialists in everything from musical instruments, leather crafting, and stained-glass restoration to ceramicists, metal smiths, and woodworking furniture makers. Have an old painting desperately in need of some TLC? The Atelier du Temps Passé has been one of the leading art restorers for the past 30 years.
There are several jewelry designers including the Parisian workshop of Cécile et Jeanne , the Hall Couture incubator for up-and-coming fashion designers, and the Mahlia Kent boutique of luxury fabrics is worth a visit if you’re talented with a sewing machine yourself.
Food and drink artisans have joined the Viaduc des Arts in recent years, with Confiture Parisienne (jam-making), Distillerie du Viaduc (gin distillery), and a chocolate concept store, Atelier C. It’s also home to Les Vignerons Parisiens (wine making).
In another nod to modern artisans, you’ll also find Bicloun, which has been restoring and selling bicycles (and spare parts) since 1982. Many of these offer hands-on workshops for the general public interested in learning or perfecting new skills, including We Can Doo and Paris-Ateliers.
There are several art galleries showcasing a variety of art forms, including painting, sculpture, and mixed media works. These galleries often host exhibitions, sometimes featuring the work of the artisans who have their workshops in the Viaduc.
Looking to spruce up your Parisian apartment? Several design studios can be found here, where you can see a range of home decor items, furniture, and other design pieces. Of course, this is the place to go if you need something custom-made just for you, such as brass wall sconces from Mydriaz or Série Rare for your precious pied-à-terre. These studios typically display a blend of modern design amongst more traditional craftsmanship, such as Rinck, which was in a tiny passage in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine since the 1840s before relocating here.
Important Practical Information
It’s important to remember the Viaduc des Arts isn’t a retail center. Artisans keep their own hours which means they might be open weekdays only, closes for lunch, or open by appointment only. As we’re going into the summer holidays soon, they’ll probably be taking much-needed vacations like the rest of the Parisians! So if you’ve got your heart set on one or more of the workshops, it may help to check the official website and call in advance to make sure they’re open before crossing town.
Eating and Drinking at the Viaduc des Arts
In addition to the workshops, galleries, and studios, there are a few large brasseries where you can stop to eat or grab a coffee any time of the day. They all have spacious interiors as well as large summer terraces, which means there’s always a free table even though they’re packed at lunch and for Happy Hour when all of the office workers and locals meet up. Viaduc Café is pretty standard French brasserie. Gamelle is a Spanish tapas style open the latest (until 2am), and has foosball tables and mini-bowling. L’Arrosoir has the most interesting menu (especially if you’re a vegan), but I don’t think anyone comes to any of these restaurants specifically for the food, so keep your expectations moderated and enjoy the atmosphere. 😉
If you’re a foodie looking for more intimate bistros and gourmet dining experiences, there are plenty on the side streets between the Viaduc des Arts and the Place d’Aligre (home to one of the city’s best food markets). Check out David Lebovitz’s and Paris By Mouth’s listings for some reliable recommendations.