There are few areas of Paris as detested as les Halles. Located in the very heart of the city, over the largest subterranean train station in the world, les Halles has been a busy, noisy, messy meeting place for nine hundred years.
As Paris evolved through the Middle Ages, the Ancien Régime and the République, les Halles remained the city’s primary marketplace. It began as a textile and dry goods market, but by the 15th century it was populated by fruiterers, bakers, cheese mongers and butchers at work. Close enough to the Seine to have access to a waste disposal system, but far enough away that it became known for its odours, les Halles was not what you’d call a hygienic place to sell food. Emile Zola described it as le ventre de Paris (“the belly of Paris”). Slaughterhouses that served the butcheries were located right nearby. Until the 18th century, the market’s proximity to the overfull Cimetière des Innocents fuelled stories about piles of bones in the open air giving people respiratory illnesses. By the 19th century the market, like the cemetery, was no longer sufficient to serve the rapidly growing city. Cemeteries and markets sprung up all over Paris, even beyond its official borders at the time. The glass hall that had been constructed to house the Halles market was dismantled in 1971 and the area was transformed into the Forum des Halles shopping centre.
After the site languished for decades as a public eyesore on some of the most prized real estate imaginable, the City of Paris recently poured millions of euros into a rejuvenation project that extended the Forum des Halles to an enormous underground mall, above-ground restaurants and family-friendly gardens. The new les Halles was completed in 2017 and is constantly packed with shoppers and diners. But it still doesn’t feel quite right.
For such a historic district, les Halles could almost be in any city (there’s a lot of American fast food) and although much of the construction is brand new, it still feels stuck in the 1970s. The aesthetic is oddly dated, the atmosphere hectic. But as you ascend the escalators from the station or mall, your gaze is sure to rest on one oasis in the midst of les Halles’ chaos: the Eglise Saint-Eustache.
Built in the 16th century and one of the most beautiful churches in Paris, St-Eustache has a surprisingly low profile when compared with the world-renowned Notre-Dame, Sacré-Cœur or Sainte-Chapelle. But the Renaissance structure is well worth visiting if you are a fan of late Gothic architecture and Parisian history more broadly. Molière, Richelieu and Pompadou were baptised here and the church hosted musicians ranging from Verdi to Liszt. If possible, try to time your visit with one of the organ recitals on Sunday evenings (see times below).
After all my complaining, I’d be lying if I said I never go to les Halles. In particular, I’ve been known to make the stressful pilgrimage there during the January sales. But when the frantic crowds, artificial lights and cramped corridors become overwhelming, I like to step above ground and into the cool calm of St-Eustache. I have a feeling plenty of shoppers over the centuries will have done the same.