Canal Saint-Martin: A River Cruise in Paris

Who knew that there were canals in Paris? Not us, until, on our umpteenth trip to Paris we were looking for something new to do outside to ward off the jet-lag from our first post pandemic trip across the Atlantic. On a beautiful sunny day in Paris we took a cruise on the Canal Saint-Martin.

Seine River cruises are obviously more popular, as they pass by the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre-Dame and other popular sites (and the dinner cruise timed correctly allows you to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up!). Further away from the city center, there are three canals in and around Paris:

  • Canal de l’Ourcq.This canal is 108km long, going away from Paris from the Parc de la Villette, where it meets with the two canals below. Originally surveyed by Leonardo da Vinci, the canal proper was built in 1822.
  • Canal Saint-Denis. This canal connects the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine 6.6km away. It was completed in 1826.
  • Canal Saint-Martin. This is the canal our tour was on, running from Parc de la Villlette to the Musée d’Orsay. It was originally designed to by-pass Paris when the Seine was dry. It was completed in 1825. It is 4.5km long, with 2.5K of it running underground.

We used a company called Paris Canal, which had a narrator in both French and English The tour goes both ways (to or from the Musée d’Orsay), but we chose the 2:30pm route that went from the Parc to the Seine.

Brewery on Canal Saint-Martin

One reason for our departure choice was to have lunch at a brewery on the canal. One might think (and we were guilty of this) that eating at a brewery while in Paris where delicious dining choices abound is a bad decision. But eating at the Paname Brewing Company on the canal did not disappoint. It is an easy walk to the canal cruise pickup point in the Parc and the food as well as the view were quite good. We took an Uber from our hotel in the center of Paris and had a leisurely, relaxing lunch.

View from the deck at Paname Brewing Company

We passed by the brewery a bit later on the boat. There is a covered deck area (we sat right on the water) plus indoor seating if you choose.

Deck at Paname Brewing Company from the deck of the canal boat

As you can tell from these and other photos in this article, there are sidewalks along both sides of the canal almost all the way (except of course for the underground part!). There were a lot of people out, many having a lunch sitting on the side of the canal. It looked like a great place for further exploration on our next trip to Paris.

The Locks and Bridges

The map below is from Paris Canal’s website. It shows the locks we went through and the part that goes underground before the canal intersects the Seine.

Map of Canal Saint-Martin cruise

We boarded the boat at the Parc (denoted by the blue anchor icon at the top right of the map), and got a seat on the first level near the front. The first “obstacle” we encountered was a very cool lift bridge (see video below), which was just north of the brewery where we ate.

In the video above, and from the brewery deck where we had lunch, one can almost make out the building in the photo below – the Rotonde de la Villette.

Rotonde de la Villette

The Rotunda was originally built between 1784 and 1791 as a toll barrier, part of the Farmers General wall. This wall was not for defense but to collect tolls on goods coming into Pairs. It is one of only a handful of structures of its type still standing in Paris.

Shortly after passing the Rotunda, we came to the first set of locks. There are nine locks total, grouped into five separate locks (as can be seen on the map above) – 2 locks each in the first four, and the ninth lock giving access from the canal to the Seine. The locks drop the boats that come through a total of 24 meters on the way to the Seine.

Locks Canal Saint-Martin
Passing through the first of two locks (photo by Audrey)

Many of the locks had walkways alongside and bridges overhead where people would stop and watch our boat and others pass through. There was even a playground of school kids who stopped,playing and waved.

Bridge over lock Canal Saint-Martin

The locks along Canal Saint-Martin were not as varied and decorated as the ones we saw along the Volga River during our river cruise from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. But the shores were much more picturesque.

The cruise takes 2.5 hours, and most of that is certainly spent navigating the locks.

There were some bridges to pass under as well along the canal.

Short tunnel Canal Saint-Martin

But, of course, none of those were as long as the 2.5km passage underneath busy city streets and the Bastille.

The Underground

After passing through all but one of the 9 locks, our tour of Canal Saint-Martin then entered the long underground passage. Part of this passed under the Bastille, where more than 500 people who died during the 1830 revolution are buried. A video of part of our passage through is below.

There are several regularly spaced circular skylights. The light from these combined with the lighting in the passage provided for some interesting photos.

Into the Seine

Coming out of the underground part of Canal Saint-Martin, we entered the Seine River. The cranes involved in the restoration of Notre Dame after fire were immediately visible as the boat turned up river. Our most recent trip to Paris before this one was nine days before the fire in April 2019 (photos of that visit here).

Notre-Dame under construction after entering Seine from Canal Saint-Martin
Notre Dame in the distance

The Seine River cruise we’d been on in previous visits went mostly in the other direction, toward the Eiffel Tower. Coming from this direction we were able to view some of the hotels and residences on the Ile Saint Louis.

The walkways along this part of the Seine, further from the Louvre and other attractions, seemed less crowded, more peaceful.

There are ten bridges from where the Canal Saint-Martin enters the Seine and the Musée d’Orsay, our point of disembarkment.

We have a picture of the clockface at the Musée d’Orsay hanging on our walls. So it was a very appropriate place to dock and leave our canal cruise.

Musée d’Orsay

After the cruise we walked over to see if the restoration on Notre-Dame was visible, but the barriers around the cathedral made it difficult to determine what progress has been made.

The barrier that you can see behind us in the impressive selfie above is a comic-like story of the restoration. I hope they finish it in our lifetimes – as even though we have visited this place many many times it would be good to climb up and say hello to the gargoyles once again.

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