The northern departement of Seine St-Denis, aka 'Le 9.3', used to be the one that best fulfilled the negative image of the banlieue (suburbs), with colossal housing estates like La Corneuve, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Sarcelles – some of the poorest communes in France. There are still pockets of no-go zones, and the estates are still poor, but serious urban renewal projects have immensely improved the areas we suggest you visit in this itinerary (between RER Plaine St-Denis and métro Basilique St-Denis).
Start your day at the world famous Stade de France stadium, built for the 1998 world cup. Football and rugby-crazy kids (and grown-ups) will absolutely love the behind-the-scenes tours of France's handsome national sports stadium. After a quick scan of the museum (photos, football shirts, electric guitars from the rock stars who also play here), the tour begins by sitting in the stands and ends with a runout through the tunnel to the sound of applause. On the way, you can visit the changing and shower rooms and learn about the on-site hospital and prison cells. On match or concert days, tours are not available.
Legend has it that when St Denis was beheaded, he picked up his noggin and walked with it to Vicus Catulliacus (now St-Denis) to be buried. The first church, parts of which can be seen in the crypt, was built over his tomb in around 475. The present edifice was begun in the 1130s by Abbot Suger, the powerful minister of Louis VI and Louis VII. It is considered the first example of Gothic architecture, uniting the elements of pointed arches, ogival vaulting and flying buttresses. St-Denis was the burial place for all but three French monarchs between 996 and the end of the ancien régime, so the ambulatory is a museum of French funerary sculpture. It includes a fanciful Gothic tomb for Dagobert, the austere effigy of Charles V, and the sculpted Renaissance tomb of Louis XII and his wife Anne de Bretagne. In 1792 these tombs were desecrated, and the royal remains thrown into a pit.
This art and history museum in St-Denis is set around the cloister of a former Carmelite convent, founded in 1625 by Cardinel de Bérulle and home to Louis XV's daughter, Louise de France, in the 1700s. Along with displays of archaeology, prints about the Paris Commune, Post-Impressionist drawings and documents relating to local poet Paul Eluard, the most vivid part is the first floor, where items are displayed within the nun's austere cells. The monumental statue at the museum entrance is the oldest piece of art to come from the convent, dating from the early 17th-century.
Built in a former town hall, this is one of the the most renowned theatres in the suburbs. It was built in the early 1900s when it was used for a variety of purposes – prize-giving, political meetings and dances, as well as theatre productions. Jean Vilar and his troupe did a stint here in the 40s, albeit without much success. In 1960 the theatre was christened Gerard Philipe after the famous French comedian who’d passed away the year before. Gradually the place made a name for itself in Ile-de-France’s theatre scene and was eventually made a National Centre for the Creation and Dissemination of Dramatics (Centre dramatique national de création et de diffusion dramatiques). As well as staging musical performances, shows, and exhibitions, the theatre also offers training and workshops, teaching criticism as well as acting.
Grab a bite to eat before heading back to Paris
For lunch there's a gastronomic restaurant, Le Panoramique, overlooking the pitch (inside the stadium; mains from €28, 01.55.93.04.40) or try Le Châlet des Crêpes (23 rue Jules Rimet, 01.49.51.14.69), which serves decent savoury pancakes from €9.
For more information on St-Denis, visit the Tourist Office website. St-Denis is linked to Paris by Métro line 13 and RER B (stop Plaine St-Denis - Stade de France).