For 800 years, Paris was fed by the acres of food halls overflowing with meats, fish, and vegetables that made up this district. Sensuously described in Émile Zola's novel The Belly of Paris, Les Halles was teeming with life—though not all of it good. Hucksters and homeless shared these streets with prostitutes (who still ply their trade in diminishing numbers on nearby Rue St-Denis); and the plague of cat-size rats didn't cease until the market moved to the
suburbs in 1969. Today, you can still see stuffed pests hanging by their tails in the windows of the circa-1872 shop Julien Aurouze (8 rue des Halles) whose sign, Destruction des Animaux Nuisibles (in other words, vermin extermination), says it all. All that remains of the 19th-century iron-and-glass market buildings, designed by architect Victor Baltard, is a portion of the superstructure on the southern edge of the Jardins des Halles. The Fontaine des Innocents, from 1550, at rues Berger and Pierre Lescot, marks the site of what was once a vast cemetery before the bones were moved to the Catacombs.
After years of delays, Les Halles is undergoing one of the city's most ambitious public works projects: a sweeping €500 million renovation that will transform the plaza, and the much-maligned underground concrete mall called the Forum des Halles, into a place where Parisians actually want to go. While the project was not without opponents, most Parisians are happy about the prospect of a prettier Les Halles—even if they have to wait until 2016 for the end of it. In an echo of the past, a 48-foot iron-and-glass canopy will cover the entrance to the mall in 2015, flooding light into the stores below. Aboveground, the renamed Jardin Nelson Mandela has already transformed a once down-and-out patch into a verdant 10-acre space dotted with trees, decorative pools, and play areas for kids. On the northern end, a redesigned Place René Cassin is surrounded by tiered steps centered around a newly scrubbed L'Ecoute, the giant head and hand sculpture by Henri de Miller. Looming behind is the magnificent church of St-Eustache, a Gothic gem. Film buffs with time to spare can stop by the Forum des Images, with some 7,000 films available for viewing on individual screens. To find it, enter the mall on the side of the church at the Porte St-Eustache.
The streets surrounding Les Halles have boomed in recent years with boutiques, bars, and restaurants galore that have sent rents skyrocketing. Historic rue Montorgueil is home to food shops and cafés. Running parallel, rue Montmartre, near the church, still has a few specialty shops selling foie gras and other delicacies, though these merchants, like the butchers and bakers before them, are slowly being pushed out by trendy clothing boutiques.
Garden entrances on Rues Coquillière, Berger, and Rambuteau. Mall entrances on Rues Pierre Lescot, Berger, and Rambuteau, Paris, 75001, France