"Where are the fan dancers?" I wondered aloud as I descended into a cave-like nightclub-cum-cabaret on the Left Bank. My friends and I sat down across from one another at a long table that spanned the rock-walled room. It was after midnight, and save for one other tipsy group, we had the place to ourselves.

At the far end of the room, beyond an archway, was a small stage at table height. Under blue lights, a middle-aged man crooned a vaguely Russian-sounding pop song in front of a two-piece band. He wore an untucked denim shirt and a blazer, over which his Kenny G-curly hair cascaded down to his elbows.

The Moulin Rouge, this was not.

It takes little persuading to get people to visit Paris, even if they've already been. The city has so much to offer that it takes repeated viewings to take it all in. Besides, once the big stuff is out of the way, there is more time on return trips to go off the beaten path. Which is how I wound up in this basement, wondering whether I'd made a mistake. (Spoiler alert: I hadn't.)

I had been to Paris before, in my early 20s, when I was broke and sleeping on the floor of a friend's studio apartment. It wasn't the chic Paris that travelers dream of, yet I'd still managed to get in the highlights: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, walks along the Seine.

For my return, more than 10 years later, I didn't need to see the landmarks. Instead, I wanted to explore a different, more offbeat side of the City of Lights. The rules I made for myself were:

1. Stay in a neighborhood that does not have a Hard Rock Café.

2. Don't stand on any lines with other tourists to see art.

3. Stay out all night at a "real" Parisian cabaret.

This wasn't the trip for every Paris traveler. But for me, it was perfect. So, if you've already done Paris, here's how to do it again — differently.

Forget Central Paris, go east

Our group of eight, all friends from the gym, decided to share an apartment through Airbnb rather than get a hotel. Because of our size, we couldn't confine our search to a single neighborhood. But when we did find what appeared to be the perfect apartment — spacious, and Haussmann-style glamorous — we passed on it because it was in central Paris, on a busy boulevard with an H&M and, yes, a Hard Rock.

Instead, we chose an apartment in the 12th arrondissement, a slice of eastern Paris beyond Place de la Bastille. Our modern home with a huge kitchen, loft and courtyard was on a metro and bus line to all the main sights in the city, and was just as easily walkable to the hip, crowded Marais neighborhood. But there was little need to leave.

Around the corner was the Rue d'Aligre, an epicerie-studded street leading to one of Paris' only daily markets, the Marche d'Aligre. The market is the nucleus of a Parisian foodie paradise. Every morning one of us would venture out into the neighborhood to pick up a bag of the city's best croissants at Blé Sucré. In the evening, we'd all spread out for warm baguettes, olives, Alsatian wine, Portuguese sausage, cheese from the Alps, and heavenly meringue puffs from Aux Merveilleux pâtisserie, and meet back at the apartment with our wares for a bountiful appetizer.

On Sundays, the streets explode with shoppers who come for fresh fish and produce, for oysters shucked on the sidewalk at wine bar Le Baron Rouge, or to browse vintage items at the flea market. Because this area doesn't get top billing in Paris guidebooks, there seem to be few other English-speakers in the crowd. That was never a concern, except when it came time to bargain for an immaculate red wool coat my partner spotted at the market. I nervously asked the seller in broken French how much it cost. We were relieved when he stuck up a single thumb to indicate 1 euro. No bargaining necessary.

Skip the Mona Lisa

Instead of standing in line to see a painting encased in bullet-resistant glass, peering through the heads of other tourists, I ventured to a wholly different kind of museum, where I had the chance not just to touch the art, but ride it.

The Musée des arts Forains, the museum of carnival arts, is located in Bercy, a far eastern district of Paris that was once home to wine storage warehouses for the city. A few of those old warehouses have been converted into a campus housing a massive private collection of fair rides and games from across Europe, dating to the 19th century.

The tour is in French and mainly populated with schoolchildren. But handouts in English cover everything, and our guide, an actor who could pass for a carnival barker himself, gave impromptu translations.

Each cavernous room is filled with artifacts such as wooden skee-ball-like games, mannequins adorned in the costumes of the Folies Bergère, animatronic opera singers, and a whimsical hand-cranked organ. The funhouse highlights, however, are three working carousels. A Venetian scene has gondolas for seats. A more traditional German carousel has the standard horses. And the final, spectacular centerpiece of the museum is an entirely human-powered bicycle carousel, complete with brass pedals.

The bicycles are slanted inward, so they ride in a circle instead of a straight line. They make for a precarious balancing act, but once everyone's feet get into rhythm, all riders contribute to the remarkably fast whirl. It's an exhilarating feat of cooperation, in stark contrast to elbowing your way to the front of the pack at the Louvre.

Try a different cabaret

Did the Moulin Rouge? Try Aux Trois Mailletz.

On a tour through Montmartre, Paris' fabled arts village, even our guide — someone who makes a living off selling Paris — couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret. "Go if it's on your bucket list," he said. Then he grimaced.

Sure, the red windmill is famous the world over for a kind of Paris fantasy out of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. But its can-can kicks and snake dancers come with a high price tag and a fast turnaround; watch the show and you're kicked out for the next round of patrons.

On a quest for another Paris fantasy — one of smoky bars and strong drinks and nights that become mornings while singing and dancing with strangers — I had brought my group of friends to Aux Trois Mailletz. The two-level piano bar and cabaret, around the corner from Shakespeare and Company bookstore and near Notre Dame, doesn't seem to be on the radar of the many tourists passing by for more traditional watering holes.

That preserves Aux Trois Mailletz for an eccentric cluster of regulars who don't start reveling until the wee hours of the morning. That it was empty when we got there was only because we were too early.

Somewhere around 3 a.m., on our second bottle of Cuban rum, I was on stage dancing backup and my friends were upstairs singing their hearts out around the piano with a crew of Parisian patrons. The place was packed, and plates of goulash were sailing out of the kitchen to soak up the booze. We may have paid for it the next day, but it was a night to remember — hazily anyway.

No, there were no fan dancers. But we were having the time of our lives.