Paris is the most wonderful city on earth. It is the most visited, and probably the most famous.
I love Paris. I’ve been there more than a dozen times. I hope I will be there many times more. But my enjoyment of the city has improved markedly since I started to think of it as a collection of arrondissements.
Paris is divided into 20 of these administrative districts. They are numbered, and rotate clockwise in the spiral from the center of the city. The outer suburbs, beyond the orbital road (la Peripherique) which surrounds the city proper, are not included. But you really don’t want to go there anyway.
You can’t say you really know Paris until you can offhandedly refer to places by the arrondissement in which they are located and have an opinion of them, as in ‘I love the 3rd’‘, or ‘the 7th is a bit expensive’.
Stuck in Paris again …
One time about ten years ago I found myself in Paris for three days alone, as one does. I got myself a cheap hotel near the Place de la Bastille (in the 12th), and I found a handy little street map with a double page spread for each arrondissement. I spent the entire three days walking around Paris, working out which arrondissement is which, and the borders between them. I still use that little book whenever I go to Paris. Is now tatty and all marked up – it has had a lot of use.
The 1st (la premiere arrondissement) is your starting point. It is the area immediately north of the Seine that contains the Louvre, the famous Tuilerries gardens and the new heart of Paris, the rebuilt Les Halles market area.
The 2nd is contains wonderful architecture and the great shopping area les Grands Boulevards, with the main store of the Galleries Lafayette chain and my favorite Paris experience, Rue Montorgueil. This short walking street is a gourmet’s paradise and surprisingly lightly visited by tourists. The famous covered passages – narrow indoor streets that are almost arcades – are also in this area. Wandering around the 2nd is a great thing to do.
But my favourite is the 3rd, the northern part of the area known as the Marais. This the oldest existing part of Paris, because it was unaffected by Baron Hausmann’s demolitions to build the Parisian boulevards in the 19th century. It has narrow streets and great old shops and funky restaurants. A highlight is the Marché des Enfants Rouges (market of the red children), probably the best Paris market.
The 4th is the southern and more touristy part of the Marais. It contains the most beautiful square in the world, the exquisite Place de Vosges. When I die scatter my ashes there. The 4th is also the home of the two Isles in the river, and Notre Dame and the Pompidou Centre. And lots of tourists. Wander through Isle Saint-Louis to see what Paris was like 300 years ago.
Cross the river to the 5th and the 6th, which together comprise the famous Left Bank, a.k.a. the Latin Quarter. The Pantheon, a kind of secular temple where many famous French people are buried, is in the 5th, as is the Sorbonne. The 6th contains the famous Luxembourg Gardens and is where I used to stay before I discovered the 4th.
The Eiffel Tower
The 7th arrondissement is home to the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides and the famous Musee d’Orsay, which I think is the world’s best art gallery. It also contains lots of expensive apartments. The 8th, across the river again, is even more expensive, and contains the Arc de Triomphe. Climb it instead of the Eiffel Tower. It is cheaper and easier, and has a better view. The 8th also has the over-rated Champs-Élysées.
The 9th is a lively area with great restaurants and bars. The 10th, which is a little seedy, contains the great railway stations of the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est. It is also home to the beautiful Canal Saint Martin, currently undergoing a badly needed facelift. The famous Place de la République is on the border of the 3rd, 10th and 11th arrondissements. It’s where most of the big demonstrations are held. Marchons, marchons!
The 11th is the old garment district, now very trendy with some great nightlife (and day life). I visit the Café de l’Industrie there whenever I am in Paris. The men’s toilet has a carved life-size rhinoceros head in it. The 12th is quiet and sleepy, once you get away from the rowdiness at its north-west corner around the Place de la Bastille. It is very green in summer.
The 13th is the Chinese area, and the 14th contains the famous Paris catacombs. The 15th is the largest and most populous arrondissement. The 14th and 15th comprise the area known as Montparnasse, where you can experience the real Paris away from tourists.
Then we cross the river yet again to the 16th, where the rich folk live. It includes the Bois de Boulogne, one of the world’s best urban parks. It is technically outside of the arrondissement area, but they squeezed it in. The 16th also contains the Trocadero, a large palace overlooking the Seine which offers the best view of the Eiffel Tower, which many people don’t realize. They get too close.
The 17th is rather ordinary, but then things start hotting up again. The 18th contains the famous Montmartre district, with the Sacre Coeur basilica which dominates Paris and the fabulous Cabaret Moulin Rouge, which nowadays has descended into something of a tourist trap. Montmartre is wonderful and really worth a visit. It is where that delightful film Amélie was shot.
City of the Dead
The 19th contains two lovely parks, Parc de la Villette and Parc Buttes-Chaumont, and the pretty Canal de l‘Ourq. It is a great place to relax. And finally the 20th contains the world’s greatest cemetery, the incomparable Père Lachaise, which contains the remains of people such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, Marcel Proust, Abelard and Heloise and many more famous figures from history. It is well worth a few hours.
The main thing in Paris outside of the arrondissement area is La Defense, a newish skyscraper office district northwest of the city at the end of Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the extension of the Champs-Élysées. It is worth going to La Defense just to see the Grand Arche, which is a sort of abstract Arc de Triomphe and just as big, intriguingly built just a little off center to disorient you.
Master your arrondissements! Then you too can pretend to be an old Paris hand. Who will know that you are really a poseur and imposteur and that your apparent knowledge is really a feat of legerdemain? Le Parisien, c’est moi!