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The Right Bank

Louvre & Ile de la Cite (1st arrondissement)

Best for: Museums, historic sights, architecture, transportation hubs

What you won’t find: Evening entertainment, quiet streets

This is the heart of the city, and the oldest part of Paris, though you’d never know it to see it now. In the 19th century, Baron Haussmann, Napoleon’s energetic urban planner, tore down almost all of the medieval houses that once covered this area. The Ile de la Cité is where the city first emerged after Gallic tribes started camping out here in the 3rd century b.c. By the 1st century a.d., the Romans were building temples, and by the Middle Ages, a mighty fortress sat across the river on the Right Bank. The fortress has long since been incorporated into the majestic buildings of the Louvre, which along with the Jardin des Tuileries takes up a big chunk of the neighborhood. Today, the Ile is mostly visited for the soaring Cathedral of Notre Dame and the gemlike St-Chapelle, along with the historic Conciergerie. Note: To avoid confusion, I’ve included the entire Ile de la Cité in this section, even though the eastern half is technically in the 4th arrondissement.

While the major museums and sites are to the west, the people’s part of this neighborhood is on its eastern edge, near Les Halles and place du Châtelet. Stuffed with stores, particularly along the bustling rue de Rivoli and around the Forum des Halles (which is still open despite the massive remodeling job going on above), Parisians descend on this area for their shopping needs. While the spooky gardens are currently closed, Les Halles is still not the safest area and it’s worth avoiding at night. The same is true of the seedy rue St-Denis, just to the east, as this is one of Paris’s red-light districts.

Opera & Grands Boulevards (2nd & 9th Arrondissements)

Best for: Good restaurants, covered passages, boutiques

What you won’t find: Major monuments and museums, green spaces

When the Grands Boulevards were plowed through the city in the 19th century, they created a new opportunity for stylish Parisians to stroll, see, and be seen, while theaters and cafes flourished. Times changed and so did fashion, and for decades this area was considered a has-been. In recent years, the area has undergone a transformation, particularly in the 9th arrondissement, where cafes, boutiques, and restaurants have popped up in between the church of St-Georges and place Clichy, in an area that used to be known as “New Athens.” Many artists of the 19th-century Romantic movement, like George Sand and Eugène Delacroix, lived and worked here. The 9th is also the home of the Grand Magasins (big-name department stores), which are located on boulevard Haussmann near Gare St-Lazare, as well as the grandiose Palais Garnier, home of the Opéra de Paris. You’ll notice lots of men and women bustling about in business suits in the 2nd arrondissement, which is the home of the Bourse, the French stock exchange. To the east, the trendy set descends on rue Montorgueil, a picturesque, cobbled market street, and the pedestrian area around rue Etienne Marcel, which has gained a reputation as a hip fashion district. This also is the arrondissement with the greatest concentration of passages, 19th-century covered shopping arcades that were the forefathers of today’s shopping malls (but much prettier).

The Marais­ (3rd & 4th Arrondissements)

Best for: Restaurants, nightlife, window shopping, 17th-century mansions, museums

What you won’t find: Bargain shopping, iconic sights, open spaces

What was once marshy farmland (marais means “marsh” or “swamp”) quickly became a seat of power when the Knights Templar decided to build a fortress here in the Middle Ages. Other religious orders followed suit, and after King Charles V decided to build a royal residence here in the 14th century, there was a real-estate boom that produced a slew of mansions and palaces. In the 17th century, King Henri IV created a magnificent square bordered by Renaissance-style townhouses, today called the place des Vosges. If the Marais was hot before, then it was positively on fire. Nobles and bourgeois pounced on the neighborhood, each one trying to outdo the other by constructing more and more resplendent hôtels particuliers, or private mansions.

The overstuffed quarter was already falling out of fashion by the time the Revolution flushed out all its aristocrats in the 18th century. The magnificent dwellings were abandoned, pillaged, partitioned, and turned into stores, workshops, and even factories. The new residents were working class, with more immediate concerns than saving historic patrimony. The neighborhood fell into disrepair, and unfortunately periodic attempts on the part of the city to “clean up” resulted in the destruction of many architectural gems.

The area underwent a real renovation in the 1960s, and today several of the most magnificent mansions have been restored and are open to the public in the form of museums like the Carnavalet, Musée Cognac-Jay, and the Musée Picasso. The architecturally odd Centre Pompidou is also located here.

Today the area is terribly branché (literally, “plugged in”), and you’ll see some of the hippest styles in boutique windows here, as well as dozens of happening restaurants and bars lining its narrow streets. The neighborhood is still a mix though—jewelry and clothing wholesalers bump up against stylish cafes and shops. The vibrant gay scene on rue Vielle du Temple intersects with what’s left of the old Jewish quarter on rue des Rosiers.

Champs-Élysées, Trocadéro & Western Paris (8th, 16th & 17th Arrondissements)

Best for: Serious strolling (on the Champs-Élysées), museums, monuments, chic restaurants and stores

What you won’t find here: Affordable eateries or hotels, regular folk

The Champs-Élysées cuts through this area like an asphalt river—it’s the widest boulevard in Paris. Crossing the street here feels a bit like traversing a raging torrent (be sure to wait for the light). There are fans and foes of this epic roadway. Some find its lights and sparkles good clean fun, while others find it crass and commercial. However you feel about the street itself, you’re bound to be impressed by the Arc de Triomphe, which lords over the boulevard from its western tip. To the south of the Champs are some of the most expensive stores, restaurants, and homes in the city (particularly around Ave. Montaigne). To the north, a largely residential area extends up to the beautiful Parc Monceau, which is surrounded by some equally delightful museums, like the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée and the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

To the west, the illustrious Seizième (sez-ee-em, sixteenth), is the most exclusive arrondissement of the city. Laying on the outer western edge of the city, this residential area is packed with magnificent 19th-century residences and apartment houses, as well as many fine parks and gardens. In fact, the arrondissement shares its western border with the Bois de Boulogne, one of the city’s two huge wooded parks. While the 16th might be pretty dull on the whole, it’s also graced with a terrific array of museums. The Palais de Chaillot shelters the Cité de l’Architecture, just down the street is the vast Musée Guimet, and a little farther on there are two modern art museums in the Palais de Tokyo, not to mention a half a dozen others (like the Marmottan and the Baccarat) sprinkled around the arrondissement. And a stop at the esplanade on the place du Trocadéro is a must. Between the two wings of the Palais de Chaillot is a superb view of the Eiffel Tower, which you can walk to by strolling down the hill through the Jardins du Trocadéro.

Montmartre (18th Arrondissement)

Best for: Restaurants, nightlife, atmosphere

What you won’t find here: Monuments (with the exception of Sacré-Coeur), major museums, grand architecture

Once a village overlooking the distant city, Montmartre is now as inseparable from Paris as the Eiffel Tower, which means it’s a major target for the tour-bus crowd. And crowded it is, especially in the area immediately around the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur and the overdone place du Tertre. Yet, Montmartre is also home to an increasingly hip crowd, who stick to the more authentic area around the place des Abbesses. The narrow cobbled streets that climb past the two remaining windmills are peppered with boutiques and cute restaurants frequented by a cool combo of young professionals and budding artists.

In the east of the 18th is the lively immigrant quarter of Barbès, which is home to large communities from Africa, India, and the Maghreb (North Africa). Here you’ll find a jumble of inexpensive stores selling everything from long-necked teapots to pajama-like salwar trousers, as well as tiny restaurants that offer exotic delicacies.

République, Bastille & Eastern Paris (11th & 12th Arrondissements)

Best for: Nightlife, good restaurants, Revolutionary history, arty boutiques

What you won’t find here: Major monuments and museums, high-end shops

These two arrondissements were pretty much off the tourist radar until 1989, when the new Bastille opera house provoked an explosion of bars and restaurants in the surrounding streets. Though the shine has already worn off the nightspots of rue de Lappe and rue de la Roquette, just off the place de la Bastille, the nocturnal life of the 11th arrondissement is far from dull, as new clubs and cafes have opened further north on rue de Charonne and rue Oberkampf. Now even Oberkampf has become thoroughly saturated, and intrepid partiers are staking out new ground in Menilmontant in the 20th.

North of the place de la Bastille is the vast pedestrian-friendly place de la République. To the south is the Faubourg St-Antoine, a historic workers’ quarter that has been inhabited by woodworkers and furniture makers since the 13th century. After a few centuries the density of underpaid, overburdened workers made St-Antoine a breeding ground for revolutionaries. The raging mob that stormed the Bastille prison in 1789 originated here, as did those of the subsequent uprisings of 1830, 1848, and the Paris commune.

Today, aside from the shops and night life on rue de Charonne and Oberkampf, this area is relatively mellow. While the architecture here is nowhere near as grand as elsewhere in Paris, the neighborhood has retained an authenticity that’s rarely found in the more popular parts of the city. There are still a large number of furniture stores and ébénistes (woodworkers) tucked into large interior courtyards accessible by covered passages off rue du Faubourg St-Antoine. Make a point of wandering down one of these; you’ll be rewarded with a look at a way of life that has survived the centuries. This quarter extends all the way past the Viaduc des Arts to the Gare de Lyon train station, a magnificent example of Belle Epoque architecture. At the western end is the Bois de Vincennes, one of the city’s two wooded parks.

Belleville, Canal St-Martin & Northeast Paris (10th, 19th & 20th Arrondissements)

Best for: Nightlife, restaurants, strolling (along the Canal), arty boutiques

What you won’t find here: Major monuments, museums, and architectural wonders

For a long time, no one seemed to care about these arrondissements. They were too far from the center of the city, too working-class to be of interest to the trendy set, and too monument-less to appeal to tourists. Then, with real estate skyrocketing, young professionals and artists began to move in. Suddenly, the forgotten Canal St-Martin was blooming with cafes and restaurants and the streets around it were full of trendy shops. Artists looking for studio space discovered multi-ethnic Belleville, a cultural melting pot of immigrants from North Africa (both Jewish and Muslim), Asia (this is Paris’s biggest Chinatown), and other parts of the world. The vast park and cultural venues of La Villette have also attracted new interest away from the center. Happily, these areas aren’t gentrified (yet) and parts are infused with a certain youthful energy that’s hard to come by in other areas of the city. These areas are relatively tourist-free and offer an opportunity to see a more local side of the city.

Aside from the Parc de la Villette, there are two other green havens here: the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where the likes of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, and Chopin are buried. There are also several good bars and music venues around Menilmontant to the north of the cemetery and around place St-Blaise to the south.

The Left Bank

Latin Quarter­ (5th arrondissement)

Best for: Affordable dining, student bars, art house movie theaters, museums, Jardin des Plantes

What you won’t find here: Good shopping, quiet (at least not in the environs of place St-Michel)

Since the Middle Ages, when the Sorbonne and other academic institutions were founded, this has been a student neighborhood. (It earned its name as the “Latin” Quarter because back in the old days, all classes were taught in Latin.) Today the area still harbors the highest number of colleges and universities in the city, and you’ll certainly see plenty of students and professors hanging around the inexpensive restaurants and cafes around here. You’ll also see plenty of tourists, who tend to swarm around the warren of tiny streets that lead off of the place St-Michel. Avoid Rue de la Huchette (except for the great swing-dancing club, Le Caveau de la Huchette), which is lined with garish restaurants of questionable quality. Boulevard St-Michel, a legendary artery that once was lined with smoky cafes filled with thinkers and rabble-rousers, has now fallen prey to chain stores, though a few big bookstores have held on. The boulevard also harbors the Musée de Cluny, a terrific collection of medieval art and Roman ruins.

For a more authentic taste of this neighborhood, wander east and upward, around the windy streets on the hill that leads to the Panthéon, the church of St-Etienne-du-Mont and around rue Monge, toward lovely the Jardin des Plantes. Surrounded by the city’s natural history museum, this botanical garden is a lovely place to relax. Down by the Seine, the Institut du Monde Arabe is a fascinating museum housed in a spectacular building by architect Jean Nouvel.

St-Germain-des-Prés & Luxembourg­ (6th Arrondissement)

Best for: Fine dining, historic cafes, shopping, parks (the Jardin du Luxembourg)

What you won’t find here: Penniless intellectuals and artists, low prices

The church of St-Germain-des-Prés, the heart of this neighborhood, got its name (St. Germain of the Fields) because when it was built in the 11th century, it was in the middle of the countryside. What a difference a millennium makes. The church became the nucleus of a huge and powerful abbey, which would later constitute an autonomous minacity complete with a hospital and a prison. The Revolution cut the church down to its current size, and an elegant collection of apartment houses, squares, and parks grew up around it, making it one of Paris’s most appealing areas to live in (as real-estate prices will attest). If the neighborhood has always had aristocratic airs (it was a favorite haunt of the nobility during the 17th and 18th c.), during the last part of the 19th century up to the mid–20th century it was also a magnet for penniless artists and intellectuals, who hung out in legendary cafes like the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.

Today few struggling creative types can afford either the rents or the price of a cup of coffee around here, and young artists and thinkers have moved north and east to cheaper parts of town. Though the ambiance is decidedly bourgeois these days, the neighborhood is still dynamic, and the cafes and shops along the boulevard St-Germain are crowded with a mix of politicians, gallery owners, and editors. This is also a fun neighborhood for shopping—there’s everything here from 500€ pumps on chic rue des St-Pères to 20€ sundresses on the more plebian rue des Rennes. And when you’ve tired yourself out, you can stroll over to the magnificent Jardin du Luxembourg for a timeout by the fountain.

Eiffel Tower & Les Invalides (7th Arrondissement)

Best for: Iconic monuments, majestic avenues, grand vistas, museums

What you won’t find here: Affordable restaurants or shopping, nightlife

The Eiffel Tower reigns over this swanky arrondissement, where the streets that aren’t lined with ministries and embassies are filled with elegant apartment buildings and prohibitively expensive stores and restaurants. A large portion of the neighborhood is taken up by the Champs de Mars, a park that stretches between the tower and the Ecole Militaire, and by the enormous esplanade in front of the Invalides, which sweeps down to the Seine with much pomp and circumstance. Some of the city’s best museums are around here, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée Rodin, and the Musée du Quai Branly, whose wacky architecture has added some spice to this very staid area.

While there’s certainly a lot to see here, the neighborhood is a little short on human warmth—this is not the place to come to see regular Parisians in their natural habitat. One exception is the area around the pedestrian rue Cler, a market street that is home to many delightful small restaurants and food stores. Word is out about this cozy corner, however, so expect to see plenty of tourists when you go into that cute boulangerie for a couple of croissants.

Montparnasse (14th & 15th Arrondissements)

Best for: Shopping, historic cafes, nightlife

What you won’t find here: Extraordinary architecture, museums, monuments

In the early 1970s, government officials decided the time had come to make Paris a modern city. Blithely putting aside concerns for historic patrimony and architectural harmony, the old Montparnasse train station and its immediate neighborhood were torn down and a 58-story glass tower and shopping complex was erected in its place. A new train station was constructed behind the tower, as well as a barrage of modern apartment buildings and office blocks. Fortunately, even ugly contemporary architecture didn’t manage to kill the neighborhood—at the foot of the Tour Montparnasse, life goes on as it always has. A few steps away from the station, tiny old streets are still lined with stores, cafes, and crêperies (crêpe restaurants), these last being an outgrowth of the large Breton (that is, from Brittany) community that still inhabits this area. Farther down boulevard Montparnasse, you’ll find legendary brasseries like La Coupole and Le Select, where Picasso, Max Jacob, and Henry Miller used to hang out in the 1920s. For a bit of calm, take a walk around the Cimetiére de Montparnasse, where artists like Charles Baudelaire and Constantin Brancusi are buried, as well as Colonel Alfred Dreyfus. In the evenings, crowds pour into the many movie theaters around the station, as well as the many restaurants in the area.

 

To the south, the arrondissement takes a more residential turn, with the exception of rue Daguerre, a lively market street a block south of the cemetery, and farther south, rue d’Alésia, a discount shopper’s Mecca.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.