An Insider Guide to the 20 Districts of Paris: Sojourner Tours’ owner Lisa Shares her Tips and Secrets

 

There are a couple things that are helpful to know when you arrive in Paris. One of them is that the city has been divided into 20 districts called “arrondissements“. The other is what you can expect to find in each of these arrondissements. Below, I will share with you my, Sojourner Tours, perspective.

Contrary to popular belief, the arrondissements were not originally designed for the sole purpose of confusing tourists. When you arrive in the city you will find Parisians referring offhandedly the the “16ieme” or the “19ieme” (just as you might refer to common sites like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre) with the assumption that everyone has heard of them. This, of course, is not the case.  But I can simplify things for you so that you’ll have a basic idea of where the numbers can be found and won’t feel completely lost.

Paris’ current twenty municipal areas were created as administrative districts under Napoleon III. They are all different sizes and vary in population which makes locating them a bit of a mystery to many first-time visitors.

TIPS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE LOCATION OF THE ARRONDISSMENTS:

  1. Most of the top tourist attractions are located in the first eight arrondissements which are clustered in the center of the city. It simplifies things to know that the Sojourner Snailnumbering starts at the Louvre (the former Royal Palace) and spirals outward clockwise: this is often compared to a snail shell. (You’ll see that I have conveniently converted “Speedy”, Sojourner Tours’ logo snail, into a map.)
  2. The Seine River runs through the middle of the city. The six arrondissements south of the river are called the “Rive Gauche” or Left Bank. This is where the “Harvard of France”, the Sorbonne University, is located. It is historically the poorer Paris of intellectuals, artists and bohemians. The arrondissements north of the river are called the “Rive Droite”, or Right Bank, and were historically associated with the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie which is why we subsequently find most of the famous tourist attractions north of the river.
  3. Paris started as a settlement on the island where Notre Dame is now found in the 4th arrondissement.
  4. You’ll also need to know the 18th is where Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge are located. It was once an independent town called Montmartre and is situated near the 12 o’clock position at the north of the snail shell.

These days things have changed. The wealthiest parts of the city are the 16th which is north of the river but also the 7th (where the Eiffel Tower is located) which is south of the river. The artists have been priced out of the Rive Gauche and moved to the Northeast in the 11th, 19th and 20th. We might imagine that in the past the north of the city was more politically conservative than the south but today’s political division is a conservative Western half of the city verses a liberal East.

One of the things that is unique about the sojourns that Sojourner Tours offers in Paris is that they are designed for travelers who want to go beyond the typical tourist trip. That means Sojourner Tours’ guests get an opportunity to experience the city like a Parisian, discovering all those neat little corners of the city that often go undiscovered by the masses. For those of you planning a trip on your own, this blog post article based on Sojourner Tours three Paris sojourns will give you a general overview of what you can find in each arrondissement so that you can explore places most people overlook.

KEY: To make it easier for you to find places that might interest you, I.ve highlighted the top tourist attractions as well as “Lisa & Francis Favorites”. Francis and I are very different. To make these recommendations more meaningful, read our bios on the Sojourner Tours website to see which one of us has interests most similar to yours. The descriptions are written from my (Lisa’s) perspective.

KEY:

  • RED numbers are where the top tourist attractions are located.
  • HEART symbols () indicate Lisa’s favorites.
  • DIAMOND symbols () indicate Francis’ favorites.

WARNING: I COULDN’T SHARE ALL MY SECRETS HERE! I’m convinced I could spend years in Paris and still be discovering new things… and I love to keep some of my discoveries secret just to share with Sojourner Tours’ guests.

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Louvre Art Museum, Royal Palace, Tuileries Garden, Orangerie, Les Halles Shopping Center, Place Vendome Luxury boutiques, Saint-Chapelle & the Conciergerie 

I don’t really like this part of Paris… it is just too calm for me. The first arrondissement is relatively quiet. Most visitors to Paris only visit the world-famous sites here. Some opportunities that are overlooked include taking a picnic to enjoy in one of the fountain-side chairs in the Tuileries Garden (I LOVE truffle mushrooms so my favorite thing to do is to buy a truffle sandwich at Maison de la Truffe which is located among the luxury shops surrounding the Madeleine church in the neighboring 2e arrondissment.) The tiny Orangerie is a must-see for Monet lovers (just be sure to arrive early before the crowds and plan to linger). If you want to experience the 1e like a Parisian, I strongly recommend that you stroll through the inner courtyard of the Palais Royal. You can stop here to have a coffee in the famous cafe called Le Nemour or splurge and dine in Paris’ first fine restaurant Le Grand Véfour which dates back to 1784. One thing I absolutely think everyone will love is my favorite 19th century covered shopping arcade, it is a must-see just north of the Palais Royal in the 2ieme: Galarie Viviennes and I like to eat and drink there. 


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Grévin Museum, The Grand Boulevards, Printemps & Galeries Lafayette Department Stores, Opéra Garnier, 19th Century Covered Shopping Passages

My guess is that many visitors miss out on the 2e arrondissment. It is one of my favorite parts of the city. Years ago, when Francis and I started staying in Paris, we rented an apartment here and I had the free time to leisurely explore Paris’ hidden labyrinth of 19th century covered shopping passages. I was surprised to discover that many of our Parisian friends and family had never explored these. So when you visit them, you will be discovering a Paris that many locals even miss out on. What are these passages? They predate the department stores and are basically pedestrian alleyways that are covered, usually with glass ceilings, and lined with shops. They vary in character from refined with mosaic floors to neglected, traditional French to Indian & and Pakistani in flavor. NOTE: If you want to explore the covered passages, I highly recommend a publication by the city of Paris called “Paris et ses passges couverts” or “The Covered Passages of Paris” by Guy Lambert because it contains a map and historic explanations. This is also “Little Tokyo” and you’ll find lots of Japanese restaurants scattered throughout the neighborhood.


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Picasso Museum, Museum of Arts et Métiers, and the Museums of the City of Paris

 

This is my favorite part of the city and it is stretched out over the 3e and 4e arrondissements: it is called Le Marais which means “marsh”. Renovated just in the last half century, this part of Paris with it’s maze of narrow streets takes you back to the pre-Haussmann feel of the city (when Napoleon III’s city planner oversaw the massive urban renewal process that gave Paris many of the Grand Boulevards for which the city is now known). The unusual history of this area preserved it’s historic feel and exceptional architectural patrimony. Prior to the French Revolution, this was the Aristocratic residential area but following the Revolution it became inhabited by common people. By the 1950s it was a working-class neighborhood and the mansions and manor houses from the 17th & 18th century were in such poor repair that a massive renovation effort was launched. Today this is a lively shopping district full of boutiques where hipsters live. I love it because there are so many fun little museums to visit. My absolute favorite museum in Paris is located here, the quirky Museum of Hunting and Nature. For those who enjoy small museums and boutique shopping, this part of Paris is Paradise.


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Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Place des Vosges, Centre Pompidou Art Museum

 

The Marais (described above) extends over the 3e and 4e, so this is still my favorite part of Paris. The lower Marais contains the oldest part of Paris and there are still some medieval timber frame buildings if you know where to look. There are several little hidden pockets of shops and restaurants hidden away from the streets here, but again, you have to know where to find them: one of my favorites is an entire village of antique dealers called Le Village Saint Paul. Despite the fact that the major tourist attractions of Notre Dame, Place des Vosges and the Pompidou are located in the 4e, this is really the Paris of Parisians where it helps to know the insider secrets. Francis and I love the Jewish district where we take our children for falafel every year. If you have the time to explore Paris, this is a delightful area to explore where you can find peaceful squares with cafes tucked away from from view. One secret passage not to be missed that most visitors do miss is in the Place des Vosges: duck through the opening in the Southwest corner of the Place and you’ll find yourself in the courtyard of the Hotel de Sully and you’ll find the bookstore where I get a lot of my research materials for creating guided tours in Paris!


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Panthéon,  Cluny Museum, Arènes de Lutèce, Jardin des Plantes, Natural History Museum, Mosquée de Paris, 

The famous Latin Quarter, with the renowned Sorbonne university, is located in this part of Paris. I’m not crazy about this part of the city but there are several things I do enjoy doing here. I absolutely love strolling through the botanical gardens called “Jardin des Plantes” either before or after having lunch or tea at the Mosquée de Paris. The mosque was a gift from the city of Paris to the North and West Africans who served in the French Army during WWI. During WWII, the mosque served as a refuge for many Jewish people whose lives where threatened under occupied France by the Vichy government. So historically, it is an incredible place. Another fun thing to do is to grocery shop in the boutique stores along rue Mouffetard (at the eastern most end of the street there is a baker and a cheese monger that I like). This part of Paris has several little squares and streets where it is nice to eat: one of the most charming is located south of the Pantheon.


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Jardin du Luxembourg,  Saint Sulpice church, Saint-Germain des Prés

 

When you imagine Paris, this neighborhood is probably what you envision. It is classically Paris, pre-Haussmann: a warren of narrow streets lined with cafes, boutiques, upscale art galleries, restaurants and pubs. That is precisely why it is so crowded with tourists during the peek season. Nevertheless, it is a “must” visit spot on everyone’s first trip to the city. There are corners of this district that haven’t been found by the throngs of sightseers: I recommend ordering Christine Henry de Tissan’s “City Walks”, an exceptional map collection that will help you get the most out of this part of the city (and the rest).


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Eiffel Tower,  Invalides  Napoleon’s tomb  Musée d’Orsay Art MuseumMusée Rodin Musée du Quai Branly

 

It is probably safe to guess that almost all first time visitors to Paris go to the 7e arrondissement to see the world’s most iconic structure: the Eiffel Tower and possibly the Orsay Museum. I have been to the Eiffel Tower a scandalous number of times myself… and I have no plans of stopping there. I’ll go back religiously until the day I die. What I really love doing is shopping for a picnic in the boutiques on Rue Cler which is a permanent market street where you’ll find all kinds of specialty shops ranging from butchers and bakers to cheese mongers and more. My favorite places to shop for lunch are the Davoli Italian deli that I first discovered in Tokyo (they have a branch there) and a the Jeusselin French butcher shop/ deli where they set up a street stand to sell sandwiches in the summer. I also enjoy the Banley Museum where you can see treasures collected (or, stolen) during France’s colonial period and the Rodin Museum which is one of the city’s free municipal museums. ( I enjoy going to the second level of the Eiffel Tower but the top is overrated and my tip is to go to the 15th arrondissement for a fabulous sky-high view from the Montparnasse Tower where the lines are dramatically shorter: see below.)


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Champs-Élysées – Place de la Concorde,  Arc de Triomphe Champs-Élysées , Grand Palais Petit Palais, Madeleine Church, Petit Palais & Grand Palais, Park Monceau.

The sad truth is that Champs-Élysées is no longer the luxury shopping boulevard it is reputed to be. Sure there are still some luxury shops here, but it is such a tourist destination and the real-estate prices have gone so high that really only chains can afford to be here, and they are here in mass: McDonalds, Starbucks, lots of car display rooms… and more. If you really want to stroll along Paris’ luxury shopping street, it is Avenue Montaigne (which adjoins the Southeastern end of the Champs-Élysées) that you want. What I like to do in this area of Paris is to have a tea break at the Petit Palais which was built for the 1900 World Fair: I find the architecture truly enchanting –particularly the cafe in the inner courtyard with it’s unkempt vegetation and tile mosaic floors. Unfortunately it is just museum food… so for something really luscious I go to Laduree on the Champs-Élysées. When it comes to shopping in Paris though, I recommend the 2e or the Marais in the 3e and 4e (see above) or the 9e (see below). Further out, the Parc Monceau is also a good quiet place to visit: there are some museums around the perimeter. Also off the typical tourist track: I had fun having a fancy brunch at the Jacquemart-Andre house-museum.


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Pigalle (The Red Light District), Opéra Garnier, Department Stores: Galeries Lafayette & Printemps, Museum of Romantic Life, Gustave Moreau Museum

The 9th is a large and diverse area. Francis, who is a 17th century scholar, loves the Opera house here (it really isn’t my cup of tea)… it wasn’t built until the end of the 19th century but Francis, who is into the courtly society and old aristocracy, thinks it is really cool how the architecture was designed to make the theater-goers as much a part of the show as the production that they came to see. Both Francis and I recommend popping in the department stores here…. they date to the same period and are a fabulous place to take in the luxury brands that Paris is famous for… but the best part is taking a break to have a drink or a bite to eat on the roof of the Printemps Department store… the view is fabulous. At the northern most edge of the 9e you find yourself in the “red light” district where the touristy Moulin Rouge is located. The area between these two vastly different worlds is a residential area called “New Athens” which is popular with young bourgeois-bohemians (“Bo-Bos”) and location of the Museum of Romantic Life which is the perfect spot to get away from the crowds for a peaceful coffee break (especially if you are a fan of Chopin or George Sands).


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Canal Saint-Martin

 

 

Francis and I rented an apartment in the nearby artsy Oberkampf area so I’ve really enjoyed strolling along the charming Canal Saint Martin which was featured in the film Amelie… but it isn’t worth going out of your way to see unless you’ve got a lot of time in the city. You may want to consider taking a canal boat ride… though it is very long and maybe a little too relaxing (because there are a lot of locks to go through) but it is an out of the ordinary experience in the city which can be a lot of fun if you go with friends and bring a picnic with a good bottle of wine… and the best part is that it ends in the incredibly hip and trendy 19e (see below).


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Francis loves this area. We rented an apartment here for many years and I have to agree that it is a great place to live in Paris. This is an incredibly intercultural neighborhood where young artists and writers have settled in. These aren’t the clean streets of the tourist areas or the wealthy Parisians, these are the grimy streets where the immigrants and young artists, intellectuals and students live. The place to go out in the evening drinking of for a reasonably priced meal among the local 20 and 30-something Parisians is the street called Oberkampf which spills over a bit on the street called Jean-Pierre Timbeau (On your own, you would never find one of the bar-cafes that I love called the Cannibale… but it is worth the detour if you want to hang with the locals –I’d go before dark though.).  Francis’ favorite place is on the main drag, the popular Cafe Charbon.  In the afternoon, I strongly urge you to stop in at the Bague de Kenza tea room… it isn’t “hip” but it is the best North African pastry shop in the city AND I LOVE IT! During the day, I also love the bustling shopping street nearby called Rue du Temple where you’ll see people wearing traditional clothing from all over the world. Please note: You do not want to look like a tourist in this part of town… so dress like a Parisian and leave your camera and jogging shoes back at the hotel.


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Parc de Bercy, Le Bois de Vincennes, Chateau de Vincennes, Parc Floral, Promenade Plantee

 

Did you know you can visit a castle in Paris (other than Versailles)? I admit that most of the 12e is a bit un-animated for those with only a short stay in the city… but I really enjoy spending a day in Vincennes which is nestled up against the far eastern edge of this district (so I just stuck it in here). The Vincennes Castle is one of the best preserved Medieval castles in Europe. When the weather is nice, the Parc Floral is a fabulous place for a picnic and there are often outdoor concerts planned here (my favorite part of the park is the Umbrella-Pine forest). The city-center of Vincennes is a lovely place to stroll too. Nestled in the 12e, closer to the center of Paris is the riverside National Library and the Bercy Park where a group of old warehouses were converted into a shopping district: if you have a lot of time in the city this is a great place to go for a movie, a meal or a little shopping with the locals in Bercy Village. Another laid-back thing to do if you have lots of time in the city is to stroll along the Promenade Plantee which is a garden path made atop an abandoned elevated rail-track: stroll atop the track in one direction and return at street-level to enjoy window shopping in the boutiques made under the tracks.



(You might notice I skipped the 13th & 14th. I recommend you do too.

Unless you want to visit the Catacombes which are in the 14th. )


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Montparnasse Tower

 

 

I don’t do much in this part of Paris. But, I do like to go to the top of the Montparnasse Tower… (and there is a nice restaurant on the top floor too, called the Skies of Paris in French). I personally, prefer the Montparnasse tower one hundred fold over going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Here, the lines are shorter and the area at the top is more spacious… it’s open to the sky and the glass isn’t all scratched up. And the best part? You can see the Eiffel Tower from here.


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Boulogne Forest,  Palais de Chaillot, Musée Guimet, Palais de Tokyo, Musée Marmottan, Le Corbusier’s Apartment, Albert Kahn’s Japanese Gardens

 

I’m really into mid-century modern architecture and everything east and south-east Asian… so there are a lot of things that I like to do in the 16e. For those who are in Paris for just a short time and want to experience French things, I recommend staying around the Eiffel Tower area to take in the Palais de Chaillot with all it’s museums just like visitors to the 1900 World Fair might have done when the Eiffel Tower was first unveiled to the world. I particularly like to go on a Wednesday or Friday so I can get picnic foods at the open air street market on Avenue President Wilson. My favorite museum is the free Museum of Modern Art (but there is also a museum of architecture, a nautical museum and an aquarium to choose from… there is supposed to be a museum of fashion but I’ve been past every year for the past ten years several times and never seen it open) and a little further out Monet-lovers will find the Musée Marmottan. The other nice place to go is the Bois de Boulogne: a fun kind-of glamorous place to eat is Le chalet des ilesFor those who have more time to spend in the city and love Asia check out the Albert Kahn gardens, and the Musée GuimetDie-hard architecture enthusiasts can check out Le Corbu’s apartment-studio… don’t expect to see any tourists there (though you may bump into me.)


(You might notice I skipped the 17th. I recommend you do too.)


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Montmartre Sacré-Coeur, Place du Tertre, Moulin Rouge

 

 

Montmartre is charming… I don’t care how bad the throngs of tourists are, I still love it. Francis and I have also rented an apartment in this neighborhood and it was incredible. Early mornings and later in the evening, the tourists are back at their hotels… so it’s a good time to visit. The best thing we discovered while sojourning here was that the tourists are all swarming around Sacre Coeur and Place du Tertre… so if you wander off a bit you can quickly lose them and have a very pleasant experience. Some of the things I love here include: the Fabric Market, and the gallery Halle Sainte PierreBut I prefer wandering the quiet streets on the backside of the butte where you can really feel that this was once a village independent of Paris, like in the area around the Museum of Montmartre… and there are also some really FABULOUS boutiques including (my favorites) the bakery Jacque Laurant and the pastry shop Arnaud Larher. I think Francis loves this area for the same reasons. There are a few things I recommend avoiding here: 1) Don’t go to the Espace Dali, as far as I am concerned it is an overpriced swindle; 2) Don’t go to the Moulin Rouge for a cabaret, in my mind it is another overpriced tourist trap; 3) Don’t eat in the restaurants right around Place du Tertre because I’ve never had such bad service and poor quality food as when I’ve eaten there except possibly when I got ice cream on the Champs Elysee with my Swedish cousins. (I know this is supposed to be the place where bistro’s were born… but, I recommend you slip away from the crowds and eat in a real one were you’ll get decent food and rub shoulders with the locals: I love the bistro l’Etoile)


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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc de la Villette, 104, Basin de la Villette, Bellville (aka chinatown), thriftshops, bars

 

 

If I were going to live in Paris I would live in the 19th. The Canal d’Ourq area and Belleville are my two absolute favorite places to sojourn in the city… I like the hip-hop culture, the multiculturalism and the artist-vibe here. This part of the city is the dirty, honest truth of urban living… I love it and I’m not alone. This is one of the hippest parts of the city among 20 and 30-somethings. Why do I love it? I love it because you can feel that this is where contemporary culture is being made. There are a number of places designed for the local lower-class residents to interact with successful artists and musicians and, though this is what they call a “chaud” (which means a bit dangerous) part of the city where I’ve seen heroin addicts and even a fight in the street, there is also an air of hope and creativity here. The work coming out of this part of Paris is making it’s mark in the world of music and art! My favorite place to experience this is the 104, an old slaughter house converted into an art space: in the evenings, on week-ends and Wednesdays this place is alive with break-dancers and spontaneous theatrical improv (other times it is like a library because everyone is working or at school). This neighborhood is my favorite place to go thrift shopping… in the 104 there is a fun emmaus (similar to salvation army) and I REALLY like the one right around the corner at number 40 Rue Riquet. The trouble with this area is that there are so many cool places to go… but outsiders will have a lot of trouble finding them. I’ll recommend a couple old-school places the BarOurq (they’ll lend you petanque balls and have a cool copper counter with some serious patina), the De La Chapelle Covered Market where I like to go for an afternoon beer on one of the terraces surrounding the market and little Sri Lanka where I love to go for a vegetarian lunch (which are technically in the 18th). In the evening, my top spots to go for a drink are: Rosa Bonheur because I LOVE the Butte Chaumont Parc, Pont Ephemere, and the 25 EstAnd I haven’t even talked about Belleville! Belleville is much easier to explore without tips… just go, immerse yourself and have fun!


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Père-Lachaise Cemetery

 

 

Half of Belleville (see 19e above) is in the 20th… but beyond that it’s pretty quiet and residential here. The Père-Lachaise Cemetery is worth a visit though. I enjoy wandering around and trying to find the famous graves without buying the maps that hawkers are usually selling at the entrance.


Voila. Bon Voyage!

-Lisa (Sojourner Tours Owner & Guide)

 

 

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