One of the most captivating cities in Europe, Paris retains its timeless legacy as an artistic, intellectual, and literary pacesetter. The Eiffel Tower, symbol of the city, dominates the skyline. North of the Seine, the Right Bank is home to monumental buildings, grand boulevards, and major museums, including the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou. The Left Bank (rive gauche) invokes a Bohemian and intellectual atmosphere with its university communities, cafés, restaurants, jazz clubs, and chic boutiques.
Though a metropolitan environment, Paris adheres to its dedication to small businesses and local vendors. Thus you will find yourself in quaint locales that immerse themselves in intimacy and friendliness. As such, keep these tips in mind when venturing throughout the city:
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (districts) that spiral out like a snail’s shell from the center. The Seine River then cuts across the entire city, dividing it into the right (rive droite) and left (rive gauche) banks. Each arrondissement offers its own unique character, just like the different neighborhoods and boroughs of New York. Though you’ll get to know your own arrondissement best, you will inevitably spend time in almost all of them, experiencing Paris’ diversity firsthand.
The city center. This quarter is bustling with tourists sightseeing and shopping and with 9 to 5-ers rushing to work at the area’s many office and government buildings. The first offers a lot of the attractions that you are already familiar with, but it is usually jam-packed with tourists, so it doesn’t give you a truly authentic impression of Paris.
Attractions include: Palais Royal, Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, Place Vendôme – Famous square bordered by glittering jewelry and haute couture designers. Place de la Concorde – admire Haussmann’s city-planning skills. It’s a straight line from this point, up the Champs Elysees to L’Arc de Triomphe. Musée de l’Orangerie – home to Monet’s water lilies.
The 3rd and 4th arrondissements compose the Marais--a quaint, hip neighborhood that is now home to Paris’ Jewish and gay communities. It boasts some of the oldest houses in the city, known as hôtels, which belonged to the city’s wealthy elite. Some of these homes have been converted into museums. The Marais is a popular area for Sunday strolls, as most restaurants and stores are open here on that day, while the rest of the city is nearly shut down. It also hosts a lively bar scene at night. The 4th arrondissement is also home to Paris’ two islands, Ile-de la-Cite and Ile-Saint-Louis, both charming, compact neighborhoods that offer lovely views of the city from their banks.
St. Germain was once the center of the left bank’s artistic and literary community, but it’s now become one of the wealthiest and most fashionable neighborhoods in Paris. The quarter attracts with the charm of its twisting streets, filled with art galleries, boutiques, pâtisseries and bookshops.
This quarter is characterized by the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which runs its full length. Though the Champs-Elysées is one of the most well known streets in Paris, you might be somewhat underwhelmed at first visit. The area is very tourist and consumer driven, with an endless supply of nondescript flagship stores. There are also a few major nightclubs, rendering the neighborhood popular with the late night crowd, but walking around alone at night is not recommended. Go see the Christmas decorations there!
Two of Paris’ major train stations are located in the Tenth, so it has a tendency to be loud with lots of traffic. But, the section around the Canal Saint Martin has become increasingly chic and residential. This sector spans the area from Place de la Republique to the east side of the district and is filled with trendy, urban bars, cafes and restaurants.
The 12th is a residential area with a lot of parks, most notably the Promenade Plantee. This park sits above the street, with boutiques situated under its stone archways (featured in the film Before Sunset). In the twelfth you will also find the beautiful Gare de Lyon and the Opera Bastille. Old warehouses at the Cour St. Emillion have recently been redeveloped into bars, shops and restaurants.
The Fourteenth is home of the famed Montparnasse district, once a hangout for American ex-patriots in the 1920s, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Many of the bars they frequented still exist (Le Dome, La Rotonde) as expensive brasseries along the Boulevard Montparnasse. Here you will also find the much- debated and hated Tour Montparnasse towering over the neighborhood’s grand apartment buildings, as the only skyscraper within city limits. The area’s many middle to upper class families and students reside alongside two major macabre landmarks: the large Montparnasse Cemetery and the Catacombs.
The 16th is a very posh bourgeois district. The grand avenues are lined with leafy chestnut trees and beautiful 19th century architecture, housing lots of “old money” families and older couples.
This district combines the picturesque hill town of Montmartre with the infamous sex trade of Pigalle, birthplace of the Moulin Rouge and the cancan. Wandering through the meandering streets of Montmartre can be most rewarding, though the tourist traps near Sacré Coeur with their harassing portrait painters and overpriced cafes, should be avoided. The 18th remains one of the few still affordable areas of the city. Although gentrification is largely underway, it is one of the most diverse arrondissements.
The 20th is home to working class residents, like its neighbor, but its immigrant community, Belleville, has become increasingly gentrified. Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery, is a must-see for tourists looking to honor Paris’ most celebrated deceased laid to rest in a small city of tombs including Jim Morrison (Doors). The 20th has been steadily on the rise for the past years.
The 2nd is the smallest arrondissement and home to the Bourse, Paris’ stock exchange. There’s not much to say about this neighborhood because it’s a little impersonal, just a stop on the way from the first to the Marais.
Le Quartier Latin. This neighborhood sits across from Notre Dame and is the heart of traditional left bank intellectual and academic culture. It is home to a lot of students attending the Sorbonne, which adds to its youthful, lively atmosphere, rife with bars and restaurants.
This neighborhood hosts many important historical sites and government buildings. The imposing architecture offers a somewhat closed off atmosphere, but in general the area is very chic.
This neighborhood is a shopper’s heaven and an important business district. Major department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are within walking distance on Boulevard Haussmann, warranting a visit. Galeries Lafayette, especially, boasts a wide variety of options from fashion, to home goods, to gourmet foods. The area near the stunning Opera Garnier, home to the Paris Opera, seems most like New York, with large buildings spread out over overwhelming boulevards.
The Eleventh is a vibrant, youthful residential neighborhood that has seen a lot of gentrification in the past few years, but has managed to retain its sense of community with many family-run shops. Formerly a purely working class enclave, the cheaper rents have attracted student and young professional residents, leading to the development of a strong nightlife scene centered around the area to the east of the Bastille (Rue de la Roquette) and Rue Oberkampf off the metro stop Parmentier.
The 13th is a middle and lower class residential area that centers around Place d’Italie and lies just south of the Latin Quarter. The Butte aux Cailles is a small hill southwest of Place d’Italie with a very lively community and bar scene. The area is home to Paris’ Chinatown, offering the city more diversity. Many urban redevelopment projects took place in the past years in the sections bordering the Seine, including France’s new national library. The river bank hosts many bars, restaurants, concert venues and clubs (most of them on boats).
The Fifteenth is a very residential neighborhood with no significant tourist sites, making it the perfect place to observe quotidian Parisian life. The area offers cheaper rents, attracting lots of middle class French families and a variety of cafes and local shops.
The 17th is very quiet and residential. Though less prestigious than the Sixteenth, the 17th is equally expensive in the areas surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. The Batignolles neighborhood has gained in popularity in recent years. Not as touristic as other areas of the city, you might want to explore the 17th to see real parisian life.
The 19th seems like the type of place where real Parisians live. Though the area is home to many housing projects for working class residents, it is seeing regeneration and gentrification take place. It feels very bobo (bohemian-bourgeois) sort of like Brooklyn with warehouses situated between hip boutiques and galleries. To the far north is the Parc de la Villette home to Paris Philharmonie and the fun science museum. But, the gem of the district is the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. The hilly park offers a small lake surrounding a tall escarpment with a temple placed on top from which visitors can take in impressive views of the city.
Students are urged to travel light but to bring warm clothing to Paris. Clothing which can be easily layered is your best bet for remaining comfortable throughout the seasons you'll experience during a semester abroad. Although winter temperatures seldom drop below 30°F, it is frequently cool and rainy.