Paris is among the smallest capitals in Western Europe, and yet we managed to separate the city into 20 boroughs or arrondissements, as they are called here. How to understand Paris’ arrondissements, coming right up.
Complicated? It can sometimes seem easier to find wrinkles on Dolly Parton’s face than it is to find where you are within the Parisian labyrinth!
To help you see a little more clearly, we’re here to help. The logic behind the numbering of the boroughs is very French: the arrondissements spiral outwards from left to right from the center of the city in the form of a snail! It’s hard to find something more French than that.
For starters, to help you understand Paris’ arrondissements, the 1st arrondissement is the heart of the city, and the rest spiral out away from the center, so the smaller the number, the closer you are to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which is the core of the capital.
A little bit of history
In the early days of the city, Paris had just 12 arrondissements that were organized in a linear distribution. The 13th district was a made up place, and it was customary to call an extramarital relationship “a relationship born from a marriage in the town hall of the 13th.”
As the city grew bigger, the 13th would’ve been placed in the chic districts of the West of Paris, and their tenants categorically refused this new number. Indeed, it was difficult to imagine that the inhabitants of the beautiful neighborhoods would accept living in “sin,” which is why we gave up the linear form in exchange for the spiral.
Today, there are still some preconceived notions about certain arrondissements in Paris:
The 16th arrondissement
Here you’ll find the wealthiest inhabitants of Paris, and most of the Parisians that live here are really proud of it! The 16th is a really residential area that most tourists don’t venture to. If you want to admire beautiful architecture, do some window shopping at the luxury boutiques, or go for a walk in the massive Bois de Boulogne forest, make a point to visit!
The 11th arrondissement
Here you’ll find the hipsters of Paris, otherwise known in French as the bobos. The term bobo comes from the French words bourgeois-bohème and can be roughly translated to rich hippy! Only in Paris can you find such a combination. The 11th arrondissement is also home to places like the rue Oberkampf, the Bastille and République areas, and the Atelier des Lumières museum. All of these locales are filled with trendy bars and restaurants…in other words the perfect habitat for hipsters.
The 19th and 20th arrondissements
These arrondissements can sometimes get a bad rap for being poor and dirty. Don’t be fooled by everything you hear, as there are some areas in these arrondissements that are lovely. The 19th is home to the Buttes Chaumont park, the La Villette park, and several canals. The 20th is home to the Père Lachaise, and is another very residential area of Paris.
That being said, there are a few sketchy places in the 19th and 20th so be sure to always be aware of your surroundings.
The 5th arrondissement
You’ll find the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement. This isn’t because you’ll find some yummy Latino food here, but rather because it is the university hub of Paris. In earlier days, Latin was widely spoken amongst students and professors. You’ll still find plenty of students hanging out in this arrondissement, as the prestigious Sorbonne is located here. There is also the Panthéon, the Jardin des Plantes and the medieval Arènes de Lutèce. If you’re on a budget, you’ll have plenty of options for cheap bars and restaurants here as well.
Don’t forget that Paris is also divided between the Left Bank and the Right Bank. This has less to do with the arrondissements, and everything to do with the Seine River that cuts Paris in two. The Right Bank is made up of 14 arrondissements and is located to the north of the Seine, while the Left Bank is made up of the remaining 6 arrondissements, and is located to the south.
The Right Bank is the “fun” side of Paris, with Montmartre, Pigalle, and the Champs-Élysées. The Left Bank is the “intellectual” side of the city, with its universities and the Latin Quarter. Most Parisians tend to stay on whichever side of the river they live. Crossing the Seine is a huge journey for a Parisian!
To return to the topic of the snail, you’ll notice that the addition of the parks of Boulogne and Vincennes on the outskirts of the city give Paris the true shape of a snail. So, if you don’t get to eat this typical dish of French gastronomy, at least stroll through the Parisian snail and discover its inimitable charm!