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Getting to Know the Paris Districts

Paris: A City of Villages

If you're planning a trip to Paris, you likely already have some idea of the things you want to see and do - maybe you already have the quintessential Paris activities written up in a 'must see/do' list. However, unless you know the city well, it is unlikely that you've thought about where these landmarks are, how you get to them, where you should stay, where to avoid and, maybe most importantly, what Paris has to offer other than these postcard-perfect points of interest.

If you're planning a trip to Paris, you likely already have some idea of the things you want to see and do - maybe you already have the quintessential Paris activities written up in a 'must see/do' list. However, unless you know the city well, it is unlikely that you've thought about where these landmarks are, how you get to them, where you should stay, where to avoid and, maybe most importantly, what Paris has to offer other than these postcard-perfect points of interest. 
Before going to Paris, most people have a single snap-shot idea of what the city is like: iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame sitting amid a tangle of pretty streets and picturesque boulevards where stylish locals sit on cafe terraces sipping coffee or dining in high-class restaurants. What people don't realize before experiencing the city for themselves is that there is much more to it than that. 
Although relatively small compared to other major cities - with a population of only 2.3 million and measuring only six miles across (it really pales in comparison to London, for example!) - Paris can still seem daunting to a first-time visitor. Far from being a place with just a compact city center as the epicenter or only main hub, the city is organized into 20 neighborhoods, or arrondissements, each with their own character, atmosphere, sights, and attractions to offer. 
Trying to understand the Paris districts can be crucial for getting the most out of a trip to the city. Before visiting, it is important to know that the main landmarks and points of interest for tourists are quite spread out throughout the city, meaning that traveling from district to district is the only way you will be able to see all the important points on your list. Knowing which sights are in which Paris district will be important when deciding where to stay, especially if you are only in town for few days and prefer to stay somewhere that's close to the important spots. 
Ultimately, knowing a little bit about the scene in each of the Paris districts and being open to exploring as much of them as you can is going to increase the chances of finding somewhere in the city that suits you and that you fall in love with - and it is the only way to get a true and comprehensive understanding of what Paris, and its resident Parisians, are about.

Understanding the Paris Districts (and How to Read them on the Map)

The 20 Paris districts, or arrondissements, actually define the city's administrative districts, but they have come to be known by Parisians as distinct neighborhoods within the city (almost like mini towns or villages in themselves). Over the years, smaller, less defined neighborhoods have emerged within these Paris districts and which overlap these administrative boarders, but the clearest way to understand the city (especially if it's your first time in Paris) is by seeing it arranged into these 20 parts. Each district has a number from 1-20, and they are referred to as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. arrondissements (or 1er, 2ème, 3ème, etc.)

When looking at a general map of the city, you will likely see the arrondissements labeled as 'Arr' (e.g. 5th Arr.) or 'e' (e.g. 5e). It may also be useful to have to hand a map that clearly defines the Paris districts and their boarders; if you look at such a map of the Paris districts, you can see that the numbers of the arrondissements are organized so that the lower numbers show the more central districts (which hold most, but not all, of the most famous attractions) while the higher numbers are used for the outer areas. Of course, you should also be familiar with the Paris districts' names, which are more likely to be used in conversation, and also be aware that some arrondissements share names (if one neighborhood spreads into both districts) or are known by the name of more than one sub-neighborhood within it - these things are never so clear cut!

Starting in the Middle: Districts 1-9

When considering all the Paris districts, the 1st arrondissement is a good place to start. This is the geographical center of the city, and owing to that fact it hosts some of Paris's main attractions such as the Louvre, Les Halles, and the Palais Royal, it is naturally very touristy. This 1st arrondissement along with the 2nd (primarily a business district which hosts the French Stock Market and the Place des Victoires), the 8th (featuring the iconic Champs-Elysèes) and the south of the 9th (offering the famously huge department store Galeries Lafayette) are all a part of the 'right-bank' area of the city that has become known as a paradise for up-market shopping, trendy boutiques, business, and commerce.
The 3rd and 4th arrondissements make up a wider neighborhood known as the Marias, which is the oldest neighborhood in Paris. In the 3rd, you'll find The Picasso Museum and can marvel at the 17th-century architecture of the mansions that used to host some of the noblest French aristocracy in the country. The part of the Marias in the 4th arrondissement is where you'll find many trendy bars and restaurants as well as the heart of Paris' gay scene and nightlife. This is also home to the Rue des Rosiers, which is highly significant to Parisian Jewish history, as well the very oldest streets in Paris.
The student vibe - and resulting nightlife, bar scene, and affordability - draw people to the 5th arrondissement, which is also known as the Latin Quarter (so named because the students of the Sorbonne university, which has stood since the 12th Century, used to converse in Latin in this neighborhood during mediaeval times). Having undergone a lot of gentrification over the last years, the neighboring 6th district, Saint Germain, boasts more up-scale boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, whereas the extremely wealthy 7th arrondissement is probably the best-known thanks to it being the home of many foreign embassies and, of course, the iconic Eiffel Tower.

A Little Further Out: Exploring 9-20 Districts

To see only the central Paris districts is to not fully see Paris, especially if you identify better with more artsy, bohemian, or vibrantly multicultural scenes. We touched already on the south side of the 9th arrondissement, but it is as you head north within this neighborhood that you will find the Moulin Rouge and traces of the dwindling Red Light District, both of which have contributed to giving this area a long-standing, infamously shady-yet-glitzy character which, in turn, has led to it being popular among the artsy crowd - this is also helped by the presence of The Paris Opera House here. The neighboring 10th arrondissement, centered around Canal St. Martin, leads on nicely from the 9th as a young trendy neighborhood which also embraces the feeling of French Bohemia which is welcoming to both locals and tourists. 
The 11th and 12th Paris districts (Bastille and Bercy) let you see another side of the city - it's a great place for nightlife, and the New Bastille Opera House acts as a geographical epicenter for artistic, musical, and creative activity. Things begin to get much more residential around Bercy, and this continues into the modern but almost village-like 13th district (where you'll find China Town and the urban Place d'Italie) and the 14th (where you'll find the Montparnasse) and 15th arrondissements - all three of these Paris districts are known for their lively cafes, bars, and restaurants, and they tend to become less up-scale and more affordable (and calmer) as you move away from the center, moving southwards from the river. 
Bordering with the Eiffel Tower's 7th arrondissement, the 16th is also considered a neighborhood for the wealthy and is defined by luxury retail and cafes, such as the one at the Place de Trocadéro which offers amazing views of the tower. This up-market feeling very much continues into the 17th arrondissement, where you'll also find the Arc de Triomphe (important for most tourists visiting) and Parc Monceau.
The high-class theme comes to an end, however, as you enter the rather special 18th district of Montmartre. This distinctly bohemian part of town sits on top of a hill looking over the city. Popular with tourists yet still very much a residential area, the jewel in the crown is the impressive Sacré-Coeur church, and nearby is the Place du Tertre. It is very popular with artists, creatives and those looking for a cheaper place to stay or live in the city. Fans of the beloved French film Amélie simply must pay a visit here: the setting of the cult-classic's story. 
The 19th arrondissement is known for the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Parc de la Villette, the latter of which hosts the educational attraction the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie museum and cultural center, while in the 20th you'll find the beautiful green space of the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Both of these Paris districts could until very recently (if not still) be described as working-class, residential areas; they can, on all accounts, be defined as multicultural and artistic, with lots of ethnic restaurants, culture, music, and art to enjoy. The prices in these two Paris districts are also still relatively affordable in comparison with the rest of the city.

Choosing the Best District to Stay in the City of Light

Deciding which of the Paris districts to stay in depends on what is important to you, your budget and also how long you have to spend there. When trying to find the best location for your hotel, consider the following:
How long do you have? If you are visiting Paris for a city break and will only have two or three days, it probably makes sense to stay in one of the central Paris districts - meaning, namely, within districts 1-9 or close to the river Seine in those districts. Staying a stone's throw from the Louvre or even at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is possible! Just know that you will always be among a throng of tourists when staying in these central areas, especially in high season, and that these neighborhoods are often very pricey. Keep in mind that any travel you have to do within the city (anything longer than walking distance) you will be doing with the Métro lines or busses, so if you're on a time limit but a location bang in the center isn't what you want, then make sure you are at least somewhere near a metro station, or that is well connected (like Montparnasse).
What are you into? Paris has a lot to offer, and someone who's visiting for some up-market retail therapy and to sip Champagne on the Champs-Elysées is looking for a very different experience to someone who wants to lose the night in an underground jazz bar or eat street food in China Town (well... most likely). Think about what it is you want out of your holiday and look into which arrondissement suit your tastes. Learning about the Paris districts really will have a huge impact on your vacation!
What's my budget? Naturally, the central, desirable and touristy Paris districts, so most of the single-digit arrondissements, tend to have the most expensive hotel rooms, but there are of course exceptions. The Latin Quarter (a.k.a. the 5th Arr.) is known for being quite an affordable place to eat, drink, and stay. A little further out, Montmartre, known as a laid-back, Paris artist district, is also favored by both locals and tourists wanting a reasonably priced bed, and the easternmost 19th and 20th Paris districts are also good for travelers wanting to stay on-budget. Needless to say, for more glitz and glamour or for honeymooners wanting something extra special, staying in the 1st, 7th, or 16th Paris districts, or the Marias neighborhoods will give you everything you want.

Keep Safe on Vacation: Are There Any Districts to Avoid?

Visitors to Paris will probably feel reassured to know that statistically, Paris is one of the safest cities in Europe, with rates of crime and violence being reassuringly low. There are, however, some things that tourists should know in order to make sure they stay safe and some places which they should probably try and avoid, at least at certain times. 
Outside of the main Paris districts 1-20 mentioned here, there are some areas even further out which are still part of the city (think of them as 'greater Paris'). Being away from the 'hubbub' of the main metropolitan center, these calmer suburban areas do have their own charm and appeal; however, some of them are known for being potentially quite dangerous and should be avoided after dark. The northern outer Paris districts Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers Saint-Ouen are the ones most talked about in this context, and statistically the worst cases of crime in Pairs are recorded as happening 'outside of the city walls'. Regardless of when you visit these Paris districts, it is recommended that you keep a low profile as a tourist and avoid wearing any highly obvious signs (clothes, jewelry, etc.) of your religious or political inclination, just to be on the safe side. 
That's not to say that the central Paris districts don't present any dangers. It is actually in the main tourist hubs and central, intercity Paris districts that the most pickpocketing occurs; as in any large city, tourists are seen as the easiest 'prey' for street thieves, so it is when perusing the beautiful streets of the single-digit arrondissements, strolling along the Champs-Elysèes or circling the Louvre that you should be the most aware of your belongings. There are also certain central locations which are allegedly better to avoid in the later, quieter hours of the day and after dark such as the metro station at Les Halles, Chatelet (in the 1st Arr.), Gare du Nord, and Stalingrad (around the 18th and 19th Arrs.).
Like with any large city, it is advised that women do not walk around alone during the quieter nighttime hours, that you travel around in groups of two or more whenever possible, and that everyone has on hand the numbers of the emergency services. With all that is mind, you can know that the chances of being in danger in Paris are relatively very low.
With such a vibrant and diverse city to explore which has so much to offer, make sure you give yourself the chance to soak it all in and take the time to get to know the Paris districts during your stay. Knowing a little more about the arrondissements and their names before you go will help you to find your ideal hotel spot, plan your vacation itinerary, and discuss the city with the locals on your arrival. Bon Voyage!

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