arrondissement = district, quarter, the name of a division forming Paris’ neighbourhoods
The “pre-arrondissement” postcard:
Before the arrondissement division was enacted, Paris was just a quiet collection of “villages” and the so-called “proto-Parisians” inhabited the self-sufficient microcosms of their “quartiers”, each equipped with its own bakery, butcher’s shop, grocery, newsagent’s shop, florist, post office, school and church. A popular institution of the time, the café-tabac was a vital assembly point where men would gather on Sunday mornings to bet on horse-racing and chat over a glass of wine. In other words, going “into town” was kept for special occasions only (clothes shopping, theatre going). Besides those, many spent their whole lives without ever leaving the boundaries of their own “quartier”…
The division of Paris into arrondissements originates in the French Revolution, whose main goal was to reform France economically and administratively. However, before the 19th century there were only 12 arrondissments in Paris. The 20 districts we know today only emerged in 1860, when Baron Haussmann had Paris’ toll walls destroyed and new territories incorporated into the city limits (basically the villages that previously lay around it). This called for some major restructuring – first, the old arrondissement numbers were altered (today’s 10th was the ex-5th) and then, the city layout changed (starting with the 1st arrondissement at the heart of the city and spiraling out clockwise like a snail shell, or the so-called “l’escargot de Paris” as the Parisians fondly denote their city plan). Today Paris’ arrondissements regularly comprise a number of neighborhoods, each having their own distinct spirit and character.
Mirroring the social, cultural and economic history of Paris, each arrondissement forms a peculiar atom essential to the construction of the big cell of Paris. Due to their singularity and character, the arrondissements seem to know how to keep their residents close, as if attached with a magnet. Just like in the past, old-time dwellers get so used to the universe of their neighbourhood that they have a hard time venturing far off their beaten paths. To quote Thirza Vallois, a renowned Parisian connoisseur: “Today the administrative life of every Parisian, from birth to death, is regulated by and revolves around his arrondissement which, in a way, has replaced the old parish. Its center of gravity is the monumental Mairie, where newborn babies are registered, children are enrolled in school and couples get married…”
The curious fact:
Did you know that there was a big commotion over which arrondissement would be assigned the ominous number 13? Nobody wanted it! The area which finally got it was a cholera-ridden slum during the time, so the unfortunate number was simply dumped on this ill-fated zone, no questions asked!
With local color and character to spare, each arrondissement merits a visit for one reason or another. Here is our brief overview of all 20 districts with their most significant highlights and points of interest. Located at the geographical center of Paris and packed with historic sights, the 1st arrondissment has The Louvre Museum, the Tuileries gardens, the rectangular Palais Royal and the ritzy Place Vendôme, among others. Mainly a business district, the 2nd is the smallest Parisian arrondissement, with the Palais de la Bourse (the former stock exchange market) and the eternally chic shopping arcades as its most prominent landmarks. A charming old district, the 3rd arrondissement is home to the oldest Chinese quarter (around Temple) as well as the oldest covered market in Paris (Le Marché des Enfants Rouges). An all-time favourite, the 4th contains a number of assorted highlights – starting from the medieval yet trendy Marais district (home to the Jewish and gay communities), the gothic Notre Dame cathedral, the Renaissance Place des Vosges, Paris’ stunning 19th century City hall, the modern Centre Pompidou and the eternal island Saint Louis where you get to have the best ice cream in town (Berthillon)! Another much-loved area, the 5th allocates the glory between the Latin quarter, the prestigious Sorbonne university, the chestnut tree-flanked Saint Michel boulevard, the mausoleum of the Panthéon, the Roman Lutetia Arenas and the pretty Jardin des Plantes, the city’s botanic gardens. The 6th is another popular arrondissement offering decadent pleasures such as relaxing under the shades of the Luxembourg gardens, having a sip in one of Saint-Germain’s famous cafés or enjoying a highbrow play at the Odeon, one of France’s six national theatres inaugurated by Marie-Antoinette. Nothing shines brighter than Paris’ Iron Lady (la tour Eiffel), the 7th arrondissement all-star performer, but once there don’t fail to walk over Paris’ prettiest bridge (Pont Alexander III) or to add some wow to your day with Musée d’Orsay chef-d’oeuvres. Once in the 8th, go for a swanky walk along the world’s most famous boulevard (Champs-Elysées), pass by the presidential palace and the Madeleine Church and, if artistically tempted, visit a fleeting exhibition in the magnificent Grand or Petit Palais. The 9th district welcomes ballet lovers (with a pilgrimage to the splendid Opéra Garnier) and shopaholics alike (whose temple would be the Belle Epoque department stores, such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps). The 10th’s unquestionable high spot would be the Canal Saint Martin, Parisians’ much-loved and overly preferred versatile picnic location and nightlife hot spot. Another top Paris nightlife district lies in the 11th, with the lively Rue Oberkampf – a famous bar scene housing the city’s hippest locales and clubs. The 12th calls for a long green walk along the Promenade Verte (an elevated park built on top of an ex-railway), some daily market finds at the famous place d’Aligre or a calm stroll by the yacht-flanked canal of the peaceful and Northern-looking Jardin de l’Arsenal. Home to the city’s largest Chinatown, the 13th parades a hidden village charm many don’t even suspect of (Cité Florale, Square des Peupliers); other landmarks include the huge modern National Library on the banks of the Seine and the notorious hospital Salpétriere (an ex-gunpowder factory, converted to a dumping ground for the poor, a prison for prostitutes and a holding place for the mentally disabled in its turbulent past). Aaah…the 14th– with its macabre catacombs, romantic Montparnasse cemetery and the artistically historic Montparnasse boulevard! The largest of all 20 districts, both in terms of size and population, the 15thholds the rights to the unduly scorned Montparnasse tower, the Pasteur museum (housed in the scientist’s last apartment and full of personal and scientific memorabilia) and Aquaboulevard, Europe’s largest waterpark. With a reputation of being the richest, the 16th arrondissement offers some eye-candy in terms of some fancy Parisian architecture, the famous Trocadéro square and the bourgeois Bois de Boulogne. Starting at the Arc of Triumph and the Étoile, the 17th borders the famous grands boulevards and features the Place de Clichy, an eclectic area once frequented by Edouard Manet and other 19th century artists. The Sacré-Coeur basilica, the Place du Tertre, the Moulin Rouge and the bohemian and village-like charm of old Montmartre count as the 18th arrondissement’s major highlights. The 19th, a district of parks, hosts another picnic favourite – the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (whose most eminent feature is the Temple of Sybille perched atop a cliff 30m above an artificial lake – a miniature version of the famous ancient Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli) and the vibrant Parc de la Villette, famous for its open-air summer movie festival, Europe’s largest science museum and Paris’ Conservatory. Finally the edge of the escargot’s shell takes us to the 20th arrondissement, home of Edith Piaf, the districts of Belleville and Ménilmontant (emblems of working class Paris becoming trendy with the young crowd) and the world’s arguably most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise.
Be adventurous and happy rambling!