My Highly Subjective View of Paris Neighborhoods

Although I made many elaborate plans for my time in Paris, almost all of them fell apart as soon as I walked out the door on my first day. The host at my first AirBnB told me that the best way to explore Paris is on foot, so I embarked on my first session of hard-core tourism at the Tuileries Garden and Champs Elysée walking from my neighborhood of Goutte D’Or on the far Northern edge of the city. I was planning on taking a fairly direct route through the miles of winding streets that separated me from the main tourist strip, but that regimentation fell apart immediately. It seems that almost every square inch of Paris is packed with some new surprise (except maybe some parts of the 20th arrondissement), and thinking you can aloofly zip through most of it to reach the pomp and circumstance of the city center is a huge mistake, and knowing myself, a quite unrealistic expectation.

Although I’ll make no comment on how the devolution of my plans to blissful wandering affected my writing, I think I discovered a wider swath of the city than ninety percent of Paris visitors. I might not have seen quite as many conventional “sights” as travel writing demands, but I slowly absorbed a broad understanding of the city as a whole. Building off my vaguer experience, I decided to share my opinionated takes on the neighborhoods I felt the strongest about, rather than delving into anything more specific. Who needs a destination anyway? Better to find the right place to wander.

1st Arrondissement/ The Louvre
Will Rhatigan | Lets Go

I’m going to give it to you straight on this one. Should you see the Louvre? Probably. How is it? A consumerist hellscape. There you have it folks, no delicacies on this one. This refers to the whole first arrondissement, as the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden take up more than half of the neighborhood’s area. Although there are some calm spots for a rest under the dense square trees in the Tuileries Garden, the sea of selfie-taking tourists, people selling tiny eiffel towers, and people buying tiny eiffel towers made me feel like one of the sharp little objects was going to be shot through my skull at any moment. Ok, it’s not quite that bad, but it becomes clear quite quickly that this entire area is meant to be looked at once from people around the world, and never used by a resident. Now that I’ve gotten my vindictiveness out of the way, I promise you that none of my other takes will be this punishing (except maybe the Champs-Élysée).

Canal St. Martin
Will Rhatigan | Lets Go

Just five minutes from the hostel I was staying in for my second week is the Canal St. Martin, a long waterway stretching down from the Northern edge of the city to the Place de la Bastille. Stop by on a weekend night and both bank will be lined end to end with young Parisien relaxing with a bottle of wind. The culture of picnicking with friends in parks was even stronger that my stereotypes led me to believe. It’s beautiful to see that in the world of mass media, the entire city seems to come out on warm nights to enjoy nature and conversation with friends.

Besides the canal scene however, the entire neighborhood surrounding the waterway is one of the most diverse, vibrant, and livable in Paris. With barely an English menu in sight, you know that this is a place where people are actually living. Influences from all around the world shape the streets, with Thai Food, Halal butcheries, and even two welcome Taqueria’s packed into the small strip of streets along with traditional French cafés and Boulangeries.

Buttes aux Cailles
Will Rhatigan | Lets Go

Hidden miles from the city center in the 13th arrondissement, Butte aux Cailles was the discovery I was most excited about in all my wandering through Paris. A small, dense neighborhood with lively bars and restaurants, the Butte is packed onto a small hill with low buildings that look like an ancient French village and narrow cobblestone streets. It’s home to my favorite restaurant in Paris: Les Temps de Cerises, a traditional French restaurant that is managed as jointly-owned cooperative between the workers. I was lucky to have a long conversation with a friendly server while I was there, in a French I just barely understood, in which I learned the history of his remarkable restaurant, and gained some more love for this friendly, old neighborhood.  Yet along with the comfortable village feel, the Butte also boasts the most fascinating street art scene in the city, with transgressive, strange pieces all over the wall, that prove this village has its feet firmly in twenty-first century politics.

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