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Where to Stay in Paris

Thomas DiPiero

First-time travelers to Paris will want to know two things right from the start: Parisians are nowhere near as rude as legend makes them out to be; and popular opinion to the contrary, Paris is actually a very affordable city. In fact, if you play your cards right you can stay in a charming - heck, downright enchanting - neighborhood and still have enough euros left to experiment with Paris' renowned cuisine and nightlife.

Paris is divided into twenty neighborhoods called arrondissements, and they're arranged in an outward spiral beginning at the city's center. The River Seine divides the city between north and south - the famous rive gauche and rive droite (left bank and right bank) romanticized in so many novels and films. Tradition has it that the left bank is the bohemian heart of the city, while the right bank hosts high-priced sophistication and the world's best shopping. The truth, however, is that you'll find a splendid mix of peculiar charm and posh urbanity pretty much wherever you go.

Map provided by Venere, used with permission.

The 20 arrondissements of Paris

The Left Bank

The Latin Quarter: Students and Tourists

5th arrondissement

It's pretty hard not to associate Paris first and foremost with the Latin Quarter, so named because students from around the world at one time actually spoke Latin to one another here as their only common language. Scholars have in fact been descending on this part of the city since the thirteenth century.

With the Boulevard St. Michel as its north-south axis, the Latin Quarter generally offers inexpensive to moderately priced places to stay. Folks tend to be on the younger side in this part of town, even if many are somewhat past the age of your typical student, and one of the things that draws people here is the neighborhood's reputation for nightlife. Most establishments are open late, and revelers will spill out of cafes and bars until the wee hours of the morning.

Yet, there are calmer neighborhoods here as well, and one can be centrally located without having to give up a good night's sleep. In addition to the hectic, densely-packed youthful tourist areas most people associate with the Latin Quarter - centered at the intersection of Saint Michel and Saint Germain and radiating out toward the Seine to both the east and west - there are also the calmer neighborhoods such as those surrounding the Panthon and those further south and east, in the area around the rue des Ecoles, for example, and the smaller streets in the vicinity of the rue Saint Jacques.

A rich variety of restaurants, mostly inexpensive to moderately priced, representing virtually any ethnicity you can think of, complements a host of bars and cafes aimed at the hip, the rad, the gullible, or the just plain curious.

Shopping is geared for the most part toward the youth market, but what's especially appealing here is that, since this is one of the oldest parts of the city (some of the streets here date back to the eleventh century) there remain a large number of specialty stores and unusual little boutiques. You'll find enough bookstores - both general and highly specialized - to please the most discerning bibliophile, and the Latin Quarter even hosts an absolutely terrific open-air food market three days a week at the Place Maubert (the drawback is that there are very few decent supermarkets in this area, but plenty of small Mom and Pop food shops).

For a change of pace, check out the Jardin des Plantes (a gigantic horticultural garden), and go to the Mosque right nearby for a cup of tea. The Institut du Monde Arabe is also a must-see.

Finally, the Latin Quarter also happens to be about as centrally located as you can be in Paris, and it's a relatively easy walk to the vast majority of tourist destinations from here.

Saint-Germain-des-Pres: Trendy and Chic

6th arrondissement

As you move west in the Latin Quarter along the Seine and down the boulevard Saint Germain, student hip blurs into fashionable chic. Trendy bars, nightclubs, and restaurants dot this part of town, which also hosts a great many of the city's best and most outrageously priced art galleries. Some of the city's best known cafes dot the boulevard Saint Germain here, and the smaller streets between this busy thoroughfare and the river harbor some truly exceptional small restaurants and one-of-a-kind jewelry and other specialty shops. You'll likely pay a bit of a premium for staying in this part of town, but there are some bargains to be had as you move away from the river.

The gorgeous and expansive Luxembourg Gardens are an easy walk from most any spot in this district of Paris, and Sunday afternoon strolls or launching a sailboat in one of the grounds' pools are longstanding traditions. The area around Odon is always hopping, and this area is particularly rich in movie houses. The very picturesque church Saint-Germain-des-Pres, built over uneven cobblestones and offering a kind of fortress-like feeling, towers over the square, which also hosts one of the city's most famous cafes, the Deux Magots, frequented by such literary luminaries as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Also nearby is Saint Sulpice and its lovely square (and one of France's most famous actresses lives here).

Plus, if you're going to be in court, you're a short hop to the Ile de la Cite.

Montparnasse and Alsia: Urban and Urbane

14th arrondissement

If you want to be away from the hectic activity of Paris' center, but don't want to be out in the sticks, you might find the 14th arrondissement just your cup of cafe creme.

The boulevard du Montparnasse, on the neighborhood's northern border, is home to some of the best restaurants and cafes of the (alas!) gone, but certainly not forgotten, existential and literary set (La Coupole, Le Select, Le Dme, La Rotonde, La Closerie des Lilas). The area around Alsia enjoyed quite a popular expansion some years back and now has some excellent hangouts.

Even though some consider it a bit off the beaten track, the area surrounding the Porte d'Orlans is quirky and attractive, too. You'll get much better prices on places to stay here, you'll find the pace a little less frantic than in the places described above, but at the same time you'll still feel the throb of the city.

This area hosts Paris' only skyscraper, the Tour Montparnasse, which sticks out of the cityscape like some sort of looming, monolithic alien creature (and yes, you can go to the top and look out), and it also contains the Observatoire, which dates back to the time of Louis XIV. If you're a big book and/or CD fan, you can't do better than the giant FNAC, sort of a Borders Book Store, only bigger and much better. Fans of graphic novels might even get their fill here.

The Right Bank

The Ile Saint-Louis: Quiet in the Heart of Paris

4th arrondissement

Could you get any more picturesque? Not even on a postcard. The Ile Saint-Louis is the smaller of the two islands in the Seine and, since it has no government offices on it (unlike its sister island the Ile de la Cite), it's calm and relatively quiet (except around the Berthillon ice cream shop at the western end of the island, where the remarkable confections sometimes cause people to lose their heads - a guy once actually picked a fight with me over who was ahead in line [I won]).

There aren't tons of places to stay here, and they're not going to be cheap, but you can't beat the charm and hospitality of the digs here. Since this is the very center of the city most of the buildings date back at least as far as the eighteenth century, and many well before that; that makes for really interesting accommodations, and there's a good chance someone famous in history or literature slept right nearby (just check out the plaques above the buildings' entrances).

The great thing about the Ile Saint-Louis is that you're pretty much in the geographical center of the city, but since it's a small island without much more than a handful of great restaurants and some interesting (not to say exotic or even bizarre) shops, it's tranquil and conducive to silence and just being a little low key.

For a truly enchanting Paris experience you just can't beat the utterly charming and totally romantic walk around the island along the river at night. Furthermore, a short walk across one of the bridges and you're smack in the heart of the Latin Quarter or the extremely trendy Marais (see below). If you're serious about food, it's also just a short and pleasant walk to one of the world's most famous restaurants, the Tour d'Argent (um, get the duck). Plus there's the ice cream.

The Marais: Trendy, Bustling, Throbbing

4th and 3rd arrondissements

Tourists party in the Latin Quarter; locals head to the Marais for nighttime entertainment. The Marais was once a largely Jewish neighborhood, and in fact there is still a significant and active Jewish population here, centered largely around the rue des Rosiers and the surrounding streets.

Since a great many of the shops here are open on Sunday, Sunday afternoon strolls through the Marais are pretty much de rigueur in nice weather; Saturday night clubbing is the other required activity. Most, but by no means all of the night spots here cater to a gay clientele, with the majority of the action located in the part of the Marais located in the 4th arrondissement, just north of the rue de Rivoli and west of the rue du Renard. On weekends the main streets are bustling with activity at 3:00 - am or pm - and this is the place for late dinners at either smart hole-in-the-wall cafes or the latest chic and trendy restaurant.

You'll also find the hippest clothing stores here, probably leaning a little more toward men's gear than to women's.

If you move north a bit in the Marais - especially in the portion that spills over into the 3rd arrondissement - you'll find things significantly quieter. Like the Latin Quarter, the Marais has two distinct personalities: it's both ultra hip and trendy (not to say bitchy), and quiet and mysterious (not to say lifeless). The Marais is close to the Pompidou Center (Beaubourg), to Rpublique (where it so happens that more metro lines cross than at any other station), and the Canal Saint Martin, which has become the place to be, especially in warm weather.

Montmartre: Village Life in the Big City

18th arrondissement

High atop the city, not quite at its northern edge, is the butte Montmartre - the hillock that myriad artists adopted, beginning in the nineteenth century, for their studios and exhibition spaces. Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, and Renoir were among the painters who called Montmartre their artistic home, and a number of literary luminaries, including Apollinaire and Max Jacob were practically permanent installations. The famous Bateau-Lavoir, where a dozen artists had their studios, can be found on the place Emile Goudeau (and although a fire largely destroyed the place in 1970 you can still check out the outside), as well as the Lapin Agile, a cabaret founded in the nineteenth century frequented by the artists and poets named above as well as by generations of writers, actors and musicians.

Montmartre was long the bohemian mecca of Paris' art and music set, and even if the Place du Tertre at the top of the hill is a giant tourist trap today ("artists" will descend on you like leeches to draw an unflattering caricature of you or your unsuspecting companions), the surrounding area is gorgeous and it has magnificent views of the city. Tiny winding streets snake around stone walls and at least one windmill; quiet restaurants and cafes dot the hillside. The charming Place des Abbesses is in this vicinity (and its metro stop features one of the only two remaining original beautiful art deco canopies at the entrance), and, of course, there's the austere and imposing Sacr Coeur basilica guarding the top of the hill.

You're a little off the beaten path up here, which is one very good reason to stay here, and of course metro and bus lines will still take you anywhere you want to go.

Champs Elyses: All that Glitters Can't be Good

8th arrondissement

OK, so I've tipped my hand. I'm not fond of this part of town, but you might be, so I'll try to be objective. All that is excessive lies spread out before you here, in glamour and glitz that isn't especially in the best of taste (if you want glamour and glitz that's in impeccable taste, however, head over to Pyramides, to the Place Vendme, to the avenue de l'Opra, or to Passy). The Champs Elyses looks like something Disney dreamed up in an attempt to capture the spirit of French sophistication, and in the same way that Disney unwittingly parodies the different countries represented at Epcot Center, the Champs Elysees seems to parody French high-class cool.

The areas immediately surrounding the Champs Elyses are much more appealing, but the area is so expensive and so less interesting than other places you could stay in Paris, I just don't know why you'd bother.

There: how's that for objective?

How to Choose

So, what if I haven't covered things you're interested in? Consider the chart below for some suggestions of neighborhoods people don't always think of when considering where to stay in Paris (numbers in parentheses indicate arrondissement):

If you are a:

Then consider this area:

Intense partier Oberkampf (11), Bastille (4, 11)
Art lover Rue de Rivoli (1), Quai d'Orsay (7)
Park person Buttes Chaumont (19), Porte d'Orlans (14), Monge (5)
Shop 'til drop guy Havre-Caumartin (9), Rennes (6)
Seventies modernism gal La Dfense (western suburb)
French history buff Invalides (7)
Urban suburb denizen Michel-Ange (16)
Library geek Tolbiac (13)
Food nut arrondissements 1 - 20

 

Want to avoid all the tourists? Stay away from mid-July through August (the month pretty much everything is closed anyway). Paris in April is spectacular (that song ain't for nothing), and September and October are pretty good, too (although it tends to rain a lot in October).

Where's my favorite place to stay? You probably wouldn't guess it from what I've written here, but I'm pretty partial to the 5th- the Latin Quarter - mainly because it's an easy walk to so many things, because there's always something going on, because "all the tourists" that people like to complain about rarely bother me, and because it's easy for me to get to where I need to be.

But that's just me.

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Thomas DiPiero has lived and worked in Paris as a salesman, a university instructor, a translator, and a consultant. He currently lives in upstate New York, but spends several months a year in France. He runs the website Tom's Guide to Paris.

© Thomas DiPiero, 2005

Map from Venere - our hotel booking affiliate. Used with permission.

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