For anyone who thought learning French was challenging, grasping the layout of the French capital might seem even trickier. That's because areas of Paris are often referred to in multiple ways — by bank, by neighborhood, by Métro station and by arrondissement. Keeping one straight from the other can be confusing, especially because they overlap. But the administrative method of delineating the city is by arrondissement, and that is a great way to start to get to know Paris.
The arrondissements (pronounced ur·aan·duhs·muhnts) of the roughly circular city are laid out in a spiral starting on the Right Bank, which is the land on the right side of the Seine River if you are floating along it heading west. The arrondissement numbers cross the Seine four times as they move outward, clockwise from 1 to 20.
The word "arrondissement" is often translated as district or borough, if it's translated at all, though it usually isn't because it's a special type of territorial division. Each arrondissement has a name, based mainly on the most famous site in each, its own town hall, mayor and other elected officials, but over all of them is the Mayor of Paris, explains Steve Smith, co-author with Rick Steves of several guidebooks on France.
History of the Arrondissements
The arrondissements were first established in 1795, during the French Revolution, when the city was divided into 12 of them, according to French Moments. But over time, the city grew in population and territory.
By 1860, Paris had incorporated some of its suburbs, and was getting a major facelift at the hands of Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. Haussmann was a French official who served as prefect of Seine (1853–1870) and carried out a massive urban renewal program of new boulevards, parks and public spaces, commonly referred to as "Haussmann's renovation of Paris." With these changes, the number of arrondissements was increased to 20.
Plus ça change (The more things change ...)
Recently, Paris underwent another adjustment to its arrondissements. In 2020, the four with the smallest populations were combined into one administrative district called Paris Central. Luckily, those four were the 1st through the 4th, so they are contiguous and on the same bank. Officially, there are now 17 arrondissements — Paris Central and the 5th through the 20th.
"They recently collapsed four of the central arrondissements into one," says Smith. "And that is because they lost population over time. It's an administrative thing more than anything else."
Unless you are planning to vote in the former 1st through 4th arrondissements, the new Paris Central will have little effect on your time in Paris and the first four arondissements still exist. Though they are now grouped together for administrative reasons, the city’s postcodes will not change and maps of the city will continue to show 20 arrondissements.
Touring the Arrondissements
Of more interest to the visitor is how to choose which arrondissements to visit. "There's such a variety of things to see and do," says Smith.
Here are some of his favorite must-sees and a few others you won't want to miss.
1st Arrondissement — Louvre
This is the arrondissement where many well-known sights are. Smith recommends visiting the Louvre Museum during late hour nights, which are offered twice a week, and touring the interior of Sainte-Chapelle church.
2nd Arrondissement — Bourse
Smith suggests enjoying the city's arcaded passages. "The Galerie Vivienne, the Passage Choiseul, the Galerie Colbert, the Passage des Princes, the Passage du Grand Cerf, are a joy to stroll," he says.
3rd Arrondissement — Temple
Shop with locals at one of Paris' most atmospheric markets, the 400-year-old Marché des Enfants Rouge, then enjoy a coffee on the pleasant rue de Bretagne.
4th Arrondissement — Hôtel-de-Ville
Find a bench and savor what Smith calls Paris' most appealing square, Place des Vosges. And check out the Centre Pompidou by visiting its galleries or simply taking in its surprising architecture. You'll find the Notre-Dame Cathedral here too, well on its way to being rebuilt after the 2019 fire.
5th Arrondissement — Panthéon
Tour the medieval museum of Cluny, then wander the medieval lanes of the Latin quarter. Buy a book at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookshop.
6th Arrondissement — Luxembourg
Relax in what, according to Smith, is the city's most beautiful park, the Jardin du Luxembourg.
7th Arrondissement — Palais-Bourbon
Tour the Musée d'Orsay, where you can take in Manet, Monet, Van Gogh and more, then walk the traffic-free riverside promenade to the Eiffel Tower.
8th Arrondissement — Élysée
Cruise the Champs-Élysées and climb the Arc de Triomphe for sensational views.
9th Arrondissement — Opéra
10th Arrondissement — Entrepôt
Have a coffee along the non-touristy Canal Saint-Martin, then stroll its banks stopping to watch locals play pétanque.
11th Arrondissement — Popincourt
Shop the outdoor market along the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, starting at Place de la Bastille.
12th Arrondissement — Reuilly
Take a refreshing walk along the elevated Coulée Verte René-Dumont, also called Promenade Plantée, a former railway line. If you're a hiker, find a trail in the beautiful Bois de Vincennes.
13th Arrondissement — Gobelins
Cross the whimsical pedestrian-only Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, enjoying views of the modern City of Fashion and Design complex.
14th Arrondissement — Observatoire
Visit the creepy but fascinating Catacombs, which extend 65 feet (20 meters) underground.
15th Arrondissement — Vaugirard
Elevate up to one of Paris's grandest views from the rooftop of the modern Montparnasse Tower, the tallest building in Paris. Get started early, and have breakfast at the top, recommends Smith.
16th Arrondissement — Passy
Savor spectacular views of the Eiffel Tower from Place du Trocadero, both during the day and after dark.
17th Arrondissement — Batignolles-Monceau
Take a detour into this residential district and pay a visit to the 21st-century Parc Clichy-Batignolles - Martin Luther King.
18th Arrondissement — Butte-Montmartre
Tour the sights and views from Paris' lone hill in bohemian Montmartre, starting with the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.
19th Arrondissement — Buttes-Chaumont
Go local at the vast Parc de la Villette with its science museums and canal-front setting.
20th Arrondissement — Ménilmontant
Allocate ample time for Père Lachaise Cemetery, where some of Paris' most fascinating residents like Edith Piaf, Honoré de Balzac, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried.