View of the Seine river through Paris from the Eiffel Tower.

The Seine divides Paris into la rive gauche and la rive droite. Photo © Artur Staszewski, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Metropolitan France, or what the locals refer to as La Métropole, is carved into 22 culturally distinct regions, including the island of Corsica. Each of these regions is further divided into 96 départements, and, in the manner of Russian dolls, each department contains arrondissements, cantons, and communes. For the day-to-day practical purposes of the expat, knowing your regions and departments is what matters most.

The first thing a newcomer learns when arriving in Paris is that it is carved into 20 distinct regions called arrondissements.Departments are numbered alphabetically, beginning with Ain (01) and ending with Val d’Oise (95). Corsica is the one anomaly, with two departmental codes—2A and 2B, representing Corse du Sud and Haute Corse—standing in for 20. In the same way that all French phone numbers begin with a two-digit sequence that indicates the region, French license plates bear the two-digit departmental number at the end of the seven-character alphanumeric sequence. This indicates where that car was registered and makes for a great game during long-haul road trips.

Each department has its own elected officials and an administrative capital known as a préfecture. The préfectures—the places to go to register a birth, report a death, acquire a driver’s or a marriage license, or register a new address—are responsible for carrying out national law on a local level. This system, first instituted under Napoléon I, allows local administrative hubs to function with a certain degree of autonomy within the centralized French government. Préfectures are also the primary public administration zone most foreign nationals get to know on an intimate level; expect to spend hours here waiting in line, having your dossier scrutinized, and ultimately registering your legal status as a temporary resident in France.

Arrondissements

The first thing a newcomer learns when arriving in Paris is that it is carved into 20 distinct regions called arrondissements, each an administrative unit with its own mayor and town hall. These districts spiral out clockwise from the geographic center of the city, ending in the northwestern quadrant. La Tour Eiffel and the Musée d’Orsay can be found in the 7th; the Louvre is just across the river in the 1st. Sacré-Coeur is in the 18th, and the Quartier Latin is in the 5th. Studying a map of the city—or, better still, picking up the very handy pocket-size Michelin map atlas of Paris—will facilitate your orientation within each of the various districts.

Color map of Paris broken down into neighborhoods.

Map of Paris

While there are legions of commuters who live outside the city and drive or take public transport in each day, many more Parisians live and work within a short distance of their homes. For those who do traverse the city for work, the efficient, relatively fast public transportation network means no point within the périphérique is more than 45 minutes away.

Rive Gauche and Rive Droite

Each of the two sides of Paris, la rive gauche and la rive droite, has its own special flavor, and locals feel passionate about the benefits of their side of the Seine. The Left Bank (Rive Gauche) is where you’ll find the Sorbonne, the Eiffel Tower, the Catacombs, and those cafés and brasseries made famous by centuries of writers and philosophers: Brasserie Lipp, Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore. Today, it seems that more tourists than locals are pulling up chairs at those revered sidewalk terraces, but if you move just south of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, you’ll discover homey neighborhoods and a safe, child-friendly atmosphere. The Left Bank feels more sedate, more residential, and slightly less populaire, or working-class crowded. If it weren’t for the tourists, you might not know you were in Paris.

On the other side of the river, you’ll find the Champs-Elysées, the Marais, the Bastille, and Sacré Coeur. The Right Bank (Rive Droite) feels hipper, younger, and edgier, particularly in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Belleville and La Villette. Paris’s gay hub is here, in the old streets of the Marais; and just north of the Bastille, on rue de la Roquette and rue Oberkampf, you’ll find the highest concentration of pierced and tattooed locals.

La Défense

Paris doesn’t have a typical “downtown” in the way that, say, New York City has Lower Manhattan or San Francisco has its financial district. But what it does have is La Défense, a cluster of skyscrapers on the southwest edge of the city where more than 150,000 workers migrate seven days a week. As well as being home to high-tech corporations, government offices, and state-run businesses, La Défense also houses the region’s largest shopping mall, Les Quatre Temps (open on Sundays), and a handful of residential complexes.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad Paris.