For any visitor, it can sound complicated. “I’ll meet you in the 4th” or, “I’m staying on the left bank – the right is too boogie for me.” In reality, it’s not all that complicated. This article will answer what Rive Gauche & Rive Droite mean along with a background on the arrondissements of Paris!
Paris is a sprawling metropolis that has been built and added to for over 2000 years. The modern inhabitants, Parisians, have created many local terms to simplify the city – for them.
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The Quick Answer
We’ll cover a lot of local references in this post, but if you want a quick answer here it is.
Right Bank (Rive Droite) – Facing west (towards the ocean) it is the right side of the Seine river in Paris. North of the Seine river.
Left Bank (Rive Gauche) – Facing west (towards the ocean) it is the left side of the Seine rive rin Paris. South of the Seine.
Arrondissement – There are 20 in Paris. They spiral out clockwise starting with the area where the Louvre and Tuileries Gardens are. The central arrondissement are small and they get larger as you spiral out.
There is your quick answer. Read on if you want to understand the local nuances surrounding these terms, learn the history, and try to pronounce them properly.
What is an Arrondissement?
Before getting fully into the history of Right and Left bank, you need to understand the significance of the arrondissement of Paris. A brief history timeline:
1795 – Paris divided into 12 arrondissements. The first 9 were on the right bank and the remaining 3 on the left.
1850/60 – Napoleon III began planning the expansion of Paris which was passed into law and took effect in 1860. 12 arrondissement became 20.
Not much has changed since then. A funny historical mention came out of the inhabitants of an area named “Passy” which was the 1st in the original 12-arr. format.
When they first released the plan for the new city layout it put Passy in the 13th arrondissement which infuriated the residents. Apparently, there was a saying, “they were married in the 13th” which was a sort of snide way of referring to unmarried couples cohabitating together.
Passy was a particularly wealthy neighborhood and they didn’t want to be in the new 13th. They had the layout changed and now they are in the 16th.
Are you getting tired of saying arrondissement? It is a long word and you can imagine saying it all the time would be taxing – and it is. Locals simply say, “the 5th.” instead of the 5th arrondissement.
Also, in literature, you’ll see it written out as “arr.”. You’d never be able to fit your thoughts into a tweet if you had to spell it out every time you’re talking about Paris!
If you want to be cool, you can book a room in the Latin Quarter, and when someone asks you where you are staying just reply, “the 5th.”
The Right Bank Rive Droite
Pronunciation: Reev Daw-wa-tt
Historically, the right bank has been home to the commercial centers of Paris. Mostly inhabited by Paris’ upper class with a high concentration of wealth. It was originally a place of industry inhabited by the industrious.
The right bank is also home to some of Paris’ greatest museums including the Louvre, Musée de Art Moderne, and Musée de l’Orangerie. Pretty impressive.
Basically, Paris’ elite lives on the right bank, and would most of their bars, restaurants, and establishments would be run by persons from the left bank who was historically less industrious (wealthy).
Later, persons from the right bank started to venture to the left bank to visit Saint Germain des Prés neighborhood and sit at Café des Deux Magots which was frequented by the left bank literary crowd to the likes of Picasso, James Joyce, and Hemingway.
From this point, all of Paris rose in stature and now either side of the Seine is known for being expensive!
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The Left Bank Rive Gauche
Pronunciation: Reev Gaush
The left bank has been historically considered Paris’ bohemian district. This was due to la Sorbonne and other universities popping up in the Latin Quarter (5th & 6th arr.).
The students didn’t have any money so housing in this part was cheap. The artists flocked towards the cheap housing and the traditional wealthy from the right bank avoided the area like the plague – which at times it had.
While la Sorbonne and the university district had a lot to do with the bohemian feel, the left bank wouldn’t be what it was in the early 20th century without the help of an American named Sylvia Beach.
In 1919 she founded the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Many foreign English language writers and poets probably enjoyed the mother tongue feel of the shop. It attracted the likes of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and many others.
James Joyce even published Ulysses via Sylvia Beach but she wasn’t his first choice. I could imagine Joyce venting and Slyvia replies, “You know what? Screw them, I’ll publish your book!”
Merriam Webster Dictionary states the first use of “left-bank” in literature was in 1915 but it could have existed far prior.
Modern Day Left Bank vs Right Bank
Today, there is very little difference between the left and right banks. The bohemian vs capitalists stereotype is in the past. Today, all real estate in the city of light is expensive and both sides are plenty booshie.
You still have an artistic student scene in the 5th and 6th (left) but the le Marais (right) is considered the most artistic and trendy neighborhood in Paris today.
Where do I stay when going to Paris? The closer I am to Notre Dame the better for me. Easy walking access to tons of bars and restaurants and great metro connections to the rest of the city.