We report on the northern and eastern suburbs of Paris, areas that are typically mentioned in French news only when something terrible happens. These areas are perceived as poor, predominantly inhabited by immigrants, and even some French people are afraid to venture there. However, the stereotypes about crime in the Parisian suburbs have been exaggerated by the media, and these areas have undergone active gentrification in recent years.
During their first visit to Paris, tourists usually stroll through the city center and along the banks of the Seine, visit the Louvre and Orsay museums, try popular French dishes like Clafoutis and Duck Confit, and queue in the Marais district for the freshest baguette. By the end of their trip, they know which wine from which province they like best. But for those not on their first or even second visit to the French capital, experiencing Parisian life beyond the city center is a must.
In Montreuil, for example, there are many artists and craftsmen, and in the 18th district and Aubervilliers, there are descendants of workers from the 19th century industrial revolution. Paris is constantly changing, and these processes are best observed away from the tourist center.
The author of this article, Alexandra Belova, is a trained anthropologist. After graduating in Saint-Denis (one of the suburbs we will discuss), she stayed out of love, not necessity, and commutes daily to work in Paris.
Why the Suburbs of Paris Are the Way They Are
France is divided into 12 regions, which are composed of departments. These departments, in turn, consist of several cities divided into districts. Paris is part of the Ile-de-France region, which comprises eight departments. One of these is Seine-Saint-Denis, which we discuss in our article. This department includes cities like Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers, Montreuil, Pantin, Romainville, and others. Paris itself is divided into 20 districts, with the 18th and 19th districts historically and socially connected to the cities of Seine-Saint-Denis.
To recap: Region – Department – City – District.
It’s necessary to consider the aforementioned areas in the context of their history and culture. Two centuries of industrialization and urbanization have shaped the current population and its economic situation. As noted in an article by the French magazine Projet, three main components define the landscape of the Parisian suburbs: the decline of industrialization since the mid-1950s, the legacy of the “red suburbs,” i.e., the high proportion of Communists reflecting the interests of the working class, and the construction of large housing estates and the crisis of this model, which began in the 1970s.
In the mid-19th century, Paris consisted of 12 districts. In 1860, Napoleon III annexed some suburbs of the capital, which today form the 13th to 20th districts. Here were located social housing, hospitals, and cemeteries – these neighborhoods already differed from the city center 150 years ago.
The 18th and 19th districts, as well as the surrounding suburbs which later became independent cities – Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers, Pantin – had extensive industrial production, especially in the fields of chemistry and metallurgy. In the 1950s, deindustrialization began, leading to the closure of factories, job losses, and the impoverishment of the population.
All the districts described in this article were historically working-class areas. Since the industrialization of the 19th century, immigrants from villages and their families settled there. To meet their labor needs after World War II, authorities actively recruited foreign migrants, including those from former French colonies. They began building cost-effective housing for the newcomers – multi-story buildings that are even taller today.
The political and economic decisions of the last 150 years have thus had a direct influence on how the suburbs look today. Nevertheless, the places described in this article are safe, although sometimes very crowded.
The stereotypes about the Parisian suburbs have evolved over the years, but they are not always accurate anymore. Certain parts of the capital and its suburbs are feared not only by tourists but also by the French themselves. The Seine-Saint-Denis department, for example, is known for its high population density, poverty, and unemployment. Almost 30% of the people live below the poverty line. Statistically, the crime rate here is indeed higher than the national average. But even in Paris, which has the highest crime rate of all French cities, vigilance is required. The only recommendation, as for Paris in general and any other tourist city, is to watch out for bags and personal items in crowded places. Knife robberies, as in some Latin American countries, are not common. Also, the chances of participating in a demonstration in the center of Paris are now much higher than in the suburbs.
Political scientist Thomas Genolé writes in his book ‘Les Jeunes De Banlieue Mangent-ils les Enfants?’ (from French: “Do young people from the suburbs devour children?”) that most fears about the Parisian suburbs are based on xenophobic stereotypes. In reality, only a few people are involved in illegal activities; most are just working in low-paid jobs. The author believes that the media are largely responsible for the negative image of the suburbs.
A French acquaintance of the author, who lives in the 19th district – bordering the suburbs considered problematic – describes the difference between bourgeois Paris and the densely populated working-class districts as follows: “If you collapse and die on the street in the 16th (bourgeois district), no one cares. But if something happens on my street, all the neighbors come out and scream until the problem is solved.”
In these districts, people live like everywhere in Paris, not just “criminal gangs of African migrants.” Many imagine life in the Parisian suburbs like in the movie “La Haine” (1995) by Mathieu Cassovitz. Another recent film, “Les Misérables” (2019) by Ladj Ly, addresses similar issues – police brutality, hooliganism in the streets of disadvantaged neighborhoods, a sense of hopelessness. Of course, many of the problems are still current. But as a resident of the Parisian suburbs notes in an article in the New York Times, the level of security in the suburbs is still high. Nevertheless, journalists still only write about drug trafficking and car arson. Unfortunately, it is this image spread in the media that keeps tourists from leaving the center.
Nowadays, strong gentrification is taking place, making the Parisian suburbs safer, culture is developing, there are many delicious cafes with oriental and African cuisine. Moreover, everything in the suburbs is much cheaper. Lovers of art and vintage pieces, colorful locals, and immersion in the hustle and bustle of the city will love the Parisian suburbs.
District 18 – Coffee by Beaujolais Method and Exotic Cuisine from Benin, Togo, and Senegal
You can explore the suburbs without having to leave the Boulevard Périphérique that encircles Paris. A large part of the 18th district is occupied by the Montmartre hill, where famous artists like Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, and others lived. In the 19th century, factory workers settled in the north and northeast of the district. Balzac wrote about the poverty and misery prevailing there, but the situation has greatly improved in recent years. The district remains densely populated and one of the poorest in Paris. However, its proximity to Montmartre on one side and the flea market on the other makes it an increasingly attractive residential and commercial location. Today, exotic food stores from Africa are located here alongside organic boutiques.
Montmartre is listed in all travel guides for Paris, but as in any tourist area, restaurant prices are very high. We tell you where you can eat cheaply in the neighboring 18th district after a walk in Montmartre.
Eat at the tiny pizzeria Il Brigante (14 rue du Ruisseau), which doesn’t offer much space inside but has a large terrace. A pizza costs between 10-18 Euros. The menu features both classic and unusual pizzas, such as the Vivaldi with artichokes and bacon.
Great homemade cakes and muffins are available at Lomi (3 ter rue Marcadet). They are a roastery and seem to know everything about coffee. The founders deliberately opened their only café in the 18th district so that not only the residents of the center can enjoy delicious, experimental coffee. One of the varieties is made using the Beaujolais method, which is also known to lovers of the young French Beaujolais Nouveau. Like wine, the producers let the whole coffee berries ferment for several days, giving the bean a strong fruity note when roasted. You can buy the beans to take away: a bag costs about 10 €.
On the edge of the 18th district is La Recyclerie (83 bd Ornano), an urban farm with a café, where eco-friendly events and workshops take place. The tables are situated right next to the railway tracks. In the 19th century, Paris was surrounded by a 36-kilometer long “Petit Belt“ railway line, which was decommissioned in the 1930s. Today, much of the abandoned route has been transformed into a recreational area where urban farms and vegetable gardens are located. The sections accessible to the public (ranging from 200 meters to one and a half kilometers long) are equipped with paths, so you don’t have to walk through the underbrush.
The 18th district is home to immigrants from North and West Africa, which is why there are many ethnic cafés to be found here. At Lala (52 rue Championnet), they specialize in Senegalese cuisine. A hearty meal with Tiyeb (a stew of rice and vegetables, optionally with meat or fish) and Bananenplantane (fried green banana) costs about 15 €. Sometimes there is also live music. Beninese cuisine can be tried at Fifa (16 rue Joseph Dijon). Acassa, a pastry made from cornmeal, is popular not only in Benin but also in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. A recommended side dish is a Gombo meat sauce, which costs 15 €.
In the boutique Maison Chateau Rouge (40 bis rue Myrha), clothing made from traditional African fabrics and patterns is sold. The prices are high: a T-shirt costs about 85 €, a dress 130 €. All profits go to the association Les Oiseaux Migrateurs, which transfers money to African designers and others involved in clothing production.
At the eastern end of the district is the market hall La Chapelle (10 rue de l’Olive) with its affordable prices. The market is known for its selection of fresh fish, from the unmistakable dorade and sea bass to dragonheads and all kinds of seafood. The market building was constructed in the late 19th century under the direction of architect Jean-Auguste Mann. He took inspiration from the model designed by Victor Baltard for the Paris Central Market, made of glass, metal, and red brick. This one has been completely renovated, but La Chapelle has retained the original style, which serves as a model for other 19th-century markets. There are many small, inexpensive bars where you can take a break after shopping and have a glass of beer with the locals.
Just a five-minute walk away is a hidden gem for film enthusiasts – the unique boutique Affiche-cine (1 rue des Roses). Prices start at eight euros per poster, but there are also real rarities worth over 1,000 euros. The owner, Benoit, speaks English and is always ready to talk about the latest releases and classics.
19th District – Hiking on an Abandoned Railway and Playing Bingo with Parisian Drag Queens
The 19th district is known for its high concentration of “Bobos” (“Bourgeois Bohemians” or Hipsters, as they are called in France). The area is home to a significant community of orthodox Jews as well as many young people and students, which can be attributed to the affordable rents.
The overgrown “Petit Ceinture” (little belt) railway continues in this district. In a former train station, the jazz bar La Gare (1 avenue Corentin Cariou) has opened, which has developed into a cult spot in a few years. Until recently, there were free concerts every day except Sundays. After a closure and renovation, it reopened in September 2021. Jazz parties and DJ sets have been reintroduced. The bar is open from 17:00 to 6:00 and entry is still free. Depending on the day of the week, electric jazz, jazz-punk, and other genres alternate.
La Ferme du Rail (2 bis rue de l’Ourcq), or ‘Railway Farm’, is another eco-project on the site of the ‘Petit Ceinture’. In addition to the traditional garden beds of a typical farm, there are also newly built social housing units. The buildings differ from the typical apartment blocks usually associated with this type of housing – it seems that only wood and glass were used for construction. You can take a walk through the neighborhood before trying some of the vegetables grown on the farm in a local restaurant.
Le 104 (5 rue Curial) is a creative space where exhibitions of contemporary art, immersive performances, and dance events take place. You can watch or participate. Hip-Hop is usually danced. There is a discount for young people up to the age of 30 (most French museums offer reduced admission up to the age of 27). The exact price depends on the particular exhibition and event and ranges between 5 and 20 €.
In the north of the district is the park La Villette with the famous science museum Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. The structure of the universe, mathematical puzzles, traffic infrastructure, sound, energy, robots – this is an incomplete list of the topics of the permanent exhibition, but there are also temporary exhibitions. Many exhibits are interactive – for example, you can try out various sound effects.
To the right of the main entrance of the museum is the “Neo-Pub” À la Folie (Avenue Corentin Cariou). Drinking, grilling, dancing, laughing, and playing Pétanque are a great addition to the scientific exhibits. On Sunday afternoons, one of the local drag queens hosts a bingo game at the tavern. It’s an opportunity to play a familiar family game, not led by a man with a mustache shouting “Drumsticks!” but by an imposing man dressed as a woman. Participation is free, but you need to arrive on time. Parties like these have made the place not only a cult spot in the Parisian queer community but also among all open-minded people.
Just a stone’s throw from the Park Buttes-Chaumont, famous for its rocks, lies the secret neighborhood of Mouzaïa (rue de Mouzaïa). The small private houses, blooming gardens, and narrow streets have a more rural character. At the beginning of the 20th century, gypsum was mined in this area, making it dangerous to build larger buildings.
Saint-Denis: Home of the World’s First Gothic Building and One of the Area’s Most Famous Markets
Saint-Denis is named after Saint Denis (3rd century), the first Bishop of Paris. According to legend, he was beheaded on what is now Montmartre, but Denis did not die immediately. He picked up his head and walked the six kilometers to the place that now bears his name.
Saint-Denis is a product of the industrial revolution. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it hosted one of the largest industrial zones in Europe. Chemical and steel plants required labor and attracted migrants from all over Europe and later from around the world. These workers settled nearby, ultimately shaping the design of Saint-Denis and the adjacent cities.
The Basilica of Saint-Denis from the 12th and 13th centuries is one of the most frequently visited attractions in the city. This Gothic cathedral, one of many in Paris, is however unique. First, it is considered the first Gothic building in the world and second, it houses a royal necropolis. Charlemagne, Louis XIV (as well as most of his predecessors), Marie Antoinette, and other kings and queens are buried here. You can enjoy a free concert of classical and medieval music if you check the schedule before your visit. The crypt is classified as a museum – there is an admission fee. The visit to the Basilica itself is free.
In the square in front of the church, a market takes place every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from 8 am to 2 pm, where everything from jewelry to carpets is sold. Saint-Denis has been a market town since antiquity. Today, it is not just a market for the locals, but also for Parisians who come with their shopping trolleys. The prices are significantly lower than in the city and it is the largest and most attractive market in the Seine-Saint-Denis department.
Seine-Saint-Denis is the most important French department for immigrants. Hundreds of languages are spoken on the streets, and local cafés serve dishes from all over the world. The famous rapper Grand Corps Malade mentions in his song for Saint-Denis cities that give the feeling of strolling through the market: Algeria, Tangier in Morocco, New Delhi in India, Karachi in Pakistan, Bamako in Mali, and others.
In August, street vendors roast corn over charcoal on supermarket carts. In the colder months, they switch to chestnuts. However, there were somewhat fewer street vendors during the pandemic. Locals claim that the Algerian-born chef at the unassuming restaurant Au bon Coin (3 rue du Cygne) prepares the best royal couscous in town with meat and vegetables.
Opposite the restaurant is Artefact 93 (2 rue du Cygne), an association of craftsmen and artists. Here, quirky designer bags, jewelry, and crockery are sold. The locals also offer events and workshops that might be of interest to Francophones.
One of the most famous songs and the anthem of the department, still heard at parties by the French, is ‘Seine-Saint-Denis Style‘. There are dozens of songs dedicated to the neighborhoods mentioned in our article.
Many creatives and artists live in Saint-Denis, supported by the city administration. President Emmanuel Macron once compared the Saint-Denis department to California. The comparison was met with laughter and criticism, but there are indeed many companies and startups in the department.
At the Coopérative Pointcarré (20 rue Gabriel Péri), you can have a coffee in the company of local freelancers. There are also creative young people in spaces like 6b (6 quai de Seine). Here, exhibitions and workshops by artists, concerts, and DJ sets take place.
Speaking of art: The enormous amount of street art in Saint-Denis is unmissable. There is an entire alley that starts near the Saint-Denis-Port-de-Paris metro station (Line 13) and virtually ends in Paris. The key points are marked on the map. Don’t forget to look at the other side of the canal: There, the well-known artist Marko 93 has painted a leopard, and Guate Mao has dipped the tanks of the former factory in acid orange. Similar to the Berlin Wall, the graffiti on the Saint-Denis Canal is constantly changing. At the spots marked as ‘mur actif’ (active wall) on the map, one can often observe artists at work.
Aubervilliers – The Revival of a 19th Century Fortress and Match Factory
The boundaries between the suburbs of Paris are hardly noticeable. For example, much of the street art promenade described, which begins in Saint-Denis, is located in the neighboring city of Aubervilliers. The residents are still waiting for the subway, which will hopefully be located in the city center and not on the periphery. However, there are already sufficient transport options to take you to interesting places.
Aubervilliers is primarily an industrial city with a high proportion of workers and has maintained communist values throughout the 20th century. The Fortress of Aubervilliers (174 Avenue Jean-Jaurès) was built in the 19th century. It played a significant role not only in military history but also in the history of science. Irène Joliot-Curie, the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, conducted radioactive tests here in the 1920s and 1930s. The fortress was used by occupying forces during World War II and then served as a barracks for a long time. But since the early 2010s, the purpose of the fort is being actively reimagined. There are plans to establish new residential areas there. Some of the casemates have been converted into cafes and co-working spaces while maintaining the original architecture, such as Fort Recup.
Another landmark of Aubervilliers is the former match factory (124 Rue Henri Barbusse). At the end of the 19th century, this factory produced a quarter of all matches consumed in France. The factory closed in 1962, but it was revived in the second half of the 2010s. Initially, director Michel Gondry planned to set up an independent film studio on the site in 2014 and even received approval from the then-mayor of the city. However, when the mayor changed, the new officeholder sold the building to investors. Today, it houses a branch of the restorers’ school, and the facades have been completely rebuilt in the style of the former factory. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the site, but one can observe the restoration work from the outside. The 45-meter-high factory chimney remains unchanged and is protected as a historic monument.
The worker’s districts of Aubervilliers from the post-war period are featured in the 1946 short film ‘Aubervilliers,’ narrated by the famous French poet Jacques Prévert. Even if you don’t speak French, you can understand post-war films.
Montreuil – Galerías, Escenarios Abiertos para Músicos y Cerveza de Melocotón en un Jardín Histórico del Siglo XIX
Montreuil es una ciudad de artistas. Además de las exposiciones espontáneas que tienen lugar durante todo el año, la ciudad cuenta con galerías permanentes donde se exhiben artistas locales. Le Centre Tignous (116 rue de Paris), Maison Pop (9 bis rue Dombasle) y Galerie Lumières des Rose (12-14 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau) son solo algunas de ellas. La última galería se especializa en fotografía, incluyendo la fotografía amateur.
Every year in October, Montreux holds open studio days for artists working there. For the year 2021, about 650 participants registered, and it’s impossible to visit them all in the three days of the festival. At other times, artists face the problem of a lack of exhibition space, and often their apartments and houses are also studios, which are transformed into galleries for the duration of the exhibitions. In Atelier Flamme (36, rue Gaston Lauriau), for example, artists display their works directly in the window to the street.
Musicians, who also suffer from a lack of studios and rehearsal spaces, find a way out of this situation. Many cafes, for example, offer an open stage, making the number of concerts in the city unmatched. La Marbrerie (21 rue Alexis Lepère), a former brewery that was converted into a marble factory at the beginning of the 20th century, is now one of the city’s main alternative music venues. Admission to concerts costs between 10 and 20 euros, and you can hear rock bands, Klezmer (traditional music of Eastern European Jews), and Electronica. During the day, the venue operates as a bar with a terrace.
Another alternative space, Velvet Moon (44 rue Molière), is hard to define. It’s a place for those who want everything at once. A cocktail bar, a yoga studio, a tattoo studio, a site for shamanic rituals, and an artist residency – the creators of this place know how to combine it all. If one drink at Velvet Moon is not enough, you can head to one of the many bars and restaurants on the streets of Montreuil (rue du Capitaine Dreyfus, rue de l’Église, place de la République).
The best way to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city is in one of its numerous parks and gardens, among which Le Mur à Pêche (8 Imp. Gobetue), the ‘Peach Wall,’ stands out. 400 years ago, the region’s farmers took up the challenge of growing peaches even in the Paris region. They built a labyrinth of gypsum, mined directly from the city’s underground, and attached the trees directly to the walls. The gypsum stored heat, which ensured unhindered growth and a rich harvest. The fruits were delivered to the French royal court.
With the advancement of industrialization at the end of the 19th century, the Peach Wall could not withstand the competition, and foreign fruits flooded the local markets. Today, the orchard is supported by activists, artists, and environmental associations. Patrick, a local grower, for example, has reproduced an old technique for attaching fruit trees to create a unique orchard. Alongside him, there are artists and even a microbrewery. You can view the paintings while sipping a local beer.
By the way, Montreuil also has several breweries. The most important ones include Brasserie Croix de Chavaux (8 rue Désiré Charton) and La Montreuilloise (69 rue François Arago). Both are quite affordable compared to Paris with prices starting at 3 € per bottle.
If after all the sightseeing and bars you run out of bread, head to the bakery Michette (95b avenue du Président Wilson): Here, the best traditional baguettes and brioche in Montreuil are baked. For a serious lunch or dinner, go to L’isolé (7 rue de Rosny). The most expensive dish costs 14 euros, there are vegetarian dishes, and of course, its own bed. Try the Saïda fish (lieu jaune) or the pork ribs – all meat lovers praise them.
As many poor people live in the suburbs, there are solidarity networks in place. The associations strive to take into account the diversity of the local people and initiate self-help projects. For example, there is Maison des femmes in Montreuil and Saint-Denis. Originally conceived as crisis centers, these organizations are now engaged in feminist struggles and organize events and round tables.
Pantin and Romainville – Contemporary Art on the Site of Former Factories and a Ship Bar that Constantly Changes Its Location
In Pantin, there is the contemporary art gallery (69 avenue du Général Leclerc) of Tadeusz Ropac. Following the success of his gallery in the Marais district, Ropac took over the premises of a former metalworking factory, which he transformed while retaining its industrial character.
Not far from here, in Romainville, the Fondation Fiminco (43 rue de la Commune de Paris) was established following the same principle. The former factory buildings of the French pharmaceutical giant ‘Sanofi’ have been converted into exhibition halls and laboratories. It also houses residences where artists from around the world can live and work. The guides of the foundation are true professionals and will also interest those who are not well-versed in contemporary art. The tours are usually free, but you need to register in advance on the website. You can visit the artists’ studios and learn about various techniques, such as woodcut.
Pantin is traversed by the Ourcq Canal, whose banks are suitable for cycling. You can ride past La Villette Park and admire the warehouses and decommissioned factories. If Saint-Denis has been called the new California, Pantin has been compared to Brooklyn. The industrial spaces of the former working-class city are being transformed into galleries, and a new philharmonic, a conservatory, and a theater (also in a former factory building) have emerged. The ship bar Peniche Antipode is often anchored here. You can check its current location on the website – in December 2021, the barge was in the 19th district, at Quai de Seine 55, but it regularly returns to Pantin. There, concerts are held, and the “Antipode” serves as a bar in the evening with low prices, probably because the owners do not have to pay rent for the space.