If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby, you know about East and West Egg, both wealthy neighborhoods but distinguished by the age of their money. Paris is a bit the same: bisected north and south by the Seine, the city has evolved almost separately on each bank, creating two very distinct atmospheres and habitats, unique and interesting in their own way.
The French have a saying—la rive gauche pense, la rive droit dépense—meaning the left bank thinks and the right bank spends.
For the most part, the idea of side is concentrated in the center of the city: the first and second districts to the north, and the fifth and sixth of the south. Parts of the left bank, especially near the Eiffel Tower, feel more touristy than usual and Montmartre to the north is more artistic and quieter than you would normally find on the right bank. The right bank is home to the famously chic and expensive designer shopping district around the Rue de Rivoli, while the left bank has long been considered more bohemian and intellectual, housing Paris’ many universities.
The right bank has a swanky feel, with the royal-palace-turned-famous-museum Louvre and massive Tuileries gardens; it’s hard not to feel a little like royalty in the area. This is where you’ll see women wearing their furs and Louboutins, where you can walk down a street and see all the designer names only seen on the glossy pages of magazines right next to up and comers and established European brands. The two major opera houses, the Palais Garnier of Phantom of the Opera fame, and the Opèra Bastille live on this side, as does the infamously chic and pricey Galleries Lafayette. There is a general decadence in right-side life, you can imagine its history of royalty, great art exhibitions in the Salon of the Louvre, military band concerts in the Tuileries, men in tuxes and women in crinoline for a night out at the opera…there’s an allure to this side and to the good life.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the feeling you get on the left bank of a gritty passion for life and art, deep thoughts and conversation through a haze of smoke in a little, dimly lit wine bar. In art history we’ve been studying the work of Courbet, a 19th century painter who lived and worked in the left bank’s Latin Quarter, the university district. He was a realist, painting life as it could be seen—no judgment, just the truth. His work helps show the atmosphere of a district full of the intellectual thought of philosophers and the party-lust of students, women of easy virtue and couples practicing “free love,” drinking the cheapest alcohol money could buy and finding an illicit something to smoke.
While the area is no longer a hotbed of the same kind, it remains more bohemian and low-key. The Eiffel Tower is one of the only really big tourist attractions south of the border and the really great things to see in this area are the classical architecture, grand scale and crypt full of famous French thinkers at the Pantheon, the church of Saint Etienne du Mont—which has the last carved marble screen in the entire city—The Natural History Museum and it’s gardens and menagerie, the ruins of an ancient Roman gladiator arena, and the Grand Mosque of Paris.
They are still many students as this side of the Seine still houses the Sorbonne, the University of Paris, L’Institut Catholique de Paris, and many more prominent schools and without the high profile tourist attractions that are to the north, it’s quieter and cheaper. Granted, tourism in Paris has taken advantage of the boho allure of the area and it is more commercialized than ever before, but there remains a certain mystery and romance to this area of Paris that you just cannot find up top.
I’m still a romantic about Paris. No matter how many times I get hounded by beggars or how many days go by without a ray of sunshine, I love this city and its beauty will never fade for me. With its time capsule feel, the city uses its history to evoke a deepness of feeling you cannot ignore, making even a walk down the street feel like a profound cultural experience. The distinctness of the districts and the sides of the city give it the diversity you need to stay engaged in daily life. It’s never far till the next adventure; you need only cross the river for a change of pace.