Belleville: The Bohemian Side of Paris
When it comes to striking neighborhoods with tremendous history and character, there is no place like Paris. It is here that time and culture have continuously danced, producing a city that has to be seen to be believed.
It seems that every arrondissement has its own story, its own way of being Parisian. That’s something I have loved all my life living here — there are just so many facets to this city. Just when you think you have it figured out, a new side reveals itself to you. What an adventure!
And one area that people from around the world always fall head over heels for is Belleville.
This is a very unique place. It is so unique, in fact, that up until recently there was even a recognizable Belleville accent. Imagine that! A neighborhood with its own accent and even features of a dialect. While the effects of mass communication have dampened it down, there is still a sense people from Belleville have of being from their own town, not fully swallowed up by the global capital of Paris just yet.
Though it is its own kind of place, it also has a lot of moments and sights that have come to be known as quintessentially Paris. The streets are so narrow, the buildings so charming, the food so delicious, the wine so refreshing, and the coffee so fragrant that one cannot help but be won over by the pleasures of Belleville. It’s a human scaled labyrinth of delightful views and always alive with culture.
That’s why I want to give you the history and highlights of this treasure. And next time you are in Paris, you must visit.
What Makes Belleville a Great Place to Live and Visit
Belleville embodies what the French call bobo — a mixture of high society and freedom loving bohemian culture that swirls together to make something indescribably comfortable yet experimental and new.
Though areas like the Marais are made memorable for their inheritance of old aristocratic mansions and public spaces, Belleville took an entirely different path to the modern day. Here, the signs of the past bring you in contact with lesser told stories — those of revolutionaries fighting for the masses, immigrant communities fleeing oppression, and a rising tide of artists creating their visions on land that once grew grapevines for Paris wines.
In that way, this is much less the historic Paris of Marie Antoinette and much more the romanticized idyll of La bohème.
This almost seductive side of the area continues to draw in artists and creative people of all kinds. Whatever it is that has set a fire in the hearts of the people of Belleville has not gone out. You can even feel it when you visit here.
A major part of this is the strange and exciting history of the arrondissement.
The Unique History of Belleville
Today, the neighborhood is known for being a beautiful and even occasionally posh area, it began life as a major working class enclave outside of Paris.
It sits on a hill almost as high as Montmartre, and for much of its history, this land was used to grow wine. The people who tended to it, mostly poor workers, lived among the little streets overlooking Paris. Yet the city below continued to grow, and eventually, it came right up to the edges of Belleville.
In 1860, the village was annexed and became part of Paris proper. Though it was now all seen as one community, many differences remained. For one, the little working class town was built much differently than the vibrant city of Paris — and those features still survive today. Surprisingly, the Haussmann renovations and the major urban renewal projects that came after the war never really touched this place. Something of the forgotten life of French villages remains here.
The differences between the workers of Belleville and those in the power centers of Paris became much more pronounced over the course of the 19th century, as revolution continued to break out. The socialist upheaval of the Paris Commune in 1871 drew particular support from the ranks of Belleville.
For 72 days, workers led their own government of Paris. It was this example that revolutionaries would draw inspiration from through the 19th and 20th centuries — even beyond. And it was in Belleville where so much of the fighting took place. The workers held strong here until the very end.
In fact, as the Versailles Army set upon Paris to retake it, the last of the fighting came down to brutal combat in the narrow lanes of this neighborhood. For this reason, you will still find socialist insignia on some of the buildings and militant worker folk songs humming on the breeze.
As the decades moved on, it became a particularly popular place for immigrant communities to settle as they were drawn to Paris. This increased the multiculturalism of the area, something that it remains known for to this day. Major communities include Chinese people, there is still a Chinatown in the arrondissement, and Jewish people in Belleville fleeing the Nazis.
Being demographically working class and with a growing immigrant population, the area managed to keep its independent streak throughout the 20th century.
This has taken on a new twist over the last four decades. That’s when artists began descending upon the neighborhood, enjoying the low prices of rent and the exquisite details of the area.
A Who’s Who in Belleville
The glamor of Belleville is one of a kind, and with so much excitement and vigor among the people who live here, it’s easy to see why the area has been home to such a long list of famous Parisians. This is no doubt a major reason why people are drawn by such burning curiosity to the streets of Belleville.
But there is no more famous an example than Édith Piaf (1915 - 1963).
Though she is less well known today, in her time she was the largest international star that France had ever produced. Her songs often focused on the real living conditions and concerns of working class people — which shouldn’t be a surprise given where she came from — and so called “torch songs,” which revel in the sentimentality of romance.
Legend has it that she was discovered under a street lamp as an abandoned infant, no doubt along one of the tight curving lanes of Belleville. For a time, she was taken care of by women in a bordello, a bohemian origin story if ever there was one.
From those humble beginnings, she went on to become a world-wide sensation. And in the neighborhood of her birth, you can still hear her music.
Père Lachaise Cemetery
If you plan to visit Belleville, one of the must-see stops is the Père Lachaise Cemetery. While it makes for a rather gothic visit on your vacation, it offers tremendous gravestone art and the chance to feel the weight of Paris history.
But know that if you do visit, you won’t be alone. The Père Lachaise Cemetery is the single most visited cemetery in the entire world. It welcomes around 3.5 million people a year.
Why do so many come to this necropolis?
Perhaps one reason is the incredible list of cultural luminaries who are buried here. The list takes us from the height of 19th century achievement in the humanities to legends of pop music.
The composer Frédéric Chopin and writer Marcel Proust are interred here, as is the witticist Oscar Wilde and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, is buried here as well. And these names only scratch the surface.
People do not only come to visit the graves of celebrities. They also come for the astounding architecture to be found here. For instance, consider the columbarium — where urns are displayed — which was designed in the Byzantine Revival style by Jean-Camille Formigé (he also designed the park in front of the Sacre-Coeur).
The Père Lachaise Cemetery began in 1804 as the first garden cemetery in Paris. Since that time, the number of intriguing monuments and buildings has steadily increased. Today, it is one of the greatest single collection of this artform.
There are monuments to soldiers and victims of various wars, as well as a monument celebrating those communards who defended the Paris Commune with their lives. There is also an impressive ossuary where bones from skeletons from around the city are kept.
Discover Belleville with a Tour Guide
When you visit Paris, there are so many pathways through the city. From the well known to the lesser known to the hidden, it is impossible to come and see it all without help.
That’s where I come in.
As a tour guide, I can bring you to places like Belleville where you might discover a side of Paris you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
It’s always an exciting place to visit, but a tour guide opens up Paris to you. So what are you waiting for? Reach out to me today and let’s begin designing your ultimate Paris tour!