The 12th is large, mostly uneventful, and home to Paris’ largest public park—the Bois de Vincennes: if you’re looking for prostitutes (and chances are even if you’re not, you’ll find the…ahem…remnants of a fun time), you’ll come across them in this vast forest. But fret not—if this sort of rendez-vous isn’t up your alley, then perhaps the sordid but fascinating past of the Bastille will entice you. Or the indoor and outdoor Aligre market, which dates back to the late 1700s. Here, aside from excellent fish, cheese, and produce, you may also encounter some (consensual or not) physical touching, and/or many vendors trying to play a game of who can rupture your eardrums first. For the cultured folks, there’s the Opéra Bastille, home of high-quality opera or dance. Whatever turns you on (we won’t judge), you’ll find it in the 12th, in a local, non-touristy kinda way.
This used to be a gritty working-class neighborhood so forget about finding the glitz and glamour of Paris that way too many Instagrammers try to sell you (and let’s not even mention THAT show). This ain’t it. What you’ll find instead is damn tasty food that won’t break the bank, thanks to a market that will give you a sample of what Parisians love doing best—finding and eating fresh produce from around France. The Marché d’Aligre is the place to go and rub elbows with fellow hipsters in your search for knock-your-socks-off cheeses (figuratively and literally—France has some smelly-ass cheese), salted butter, charcuterie, and maybe an antique from the flea market.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Bastille/Arsenal pop-up a few times already, and that’s because this area borders two other arrondissements, the fourth and the 11th. See Place de la Bastille, where the infamous namesake prison stood, and if there’s a strike or protest going on (as the French are wont to do, and often), feel free to join in to get into that real French spirit. Catch a quality ballet performance at the modern Opéra Bastille, and if your lungs are gasping from the lack of oxygen in this busy crossroads, head towards the Coulée Verte—a luscious elevated park, built on top of a disused railway. Manhattan’s Highline was inspired by this elevated walkway. Below it, the wide sidewalk on Avenue Daumesnil is lined with glassmakers, chocolatiers, carpenters, and other kinds of artisan shops.
If you want your soul to be sucked out of you, go ahead and visit this recently reconverted, mainstream Paris quarter. Previously the largest wine market in the world, you would need to be drunk to be duped by the old-world facade of the Cour Saint-Émilion pedestrian area, with its former storage houses turned into mainstream chain restaurants and shops. There’s nothing of note here apart from the pretty cobblestoned street, the adjacent park, the megaplex showing flicks mercifully NOT dubbed in French, and the occasional art installation. If you’re a Frank Gehry fan, check out his architecture at the nearby Cinémathèque Française, a small building housing a cool museum dedicated to cinema with tons of well-curated indie and historic movies in their repertoire. For a taste of quirkiness, there’s the Pavilions of Bercy, a private museum showcasing old attraction park rides from the 19th and 20th centuries. Except between Christmas and early January, when it’s open to the public, you need to prebook for a tour (the vintage, working rides require hosting and handling by experts), so take this into consideration.