A local in Paris

Is Parisian café culture the reality for locals?

Locals in Paris are living their life in the midst of the massive tourism. Is this Parisian café culture that attracts tourists comparable to the hang-out spots of the locals? I spoke to several locals and asked for their perspectives on mass tourism. And to really explore the local café life-style I visited two local places to give my experience as a tourist.

Story by Nina Suijkerbuijk

While sitting in an aestheticly perfect Paris café in the eight district, I can catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower between all of the French balconies. This café is in a corner building, which perfectly catches the sun during the late afternoon. As I enjoy the Parisian vibe, I hear voices talking loudly in American, Dutch, and Chinese. I’m surrounded by people wearing berets, who make pictures of their Instagram-worthy-looking food. And I have to say, this Parisian vibe comes with a high price. However, I’m not sure if this pretty picture is the reality of the real French people living in the capital.

Paris has always had a romantic image. It was supposed to be this beautiful place with rich culture and the best museums. However, one thing was left out of my romanticised expectations: the massive tourism. The first few times in Paris I had a lot of trouble distinguishing authentic traditional spots from overpriced tourist draws. This mass tourism is only increasing more now that Paris is losing its authenticity to gentrification, or as the locals call it; muséification. 

Overrun by tourists

But can Parisians still afford to live in Paris? Because Paris is the ninth most expensive city in the world, rent prices have increased significantly over the last few years. The average square meter price for an apartment in Paris inside the ring is between nine thousand and fifteen thousand euros. Besides this many 15.000 to 25.000 apartments turned into Airbnb’s, according to a rapport from Inside Airbnb. Besides that many cafés and restaurants are adjusting their venue to make them more attractive. Paris is now the third most visited country in the world and with €21 billion in revenue and 511,000 jobs, this tourism is of great importance.

Twenty-one years old Mona studies in an area that’s overrun by tourists, near Opéra Garnier. She says she tries to avoid tourists at all costs. She never goes near to popular places like the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées or Notre Dame because it is too stressful to be around that many people. ”The shops and restaurants are extremely expensive. I would rather just go to a cute and unknown place.” She tells me that her go-to places are in less popular areas Bastille and Nation. “It is not interesting for tourists, so it’s a paradise for us Parisians.” 

A typical touristic Parisian café. | Picture by Quinty Veenman

A second hand looking “cute café”

My local explain friend Leo Payet (24) shares this view: there still is another ‘real’ Paris. He said there are several cheap cafés that are not interested in attracting tourists at all, especially in the suburbs. He tipped me a café in the 19th district , in northern Paris, that would give the real local experience. And so, I took a metro and travelled to Bar Ourcq, a small café at the northern edge of the périphérique.

The café has a canopy and rounded wooden chairs outside as in most touristic places. I notice two forty-year-old-looking men quietly working on their laptops. There are also small groups having lunch together with a glass of wine. In the middle of the cozy café, there is a bar where people were chatting with the waitresses in French. At most, there are ten people inside. 

When I walk in, one of the waitresses greets me with a friendly “Bonjour” and says something else that I couldn’t understand. I feel almost ashamed to spread my Dutch-sounding English in the room, revealing my identity as a tourist. 

I sit down at a rickety table, drinking a coffee. On a chart board, the weekly specialties are written down, all in French. When I ask the waitress for an English menu, she answered quite triumphant that they don’t have that. She said tourists normally don’t come here. “Tourists are usually more drawn to posh, Instagram-worthy places and not a café like this”, she says.

I had to agree this place has a very casual feeling and is not the same as a touristic café aesthetic. However, it does have a lot of similar elements: the floor is tiled, there is a roofed terrasse and the chairs are wooden. It just feels like the interior is a combination of different furniture collected from a secondhand store. But I don’t think that makes it less cute.

For a minute, barOurcq gave me the feeling that I was a local in Paris. When I wanted to pay for my three-euro coffee by card, they told me this was not possible. While one waitress explains to me it is mandatory to pay cash because the bill is under 10 euros, she looks at the other who has an “I told you so” look on her face. Since I’m used to paying everything by card in the Netherlands, I don’t have any cash with me. It sens a judgment on my Dutch naivety. To break the awkwardness, I quickly buy four croissants and pay the check. It immediately feels like I was a lost tourist again.

Not (really) welcome as a tourist?

My friend Leo told me he often visits ‘authentic’ bars in the center as well. I went to one of his favorite places: L’Attirail Café, a bar nearby Centre Pompidou. This loos like a local student spot. The place is completely full of people who, again, only spoke French. I smelled the sticky beer floors from the outside. Inside, the place has a lot of posters, stickers and pictures on the walls and ceilings. The whole bar smells like beer and cigarettes and the music is very loud. Considering that this bar is in the third arrondissement, I am stunned by the fact that I rarely saw tourists around me. But that must also have to do with the rough feeling this bar has.  

I went to the bar to order a three euros beer. As I shout my English words over the loud music to the barman, he doesn’t not give me a single smile. I am still unsure if this is a personal thing for being a tourist, or if it’s just Parisian culture. I asked Mona about this. “Honestly I try not to be the typical annoyed Parisian, but it’s hard not to. Life can’t be normal and peaceful with that many tourists in a city. They walk slow and don’t always respect our way of life”, she said. I think people must have been annoyed that I, as a tourist, was invading their private hang-out spot. 

Driven away by muséfication

Mona confirmed that tourists do sometimes spoil the value a particular café has for them. She says it’s becoming worse now that TikTok plays a big part in the muséification. Even though some cafés try their best to keep it a local hotspot, TikTok trends can easily turn it into a tourist attraction. 

The reality is that many locals are moving away to areas like Montreuil, because of the gentrification. “It’s less expensive, less crowded and you rarely find any tourists”, Mona says, who also moved outside of the Périphérique. Amongst Parisian people, Montreuil is even known as the 21st district. Of the twelve million citizens in Paris, only two million actually live inside the Périphérique. 

While trying to experience the café culture of Paris, I discovered it has two sides. In the eyes of tourists, cafés have a beautifully designed aesthetic. On the other side, the locals enjoy a rather rough, lived-through café experience. According to the people I spoke to, locals want to keep their meet-up spots hidden from outsiders. They would rather have us sitting on a terrasse under a perfectly decorated canopy. Where wooded chairs are decorated with pink details, as well as flowers at the entrance. In an acoustic of several foreign languages. And with coffee three times more expensive than their own beverages. 

A narrow alley leads directly to a pizzeria. | Picture by Quinty Veenman