The Irresistible, Seedy, and Fascinating History of Paris Rue Saint-Denis

Due to its reputation, Rue Saint-Denis—one of the oldest streets in Paris—is often written off as being seedy. But during a rather interesting stay—one in which I was mistaken for a sex worker, but more on that later—I sought to peek behind the veil of this quirky and historic street. In doing so, I found that sex isn’t all that sells on Rue Saint-Denis. Beneath the surface of this French street lies a lovely and vibrant community that offers the quintessential Parisian experience; one that is ripe with fashion, food, history, and sex.

On our first night in Paris, as Midnight drew near, our stomachs rumbled with hunger. With most places closed, we did the logical thing and ordered from McDonald’s. Being the only francophone in my family, meeting the driver and securing our greasy goodies was left up to me. Given the time of night, my mother decided to come downstairs and accompany me to pick up the food. We made our way to the ground floor and waited in the doorway in hungry anticipation. That’s when it happened.

Scanning the street for a food-toting moped, I never registered the man making his way towards me until he was right upon me. The stranger grabbed my waist, looked me square in the eye, and muttered a few gruff words in French. I didn’t even have time to speak before my mother shouted in what’s possibly the only French words she knows: “NON! NON, SIR!” That was enough to snap me out of it. I politely removed his hand from my waist and managed a small “desolée” (sorry) before he moved on. In the end, our food never came. I had put in the wrong address.

Hunger wasn’t the only thing to stick with me that night. While the situation amused me, I began to wonder what about me had signaled a certain level of availability in the eyes of that strange man. Naturally, I posted about the experience on my social media. Aside from the expected messages of shock and amusement, one friend suggested that maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe, it was the area. I read through past reviews of my Airbnb, read a few comments on some travel boards, and confirmed it was, in fact, the street.

Now feels like the appropriate time to give you a little background on the infamous Rue Saint-Denis. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Saint-Denis was once hailed as the cornerstone of beauty, luxury, and wealth. Traders from far and wide would come to shop for the finest silk, lace, and latest textile offerings.

Westend61/Shutterstock

The denizens of Rue Saint-Denis were—and still are—privileged to be members of a vibrant and lively locale. In the days of old, they came together to behold sights like the king strolling down the street after his coronation or the funeral procession of their beloved monarch. These days, the reasons that bring the residents of Rue Saint-Denis together are more lowkey and less solemn. It’s street gossip and the summer heat. It’s the latest protest or strike. It’s their skateboards and their bikes. It’s young love, sisterhood, and brotherhood. It’s togetherness and a sense of community.

We dedicated our next few days to Rue Saint-Denis, allowing ourselves to taste, see, explore, and, most importantly, shop. Running through the 1st and 2nd arrondissement, there was much to discover. Delicious breakfast spots with fresh-pressed juices. Trendy shopping with all sorts of oddities and unique finds. Cozy dining is complemented by the rich, savory flavor of escargot. There was never a shortage of good food or great times to be found on Rue Saint-Denis, from juicy strawberry tarts to classic croissants.

We were constantly in a state of wonderment as we explored our immediate area. Our mouths were agape as we maneuvered down the narrow streets marveling at silly little things like ornate doors. As we stood in front of one particularly striking door, a woman came outside and shared with us that we were standing in front of a 16th-century relic. We couldn’t believe it.

All around us were memories and whispers of France’s storied past. At almost every turn, we were brought face-to-face with images and objects catapulting us into centuries-long gone, allowing the veil between the past and the present to briefly fall. Even the corner of our block gave way to the magnificent Porte de Saint-Denis, a marvelous monstrosity commissioned by the Sun King himself (Louis XIV) in the 17th-century.

zefart/Shutterstock

What words can describe the feeling of knowing these very doors bore witness to lives lived centuries ago? It’s a humbling feeling and a reminder of how fleeting life can be, but also a reminder of how whispers of our lives and who we were can echo far beyond us. In the end, we’re reminded that our stories are immortal.

Speaking of stories, I haven’t forgotten to share more background on Rue Saint-Denis’ sex workers. It both is and isn’t what you think. Yes, women are engaging in the oldest profession on earth, and yes, it’s a beautiful sight to see. Yep. I said what I said, but truly, there’s so much more happening here.

A mélange of women posted in the doorways and alleys of the street includes ladies of all shades, shapes, and sizes. Women of all AGES. That’s the part that got me. I’d never seen a nearly 70-year-old sex worker, yet there she sat, perched elegantly on her chair and winking seductively at passersby while puffing on a cigarette. Seeing that woman own her sexuality at an age deemed “unsexy” by society was at once fascinating and empowering. I’d pass her in the morning and lock eyes with her; that eye contact proving intense and full of warmth. It was a warmth that made its way down to her lips to greet me with a smile. I always smiled back, hoping she could read the warmth behind my own eyes.

​On our last day, I spent much of the morning leaning out the window and nursing a coffee sans cigarettes (I wanted to blend in, but couldn’t go that far). My heart began to swell knowing I’d miss Paris and, more specifically, this funny little street. I would miss the sound of clothing racks scuttling down the street in the early morning hours. I would miss the baker who now greeted me by name. I’d miss the shopkeeper who gave me a small nod as I passed by and I’d miss the nightly showers filled with the sounds of our nosy neighbors and their party guests.

I’d remember the sounds of mopeds whizzing down the streets and the sight of the morning rush of people making their way to the metro. I’d even miss the strange thrill of knowing that sexual transactions were happening all around you. I wasn’t ready to return to the silence and solitude of the American suburbs. I’d never experienced this level of intimacy with any other place besides my hometown. Rue Saint-Denis bared her heart and soul to me; she shared her storied past. The street allowed me to bask in her present while giving me glimpses of her future, and I can’t wait to see her again.

See more at Fodor's Travel