The Best International City for Bakeries Is Exactly Where You Think It is

As a cornerstone of French culture, bakeries are a fundamental right in endlessly sweet Paris.

<p>John Heseltine / Alamy</p>

John Heseltine / Alamy

In Paris, baristas aren’t the only early risers. Bakers are awake and working in the boulangerie well before dawn, and the city’s sunrise coincides with the slightly sweet scent of freshly baked bread and pastries wafting through open windows onto the cobblestoned streets. As a cornerstone of French culture, bakeries are as fundamental a right as liberté, égalité, fraternité, with rules dating back to the French Revolution that bakers must not abandon their posts and go on vacation en masse during the summer holidays.

In a country that consumes nearly 10 billion baguettes a year, bakeries are as much a daily or weekly ritual as a trip to the market or nail salon. You’ll quickly find that your neighborhood baker knows more about your personal life than your parents. And with more than 1000 boulangeries scattered around Paris, proudly crowning practically every block, you don’t have to shop around too long to find your go-to.

Lyon may be considered the gastronomic capital of France, but Paris reigns supreme when it comes to baguettes and bread. Bakers like third-generation Apollonia Poîlane, who holds court over her family’s century-old eponymous bakery Poilâne — a favorite of the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten and known for its signature miche sourdough wheel — have become household names and symbols of quality akin to Paul Bocuse. Pastry chefs like Cédric Grolet have generated just as much of a cult following (fans will line up for nearly two hours to score sweets from La Pâtisserie du Meurice par Cédric Grolet) — but pastry is a separate craft in its own right.

Even the boulangerie vitrines, curated as elegantly as a couture ensemble, are an artform, with round, lopsided loaves of sourdough carefully piled like Jenga blocks and woven rattan baskets filled with long, narrow baguettes protruding out the top like flowers in a vase. In a country so proud of its savoir-faire that it awards bakers as it would artisans with the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) distinction, it’s no surprise that the French baguette recently received UNESCO protection, since it “celebrates the French way of life,” according to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

As a food writer living in Paris, I receive the same request on a nearly daily basis from travelers heading to the French capital: What are Paris’s best bakeries? Travelers make a pilgrimage to the dusty mauve-colored Utopie in the hip 11th arrondissement for weekend bread specials in fragrant flavors like feta and tarragon, or Du Pain et des Idées, on an artery off the Canal Saint-Martin, for a tranche of their signature wood-fired pain des amis. Sourdough specialists Ten Belles skip baguettes altogether, focusing instead on hand-shaped loaves crafted from stone-milled local grains that have earned the respect (and are sourced by) some of the city’s top restaurants, including Michelin-starred Septime.

My neighborhood of Belleville is the city’s second Chinatown and one of the most exciting food and wine scenes in Paris at the moment. There, zero-waste Le Petit Grain — an offshoot of natural wine-focused eatery Le Grand Bain across the street — goes so far as to source mineral water from a local well, and, when they opened, repurposed rye bread scraps to craft a fermented, low-alcohol kvass. Mini chains like The French Bastards have played on the idea of #foodporn with Instagrammable, sesame sprinkled ink-black charcoal loaves, while the naturally gluten-free Chambelland has pioneered this segment of France’s market with its signature rice bread ground in the boulangerie’s own mill in Alpes de Haute-Provence, in the south.

Paris’s new generation of bakers may be traveling and gaining inspiration to weave into their own baking practices, but the city stands strong as the benchmark for baguettes — which people fly across the world to taste and try to perfect in their own bakery or restaurant back home. Some of Paris’s bakeries have earned celebrity status for their acclaimed house specialties, but even if you only make it to the boulangerie next to your hotel, you won’t be disappointed with your baguette. Ask for "une tradition" — a few centimes more, but worth it for the legally protected and guaranteed preservative-free just-baked baguette — and they might mistake you for a local.

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