It has been a while since I last spoke about our trip to the French capital last summer. My Instagram has been flooded with Paris pictures given the recent popularity of the Netflix show Emily in Paris so I have found myself reminiscing about our trip as well.
Last time we finished off our tale at the Louvre and the surrounding area where we spent the majority of our time the first day of our visit. Today we are heading a bit to the south of the Louvre to another popular tourist area of the city which, however, still hides a few unknown gems – the river island of Île de la Cité and the nearby Latin Quarter.
Our day started bright and early with a quick breakfast and a cup of coffee in the boulangerie near our hotel which quickly became our morning routine for the 7 days we spent in Paris. After a rather quick ride on the metro, we got to the Cité metro station, right at the heart of the Île de la Cité Island.
Now, the area is quite popular and is included in almost every Paris travel guide. And there is a valid reason for this – the Île de la Cité is one of the two islands on the river Seine that is considered as the oldest district of Paris. As such, it holds a great value to Parisians and visitors alike – the locals even call it “Coeur de Paris”, or “The heart of Paris” as it has witnessed many of the major historical events that have shaped the city as we know it today. The island is practically Paris’ soul – it is the place where Paris was born. A modest settlement called Lutetia, established by the Parisi Gauls, which expanded over 2,000 years to become one of the world’s most beloved cities.
The Île de la Cité island really offers everything – at the small area you will find a world-famous cathedral, a former medieval palace turned prison, and a tiny church with dazzling stained glass.
Of course, we started our walk at The Notre-Dame Cathedral. Unfortunately, the cathedral is still closed to the public following the devastating fire in April 2019. However, we had a chance to admire it from a far – the gothic church, dating back to the mid-fourteenth century, is an architectural gem and is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It makes you jaw drop even in its current state.
From the Right Bank of the Seine you can see another large and intimidating building – The Conciergerie. It was once a palace, the seat of the medieval Kinds of France but at the end of the 14th century it was converted to a prison. It was increasingly used during the French Revolution and it soon became a symbol of the ten month Reign of Terror. It was the final stop for over 2,700 people who were executed by guillotine. Famous prisoners include Marie Antoinette, Georges Danton and the poet André Chénier.
Our walk on the small island ends in the tiny church of Sainte-Chapelle. Tucked away on the western end of the island, between the Conciergerie and the Palace of Justice, it is one of the most magnificent churches I have ever been in. The pinks, purples and blues of the huge 13th century windows glisten beautifully as the sunlight shines through the intricate designs. No photo can make justice to the site – I felt like I was inside a jewel box!
- If you are taking the metro, Cité station (line four) will bring you right onto the island. From there walk west to boulevard du Palais and then go south to reach the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle. Notre-Dame can be found on the south-east end of the island.
- Admission to the above mentioned attractions on Île de la Cité are included in the PARIS MUSEUM PASS.
- The best way to explore the island is by walking, even though a few public transport options are available. The island is not very big but make sure that you wear comfortable shoes.
Across the Seine you will find a really charming Parisian area, called “the Latin Quarter”. It was named as such during the Middle Ages, when the students of the University La Sorbonne, inhabitants of this neighborhood, used Latin as the language of study. Since the Middle Ages and up to the present day, students living in the Latin Quarter have had a huge influence on the rest of the city. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, students organized movements of great political importance such as the revolt of May 1968, a general strike that nearly brought down the French government of the time.
We entered the Latin Quarter from the entrance right across from Notre Dame. You really cannot miss it as at the beginning of this street you will find an impressive bookstore – the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. The first Shakespeare bookstore in Paris opened close by in 1919. The owner Sylvia Beach wanted to provide a gathering place for authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. The current building dates to the early 1600s and began life as a monastery. Since the modern iteration of the bookstore opened in 1951, it has hosted its own share of famous authors, including Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Anais Nin, and James Baldwin.
Search the nooks and crannies of the store, and you’ll find not only books but plants, mirrors, a piano, a vintage typewriter, and a mellow resident cat. As the sign outside says, “This store has rooms like chapters in a novel.” When you purchase a book, it’s stamped with the store’s logo, and you’ll have a wonderful memento of your time in this Parisian icon. I bought a copy of Steinbeck novella The Pearl which is now a valuable addition to my own bookshelf at home.
The academic atmosphere can be felt almost in every little street in the Latin Quarter but it is definitely most prominent in the area around the Sorbonne. You will feel a part of the prestigious world of the Sorbonne as you walk past the buildings where students study the literary arts and other subjects. Look up and marvel at the sculptures and graceful rooflines. Linger at a café in Sorbonne Square, with its red awnings and central fountain. It’s wonderful to spend time here and blend in with residents walking their dogs, students deep in scholarly discussion, and parents taking their young ones to school.
If you wander around the Latin Quarter for a while, you’ll notice the imposing blue dome that belongs to the Pantheon. Once a church, the Pantheon now pays tribute to the heroes of Paris. It’s the burial place of Victor Hugo; Voltaire; scientists Pierre and Marie Curie; Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince; and Louis Braille, who invented an alphabet for the blind. We did not have the time to visit the Pantheon and I really hope that we will have this chance the next time we are in Paris (hopefully, this will be possible once again soon).
We finished our walk in the magnificent Luxembourg Gardens at the edge of the Latin Quarter – this was definitely one of the highlights of our visit to Paris. Lots of families hang out here, especially on the weekends. On the paths through the trees, you’ll see joggers and groups of people on roller skates. Others relax in the green chairs that line the pond. Happy children sail colorful wooden toy boats, pushing them with poles. The centerpiece of the gardens is a real palace. Luxembourg Gardens and the palace date to 1612, when they were designed for Princess Marie de Medici, who became the queen of France. The palace is now used by the French Senate.
- Walk! I really cannot stress this enough – it is truly the best way to explore the area and feel the unique atmosphere that the Latin Quarter can offer.
- If you want to stop for a bite, try Odette Paris, this well-known bakery exemplifies the charm of the Latin Quarter. You’ll want to grab a luscious cream puff and a coffee and sit for a while.
- If you need to go back to the city center at the end of the day, use one of the metro stations near the Luxembourg Gardens.
I really hope that you have enjoyed this virtual walk in the Île de la Cité area and the neighboring Latin Quarter. As with the last post of the Love Letter to Paris series, I am sharing with you our map of the day, including all the details on how to get to and from the area using only the metro system.
Have you ever been to this area of Paris? What did you like the most? Let me know in the comments.