Timeless Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris and the Ile Saint-Louis, the Latin Quarter ... A tour of the historic heart of Paris

Who said that ancient stone wasn’t exciting? In the Latin Quarter and on the Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis, which form the historic heart of Paris, they are charged with emotion, light and magical shadows. Embark on a treasure hunt and discover the impressive sculpted facade of Notre-Dame or the sublime series of stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle chapel.
 
Venture through the labyrinth of alleyways on the Left Bank, once bustling with hawkers, charlatans, already rebellious students, and cut-throats. Or like Baudelaire and Camille Claudel, opt for a gentle walk past private mansion houses on the Île Saint-Louis.
 
Walking this way, you will pass bishops, rare birds and tulips at a little flower market, a queen, several poisoners, and the Girondins assembled for their last banquet at the Conciergerie.
 
You will come across scientists from the Museum, mammoths and Japanese cherry-blossom trees, the jewellery of fine ladies of times gone by at the Hôtel de Cluny, Gallo-Romans at a grand event or the baths, and the patron saint of Paris …
Bon voyage!

1 Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle, Paris © Thinkstock

Reputed to have once housed Christ’s Crown of Thorns, the Sainte-Chapelle chapel boasts spectacular stained glass windows which resemble veritable walls of light. The Sainte-Chapelle chapel is incontestably a jewel of French Gothic architecture.

2 Musée du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny

Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

Since 1843, the Musée National du Moyen Âge has encompassed two architectural marvels: the Gallo-Roman baths, dating from the end of the 2nd century BC, and the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny, built in the 15th century. The main building and the wings of Hôtel des Abbés reveal the layout of subsequent centuries, but, in the exuberant interlacing of the curves of the facade, the Middle Ages is resplendent … and even more so inside. Sculpture, gold and silver plate, ceramics, tapestry, furniture, and everyday objects provide a unique picture of medieval art and society. Between the little chapel sculpted with foliage and the secular sanctuary dedicated to the La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady with the Unicorn) tapestries, there is an extensive collection of golden crowns, Byzantine ivory, daggers and coats of chain mail.

3 Quartier Latin

Saint-Michel fountain, Paris © OTCP - Marc Verhille

On the Left Bank, in the vicinity of the University founded in the 12th century, Latin was the language most commonly spoken by professors and students. This tradition seems to have died out but the name remains. Around the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, prestigious schools and the Sainte-Geneviève library, there are still numerous bookshops, publishers, and cafes, where students revise for their exams, as well as tiny art-house cinemas. Of course, the Saint- Michel fountain is not only a meeting point for students: many businesses have now moved into the area, but the memory of Professor Abélard and the paving stones of May 1968 still remain here and there.

4 Ancienne abbaye royale du Val-de-Grâce

Ancienne abbaye royale du Val de Grace, Paris © OTCP - Daniel Thierry

The Abbaye royale du Val de Grâce was built between 1624 and 1669 on the site of the former Petit Bourbon medieval private mansion. An ode to the Nativity, this church which is one of the most sculpted in France, is the most elaborate example of French Baroque art. Modern-day visitors will enjoy the church’s programme of concerts and organ recitals.

5 Panthéon

Le Panthéon, Paris © Thinkstock

Its dome dominates the Latin Quarter and gives its name to the similarly solemn square, at the centre of which it stands. This colossal civic temple worthily upholds the motto inscribed on its pediment that honours the nations great men. An irony of history, this monument dedicated to Republican liturgies was commissioned by Louis XV in 1744 to honour Sainte-Geneviève. But with the Revolution underway, the scarcely finished basilica was transformed into a civic temple in 1791 and consecrated as the national Panthéon in 1885, at the funeral of Victor Hugo. A synthesis of neoclassical and Gothic-style architecture, it also houses the tombs of Pierre and Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Jean Jaurès, André Malraux, Jean Moulin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.

6 Rue Mouffetard and place de la Contrescarpe

Quartier Mouffetard, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

A saunter down the gentle slope of montagne Sainte-Geneviève along rue Mouffetard is a delightful experience and full of picture-postcard views of Paris. In the small paved place de la Contrescarpe, restaurant and cafe terraces encircle the ‘village’ fountain. The Pomme de Pin store, still visible at No. 1, is a reminder that the area was once filled with cabarets. It is here that the rue Mouffetard, once the only road leading from Lutèce (Paris) to Rome, starts to trace its medieval line; today it is the place to pause for an affordable bite to eat in the lively pubs and cafes. But good food is making its mark again, and under many a sloping facade you’ll find window displays of traditional breads and cakes, stalls of charcuterie, and mounds of fruit and vegetables, leading to the small and colourful market that stretches from the bottom of the street to the Saint-Médard church bell tower.

7 Arènes de Lutèce

Arènes de Lutèce, Paris © OTCP - Marc Bertrand

In the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, this amphitheatre held up to 15,000 people, who came to see plays, comedies, gladiator combats and wild beasts fighting. Together with the forum and the baths, the amphitheatre constituted the centre of the Gallo- Roman city. Rediscovered in 1869, while building rue Monge, the restored amphitheatre has been reopened, offering its stone terracing and stage to the city – impromptu football matches take place here after school, as well as games of pétanque and just general lazing around in the sun.

8 Jardin des plantes

Jardin des plantes, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

Wander peacefully among the statues, lime trees from Russia, the olive trees from Bohemia, and twenty or so trees over one hundred years old. The oldest – a Cedar of Lebanon – was planted in 1734. Climb to the belvedere, at the top of a little hill named Labyrinthe, for a romantic embrace or to embrace the view. You’ll pass school children out on the trail of dinosaurs or here to learn about gardening. Explore the hot houses, the educational vegetable garden, the Alpine garden, and the rose, iris, rock and peony gardens.

9 Muséum national d’histoire naturelle

Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris © DR

This has been one of the favourite walks of Parisians… since 1640! It was in this year that the Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales (Royal Medicinal Plants Garden), created by Louis XIII in 1633, became the first public garden in Paris. Under the influence of Buffon and the Jussieu botanist brothers, the garden was enlarged and an emphasis placed on research. Renamed Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793, exhibition galleries were added in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Natural History Museum is set within over 23 hectares of plants and trees and harmoniously combines the natural sciences with candy floss and sweets kiosks.

10 Institut du monde arabe

Institut du Monde Arabe © OTCP - DR

Arab-Muslim civilisation is showcased at the centre of timeless Paris in this superb glass and steel building, designed by Jean Nouvel and Architecture Studio, and built in 1987. Behind the mobile moucharabiyah screens that regulate the amount of sunlight entering the building, tradition and modern technology work together to set the tone. An ultra-modern oriental gentleness reigns over the museum, exhibition rooms, auditorium, library and media library for young people, language centre, bookshop, restaurant and literary cafe. One can also enjoy temporary exhibitions, mint tea and concerts, dance and cinema, conferences, sugar-covered shortbread crescents, art workshops and more.

11 Les iles de la Cité et Saint-Louis

Ile Saint Louis, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

Despite being the birthplace of Paris, these two neighbouring islands, embraced by the arms of the Seine, are very different. On the Île de la Cité, amid a flurry of uniforms and lawyers’ gowns, you go from one historic site to another: place Dauphine, the Conciergerie, Sainte-Chapelle, Hôtel-Dieu, Notre-Dame… The Pont Saint-Louis marks the boundary – often with music – beyond which lies the tranquility of sumptuous mansion houses. A refuge for artists and poets, the Île Saint-Louis is also a haven for gourmets judging by the profusion of restaurants, cafes, ice-cream makers and confectioners, whose tempting windows line the rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île.

12 Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris | © Thinkstock

The beginning of its long construction coincided with the choice of Paris as a capital and, on the square in front of the cathedral, a bronze star inscribed 'zero kilometre' indicates the centre of the country in terms of travelling distances. A symbol of Gothic art, its harmonious layout seems to be the work of just one architect, yet dozens followed on from the 12th to the 19th century, the date of its restoration by Viollet-le-Duc. The cathedral has witnessed Saint Louis, barefoot, wearing the Crown of Thorns in 1239, the coronation of Napoléon in 1804, the celebration of the Liberation of Paris in 1944… and you too, as you climb the 422 steps leading to the top. Like Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, you will then find yourself face to face with some of its grimacing gargoyles. You will also be able to make the acquaintance of the thirteen-ton bell named Emmanuel, and enjoy a breathtaking view across the rooftops of Paris.

13 Conciergerie

La Conciergerie, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

This important vestige of the Capetian palace offers a remarkable testimony to 14th century civil architecture with its Salle des Gens d'Armes, the Salle des Gardes and the kitchens.