Paris and its history

Arènes de Lutèce, rue Mouffetard, Latin Quarter, avenue de l'Opéra: a walk in the historic heart of Paris

Here’s a way to travel back in time along the streets of Paris, all in the space of one day. Begin your journey in Roman times by visiting the Arènes de Lutèce. Weather permitting, don’t hesitate to move on to the Middle Ages with the musée de Cluny (reopening scheduled for fall 2021), and walk along the rue Mouffetard, the rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève and the rue des Ecoles that runs alongside the Sorbonne, the oldest university in Europe. Have some lunch in the Latin Quarter then cross the river to the Sainte-Chapelle, a splendid example of gothic architecture. Past the tip of the Ile de la Cité and the quaysides, you’ll come to the Louvre, former residence of kings, whose perfectly balanced forms will take you into the Classical period. Close by, the avenue de l’Opéra unfurls one of the characteristic perspectives designed by Haussmann, and from there, by taking the Météor metro line (14), you’ll find yourself in a flash in the new district around the Bibliothèque de France. Audacity, immensity, elegance: you’re at the heart of contemporary Paris, ready to dine by the Seine River not far away.

1 Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre, Paris © OTCP - David Lefranc - Ieoh Ming Peï

The biggest museum in Paris, and home of the Mona Lisa, The Raft of the Medusa, and Venus de Milo was, first and foremost, the jewel in the crown of the kings, emperors and republics of France. From the sombre late-12th century fortress, to Peï’s glass pyramid, built in 1989, many have reigned here and practically everyone has left their mark – Renaissance, Classic, First and Second Empire, contemporary… The Louvre, a museum since 1793, houses collections of Western art from the Middle Ages to 1848, and collections of ancient oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman civilisations which preceded and influenced them, as well as graphic arts and Islamic arts.

2 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.

3 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.

4 Musée du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny (reopening scheduled for fall 2021)

Musée de Cluny - Le monde médiéval, Paris © Michel Denancé - Bernard Desmoulin

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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 La Sorbonne

La Sorbonne - Cour d'honneur, Paris

In 1253, a college for 16 poor students who wanted to study theology was created at Louis IX's request. It became the Sorbonne as Robert de Sorbon, the king's confessor, gave his name to the school. After 1885, it became the most important university in France. Nowadays, it is still one of the most important universities in Paris.

9 Rue des Ecoles

La Sorbonne - Cour d'honneur depuis la Chapelle, Paris

The rue des Ecoles runs parallel to the Sorbonne, the oldest university in Europe, and the Collège de France. This artery was created in 1866 between rue du Cardinal Lemoine and rue Jean de Beauvais. Popular with students, it is situated on an ancient Roman decumanus (an east-west-oriented road). Stop at No. 56 to admire the Haussmann architecture and its windows with mascarons on the second floor.

10 The BnF, cultural grandeur

Bibliothèque Nationale de France © OTCP - David Lefranc

Direction the south-east of the capital to the Tolbiac district in the heart of the 13th arrondissement. This is where the majestic Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand. The library houses part of the collections of the historic Bibliothèque Nationale (national library), on rue Richelieu. Designed by the French architect Dominique Perrault, this monumental building celebrated its 20th anniversary in March. The building is aesthetically sleek and minimalist, in keeping with the ‘less is more’ trend of the famous German architect Mies van der Rohe. The building consists of four corner towers in the shape of open books: a nice reference for a library! The towers are free standing without any surrounding walls or fences and are therefore easily accessible to everyone. The emptiness of the interior space is occupied by a magnificent garden. The construction of the BnF was followed by the development of a new Parisian neighbourhood around it, on both sides of the Seine linked by the Simone de Beauvoir footbridge (Feichtinger, 2006).