Day 2: Saint Germain, Latin Quarter & the Islands
Day two of your 3 days in Paris will be mostly spent in the Left Bank. It is once again an action-packed day but it will also include plenty of strolling in some of the city’s most splendid districts. We’ll start the day in upscale Saint-Germain-des-Prés before working our way back up to the River Seine via the historic Latin Quarter. We’ll then explore the islands of Paris – its oldest section – before wrapping things up in the trendy Marais.
Take the Metro to Saint-Germain-des-Prés station for breakfast in one of two iconic Parisian cafes: Les Deux Magots & Cafe de Flore. Epitomizing the neighborhood’s heyday, these legendary cafes hosted the city’s literary, artistic and intellectual elite of the time. Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, Hemingway, James Joyce and many others wined and dined here. Though popular with tourists, the cafes are quite classy and well worth the morning visit.
Adjacent to Les Deux Magots, Place Saint Germain is always a happening place, often hosting street performers of the “classy” kind. Next door, the Église de Saint Germain des Prés is one of the oldest churches in all of Paris, dating back to the 6th century! Built, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, the church is influenced by both Gothic and Roman styles. Between the marble columns and colorfully painted plastered walls, walking the perimeter of the church reveals these layers in time.
A few boutique-lined blocks from here, Saint Sulpice Square is another neighborhood masterpiece, decorated by a central fountain and dominated by the grand Saint Sulpice church. With one of its signature towers left unfinished, its interior is home to a chapel decorated with artwork by one-time neighborhood resident Eugene Delacroix. However, the church’s “real” draw is what remains of its solar observatory, highlighted by the famous ‘Rose Line’ – which you might recall from the Da Vinci Code.
If you’re in need of a quick people-watching-caffeine-break, head to Café de la Mairie which overlooks the square. If it’s more protein you’re after, head to L’avant Comptoir or one of its neighbors along this pocket of fine neighborhood eateries.
Here’s a complete guide for exploring Saint Germain des Pres
Surely one of the nicest urban parks in the entire world, the Luxembourg Gardens might owe their appeal to their royal origins. The gardens are the de facto buffer between Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter, the perfect place for a snooze, catching up on some holiday reading, a picnic lunch and for watching children sailing miniature yachts across the pond.
If Saint Germain is blessed with cafes, pastry shops, and boutiques – the Latin Quarter is blessed with Gothic monuments, ancient cobblestone lanes, and affordable bistros. If you’re wondering how the quarter got its name, look no further than to its top-notch academic institutions – like the Sorbonne – where students and clergymen from the district’s cathedrals spoke Latin and the name just stuck!
If you’re pressed for time, skip this paragraph and exit the Luxembourg Gardens straight to the Pantheon. However, if you’re of the curious kind, detour to the bottom of Rue Mouffetard and work your way up to Place de la Contrescarpe. Rue Mouffetard is essentially a “market street” and, back in the day, it marked the start of the Paris-to-Rome “highway”.
Strategically positioned on a hill so that no Parisian will be able to ignore it, the Panthéon is the Latin Quarter’s star attraction. Designed by King Louis XV as a church, the secular outcome of the French Revolution re-zoned this monument to a public space as a mausoleum honoring the nation’s finest. If there’s enough time, avoid the lines with this Pantheon pass and explore its magnificent interior. Oh, and be sure to head up the stairs and check out the view from the balcony.
Right next to the Pantheon, the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is another highlight for classic European church-lovers like me. Otherwise, stroll along Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève and grab something to drink in Place Larue.
Cutting east, check out Place de la Sorbonne (good spot for lunch) and make your way to Place Saint Michel – a prime Parisian meeting spot and book-lovers’ paradise.
Here’s a complete guide to exploring the Latin Quarter
Île de la Cité
With modest beginnings as a Celtic settlement on a small island in the middle of the River Seine, Île de la Cité is the very heart of Paris. Make landfall on the island by crossing Pont Saint-Michel from the Latin Quarter and head to straight to the Sainte-Chapelle using this priority entrance ticket.
The Sainte Chapelle is a 13th-century gothic chapel that has to be one of the finest in the world. Best visited when the sun is shining, the chapel’s interior is decorated with exquisite stained glass depicting scenes from the bible.
Across the street, another grand Parisian landmark – Notre Dame Cathedral. The good news is that entering the cathedral is free of charge. The bad news is that you’ll have to queue up but things move along quickly. You can join organized tours if you’re really interested in the ins and outs of the structure, otherwise, just marvel at the huge stained glass rose windows – the interior’s signature feature. If the interior isn’t enough, you can climb the towers of the cathedral and enjoy superb views from a terrace. Waiting time can last for well over 90 minutes so consider combining the tower visit with an organized cathedral tour in order to skip the lines.
UPDATE: due to the tragic fire that destroyed large parts of the cathedral in April 2019, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to enter the cathedral anytime soon. Expect major changes to pedestrian traffic around Notre Dame.
Before crossing over to Ile Saint Louis, check out Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. It provides a good opportunity to admire the exterior of Notre Dame but also to snap a few classic Paris photos, especially from the Pont de l’Archevêché. This area (on both river banks) is also famous for the Bouquinistes – the Parisian booksellers whose green wooden stalls are ubiquitous around here. These days, many sell tacky souvenirs but you’ll still find a few antique gems here and there.
Île Saint Louis
The smaller of the two, Ile Saint Louis is mostly a (super) upscale residential area… with a ton of history. The main draw is strolling down its main street in search of a few scoops of the best ice cream in Paris. I’m talking about the original Berthillon ice cream shop – not to be confused with its neighboring rivals who sell ice cream made by Berthillon. However, if the queue is too long at the source, head to the neighbors as you won’t really notice the difference in taste.
With your sweet tooth satisfied, head to Quai d’Anjou – the street which faces the Right Bank. The houses are pretty swanky around here and the views are at their finest on its southwest side.
Here’s a complete guide for exploring Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis
Evening in the Marais
Surely deserving more than what remains of this busy second day in Paris, cross the Pont Marie from Ile Saint Louis and enter the Marais. This former riverside swamp (marais) was settled in the 13th century when things started to get a bit too crowded on the islands. And, when King Henri IV built the beautiful Place des Vosges, the neighborhood appeal really took.
Since we don’t have much time, I recommended wrapping up the day around Place des Vosges. A stroll in a generally westward direction will give you a taste of this trendy neighborhood and will surely lead you to a restaurant or bar of your choice.
Here’s a complete guide to exploring the Marais