On Paris’ Left Bank, St-Germain-des-Prés is one of the city’s most famous neighbourhoods. Over the years it’s been a meeting place for intellectuals, centre of the post-war Jazz Age and a bohemian hub for artists and writers. And nowadays it’s a fashionable neighourhood full of designer boutiques and swanky restaurants. It’s also my Parisian second home, where I always stay when I visit the city. So let me take you on a walking tour of my Parisian neighbourhood, past historic churches, museums and gardens. And naturally because it’s Paris there’ll be some eating and drinking along the way too.
Our walk starts off on the banks of the Seine at the Pont des Arts, historically a favourite spot for painters but now known for its controversial love locks. Since the first one was added in 2008 they’ve build up so much you can hardly see a space – with so many that a section of railings along the bridge collapsed due to their weight. So for now the sides are boarded up and the plan is to replace the railings with glass panels to stop the locks doing any more damage. Leave the bridge behind you and cross over the road in front of the imposing Institut de France, home to academies of arts, humanities and sciences.
Walk along Quai de Conti, then take a left turn and continue up Rue Bonaparte. On your right you’ll pass l’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts). You’ll often see students carrying art portfolios, hoping to emulate the success of its previous pupils. Monet, Degas, Renoir and Sisley all studied here – and you can see some of their work on display at the Musée d’Orsay, a few minutes’ walk back down towards the river. Rue Bonaparte and the streets around it are full of arty shops and galleries, with everything from antique vases to bizarre modern art installations.
Next up is a more edible kind of artwork at the Ladurée patisserie. It’s one of six Ladurée stores in Paris where they sell over 15,000 of their signature macarons each day. Each season there’s a different range of delicate colours and flavours. Macarons seem to be everywhere now but Ladurée’s are the classics, light and airy with no weird flavour combinations or decoration. The window displays are a work of art themselves too, a rainbow of colours and elegant packaging. There’s usually a queue out the door for a spot in the tea room, but you can get a macaron to go for €1,85 (or €16 for a box of six if you can’t choose just one).
Post-sugar rush, carry on up Rue Bonaparte until you reach the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s one of the oldest churches in Paris with foundations that date back to the third century. Originally it was a Benedictine abbey surrounded by fields – or prés in French – though it’s hard to imagine it now surrounded by hectic city streets. During the French revolution the abbey was used to store saltpeter, one of the ingredients of gunpowder, until it all went up in a huge explosion. It destroyed the abbey and two out of the original three towers, just leaving the current church and one tower still standing.
Across from the church are two of the Left Bank’s most famous cafés – the Deux Magots and Café de Flore. A hundred years ago they were full of philosophers and writers debating the meaning of life, but today it’s more rich housewives taking a break from designer shopping. Stop off for a drink in whichever you prefer. You can follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Deux Magots. Or go just around the corner to Picasso’s favourite, the Café de Flore, where they do an amazing hot chocolate where you get a jug of hot milk and a jug of melted chocolate and mix them together.
Take a left down busy Boulevard St Germain then right into Rue des Ciseaux and left into Rue du Four. Take another right into Rue Mabillon just before Mabillon metro station and past Marche St Germain, a big covered market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and cheeses. At the end of road is St Sulpice church, the second largest in Paris after Notre-Dame. It has distinctive double towers, though if you look closely they’re not quite identical, the one on the right was left half-finished and you can see right through as it’s still hollow inside. Inside the church you can see a painting by Delacroix and it’s also famous for its organ – call in around midday on Sundays to hear a free organ recital.
Walk on around the other side of the church and down Rue Servandoni, which gets its name from the Italian architect who designed St Sulpice’s chapel. The street dates back to 1424 and has some impressive 17th and 18th century buildings. At the end you’ll see the Luxembourg Gardens – follow the road around to the right to find the way in. The gardens are a green oasis stretching over 22 hectares with lawns, fountains and statues as well as an art museum, the Musée du Luxembourg. It’s your classic Parisian park, with old men playing boules, playgrounds full of children and couples walking hand-in-hand.
At the centre of the gardens is the impressive Luxembourg Palace, now used by the French Senate. It was originally built for Italian-born queen Marie de Medicis in the 1610s. After her husband was assassinated she wanted a palace and gardens to live in that reminded her of home, so she sent her architect over to Italy to copy details from Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Cross the gardens towards Boulevard Saint-Michel and the end of the walk. From there you can either head right to reach the Luxembourg metro station, or head left and follow the road along past the Sorbonne art school and back up to the Seine.
If you’d like to do the walk yourself, click on the map below to download a route map and directions. It’s just under 2.5km and will take a couple of hours including macaron and hot chocolate stops.