• Leslie

What To See in Paris' Latin Quarter: the Heart of the Left Bank

Updated: Jun 9

Luxembourg Gardens

Here's my guide to all the must see sites and secret spots in Paris' Latin Quarter on the Left Bank. If you only walk down Rue de la Huchette, you may run screaming from Paris' Latin Quarter. It's just so gaudy and jammed jowl to jowl with tourists. But the Latin Quarter isn't all like that. It's eminently friendly and likable, if you know where to look.

Its likability doesn't emanate from the faux Greek taverns or tacky souvenir stands in an isolated corner. No, the storied Latin Quarter is the lively heart and soul of the left Bank -- a tangle of medieval narrow streets with soulful asymmetrical architecture that seems alive. It's anti-Haussmann blandness, where medieval meets modern.

The Latin Quarter will delight cultures vultures. It's home to countless museums, gorgeous churches, and other historical curiosities. The district's also the hub of academic life in Paris, home to the world famous Sorbonne and the École des Beaux-Arts. So you'll spy students everywhere, milling around or sipping espresso at cafes.

Davioud's Fountain on Saint Michel Boulevard, a common meeting place to tour the Latin Quarter

A Short History of the Latin Quarter

The Latin Quarter is ancient. It's been around for 2,000 years and was first inhabited by the Romans. Its name derives from the fact that, until the 16th century, Latin was the language of the educated elite and all that was spoken there. Much of the district was renovated in the 19th century. But there are still pre-Haussmann vestiges to be spotted. 

Situated on the left Bank of the Seine River, the Latin Quarter lies in the 5th arrondissement and a small chunk of the 6th arrondissement in Paris. There's a serious cafe culture in the Left Bank, which took off in the early 1900s. Free thinkers hung out there, enjoying the area's creative freedom.

The Latin Quarter helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment and was the center of bohemianism. During this time, every idea was scrutinized; nothing was sacred. Even the notion of royalty was questioned.

Le Precope, the oldest cafe in Paris, where writers, intellectuals, and revolutionaries debated ideas. Now, it's a rather overpriced tourist attraction. It's located at 13 Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris. Image source: Serge Melki/ Flickr

cafe in the Latin Quarter with beautiful door

Pre-revolutionary France was governed by the wealthy. But the gap between the classes became increasingly glaring. Even Louis XIV predicted future societal issues, intoning rather pedantically, "Apres moi, la deluge," or after me, the flood.

The French revolutionaries met in cafes in the Latin Quarter, like Le Precope. Robspierere, Marat, and Danton debated ideas and plotted rebellion. Le Precope still sports an authentic interior. It has one of Napoleon’s hats and Marie Antoinette's last letter to her husband Louis XVI.

The rebellious culture still permeates the Latin Quarter. In 1968, the entire month of May was filled with student riots. They demonstrated against the strictures of a patriarchal society and the Vietnam War. Students hurled the rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and batons. The student rebellion led to a workers revolt that almost took down Charles de Galle's government.

Saint Severin Church

Must See Sites in Paris' Latin Quarter

If you're wondering exactly what to see in the Latin Quarter, I've got you covered. Here are what I consider the best attractions in Paris' historic district. Let's explore!

1. Saint Severin Church

Set on a charming square in the Latin Quarter, Saint-Séverin is one of my favorite Paris churches. It's a quirky ancient church, dating from the 6th century. It was rebuilt in 13th century and named after a devout hermit. It once served as the main church of the Left Bank.

gargoyles on Saint Severin Church

Saint-Séverin was badly damaged by fire during the 100 Years War, but was restored. It's free to visit and has glowering gargoyles (added by Gothic revivalist Viollet-le-Duc) and impressive stained glass. While you're there, stop into the adjacent Eglise Julien Le Pauvre, another rather stout but truly ancient edifice.

Saint-Séverin was the subject of a series of paintings by French artist Robert Delaunay. Delaunay's studio was near the church. He depicts the church's cavernous interior.

Address: 7 Rue Saint-Séverin, 75005 Paris

the Pantheon

2. Pantheon, the Academy of the Dead

The Pantheon is a grand neoclassical basilica dominating, rather ironically, the artsy Latin Quarter. Pantheon means "every god." It was built after a king's near death experience and celebrates the greatest dead heros of France. Though initially disliked, the building is now a fixture on the Paris skyline. The dislike was transferred to Montparnasse Tower.

The Paris Pantheon was modeled, rather obviously, on the Roman Pantheon. With its doughty 272 foot dome, it also resembles St. Paul's Cathedral in London. While the exterior is Romanesque, the gigantic interior resembles a Gothic cathedral. The overall design is that of a Greek cross, with Corinthian columns and elaborate marble floors everywhere.

People tend to glide by the Pantheon and just snap a photo. That's a mistake. Aside from the disappointing lack of windows inside, the interior's the most fascinating part of the Pantheon. You can see a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. And the rooftop boasts one of the best viewing points in Paris.

the Pantheon's frescoed triple dome

The French state rather schizophrenically converted the Pantheon back and forth from basilica to temple. But when the esteemed Victor Hugo was Pantheonized in 1885, it remained evermore a mausoleum for France's greatest heroes and martyrs.

You'll also find the tombs of Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola, and Marie Curie on your tour of the crypt. But I like to commune with Hugo's tomb the most. It's like a transmitter broadcasting his appealing Romantic ideals -- he was a hero of the downtrodden and battled against misery and slavery.

Be sure to admire the Pantheon's beautiful paintings. They honor the rulers and religious leaders of France, telling the tempestuous history of France in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though sometimes called murals, they're actual oil paintings glued to the walls.

For more details, read my guide to the Pantheon.

Address: Place du Panthéon 75005 Paris

Place de la Sorbonne

3. Sorbonne University

Paris is home to myriad prestigious universities. None is as famous as the Sorbonne University. Once known as the Sorbonne IV, the college takes its name from the Collège de Sorbonne, which was founded in 1257. It's actually comprised of 13 separate institutions.

The Sorbonne has a storied history. It was founded 1260 by Robert de Sorbon, a 13th century French theologian. In the middle ages, in conservative and philistine fashion, the Sorbonne stood against the Knights Templars, Protestantism, and Enlightenment philosophy. It even sent its most eminent bishop to preside over the trial of Joan of Arc.

Phillipe de Campaigne, Cardinal Richelieu, 1640 -- Richelieu loved commissioning personal portraits

The Sorbonne's most famous leader and philosopher was the scheming Cardinal Richelieu. He was Louis XIII's chief minister and an ardent Catholic.

In tyrannical fashion, he unapologetically believed that the state and his king stood above all else. Richelieu presided over the construction of the Sorbonne chapel in 1635, where he is now buried. Under Richelieu, the Sorbonne primarily taught theology.

During the French Revolution, religion was squashed and the Sorbonne was temporarily shuttered. Apres la deluge, things returned to normal and esteemed professors arrived for duty. But the medieval buildings vanished, succeeded by Baroque buildings, finally finished in 1883.

statue of Voltaire at the Institute de France

The Sorbonne boasts several Nobel Prize winners as alumni, including Pierre and Marie Curie. The modern day Sorbonne is a massive place, with a plethora of lecture rooms, seminar rooms, examination halls, etc. It has 54,000 students.

Address: 17 Rue de la Sorbonne

College des Bernardines

4. College des Bernardines, a Rare Medieval Building in Paris

Tucked away on a little side street on Rue de Poissy, lies the the 13th century Collège des Bernardins. The college is a former residence of Cistercian Monks, who trained there for centuries until the French Revolution.

It's a beautiful old medieval building, both inside and outside. The vaulted ceilings are amazing. In 2004-08, the college became the last medieval building to be renovated in Paris. Now, it's used as a cultural and spiritual center.

Address: 20 Rue de Poissy, 75005 Paris

the Cluny Museum, housed in one of Paris' rare medieval buildings

5. Cluny Museum, National Museum of the Middle Ages

Are you a history buff who wants to be transported back to the Middle Ages? Or are you just crazy for mythical horned creatures? If so, the Musée Cluny is a must see site in the Latin Quarter.

It's truly one of my favorite museums in the Paris The 14th century museum is housed in the Hotel de Cluny and adjacent to an extant "frigidarium" (cold room) of a Roman bath house. The bath is the oldest preserved site in Paris.

Since 2018, the museum's has a new entrance on Boulevard Saint Michel. It's made of clad aluminum and striking metallic mesh, but somehow still seems to look Roman.

This museum is dedicated to all things from the Middle Ages. The Cluny's pièce de résistance is the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. It's considered the Mona Lisa of tapestries and is one of the greatest surviving medieval relics.

The tapestries were discovered in 1844 by writer and flamboyant feminist George Sand. They were in poor condition, damaged by mold and rats. If you're interested in Sand's life, be sure to visit the Museum of the Romantic Life in the South Pigalle neighborhood of Paris.

Other Cluny highlights include the stained glass gallery, the corridor of tombstones, the Roman baths, the Gothic rooms, and the Notre Dame gallery. In the Notre Dame gallery, you'll find 21 stone heads of the kings of Judea and Israel. The full length statues originally decorated Notre Dame's western facade. But, in 1793, an angry revolutionary mob beheaded them, wrongly assuming they depicted the kings of France.

Address: 28 rue Du Sommerard

Note: Parts of the Cluny Museo are closed until the spring of 2020.

Saint-Étienne-du-Mont Church

6. Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Church

Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is the final resting place of Paris' patron saint, Saint Genevieve. The exterior has an asymmetrical design, with a tall belfry on the left side. It was originally just extra space for an abbey founded by Paris' first king, Clovis.

But the French revolutionaries didn't like abbeys and targeted established religion, They demolished the abbey, except for the Clovis Tower, which can still be seen from the church grounds. The church itself survived and was restored in the 19th century.

Inside, there's an elaborate and rather unique rood screen, which separates the chancel from the nave. It's flanked by two distinctive spiral staircases and is the only one of its kind in Paris. The stained glass dates from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The steps of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont (a side entrance) were used as a filming location in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. In the scene, the protagonist Gil is lounging on the steps. He's swept off by a mysterious Peugeot and the fantasy part of the move is launched.

Address: Place Sainte-Genevieve

Luxembourg Gardens

7. Luxembourg Gardens: A Leafy Pantheon

Luxembourg Gardens is one of Paris' ever-so-pretty green spots, full of architectural delights. It's essentially an outdoor sculpture museum. Dating from 1612, the sun-speckled gardens feature heavily in Victor Hugo's romantic novel Les Miserables. They were frequented by the real life philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Marie de Medici, Henry IV's widow, commissioned the Luxembourg gardens in the 1630. They were styled to emulate the Boboli Garden of the Pitti Palace, Medici’s childhood home in Florence. The crowning glory is the incredibly romantic Medici Fountain. It's a grotto-like monument designed to emulate water seeping from the stones.

Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens

Homage to Paul Eluard by Ossip Zadkine

hanging out in Luxembourg Gardens with my BFF

Last time I was in the gardens, I came to inspect the sculptures. I strolled past a bust of Eugene Delacroix, the father of the Romantic period of painting whose Liberty Leading the People causes queues at the Louvre. I admired a white marble (and very idealized) statue of the novelist George Sand and the nearby stele of the novelist Stendahl by Auguste Rodin.

I adored the Bust of Beethoven, with Beethoven's characteristic and ever-present tormented visage and shock of hair. Don't miss the classic The Mask Seller or Homage to Paul Eluard by Ossip Zadkine, the latter of which is hidden in the western corner of the Luxembourg gardens. If you like Zadkine's sculptures, the secret Zadkine Museum is just two blocks away (technically in Montparnasse).

During the summer months, you can rent miniature sailboats and sail them across the Luxembourg's central fountain feature.

Arènes de Lutèce, one of the few hints of a former Roman presence in Paris

8. Arènes de Lutèce: Roman Paris

Lutetia or Lutece was one of Paris' first names, used during the Gallo-Roman period. If you’re a history buff like me, you'll be happy to hear that vestiges of ancient Lutetia can still be found in Paris today.

The most significant ruin is the Arenes de Lutece, in the 5th arrondissement of the Latin Quarter. Built around 200 A.D., it was one of the largest Roman amphitheaters in Roman Gaul, though not as large as the ones you'll find in southern France. The Arena seated around 15,000.

Over the centuries, it was buried under expansion detritus and used as a graveyard. In 1869, the arena was re-discovered during the Haussmann construction of Rue Monge. As with Notre Dame Cathedral, a group led by Victor Hugo rescued Arenes de Lutece from the city planner's wrecking ball.

Today, little remains of the original grand amphitheater. What you see is only 1/3 of its original size. The arena is mostly used by teenagers playing soccer.

Address: 47 Rue Monge Paris

9. The Salvador Dali Sundial

I confess I have a soft spot for Salvador Dali. Though he made his name as an eccentric showman, the man could flat out draw. When he arrived in Paris in 1926, he joined the Surrealist movement.

On Rue Saint-Jacques, you'll find a unique piece of his street art -- a Salvador Dali sundial. It depicts the head of a woman in the shape of a shell. There's also a small Espace Dali museum in Montmartre. And the massive "Shh!" mural near the Pompidou Center.

If you're interested in Paris street art (a massive subject on its own), you can also find some works of Banksy in the Latin Quarter.

a businessman in a suit offers a dog a bone having first sawn the animal's leg off -- this is on Rue Victor Cousin

Address: 27 Rue Saint-Jacques

10. Curie Museum: Get Your Geek On

The Curie Museum celebrates the life of scientist Marie Curie -- what a woman! It's located near the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement.

Curie's life is a fascinating tale. As a young woman, she fled from Warsaw to Krakow for her own safety. She moved to France in 1891. Her husband died in a freak car accident in 1906, leaving her a single mother with two young children.

Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. And she's the only person in history to have won a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields, physics and chemistry, in 1903 and 1911. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.

Marie Curie's office in the Curie Museum in Paris

The permanent exhibition of her eponymous museum traces the history of radioactivity and its medical applications, along with the lives and works of Curie, her husband Pierre, and their children, Irene and Frederi. The Curies are dubbed "the family of 5 Nobel prizes." The museum got a facelift in 2012, courtesy of Curie's daughter.

You'll find a chemistry laboratory that houses laboratory notes and scientific instruments from 1930. I especially loved Curie's small office where she spent most of her time. The room faces a lovely and peaceful garden, very dear to Marie Curie, that you can also visit. The displays are in both English and French and you can pre-book private tours.

the lovely Place de Furstenberg, home to the Delacroix Museum

11. Musée National Eugène Delacroix

Bordering the Latin Quarter and the tonier Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood is the Eugene Delacroix Museum, on the gorgeous Place de Furstenberg. This is an eccentric little gem of museum. It's off the beaten track and designed for art lovers. When I last visited, it was nearly empty.

It has an intimate setting, housed in Delacroix's final apartment and studio before his death in 1863. I tend to love museum-ateliers. They're so revelatory.

Delacroix is known as the founder of the Romantic Period of painting. He rejected the Academy's idea of precise drawing. He adopted a flowing, convulsive brush style. When you look at a Delacroix, you see "fuzziness, smears, fibrillating paint, irradiated color that destabilize space and emulsify objects."

Eugene Delacroix bust by Dalou

a room in the Delacroix Museum in Paris showing the famous painting The Education of the Virgin

You won't see anything as stunning as Delacroix's famous Liberty Leading the People (that draws massive crowds at the Louvre) at his studio. What you'll find is lush religious and historical paintings and drawings by Delacroix and others, as well as personal objects and mementos. Delacroix had an obsession with large cats, and you'll see some of those paintings.

Place de la Contrescarpe

12. Place de la Contrescarpe & Rue Mouffetard

Just down the hill form the Pantheon is the Place de la Contrescarpe. It's a lively square, flanked by cafes and restaurants far removed from Paris grand boulevards. A flowing fountain sits in the center amid lush trees.

In the summer, musicians play music. The square is located along the vibrant Rue Mouffetard, one of Paris' oldest streets with haphazard crooked cobblestones and food stalls. In another life, it was the main road of Roman Lutecia.

Place de la Contrescarpe is perhaps most famous as the setting for the opening scene of Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, A Moveable Feast. In the 1920s, Hemingway took up residence at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine. Though the area is now quite gentrified, then it was a working class neighborhood of craftsman. And it doesn't seem entirely refined now, which lends to its traditional charm.

the cobblestones of Rue Mouffetard at night

Hemingway romanticized his "poor but happy life" in the district. He famously penned the phrase: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

Hemingway wasn't the only expatriate luminary living there. Victor Hugo set scenes from Les Miserables there. George Orwell was there, writing Down and Out in Paris and London. James Joyce completed Ulysses there. Julia Child loved the market on Rue Mouffetard. The film about her life, Julia and Julia starring Meryl Streep, shows her shopping there.

13. Shakespeare & Company & Abbey Bookstore

Facing the Seine, Shakesapeare and Company is the most famous English language bookstore in Paris. It's always a fun spot to visit.

You can browse for books. Upstairs is a reading room and library with comfy nooks to curl up with a good book. There's a cafe right next door, owned by the bookstore, should you need a coffee or pastry.

Address: 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris

books piled floor to ceiling at Abbey Bookstore

Located in the Hotel Dubuisson, the Abbey Bookstore is another charming anglophone bookstore. It sells new, vintage, and rare books, lovingly offered up in massive floor to ceiling piles.

The bookstore also serves up coffee and the delicious smell wafts among the books. You'll find the Abbey Bookstore on Rue de la Parcheminerie, a tiny lane dating back to the 13th century.

Address: 29 Rue de la Parcheminerie, 75005 Paris

statue of French revolutionary George-Jacques Danton

14. Statue of Danton, Giant of the French Revolution

I love this statue of the French Revolutionary Georges-Jacques Danton. The expressive piece seems to capture the very essence of the larger than life figure. It exudes the revolutionary fervor of the time, when political convulsion gripped France and then reverberated around the world.

Danton was one of the driving forces of the French Revolution, which put an end to monarchs raising their bejeweled fingers in command. Danton was an orator. He was also a domineering and sometimes abrasive self-promoter. Revolutionaries weren't shy creatures, after all. But his impassioned speeches drove reformers to take action.

Unfortunately, the revolution quickly escalated into the Reign of Terror. Maximilien Robespierre seized control and the guillotine was his weapon of choice. When Danton protested the extremes, he too lost his head. On the block, Danton told his executioner: "Make sure you show it to the people. It is worth a look."

Address: 97 boulevard Saint Germain | Place Henri Mondor, 75006 Paris

Odette Pastry Shop

15. Odette Pastry Shop

Last, but not least for foodies, is Odette Pastry Shop. The bakery is a famous instagrammable spot in Paris, right next to a rare green half timbered building in Paris.

The shop is just steps away from Saint Severin and behind Shakespeare & Co bookstore. It specializes in the cream puff, but has an extensive menu. If you're adventurous and it's the right season, try the passion fruit or champagne puff.

Address: 76 Rue Galande

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