10 lovely things to see in the Latin Quarter in Paris
The historic core of the French Capital, the “Latin Quarter” (Quartier Latin in French) is the heart of Paris intellectual life. Now corresponding to the 5th Arrondissement, on the Left Bank of the Seine, the Latin Quarter does not owe its name to being the historical settling place of Romans, but to the fact that teaching in the Universities – especially La Sorbonne – was operated in Latin.
Recognizable to its lively atmosphere, and to its old and narrow streets, the Latin Quarter is an unmissable stop for visitors.
You will need at least half a day if you wish to fully enjoy the neighborhood. You can easily add the Latin Quarter to your day if you already plan on visiting Notre-Dame and the Islands, or the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.
The Latin Quarter spreads around the most prestigious of French Universities: La Sorbonne. In the Middle-Ages, La Sorbonne was the home building of the much larger Paris University which regrouped at its peak many faculties and colleges throughout the City. The grounds on which this new scholarly life unwound were those occupied by the Romans, nearly a thousand years earlier, in the ancient town of Lutetia. Today’s Rue Saint Jacques corresponds to the main artery of the Roman town, known then as Cardo Maximus.
Therefore, the Latin Quarter is located on lands that have been occupied for over two thousand years. They are the birthplace of Paris.
The following ten sites are those you should not miss if you visit the Latin Quarter. They are not ranked according to their (relative) interest, but rather based on their location so that you can tour the neighborhood easily using this guide!
1. The area of Saint-Michel Fountain
To start your journey through the Latin Quarter, the best is to stand in front of the Saint-Michel Fountain. Located right across the Seine from Notre-Dame, the beautiful monument is relatively young compared to the rest of the neighborhood.
Planned as a part of Haussmann’s transformations, the fountain was put in the charge of sculptor Gabriel Davioud. The location of the fountain, at the end of the Saint-Michel Bridge and at the corner of two streets, oriented to the North – with the lack of light that goes with it – was a real challenge for the artist. He decided to ask for the help of several sculptors. The diversity of materials, colors, and styles were to counteract the terrible light the monument would receive. Representing the fight of Good against Evil, and more specifically the victory of Saint Michel over the Devil, the sculptures are displayed around a triumphal arch.
Now a meeting point for Parisians, and an acclaimed monument for visitors, the fountain was once much criticized. Take the time to admire it to see the vast amount of details and the variety of styles.
2. Along Rue de la Huchette
Rue de la Huchette is a small street running parallel to the Seine. It is more than 800 years old. If you go there, unaware, you might find a lot of restaurants calling themselves traditionally French, or Greek. Beware, for most are pure tourist traps. If you want my opinion – you are reading my article after all :)– do NOT eat in one of those. Paris has enough choice in good restaurants for you to avoid La Huchette.
So, you might ask, why tell me to visit Rue de la Huchette?
Well, the street leads to quite a few points of interest:
At number 23, Le Théâtre de la Huchette is a tiny theater which has been holding the incredible record of playing Ionesco’s The Lesson and The Bald Soprano, every Tuesdays through Saturdays, since 1957 – which represent more than 18 000 shows!
Across number 13, the tiny Rue du Chat Qui Pêche is the narrowest street in Paris. It has no real interest but to allow you taking a fun photo.
At number 5, Le Caveau de la Huchette is one of the oldest jazz clubs in Paris. An ancient meeting place for Templars and Free-Masons, the club offers many cool concerts, the program of which you may find here.
Upon exiting the street, take the small pedestrian street along “Le Petit Pont” café. You will arrive to the most famous American library in Paris – Shakespeare and Co. Know more about it here.
You end up Rue Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre. In the small park, take the time to have a look to Paris oldest tree.
3. The Cluny Museum of Middle Ages
A former part of an important complex headquartering the Order of Cluny, this old townhome of the Abbotts of Cluny now houses the stunning Museum of Middle-Ages. Although rebuilt several times, its architecture is one of the only one remaining in Paris which clearly shows Middle-Ages architecture.
The structure is intelligently built incorporating the much older Roman remains of Lutetia thermal baths – the visit of which is included in the Museum entrance fee.
While visiting the museum, do not miss the 6 world-renowned tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Middle-Ages gardens – which is a quiet park, adjacent to the museum, and displaying plants and spices which often populated gardens at the time.
For your information, the museum is currently undergoing important renovations. The access to the old mansion, and the route of the visit have significantly been limited. The frigidarium – cold room – of the thermal baths ruins, and the room of the Lady and the Unicorn are still accessible. For a full access, you must wait until the end of 2020 when the whole renovated complex will reopen.
4. Around the Sorbonne University
Climbing the highest point of the Left Bank – Mount Sainte Genevieve – the Rue Saint Jacques runs across the intellectual heart of Paris.
On one side of the street, the College de France, founded in the 16th century by Francis I and considered the most prestigious research institution in France, offers lectures and conferences open to the public. Higher on the hill, one of Paris’s two most prestigious high schools – Louis Le Grand High School – is only a few yards away from its great rival, Henry IV High School.
On the other side of the street, the grandiose and prestigious University of Sorbonne, easily recognizable with its dome and observatory tower, houses four prestigious colleges and is often considered the best university in France in its fields, especially in literary arts.
If you go to the other side of the building, on the front square of the University, you may see a square-shaped pool, with a circular protrusion on one side. This is actually a well, dating back to the Roman ages, which once served as a source of water for a house.
If you stay in Paris long enough, don’t miss the chance of entering the beautiful Sainte Genevieve Library at La Sorbonne.
5. The Pantheon
Keep climbing Mount Sainte-Genevieve until you reach the grandiose Pantheon. The monumental mausoleum protecting the remains of the greatest people in French History was the result of the transformation of a church under the reign of Louis XV. Under its dome forever lie Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, Antoine de Saint-Exupery – the author of The Little Prince, Louis Braille – the inventor of a special alphabet for the blind, Pierre and Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and many more.
While visiting this impressive structure, do not miss the Foucault pendulum under the dome. This pendulum is a scientific experiment by Léon Foucault which was hung here due to the ceiling height required for the experiment to be conclusive. It aims at demonstrating the Earth rotation.
Before leaving the area, get around the building on the left when you look at the main façade. Don’t miss the chance to enter Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Church, next door. Although quite ordinary on the outside, the inside of the church is beautiful and decorated with a nice rood screen, which is the last remaining in Paris. Most visitors miss this place worth the detour.
6. The Gardens of Luxembourg
Downhill to the West, the nice Gardens of Luxembourg is the park of the French Senate (housed in Palace of Luxembourg). Although the Palace cannot be visited, the park offers a pleasant time to tourists and Parisians, who love to take a break on its many lawns and near its nice pools and fountains.
While in the park, don’t forget to have a look at the very nice Medici Fountain. The monument doesn’t stand where it was originally built. It was moved by several yards when Haussmann pierced Boulevard Saint Michel. However, it has lost nothing of its original grandeur.
At the opposite, smartly hidden between the trees, you may visit the Park’s kitchen garden, as well as the beehives farm.
7. Rue Mouffetard
Go back to the Pantheon area, and reach Place de la Contrescarpe. From there, you may walk down the lively Rue Mouffetard, the bustling core of the Latin Quarter. The narrow street is lined with bars and restaurants and is, still today, a popular location in Paris nightlife.
The upper part of the street, where are most restaurants and bars, is ideal to go out at night. This lively atmosphere is quite unique in Paris. If you are there during the day, take the time to enjoy the nice buildings and façades as many are historic monuments – sometimes you can see old stores’ façades which no longer even match the current store behind them!
8. The Roman ruins of Lutetia arenas
From Place de la Contrescarpe, slightly to the North, take the small and paved Rue Rollin. The street finishes with nice stairs and gets you onto Rue Monge.
Across this street is an unconventional small park. If you enter it, you will find yourself in a wide-opened elliptic square which is the remains of the old arenas of Roman Lutetia, also known as the amphitheater.
Although buildings have been constructed above a part of the structure, the circular seating pattern is still very much visible. This Lutetia Amphitheater, which was elevated slightly outside the city of Lutetia, was a combined building mixing a typical amphitheater – where gladiators’ fights would take place – and classic theater – where plays took place. The theater function of the building was evidenced by the presence of a large elevated stage area.
These arenas are far less impressive than the ones you may find in Arles or Nimes – in Southern France – but if you do not visit other major Roman cities during your stay in France, you may wish to stop there for a few minutes.
9. The Arabic landmarks
Near the arenas are two places which reflect the strong influence of Muslim cultures.
To the North of the arenas, the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) is a great museum and organization founded by more than 15 Arab countries to educate about the Arab World, and its culture(s).
The museum building, created by architect Jean Nouvel, is a wonder of cleverness, with a unique façade which filters light harmoniously. In addition to the museum, the AWI also offers workshops, seminars, and many more activities. And if you are hungry, the top floor restaurant is a great option for panoramic views out onto Notre-Dame.
About 1km South of the AWI, the Great Paris Mosque is an incredible Spanish-moorish religious complex which you can visit everyday except on Fridays (and other Muslim celebration days). It was built right after World War I and was the first mosque in France.
Towered by an impressive minaret, the mosque offers a relaxing atmosphere as you go through its gardens and rooms. You may also enjoy a relaxing tea, and pastries, and – if you are a woman – spend some time in one of Paris’s best hammams. It is quite a unique experience to live, that definitely most tourists miss!
10. The Botanical Gardens and the Natural History Museum
At last, next to the Mosque are the big Botanical Gardens (Jardin des Plantes), which displays one of the most comprehensive collection of plants in Europe, and the most important one in France. The garden is an agreeable park to have a nice stroll and relaxing time.
As a part of the Natural History Museum, the museum is completed by exhibition galleries among which the impressive paleontology gallery, the mineralogy gallery, and the most renowned Gallery of Evolution, not to be missed.
Of course, this list is not comprehensive, as the Latin Quarter is one of the richest neighborhoods in Paris. Feel free to wander the small streets and lose yourself.
At last, if you wish to know more and see even more things you’re afraid to miss on your own, don’t forget that DiscoverWalks offers a guided tour of the Latin Quarter, which you can book here.