5 Things to Learn from Saint-Germain-des-Prés
The Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés will always hold a very special place in my heart. It was the home to so many artists, writers, photographers, and not to mention…so much history happened there! It was the first place I ever lived in Paris, and just knowing that so many of my idols lived and worked there always meant a lot for me.
Like most places in Paris, there is so much to discover in this neighborhood in the 6th arrondissement, so keep reading for the 5 most interesting things to learn from Saint-Germain-des-Prés!
1. The oldest church in Paris in located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés
The Saint-Germain-des-Prés church is located at the Place de Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the center of the neighborhood. The church was first commissioned by King Childebert I in 542, and construction was completed in 558. It was originally built in order to store ancient religious artefacts, like the stole of Saint Vincent that Childebert brought back from his travels when France was at war with Spain.
Over the years, the church expanded to a complete religious complex, which included a monastery. Since the area was not located within the walls of ancient Paris, the area surrounding the church had autonomy from the city, and therefore the church owned most of the land that stretched west of today’s Boulevard Saint-Michel.
Unfortunately, after the French Revolution, most of the church’s complex was destroyed. Today, all that remains is the impressive Romanesque style Abbey, which is definitely worth taking the time to visit! There are even historians that give guided tours on the church every Tuesday and Thursday at 3pm, so mark your calendars!
3 Place Saint-germain-des-prés, Paris 75006
2. Intellectuals loved Saint-Germain-des-Prés
It seems that since the 17th century, Saint-Germain-des-Prés has been a hub for intellectuals and revolutionaries. A group called the Encyclopédistes, which included Denis Diderot, gathered in the neighborhood to write the very first Encyclopaedia! American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin was fond of the area, and Napoleon was also known to spend time here.
Why were these intellectual and revolutionary figures so attracted to Saint-Germain-des-Prés?! It could be because since the beginnings of the French Revolution, many printers and publishers ran their businesses out of the area. Hundreds of publications that included pamphlets and newspapers were printed here, influencing many French citizens at the time.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and you can find philosophers Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre setting up camp in cafés for hours at a time discussing the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.
In the 1950s, post-war Paris emerged from the horror of World War II with a new lease on life, and this too attracted intellectuals again to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Writers, artists, photographers, and philosophers couldn’t get enough of the inspiring atmosphere, and the neighborhoods prominent place in the history of Paris was solidified!
3. The oldest café in Paris can be found in Saint-Germain-des-Prés
In 1686, the café Le Procope was officially opened in Paris. Since then, it was an artistic and literary hub in the city, and although it did close between 1872 and 1920, Le Procope stakes its claim as the oldest café in Paris!
The café began as a lemonade stand, and when the original owner no longer wanted to run it, chef François Procope took over. The original café was known for it’s dark and somber interior, until Procope acquired an old bath house next door and installed new and modern fixtures like mirrors and chandeliers.
In it’s early days, Le Procope was a place where men (I’m cringing too but, women were not allowed in Le Procope at the time!) could gather to drink coffee (which was an exotic luxury at the time!), and in 1689 when the Comédie-Française opened across the street from the café, the locale attracted actors, musicians, poets, and playwrights alike, causing business to skyrocket.
It is in 1702 that the café is officially named Le Procope, as before the establishment was known solely as the “boutique at the sign of the Holy Shroud of Turin”.
As I mentioned, the Encyclopédistes loved Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and it was at Le Procope where they congregated. In addition to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson loved visiting Le Procope when he was the American Ambassador in France.
Writer Voltaire also spent a lot of time at the café, where he would drink his famous 40 cups of coffee a day. I am a major coffee lover myself, but 40 cups a day is completely out of my league!
During the French Revolution, Le Procope became a meeting place for Revolutionaries at the time such as Robespierre and Danton. In later years, writers such as George Sand, Alfred de Musset and Jean de la Fontaine also frequented the establishment.
Lucky for all of us, Le Procope is still open for business today, and is definitely worth a visit. It’s not my favorite café or restaurant in Paris, but for the history alone, I suggest you check it out!
13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris
Open everyday from 11:45am-12am
4. Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the home of the Lost Generation
The Lost Generation is probably my favorite literary and artistic groups of all time. Some of my favorite writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein all belonged to the group that became famous in Paris after World War I.
The group found it’s beginning after the end of the first World War. Stein was the first to coin the term, and it comes from the fact that many young people experienced a feeling of disorientation after experiencing the horrors of war. Many no longer knew what to do with their lives after leaving the military, and several had lost most of their friends in battle.
In an attempt to get over this feeling of depression, a group of Americans migrated from the States to Paris in order to find themselves.
The group is the most discussed in Hemingway’s novel A Moveable Feast (one of my favorites!), and in his book The Sun Also Rises as well. Fitzgerald also touches on the subject in his classic The Great Gatsby.
Other famous members of the Lost Generation include: Sinclair Lewis, Fred Astaire, Norman Rockwell, and Dorothy Parker.
So, what links these writers and artists with Saint-Germain-des-Prés? Many lived in the neighborhood, and therefore hung out in the cafés and restaurants in the area. Les Deux Magots, Le Café de Flore, and the Brasserie Lipp are just a few of the places where the Lost Generation could be found drinking, talking, and working on their latest masterpieces.
All of these cafés are still around today, so head to the 6th arrondissement, grab a notebook and a pen and I’m sure you’ll be filled with inspiration, just as the members of the Lost Generation were!
6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris
Open everyday 7:30am-1am
172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris
Open everyday 7:30am-1:30am
151 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris
Open everyday 8:30am-12:45am
5. The Luxembourg Gardens separates Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter
One of the most beautiful parks in Paris, the Luxembourg Gardens is located on the edge of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The gardens were created in 1612, so you know right away that there is a ton to discover and learn!
The widow of King Henry IV of France, Marie de’ Medici is responsible for commissioning the gardens for her new home, the Luxembourg Palace. De’ Medici wanted to create a residence for herself which reflected the style of the Pitti Palace in Florence, where she was from. She also wanted the surrounding park to imitate her former home, so when construction began, she ordered that 2,000 elm trees be planted. She installed fountains, terraces, and a circular basin.
In 1630, de’ Medici called for the garden to be expanded, and she enlisted the help of architect Jacques Boyceau de la Barauderie, who is responsible for the early gardens in the Tuileries and Versailles! If you get the feeling that the style of these gardens are very similar, that’s probably why!
The park was neglected until 1865, when the reconstruction of Paris as ordered by Louis Napoleon. The park was rehabilitated, and an English-style garden was put into place. He also installed a path that opens up to a great view of the Pantheon.
Today, the Luxembourg Gardens is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. There are small sailboats that can be rented to sail in the fountains, and there are often outdoor concerts in the warmer months. Finding green spaces in a city can be a bit difficult sometimes (although honestly Paris has no shortage of them!), and the Luxembourg Gardens is a great place to start!
Rue de Médicis – Rue de Vaugirard 75006 Paris
Opening hours vary with the seasons, but are generally open between 7.30am and 8.15am, and closes between 4.30pm and 9.30pm.
There you have it, my 5 most interesting things to learn from the Parisian neighborhood Saint-Germain-des-Prés! There is so much to see, do, and learn here that it is the perfect place to spend an afternoon…or 2!
Want to explore Saint-Germain-des-Prés with us? Click here to learn more about our Saint Germain and the River walking tour!