Discovering the islands of Paris in the Seine river
The Seine River divides Paris into two parts and serves as the most grandiose usable way in the City of Light. If it is your first time in Paris, navigating the Seine aboard one of the many boats is a must you should not miss. The best time to do it is at sunset so that the return journey allows you to see Paris by night, from the river.
On the way, you will come across three islands, all of which are worth discovering. In this article, I will detail to you the nicest things to see on them.
Enjoy a quiet day on Saint-Louis Island (île Saint-Louis)
History of the Island
The Easternmost island on the Seine is Saint-Louis Island. Originally, there were two natural islands, Cows Island and Notre-Dame Island, separated by a small canal. These islands were the property of the canons of Notre-Dame and were mostly not inhabited up until the 17th century.
Under the reign of Henri IV and, more importantly, under Louis XIII, vast city plans transformed the whole area, by reuniting the two islands and building a platform to raise the street level and secure the bank from frequent floods.
The island was immediately fated to become a residential area. Elegant mansions were built alongside streets that were designed following a grid plan. Even if most mansions were dismantled during the French Revolution and turned into apartments, the general layout of the island did not change.
What to see on Saint-Louis Island?
The main street is Rue Saint-Louis-en-L’Île, which crosses the whole island from East to West. Most shops and restaurants are located on this street. Take the time to enjoy the peaceful street, and its art galleries, its small shops and its coffee houses. At numbers 29 and 31, the most famous ice cream maker of Paris, Berthillon, has been serving its world-renowned naturally-flavored ice creams since 1954. On the same street, do not miss the discrete Saint-Louis-en-L’île Church, a baroque-style church, greatly decorated.
Want to see more of Saint-Louis Island? Why not book a hop-on/hop-off boat tour on the Seine with us? Click here to know more.
Travel through time on City Island (Île de la Cité)
The Île de la Cité (City Island) is the most important and most famous natural island on the Seine river. Surprisingly, this island has been forming the core of Paris for more than 2000 years, and its purpose barely changed since then!
History of the Island
Traces of settlements on the island date back from the Gauls period. However, the City Island really became important in the city during the Roman period. The former town of Lutetia mostly lied on the Left Bank of the Seine, but the judicial and religious centers of the town were located on the island. The western half of the island was home to the Palace, where the political leaders lived, while the eastern half was considered holy. A temple stood there.
After the Franks invasions, the island became home to the king and the Roman Palace was transformed into a Royal Castle. The situation remained as such, far into the Middle-Ages, although Paris lost its status of Capital during a few centuries.
In the 13th Century, as Paris was considered the Capital again, the Palace was vastly transformed by the successive kings. Saint-Louis and Philippe IV Le Bel are those who most changed it. The overall place became the heart of the Power. In addition to being the home to the royal family, the Palace also served as the headquarters for the king’s ministers and counsels, and as a Palace of Justice – as the judicial system started to emerge and organize. In the meantime, the eastern half of the island kept its holy spirit and saw the erection of the most famous religious landmark in France, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, on the very same location of the old Roman temple.
Two centuries later, when the king moved to the Louvre (and even later, to Versailles) the Palace kept its judicial function. The “Conciergerie”, which was home to the Palace janitor, turned into a prison and remained so until the French Revolution, and the fall of Royalty.
On the eastern side, the great constructions of Haussmann in the 19th century finished revamping the island, with the enlargement of the Notre-Dame Front Square – which up to there was clogged with narrow streets and slums. Medieval specialist architect Viollet-Le-Duc was enrolled to renovate and transform the Notre-Dame Cathedral and turn it from a ruin-falling medieval structure into a grandiose jewel.
On the western side, however, little has changed since the Revolution. The Palace of Justice remained in the Palace up until 2018 when it finally moved to the 17th Arrondissement – although some trials still take place in the old Palace.
What to see on the Island?
The 55 acres of the City Island is quite dense and filled with many landmarks which are worth seeing. If you wish to see them in detail, you might want to allow a full day on the island, so you can take the time to see them all with no rush!
First, locate the Boulevard du Palais, the main boulevard cutting the island in two halves and separating the historical judicial and religious parts. Also locate the Rue de la Cité, which is parallel to the first boulevard. Between the two streets, is the less interesting part of the island, although taking some time to stroll through the Flower Market is always a pleasurable experience.
Begin your visit with the eastern part, as the Notre-Dame area is rapidly overwhelmed with tourists. Notre-Dame Cathedral has been proudly standing there for 850 years. Although the great fire of 2019, which destroyed most of its canopy and the great spear placed there by Viollet-le-Duc, was terrible and considered by most as the end of Notre-Dame, the renovation construction site rapidly took over to ensure a future reopening within five years. Do not worry though, even if Notre-Dame cannot be entered at the moment, the whole area is still rich with possible visits and the main façade is still grandiose. If you wish to learn more about Notre-Dame, consider taking our Notre-Dame tour, by clicking here !
The Front Square is beautiful, and gives access to a crypt where the Roman and Gallic remains of Lutetia can be observed. Also, take the time to stroll on Rue Chanoinesse, behind the Cathedral, to enjoy quiet paved streets and ancient buildings.
The Jean-XXIII park and the Deportation Memorial at the eastern tip of the island are also very much worth the detour.
On the other side of the island, take the time to well enjoy the Palace area. Begin your tour by visiting the Conciergerie prison, on the steps of Marie-Antoinette who resided there before her execution.
Just next door, do not miss the impressive visit of the Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) built by Saint-Louis to protect the Holy Relics of the Christ (the Holy Crown of Thorns, a piece and nail of the Holy Cross). As one of the first religious gothic-styled building, the Holy Chapel is one of the highest standing structure which is mostly covered with stained-glass windows and barely has any wall at all. The visit is impressive as the visitor enters and discovers the warm light invading the twenty-meter high structure.
Behind the Palace, the triangular Place Dauphine is a quiet square leading to the western tip of the island. The square is very peaceful and a perfect place to enjoy a relaxing time at a café terrace. You might see some groups of friends playing pétanque on the middle grounds of the square. The square is lined with old book shops and art galleries.
Finish your tour by heading west. Before the tip of the island, the New Bridge (Pont Neuf) is actually the oldest stone bridge in Paris. Its small sidewalk balconies are great spots for pictures above the Seine.
Finally, behind the Henri IV statue, you may walk down to the Square du Vert-Galant, a very nice park at river level from where Parisians like to come and have a drink at sunset. The square is a romantic spot, not to miss if you visit Paris as a couple!
If these facts about the Île de la Cité inspire you, you may visit it in-depth with our guides. Click here to see all of our Paris tours.
Have a Run on Swans Island (Île aux Cygnes)
History of the Island
Swans Island is not a natural island. Originally, it was a levee serving as a protection to the nearby Grenelle Harbor. First built in sand, it was rapidly reinforced with concrete due to the rapid soil moves caused by the strong river flow. The island was planted with trees as early as in the early 19th century, but its final layout was mostly decided after the 1937 Paris World Expo. During the Expo, a wooden structure connected the island to the Left Bank of the Seine and supported an entire sector of the expo. None of this structure remains to date.
What to see on the Island?
Swans island is almost 900 meters long, but only 10 meters wide! Therefore there is not much to see on it but the island is a great place to have a nice walk along the river. Swans Alley is a great place to jog and a peaceful location to spend some relaxing time on a bench facing the water.
The views out onto the Eiffel Tower, standing next to the island, are simply stunning.
Take the time to stroll from the Grenelle Bridge to the Bir Hakeim Bridge.
The Grenelle Bridge supports a replica of New-York’s Statue of Liberty, which was given to the United States by France. The replica was implanted four years after the US version inauguration, in 1889, for the French Revolution Centennial. The replica is roughly four times smaller than the original statue. A plaque bears the note “IV July 1776 = XIV July 1789” to underline that liberty was reached in France and the US following two revolutions. The Statue was originally turned towards the Eiffel Tower and the Elysee Palace – that is to the East – but it was turned towards the United States – to the West – following the 1937 World Expo.
The Bir Hakeim Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in Paris since it supports an iron viaduct so that the Metro can cross the Seine. The road and cycling way, running under the viaduct, is very graphic with its iron columns and its perfect symmetry. It was depicted in many movies including world-famous blockbusters such as Mission Impossible: Fallout and Inception. Do not miss this surreal place as it bears a great picture potential and the views out to the Eiffel Tower are unique.
These are the main points of interest to see on the Seine islands. Since the beginning of the century, the river banks have been transformed and the quays and parks that line them are great strolling places where you can enjoy very nice walks. If you have plenty of time, do not hesitate to walk from the Arsenal Harbor near the Bastille all the way to the western tip of Swans Island. The walk is long but nothing compares to the grandiose views of Paris you will see from the river.