Every time I go to Paris I stay in the same Latin Quarter hotel. There’s something that draws me to that neighborhood on the Left Bank. Maybe it’s the place we go to fulfill our morning café au lait and pain au chocolat ritual where we’re glad to find the same guy working behind the counter trip after trip, even if our return visits go unnoticed. Or the outdoor produce market on Boulevard Saint-Germain adjacent to a fromagerie (cheese shop), boulangerie (bakery), charcuterie (delicatessen), boucherie (meat shop), poissonnerie (fish shop) and marchand de vins (wine shop) – a one stop shopping spot for assembling the perfect picnic to enjoy in the Luxembourg Gardens. I have memories of doing just that one springtime evening when the trees and flowers were in bloom, pink on pink against the dreamlike sunset sky…c’est la vie.
Maybe it’s the fact that there is slightly less of the tourist hustle and bustle in the 5th arrondissement than you’ll find in other parts of the city, yet the area is still convenient and connected so you can get around as you please. Most of all, I think it’s the Latin Quarter’s proximity to the Seine River, which is the heart of historic Paris and had been for centuries. Walking along the river is one of my favorite things to do, and some of the city’s most wonderful sights fall along its path. Here is a sample of some of the things to see and do along the Rive Gauche to whet your appetite.
9:00am – Notre Dame Cathedral
No matter how many times I’ve seen it, my heart still melts every time I lay eyes on Notre Dame. Even though it’s not technically on the Left Bank, rather the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, the 700-year old cathedral has such a commanding presence that it would be hard to talk about the river without including it. Arguably one of the most famous churches in the world, Notre Dame is a picture-perfect example of Gothic architecture – flying buttresses, menacing gargoyles and a gorgeous stained glass rose window on its west façade. One time I happened to visit Notre Dame during Sunday mass when the rich scent of incense and booming sound of the organ pipes filled the already ethereal space. It was an unforgettable experience to say the least. Admission is free and there’s generically not a long line to enter the cathedral, making a visit even more pleasurable (note that a separate ticket is required if you want climb Notre Dame’s bell tower).
If your time allows, also consider visiting Sainte-Chapelle before leaving the Île de la Cité. The first time we tried to find it we literally walked around in circles a good 20 minutes before stumbling upon the entrance (in our defense, there was restoration work going on and the walls were covered so signage was not visible). Truly a hidden treasure, the 13th century Gothic chapel’s non-descript monochromatic exterior is offset by its glistening vibrant interior of stained glass – a “jewel box” fit for a king’s relics.
10:30am – Bouquinistes and Bridges
Back on the Left Bank, I always take time to browse the bouquinistes stalls from Quai de la Tournelle to Quai de Voltaire. The tradition of selling second-hand books from the little green metal kiosks dates back to the 16th century, which today have fixed regulations on things like size, hours and annual fee. With a wait list of 8 years to become one of the city’s 250 bouquinistes, it’s a small price to pay for some of the best storefront real estate in Paris. Even though many of the stalls are filled with touristy souvenirs like magnets, postcards and little metal Eiffel Towers, you can still find a handful selling things like old books and oil paintings. As the city unfolds along this stretch of river, take note of the Saint-Michel fountain on your left and some of the bridges on your way to the next stop – Pont Neuf at the tip of the island, Pont des Arts (which has been overrun with “love locks”), Pont du Carrousel and Pont Royal – each with its own character and competing views in both directions, especially in the early morning and early evening when the sun is rising and setting.
11:00am – Musée d’Orsay
While most visitors flock to the Louvre to see Ms. Mona, my favorite big museum in Paris is the Musée d’Orsay. The former Gare d’Orsay train station-turned-gallery is home to an impressive collection of paintings, sculpture and other works of art spanning 1848 to 1914. Bridging the gap between the Louvre and the modern art at the Pompidou Center, I’m a little biased about the Orsay because I’ve loved Impressionism since I was a kid and the museum boasts one of best collections in world of works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas and other greats. The steel and glass building itself is also a work of art, with the train station’s beautifully restored clock anchoring the light-filled gallery – a complement to the very light that the Impressionist masters tried to capture in their paintings.
Leaving the Orsay, you’ll pass one of my favorite bridges on the right, the ornate Pont Alexandre III with its Art Nouveau lamps and sculptures. The bridge was inaugurated for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 and connects the Grand Palais and Petit Palais on the opposite side of the river (also built for the World’s Fair, as was the old Gare d’Orsay train station) with the Hôtel des Invalides on your left. The Invalides houses various military museums and monuments, most notably the Musée de l’Armée where you’ll find the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte under a gilded dome. It’s also a worthwhile stop if you’re up for another museum.
1:30pm – Rue Cler
From the Invalides, veer right towards Rue de Grenelle and then make a left when you reach Rue Cler. This wonderful little market street is filled with cafes and shops spilling out onto the sidewalks. Truly a slice of Parisian life, you’ll find all of the essentials on Rue Cler – flowers, produce, meats, cheese, sweets, bread and wine. Fully pedestrianized with its original cobbled lanes, you won’t have to worry about cars as you stroll down this adorable street. And since you’ve probably worked up an appetite by now, Rue Cler is the perfect place to buy all of the items you need for a delicious picnic lunch. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? ;)
2:00pm – Champs de Mars
After you’ve finished shopping, your last stop will be the lovely Champs de Mars. I know it’s cliché, but you can’t pay for a better view in Paris than at this public park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Originally a garden where fruits, vegetables and flowers were grown to sell at the local market, its name is a tribute to the Roman god of war, which is fitting since the Champs de Mars was once used as a marching ground for the adjacent École Militaire in the 18th century. The present 60-acre Champs de Mars was born out of the Exposition Universelle of 1889, an event that marked the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The park is still used today for the city’s annual Bastille Day festivities, and year round you’ll find people gathered around the lawn – lovers strolling hand-in-hand, children playing and others simply relaxing with friends. Join them with your picnic, and experience the joie de vivre that only Paris can offer.
ON THE MAP