L’Ile de la Cité is, in many ways, a condensed version of Paris: It offers magnificent architecture, eye-catching perspectives, atmospheric streets and bridges. Like the rest of the French capital, it is a combination of history and elegance, and in sections, tacky touristy eateries and shops. It is crowded and loud, yet, at certain times of day, (and off season,) one can stroll around the island and enjoy a slice of the authentic, romantic experience Paris is famous for around the world. Like many Parisian neighborhoods, it benefited from the extensive urban remodel undertaken by Napoleon III and his right-hand man Baron Eugene Haussmann, the Prefect of Paris, in the second half of the 19th century. Unlike its smaller, more residential neighbor, l’Ile Saint Louis, l’Ile de la Cité has played a prominent part in the history of the French capital. It is more than 2000 years old, and developed over the centuries as a military and government center. As such, it is packed with landmarks, several of which are Historic Monuments of France or Unesco World Heritage sites.
Who has not discovered Notre-Dame de Paris, the glorious gothic masterpiece erected over the course of 200 years, and the most visited site in France, or its neighbor, la Sainte-Chapelle and its ornate and exquisite stained glass work? Every day, visitors flock to these iconic landmarks and are willing to line up, sometimes for hours, to experience some of the magic. Notre-Dame and la Sainte Chapelle are the ruling stars of l’Ile de la Cité. It’s best to arrive early if you want to avoid crowds, even if repeat visitors might point out la Sainte Chapelle‘s giant stained glass windows show much better at sunset. While Notre-Dame de Paris is hard to miss from wherever you are on the island because of its majestic size, la Sainte-Chapelle is tucked inside the courtyard of le Palais de la Cité (Palais de Justice) and with la Conciergerie, another must-see monument, used to be part of the medieval royal palace until French kings decided to relocate to le Louvre, across the Seine river, at the end of the 14th century.
Less visited sites on the island include the moving Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, located behind Notre-Dame, on the site of the former city morgue. It honors the memory of those who died in Nazi concentration camps between 1941 and 1944. Even if it was inaugurated in the early 1960s, many miss it, which is a shame, as it is effective and thought-provoking.
Off le quai de la Corse, next to le Tribunal de Commerce, la place Louis Lépine and its flower and bird market named after Queen Elizabeth II are must-sees. Here’s one of my favorite retreats on bustling Ile de la Cité. The market, built in the 19th century, is worth a detour year round including on winter days, as some sections are sheltered under recognizable glass and steel pavilions dating back to 1900.
The western tip of l’Ile de la Cité is one of the most popular sites on the island. There, a delightful garden above the Seine river offers visitors a chance to unwind, enjoy a picnic, or watch the world go by at le square du Vert Galant, named after King Henry IV. “Le bon roi Henri,” (the good King Henry,) as generations of French elementary school children have come to know him, greets you on his horse as you approach.
When le square du Vert Galant is too busy (it often is, in part because one of the river tour boats docks there,) I don’t fight other visitors for space under that giant willow tree. Instead, I go back up the stairs, cross la place du Pont Neuf and head to la place Dauphine. This is one of my favorite locations in Paris, and I dream of living there one day. The closest I ever got was when I spent a couple of magical nights at a former budget hotel (now closed) that used to be located there, l’Hôtel Henri IV. If you need proof that even in the middle of a busy, touristy neighborhood Paris can feel like a village, don’t miss it! Merci, Bon Roi Henri, for this urban treasure! From the art galeries and restaurants lining up the square, to pétanque players engaged in animated conversations in the center, la vie est belle indeed, on la place Dauphine.
A long time ago, an iconic couple lived here. Actors, activists and lovers Yves Montand and Simone Signoret had just gotten married in 1951 when they moved into a former bookstore. The original Parisian Bobos (Bourgeois-Bohèmes,) they transformed the long narrow space into a duplex they would nickname “la roulotte,” (the caravan.) It opened on le quai des Orfèvres at one end, and la place Dauphine at the other. Today, Montand and Signoret are long gone, even if they are remembered fondly in France. La roulotte has been turned into an art gallery, la Galerie du Vert Galant. I have stepped in on a couple of occasions as I walked along le quai des Orfèvres to check out the collections, but mostly, (like many others I suspect,) to try and picture Yves and Simone during their happy years at la place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité.
One last thing…
Now that you have finished reading this story and have just left a comment, below, you might as well swing by the French Girl in Seattle boutique to check out our fun French-themed gifts! (just a thought!)
Merci et à bientôt, Véronique
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Thanks for this post. Our favorite sight in Paris (by far) is Sainte-Chapelle. We were completely blown away by it when we first saw it long before the restoration began. If we’re in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle will at the top of our list. We especially like it on an a overcast day when the lighting on the windows is more even. While we make time for Notre Dame, it’s not at the top of our list of Gothic cathedrals. We like Chartres much better, but our absolute favorite is the lightly-visited cathedral at Laon. If we’re going outside of Paris, this will be either our first or last stop on the trip, depending on which way we head out of town. Many times, we’ve been the only people in this magnificent structure. We never tire of visiting it. France is such a culturally rich country. Even after many trips, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’re hoping for many more opportunities to explore.
Bonjour Bruce. Thank you for stopping by. La Sainte-Chapelle well deserves the hype, that is for certain. I have never visited the Laon cathedral, but have heard of it. These beautiful churches are not uncommon in France, where, as I like to remind my readers, it pays off to leave Paris and explore. 😉 In fact, the area around Laon, la Picardie, is practically unknown to many foreign visitors. That’s a real shame. Happy you get to drive around on your visits!
Exactly! The square is just metres from the always busy trottoirs of Pont Neuf, yet it is always a cool shady haven of calm. And OMG, wouldn’t you love to have that apartment of Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. In fact these are very old buildings and not especially grand but obviously make up for that with location (ile de la Cité), location (heart of Paris) and location (“traversant”Seine & Place Dauphine).
I too have been to that budget hotel. In fact it was quite grungy and thus cheap. Once a friend of mine stayed with me for a week or so in my tiny studio on Ile St Louis–funny how your popularity increases at such a location with many willing to sleep on the floor (I kept a second double mattress under my bed) but that was not good enough for when his wife came thru Paris for a few days, so he found that hotel. I was amazed he found such an affordable place a short walk from my island, but it was pretty grungy. Probably a closer authentic approximation to Hemingway’s Paris than you could get elsewhere! (Many associate him with his eponymous bar in the Ritz etc but his first time living in Paris was as an unknown impoverished & unpublished writer and his life was genuine grunge.)
Remember that the Marché aux Oiseaux (Birds) is what the Marché aux Fleurs turns into on Sundays. Note too, that most of the island–including the Marché, Hotel Dieu and Notre Dame–are in the 4th arrondissement. The dividing line is the Bd du Palais (which at its southern end is Pont St Michel/Bd St Michel, and its northern end is Pont au Change/Bd Sebastopol) so that Pont Neuf, Pl. du Vert-Gallant, Place Dauphine, the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle are in the 1st arrondissement. (Sorry, but for we psycho-geographers/urbanists this detail is important:-)
One final observation. If one arrives in Paris at CDG airport, or for that matter via Eurostar at Gare du Nord, then takes the RER-B train you can stop at its St-Michel-Notre-Dame station which is so big it spans the island, and (under) the Seine to rive-gauche . The trick is to sit at either extremity of the (very long) train. At the southern end you exit to the surface right at the Petit Pont and have a spectacular view, especially at night, of the river, the island and Notre Dame. The northern end you exit at the SW corner of Hotel Dieu and look across Place du Parvis (park) to Notre Dame (IIRC, you might have to use steps at the St Michel exit but there are escalators at the northern exit?). Either way you’ve flown for hours and magically popped up right in the very heart of Paris. I did it because I lived a short walk away but I recommend it no matter where you are staying in Paris as it is such a great introduction to la Ville de la Lumiere (esp. at night or dusk).
But this will change when the new dedicated CDG-Express line opens (long delayed, now supposedly in 2023) that will replace RER-B and will terminate in Gare de l’Est. IMO this is not an improvement (and it will cost a lot more, €24) at least for travellers even if one understands that RER-B is more and more congested carrying commuters from the eastern suburbs. (RER-B carries about 180 million pax p.a. compared to about 10m from the airport so the simple maths is unarguable, and those banlieusians are reclaiming the line exclusively for themselves.)
Forgot to mention that the exit from the RER-B that I wrote about, has to be very close to where you took the photo of Notre Dame at the top of the article; almost certainly the Petit Pont?
Bonjour Michael. A very detailed, very informative comment, as always, thank you! I particularly enjoyed your tip about the RER-B train when arriving at the St Michel-Notre Dame station. I may have to take your advice and test this myself next time I am in town. As for the now defunct budget hotel place Dauphine (I wonder if it wasn’t named “Hotel Henri IV?”) I remember it as stuffy and challenging to maneuver, as it sat on three or four floors in a high, narrow building with a perilous wooden staircase. I spent two nights there in two different rooms, having booked very late. They were old but decent, and you could not beat the views. Breakfast was shared in a cramped room with large communal tables off the reception area, where guests were surrounded with old books. All in all an experience, but what a fabulous location! It’s made more of an impression than some of the more elegant hotels I have stayed in since, in France and in the US. A bientôt ! PS: You are correct about le Petit Pont for that night shot of Notre-Dame.
I kind of feel like this is “my” island because I worked at Hôtel Dieu for 5 years. I spent more time than I want to remember at the prefecture de police getting my carte de séjour renewed. La réserve de Quasimodo was my cantine when I couldn’t take another lunch of hospital food (must say UWMC has Hôtel Dieu beat when it comes to food!). My walks home to the 11th would either traverse the Marais or cut through Ile St Louis. And I’ve dined at what supposedly was Yves and Simone’s table at le Caveau du Palais. Thanks for the memories!
Bonjour Karen. Thank you for sharing your Parisian memories with us. “La réserve de Quasimodo” is an excellent name for a cafeteria even if the food wasn’t that memorable, apparently. As for le Caveau du Palais, I have not returned for several years. Hmmm… I will be sure to ask about that table! Merci de votre visite.
Excellent story ! Many, many thanks !
Nota bene: Paris is always a good idea.
Merci mon cher Rémy. Spoken like a true Parisian!
I always was charmed by the marché aux oiseaux.
Your photos really capture the spirit of the place.
Bonjour Catherine. You know, I have a confession to make: I have only seen le Marché aux Oiseaux once or twice, even as a Paris resident. I guess I was mostly in the area on weekdays and as such, “only” got to experience the traditional market, and its beautiful plants and flowers! I will need to change this on my next visit. A bientôt.
Thank you again for your wonderful trip and stories of this charming island and a favorite area I traversed frequently. I am so grateful for my many memories of Paris and your reawakening of them……
Avec grand plaisir Diane. French Girl in Seattle “making your French heart smile,” since 2010! 🙂 A bientôt !
I love your Facebook page! Excellent!
I just checked out your boutique page and it is wonderful! Congrats❤️
I will definitely be purchasing?
Merci beaucoup Debbye! Stop by anytime, to catch up on exclusive travel stories, or to do some shopping for you or your francophile friends. The boutique selection is updated on a regular basis. Bon weekend !
Good morning Veronique. Wonderful article & also part 1 on the Ile St Louis. Both will be my neighbourhood in September. I have treated myself to an apartment on the Ile St Louis overlooking the Seine. Saint Chapelle is absolutely one of my favourites & I’m thinking of taking in one of the evening concerts. Both of my maternal grandparents were born in Paris so it has a special place in my heart. Always enjoy what you share about France.
Avec grand plaisir Camilla. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I must confess I am a bit envious about your upcoming stay on delightful Ile Saint Louis. Enjoy!
Bonjour Vero! I want to visit this place. I love how you describe it. You made me dream. France has so much history! ??? S.
Bonjour Sandy. Yes, France has a lot of history. I don’t say this often, but you really need to spend more time in Paris (I know your family’s roots are in southern France, but…) – A bientôt Las Vegas Lady!
Incredible! A wealth of information and inspiration! Six visits to Paris and still I’ve not fully explored the islands properly. Shame on me. Hôtel Dieu was a treat on my last visit. I convinced my husband that we weren’t allowed inside. We “snuck in” through the blue side door rather than the main entrance. That made exploring the beautiful courtyard more of an adventure for him.
Bonjour Suzy. I am glad this story inspired you to explore l’Ile de la Cité further on your next visit. There is so much to do on that island (and its neighbor, l’Ile Saint Louis,) one could easily spend a couple of days there and still make discoveries. Enjoy your 7th visit to Paris! A bientôt.