Last Updated on November 20, 2023
With a history spanning thousands of years, the Seine River flows through Paris as a concrete reminder that change is the only constant– even in a city that often seems timeless.
The ancient river stretches for just over eight miles through the French capital– a small number when you consider that it spans 485 miles in total, running from its source in Burgundy to its mouth in the English Channel. Yet it literally helped to birth Parisian civilization– and is as fundamental to the city’s history as any of its well-known landmarks and buildings.
With its 37 ornate bridges, riverside museums, palaces, magnificent islands and quays, it has so much to offer.
These key Seine river facts and moments in history will allow you to gain a quick understanding of how the river has profoundly shaped– and in turn been shaped by– centuries of Parisian life.
3rd Century B.C.: The Parisii settle the banks of the Seine
The Seine has been a source of nourishment and livelihood for millennia. It started (as far as historians and archaeologists can tell) with prehistoric hunter-gatherer settlements that date back to at least 8,000 B.C., during the Mesolithic period. Archaeologists have, in recent years, excavated numerous artefacts attesting to vibrant civilizations around the river.
But it wasn’t until the 3rd century B.C. that something like a “town” appeared in the area. It was during that period that the Parisii, a Celtic and Gaulish tribe, settled the fertile banks of the river (and its central island, now known as the Île de la Cité).
The Seine is named after the Celtic goddess Sequana, who was an important figure for the third-century-BC tribe that settled the banks of the river and established a town in the area. Later, the Gaulish (Gallo-Roman) tribe that called themselves the Sequani established a healing shrine in tribute to Sequana in natural springs near Dijon.
The Parisii were fishermen who were technologically advanced enough to build bridges and fortifications around their settlement; they also engaged in complex trade, minting coins in order to trade goods with other European tribes.
In around 52 BC, the Roman army sieged the Parisii’s settlement and established what would become the Gallo-Roman capital, which they named Lutetia. Julius Caesar claimed that the Parisii burned their settlement rather than surrendering to the Roman invaders.
During the 3rd century AD, Lutetia was Christianized. In 508, Clovis I, monarch of the Franks, made it his capital.
1163: Construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral begins
Construction of one of the world’s most-famous Gothic cathedrals began in 1163, when masons and workers laid the first elements of Notre Dame Cathedral. This was a flamboyant marvel that would become one of the most important landmarks overlooking the Seine River’s left bank, on the central island known as the Île de la Cité.
Of course, it would also be a major new center of Christendom in Europe, attesting to the wealth, power and soaring spiritual aspirations of the Catholic Church in France. It would take almost two centuries to complete, and the intensive labor of over 1,000 masons and other workers.
While many of its architectural elements visible today are the result of restorations undertaken in the 19th century– and its iconic flamboyant spire was recently destroyed in a devastating fire, leading to current-day reconstruction efforts– Notre Dame de Paris endures, overlooking the banks of the Seine as it has for centuries.
It’s an enduring symbol of an ever-changing city– and walking over nearby bridges to contemplate its glory never ceases to drop jaws.
1200: The Palais du Louvre and its fortress are built
In the early 13th century, Paris was a powerful medieval capital whose boundaries were extending outside the confines of the Île de la Cité. King Philippe Auguste II believed it needed fortifications to protect it from invaders.
He therefore ordered the construction of a palace surrounded by high walls, a central tower and a keep– all overlooking the Seine, a strategic defense point. There were also two gates, situated to the south and east.
While the medieval palace and its fortifications are no longer visible from street level (you can see part of the foundations in one basement level at the Louvre Museum), we can imagine what it might have looked like, thanks in part to depictions like the one above– from the 15th-century illuminated manuscript entitled Les très riches heures du duc de berry.
1772: A fire on the Île de la Cité destroys most of the buildings on the river island
In December 1772, a major fire erupted at the Hôtel-Dieu, Paris’ then-general hospital, for the third time in a century. Situated on the Île de la Cité and opposite Notre-Dame, the hospital quickly becomes overwhelmed by flames.
The blaze, reportedly lasting for an astounding 11 days, destroyed most of the buildings then standing on the Ile de la Cité. It claimed countless victims, and destroyed much of medieval and Renaissance Paris around the Seine. Some of the buildings that burned during the fire had been built in the 13th century.
1793: Marie-Antoinette is tried & imprisoned at the Conciergerie
One of the most impressive buildings overlooking the Seine is the Conciergerie, a turreted, handsome structure whose river-facing facade dates to the 13th century and the reign of King Philippe IV. He also built the elaborate “Hall of the Guards” inside.
But a royal palace stood here as early as the 5th century, during the Merovingian period, and was then referred to as the “Palais de la Cité”.
Little-known to tourists (who often only visit the adjoining Sainte-Chapelle) the Conciergerie was also a crucial site during a dark period in Parisian history. It was here that a Revolutionary tribunal tried, and imprisoned, thousands of people during the period known as “The Reign of Terror”.
Queen Marie-Antoinette was one of the tried-and-imprisoned, confined at the Conciergerie in 1793. She was publicly guillotined later in the same year, on the Place de la Concorde (then called the Place de la Révolution).
Her cell is reconstructed inside the museum at the Conciergerie, which pays tribute to the victims of the Revolutionary terror.
Today, an important courthouse still operates within the building; the entire area was cordoned off by police during recent trials of some of the suspected perpetrators of the November 11, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
19th Century: Les Bouquinistes (Booksellers) are given permanent stalls on the Seine
There are few things more iconically Parisian than the Bouquinistes and their deep-green stalls lining the banks of the Seine. These traditional, independent booksellers, whose stalls proffer everything from handsome rare literary volumes to artbooks, posters, vintage magazines and (in recent years), tourist souvenirs, have a long history.
Their presence on the Seine goes back to sometime in the 16th century, when book purveyors called colporteurs sold tomes, religious and political pamphlets from portable baskets worn around their necks. Others stretched sheets of canvas on the quays and sold books from temporary stands.
Over the next couple of centuries, these sellers thrived as literacy levels and printing exploded in France. But it was only in 1859 that the sellers were permitted to operate out of stands on the Seine. Even then, they had to transport their books back home every evening, and back to the stalls in the morning.
Then, by the close of the 19th century, the city of Paris finally granted their resident bouquinistes the right to store books and other merchandises in their stalls overnight.
Today, they remain an essential part of Parisian heritage– and have come to be seen as important landmarks on numerous riverside quays around the city. You can read more about their history, and how to explore them, here.
1889: The Eiffel Tower is unveiled for the Universal Exposition (World Fair)
The year is 1889, and Paris is hosting what many historians see as an event that helped usher the Western World into the modern industrial era. The Exposition Universelle (Universal Exposition, or world fair) of the same year marked the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison, and thus the symbolic birth of the Republic in France.
With the Seine as one of its main stages, the 1889 event saw some 32 million people witness the newly unveiled Eiffel Tower, a bold symbol of a newly modern Paris. It was meant to be a temporary installation– but of course instead came to become the city’s greatest emblem and most-recognized structure.
Thousands of people crossed the Seine (or gathered on its banks) to admire the world’s tallest structure from afar or up-close. They also explored the Champ de Mars, several thematic colonial pavilions (many of which, atrociously enough, displayed Indigenous peoples as “curiosities” and vaunted the “progress” brought by French colonialism), the Trocadero and other sites curated for the event.
Another Universal Exposition took place in Paris in 1900, and notably saw the opening of the Gare d’Orsay on the banks of the river (now housing the Musée d’Orsay).
You can watch this video (from the US Library of Congress) to see fascinating footage of the 1900 Universal Exposition as seen from the Seine.
1910: A great flood damages much of the city
Throughout Parisian history, the Seine has periodically flooded, in part due to natural precipitation and rain patterns that have led to unusually high water levels downstream. But in January 1910, flooding of the river was so drastic that it quickly overflowed– severely damaging or destroying numerous buildings and turning many adjoining streets into temporary canals.
Sewers also overflowed, rising up to street level and greatly compounding the unfolding catastrophe. At the peak of flooding, the waters of the Seine reached 8 meters higher than its normal levels, as the historic postcard above attests.
Incredibly, no deaths were reported, but thousands of people had to be evacuated from buildings whose lower levels had been invaded by floodwaters. Police and firefighters carried out rescue operations from boats, and temporary wooden walkways were installed around the city to allow pedestrians to navigate flooded streets.
The major flooding lasted for around a week– but the Seine only returned to its normal levels in March of that year.
1991: The Seine and its banks are named a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1991, the Seine and the stretches of its banks that flow through central Paris were given the honor of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site, guaranteeing the river’s long-term protection as a site of history and interest, and highlighting the numerous architectural and cultural treasures that can be found in the area.
Encompassing some 1.4 square miles and stretching from the Pont de Sully in the east to the Pont d’Iéna in the west, the protected area includes large swathes of the right and left banks, as well as the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint-Louis, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle, and 23 of the 37 bridges that cross the Seine.
In addition, the aforementioned bouquinistes and their cheerful deep-green stalls selling books and souvenirs are implicitly, if not explicitly, recognized as part of the protected area, something that both raised their global visibility and ensures they will likely remain around for a long time to come.
2017: Paris wins bid for 2024 Summer Olympics; plans Opening Ceremonies on the Seine
In 2017, Paris won an intensively competitive bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. This was a real coup for the capital, since it means it will be one of the only cities in the world to host the games three times in its history. And since the last Summer Games took place in Paris in 1924, exactly a century will have passed between the two historic events.
Rather than taking a place in a stadium, the opening ceremonies are slated to unfold along the banks of the Seine, and are expected to be both elaborate and spectacular.
Thousands of people are expected to throng to the banks of the river, from the Quai d’Austerlitz in the east to the Pont d’Iéna in the west, to watch the ceremonies. Some 10,500 athletes will take part in a parade wending for 6km/3.7 miles westward along the water, with boats for each national delegation celebrating the opening of the games.
The fanfare will conclude at the Place de la Trocadéro at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, where the final shows and ceremonies opening the event will take place.
Of course, the choice to stage the opening ceremonies on the Seine have not been without controversy. Due to major security challenges, the city has decided that the bouquiniste (bookseller) stands (see above) installed on the riverbanks will need to be temporarily dismantled to ensure maximum safety.
Critics say this is unfair to the booksellers, who have said their businesses will disrupted for months on end, and argue that the city should be finding a way to allow them to remain.
Nevertheless, general excitement is mounting around what Paris hopes will be a memorable centennial celebration.
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Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, Reed Business Information, WWD, and The Associated Press. She has also been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.