Put on your Sunday best and head over to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an upscale Parisian neighborhood with centuries-old literary, revolutionary and artistic roots. Situated on the left bank of the Seine River– just blocks west of the Latin Quarter– the area is still celebrated for its past status as a hotbed of philosophical debate, artistic breakthroughs and general intellectual vibrancy.
Today, in addition to being a style hub for the well-to-do, it also happens to harbor some of the city’s most-prestigious museums, art dealers and small galleries. Bookshops, independent cinemas and gourmet outlets like chocolate shops and patisseries round out the offering.
But where it was once the stomping grounds of revolutionaries such as Georges Danton and existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, St-Germain is significantly less avant-garde and bohemian these days. Some might even call it a tad fusty and square.
Or very much so. Many young Parisians view St-Germain with disdain, calling it bourgeois and overly conservative.
Still, it’s a lovely place for a stroll, afternoon in a café or gallery-hop. Take home a piece of modern art for your mantel and browse antiquarian books in an old bookshop.
Wander through poetic, leafy lanes at Luxembourg Gardens, taste a few gourmet chocolates, or shop for new threads and specialized food items at one of the city’s prestigious old Belle-Époque department stores.
In the summer, jazz takes over the streets, ushering in a relaxed and arty vibe that seems to bring back the area’s formerly bohemian spirit. In short, there are still plenty of reasons to take a whirl through the area– even if you lament not being able to eavesdrop on Simone and Jean-Paul at a nearby café table.
Getting Oriented & Getting There
The St-Germain district stretches across part of the left bank (rive gauche) of the Seine and extends southwards towards the sprawling Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s hugged by the lively Latin Quarter to the east and the Eiffel Tower district to the west.
Main Streets: Boulevard St-Germain, Rue de Seine, Rue de Rennes, Rue Bonaparte, Rue du Bac
The easiest way to access the neighborhood is to get off at Metro Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Line 4). Explore the area’s main attractions by clicking on the tab in the upper left-hand corner.
- Exiting from the station, you’ll find yourself on Boulevard St-Germain, just steps from the area’s famous medieval Abbey and two iconic cafés.
- To check out the area’s many art galleries and antiquarian dealers, get off at walk north towards the Seine. For power shopping or a bite to eat, cross the Boulevard St-Germain and head south, or stroll east from Metro Sèvres-Babylone (line 10).
- If you get off at Luxembourg (RER B), cut northwest through the Luxembourg garden to get to the heart of the neighborhood.
A Bit of History
Saint-Germain-des-Prés has roots stretching to the early medieval period. The area is named after an eponymous Benedictine Abbey that dates to the 6th century. Only the Romanesque church remains, but it is considered the oldest place of worship in Paris. It once served as a burial place for monarchs during the Merovingian period.
A Gothic-style choir at St-Germain was built much later. The Abbey once harbored a vibrant community of monks and scholars, who illuminated some remarkable manuscripts. A scriptorium holding numerous precious manuscripts once stood at the Abbey, but burned down.
In one of the side chapels, you can find the tomb of French philosopher René Descartes.
During the Middle Ages, the Saint-Germain Fair was one of the city’s liveliest– and most debauched– public events. The three-week fair took place each spring in the streets of the quartier, attracting vendors from all over Europe.
Hundreds of stalls filled the streets every year, and the fair was also a site of gambling, prostitution and other less “savory” activities. It was discontinued following the French Revolution of 1789.
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From the Renaissance to the Revolution
During the early modern or “Renaissance” period, Saint-Germain flourished as a center of new thought, in part owing to the numerous publishing houses established in the area.
Philosophical cafés like the Café Procope opened and harbored groups of thinkers– from Voltaire to Condorcet, Diderot and Benjamin Franklin– who discussed philosophy and radical new political ideas over dozens of cups of coffee.
It was also in St-Germain that the Treaty of Paris was signed between Britain and the newborn United States, at the Hotel York on September 3rd, 1783.
Revolutionary Joys…and Horrors
The signing marked the end of the American Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States as a nation. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were present. You can see a plaque commemorating the event at 56 rue Jacob.
During the French Revolution, St-Germain was a strong center of activity. Local publishers and printers produced thousands of revolutionary tracts and pamphlets.
Some of the bloodiest events of the Revolution took place in St-Germain. In September 1792, a prison adjacent to the Saint-Germain Abbey was the site of a massacre that saw hundreds of counter-revolutionaries, aristocrats, and religious figures murdered by former prisoners yielding pikes and axes.
Religious institutions were seized and/or pillaged. The Cordeliers Convent, was repurposed as the headquarters of radical revolutionaries such as Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton.
The Abbey, meanwhile, was stripped of its religious functions, its ornaments seized. After part of the Abbey was made into a gunpowder storeroom, an explosion there significantly damaged the monastery.
19th-century Artists & Bohemians
St-Germain continued to be a place of intellectual vibrancy and bohemian experimentation during the 19th century. It was frequented by painters including Edouard Manet and writers Honoré de Balzac and Georges Sand.
Meanwhile, the Irish writer, playwright and wit Oscar Wilde spent his last days in the area at the Hotel d’Alsace, on Rue des Beaux Arts.
It was here that he reportedly quipped– in reference to the decor in his hotel room– “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death – one or the other of us has to go.”
He would die there on November 30th, 1900 at only 46.
A Postwar Intellectual Hotbed
Following the atrocities of World War II and the Paris Occupation, St-Germain exploded into a hotspot for existentialist thinking, avant-garde theater, painting and jazz.
The unthinkable human tragedies of war and genocide spurred new ideas around human agency in a seemingly meaningless, cruel cosmos. Paris again became a fertile ground for new ideas, and St-Germain was a genuine intellectual cradle.
Picasso, Sartre, De Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Richard Wright and Charles Gainsbourg are some of the famous names associated with the area.
Places of Interest & What to See in Saint-Germain
In addition to the Abbaye de St-Germain-des-Prés and the area’s historic cafés (see details above), the area is home to numerous interesting places and attractions. Here are just a few.
Jardin du Luxembourg
The expansive formal gardens and Senate building overlooking them belong to the Luxembourg Palace, and are a respite from busy Paris. Stroll amid the perfectly manicured lawns and flowers or sail a toy boat across the ponds.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a weekend jazz concert under the pavilion. Also make sure to check out the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris’ oldest public museum. It stages several monumental exhibits each year on major painters, sculptors and photographers.
This world-celebrated museum houses mostly French works of art from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, including an extensive collection of Impressionist paintings by artists such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne. It’s an essential stop, especially if it’s your first time visiting Paris.
Théatre de l’Odéon
The Odéon is one of France’s five national theatres, founded in 1782. Now considered a “Theatre of Europe”, it prides itself on showing not only original productions, but also works by well-known foreign theater companies.
It was here that numerous famous writers and playwrights had their debut, including Alexandre Dumas (who also wrote plays) and Beaumarchais, whose “Marriage of Figaro” was a resounding success.
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
The area is well known for its traditional brasseries, creative bistrots, excellent sweets and pastries and elegant old bars. Here are a few we recommend.
Here, modern-day snacking meets traditional-French-bistro charm. While meals are served before 4 p.m., most people come in after hours for a plate of charcuterie, a glass of Chablis and a chat. Nestled off the main road, the restaurant is less swarming with tourists than more famous neighborhood cafés, but retains an old-world vibe.
Getting There: 43, Rue de Seine
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 29 09 42
With its wood paneling, wall-to-wall mirrors and 1926 art-deco interiors, this celebrated neighborhood brasserie is not to be missed. Known for its Alsatian cuisine, Lipp serves up copious portions of choucroute, andouillette and cervelles remoulade. Polish off your meal with a glass of Roedener Cristal or a bottle of champagne if you’re feeling prosperous.
Getting there: 151, Boulevard St Germain
Tel: +33 (0)1 45 48 53 91
Considered the birthplace of Paris café culture, Le Procope is the city’s oldest café, dating to 1686, and was a gathering place for thinkers like Voltaire.
Getting there: 13 rue de l’ancienne comédie
Tel: +33 (0)143 54 93 64
For savory or sweet, this bakery is the perfect spot for an afternoon bite. You’ll find everything from colorful French macarons to finger-sized eclairs and dark chocolates sold by the kilo. Loose-fitting trousers recommended!
Getting there: 76, Rue de Seine
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 26 85 77
This centuries-old restaurant and bar first opened in 1766 and has long attracted politicians, writers, publishers and intellectuals. The low lighting, romantic dining niches and bawdy history– the restaurant’s private rooms were at times the site of brothel-like activity– continue to draw curious visitors.
Come for a drink or dinner, and watch as the barriers between centuries seemingly melt away. Read our full review (and history) of Lapérouse here.
Anyone with a taste for creative and gourmet chocolates should pay a visit to Patrick Roger’s shop on Boulevard St-Germain. Lauded as one of France’s most-talented chocolatiers, Roger uses mouthwatering flavors and textures in his pralines, bars, ganaches and other creations. His whimsical sculptures liven up the windows of his shop, especially during holidays like Christmas and Easter.
Getting there: 108 Boulevard Saint-Germain
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 29 38 42
Read related: Interview With Patrick Roger, France’s Own Willy Wonka
Shopping in Saint-Germain
It would take a separate article to thoroughly cover the area’s extensive shopping amenities. It’s densely packed with shops, boutiques, department stores and centres commerciaux (shopping centers).
It harbors everything from haute-couture shops from the likes of Sonia Rykiel and Karl Lagerfeld to global chains (Zara, H&M); from accessories and perfume shops to antiquarian bookstores and curiosity cabinets.
As always, we recommend roaming around and stumbling on various treasures. But if you’re in a more “systematic” mood and mean business, we understand.
For a good overview and a more extensive list of places to shop according to your budget, see this page at the Paris Tourist Office.
Meanwhile, here are a couple of places we recommend for a morning or afternoon of lèche-vitrines (window-shopping) or a more serious haul.
This historic department store on Rue de Sèvres (Metro: Sèvres-Babylone) opened in 1838 and is an iconic symbol of early Parisian modernity. It even claims to be the first department store to have opened worldwide.
Like its grandiose sisters Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on the right bank, the Bon Marché features ornate architectural details and a structure so complex that Gustave Eiffel– creator of a certain Tower– even got involved in its redesign at some point during the nineteenth century.
In addition to stocking creations from almost every major fashion designer under the sun, the store is a big draw card for its enormous gourmet food market, La Grande Epicerie.
This is an excellent port of call for filling suitcases with authentic French goods (chocolate, patés, sauces, etc). They also sell fresh items, including some delicious breads and pastries at the onsite bakery.
If curiosity cabinets and bizarre collections are your cup of tea, Deyrolle (46 Rue du Bac; Metro: Rue du Bac) is calling your name. Here, wood and glass cabinets are filled to the dizzying hilt with odd and mesmerizing objects– from butterflies and beetles to antiquities and shells.
The store also features numerous taxidermied animals (the sensitive may want to abstain)– but apart from a few rare instances, these were created from animals that had died naturally, rather than hunted or killed for this purpose.
It may not be for everyone. But when you’re looking for a unique gift from Paris or simply wish to step back into a different era, a whirl through this emporium of the odd can be an excellent choice.
Antique Stores & Art Galleries in the “Carré Rive-Gauche”
The streets just east of the Musée d’Orsay, including Rue des Saints-Pères, Rue de Furstemburg, Rue du Bac, Quai Voltaire, Rue Jacob and Rue Bonaparte, are filled with dozens of excellent antique stores and small art galleries. Much of this area is referred to as the “Carré Rive Gauche”, and regularly attracts collectors and curious browsers.
Particularly on a rainy or cold afternoon, wandering though these shops can offer an excellent distraction, irrespective of whether you’re looking to buy something.
See the official Carré Rive Gauche website to learn more about the dozens of shops and galleries in the area, or just have a wander through some of the streets mentioned above.
Walking Tours of Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Interested in a guided tour? GetyourGuide offers a variety of intriguing options, from pastry & chocolate tours to walks themed around the artists and writers of St-Germain. You can browse and book tours here.
Editor’s Note: This post contains a few affiliate links. When you book tours or products through these it comes at no additional cost to you, but helps fund more free, in-depth features like this one at Paris Unlocked.