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777 kilometers in length, from its source outside of Dijon in Burgundy to the Normandy towns of Le Havre and Honfleur at its mouth, the Seine hosts 117 islands. Within the city limits, the stretch of river known as the Traversée de Paris, there are only four (if you’re not too precious about the details). Crammed on to these tiny patches of Parisian real estate is everything that makes the city great: museums and monuments, restaurants and bars, sculpture-filled parks and picturesque streets lined with 1,000 years of France’s architectural heritage.
The Île de la Cité is the biggest of the four islands and has a history dating back two millennia to the city’s very beginnings. It is slap-bang in the center of Paris, served by the Cité metro station on Line 4 and just south of Châtelet – Les Halles, the largest underground station in the world and a fixture in the daily commutes of 750,000 people. Though thoroughly redeveloped between 1853 and 1870 to bring it in line with Baron Haussmann‘s new vision for the city, the island still retains a few extraordinary examples of medieval architecture, most famously the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. With its other monuments, parks, bars and restaurants to explore, it is entirely possible to spend an entire day on the Île de la Cité, but if you’re pushed for time then we’d recommend jumping over the Pont Saint-Louis to compare and contrast it with its nearest neighbor.
The Île Saint-Louis has a lifetime closer to 400 years, one thankfully unblemished by major reconstruction works. As such, wandering around its narrow, cobbled streets and taking in the facades of its numerous mansion houses can feel like a trip back to the time of Louis XIV. The Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île is where most of the island’s shops and restaurants can be found, though you are likely to stumble across an intriguing gallery on any one of its streets. It should also be noted that, wherever you stop for lunch, you should save some space for dessert if you plan to come to the Île Saint-Louis. Read our dedicated guide to find out why!
The third of the islands, the Île aux Cygnes, is located in the west of the city, an hour-and-fifteen-minute walk along the Left Bank’s landscaped quaysides (by far the preferable option on a dry day) or a 40-minute journey on public transport from the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis. It is also the only one of the four islands without any inhabited buildings. Instead, its value comes from the unique panoramas it offers of the city and its superb collection of public works of art, the most famous of which is the Statue of Liberty. It’s a beautiful walk to, from, and along the island from end to end.
The Île Louviers is the last of the islands of the Seine. Well, a century and a half ago it was. Today, not so much. Rather, it is a tiny, self-contained neighborhood on the Right Bank just across the water from the Île Saint-Louis. Its quiet streets are the perfect browsing ground for lovers of literature and architecture. As with the rest of the islands, it has its fair share of places to eat, drink, and relax and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the city.