Chic and intellectual, St-Germain-des-Près on Paris’s left bank is home to French literary legends and an abundance of cafés and fashionable boutiques. The narrow, winding streets have a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages. Discover the beauty of this historic neighbourhood by spending 24 hours in St-Germain-des-Près.
Les Deux Magots is famous for a good reason: their chocolat chaud a l’ancienne is to die for, and you won’t find a better spot for people watching. It’s one of the oldest coffee houses in Paris and was a hub for the city’s intellectual crowd: Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Julia Child and Bertolt Brecht were all frequent visitors. While the breakfast menu gives you a number of options, we recommend Le Petit Dejeuner Hemingway: a hot drink of your choice, eggs cooked as you prefer, baguette, pressed fruit juice and a side of yoghurt or fruit salad.
Just across the street, you’ll find l’Eglise de St-Germain-des-Près. It’s the oldest church in Paris, dating back to the 6th century, and was originally built to house a single piece of wood brought back from Spain, said to be a piece of Jesus’s cross. At one point in its long history it was the richest church in all of France, and perhaps not surprisingly, was frequently plundered by Vikings. Some time later, revolutionaries used the abbey to store gunpowder. The first Bishop of Paris was buried here, canonised as Saint Germain (hence the name), and it was also the burial ground for the Merovingian kings, as well as Rene Descartes. The interiors alone are worth a minute of your time, with the starry ceiling of the nave reminiscent of Sainte Chapelle over on Île de la Cité.
Step into the famous department store and you will recognise the famous escalators from many an Instagram post. The store offers a variety of luxury goods, and it’s easy to get lost here. Each floor is designed to house different collections in little salons, like a more navigable version of London’s Harrods. The building was originally designed with the help of Gustave Eiffel, and Émile Zola famously described it as ‘the cathedral of modern commerce’. The best time of year to visit is during the annual sale in January.
This national monument stands in homage to the French state and the people who worked tirelessly to achieve liberté (liberty), egalité (equality) and fraternité (fraternity). You’ll need to buy a ticket, but the view from the dome offers one of the best panoramic views of Paris. On the ground floor you’ll find Foucault’s pendulum, which demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The basement is where France’s national heroes are buried: here you’ll find the final resting place of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Marie and Pierre Curie. Interment here is only allowed after an act of parliament.
Roam through the streets of Cour du Commerce Saint-Andre and they will transport you to a very different Paris. Many French intellectuals would meet here: Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as revolutionaries such as Robespierre, Danton and Marat, who made their headquarters in this small courtyard. You can still see many of their signs up in the street today. You’ll also find l’Imprimerie de Marat, the printworks where Marat wrote and published his revolutionary newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple (‘The Friend of the People’). In the afternoons, when the newspaper was ready to be released, he would ring the bell that is still in place at the top of building number eight. If you’re lucky, you may be able to access the Cour de Rohan at the end of the passage, a beautiful, photogenic courtyard that looks its best in spring.
Within the courtyard is Le Procope, Paris’ oldest café. Established in 1684, the café has seen its fair share of famous faces since, but its most famous patron, Napoleon Bonaparte himself, skipped out on his bill and never came back. While we don’t advise you to do the same, we do recommend the braised beef cheeks. Before you leave, make sure you admire the artefacts on display, including Napoleon’s hat.
Wrap up your day with a nightcap or two at Café Laurent, hidden on the ground floor of the Hotel d’Aubusson. As with many other venues in St-Germain-des-Près, this bar has enjoyed an association with the French intellectual elite since its establishment in 1690. In fact, Sartre, Rousseau, Voltaire and Camus are all known to have passed an evening here. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the bar hosts a live-jazz night, taking guests back to the time after World War I when jazz was in full swing.
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