Why do we call Paris’ quartier near La Sorbonne and Les Jardins du Luxembourg in the 5th and parts of the 6th “The Latin Quarter”? Like many things in Paris, the answer is steeped in history. The name can be traced back to the 13th century. Upon the founding of the Collège de Sorbonne in 1257, students from all over Europe flocked to France to study at the first university of its kind. The universal language at this time was Latin, and it could be heard around the many surrounding streets of the Sorbonne, hence its current honorific.
Nowadays, the quartier is known as an artistic, literary and scholarly neighborhood of Paris with an abundance to do and see. The area is rife with history and full of curiosities to uncover. It is where Simone de Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre, where Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein lived, where an institute of higher education was first established, where Victor Hugo and Marie Curie are buried, and where Marius first sees Cosette in Les Misérables.
With so much to do and see, it can be difficult to fit everything in. Below is a guide to the area complete with some fun facts and interesting stories. Take a look for suggestions regarding food, shopping, interesting bookstores, and cultural must-sees!
To start your day:
Just across from the Luxembourg Gardens (at 5 rue de Medicis), Treize Bakery serves delicious dishes and even better baked goods. Treat yourself to a hearty breakfast and make your way to the gardens to walk some of it off! My personal favorite is the unbeatable French Toast & Pecan Crusted Chicken.
If you’re in a literary state of mind:
Try out Le Dôme, or its next-door neighbor La Rotonde. Both are memorialized in many of Ernest Hemingway’s works, including “A Moveable Feast” and “The Sun Also Rises.” If you want to check out the bistro where Hemingway did his actual writing, head to La Closerie des Lilas and look out for the plaque on the bar-top dedicated to the legendary author.
For the best pastries in Paris:
This is a popular and impassioned topic of debate in Paris. But if you ask me, the best pastries in Paris can be found right in the Latin Quarter. For a nice afternoon repose, head to Bread and Roses just south of the Luxembourg Gardens and enjoy a pot of tea and a snack. I recommend the tartes aux fruits. If you’re by the Panthéon, take a peek into Sebastien Degardin and treat yourself to a Merveilleux, a quintessential French dessert that will satisfy any sweet tooth.
For an intimate dinner:
On Thursday nights, many galleries in the area host vernissages that are free and open to the public. Enjoy some wine as you gallery hop (Rue de Seine and Rue Guénégaud are packed with options) and end the evening at Clover or Le Christine. Both are intimate bistros with unique food options and an excellent selection of wine.
For the flâneur:
Don’t want to be tied to a reservation? Want to see some options before you pick? Take a walk down Rue Mouffetard, a bustling street lined with bars and restaurants. You will end up at Place de la Contrescarpe, a small rotary enclosed with even more cafes and restaurants. Pick whatever piques your interest — you can’t go wrong!
As this is the student’s quarter, bookstores abound. All around La Sorbonne are small bookshops with many specialties. For some anglophone options, I suggest:
Shakespeare & Co.: Not the original institution owned by Sylvia Beach, but a destination nonetheless. Enjoy a coffee at their cafe, head to a free talk or lecture, or just browse the stacks and be inspired. If you make a purchase, be sure to have them validate the inside with their official stamp!
The Red Wheelbarrow: Newly reopened and just across from the Luxembourg Gardens, this charming bookshop has a wonderful collection and a vibrant calendar of events, talks and tours. Check out their blog for the latest information.
The Abbey Bookshop: This Canadian-Anglophone bookshop is something out of Harry Potter. With shelves reaching to the ceiling and far back into the narrow space, you could get lost among the many stacks and thousands of books. Be sure to say hello to the shop’s owner, Brian Spence, who is always happy to treat browsers to some coffee and a few reading suggestions.
For a breath of fresh air:
Home to a palace, a museum, tennis courts, several restaurants and a gorgeous array of vegetation, anything can happen in The Luxembourg Gardens. This is, in fact, where Simone de Beauvoir was rumored to have met Jean-Paul Sartre, and where Marius first laid eyes on Cosette. Do not miss out on a walk through the gardens and a chance to people watch from any of the numerous benches and tables scattered throughout.
In the footsteps of the Literati:
The Left Bank has always been home to artists, writers and philosophers. After WWI, a huge number of American expatriates descended onto this side of the Seine and ran wild as members of “The Lost Generation.” Among the landmarks pertaining to this group of people, you can find the former home of Gertrude Stein at 27 Rue des Fleurus, a legendary gathering place for artists of the time. In addition, although the original building no longer stands, just around the corner from Stein’s residence was the first apartment that Ernest and Hadley Hemingway lived in on Rue Notre Dames des Champs. And finally, the only place on the Left Bank that Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald ever lived, can be found at 58 Rue de Vaugirard, just steps from the Luxembourg Gardens.
For the history buffs:
There is history on every street in Paris, but some of the most important cultural treasures are on the Left Bank of the city. The building behind the quartier’s namesake, and one of the oldest academic buildings in the world, is La Sorbonne. With an alumni roster that includes Balzac and Pope Alexander V, this middle age structure is the ultimate shrine to learning. Walk along the cobblestone streets that surround the campus, and see if any of that brilliance is contagious.
Another major Parisian monument is the Panthéon, just behind the Sorbonne. Originally constructed as a church, this building was repurposed during the French Revolution as a shrine to the heroes of France. Today, many notable figures are buried within the walls of the Panthéon, including Emile Zola, Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas.
Created around the ruins of a residence for the abbots of Cluny, Le Musée national du Moyen Âge is a cultural treasure that has preserved thousands of notable works from the middle ages. This includes examples of gothic architecture from the original structure as well as infamous works of art such as the Tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn from the late 15th century.
For the cinephiles:
Film is an incredibly important part of French culture, and something that the French take very seriously. There are independent and art-house movie theaters all across the city, but none are quite like La Filmothèque du quartier latin. This theater shows quality films, both old and new, throughout the week in their plush velvet-covered spaces. Prices are very accessible, at 9€ for adults, 7€ for students, and 4€ for anyone below the age of 20. Rumor has it, Quentin Tarantino has been known to enjoy this haunt as well.
Everyone wants to dress like the French, and luckily, it isn’t expensive to do so. There are countless boutiques and independent stores throughout the city that sell amazing products at reasonable prices. For a few of my favorites from the area, check out:
For high fashion at a lower price:
There are several outlet stores for major labels in the city, but I find the Stock Maje store at 6 Rue du Cherche-Midi to be particularly good. It can get crowded, so try to peek in earlier in the morning for a better browsing experience.
For that effortless French twist:
Les Cerises De Mars has a seemingly endless number of hair accessories that can tame anyone’s locks, and add a special je ne sais quoi to your daily look.
For stepping out on the right foot:
Colisée Paris at 1 Rue de Sèvres sells beautiful footwear that won’t break the bank. Their unique collection is stylish, functional, and oh so chic!
For some added bling:
Othello jewelry store at 21 Rue des Saints-Pères has one of the most unique assortment of earrings, bracelets, rings and necklaces I have ever come across. They have a range of styles that will satisfy any shopper, from eastern-inspired pieces, to beaded jewels, and simple gold items.
And, of course, there are always treasures to be found at les bouquinistes all along the Seine!
Anything you think I missed? Let me know by commenting below!