History of Paris Walking Tour
The past is alive in Paris. Whether you are walking down one of Haussmann’s famous avenues, standing under the Eiffel Tower, or stepping into an ancient cathedral, the city blends millennia together into a single tapestry.
That is the inspiration behind my History of Paris Walking Tour — a day-long journey through the centuries in this beautiful city.
Walking along the Left Bank of the Seine, we will learn about the history of Paris while we enjoy its thriving present.
If you are interested in this one-of-a-kind guided tour, read on, and get a taste of all the things you will see and discover.
Start by the Islands of Paris - Cité
This island rising out of the running waters of the Seine is where the city began. For over a thousand years, this is where Emperors and Kings built their outposts and palaces. When you visit it, it does feel regal, as if you are standing in the center of the world.
Thanks to its illustrious past, the Île de la Cité is home to some of the most iconic architecture in the entire world, boasting more than one Gothic marvel.
1. Notre Dame after the incident
Notre Dame is a beloved symbol of the Gothic era, preserved through the centuries as a leading example of French architecture. Its stunning stained glass, flying buttresses, and rib vaulted ceilings bring all of the famous features of the era together in a true masterpiece of engineering.
It began construction in 1163, making it an incredibly old building. Today, it overwhelms the viewer with its presence — a testament to the genius of builders from centuries past. It is a wonder that so much precise engineering and construction could have been carried out so long ago.
Due to fires in April 2019, it is less accessible than it used to be, but restoration efforts continue. Soon, we will be able to enter the cathedral once again and take in the full glory of its stained glass and the exquisite interior.
2. Sainte Chapelle
Off of the Conciergerie is a mesmerizing work of Gothic architecture: Sainte Chapelle. There are few places in the world you can visit that are quite so awe-inspiring. In particular, the rising stained-glass windows on the upper level are breathtaking works of art that rival any built wonders anywhere on the planet.
It was once the chapel for King Louis IX, but now its doors are open to the world. Though it is less well known than the nearby Notre Dame, it is a world-class architectural achievement. Construction began in 1242, and the first phase of construction took six years to complete. It was not only a place for the king to attend religious services, it was also a place to store the many sacred relics collected by the pious Louis IX.
Over the following centuries, the stained-glass windows continued to set a standard for beauty on the continent, with additions being made into the 15th century. They are now fully restored, allowing us to see them in all their glory.
Next - The Latin Quarter
Moving on from the Île de la Cité, we arrive at the Latin Quarter on the famous Left Bank of Paris. This area has a rich and textured past, and its current scene continues that legacy into the future. The energy and vitality here owes a lot to the numerous universities in the area that fill the streets with students. The area is renowned for its historical sites, great food, and exciting nightlife.
How did the Left Bank get its name?
The Left Bank (or River Gauche in French) got its name from the Seine that cuts through Paris. The water flows westward, and so if you look downstream, the area to your left (or south) is the Left Bank.
The Latin Quarter, the 5th and 6th Arrondissements that run right along the Seine on the Left Bank, took on a life of its own in the 1100s.
That’s when the controversial philosopher Pierre Abélard had to leave his residence on the Île de la Cité due to his “radical” ideas — like his ardent belief in educating women equally (something verboten in the Middle Ages). As he moved to the Left Bank, many people came to learn from him. During that time, education was all in Latin, and so the streets were filled with that language, hence the name Latin Quarter.
When we walk along these streets today, we run into the thrilling Parisian atmosphere that has welcomed in some of the great artists, thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries of the past two centuries. This is where Colette, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse, Edith Wharton, Pablo Picasso, and James Baldwin called home. While they didn’t all live in the Latin Quarter, this area played host to many of the important moments from their time in Paris.
For that reason, there is always a special romance in the air when we visit the Latin Quarter!
1. Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Along the Left Bank of Paris, you can find historical sites of all kinds. One of the quirkier of these is Shakespeare and Company. This bookstore, which borrows its name from a predecessor also on the Left Bank, is famous for many reasons.
For one, it is an English-language shop, meaning you don’t need to be fluent in French to enjoy the wares here. There is another reason this store is famous: it has housed tens of thousands of aspiring writers. In exchange for a place to stay in Paris, writers are expected to put in some hours of work every week.
At this world-famous store you can find old and rare tomes, used books, and new releases.
2. Sorbonne University
This institution of higher learning boasts an incredibly long history. Beginning in 1257, it was among Europe’s earliest universities. More than seven centuries later, it is still a leader in research and education.
The grounds here are filled with the stories of legendary thinkers and scientists. Sorbonne University also played a large role in the development of science — a major part of the Latin Quarter’s history.
While this is far from the only important university in the Latin Quarter, its grounds are by far the most historic.
You might have thought that only Rome had a Pantheon, but Paris is home to its own — called the Panthéon.
Built from 1758 all the way to 1790, this stands as a striking example of neoclassical architecture, a style with many important accomplishments in Paris. This project was initially meant to be a church, commissioned by none other than Louis XV — the king was ill in bed and promised God that he would build a great new church if he made it through.
Once he was on the mend, he set out to replace the crumbling Abbey of St. Genevieve with a massive new church. Due to the inordinately long construction time, the king died before it was finished.
During the French Revolution, it was converted from a church to a mausoleum for great figures in French history.
4. Luxembourg Gardens
Located in the 6th arrondissement, the Luxembourg Garden is a large park (23 hectares, or more than 55 acres) that has been an important green space in the city since it was constructed in the 17th century.
The Gardens have many curious sights to see, including:
the famous Grand Bassin (if you bring kids, you can rent toy boats to sail over the water!)
a smaller version of the Statue of Liberty
the Medici Fountain
The palace on the grounds is now home to the French Senate, allowing you to see a little bit of modern French political life while also exploring the gardens that were originally designed in the 1600s.
In an interesting side note, the Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables places many scenes in these gardens. And Hugo was interred at the Panthéon.
Indulge the Parisian Lifestyle
Along the way, our History of Paris Walking Tour will dive into the world of our famous cafe culture and chic shopping experiences. It is a great opportunity to indulge in all that Paris has to offer you!
Seeing the sights of the Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter will bring you into the history of this city like you never thought possible.