One of the main reasons that led me to explore the Latin Quarter was the sheer number of times I have seen it featured in famous movies I have watched, and eventually adored. Whether it’s Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse in Before Sunset, who’s at a book signing at the quaint Shakespeare and Co., with books piled high all around him, with an intimate crowd asking prodding questions or Gil, Owen Wilson’s character in the movie Midnight in Paris, who sits on the front steps of the Église Saint-Étienne du Mont and is whisked away to the world of the 1920s by accepting a mysterious invitation from a group of party goers – one thing is certain - the Latin Quarter has a charm that is so artistically captured in movies, and that it also possesses in real life.
So, what should you do in one of Paris’ historic neighbourhoods?
Fall in love with the Panthéon’s neoclassical architecture
The story goes like this: King Louis XV of France was very ill and vowed to rebuild the church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève (patron saint of Paris) if he was healed. He eventually recovered, and commissioned the Panthéon in 1744. What we see today however, is no longer a church, but a monument that stands to honour great men in history. A mausoleum and a final resting place for legendary figures like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Alexandre Dumas, this neoclassical building with its distinctive off-white dome is perched on top of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Inside, you can visit the crypts with the remains of these intellectual visionaries, see a replica of Foucault’s pendulum or climb up to the dome for stunning views of Paris.
Relive your student life at the Sorbonne!
One of the ways to feel like a local here is to stroll by the Sorbonne University, watching the students rush from one class to another. The Sorbonne is a true edifice of the Latin Quarter and houses the successor universities of the University of Paris. Paris-Sorbonne University is the main inheritor of the old Sorbonne, which dates back to the 13th century. It’s the largest institution in France dedicated to the study of literature, languages, civilizations, arts, humanities and social sciences. Walk past its buildings and observe students engaged in deep scholarly discussions. You can even sign up for a tour to discover its rich heritage.
Travel back in time to the Middle Ages
The Musée de Cluny or the Cluny Museum - National Museum of the Middle Ages, is the famous home of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, said to be one of the greatest surviving artefacts of their kind from the Middle Ages. The museum was once the town house of the Abbots of Cluny and is an outstanding example of medieval architecture. It was built on the remains of Roman baths from the 3rd century which can still be seen in the lower level. Explore the stained-glass windows from Saint Chappelle, remarkable wooden sculptures, gothic rooms and, surprisingly, the heads of Judean kings (they were beheaded during the French revolution) from the front of Notre Dame.
The Latin Quarter for Bibliophiles
For an avid reader who is travelling, a stop in a bookstore always feels like home, whether you understand the language or not. When I found out that the Quartier Latin is a bibliophile’s haven, I had to visit it on my first ever trip to Paris! On my literary bucket list was of course, one of the most Instagrammed bookstores, Shakespeare & Company . You can spend hours at this English-language bookshop, finding your way between customers flipping through novels, or a staff member perched on a ladder trying to restock a book, only to find a comfortable seating place in the corner. (Pro-tip- If you like a coffee to go with your book, then the café next door, the one that bears the same name as the bookstore, is the perfect spot!)
For those looking to own a piece of French history, take a look at what the bouquinistes or booksellers along the Seine have to offer- it could be a second-hand or antique book (including rare editions of novels), a collectable postcard, a print or a poster!
The striking Notre-Dame Cathedral and the unmissable Luxembourg Garden
While the beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral may not be open to visitors for a few more years owing to the unfortunate tragedy that occurred on April 15th, 2019, it remains an architectural legacy, with its flying buttresses, rose windows and stained glass. I had the opportunity to explore the interior of the Church, and it was indeed, a surreal experience. The stained glasses allow the natural light from the outside to reflect inside, giving the Church a holy glow of sorts. And its huge vaulted ceiling had me gazing upwards through the entirety of my tour!
20 minutes away from the Notre-Dame is the Luxembourg garden. The gardens, which cover 25 hectares of land, are split into French gardens and English gardens. You can lounge on the chairs, enjoy watching a game of pétanque or steer mini sailboats in the pond! La vie est belle!