10 Secrets Of Ile de la Cite — The Island In The Heart Of Paris

As you cross the Seine towards Ile de la Cite, the heart of Paris, you will journey back through the centuries to the origins of the city. Ile de la Cite, one of the two islands of Paris, links the Right Bank to the Left Bank by many bridges — Pont Neuf is the oldest and the most famous. And that's where we'll start our journey.

Settled 2,000 years ago by a tribe of fishermen, the Parisii, Ile de La Cite is now home to both spiritual and temporal powers. The Palais de Justice and the police headquarters share the island with one of the most prestigious religious monuments in the world — Notre Dame Cathedral.

Secret No. 1: Square du Vert-Galant

Square du Vert-Galant

This romantic postage-stamp of a park starts at Pont Neuf, built in 1607, the oldest and the most famous bridge in Paris. Paradoxically, the oldest bridge in the city is named, in French, "New Bridge".

Overlooking the bridge and the park is an equestrian statue of Henri IV (1553 to 1610), rising above the Square du Vert-Galant on the western tip of Ile de la Cite.

Built in tribute to the king and his many mistresses, in 2007 the Square was designated an Espace Vert Écologique (green space). It's filled with an impressive array of trees, plantings and benches. No wonder it's a popular location for a romantic walk with views of the Seine, the Musée du Louvre and Hotel de la Monnaie.

Reasons to Visit

You're smack dab in the middle of Paris with some of the best views of the city! Relax in the shade of the trees, admire the statue of Henri IV, and think about his 50+ mistresses. By the way, Henri's nickname was Vert Galant — the gay (in the older sense of the word) spark.

Secret No. 2: Place Dauphine – A Paris Sanctuary

Place Dauphine

Also off Pont Neuf, but in the other direction from Square du Vert-Galant, is our favorite oasis of tranquility, right in the center of Paris.

As you enter Place Dauphine from the bridge, notice the two houses that flank the entrance to the place. They date back to Louis XIII (1601 to 1643). The place was, in fact, built for Louis by his father Henry IV in 1609, when Louis was the Dauphin, or the heir to the throne. Over the centuries the name of the place was somehow feminized to Dauphine.

The place famously featured a grove of chestnut trees, once part of the royal orchard. But in 2009 they were attacked by a parasite and had to be removed and replanted.

Reasons to Visit

This little piece of Paris heaven is a car-free zone. Come for a glimpse of Parisian life — watch a game of petanque and have a glass of wine at one of the charming wine bars or cafes.

Secret No. 3: La Conciergerie – Palace Turned Prison

La Conciergerie

Now let's continue our walk on Ile de la Cite, heading further away from Pont Neuf by continuing on Quai de L'Horloge, along the walls of the Gothic Palais de Justice, to where the kings of France lived until the 14th century.

La Conciergerie, although it was the first true royal palace, is today filled with souvenirs of the French Revolution. Perhaps that's no surprise, though, since this is where the parties involved in that national conflict were imprisoned before being beheaded during la terreur. Ouch!

Reasons to Visit

At La Conciergerie see the actual prison cell where Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her last days before losing her head over in Place de la Concorde. It's a bit creepy, but there's also plenty of beautiful gothic architecture to admire.

Secret No. 4: La Sainte-Chapelle – A Restored Jewel

La Sainte-Chapell

Okay, we admit it. This one's not such a secret, although it is sort of hidden inside the Palais de Justice/Conciergerie complex on Ile de la Cite.

But it may come as a surprise to learn that La Sainte-Chapelle completed a serious seven-year-long renovation in 2015, restoring the stained glass, piece by piece, using high-tech lasers.

Reasons to Visit

The jewel of Gothic art and architecture — a miracle of balance — was built by old king Saint Louis in 1246 in order to shelter his favorite relic, the Crown of Thorns.

Built in just seven years in the 1240s, La Sainte-Chapelle is a spectacular example of the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture. See 6,458 square feet of stained glass windows in glorious deep shades of red and blue.

Secret No. 5: Marché aux Fleur

Marché aux Fleur

Just across the street from La Sainte-Chapelle on Place Louis Lépine (right at the Cité Metro entrance) is a lively flower market has been attracting locals and tourists since the early 1800s.

The marché is housed in cast-iron Art Nouveau pavilions built in 1900. The open-air displays are vast — seasonal flowers, exotic flowers, orchids, plants, and potted shrubs. On Sundays there is Le Marché aux Oiseaux, where you can shop for live, pet birds.

Reasons to Visit

Stroll through the flower market before or after your sometimes hectic visit to Notre Dame. While you're there, admire one of the last original Hector Guimard Art Nouveau Metro signs at Cité. By the way, the Marché aux Fleurs added "Reine Elizabeth II" to its name after her visit in 2014 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Secret No. 6: The Archeological Crypt

Archeological Crypt

As you continue walking towards Notre Dame you come upon perhaps the best-kept secret of Ile de la Cité — not above ground but buried beneath.

In front of the cathedral, at the far edge of the plaza, is the Crypte Archéologique, the Archeological Crypt, one of the most important ancient sites in Paris to be uncovered in recent times.

Reasons to Visit

Travel back in time to discover ancient ruins from Gallo-Roman Paris and from mediaeval times. You'll walk away with a better understanding of how Paris has been in a continuous state of reconstruction for over 2,000 years.

Secret No. 7: Notre Dame Saints & Concerts

The Saints on Notre Dame

Continuing walking to Notre Dame, you can't miss it's two blocky towers. But, before you rush into the cathedral, study the the sculptures of the saints in bas-relief adorning the front.

The one holding his own head is Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris who lived almost 2,000 years ago. Legend has it that when he was decapitated by the Romans he picked up his own head and walked to a cathedral on Montmartre. Some say it's how Montmartre got its name — as the mount of martyrs.

Concerts at Notre Dame

If you're lucky enough and there's a concert performance at Notre Dame while you're in Paris, book a ticket. Although the cathedral is closed at night, it is open to ticket holders only when there are evening concerts. Here's your chance to experience the cathedral in an unexpected way.
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Secret No. 8: Le Memorial de la Déportation

Le Memorial de la Deportation

Next to Notre Dame is this stark reminder of Paris past. The memorial is dedicated to the 200,000 French Jews and others who were deported from France to Nazi concentration camps — with the participation of Vichy French authorities.

Though just steps away from Notre Dame, the memorial goes unnoticed by most visitors. Located on the site of a former morgue, the unique design takes you down a set of stairs to the stark monument. It's a powerful reminder of Paris' darkest era.

Reasons to Visit

Architectural Digest has included Le Memorial Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation among its Ten Most Significant Memorial Buildings.

Secret No. 9: The Garden of Notre Dame

The Gardens of Notre Dame

Notre Dame itself isn't really a secret, but here's one thing that we think too many visitors miss. Walk next the cathedral, along the River Seine, to reach our next stop.

Behind the cathedral is a secluded garden that offers a welcome resting spot from the long lines. We'll stop here a few moments so you can relax and reflect under the cool shade of the trees and admire the flying buttresses from another angle.

Secret No. 10: Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis

Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis

Now that we're at the other end of the island, away from Pont Neuf, let's cross the bridge that to Ile St-Louis, where the first building you come across is home to one of the best old-time brasseries in Paris.

You simply must have lunch there, especially in the colder months. Expect comfort foods like frisée salad with a warm poached egg and bacon; rich, oily herring with yellow, waxy potatoes; wine served in carafes; and plenty of frites.

Reasons to Visit

This is a prime example of classic Paris — the city of Hemingway and before. Mousse au chocolate; juicy, plump omelettes; and homemade cassoulet served by waiters who have been there for decades. Get it before it disappears.

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