The Two Islands In The Heart Of Paris – Ile de la Cité & Ile Saint-Louis

It's not every world capital that has two petite islands in the middle of the city. The settlement that began on one of them predates all of the Paris arrondissements, in fact predates the city itself. As you cross the Seine towards Île de la Cité, the ancient heart of Paris, you will journey back through the centuries to the origins of the city. Settled about 2,000 years ago by a tribe of fishermen called the Parisii, Île de la Cité, is now home to both spiritual and temporal powers — the Palais de Justice shares the island with one of the most prestigious religious monuments in the world, Notre Dame Cathedral.

Île Saint-Louis is not nearly as old as its sister island, having only been created in the 17th century. Today, the two islands link the Right Bank of Paris to the Left Bank by a number bridges — Pont Neuf is the oldest and probably the most famous. And that's where we'll start our journey into the secrets, history, and facts about the islands of Paris.

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15 Great Things About the Islands of Paris

1. Pont Neuf & Square du Vert-Galant

Square du Vert-Galant Square du Vert-Galant, viewed from Pont Neuf

The islands split the river Seine into two channels. The only bridge that spans both channels is located on the westernmost point of Île de la Cité. This bridge, built in 1607, is the oldest in Paris yet, paradoxically, is named Pont Neuf, "New Bridge". An equestrian statue of its builder, French king Henri IV (r. 1589 to 1610), overlooks the bridge. Next to the statue, down a few steps, is a romantic postage-stamp of a park called Square du Vert-Galant.

Named in tribute to the king and his many mistresses (although not built until 1884, nearly three centuries after the bridge), the Square is 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 on the Right Bank and Hotel de la Monnaie on the Left Bank.

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. In English he's known as Henry of Navarre, but in France he's most often called Le Vert Galant — The Green Gallant — referring to his many amorous affairs.

2. Place Dauphine – A Paris Sanctuary

Place Dauphine, photo by Mark Craft Place Dauphine, photo by Mark Craft

Opposite the equestrian statue of Le Vert Galant is our favorite oasis of tranquility in the center of Paris. From Pont Neuf you enter Place Dauphine between two houses that date back to Louis XIII (r. 1610 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. (Since the French word la place is feminine the modifier takes the feminine form: Dauphine. Got it?)

The place famously featured a grove of mature chestnut trees, once part of the royal orchard. However, in 2009 the trees were attacked by a parasite and had to be removed and replanted; the new trees are maturing nicely.

Reasons to Visit

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

3. La Conciergerie – Palace Turned Prison

La Conciergerie La Conciergerie in the evening

Our visit to Île de la Cité next takes us further away from Pont Neuf — continuing on Quai de L'Horloge, along the walls of the Gothic Palais de Justice, to the place 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, since this is where many of the parties involved in that national conflict were imprisoned before being beheaded during la terreur.

Reasons to Visit

At La Conciergerie you can visit the actual prison cell where 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.

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4. La Sainte-Chapelle – A Restored Jewel

La Sainte-Chapelle Magnificent stained-glass windows at La Sainte-Chapelle, photo Wikimedia Commons

This stunning Gothic chapel is sort of hidden inside the Palais de Justice/Conciergerie complex on Île de la Cité. Nonetheless, it's worthy of a visit, especially following a serious, seven-year-long renovation ending in 2015, that restored 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 French king and later saint Louis IX (r. 1226 to 1270) to house his favorite relic, the Crown of Thorns. Built in just seven years, La Sainte-Chapelle is a spectacular example of the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture. Here you will marvel at 6,500 square feet of stained glass windows in glorious deep shades of red and blue.

5. Marché aux Fleur

Marché aux Fleur Marché aux Fleur at Metro Cité

Just across the street from La Sainte-Chapelle on Île de la Cité, at Place Louis Lépine (by the Cité Metro entrance) is a lively flower market that 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.

Like any beautiful flower, whose petals eventually begin to droop, the marchè is just a bit ragged around the edges. But, not to worry, a two-year renovation is slated to begin in 2023 to refresh the famous flower market.

Reasons to Visit

Stroll through the flower market before or after your visit to the Notre Dame site. While you're there, admire one of the last original Hector Guimard Art Nouveau Metro signs at Cité station. 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.

6. The Archeological Crypt

Archeological Crypt, photo by Mark Craft The Archaeological Crypt of Notre-Dame

As you continue walking towards Notre Dame you come upon perhaps the best-kept secret of Île 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. UPDATE — access to the area surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral is limited during reconstruction work.

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7. Notre Dame Saints

The Saints on Notre Dame West facade of Notre Dame, photo by Benh Lieu Song

As you walk toward Notre Dame you can't miss its two famous bell towers, still standing proud after the April 2019 fire. If you can see past the restoration construction, study the the sculptures of the saints in bas-relief adorning the front of the cathedral. 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. It's how Montmartre got its name — as the mount of martyr.

UPDATE — access to the area surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral is limited during reconstruction work.

8. Guided Walk – Île de la Cité & Notre Dame Cathedral

Guided Walk Notre Dame Cathedral Île de la Cité's Place Dauphine, photo by Koudkeu

The world watched in horror on April 15, 2019 as flames threatened to destroy Notre Dame Cathedral. No one could have predicted that she would survive, but Notre Dame is here to stay. This insider's tour takes you on a special walk through the epicenter of Paris to learn the 2,000-year history of the island on which she stands.

As your guide leads you to the landmarks of the Paris island — from the historic outdoor flower market, to the Conciergerie, to the Palais de Justice, to Île de la Cité's most famous building, Notre Dame — you'll discover the mystery and delights of Île de la Cité and learn the history of the enduring cathedral from its 107-year construction in the Middle Ages to its next chapter as it is restored in the 21st century.

9. Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Le Memorial de la Deportation The park above the Memorial of the Deportation, photo by Mark Craft

Next to Notre Dame is this stark reminder of more-recent Paris past — a memorial dedicated to the 200,000 French Jews and others who were deported from France to Nazi concentration camps, with the active participation of collaborating French authorities, including the police.

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 what is necessarily a 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.

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10. The Garden of Notre Dame

The Gardens of Notre Dame The garden behind 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 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.

UPDATE — access to the area surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral is limited during reconstruction work.

11. Brasserie de l'Île St-Louis

Brasserie de l'Île St-Louis, photo by Mark Craft Brasserie de l'Île St-Louis, photo by Mark Craft

Now that we're at the other end of the Île de la Cité, away from Pont Neuf, let's cross Le Pont St-Louis — the bridge to Île St-Louis — where the first building you come across is home to one of the best old-time brasseries in Paris and a favorite spot for Sunday lunch.

Lunch here is the perfect Paris experience, 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 others before him. Mousse au chocolate; juicy, plump omelettes; and homemade cassoulet served by waiters who have been there for decades. Get it before it disappears.

12. Cow Island

Ile Saint-Louis, Wikimedia Commons, photo by Moonik Place Louis Aragon on Île Saint-Louis, photo Wikimedia Commons

Île Saint-Louis didn't exist until the 17th century. Before that time there were two smaller islands in this part of the Seine, one of them was used for grazing cattle and was called, appropriately, Île aux Vaches. In the heady days of Henri IV and Louis XIII, a period that ran from 1589 to 1643, Paris experienced unprecedented expansion and improvement. Swamps were drained, bridges were built spanning the Seine (Pont Neuf being a prime example), the Louvre palace was expanded, and Place des Vosges in the Marais was built. It was the era of Cardinal Richelieu and, of course, the era when Île Saint-Louis was created from the two islets.

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13. Lafitte

Lafitte Products, photo by Mark Craft

When we're looking for foie gras, the place we head to is Lafitte, on Île Saint-Louis. Founded in 1920, Lafitte specializes in poultry products from the Landes region of France, the home of the best foie gras, pates, confits and other gourmet foods from duck and geese. It's the best, most delicious source in Paris.

14. Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île

Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île in the early 20th century

Île Saint-Louis was named after the 13-century king of France (who was later sainted) as is this street that runs the length of the island. It's a small isle, with only this central rue and a few cross-streets. But Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile is nicely packed with interesting shops.

Berthillon Glacier is the place to go to get the best ice cream in Paris. Oliviers & Co specializes in olives and olive oils. La Ferme St Aubin is all about classic French cheeses and some of the best charcuterie in the city. Pylones is the famous shop that creates some of the funkiest and fun products to be found. Amarillo dishes out scoops of Italian ice cream. And, for all your food shopping needs, Les Délices de Saint-Louis has got to be the best "corner" store in Paris.

15. Night Bike Tour on the Islands

Night Bike Tour

This energizing, fun cycling tour will take you to Notre Dame on Île de la Cité, for ice cream at Berthillon, the famous ice cream shop on Île St. Louis, and points in between. But that's not all. You also cycle over to the Eiffel Tower, past the Hotel de Ville, and down the narrow streets of Paris.

Oh, one more thing — we almost forgot to mention that the activity also includes a night Seine River boat cruise. With a glass of wine, of course. Now that's a bargain.

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The Best Places to Stay on the Islands

Île St. Louis is small, but 4,500 people live here and there are also a lot of visitors. So, it's somewhat surprising to find some really good hotels on the petit island. Like most of Paris, but perhaps even more so on Île Saint-Louis, hotel rooms are compact. But what a location!

Hotel du Jeu de Paume

Hotel du Jeu de Paume

This elegant hotel welcomes you with a open-beam library/lounge. You'll find outstanding service and beautifully-appointed rooms. Enjoy a drink in the charming garden after exploring the sights of Paris.

Our Rating — Superb
• 54 Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Île
• Île Saint-Louis

Hotel des Deux Îles

Hotel des Deux Iles

Location, location, location. A quiet retreat in an amazing spot. Just step out the door and you're in the hub of Paris restaurants, cafes and monuments. Each of the 17 rooms has been decorated with simplicity and elegance in mind. "Comfortable, low-key, welcoming," one guest opined, and we concur.

Our Rating — Superb
• 59 Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Îl
• Île Saint-Louis

Hotel de Lutece

Hotel de Lutece

A beautiful 17th century building with original fireplace & wooden beams, and 23 tastefully-decorated rooms. Being on the island you're close to everything — the Marais, Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter.

Our Rating — Superb
• 65 Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Îl
Île Saint-Louis

The Island of Paris – Resources

  • Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile is also the name of a 2004 recording by the avant-garde French singer, Brigitte Fontaine. Apparently it's where she lived.
  • Les Delices de Saint-Louis, 67 Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île
  • Oliviers & Co, 81 Rue Saint-Louis en l'Íle, Website
  • La Ferme Saint-Aubin, 76 Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île
  • Pylones, 57 Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île, Website
  • Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis, 55 Quai de Bourbon, Website
  • Lafitte, 8 rue Jean du Bellay, Website
  • Archeological Crypt of the Parvis of Notre-Dame, 7 Parvis Notre-Dame, Website

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