The Latin Quarter
Start: Boulevard St-Michel (Métro: Cluny).
Finish: St-Étienne-du-Mont (nearest Métro: Cardinal Lemoine).
Time: 1 1/2 hours (not including stops). The distance is about 2km (1 1/4 miles).
Best Time: Monday to Saturday from 11am to 11pm.
Worst Time: Sunday morning, when everybody else is asleep.
One of the oldest areas of Paris, the 5th arrondissement was the heart of Roman Paris during the Roman occupation of France (from the 1st c. B.C. to the 5th c. A.D.). You can still see traces of this period as you walk around. It became known as the Latin Quarter during the Middle Ages, when most of its residents were either students or clergymen who spoke Latin. Long associated with education and learning, it is here that you'll find the most famous branch of the Université de Paris, the Sorbonne, and the prestigious Collège de France. However, the revolutionary days of May '68 are long gone, and although the 5th has retained a certain degree of youthful charm and romance, parts of it have become very touristy.
1. Boulevard St-Michel
Nicknamed Boul' Mich by locals, this is the main street of the Latin Quarter. Opened in 1855, Boulevard St-Michel was one of the first boulevards to be built under Baron Haussmann, the man responsible for the modernization and redevelopment of Paris in the 19th century. Haussmann wanted the city to be organized around a huge central crossroads, called la grande croisée, at the center of which was Place du Châtelet. The Rue de Rivoli was the east-west axis, Boulevard Sebastopol the northern axis, and Boulevard St-Michel achieved the southern leg. Just over a century later, the student uprisings of May '68 began here. The Latin Quarter was suddenly full of would-be revolutionaries, and residents witnessed violent clashes between protesters and police.
At the junction of Boulevard St-Michel and Boulevard St-Germain, head north until you reach:
2. Place St-Michel
At the center of the Place St-Michel is the huge fountain built by Gabriel Davioud in 1860, featuring a sculpture of Saint Michel slaying the dragon. This was the scene of frequent skirmishes between the Germans and the Resistance in the summer of 1944, and there is a plaque dedicated to those who fought here in front of the fountain. This is a popular meeting place, and the square is often full of amateur break-dancers and street performers.
Cross Boulevard St-Michel and go down:
3. Rue de la Huchette
This street is now one of the most touristy streets in Paris, and you should avoid the fast food and Greek-style restaurants down here. However, walking along this narrow street will give you an idea of what Paris looked like during the Middle Ages, when most Parisian streets were between 2 and 5m (6 1/2-16 ft.) wide. Few streets like this one remain. At no. 23 is the tiny Théâtre de la Huchette, which is famous for having shown Eugene Ionesco's absurdist double bill of The Lesson and The Bald Soprano continuously since 1957. At no. 5 is the legendary jazz club Caveau de la Huchette. Established in 1946, this was the first club in Paris where jazz was played, and jazz legends such as Sidney Bechet and Lionel Hampton have played here.
Before you reach No. 5, branching off Rue de la Huchette to your left is:
4. Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche
This tiny alleyway is said to be the narrowest street in Paris, and also dates back to the Middle Ages. Before the quai was built, the Seine sometimes flooded the cellars of the houses, and legend has it that an enterprising cat took advantage of its good fortune and went fishing in the confines of the cellars -- hence the street's name, which means "Street of the Cat Who Fishes."
At the end of Rue de la Huchette, turn right up Rue du Petit Pont and continue to:
Named after a 6th-century hermit, St-Séverin was built from 1210 to 1230 and reconstructed in 1448. Before entering, walk around the church to examine the gargoyles, birds of prey, and reptilian monsters projecting from its roof. These features explain why this church is an example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The bell tower is home to the oldest bell in Paris, which dates back to 1412, and next door is the city's only remaining charnel house, a place which houses the bones and bodies of the dead.
Where Rue du Petit Pont becomes Rue St-Jacques, cross over the street to Rue Galande and look back over your shoulder at the spires of St-Séverin. Then turn back to the small church in front of you:
A chapel has stood on this spot since the 6th century, but the current church dates back to the 12th century. It's now owned by the followers of the Melchite Greek rite, a branch of the Byzantine church. St-Julien-le-Pauvre is known for putting on great classical concerts -- if you're interested, there are posters near the door. The garden in front of the church has the best view of Notre-Dame and is home to the oldest tree in Paris; it's an acacia tree that was brought to Paris from Guyana in 1680 (it's fenced off and supported).
Continue along Rue Galande and turn left down Rue du Fouarre to:
7. La Fourmi Ailée
At no. 8 Rue du Fouarre is La Fourmi Ailée (tel. 01-43-29-40-99), a charming restaurant and tea room. Because it has clouds painted on the ceiling and books lining the walls, you're bound to leave here feeling calm, refreshed, and inspired. Open for lunch and dinner, and serving tea all day, La Fourmi Ailée serves typical French cuisine with a surprising number of good vegetarian options. Open daily noon to midnight.
As you leave the cafe, backtrack along Rue du Fouarre, which turns into Rue Danté. At the junction, turn right onto Boulevard St Germain. Turn left on Rue de Cluny until you come to Place Paul Painlevé.
8. Musée de Cluny
Even if you're not particularly interested in medieval history and the origins of Paris, it's worth dropping into the Musée de Cluny to see the allegorical The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries and the remains of the Roman baths.
With the museum behind you, cross the square to Rue des Écoles, where you'll see the main entrance to the Sorbonne. Don't forget to look back and admire the Musée de Cluny from afar.
One of the most famous academic institutions in the world, the Sorbonne was founded in 1253 by Robert de Sorbon, St. Louis's confessor, as a theology college. By the next century it had become the most prestigious university in the West, attracting such professors as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon, and such students as Dante, Calvin, and Longfellow. Following May 1968, when the Sorbonne was occupied by rebellious students, the University of Paris was split up into different faculties located in different parts of Paris. The current building dates from the early 1900s, and if you look at the side of the building on Rue St-Jacques, you can see the names of the different academic subjects inscribed above the windows.
From Rue des Écoles, turn right up Rue St-Jacques. When you reach Rue Soufflot, turn left. At the street's end is Place du Panthéon:
Sitting atop Mont St-Geneviève, this former church is now a nonreligious mausoleum, and the final resting place of such distinguished figures as Hugo, Zola, Rousseau, Voltaire, Curie.
Facing the Panthéon, walk around the left-hand side of the building until you come to Place Ste-Geneviève. In front of you is:
This church is home to a very elaborate shrine dedicated to Saint Geneviève, one of Paris's two patron saints. In 451, Attila the Hun was threatening to enter Paris. The city's elders advised people to flee, but a young woman named Geneviève encouraged them to remain and fight. Miraculously, Attila chose not to come to Paris and Geneviève was credited with saving the city. This church also contains Paris's only rood screen (a fancy wooden screen that divides the chancel and the nave). The church itself was built between 1492 and 1626, and is thus a curious mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
To get to Métro Cardinal Lemoine, go past the church along Rue Clovis and turn left onto Rue du Cardinal Lemoine.