Updated: Jul 4, 2020
By Sage Beckingham
Paris is the world’s most visited capital city… and for good reason! It is home to many extraordinary monuments and its streets are filled with romance, history and more than a little mystery! However, with so many things to see and to experience in Paris, one could feel quite overwhelmed when considering which places to visit in Paris.
Paris is divided into 20 different neighborhoods, known as arrondissements, which are further divided into administrative quarters. Within the 6th arrondissement of Paris is a quarter filled with historical, religious and cultural significance that we recommend as one of the best places to visit in Paris for anyone who wants to explore the city…. That area is Saint-Germain-des-Prés (otherwise known as Saint Germain, Paris).
St Germain, Paris
St Germain is a neighborhood brimming with life and history. St Germain started out as
a religious and cultural centre, with an annual fair that attracted sellers from all over the continent. Located between the River Seine to the north and the rue du Four on the south, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is now home to a number of cafés, bookstores and churches that make it a wonderful place to visit in Paris.
Up until the 17th Century the river Seine frequently flooded the St Germain area, so it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the area was built up and continued to be developed into the hub of tourist activity it is today that makes it one of the best places to visit in Paris.
Although most of this area is relatively recent, at the centre of this area is the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which is certainly not recent and is steeped in history, mystery and legend!
The History of the Abbey of Saint Germain
The Abbey of St Germain des Prés is the oldest church in Paris with the foundations having been laid in the 3rd century A.D. Before the Abbey was officially founded and later given its current name, it was used as a burial ground for a powerful dynasty called the Merovingian kings of Nuestria who ruled over the Franks in the 5th Century, and continued to rule up till 751 A.D. The church was officially founded by King Childebert I, who reigned over the dynasty from 511 – 588, as a shrine in which to house relics, although the nature of said relics is shrouded in mystery, with different sources differing in their claims.
One popular claim is that Childeburt built the abbey in order to house the relics of Saint Vincent that had been won following a battle in Saragossa. Some also say a jewel encrusted cross that had been made for King Solomon was housed in the Abbey. Furthermore, some believe that the church was built to house a shard of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Although the exact relic which the church was originally built in homage of is not certain, it is known that the church was built to be a shrine for relics of great religious significance, although most have now been moved to the Basilica of Saint Denis (with many relics being lost along the way).
The mystery of the relics aside, we do know that on the day that Childebert I died in 558 A.D., the church was dedicated by Germain, Bishop of Paris. Under his watch the church’s power, wealth and influence grew and before long it was the richest monastery in Paris. Following the death of Saint Germain, the church was named Saint Germain des Prés.
It wasn’t until the 17th Century that the area was develop further, due to the frequency of flooding which had previously occurred from the River Seine. Once the flooding was controlled and the area was built up, it became a popular place for the wealthy aristocrats of the time to build their new homes and soon the district of Saint Germain became a new and fashionable part of the city of Paris.
The Abbey has certainly seen its fair share of destruction, having been destroyed by Vikings in the 9th century before being rebuilt in 1014 and was it attacked a further two times due to its location outside the limits of Paris. It’s role as a powerful Benedictine Abbey ended in 1789 when Revolutionaries decided to utilise the church to store gunpowder… leading to an explosion in 1793 which destroyed the entire refectory! Despite so much destruction, it is still standing and so we are lucky to have it as one of the must-see places to visit in Paris.
Another one of the most famous churches in France, the Église Saint-Sulpice, is located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It achieved fame for having the painting Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, the only fresco that Delacroix painted. It’s also famous for a more mysterious reason: it’s the setting of much of The da Vinci Code. The “secret meanings” hidden in the architecture of the church influenced much of the mystery of both the book and the movie.
Saint Germain des Prés as the Intellectual Hub of Europe and the Birthplace of Existentialism
Saint-Germain-des-Prés has been an artistic and intellectual hub for years and at one point was the intellectual centre of Europe. The Université de Paris is located in the Saint Germain district, and has educated some of the top minds such as Thomas Aquinas and Pierre de Ronsart. Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway formed the Lost Generation, a group that would commonly hang out in the restaurants and cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. While many hubs of Paris have their own claim of having at one point been the centre of the intellectual world, St Germain des Prés has the unique claim of being the birthplace of existentialism.
During the 20th century St Germain des Prés was indeed the world hub of literary and artistic life, with three cafes in particular being the beating heart of a growing literary, artistic and intellectual movement. These three cafes are Le Flore, Le Lipp and Les Deux Magots. Another café that is certainly worthy of mention is Le Procope, which is Paris’ oldest café and has received the patronage of Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Jefferson and it is claimed that Benjamin Franklin completed his work on the American constitution in this very café!
It is fair to say that immediately prior, during and following World War II, Saint Germain was the intellectual centre of the world. After the Liberation from Nazi Occupation, the scene that had developed in Saint Germain continued to grow and a new element emerged within it… the nightlife became alive with smoky cellar bars oozing the sounds of New Orleans Jazz and Bebop Jazz. This scene provided the perfect meeting place for a new group of young bohemians to drink, dance and discuss their ideas about the world- these new bohemians called themselves ‘existentialists’.
No matter where you turn in this part of the city, you’ll walk down the same streets that the greatest minds and artists once did. Not all of these great minds have the most flattering of legends, however. The famous poet Arthur Rimbaud famously took off all his clothes and walked naked down the rue de Buci. Talk about a historical moment!
While St Germain is no longer the intellectual hub of Europe, the vibrancy and beauty of the neighborhood is very much alive and kicking. The chance to visit the cafés, dance in the bars and walk the streets of some of the greatest minds to have existed in the last century is one of the reasons that Saint Germain is one of the best places to visit in Paris.
More reasons Saint Germain is one of the best places to visit in Paris…
Saint Germain offers the opportunity to wander through its history laden streets, marvelling at the religious monuments, lunching at the very cafés that the great minds of the existential movement frequented, before dancing the evening away in one of the jazz clubs in the area. However, it also offers some other cultural pursuits which will be summarised next. Starting with…. chocolate!
The Legend of the Chocolate
There’s history even in the chocolatiers! Debauve & Gallais, the oldest chocolate shop in Paris, is said to be the favourite of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. It’s claimed that she believed their chocolates made her medicine easier to take, and she’s not the only royal who loved their chocolate. D&G served both the last kings of France as well as Napoleon and his court.
And if you’ve got a hankering to try Marie’s favorite flavor of chocolate, you can order the Pistoles de Marie-Antoinette.
The Musée d'Orsay
This museum houses an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings and is housed in the beautiful Belle Époque train station. The train station itself is a work of art and is worth a visit just to relish in the beauty of its architecture alone. The Impressionist art in the museum dates from the period 1848 to 1914.
Cour du Commerce St-André
This antiquated and quaint arcade offers a glimpse into the Paris of the past. The old-fashioned streetlamps and cobble stones remind you of the Paris of a gone-by century and it really is a charming spot to spend an hour or so.
It’s not all charm and quaintness though, there is also a more sinister historical significance to this arcade… It was in this place that the first experiments with the guillotine took place, on some unlucky and unsuspecting sheep!
Also, in this arcade you can find Le Procope café, mentioned earlier as being the place that Benjamin Franklin ironed out the details of the American Constitution.
Musée du Luxembourg
The Musée du Luxembourg was the first French Museum opened to the public, in 1750, although at that point in was in a different location. Its current location at 19 rue de Vaugirard was originally a palace built in 1615 by Marie de Medic. It hosts two expeditions a year around the themes of: The Renaissance in Europe, the relationship between art and power, as well as the role of Paris as the capital of the arts.
The Jardin de Luxembourg
This garden straddles the 5th and 6th arrondissement and is truly a stunning sight that anyone who wishes to explore the area should check out. These gardens were created in 1612 and cover an impressive 25 hectares of land.
The gardens are split between English and French style, with a geometric forest and a pond splitting the two styles in the middle. There is also an orchard, a bee farm and 106 statues spread throughout the park. There are many activities, catered towards both adults and children and free photography exhibitions as well as regular concerts in the bandstand.
The Parisian Shopping Experience
If you fancy divulging in the Parisian shops, Saint Germain has plenty to offer. As well as the legendary chocolate shops, in Saint Germain des Prés you can find high-end luxury fashion in parts and a refreshing mix of bookshops, unique and quirky fashion stores and even great places to pick up some classic antiques in other parts.
Whether you engross yourself in the history and legend of the Abbey of St Germain or immerse yourself in the cafés and Jazz scene frequented by Hemingway and many of the great existentialists or indulge in the chocolate delights enjoyed by the past Kings of France, there’s history, mystery and legend on every corner of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We hope you decide to check it out on your next trip to Paris as Saint Germain des Prés really is a wonderful district that deserves to be acknowledged as one of the best places to visit in Paris.