Ile Saint Louis, Ile de la Cité: the only two natural islands of Paris. The legend says the story of Paris started there, on the largest one, l’Ile de la Cité, more than 2000 years ago. From that secure location, local fishermen pushed away invaders successfully, until a powerful leader with dreams of grandeur named Julius Caesar rolled in around 52 BC, and changed everything. The 500 years that followed would be one of several periods of occupation, and gradually, the city we know today expanded from the island across the Seine river, to the Left Bank first, then to the Right. Lutèce (Lutetia,) as it was known, became Paris, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A peaceful island: Ile Saint Louis
To visit it is to fall in love with it. L’Ile Saint Louis, in spite of its ever-growing popularity, remains a slow-paced haven in a busy, crowded city. The 2500 Happy Fews who call it home are named les Ludoviciens. Some are celebrities (like actor Daniel Auteuil.) Many are foreign multimillionaires. They all live on l’Ile Saint Louis today in relative privacy and lead provincial lives, shopping at specialty stores where they know merchants by their first name, or walking their kids to school. Real estate prices are among the highest in Paris, yet short-terms apartment rentals are available for visitors who want to experience an authentic and peaceful slice of Parisian life.
In the 13th century, the island was split in half by a small canal. The top islet, l’Ile aux Vaches (Cows’ Island) was mostly pastures where cattle grazed all day. The second islet, l’Ile Notre-Dame, saw more action, as the city’s popular dueling grounds. In the 17th century, both sections got combined into one. It eventually became known as l‘Ile Saint Louis, a tribute to popular French King Louis IX (Saint-Louis, as the French call him,) who was pious and prayed on l’Ile aux Vaches before heading to the Crusades with his men in the 13th century. Two other French kings, Henri IV, and his son, Louis XIII, undertook the development of both l’Ile de la Cité and l’Ile Saint Louis in the 17th century. As le Marais and its crowning jewel la Place des Vosges morphed into an elegant neighborhood, so did the islands of Paris. Stately hôtels particuliers (private mansions) were built on both sides of l’Ile Saint Louis for wealthy Parisians, all facing out, and adorned with balconies and large windows to maximize Seine river views. Many are still there today, their elegant façades beckoning visitors and photographers. In fact, l’Ile Saint Louis, like a time capsule, has remained virtually untouched since the 17th century, and still feels like a village.
Visiting l’Ile Saint Louis.
Don’t look for iconic landmarks or large museums in the neighborhood. This is not why people come here. There is a beautiful church, l’Eglise de Saint Louis en l’Ile, built in the 17th century by François le Vau, the younger brother of renowned architect Louis Le Vau, who designed most of the elegant and innovative hôtels particuliers on the island, and did prominent work for King Louis XIV including at Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles. La rue Saint Louis en l’Ile remains the island’s lifeline, a lively street lined with specialty shops. Les commerces de proximité (convenience stores) have gradually disappeared to make room for souvenir or gift shops to lure tourists. Residents can still count on florist Patrick Allain, La fromagerie 38 Saint Louis, la boulangerie Martin or la boucherie Gardil .
Even in the age of mass tourism, it remains easy to enjoy two of Paris’s most delightful (and most affordable) pleasures on the island: strolling and watching the world go by from a terrace.
How long does it take to visit l’Ile Saint Louis? A couple of hours at least if you want to walk around the island, more if you shop and visit the boutiques, or if you decide to sample some ice-cream chez Berthillon. The store, popular with Parisians and tourists alike, has been around since the 1950s, and the all-natural flavors live up to the hype. the only drawback: long lines outside the main store. Travel tip: Most cafés, restaurants, and tea rooms on the island serve Berthillon products. It can be easier to just order them there. In the summer, you will not have a choice, in typical (and relaxed) French fashion, the iconic store closes for several weeks from the end of July for les Vacances Annuelles (annual vacation.) That’s right, during peak tourist season! (Don’t ask. This is France.)
Where to savor your Berthillon ice cream on l’Ile Saint Louis
The Seine river banks are ideal, whether you face nearby Ile de la Cité or the Right Bank. Walk down a few steps and find a spot by the water on one of the four quays circling the island. Even better, head to the charming (and often deserted square Barye) a small garden located on the eastern tip. For more iconic Parisian sights, head to the western tip, la place Louis Aragon, a photographer’s dream, and go down by the water to feel like you are standing on the bow of a ship. You will get treated to one of the best views of la Seine and Notre-Dame cathedral.
There are many fun boutiques on l’Ile Saint Louis. A favorite of mine is a papèterie named La Plume de Louise. You will find fun Paris-themed gifts there. I love their build-it-yourself paper Eiffel Towers that come in all patterns and sizes.
We are about to hop over to the other island, l’Ile de la Cité, by crossing the pedestrian-friendly pont des Deux Iles. It is time to wrap up this story, but first, let’s look back one last time at charming Ile Saint Louis. It seems so peaceful in the distance, from bustling quai aux Fleurs, that we would not be surprised to hear King Saint Louis has returned from the Crusades to prey at his favorite spot on the former Ile aux Vaches (Cows’ Island.)
More about Ile Saint Louis:
Take a 6-minute video tour with New York Habitat here.
Read the exciting Cara Black mystery “Murder on the Ile Saint Louis,” here.
Dream about Berthillon ice cream every time you look at this beautiful original fine art Paris photograph.
Closest Metro station on the Right bank: Pont Marie (line 7)
Closest Metro station on Ile de la Cité: Cité (line 4)