islands of Paris

Ile Saint Louis: the islands of Paris (part 1)

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. 

Ile Saint Louis
Ile de la Cité from le quai d’Orléans (Ile Saint Louis)

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.

Ile Saint Louis
Paris is a village

Ile Saint Louis

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.

Ile Saint Louis

Ile Saint Louis

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 VersaillesLa 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.

Ile Saint Louis

Ile Saint Louis

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.)

Ile Saint Louis
You have arrived!
Ile Saint Louis
Order the ice cream “à emporter” (to go) and find a spot with a view

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.

Ile Saint Louis
Place Louis Aragon
Ile Saint Louis
Not all lunch breaks are created equal

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.

Ile Saint Louis

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.)

A bientôt.

Ile Saint Louis

 

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.

Directions:

Closest Metro station on the Right bank: Pont Marie (line 7)

Closest Metro station on Ile de la Cité: Cité (line 4)

 

 

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

20 Comments

  • With that photo of the Berthillon glace sitting on the quay of Ile Saint Louis, I am going to have to report you to the European Court of Human Rights (Strasbourg) for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on your readers. Well, this reader, who is at a totally frustrating, tortuous 15,000 km away.

    Actually I should ‘fess up that I rarely went to Berthillon because I hate queues. If I had a visitor to Paris with me, I would get them to go stand in the line. (They could probably report me to the ECHR! but then they did get to eat the icecream.)

    I lived on rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile for about 6 years and was so sad to leave as it was a fantastic location. Back then the rent was extremely reasonable though it was only a tiny studio and a fifth floor walk up! And how I wish I had that little studio as my pied-à-terre. The entrance to my apartment building, #41, is shared with the restaurant Le Sergent Recruteur. Back then it was a bit of a tourist dive though the one on the other side of the doorway (Nos Ancestres les Gauls) was even worse, being one of those all-you-eat-and-drink places that appealed to the ‘wrong’ type of British and German tourists who were loud and drunk on the street when they were kicked out at 1am closing. Anyway I mention Le Sergent Recruteur because I read about it recently and how new owners gave it a makeover in 2012 and now it has one Michelin star!

    The interesting history of the island is that it was almost entirely developed in the 17th century, so all of it predates Haussmann, and is an interesting comparison. Of course that is true for parts of the Marais but the island is pretty pure in this regard. In fact the creation of the island was a early property developer’s successful project to create an upmarket housing estate! Here is an extract from Joan DeJean’s book How Paris Became Paris.

    The planners of the second neighborhood that developed in the 1630s took advantage of lessons learned from both the Pont Neuf and the Place Royale [future Place de Voges]. They chose a site in the middle of the Seine, thus giving residents highly desirable access to the river views and the urban panorama that the New Bridge had first made essential to the Parisian experience. By building on virgin territory, they were able to showcase residential architecture on a scale not possible in an area with preexisting construction such as the Marais. This second neighborhood thus provided a rare occasion to try out innovative ideas in urban planning and residential architecture. And the experiment paid off: the area, a complete neighborhood planned and built from scratch, played a key role in the transformation of Paris into the most beautiful city in the world.
    The Ile Saint-Louis that visitors see today is a rare, almost perfectly preserved parcel of the urban past, an enclave that-nearly four centuries after its creation-remains so close to its original incarnation that it could almost have spent those centuries in a time capsule. Its streets are still laid out as they were at the start; most of the residences are original, and they retain their original appearance.

    I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know the significance of the name of the bridge I walked across to the mainland every day (to the Metro line 7, station Pont Marie).

    The islets were also isolated, with no connection between them or to the mainland. Thus no large-scale activity could have taken place on them; sheep to be grazed, for example, had to be ferried over by boat. Then along came Christophe Marie, engineer extraordinaire and among the developers who found his calling as a result of the Bourbon monarchs’ expansive vision for Paris. …
    In late 1609, Marie proposed yet another bridge, also for free, and this time in the material of the future: stone. The Place Royale [Pl de Voges] was then still under construction; the bridge that Marie proposed was intended both to help connect the new square to the other bank of the Seine and to facilitate the flow of traffic through the city at large. His second bridge still stands and still bears the name of its developer: the Pont Marie.
    This bridge became the springboard for one of Henri IV’s most ambitious projects for Paris. The king bought those two undeveloped islets and gave them to Marie, to whom he assigned a far more ambitious undertaking. He was to create an unprecedented kind of island, a modern island that would be a model of urban planning and add a highly desirable neighborhood to the city’s historic center.

    The thing is that at that time most of Paris was a mix, if not a shambles, of different styles and many residences were timber. This development showcased how a more uniform, quality all-stone construction could make Paris fit for a king’s capital:

    By 1645 three visionary urban works–the Pont Neuf, the Place Royale, and the Ile Notre-Dame [Ile Saint-Louis]–had become the foundation for Paris’ new image, as a city remarkable nor only for its size but for its exciting and innovative constructions.

    • Bonjour Michael. So you lived on the island for six years? I am jealous. It’s always been one of my favorite locations in Paris, and during my years as a resident, I often pictured myself working somewhere else downtown, only to return to my haven in the middle of the Seine river in the evening. I remember the restaurant you mentioned, “Nos Ancêtres les Gaulois” very well. I never had dinner there, but it did look… “intéressant” from the outside, as the French say. 😉 Thank you, as always, for a very thorough and informative comment.

      • Yes, precisely. It was a terrific place to come home to. Every day I would walk across Pont Marie and never tire of that wondrous panorama.

        Funny, that I am just watching (late night) the movie Taken (with Liam Neeson) again, because I am a sucker for movies set in Paris. It’s a bit of mindless diversion (though ultraviolent in the modern way) but one would have to say that Luc Besson does know how to drive a narrative and suck a viewer in. Anyway I just noticed that they showed, on a computer screen, the address of the corrupt cop “Patrice Saint-Clair: 28 rue St Louis en l’Ile”! Fictional of course … but one wonders if it isn’t some in-joke of Besson’s?
        Separately I also read that Jodie Foster lived there for some time (you know she is fluent in French, attended the French Lycee in Los Angeles).

        I still fantasize of owning an apartment there, but I’d have to write a best-seller or win the lottery (which is difficult since I don’t buy tickets!). Even though I was a post-doc already by then, I was living the student life still, so didn’t eat at the islands restaurants, except occasionally a café or a late-night crepe. However one time I gave my studio-apartment to Australian friends of mine for a month (while I stayed elsewhere in Paris) and they wanted to try eating their way thru a lot of the island’s restos and they insisted I accompany them when I was free.

        Oh, just remembered the fabulous patissier/boulangerie Les Panetons at 47 rue Saint Louis en l’ile. You can get good croissants at lots of boulangeries but theirs were really special so I usually treated myself on Sat or Sunday morning. I see it has been replaced by Amorino which sells gelato and possibly Berthillon icecream? (The main shop for Les Panetons is in rue Mouffetarde; still there I believe.)

        I have a framed poster that is a montage of about 25 restaurant and shop fronts on the island, including one that shows the entrance to my apartment building. I believe it is from Ulysees the travel bookshop that is roughly opposite Berthillon, and still operating.

        Well, I have just made myself sick with longing …

  • Truly a wonderful place. I was fortunate enough to start at 69 rue de Saint Louis en l’ille. Generally had breakfast at Cafe St Regis. In November the cafe was decorated with straw bales, the wait staff in checked shirts and bandannas…a very fun rural vibe on a very urban island. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Merci beaucoup for this interesting and timely post since Marita and are leaving Sep 22 and we are planning to spend some time on Ile Saint Louis. I have fond memories from previous trips and looking forward to visiting again. La Plume de Louise and ice cream are must visits!

  • Even though I have devoured stories and information about Paris for decades, you taught me several new things! For one, I didn’t know about the dueling grounds. With
    I had friends who had an apartment on rue des Deux Ponts. It was lovely, and what a location! Sadly they moved, to rural Arizona. Can you imagine the culture shock?

    • Bonjour Catherine (so thrilled I finally know your real name, at long last!) Very happy you enjoyed my story and learned a few things too. I always do when I research future blogposts, which is why I keep writing. As for your friend who moved from la rue des Deux Ponts to Arizona, I can’t begin to imagine what that must have felt like indeed! 🙂 A bientôt!

  • This was my and my husbands most favorite place when we went to Paris two years ago in September, we fell in love with this lovely little island,so much so we went back three times during the course of our vacation!!
    We ate the most wonderful food and enjoyed the absolute beauty that this little gem is !!!!
    On our next return we plan on staying there !!!!

  • Hi V. Great blog. As you know, I don’t know Paris very well. BUT, that’s why I come here to learn the cool stuff about Paris! I’m always happy to learn more about this great city. Love the history. I love old Catholic Churches in France…the smell, history, and the art…I can sit in them for hours and day dream. 🙋🏼💕

    • Merci Sandy. Since I spent my two-week vacation in Paris in April, I have been writing mostly about the French capital lately, but I am hoping to do some traveling in the fall to get new material to cover the rest of la Belle France as well. Who knows, maybe I will even make it to that lovely area you know so well in southern France? 😉

  • I didn’t know I was a …whatsit. I’ve been living on the Ile almost 5 years. A big change from New York, the 19th and 15th! Hmmm… the beautiful church, l’Eglise de Saint Louis en l’Ile, was built by Louis le Vau’s brother François. Also Metro Sully-Morland, line 7 is a good way to get Here. When you mentioned there are not many landmarks or monuments I beg to differ. One of Paris’ finest intact examples of 17th century architecture is Hôtel de Lauzun with murals by .Versailles artist, Charles le Brun. Its definitely a ‘bucket’ experience. http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com/2018/05/visite-guidee-hotel-lauzun-ile-st-louis.html There is a Chopin museum though I’ve yet to enter. Examples of 17th c architecture along both quais are of landmark quality – Hotel Lambert, hôtel de Chenizot etc. Also of note, famous residents like Baudelaire, Marie Curie, President Pompidou, Daumier, Helena Rubenstein. In fact your post inspired me to make August’s Paris map about the residents on the Ile. Mille merci! Sometimes living here feels like living in France profond. I miss the hubbub of vrai Paris. Thanks for an informative read.

    • Bonjour Carol! From New York, to the the 19th, the 15th and now l’Ile Saint Louis: You have certainly gone up in the Parisian real estate world (at least by Parisian standards, since many, like my très Parisienne mother-in-law, still consider l’Ile Saint Louis their dream place to live.) I am glad you corrected the case of mistaken identity about l’Eglise de Saint Louis en l’Ile. It must have been bad enough for François le Vau to live in the shadow of his illustrious brother, Louis. He did not need a French Girl from Seattle to assign credit for one of his two largest accomplishments to said older brother. Un Le Vau peut en cacher un autre… Thank you, as well, for listing all the examples of classical 17th century architecture (and famous residents) on Ile Saint Louis. This complements my article perfectly and will give visitors a few local landmarks to look for when they arrive on the island, even if, as I mentioned, many people go there just to stroll, sit by the river, or to escape from the hustle and bustle on Ile de la Cité and the Right Bank. L’Ile Saint Louis, unlike so many neighborhoods in Paris, was never about ticking things off a “bucket list,” which is why locals and visitors love spending time there. But you know this better than anyone else, as an adopted Ludovicienne living away from “the hubbub of le vrai Paris.” As someone who never graduated past drawing stick figures, I can’t wait to see your illustrations of the island’s famous residents. Bon été à Paris!

  • The Ile’s famous folk sketch is up on Instagram and you were ‘tagged’ 😄
    http://www.instagram.com/parisbreakfast
    I know about the le Vau bros because my landlord queried me as part of getting my 6th floor double chambre de bonne (in a Louis le Vau building). Historical knowledge is important in apartment hunting in France. Bank statements were not required (!). Often it feels like eating a Berthillon ice cream, especially on the weekends, is the main reason people show up here. I was sent by a French friend the first time for a glace. FYI a well-kept secret: Berthillon makes fabulous, pas cher pastries in the back past the ice cream line. Their chocolate brownie is celestial.

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