There’s nothing quite like going on one of the self guided walking tours Paris has to offer. Paris is a city which is steeped in history – so much so, that when the Nazis invaded France during World War II, the Parisians so desired to protect the priceless historical treasures that it contains, that the government evacuated to another location and left Paris to the Germans on condition that they didn’t destroy anything.
So here’s a self guided walking tour that will take you through all the historic areas of the Latin quarter – namely, Île de la Cité and Le Marais.
Seeing Paris on foot is an experience in itself. You get to take in the sights, the smells and sounds in a way that you could never do on a bus. So make sure that you have some good quality walking shoes and get ready for a memorable experience.
You may be thinking that you’d like to purchase coffee or snack while en route. If this is your intention, then you should bear in mind that many of these cafes and restaurants have a minimum card spend, so if you’re not in the mood for a lot of food then you should take some cash with you.
Paris on foot can be enjoyed pretty much any time of year, but you may wish to consider what they call the “shoulder seasons” – i.e. the period between the high and low tourist seasons. During this time there are not so many tourists but the weather is still warmer than during winter. So if you decided on Springtime for example, then you’ll love some of the best springtime blossoms that the city is famous for.
So let’s begin our suggested self guided walking tour through old Paris.
1. The Paris Pantheon
The Paris Panthéon sits in the Latin Quarter (so called because in the middle ages students of the nearby Sorbonne University were taught in, and almost exclusively conversed in Latin). The Paris Panthéon started life as a church built to honour Saint Genevieve (patron saint of Paris).
Today, the Panthéon is a mausoleum, housing the remains of some of France’s greatest writers, scientists and engineers. Indeed, one of the highest honours a French citizen can achieve post-mortem is to be interred in the Panthéon.
2. The Sorbonne University
The Sorbonne University is one of the oldest in the World and lies in the very heart of the Latin Quarter. Access to the central courtyard (pictured below) is for students only. However, if you ask nicely, you may be allowed in to take photos!
The university was founded as early as 1150 and is considered one of the oldest universities in Europe, if not the World. Second, only to the University of Bologna in Italy, it was officially recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1215. Nearby, you’ll find former accommodation for some church members of the student body in the form of Collège des Bernardins.
3. The Bookshop of Shakespeare
The bookshop of Shakespeare and Company is easily the most famous Anglophone bookstore in the city. However, little known is that this is actually the second Shakespeare and Company to have existed in Paris. The first Shakespeare and Co. was opened in 1919. Sadly it was closed during the German occupation of Paris and never reopened.
The current bookstore was opened in 1951 as an ode to the former store, and as a place for writers and book lovers to congregate. Today, you can wander the shelves, and imagine what it must have been like decades ago. There’s even a quiet library upstairs where you can sit and read. Nearby, you’ll find Square René Viviani, a beautiful and secluded spot built on a former cemetery where there’s also the oldest tree in Paris to be seen.
4. The Notre Dame Cathedral
Located in the very middle of the Seine, on Île de la Cité sits what may well be the most famous cathedral in the world. A walk inside the cathedral itself is free, and there are free guided tours in various languages throughout the day.
If you see a queue on the Parvis de Notre Dame to visit the cathedral, don’t worry too much… it often takes no longer twenty minutes wait to enter the cathedral. While you’re waiting to enter Notre Dame, keep your eyes peeled for Paris Point Zero, the marker from which all points in France are measured.
On the Parvis de Notre Dame, set into the cobbled floor, you’ll find Paris Point Zero. Often overlooked by tourists and locals alike, few of whom know it’s there, this is the very middle point of Paris. It is from here that all roads in Paris, and indeed France, are measured. Urban myth suggests that if you leave a coin here, you’ll be granted good luck.
5. The Rue Chanoinesse
A few minutes walk from the Parvis de Notre Dame, you’ll find an ancient road. This is Rue Chanoinesse. Once home to an order of Monks, today it is like stepping right back into the heart of medieval Paris. Much of the road escaped the large renovations undertaken by Haussmann in the 19th-century (in part thanks to the aforementioned Brothers).
Right next to Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, you’ll find a large maroon door. Behind it lies the gravestone courtyard of Paris. The café itself is one of the best in the city. Decorated with nativity sets in the winter months, it’s covered in wisteria come springtime.
6. Sainte Chapelle
Home to some of the most impressive medieval stained glass still in existence, Sainte Chapelle is a must-see for any history lovers of the city. Located next door to the courts of Justice, you’ll find that Sainte Chapelle is actually two churches. One was originally built for the King and his Courtiers, while the other was built for his servants. Both are rather impressive and well worth a visit! If you want to catch the shortest queues, then it’s best to visit the churches earlier in the day.
7. The Conciergerie
Once a Merovingian Palace, during the French Revolution, the Conciergerie was used as a prison. It even once held Marie Antoinette (yes, the French Royal who may or may not have said ‘let them eat cake’), before her execution. Today you can visit and see the cell where Marie Antoinette once ate, slept and lived. The Conciergerie also contains the largest Gothic Hall in Europe.
Of all places on this Old Paris Walking Tour, this may well be the most hidden. As you head out of the Conciergerie and turn left, make sure to look up! For, it’s here you’ll find the Oldest Clock in Paris. You may notice that it’s still pretty shiny, and glows golden in the sunlight. Well, you’re not wrong- the clock was extensively renovated in 2012!
8. The Tower of Saint-Jacques
All that remains of a once impressive church is its tower. High above the cafés and shops that surround the square, you’ll find the tall tower of Saint-Jacques. In the summer months, it’s possible to book guided tours up the tower.
9. The Town Hall
The town hall of Paris sits impressive and proud in the middle of Le Marais. Right beside the Seine, the square in front is often filled with people going about their daily lives, as well as music performances etc. Although sadly the interior of the town hall is closed to the public, the neo-renaissance architecture is lovely to look at. Just outside the Hôtel de Ville, you’ll find one of the prettiest carousels in Paris.
10. BHV Le Marais
One of the most famous department stores in the city is that of BHV Le Marais. This department store is located not far from Hôtel de Ville (on the very same square) and is well worth a peek inside… If only to say you’ve been! Here, you can find international designers, as well as local French brands.
11. The Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis
The Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis was commissioned by Louis XIII himself. Constructed in 1641, the king even went so far as to lay the first stone for the Jesuit church. Apart from its stunning architecture, throughout the years, it has undergone major changes in function.
From its roots as a religious place of worship throughout the 17th Century, during the French revolution, it was utilized by the Cult of Reason, an atheist organization. When the organization was banned in 1803, the church was returned to its Catholic origins.
12. Place des Vosges
There is no better place to finish an Old Paris Walking Tour than in Place des Vosges. Filled with small boutiques, quirky eateries and plenty more, it’s the oldest planned square in Paris. Once home to notable residents such as Cardinal Richelieu (you know, that guy from the Three Musketeers) and Victor Hugo before he was sent into exile, today it’s where Parisians hang out to see their friends and enjoy their lunch.