One of the most beautiful places in Paris has to be Ile de la Cité. It is one of two natural islands on the Seine, in the heart of Paris and the oldest part of the city.
This is the historical center of Paris, with the river Seine flowing all around (île means “island” in French). This strategic location has meant that there has been a settlement here on its banks for centuries. Today, Ile de la Cité is part of the 1st and 4th arrondissements of Paris.
The island is home to many historical places, including the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, the Sainte-Chapelle (a royal chapel), and the Conciergerie, a former royal palace that now houses a law court.
So let’s explore its history, and see what there is to see and do on Ile de la Cité, shall we? Allons-y!
Facts and History
The French word cité means “city”, which explains why the monuments are all next to each other. A Gallic settlement called Lutetia, may have existed on the island since at least the 3rd century BC. In 53 BC, Julius Caesar and the Romans would conquer and settle in the area, much to the chagrin of the local Gallic Parisii tribes.
When King Clovis made Paris his capital in the 6th century, much of the surrounding area was countryside. Buildings were concentrated together on Ile de la Cité, and strong defenses were required here to keep out invaders.
Throughout much of the Middle ages, the island was filled with narrow streets of buildings built right on top of each other. With no running water or electricity, the sanitary conditions left much to be desired.
Most of Ile de la Cité’s old medieval buildings were swept away during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, who along with his architect Baron Haussmann, built much of Paris’s 19th century architecture that you see today.
Monuments and Attractions
1. Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
Standing majestically on the banks of the River Seine, Notre Dame de Paris has been a focal point of Parisian life for centuries. The Cathedral is located on an island in the center of Paris, called Ile de la Cité, chosen for its strategic position and defensive location.
The Roman temple was eventually replaced by a Church to St. Etienne. Construction of the current cathedral dedicated to Mother Mary began in 1163 AD and the high altar was consecrated on 19 May 1182.
Today it is among the most visible and celebrated landmarks of Paris. However it suffered a significant fire in 2019 and is currently under reconstruction.
It is still a beauty however, even with a few scars. You can book a guided tour around the area here.
Officially known as the Palais de la Cité, this historic castle fortress today attracts millions of visitors from around the world. It earned the nickname of the Conciergerie because it is here that a new royal position was created in the 12th century within the palace.
One of the oldest buildings in Paris, this was once a royal residence and the main power base of the French Monarchs in Paris. It would eventually become a prison.
It is here where Queen Marie-Antoinette was held in prison, put on trial, and found guilty. After a two-day show trial, she was found guilty on all charges and condemned to death.
The tiny prison cells of the Conciegerie were a far cry from the palaces the Queen was used to. You can book a tour of the Conciegerie here.
3. Sainte Chapelle
It is a gothic royal chapel constructed in 1248 as a home to the Crown of Thorns and is located within the medieval Palais de la Cité (Conciergerie). Because the Palais de la Cité is still a working courthouse, visitors must pass through airport-style security in order to get to Sainte Chapelle.
It is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the royal palace. It was built by Saint King Louis IX, one of the most famous saints in France. It was intended to house the Crown of thorns and other relics that the King had brought back from Constantinople.
The Crown of Thorns was moved to Notre Dame de Paris during the French Revolution. It currently resides in a safe in Paris’s Louvre museum for security purposes.
However Sainte Chapelle still has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. It remains one of the most famous churches in France. You can purchase your skip-the-line tickets here.
4. Mémorial des martyrs de la Déportation
Behind the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris on the tip of Ile de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement, is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation dedicated to the victims of the Third Reich.
It is a museum built underground with high walls and an iron gate to show the descent into darkness of humankind.
The Memorial is also dedicated to the men, women and children deported from France to concentration camps between 1940 and 1944 who did not return. Entrance to this hauntingly beautiful memorial and museum is free.
5. Marché aux Fleurs et aux Oiseaux
Just steps from the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Conciergerie, the Marché aux Fleurs is a beautiful flower market. French people love to give flowers, so the market is quite popular. It opened in 1830 and has both outdoor stalls as well as indoor stalls housed in cast iron pavilion.
Queen Elizabeth II is renowned have it on her list of favorite things to do in Paris, and so the market was renamed after her on her last visit to France. Every Sunday, this market transforms into a Bird Market as well, hence the name “oiseaux” which means birds.
6. Pont Neuf
Just steps away from Place Dauphine is the oldest bridge in Paris. The Pont Neuf was constructed in 1607, and as you would have it, translates as “New Bridge”.
Head to Pont Neuf bridge to catch a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, along with expansive views on either side of the Seine.
7. Place Dauphine
A quiet little jewel on the tip of Ile de la Cité in the center of Paris, it is easy to visit Paris several times and still miss out. Spy on the locals playing pétanque, or if you are brave enough, ask if you can join.
The game is a mix of lawn bowling and horseshoes. It originated with the ancient Romans in the South near Marseille, before becoming popular all over France.
8. Square du Vert Galant
A historic and picturesque spot right in the heart of the city has to be the grassy area near Pont Neuf on the Seine River, called Square du Vert Galant.
It may be a charming spot these days, but it has a rather dark history. It used to be a separate island called Île aux Juifs, Paris (literally “Island of the Jews or Jewish Island”). The island was named for the number of persecutions of Jews that took place here during the Middle Ages.
It was on this island that Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and other Templar leaders were burnt to death for heresy on 18 March 1314 by French King Philip de Bel. The island was later renamed Île des Templiers.
However, the island was joined to the Île de la Cité at the same time when the Pont Neuf bridge was built across it.
Today there is a small triangular park here that is picnic spot in Paris for young people and local residents. Watch the lovers on the Pont des Arts in front of you, and the boats sailing by, all around the island.
Restaurants and bars
There are several traditional French restaurants on the island catering to tourists and those working in the area. Because the Prefecture de Police and law courts are located on the island, many of the restaurants are quite busy at lunchtime and may be quieter in the evening. Some recommended restaurants are:
- Au Bougnat – Old world style restaurant with traditional french fare at 26 Rue Chanoinesse, 75004 Paris
- Le Quasimodo Notre Dame – Relaxed French brasserie at 11 Rue d’Arcole, 75004 Paris
- Brasserie Les Deux Palais – Brasserie and terrasse dating back to the 19th century at 3 Bd du Palais, 75004 Paris
If you are looking for a drink (or two), there are also several bars in the area including:
- Taverne Henri IV – wine bar at 13 Place du Pont Neuf, 75001 Paris
- Fluctuat – bar with charcuterie planches at 74 Quai des Orfèvres, 75001 Paris
- Pub Saint Michel – pub located just across Ile de la Cité at 19 Quai Saint-Michel, 75005 Paris
If you would like to stay in the heart of Paris, there are several wonderful hotels around Ile de la Cité, but none actually on the island. Located in the Latin Quarter, just footsteps from the Ile de la Cité, the following hotels will allow for easy access to the island:
- €€€ – Hotel Le Notre Dame Saint Michel
- €€€€ – Residence Henri IV
- €€€€€ – Hôtel D’Aubusson (with swimming pool)
Now, I should mention that if you are wandering around Ile de la Cité looking for Bertillon’s ice cream, you may find the ice cream being served at a couple of the small brasseries around the Conciergerie. However, the actual ice cream shop is on Ile Saint Louis, a few 100 yards away 😉
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about what to do in Paris. A bientôt!