Lots of tourists swarm the main island in Paris, the Île de la Cité, home of Notre-Dame Cathedral. But far too many overlook its delightful little sister, the quaint Île Saint-Louis, just a few steps away in the 4th arrondissement.
This small island is like an oasis from the rush of the city. It's almost as if someone dropped a small French village into the centre of Paris, as it features everything you would want from your neighbourhood: markets, bakeries, fromageries and cafés.
While much of Paris has modernized over the years, the Île remains romantically frozen in the 17th century. It is remarkably the same as it was centuries ago.
The Île Saint-Louis is connected to the rest of Paris by four bridges to both banks of the river, and to the Île de la Cité by the Pont Saint-Louis.
It is full of seductive boutiques, is home to its own unique ice cream, features historic attractions, and boasts one of Paris' best hotels.
- Berthillon ice cream: The only true Berthillon can be found in the few small blocks that make up the Île Saint-Louis. This delicious ice cream has rich colors and equally intense flavors. It comes in myriad flavours, but the dark chocolate (chocolat noir) and mango (mangue) flavors are incredible. Summer or winter, this is a real Parisian delight. For true authenticity, try this treat at 29-31, rue St Louis-en-l'Île, 01 43 54 31 61, where it was started.
- Boutique shopping: The island's main street, rue de Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, features many specialty boutiques and shops. Although they can be both trendy and overpriced, this is still an ideal spot for discovering unique souvenirs. There is an upscale toy store, a shop devoted to hand-crafted puppets, a chocolate shop, a couple of gourmet shops, art galleries and more. Try Il Campiello at number 88 for all things Venetian, and L'Ile aux Images at number 21 for vintage photographs and lithographs of old Paris.
- Performers at Pont Saint-Louis: The small bridge that connects Île Saint-Louis with Île de la Cité is a popular spot for street performers, be it jazz bands, jugglers or mime artists. Relax and enjoy the show with your Berthillon ice cream.
- St-Louis-en-l'Île Church: Started in 1664 and completed in 1726, this atmospheric baroque church invites with a vast, stunning wooden door decorated with angels. Inside, it is surprisingly impressive and immense. 19 rue St-Louis-en-L’Île.
- A great meal: There is an amazingly high number of restaurants considering the tiny size of this island. There are several concentrated near Pont Saint-Louis, and all are good. While some of the restaurants are upscale and expensive, there are a couple lower-priced eateries here that are fabulous. And perhaps I have been lucky, but I've never had a bad meal on the island. Try Au Caveau de l’Isle, 36 St-Louis-en-L’Île for traditional cooking, or the bistro Mon Vieil Ami at 69 St-Louis-en-L’Île.
- A drink at Au Franc Pinot: This has been a popular watering hole since the 17th century, and remains so to this day. Pleasantly not a tourist trap, this bar oozes with the French laissez-faire attitude. It's located at 1, quai de Bourbon, just near the intersection with Pont Marie.
Île Saint Louis will appeal to:
- Those who like more of a small-town feel
- Those who appreciate historic neighborhoods and old towns
- Those who appreciate a fine meal at a sidewalk cafe
- Those who prefer to be in the center of it all without the crowds
- Tourists who prefer to live like locals,anyone who loves to shop but abhors chain stores.
As enchanting as the Ile Saint Louis is, no Paris neighborhood is an island unto itself. Fortunately, as the island is almost dead center in the city, many great attractions are within walking distance, including:
- Notre Dame Cathedral, which is a short walk away. This lovely cathedral, the setting for the classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo is a must-see. Be sure to walk up the seemingly-endless spiral stairs for a stunning view of the city, a close-up and personal peek at the famous gargoyles and a glimpse of the hunchback's famous church bell.
- The Seine River: It literally surrounds this island, and is one of Paris' best attractions (and, as a bonus, it's free to visit). You can hardly say you've done Paris unless you kiss your sweetheart while on one of the bridges across the Seine.
- Centre Pompidou: This modern art museum is worth a visit even if you never go inside. The unique and colorful Stravinsky Fountain is a perfect backdrop for family travel photos. The building's unique architecture, with its expanses of industrial tubing, is fascinating. Inside, there are many works of modern art, a great gift shop with wacky items, a huge book store with titles on nearly any aspect of art and a free ground-floor exhibit.
Where to sleep
Although there aren't many hotel choices on the island, it is hard to go wrong with the options available.
The four-star Hotel Jeu de Paume combines history, sport and fine lodging. A former royal tennis court, this lovely hotel features a glass elevator with a view on the indoor courtyard with its ceiling stories above it. The rooms are especially large for Paris.
The three-star Hotel des Deux Isles is quite charming and welcoming.
Take the Metro to the Pont Marie stop, and then cross the bridge. From Ile de la Cité, walk left of Notre Dame cathedral's facade and then head to the back side of the church. Follow the road to the bridge and then cross. And, of course, enjoy!