The Saint-Germain-des-Prés district is one of Paris' most fascinating and elegant neighborhoods. It's rich with centuries of history, architecture, superb restaurants, and boutiques—and famous artists and writers continue to haunt its café terraces. Yet tourists often confuse the neighborhood with the adjoining Latin Quarter, when in fact it has its own identity, history, and charm. Keep reading for the 10 best things to see and do in Saint-Germain, from café-lounging to chocolate-tasting and antique-browsing.
Have Coffee and People-Watch at a Historic Café
Café culture and Saint-Germain are practically synonymous. At legendary haunts such as Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, some of the most important ideas of the 20th century were born. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright—among other reputable writers and intellectuals—have spent hours sipping coffee, engaging in philosophical debate, and penning manuscripts at these Parisian cafés.
On a nice day, order a café-crème and take a seat at one of the neighborhood's many sidewalk terraces. If it's rainy and blustery out, huddle inside and watch the world go by from rain-streaked windows. Why not write a few lines yourself?
See a 6th-Century Medieval Abbey
While most tourists beeline to Notre-Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle, too many overlook the fascinating 6th-century Abbey situated right at the exit of the Saint-Germain metro stop.
Founded by Childebert I, the King of Paris in the 6th century, the mysterious Abbaye de Saint-Germain housed monastic orders for centuries. It was once one of the country's wealthiest Abbeys, receiving royal gifts and holding an enormous scriptorium containing beautiful, illuminated manuscripts. Starting in the 12th century, the Abbey was associated with scholars at the nearby Sorbonne University before it became a seminary.
Admire its late Romanesque and early Gothic structure, a mixed architectural style you'll rarely see elsewhere. If it's open, have a quick peek inside. It's hard not to feel as if you've stepped back to a long-lost medieval world.
Visit the Beathtaking Collections at the Musée d'Orsay
Every visitor to Paris should aim to visit the Musée d'Orsay, which rests on the banks of the Seine River. The stunning art collections here offer a remarkable, in-depth glimpse of how modern art came to be, starting with its classical influences.
The permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces is full of treasures from 1848 to 1914. Gaze at stunning original masterpieces from the likes of Claude Monet, Edgar Dégas, Vincent Van Gogh, Eugène Delacroix and countless others. See how early modern movements such as Impressionism evolved out of Neoclassical painting and Romanticism. Of course, the handsome, north-facing clock dating to the period when the Orsay was a train station is also worth a few photos.
Browse Antiques and Vintage Art Stores
Aside from café hopping, one favorite pastime in Saint-Germain is hunting for—or at the very least, admiring—antiques.
Just east of the Musée d'Orsay, close to the banks of the Seine, numerous high-quality antique dealers and vintage art shops open their doors to the general public. Some have been there for decades.
Taste gourmet chocolate and pastries
Have a sweet tooth? Saint-Germain is one of the best spots in the city for tasting delicious chocolates, pastries, and sweets. You can even take a gourmet pastry and chocolate tour to really hone in on the good stuff. If you prefer to explore and taste on your own, these are a few of our favorites:
Patrick Roger: Regularly called the Willy Wonka of France and the Rodin of chocolate sculpting, this iconoclastic French chocolate-maker has a shop filled with mouth-watering creations. Save some space for a rich chocolate—or three—after lunch.
Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse at Le Comptoir Saint-Benoît: Celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse makes some of the city's best chocolate and gourmet ice-cream. Head to the shop and try your best not to be tempted by the nutty pralines, smooth ganaches, and dark whole bars. We dare you.
The Pastry shops of Rue du Bac: This gourmet street is lined with some of the area's finest pâtisseries, where you can easily find beautifully presented and delicious mille-feuilles, lemon tarts, éclairs, and chocolate Opera cakes. Des Gâteaux et du Pain and La Pâtisseries des Rêves are two local favorites.
Wander the Boulevards and Shop in Chic Boutiques
These days, Saint-Germain has a reputation for being quite chic—but this doesn't mean you can't find something that fits your own budget.
True, major shopping arteries like Boulevard Saint-Germain, Rue des Saints-Pères, and Rue de Sèvres are lined with plenty of designer boutiques, including Christian Dior, Lancel, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Armani.
But on streets like Rue de Rennes—especially around Metro Saint-Sulpice—you'll find global chains and more accessible, mid-priced boutiques with goods of superb quality. Even high-end perfume and accessories shops such as Caron (pictured above) offer items within reach of those on a budget. No wonder Saint-Germain is included in our list of the best shopping districts of Paris.
See an Exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg, France's Oldest Public Museum
Situated at the western edge of the gorgeous Jardin du Luxembourg, the Musée du Luxembourg holds some of the city's most-anticipated annual exhibits. Housed in the former Luxembourg Palace, this is France's oldest public art museum, which first opened in 1750. There's no permanent collection here, but check what's on display during your visit to see whether any of the shows strike your curiosity.
Of course, on a sunny day you shouldn't miss out on a stroll through the tree-lined lanes, elaborate floral beds and statue-studded parterres at the Luxembourg Gardens. Inspired by Italian-style gardens from the Renaissance, this is simply one of the loveliest places for a stroll or picnic when weather permits.
Visit Paris's Oddest Old Curiosity Shop
This one isn't for everyone; it can't be denied that Deyrolle, a curiosity shop and cabinet that first opened its doors in 1831, is one of the capital's weirdest boutiques.
Interested in natural history? This is the place for you. Colorful beetles and butterflies in impossible hues and patterns can be viewed in old-fashioned glass cases. Corals, shark teeth, and a strange, surreal assembly of taxidermied animals are some of the other oddities here. You can be assured, though, that they are all historic and that no animals have been harmed recently for the profit of the store. The gift shop is a good place to shop for unusual and original gifts from Paris.
Explore One of the City's Grandest Department Stores
If you've visited Paris in the past, you may have spent some time wandering through swarms of crowds at Galeries Lafayette, the enormous, late-19th century department store that's almost always packed with tourists.
Nestled in the much-quieter southern end of Saint-Germain, Le Bon Marché has just as much history and selection as Galeries Lafayette—but with generally thinner crowds. This department store seemingly has it all: endless collections of men's and women's fashion, home decor, art supplies, luggage, and so on.
This is also a favorite destination for foodies and gourmets, thanks to the adjoining food hall called La Grande Epicerie. It's an excellent place to shop gifts and goodies to take back home, and you can also stock up on superb bread, pastries, cheeses, and fruit for an indulgent picnic nearby.
Visit One of the City's Finest Sculpture Collections
While Musée Maillol is little-known to many tourists, its collection of works from French sculptor and painter Aristide Maillol is something we highly recommend if you're interested in the arts. While Maillol is best-known for his elaborate, large-scale sculptures clustered in regal fashion outside the Musée du Louvre, this is a chance to get to know some of his quieter masterpieces and less-appreciated oeuvres. In addition to sculptures and paintings, the collection features drawings, tapestries and works in terra-cotta.
The museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibits; in the past, it has showcased the work of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francis Bacon.
Travel Tip: If you want to make a whole afternoon of sculpture-gazing, the Musée Rodin is also nearby and boasts some genuine masterpieces in the medium. On a sunny day, the outdoor sculpture garden is about as idyllic as you can get.