If it is possible for anything in Paris to scream cheap and tacky it can probably be found in the Latin Quarter. But mixed in amidst the tasteless souvenir shops and the cheap restaurants, there are a few gems that are really worth looking for.
What to Avoid
If you have ever visited Paris, you will have undoubtedly spent some time in the Latin Quarter. Located on the left bank of Paris in the 5th and 6th arrondissements, it is only a few steps across the Petit-Pont Cardinal Lustiger from Notre Dame. Historically, it was called the Latin Quarter because of the numerous scholastic establishments, including the Sorbonne, where Latin was spoken during the medieval period. Now, it remains a hotspot for students but it has also become a bit of a tourist trap.
The souvenir shops are flooded with ashtrays and shot glasses stamped with faux Parisian designs and cheap, colourful berets which no one in fact wears. On top of this, I have never been in a place inside or outside of France where there are so many mediocre French restaurants crammed into one space. I am surprised that the French, who pride themselves on their food, even allow it. Here’s a hint – if the restaurant is advertising a set menu priced so low that it seems too good to be true and the restaurateur is hounding you to come try the escargot, do not sit down. Do not even be tempted.
That being said, there are a few things in the Latin Quarter that should not be missed …
Where to Go: English Bookstores
Shakespeare & Company
You may have already heard of the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore. It is famous in literary circles for serving as a hotspot in the twenties for the likes of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. It was started by Silvia Beach almost one hundred years ago but was unfortunately closed during the Nazi occupation. A second bookstore was opened in 1951 and continues to attract writers and readers from all over the world.
There are two linked shops, the antiquarian shop dealing in rare books (you will find several first and limited editions there) and the main shop, which carries everything you could wish for in a modern bookstore. Upstairs there are a series of reading rooms filled with antique books where around 30,000 ‘tumbleweeds’ have temporarily made their home over the years. These tumbleweeds were people who lived in the bookstore in exchange for working in the store and spent their days reading and writing. In fact, Shakespeare & Company still accepts tumbleweeds today! But I’d settle for just a browse in the bookstore and a brief stop in their coffee shop next door!
San Francisco Book Company
My other favourite English bookstore is a little bit harder to find. The San Francisco Book Company is only around 20 years old so it lacks the interesting history that draws so many people to Shakespeare & Company, but their loss is my gain. It is a little further off the beaten tourist track and thus is rarely overcrowded. It sells used books and is full of unusual as well as renowned titles. There are stacks of books everywhere, so watch your step! For such a tiny store, you could spend hours searching through their books. Located on the Rue Monsieur le Prince, its charming red storefront is hard to miss.
Where to Go: Food & Drink
Whether you are just looking for a coffee and a small bite to eat or you are in search of a full three-course meal, the Latin Quarter has you covered – you just have to know where to go.
Shakespeare & Company Café
As I already mentioned, next to Shakespeare & Company, there is a cute little café owned by the bookstore. If you are a bit tired of French patisseries and boulangeries, it is the perfect cure. They have delicious cakes and muffins as well as soups and sandwiches and their coffee is excellent. Its often crowded but they have outdoor and indoor seating, and if you are lucky enough to grab a seat, it is the perfect spot to relax, read and observe the world. I once went in to escape a downpour and ended up sitting at the window for two hours!
Probably one of my most frequently visited spots was Crêperie Genia. It was less than ten minutes from my school so I frequently indulged in a cheese crêpe for lunch. The crêpes are delicious and loaded with fillings. There is almost always a line but the wait is worth it – do not be tempted by the more expensive and less appealing crêperie across the street. They have indoor seating but I advise you to grab a crêpe to go and make your way to the Luxembourg Gardens or walk across the Seine to Notre Dame. And since they do not close until 11pm, it is the perfect place to grab a treat and see the city lights.
Le Centre du Monde
Finally, if a sit down meal is what you’re after, stop by Le Centre du Monde. It is one of the better restaurants the Latin Quarter has to offer and it is perfect if you are trying to avoid Michelin Star prices. The food is traditional French and the waiters are very friendly – a rarity in Paris. Generally, the wait for a table at dinnertime can be at least a half an hour so I would recommend reserving a table or going for a large lunch instead.
Photography by Savannah Hayes with Molly Monroe
Top: The Seine Left Bank
Middle: Shakespeare & Company
Bottom: Crêperie Genia