If you had to choose the most classically Parisian neighborhood, this would be it. St-Germain-des-Prés has it all: genteel blocks lined with upscale art galleries, storied cafés, designer boutiques, atmospheric restaurants, and a fine selection of museums. Cast your eyes upward after dark and you may spy a frescoed ceiling in a tony apartment. These historic streets can get quite crowded, especially in summer, so mind your elbows and plunge in.
This quartier is named for the oldest church in Paris, St-Germain-des-Prés, and it's become a prized address for Parisians and expats alike. Despite its pristine facade, though, this wasn't always silver-spoon territory. Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir shared a cramped studio at 20 rue Visconti, and the young Picasso barely eked out an existence in a room on Rue de Seine. By the 1950s St-Germain bars bopped with jazz, and the likes of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir puffed away on Gauloises while discussing the meaninglessness of life at Café Flore. Nearby in the 7e arrondissement, the star attraction is the Musée d'Orsay, home to a world-class collection of Impressionist paintings in a converted Belle Époque railway station on the Seine. It's famous for having some of Paris's longest lines, so a visit to the Orsay should be planned with care. There are also several smaller museums worth a stop, including the impressive Musée Maillol, a private collection in an elegant mansion dedicated to the work of sculptor Aristide Maillol. The Musée Delacroix, in lovely Place Furstenberg, is home to a small collection of the Romantic master's works. Not far away is the stately Église St-Sulpice, where you can see two impressive Delacroix frescoes.
Paris is a city for walking, and St-Germain is one of the most enjoyable places to practice the art of the flâneur, or stroll. Make your way to the busy crossroads of Carrefour de Buci, dotted with cafés, flower markets, and shops. Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie is so named because it was the first home of the legendary Comédie Française; it cuts through to busy Place de l'Odéon and Rue St-André des Arts. Along the latter you can find the historic Cour du Commerce St-André (opposite No. 66), a charming cobbled passageway filled with cafés—including, halfway down on the left, Paris's oldest, Le Procope.
Make sure you save some energy for the exquisite Jardin du Luxembourg, a vintage French garden whose tree-lined paths have attracted fashionable fresh-air fans through the ages.