Paris: Places to Explore

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The Islands

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At the heart of Paris, linked to the banks of the Seine by a series of bridges, are two small islands: Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cité. They're the perfect places to begin a visit to Paris, with picture-perfect views all around. The Ile de la Cité is anchored by mighty Notre-Dame; farther east lies the exclusive Ile St-Louis, dotted with charming hotels, cozy restaurants, and small shops.

At the western tip of Ile de la Cité is regal Place Dauphine, one of Paris's oldest squares. The impressive Palais de Justice (courthouse) sits between Sainte-Chapelle, the exquisite medieval chapel of saintly King Louis IX, and the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie-Antoinette and other bluebloods awaited their slice of history at the guillotine.

The Gothic powerhouse that is Notre-Dame originally loomed over a medieval huddle of buildings that were later ordered razed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the 19th-century urban planner who transformed Paris into the city we see today. In front of the cathedral is now the Place du Parvis, also known as kilomètre zéro, the point from which all roads in France are measured. On the north side of the square is the Hôtel-Dieu (roughly translated as "general hospital"), immortalized by Balzac as the squalid last stop for the city's most unfortunate, but which today houses a modern hospital. Just behind the cathedral lies rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame, which cuts through the Ancien Cloître Quartier, on whose narrow streets you can imagine the medieval quarter as it once was, densely packed and teeming with activity. At 9–11 quai aux Fleurs, a plaque commemorates the abode that was the setting of the tragic, 12th-century love affair between the philosopher Peter Abélard and his young conquest, Héloïse.

At the farthest eastern tip of Ile de la Cité is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, all but hidden in a pocket-size park. A set of stairs leads down to the impressive and moving memorial to the more than 200,000 French citizens who died in Nazi concentration camps.

The nearby Pont St-Louis, which seems to be always occupied by an accordion player, leads to the Ile St-Louis, one of the city's best places to wander. There are no cultural hot spots, just a few streets that may make you think you've stumbled into a village, albeit an unusually tony one. Small hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops selling everything from cheese to pâté to silk scarves line the main drag, Rue St-Louis-en-L'Ile. There were once two islands here, the Ile Notre-Dame and the Ile aux Vaches ("Cow Island," a former grazing pasture), both owned by the Church. Speculators bought the islands, joined them, and sold the plots to builders who created what is today some of the city's most elegant and expensive real estate. Baroque architect Louis Le Vau (who later worked on Versailles) designed fabulous private homes for aristocrats, including the majestic mansions Hôtel Lambert and the Hôtel de Lauzun on the lovely quai d'Anjou.

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