There are few cities I know which could be as inspiring as Paris; with its artistic associations, ornate architecture and thriving cafe culture, it’s a city which will not only draw you in, but get beneath your skin. It’s easy to see why so many writers have flocked here over the years hoping to find inspiration, only to end up calling the city home. To quote Hemingway,
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Hemingway is just one of many writers to have expressed his love for Paris. After the second World War, the city became known as the literary heart of Europe, home to many of the twentieth century’s most prominent literary figures. Tracing their footsteps, it’s easy to see why. The city is peppered with literary associations, and while there are many guided tours available throughout the year, it’s equally possible – and enjoyable – to create your own path through the sights.
Not sure where to begin? Head to the fashionable Left Bank, follow this guide, and who knows, maybe you too will fall in love with the Parisian way of life…
Place St. Michel
This bustling intersection marks the meeting point of the lively Saint. Michel and St. Andres des Arts boulevards and thus the beginning of the city’s Latin Quarter. A short walk from Notre Dame Cathedral, the square at Place St. Michel is a hotspot for activity, whether it’s a political demonstration in front of the iconic fountain or street entertainers drawing in the crowds. Writers often used to converge in the cafes overlooking the square, and to this day, it still makes an excellent spot for people watching.
A short walk up the Boulevard St Michel will take you into the heart of the city’s university district, home to the beautiful Pantheon. Originally built to house the relics of St. Genevieve, The Pantheon is a masterpiece of neoclassic design and dominates the skyline. Today, it functions as a mausoleum and museum, and is the final resting place for many of the city’s most distinguished writers, from Emile Zola to Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Muskateers. Walking through the crypts is certainly an eerie experience – particularly in the morning when the tour groups are yet to descend – yet there is also a peacefulness to the building, a solemnity which chills you to the bones yet which serves to remind you of the significance of its chambers.
The Polidor, as it is fondly known, is a historic restaurant popular with Parisian intellectuals and creative types. Situated at 41 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, it’s easy walking distance from the Pantheon so perfectly situated should you need a strong coffee to warm you up after a morning in the mausoleum. The restaurant is beautifully Parisian, its interior barely altered in the last hundred years. It was once a favourite haunt of Jack Kerouac, and is popular today amongst students at the nearby Sorbonne and College de France universities.
Jardin du Luxembourg
An easy stroll back onto Blvd. St Michel will take you to the Jardin du Luxembourg, made famous as the fictional meeting ground for Jean Valjean and Cosette in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. As you make your way through the park, taking in its immaculate gardens and characterful statues, you’ll find yourself walking a path frequently trod by Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein – an experience best enjoyed on a crisp, Spring morning before having breakfast at one of the many fantastic boulangeries that overlook the park.
Cimetière du Montparnasse
The cemeteries in Paris are fascinating places, where everyday citizens are buried alongside artists, politicians, philosophers and celebrities. Given the area’s creative associations, it’s hardly surprising that the cemetery at Montparnasse is now home to many of the city’s most distinguished literary figures, from Baudelaire to Samuel Beckett. If you’d like to pay your respects to particular writers, be sure to ask for a map when you first arrive – with over 300,000 plots, it’d be easy to get lost amongst the cenotaphs!
Gertrude Stein’s Apartment
An artist and a writer, Gertrude Stein was an important figure in the 1930s Parisian art scene. An expatriate, Stein was one of many Americans to begin calling Paris her home after the War, and is today heralded as one of the pioneers of modern literature. Stein was as much known for her social life as her work, and the salon she held at her apartment was a known meeting point for budding artists and writers alike – from Picasso and Matisse to James Joyce and Dumas. As you look up from the unassuming street, it’s hard not to wonder at the conversations which must have taken place within those walls, and the impact they would have on future generations of creative souls.
It’s impossible to imagine a literary tour of Paris without stopping at Saint-Germain-des-Pres. This lively square has long been known for its literary connections, particularly in the 1930s and 40s, when it was a popular meeting spot for writers and philosophers who would spend whole afternoons putting the world to rights in the bars and cafes that surround the church. Tourists often congregate around Le Deux Magots, a cafe famously frequented by Sartre, where you can sit beneath the floral canape and watch the world go by. Equally popular is nearby Cafe de Flore, once a favourite of Simone de Beauvoire. Today, the cafes are amongst the most visited in Paris, and though you’ll find your fair share of tourists, it’s also not surprising to find budding writers tucked away in a quiet corner. Cafe de Flore even offers its own writing award, the Prix de Flore!
After a vin (or two) at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, take a short walk down rue Bonaparte and then turn right down due des Beaux Arts, where you’ll find the luxurious L’Hotel. Once known as the dilapidated Hôtel d’Alsace, this is where Oscar Wilde spent his final night, famously commenting that he was “dying beyond [his] means”. L’Hotel may have been tarted up in recent years, but it hasn’t forgotten its literary connection; you can even take part in a guided tour, departing from the hotel and retracing the steps of its most famous resident!
Explore the Bouquinistes de Paris
The bouquinistes, or outdoor book sellers, are an important part of Parisian literary tradition, and have been operating since the sixteenth century. Follow the trail of second-hand book stalls along the banks of the Seine and let yourself be seduced by the endless variety of beautiful hardbacks and charismatic booksellers.
Shakespeare & Company
Finish back where we started, in the shadow of Notre Dame, with a visit to the famous Shakespeare & Company bookshop. The original store was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, and during the ’20s, it was a popular gathering place for writers such as Ezra Pound and Ford Maddox Ford. It was here that James Joyce wrote much of his work, and in fact, it was his friendship with Sylvia Beach that led to the publication of Ulysees. Beach’s store closed during the nazi occupation of France, but the name was later revived when George Whitman took ownership of a new site in the 1950s. Whitman once described the bookshop as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”, and over the years its back rooms have played host to many a budding writer – from Henry Miller to Richard Wright. Today, Shakespeare & Company is run by Whitman’s daughter – also named Sylvia – and it remains very much the literary heart of the city, with events held throughout the year.