Culture + Style

How to Fall in Love With the Heart of Paris

Ile de la Cité is, literally, the heart of Paris and where the city was born. (Photo: Francois Roux / Alamy)

The idea of Paris started on Ile de la Cité, one of two natural islands in the Seine where the Celtic Parisii tribe first settled in pre-Roman times. Less than a mile long, Ile de la Cité has the essential old-school sights and hidden charms meant for a day of discovery. Cross Pont-Neuf to hang in one of the most walkable and distinctive Paris neighborhoods.

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Greet the Grand Dame of Paris

Notre-Dame Cathedral is positioned near the tip of the island. One of the most recognizable symbols of the city, gothic Notre-Dame was built between 1163 and 1334 and is considered a marvel of medieval engineering. Victor Hugo positioned the cathedral permanently in the world’s imagination with his 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and since then folks have flocked to peep its panoply of carved stone gargoyles and marvel at the quiet beauty of the church’s vaulted interior. Don’t miss the chance to pay reverence to the South Rose window, considered one of the world’s finest stained-glass works of art.

Take in Royal Beauty

A short walk from Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle is smaller in scale, but no less breathtaking. A royal chapel built in the 13th century to house holy relics, Sainte-Chapelle has exquisite stained-glass windows of its own, emitting an otherworldly quality of light inside. A hushed awe fills the small space, and if you happen to visit while the annual classical concert series is in swing between March and October, take advantage of the opportunity to hear unforgettable music.

Sainte-Chapelle is part of the Palais de la Cité complex which also includes the Palais de Justice, the imposing Beaux-Arts building that houses the French equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Also in the vicinity is the Conciergerie, the infamous medieval prison where Marie Antoinette was detained before her ultimate demise at the guillotine.

Soak Up Neighborhood Charm

Ile de la Cité isn’t all drama. The narrow streets of this medieval part of the city are lined with elegant homes and pleasant public gathering places such as Place Dauphine, a pretty square that’s a perfect resting spot for weary walkers to stop and eat. For something more substantial, there are nearby sidewalk cafes and bistros such as Au Bougnat on rue Chanoinesse, a classic Parisian corner bistro with daily chalkboard specials.