The iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. (Photo: Russ Bishop / Alamy)
Paris has inspired generations of writers, and some of the world’s most famed authors created literature on the banks of the Seine. Whether you want inspiration for your own novel or hope to delve into a rich and bookish history, do so on a literary tour of Paris.
Parisian Cafés, Restaurants and Bars
Imagine a dimly lit room with a gleaming bar and Art Nouveau furnishings. People are sitting at a smoky table, writing and sipping coffee. You might be picturing a Paris café in the early 20th century – at the height of a literary awakening. Of course, the scene could also be a more recent one. Thankfully, many of the city’s most iconic cafés still exist and inspire a new league of literary giants.
Founded in 1686, Le Procope is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Paris. The famous French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire supposedly drank 40 cups of coffee here every day. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot were also regulars.
Les Deux Magots
Despite now being considered touristy, you can’t take a literary tour of Paris without stopping at Les Deux Magots for at least one café au lait. Famous names that wrote and drank here include Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Café de Flore
Just next door to Les Deux Magots is Café de Flore. The interior – with its red seats and mirrored walls – is charmingly Art Dec. Soak up the history of years gone by, knowing the same visitors from Les Deux also graced these seats. Truman Capote also made several notorious appearances. Be warned, it can get very busy, so be sure to book a table in advance.
Harry’s New York Bar
Now considered a Paris institution, Harry’s New York Bar is named after a Scotsman who once ran the joint. During it’s heyday, it served as a popular hangout for creative expats working in the city and still retains an air of Old World glamour. Naturally, Hemingway was a regular, along with Harry Sinclair Lewis. Other artists, like the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel, also enjoyed a tipple here. If you visit, order a Bloody Mary – this is supposedly the bar where it was invented.
Literary Museums in Paris
Aside from the artsy cafés and bars, you’ll find an array of other significant spots where you can dip further into Paris’s literary past. See where writers spent their time, and learn more about their backgrounds at these museums.
Maison de Balzac
The Maison de Balzac is in the former home of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), the French novelist known as one of the founders of realism in European literature. His writing inspired many writers after him, including Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James and Oscar Wilde. Not only can you find several portraits of Balzac here, you can also explore a library of his manuscripts, books and illustrations.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is one of the greatest authors of all time. His masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu) is often deemed one of the most fundamental works of modern literature. He created this work while isolated from the world in a cork-lined room that he felt would absorb dust and stop his asthma from becoming aggravated. You can see a reconstruction of his room at this fascinating Musée Carnavalet.
Maison Victor Hugo
Visit the home of Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. You can tour the room where he died, as well as the rest of the house. This includes a library with several printed works of his, along with letters and other manuscripts.
Shops, Stalls and Libraries in Paris
Literature is still very much alive in the French capital today. There are plenty of places where you can leaf through copies of books that have been passed through generations, or peruse new editions. Step away from the e-reader and get your best bookmarks at the ready.
Shakespeare and Company
This English-language bookshop couldn’t be more Parisian if it tried. It sits on the River Seine, just opposite Notre Dame. The original Shakespeare and Company opened in 1919 at 12 rue de l’Odéon, and was owned by Sylvia Beach, who published Joyce’s Ulysses when several English publishers – fearing obscenity laws – turned it down.
When the store first opened, it was a popular gathering place for expat and French writers. Regulars included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence and T.S Eliot. George Whitman opened the bookshop we see today and named it in honor of Beach. He vowed to continue in the same spirit as the original shop. His daughter has now taken over the store’s reins.
Along both sides of the Seine you will find 250 licensed bouquinistes (booksellers) selling used and antique editions from sunrise to sunset — the only river in the world to run between two bookshelves. The bouquinistes have been operating since the 1500s, when stalls lined most of Paris’s bridges. Their green color makes them easy to recognize. If you wish to set up a new stall today, be patient. The wait time for a license is eight years.
The American Library in Paris
Located close to the Eiffel Tower, the American Library in Paris is the largest English-language lending library in Europe. It opened after World War I with a collection of books that were initially sent out to American soldiers in the trenches. The library’s motto was telling: Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books.