Insider secrets of a prime Paris location: Saint Germain

Saint Germain was once the epitome of Left Bank intellectual chic, playing host to the ruminations of Jean-Paul Sartre and his acolytes. These days of course, it’s more luxury than literary, and the expensive cafés are no place for starving writers.

Welcome to the most expensive and sought-after district of Paris!

Paris luxury shopping

St Germain essentially covers most of Paris’ 6th district. Situated on the left bank, is it bordered to the north by the Seine, to the south by the Luxembourg gardens, to the west by the Latin Quarter (5th) and to the east by Invalides (7th).

The village-like atmosphere of Saint Germain is home to prime fashion boutiques, bistros, restaurants and galleries. The centre of gravity of the area is the Eglise St-Germain-des-Prés (church) that marks the intersection of rue Bonaparte and boulevard Saint Germain. This is the location of the 3 symbolic establishments that are the Café Les Deux Magots, the Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp.

The majestic Luxembourg gardens that mark the south of Saint Germain is no doubt the most beautiful park in Paris with gorgeous trees, green lawns and French-style flowers beds around a pond where children play with small sailing boats.

Now for some insider secrets!

  • Origin of the name:

Saint Germain is named after the eponymous church that was commissioned by Saint Germain, Bishop of Paris. Originally, the area was called “Faubourg (suburb) Saint Germain”, due to it being on the outskirts of the oldest part of Paris, the Marais. Times change, as the old faubourg is now one of the most central parts of Paris!

Incidentally, this is the oldest church in Paris and was originally erected in 542 (how many capitals have buildings dating back to 3-figure years?) to house holy relics. During the Revolution, the church was burned and was subsequently rebuilt in the 19th century (the philosopher-mathematician René Descartes is buried there).

At this time, the “Faubourg” was dropped and the name became “St-Germain-des-Prés”, the extension “des-Prés” (literally, “of the fields”) referring to the proximity of the area once called Prés-aux-Clercs, to distinguish it from Saint-Germain-le-Vieux. In practise, people simply use the shorthand “Saint Germain”.

  • The world famous cafés:

Saint Germain is home to Paris’ two most famous cafés, the Deux Magots and the Flore, almost side by side, by the church. The two dispute which 1930’s surrealist artists and which 1940’s existentialist philosophers frequented their tables. No matter, both are (much) more expensive than your average café and you should realise that you’re paying for the history and the location rather than exquisite tastes or service…

Les Deux Magots means the Two Magots: a strange name indeed, inherited from the name of oddments store that used to occupy the spot, and refers to a name given to two statues that have been retained inside and have become the establishment figureheads.

  • What’s with the graffiti?

At #5 rue de Verneuil, near in intersection with rue Bonaparte, you might have seen a house covered in Bronx-like graffiti, while all the surrounding buildings are impeccable. Curious, to say the least…

Have you heard of Serge Gainsbourg? The late French musician (first husband of Jane Birkin) was a huge celebrity in his home country. His home is located on rue de Verneuil, and since he passed away in 1991 the exterior has become a place where fans come to celebrate his greatness, hence the graffiti. Although the neighbours once tried to paint over the ‘mess’ it was quickly restored by Serge fanatics and daughter Charlotte has apparently been trying to turn the home into a museum as everything remains intact as it was the day he died.

  • Don’t lose your head!

It was supposedly at #9, Cour du Commerce St-André where Dr. Guillotin perfected the decapitating machine he put his name on. A chilling reminder of the long history of Paris.

  • Is French language in trouble?

Since 1805, the building at 23 Quai de Conti has been the location where the 40 members of the Académie Française have worked on the official dictionary of the French language.

I’d imagine they’re probably working overtime right now, reluctantly (they’re a somewhat stuffy bunch) integrating more and more English words into accepted French usage (jogging, shopping, week-end, thriller, design, prime time, best of…). Hey, that’s no excuse not to speak a little French to the Parisians you meet, ok? 😉

  • Celebrity snippets:

I don’t have much to say about Brangelina I’m afraid, other than they once rented a short-term penthouse apartment in St Germain that had a retractable roof (the only “convertible apartment” I’ve ever heard of!).

Instead, my celebrity snippets concern somewhat older historic figures.

Picasso finishes “Guernica” in his atelier at 7 rue des Saints Augustins, where his friend Man Ray often came to visit him.

The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where many well-known French politicians including Jacques Chirac once studied, was located at 13 rue de l’Université. During the Revolution, the location was used as an ammunitions depot.

Following World War II, St Germain was very much the intellectual centre of Paris. This was the period when philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, actress and singer Juliette Greco and author Albert Camus ‘existentialized’ at the Deux Magot, the Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp.

François Mitterand, French president from 1981 to 1995, had a town house near the crossing of boulevard Saint Germain and rue de Bièvre.

What’s more, his favorite eatery was Brasserie Lipp, which is located on Boulevard Saint Germain just opposite the Café Deux Magots and has been part of the Saint Germain scene since 1880.

The day of the death of President Pompidou (who commissioned the famous modern art museum building that he gave his name to) in 1974, Mitterrand was having lunch at the Brasserie when he heard the news. He was seen to suddenly get up and run off, tailed by the waiter and the bill. Mitterrand turned around and firmly stated: “You will send it to me at the Elysée (presidential Palace)”, so confident he was to be elected at the upcoming election (turned out he wasn’t, having to wait until 1981).

Brasserie Lipp is a mainstay of the area and owes its fabled reputation to its long-standing traditions. The menu hasn’t changed in 40 years and the waiters have all been there for many years, in order to maintain close bonds with the patrons (curiously, “patron” means customer in English but boss in French).

Today, the Lipp myth is upheld by a distinguishes clientele of politicians, nobility, journalists and celebrities.

Opposite Lipp and beside Les Deux Magots is one of St Germain’s bigger bookstores, which attracted the likes of T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, as well as their French counterparts André Gide and Paul Valéry.

The rue du Dragon is a short street running from boulevard St Germain towards the Bon Marché department store. Most of the buildings date back to the middle ages and Victor Hugo lived at #30.

Le Procope, the world’s first coffeehouse, founded in 1686, is situated at 13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie – just a few blocks west of the cafés.  It is no longer a coffee house, but rather an elegant restaurant. Supposedly Voltaire would drink 40 cups of its coffee per day. It was also a haunt of the young Napoléon I.

  • I’m such a child!

To finish, I simply can’t resist sharing my weakness for Amorino’s Italian gelato ice creams. Whenever I’m in the area, I feel compulsively drawn to their parlour on rue de Buci (a fab little street known by the locals for its small open food market). Blood Orange Creme and Black Chocolate would be my recommendation.

Oh dear, now my mouth is watering… 😛

Alex Wagner
Founder & CEO
A la carte Paris

33 Comments Add yours

  1. Edwin Matzner says:

    Dear Alex, very good writeup, so good I cannot think of improvements. Fine representative pictures. You might add the Diderot statue at the 86 terminus, and rue du dragon.

    E

    1. Hi Edwin,

      Yes indeed, rue du Dragon has a colourful history, including the “hôtel particulier” (mansion house) of the famous (or infamous?) Bernard Tapie…

      I’ll look up the Diderot statue ; I guess that might be the one at the Odeon junction?

      Thx,

      Alex

  2. Michael Harrington says:

    Dear Alex,

    I was fortunate enough to rent a tiny but impeccably furnished apartment at 9 Rue Jacob when I was a student at Paris IV in 1974 and 1975 (for the equivalent of US$50 per month; times have changed indeed!). It was between the lovely Place du Furstemberg (where Louis Jourdan filmed part of the title song from the Oscar-winning film GIGI and, years later, Daniel Day Lewis waited for Michelle Pfeiffer during the closing scene from Martin Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE) and the wondrous Ecole des Beaux Arts (originally connected to la Reine Margot, yes?), and both of those landmarks are well worth a mention, as well as the Musee Eugene Delacroix. St. Germain des Pres was my parish church and, after Mass each Sunday, friends and I would spend the afternoon hopping between the Flore and the Deux Magots–there were lots of celebrities to see and enjoy engaging in relaxed conversation. After that, we would jaunt over to the Drugstore Publicis (now Armani) for superb ice cream confections that cost two days food allowance at one of the student restaurants. Your lovely write-up has made me very nostalgic for that magical time. Je vous en remercie beaucoup. Apologies if this is too lengthy a response, but just thinking about St. Germain makes my heart beat better. And, although I strongly agree with your devotion to Amorino (I’d even rate it above Bethillon!), Laduree and Pierre Herme are newer gustatory landmarks in the quartier that your readers ought not to miss.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Harrington,
    Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

    1. Thanks Michael for your nostalgic input. I’m glad to have made your heart beat better. 🙂

  3. Bart Everett says:

    May one still order “un serieux” at Lipp?

    1. Yes, you can order a “sérieux” in almost any café / restaurant. It means a 50cl beer.

      1. Andrew says:

        Coming to Paris in September and that is going to come in very useful. Thank you.

  4. Tom G. says:

    I am glad to see you mention Amorino’s–so many people think that Berthillon is the best. My wife and I preferred Amorino’s and stopped at their stores many times to make sure.

    1. hehe, I’ve “made sure” many times too. 🙂

  5. Yvonne Hudacek says:

    This will be my first time to Paris, although a lifetime dream. I am discovering so much about ‘The city of Lights’ without leaving the door and will read through all your advice pages while I am waiting. One must be thankful indeed for such a generous mentor. Yvonne

  6. Love France-my heritage! Thank you !

  7. Chris says:

    Thank you Alex for your informative newsletters and this blog (including the wonderful input by Michael and others) that has sent my pulse into overdrive…my family and I (9 of us) will be staying in 3 different apartments in Saint Germaine over Christmas. Being from Australia (summer Christmas) and with some celebrating to do, we are enormously excited that we have had the good sense to stay in this district and enjoy a white Christmas. Thanks again.

  8. Todd & Val says:

    Alex,
    Thanks so much for your insight and non-tourist approach to Paris. My wife, daughter and I are visiting for the first time in September and have learned so much from your writings. We are staying in an apartment in the Invalides, not far from St. Germaine. Looking forward to “exploring”. Thanks for the advice. We’ll keep you posted on the visit.

  9. dori mctigue says:

    Thanks for this article on St.Germain. My first time there was in 1949 (!) after bicycling all summer through France, Italy and Switzerland. We ended up at the very end of the trip staying in a hotel instead of the usual hostel, and the one we found was Hotel des Saint Peres, in this area. We were there for a week, exploring Paris — great memories.

  10. Jack Avery says:

    This installment of your fine articles has quite made my day! Thank you…

    Jack the Barncat who loves Paris

  11. Thanks so much Alex – informative & insightful as ever. I hope to be back soon to my beloved Saint Germain and the perfect apartment we rented from you a couple of long years ago…

  12. JJ says:

    The landmarks are reversed! The border of St. Germain is Invalides on the West and Latin quarter on the east!

  13. Nikki Murdick says:

    I love your blog! I stayed for the first time a year ago in that area and am returning in March. What about a walking tour of the area?

  14. Lucyna Campbell says:

    we will be in Paris for our 30th wedding anniversay in June.
    where would you recommend a memorable dinner? Le Cinq at the Four Seasons, L’Arpege, Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenee.. the point is sometimes these expensive places are a bit less then ordinary and I do not want to waste good money. Or what else would be great?? hope you can help.

    1. How nice to be celebrating your 30th anniversary in Paris (and congratulations!). I’m afraid we have not personally used these great restaurants (they are a bit above our price point), so what I would recommend is that you check their reputations in Trip Advisor, to see if the facts match the hype, and to get a precise idea of which would suit your particular needs and tastes the best.

      1. paula ungar-jewelry historianand designer says:

        Having lived in Paris for 4 years and loved it. Never wanted to come back to our country. but we did. One does not have to spend so much money to go to the Plaza Athenee-Although I have eaten there and it was wonderful.I was in Paris in April and my daughter invited me to a new charming restaurant called” Spring” it is at 6 rue Baileul. phone is 01.45. 96. 05 .72. and it.was delicious. .it is owned by a young man from Chicago who is well trained and worth a visit for lunch or dinner. Downstairs has a bar and looked nice to me also. We ate upstairs where the open kitchen is.do not worry it is down a quiet street and is not particulary noticeable until you are almost at the door. I think he closed the boutique but maybe it is open again./enjoy/paula.

    2. Jack says:

      we will be there June 18-19 for a big “0” birthday celebration. if you go before, would love your recommendation. we are trying for Le Cinq after much investigation as can’t get into Ducasse. Pierre G is also supposedly tops for the money. also recommended as “hot” but not in same price or fanciness range are L’Astrance and Frenchies, both seem impossible to get into.

  15. Richard Alix says:

    Thank you for this valuable information. We are reading your articles in preparation for our trip to France this coming June. My comment and question: For our first trip to France and in looking at your photos, I see very few, if any, people wearing shorts. I am not talking of bathing or beach attire, but comfortable and tasteful walking or “bermuda” shorts. This surely would preferable as we tour the museums, the Eiffel Tower, shops and a cafe for lunch or dinner. Are shorts inappropriate in Paris? And what about as we make our way to the Normandy “D” Day festivities and other towns throughout the country?
    Thank you,
    Richard Alix

    1. Carolyn Ludwig says:

      Try to blend in. If you wear “Bermuda shorts” someone may want to try for your wallet.

      The St Germaine description reminds me of 1960 when I arrived and had met a Swiss student on the ship “Le Flandre”. We went to Deux Maggots before he took the train to Zurich. Many times I’ve returned to Paris and always astonished to find a new corner that must have been hiding from me the previous visits.

      1. Carolyn, I was in Paris in 1960, having arrived on the ship “Le Liberté”. After spending the whole summer in Montmartre, I returned home on “Le Flandre”. Your comment resurrected a host of memories. I’ve been back to Paris 43 times and aiming for 50!

  16. Bill Hagg says:

    Thank you for your candid and enlightening review of St. Germain and Amorinos looks like our first stop even if this is our first winter visit to Paris. Would appreciate a little insight on what to expect with weather. We do not contend with too much variety here in Southern California.
    We have inquired about one of your apartments for our 11 day stay near the Eiffel Tower and hope to hear soon!
    We are very impressed with your apartment site and it was a pleasure to navigate and review including the
    photos.
    Thank you again and we look forward to your mails.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Hello Alex,

    My husband and I are looking forward to our trip in Paris the first week of December. We are so excited, it seems that’s all we talk about! The first leg of our European trip will be London then Scotland and then finally….PARIS! This will be our first time and we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary. Should we wear our fall coat or winter coat, what is the weather like around that time?

    Thank you for all the insights on what to expect while in Paris. We found it to be very informative and love the photos. We love all your apartments, they all look so beautiful and inviting to stay at.

    By the way, which restaurant would you recommend for a lovely dinner with a great view of the Eiffel Tower? I searched Café de l’Homme on the internet and it said it’s temporarily closed, is that true?

    Sincerely,
    Romina

  18. Anonymous says:

    Dear Alex,
    thank you for all the fantastic information you have been forwarding to me. I especially have enjoyed your tips for not looking like a tourist as well as your blog. I am however, a vegetarian and on my previous visit to France in the 80’s was very disappointed in the lack of available choice in this preference. I have not eaten meat, fish chicken or eggs since 1975 ! and I am wondering if you may be able to advise me on this matter.
    My youngest sister (she is in her 50”s I am in my 60’s !! ) and I are travelling to London in early December then will have a four day stopover in Paris, and I love the look of the A la Carte
    Paris apartments. but we need a place that has a lift, if on an upper floor and can accommodate my eldest sister who lives in London as well as my 20 something year old niece and is the daughter of my youngest sister who went to University in Paris and is currently suggesting an airbnb apartment ?? near the Luxembourg Gardens which is where she knows and loves, I am hoping to convince the other three that it would be ideal if we could afford to stay in the 6th Arondissment if that is where your St Germain 2 bedroom apartments are . and there is one that is available from December 16th – 20th the date is yet to be finalised but we will be travelling on to Gourge for Christmas, so would leave Paris no later than 20th,
    Libby ( youngest sister, who has never been out of Australia ) and I fly to London December 6th so I am trying to sort out dates which fit in with everyone, meantime I shall continue my research into an available apartment on your books, again many thanks for all the relevant tips,
    kind regards,
    Anne Cinemre

  19. Excellent review Alex. I would take possible exception to Luxembourg Garden as the most beautiful park. It certainly is large and magnificent but the Parisians’ park is Parc de Monceau and it is a real treasure.

    1. Paula ungar says:

      Both gardens are so lovely.having lived in Paris for 4 years I have been toboth many times.The Luxenberg gardens have more for the children to play in withtheir boats. i missParis a lot.pju@aol.com and am sorry Idid not buy something when i lived there.

  20. Dear Alex,
    Thank you so much for providing such fantastic information about Paris. I will be arriving in Paris on October the 27th and I’m excited to see and explore some of your ‘insider’ secrets.
    Marcia

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the overview of this wonderful place. We will be traveling with our 11 year old grand daughter next June and would appreciate suggestions for traveling with children. We will be staying in the St. Germain area.

  22. Adele Davis says:

    I was pleased to read all the nice reviews…I will be arriving in Paris May 31, 2016, with my 12 year old grandson. We need 2 beds, a kitchen, TV, internet and if possible a washer/dryer. High floors will require an elevator for me. The apt needs to be quiet.I would like to stay in either the 5th or 6th arrondisement.

    Thank you. Adele Davis adeled9937@gmail.com phone # 206-236-1618

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