Lutetia, i.e. how the Romans referred to the city that was to become Paris, began on a little island in the heart of the River Seine. This natural island is now called Île de La Cité, and thanks to its maze of cobbled lanes and little side streets, the area is best explored on foot. Here’s a free and self-guided walking tour of Ile de La Cite!
Paris was named so in 310, and by 508, the city had become the most prominent city in the Kingdom of the Franks. Île de la Cité can now be found straddling the 1st and 4th arrondissements of the city (here’s your complete Paris arrondissements guide).
Paris 4 comprises of Hôtel de Ville, part of Le Marais, Ile de Saint Louis, and Ile de la Cite, meaning that there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Meanwhile, Paris 1 encompasses the Western half of Ile de la Cite, as well as well as the likes of the Louvre, and the shopping centre of Les Halles.
Free & Self-Guided Walking tour of Ile de la Cite: Tips, tricks & practical advice
Within this itinerary, you’ll find plenty of hidden gems and secret locations in Ile de la Cite that many walk past on a daily basis and yet few know about. I highly recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes and leaving your heels at home as there are several cobbled lanes along the way. When it comes to food, there are several creperies en route, and I’m told that the food at Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole is good!
Walking time: 19 minutes (be sure to allocate at least 3 hours in order to see all of the attractions listed within this guide)
Distance covered: 1.5 km
Square Jean XXIII
This self-guided walking tour starts in a little-known garden which is blooming with sunflowers and filled by sunlight. Should you find yourself with a little time to spare beforehand, then you might consider crossing of the bridges in the area and heading to one of the best anglophone bookshops in Paris, Shakespeare and Co.
Nearby, you’ll find Abbey Books and Eglise Saint Severin (both worth visiting). Afterwards, one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms in the springtime, and to enjoy a picnic or quiet moment in the summer months is Square Jean XXIII. Named in 1970 in honour of the former pope, this public space was created in 1844.
Paris Point Zero
From the garden, it’s a short one or two-minute walk out to the front of Notre Dame Cathedral. The point from which all distances in Paris are measured is not a famous monument, but a small piece of paving stone on the Parvis de Notre Dame (which has also been called Place Jean-Paul II since 2006).
Paris Point Zero is often hidden under the mass queue of people waiting to enter the ecclesiastical building. However, should you search around the ground for long enough, you’ll easily spot the metallic plaque which marks the very heart of the city.
After you’ve spied Paris Point Zero, then join the queue to enter Paris’ iconic Cathedral. Made famous by the 19th-century Victor Hugo novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s free to enter Notre Dame. Though the queue looks like it will take hours, I’ve never waited longer than twenty minutes to get inside as the crowd moves quickly in this part of the city.
Once inside, there are numerous stained glass windows to admire and the chance to see France’s most famous holy relic, the alleged Crown of Thorns. If you have a little extra time while at Notre Dame, be sure to climb the towering bell tower to get some of the best views of the city (and, of course, of the Eiffel Tower).
After you’ve explored all that Notre Dame has to offer, make your way back across the Parvis de Notre Dame, Cross the road, and walk a little way down the street. You’ll recognise the exterior of Sainte Chapelle by the sheer number of people waiting outside the entrance.
Closed for lunch on a daily basis, your best bet for getting inside quickly, as well as for snapping photos with fewer people in them, is to head to the ecclesiastical building earlier in the day rather than later. The remains of the former Palace of the Kings can now be found in traces on Île de la Cité, predominantly in the form of Sainte Chapelle and in the Conciergerie.
One of the true hidden gems of Ile de la Cite is that of Sainte Chapelle; two magnificent chapels hidden behind a stone façade and golden gate. Once inside, there are some stunning Medieval stained glass windows to admire (be sure to spot the Rose Window), as well as some truly ornate carvings.
Once you exit Sainte Chapelle, turn left and walk a few paces down the street. Almost immediately on your left, the former Palace of the City can be found. Now known as the Conciergerie, be sure to look up as the oldest public clock in Paris hangs bold and proudly on the side of the wall.
Should you wish to see the final place where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned prior to her execution, as well as one of the largest preserved medieval Gothic halls in Europe, then enter the Conciergerie. Though you have to pay to enter, there’s a lot to see once inside (as well as numerous informative signs/ leaflets) to help you on your way.
Once you’ve finished visiting the Conciergerie, cross the road and wander back across the square which houses the Cité metro station. During certain times of the week, you’ll find a beautiful flower market which is easily one of the best free things to do in Paris.
Skirt around the hospital by walking along Quai de la Course. Once at the crossroads by Pont d’Arcole, turn right and walk along Rue d’Arcole. On your left, across the street almost a hundred metres down, Rue Chanoinesse will soon become apparent. Here, you’ll find one of the oldest streets in Paris is a throwback, right to the Middle Ages.
When wandering along Rue Chanoinesse, if the door to 26 Rue Chanoinesse is open, then be sure to take a peek inside. After all, here, behind a nondescript maroon doorway (similar to the one you might find anywhere else in the city), the courtyard is paved with the repurposed gravestones of a church which was pulled down during the 18th-century.
Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole
One of the prettiest cafés in Paris can be found in the form of Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole. And with decorations that change depending on the season, there’s always something new to see each time you pass. Perfect for coffees in the morning or drinks with friends later on in the day, you can’t complete this self-guided walking tour of Ile de la Cite without snapping at least one picture of this adorable coffee shop!
Rue des Chantres
Marked my a plaque of the point where the Paris floods went up to in the 20th-century, Rue des Chantres is one of the narrowest roads in Paris. Along this little lane, the former house of the fated Middle Ages lovers, Heloise and Abelard can be admired from the outside.
From here, you can exit the narrow lane to walk alongside the River Seine and admire some of the best views of Hotel de Ville that the city has to offer. Nearby, Ile Saint Louis offers some of the best (and also most expensive) ice cream in Paris in the form of Berthillon. Elsewhere, Pont de la Tournelle is perfect for sunset, while Quai d’Orleans makes for the perfect picnic spot along the Seine.
Where to stay on Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis
For those who are looking to stay in the very heart of all the action and don’t mind paying a litle more in order to do so, then I recommend staying on Ile de la Cite or Ile Saint Louis. Though hotels are rather lacking in the former island, the latter has plenty of beautiful places to stay! From here, it’s easy to catch the metro to pretty much anywhere and many great dinner locations are within easy walking distance.
Hotel de Lutece: For a well-rated stay while in the French capital, check into an accommodation named for the Latin word for Paris. All wooden panelling and exceptional service, this five-star stay is a true escape from it all.
Hotel du Jeu de Paume: This four-star hotel can be found within a timber-framed building and beautiful historical features are preserved within, making for a lovely and quirky place to stay.