In the dark in the City of Light: discovering medieval Paris

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Parisian architecture is best known for its uniform apartments, well-proportioned boulevards and spacious squares. It’s come a long way from the medieval maze that existed before Haussman tore down most of Paris in the 1850s. But with a history spanning over 2000 years, Paris has plenty of hidden history to reveal to those willing to see past the modernised city.

When tourists visit places like the Louvre, they tend to flock to see the Mona Lisa, or the gargoyles atop the Cathedral of Notre Dame, without ever realising they are so close to other gems within these iconic attractions. But medieval Paris is all around, if only you know where to look!

We’ve outlined the perfect walking tour to take you through eight of the most important medieval locations of Paris, which you can explore a little of in a day, or break up and absorb everything over a few days.

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In the dark in the City of Light: discovering medieval Paris-small
Illustrated for Cheapflights by Andrea Scharf

Starting Point – The Louvre Museum

Closed Tuesdays, Adult ticket 12

To kick off your walking tour, head out of Metro station Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre and queue up to enter through the glass pyramid.

Expert Tip: You can skip the queue and enter the museum straight from the Metro when you exit at Louvre-Rivoli. Be mindful however that the station is undergoing repairs until late 2015.

Once inside, head towards the lower ground floor and make your way to Room 7. Here you can see the foundations of Philippe Auguste’s defensive fortress dating from 1190. At this time, Paris was a much smaller city and the defensive fortress adjoined city walls to protect Paris from Anglo-Norman attacks.

Also see the Salle Basse for its elegant medieval interior and columns from 1230-40. The vaulted ceiling is now gone but the columns show an excellent example of a medieval interior.

34-36 quai du Louvre, Musée du Louvre, 75058 Paris. Métro: Palais-Royal–Musée du Louvre or Louvre-Rivoli

2nd Stop – Saint Germain l’Auxerrois (0.15 miles)

Once you’re done admiring the Louvre’s many spectacular artefacts, make your way back onto the street level and head east towards Rue de l’Amiral de Coligny. On the other side of the street you will notice another great masterpiece of medieval architecture in the tower and church of Saint Germain l’Auxerrois.

Originally founded in the 5th century, this small parish church was once on the outskirts of the city, and used mainly by a few local inhabitants. It was only in 1025 that King Robert the Pious established a proper church, which was expanded and restructured over the following four centuries in Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles.

Although it was later renovated to replace much of its stained glass, and spent some time as a saltpetre, printing factory and police station, it did ultimately survive destruction during the French Revolution. This gives Saint Germain l’Auxerrois its distinctive charm and reveals the evolution of French religious architecture in all its forms.

2 Place du Louvre, 75001 Paris. Metro: Pont Neuf or Louvre-Rivoli

3rd Stop – Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres (0.75 miles)

Next make your way down to the Quai du Louvre. Cross over the Pont Neuf and down Rue Dauphine until you reach the end. Here take a right turn down the small Rue de Buci. Follow this street as it curves down to Boulevard Saint-Germain. Turn right and you will come upon the Eastern façade of the amazing abbey church of Saint Germain-des-Pres.

Expert Tip: If you are feeling a bit thirsty by this point, there are plenty of great cafes around Place Saint Germain des Pres. The most famous of which is Les Deux Magots, where literary and intellectual elites like Sartre and Hemmingway would convene. They also have great espresso!

After your coffee break, enter the Benedictine abbey church, which is the burial place of Merovingian kings and one of the oldest structures in Paris.

The original building was founded by Childebert, son of Clovis, in 542 to host a relic of the true cross. It was enlarged in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and its surrounding abbey complex became a powerful influence in the neighbourhood throughout the Middle Ages. While the abbey was destroyed during the Revolution, the church and its iconic 11th century bell tower survived intact.

3 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris. Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Pres

4th Stop – Cluny Museum (0.55 miles)

Closed Tuesdays, Adult ticket €8

Make your way back down Boulevard Saint Germain until you reach Boulevard Saint-Michel. Here follow the gate around to Rue du Sommerard where you will find the entrance to the Cluny Museum. This architectural jewel is an unsung hero of French museums, allowing you to escape the busy city for the tranquil medieval interior you will find once through the door.

The structure was built in the 15th century to house the abbots of Cluny, and is the oldest surviving example of a Gothic townhouse in Paris. You can view a wide array of French, Scandinavian, Mediterranean and British medieval art, including the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. This colourful masterpiece can only be rivalled by the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries housed in the Cloisters Museum in New York, but I will leave the final judgement on that to you.

Expert Tip: The museum is built around an ancient Roman bathhouse, and the frigidarium – complete with hints of original frescoes and mosaics – is still visible.

On your way out, make sure to walk through the medieval gardens in front of the museum – you can usually find an outdoor concert or other cultural event to distract you.

6 place Paul-Painlevé, 75005 Paris. Métro: Cluny-La Sorbonne, Saint-Michel, or Odéon

5th Stop – Saint Julien-le-Pauvre (0.18 miles)

Once you are done admiring the Cluny Museum, head back to Boulevard Saint-Germain and turn right until you see you reach a cross section. Follow Rue Dante until you reach the cobbled Rue Galande. Follow this till you see a right turn and you will stumble upon the small and unassuming structure of Saint Julien-le-Pauvre.

This Greek Catholic parish church was originally constructed in the 12th century, and served as a site for the University of Paris’ School of Theology and Arts. It suffered damage through years of neglect from the 13th to the 17th centuries, and later from the French Revolution. However it still holds significance as Paris’ only 12th century church built in the conservative French tradition prevalent during King Louis the Younger’s reign.

79 Rue Galande, 75005 Paris. Metro: Saint-Michel – Notre Dame

6th Stop – Saint Severin (0.06 miles)

Next follow on down the same street you came through and you will come across the eastern façade of Saint Severin.

This 13th century Gothic structure commemorates Severin of Paris, a 5th century hermit who lived on the Left Bank of the river Seine. And although the church was expanded to support the local university students, and damaged by a 15th century fire, it has nonetheless remained relatively untouched since 1520.

The interior is well worth taking a minute to sit in and admire the beautiful proportions and stained glass, which has not been modified since the 16th century. Of note are also Saint Severin’s bells, which are the oldest in Paris!

1 Rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin, 75005 Paris. Metro: Saint-Michel – Notre Dame

7th Stop – Notre Dame & Archaeological Crypt (0.47 miles)

Crypt Closed Mondays, Adult ticket €7

After you finish your visit of Saint Severin, head across the Petit Pont and enter the square in front of the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame. While there are many great reasons to visit the cathedral, like seeing its famous gargoyles and incredible interior, there’s a hidden medieval city to explore just beneath your feet too!

The stairs to enter the Archaeological Crypt are located near the Police Prefecture opposite the cathedral. Head down them for a mind-blowing view of Paris from the time it was still the Gallo-Roman town of Lutece up to 19th century Haussmanisation. Check out the Roman house and medieval streets, literally allowing you travel through time with each successive layer in this archaeological treasure.

Expert Tip: If you do enter the Cathedral, make sure to pay the small fee to enter the Sacristy, where you can view Louis IX’s prized collection of relics. The most notable of which is the crown of thorns, a nail and wood of the cross, as well as countless other relics from early and medieval Christianity.

7 Parvis de Notre-Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, Paris. Métro: Cité or Saint-Michel

Last Stop – Saint Chappelle (0.16 miles)

Open every day, Adult Ticket €8.50

You will find the final stop once you walk up the Rue de la Cite and turn left on the Rue de Lutece.

Expert Tip: Remember to bring a form of ID as this is a Government building, and please leave any sharp objects at home!

This prime example of flamboyant Gothic architecture was originally built by Louis IX to showcase the crown of thorns and other relics from the Holy Land. The idea was for the stained glass windows to completely encompass the space, and bring the viewer closer to God’s heavenly light through their overwhelming beauty. If you happen to arrive before sunset, you will know exactly whether Peter of Montereau (the chapel’s architect) succeeded!

The adjacent Conciegerie is also worth a visit for its medieval vaulted ceilings and interior. You can purchase a ticket for both at the entrance.

8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris. Metro: Cite

That concludes our tour!

You’ve seen most of what medieval Paris has to offer, but of course there’s always more to see. From Pere Lachaise cemetery to cobbled street in the Marais, Paris has plenty of medieval history for you to explore.

So next time you’re in the City of Light, don’t stay in the dark about some of these hidden architectural gems. Please share your medieval Paris experiences with us below, and let us know if we missed anything you would like to see.

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In the dark in the City of Light: discovering medieval Paris was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Victoria Elizabeth