Guidebooks say you need an hour and a half to see Île Saint-Louis. I am of the opinion that if you limit your visit to an hour and half as they say you’ll be missing so much. Yes, the island is small but it is packed with beautiful, fun, and tasty things to discover.
Today, the Île Saint-Louis is one island, connected to the “mainland” and the Ile de la Cité by five bridges, but much earlier in the history of Paris it was comprised of two separate islands. The landscape was very much pastoral, considered a bit like the countryside in comparison to the bigger Ile de la Cité (or Lutèce as it was called at the time); a distinct contrast to the island today.
Long considered a tourist’s paradise and a resident’s nightmare due to the unrelenting bus traffic, the constant flow of camera-clicking, often loud tourists and the rarity of parking spaces, this summer Île Saint-Louis was relatively calm under the inescapable heat wave that plagued France as well as most of western Europe recently. In the middle of an insufferably hot afternoon last week the main street, rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île was virtually deserted except for a few brave souls in search of ice cream.
And they came to the right place, as Île Saint-Louis is famous for it’s ice cream – Berthillon ice cream, of course! There isn’t one restaurant on the island that doesn’t serve some of their 33 flavors of ice cream and 30 flavors of sorbet.
What is amusingly French about Berthillon, in a way that many of us still can’t grasp, is that their main shop on rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île is closed for the month of August, quite possibly the busiest month for ice cream consumption. Fortunately for you, there are other vendors in the neighborhood that can serve you two scoops of caramel-ginger ice cream that will sustain you on your stroll along the quai.
Île Saint-Louis is probably one of the prettiest neighborhoods in Paris, with its elegant 17th century townhouses lining the quais next to the Seine. At just the right moment in the afternoon or early evening the sun hits the Quai de Bourbon and the Pont Marie and you’re left breathless on the sidewalk. Stop a few meters further along on the Quai d’Anjou in front of the Hôtel de Lauzon and marvel at the gilded balconies constructed by the same architectural/design team that built Vaux-le-Vicomte .
Cut back into the center of the island starting at the eastern end and moving west, stroll down rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île for an enchanting history lesson. Be sure to go into the Eglise Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, dedicated to Saint Louis, Louis IX, King of France. This classic 17th century church was designed by François Le Vau, brother of Louis Le Vau, of the aforementioned Vaux-le-Vicomte fame not to mention Versailles and the Louvre. The ornate Baroque style interior is a stark contrast to the sober exterior.
Further down the street you’ll find charming gift shops and enough tempting restaurants to make your dinner decision a tough one . There are two wonderful bookstores in the neighborhood. The first is the Librairie Ulysses, entirely dedicated to travel books. While the storefront is nothing much, the breadth of the selection is impressive. The second, Librairie de Paris et son Patrimoine is on the opposite side of the street and has a wonderful collection of hard cover, art books about the rich history of Paris. Alas, most are in French.
Whether it’s specialty food shops that entice you to forget your diet (come on, how often do you eat foie gras at home?), fantastic views of the Seine, or the refined architecture Île Saint-Louis has everything you will want to see that is typically Parisian. So remember the essentials: Berthillon ice cream, the Pont Marie, and a walk around the quai at sunset. What more could you want?